How To See London In One Day

Seat of Government

Look, kids! Big Ben! Parliament!

Now that I’m settled back in here in DC, I figured I should take a moment and explain what all the foofah over the last few days has been about.

I spent the second half of last week in the United Kingdom as an attendee of the eCampaigning Forum, organized in Oxford by Oxfam. It was a great chance to meet some of the smart people who are working in online activism in the EU, and to get to know better some of the challenges and opportunities they face that we do not. (It blows my mind, for example, how much more advanced mobile phone use is over there compared to here. We are many years behind the curve on that one.)

Anyway, due to the opaque mysteries of airline fare schedules, it ended up costing $1,000 less for me to go out there if I flew back on Sunday instead of Saturday. That meant I had a day of my own when I could do pretty much whatever I pleased. Guess I owe United Airlines a big thank you for that…

I ended up spending that extra day exploring London. It was my first time in that city (heck, this trip was my first time in the UK), so it was a great experience.

Unfortunately problems with the intercity rail network ate away some of the time I’d planned to spend in the city (don’t ask), but I still got the better part of the day and night, which was good. And I managed to see most of the things I had wanted to see, anyway.

London is too big of a city to take in in one day, so going in I decided I was going to have to have a pretty sparse itinerary. After reading through my guidebook, I decided on two main things I wanted to do with my visit. First, since I’m a theater nut, I wanted to see the reconstructed Globe Theater they built for the millennial celebrations in 2000; and second, I wanted to visit the British Museum, because as a kid in Cairo I’d heard so much about it. (Usually things along the lines of “And here there should be a fascinating example of pharaonic statuary, except that the British stole it and put it in the British Museum.”) Anything else, I figured, would be gravy.

Thankfully I got to do a bit more than I originally thought I would. I started my trip by riding the famous Underground to Leicester Square.


Leicester Square: Home of theatre and cinema

I was there because I hoped to see a show at the Globe that evening, so I wanted to hit the tkts booth to see if any half-price tickets were available. Alas, there were none for the Globe (I would discover why later that evening), so it was time to move on.

I ended up wandering south, and stumbled by accident into Trafalgar Square, with its signature monument, Nelson’s Column, dramatically breaking the skyline.

Nelson's Column

Trafalgar Square in midafternoon

I spent a little while just sitting in the square, watching the people go by and the pigeons dive-bomb the various statues. There are so many f#@ing pigeons in Trafalgar Square that they probably deserve a statue of their own…

After leaving the square, I saw some of the nearby sights — the Houses of Parliament, No. 10 Downing Street, and Horse Guards — before deciding it was time to get back on the Tube and hit the British Museum, since it was already after noon.

If you’re at all into history — and those of you who know me know that I’m a total history geek — the British Museum is like heaven on earth. It’s a giant building crammed full of what Citizen Kane called “the loot of the world” — priceless archeological treasures the British lifted from their native countries back in the days when they ruled the world and could get away with that sort of thing.

The Nereid Monument

The Nereid Monument, on display at the British Museum

The range of items on display is remarkable — every corner you turn brings you to a new and interesting exhibit. The Rosetta Stone, for example, can be found in their collection of Egyptian antiquities, and their Greek rooms house the “Elgin Marbles” — statues looted from the Parthenon.


A metope from the Parthenon, on display at the British Museum

I spent most of the afternoon exploring the Museum’s various collections.

Augustus Close-up

A Roman bust of the first Emperor, Augustus, on display at the British Museum

At around 5:30 or so I decided to head over to the Globe and see if there were any tickets available for a show that night.

I had a pleasant detour on the way, thanks to my imperfect understanding of the local geography — I ended up getting off the Tube at a station some ways from the Globe, and walking the rest of the way. That took me across the Millennium Bridge, another addition to the city from the 2000 celebrations. The view of the Thames in early evening, as the city began to light up for the night, was dramatic.

Once I arrived at the Globe, I discovered why tkts had not had any tickets on sale: the Globe’s 2006 season doesn’t start until May! Oops. I suppose I could have saved myself a walk by calling ahead, but on the other hand, it was a nice walk and I did get to see the building; so it was hardly that much of a loss.

But now I needed something to do to occupy my evening, since my hope to see a show had been shot. I ended up walking alongside the river towards the Waterloo underground station, keeping an eye open for anything that looked interesting.

After a little walking I stumbled across the National Film Theatre, Britain’s counterpart to our AFI Silver. (Update note, May 2009: after this was written, the National Film Theater changed its name; it’s now called the “BFI Southbank”.) They were showing The Ipcress File, starring a very young Michael Caine; that seemed appropriately English, so I bought a ticket and settled down into the plush seat to enjoy the movie.

By the time the movie let out, it was approaching 9:00 and I had to leave London; my hotel was in Oxford, an hour’s journey by train, and I had an early flight back to the States the next morning. I was sorry I couldn’t spend more time exploring the city. Maybe next time!

So that’s the story of my trip to London and Oxford. If you’re interested, here are a couple of things I brought back to share it with you further:



Matt Kelly

November 30, 2008
1:27 pm

I liked reading about your London excursion. My wife and I are arriving in Rome on May 7 and leaving out of Paris on May 20th. We thought we would be crazy to be 2.5 hrs from London and not try to see it. We are going to select 3 or 4 places that we would really like to see i.e. Big Ben, British Museum, houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey. Any advice?

Jason Lefkowitz

November 30, 2008
6:20 pm

I can definitely recommend the British Museum; you could spend the whole day just exploring it! Trafalgar Square is also a great experience.
I didn’t try to get a tour of Westminster or the Houses of Parliament, but I’m sure tours are available; that would be something to look into.
Some things I wish I had been able to see while in London include the Tower of London, the Cabinet War Rooms, the Imperial War Museum, the Tate Modern, and Somerset House, to name a few.
Here’s a page with some more good suggestions for how to spend a single day in London as well:
Enjoy your trip!

London Expat

May 6, 2009
1:06 pm

Stumbled upon your post while looking around for places to go in London. Am here for two years but have yet to thoroughly explore the capital. Thanks for the link to the National Film Theatre!