So many memories of my first ever 24 hours in London. I first visited the English capital in 2009. I was a 19-year-old girl with no clue about the world who just moved to the UK, to study Law with Criminology at the University of Manchester. I was pretty penniless, hence the idea of going to one of the world’s most expensive city wasn’t that high up my list. However, one glorious summer day, mum came to visit me in Manchester and together we decided to do the impossible: conquer London in one day.
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24 hours in London
Our 24 hours in London turned out to be quite an experience, as we almost missed our coach back to Manchester, we had absolutely no idea how to navigate through the city and had no clue on what to expect from the English capital. Armed with a badly printed google map, a few pre-booked tickets and lots of eagerness, we embarked on a fun adventure. So how did we spend our day in London?
Arriving in London
I guess the first step is to arrive in London as early in the morning as possible. There are several airports around London, all with great city connections. There is London Luton, London Stansted, London Gatwick and London Heathrow Airport (which is also the biggest and by far, the coolest). In our case, we arrived by coach, from Manchester. We took the 4 am transfers from the Manchester bus station, stopped in Birmingham for about half an hour and arrived in London after 5 hours of glorious agony. We arrived at the Victoria Coach Station, the place where you will probably arrive at as well if you book a transfer from the airport.
Now, we had quite a touristy day planned, since it was our first visit to London. For a novice, I can’t help but recommend the same, as there is a certain charm in seeing London through the eyes of a tourist. Of course, as years went by and got familiar with London, I learned how cool this city is if you decide to have an off the beaten path experience. There are so many things to do in London either way.
So, we were at the Victoria Coach Station, from where we made our way to tourist attraction no.1: Madame Tussauds. It took us no less than 1 hour to get there on foot but it was all worth it. The reason why we both wanted to see this place is that when I was little, we watched this documentary about how they make the wax figurines which are in turn displayed in the wax museum all across the world. We couldn’t believe how much work, skill and craft goes into making one single figurine and so, we wanted the chance to see these wax dolls with our own eyes. We very much enjoyed the experience in Madame Tussauds, as it turned out to have something for everyone and be incredibly interactive. There are even paid actors who are there to make the tour and experience so much more fun.
From Madame Tussauds, we started rushing towards the Thames, as we had tickets pre-booked for the London Eye and the aquarium. We got lost (oh so lost!) and eventually we had no choice but to take the subway from Marble Arch (don’t ask me how I got there) to Waterloo. This was no easy task as at the time I had no idea how the Oyster card works or any of these shenanigans. So we went to the information office and asked for directions. Needless to say that I got even more lost when I heard something like “central line, then walk for 5, then take the tube on the Jubilee line to Waterloo, than walk for another 5-10 minutes to the London Eye. It will all make sense, once you…” Erm, ok, sure! Looking back this was easy peasy in comparison to the Tokyo Subway system. Eventually (after asking 10 other people for directions at every step) we managed to get to Waterloo. The shocking part was how expensive the subway tickets were. Yeah, London really doesn’t come cheap. Once we finally got to the Aquarium, we had a great time. This is definitely a great place, really big, with a huge variety of sea life and has a relaxed atmosphere. I couldn’t recommend it enough.
After the Aquarium, we finally made our way to the London Eye, which luckily was one stone throw away. We had tickets so we just waited patiently in the queue for our turn. The London Eye experience turned out to be epic. I don’t quite know what I expected from the London Eye, from being able to enjoy vistas over London’s rooftops was quite a pleasant experience. Unfortunately, we got to the London Eye in the afternoon, during summer, hence I couldn’t capture the dramatic sunset sky over the British capital. If you can, plan your London Eye ride just in time for the sunset.
Westminster Bridge - House of Parliament and Big Ben
Since we were by the riverfront, we decided to walk around on the Thames, towards Westminster and Big Ben. I guess being on Westminster Bridge is one of those great feelings because it represents such iconic view. You can see the House of Parliament, Big Ben, the red double-decker buses, the black cabs and of course the London Eye. All in one place. It’s one of the coolest bridges to take pictures on, but know that best shots are usually taken during night time. The trick is that you do London Eye at sunset and Westminster Bridge just after, at twilight or even after it gets fully dark. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for this, besides it was a long time ago, and my photographic skills were just about shaping up.
From Big Ben, we went to Westminster Abbey, which is next door. We were pressed for time so couldn't go in, but managed to take some great pictures from the outside. That was the time when I started to seriously fall in love with anything gothic when it came to architecture.
On a side note, it’s funny to say this, because, during art class in high school, I had this amazing professor who always said that the Gothic style was the biggest mistake in the world of art. He was a huge baroque fan. I now beg to differ. I think gothic was the best thing that has ever happened in the world of art and baroque is a little bit too much for my liking. But hey, each to their own preference.
Right, going back to Westminster Abbey. This beautiful church has an incredible historic significance, being the place of wedding and coronation celebrations for the Royal Family here in Britain.
Finally, from Westminster Abbey, we walked towards the Buckingham Palace, only to snap one picture and run back to the Victoria Station as we were due to leave in less than half an hour. Of course, we got lost, it wouldn’t be us if we wouldn’t get lost right before we were due to leave London. Eventually, we got pointed in the right direction and literally run to the coach station. We were the last two souls to board the coach, in the very last minute before departure.
And so, we began our journey back to Manchester, another 5 hours of painful agony in a smelly coach which charges far too much for what it offers.
Oh the food, I didn’t tell you about the food. The night before we left for London, mum insisted that we make sandwiches. With my typical nonchalance, I told her that we will sit down and dine in a stylish restaurant in London. Regardless, mum went ahead and made sandwiches for the road just in case.
Looking back, I can’t thank her enough. Because we rushed so much and ran virtually from place to place, we had absolutely 0 minutes to stop and eat in a restaurant. We would have ended up either not eating the whole day, or skipping one of the attractions in order to dine somewhere. Mum’s sandwiches saved us and in the end. It was one of those "I told you so" moments.
In the end, it all turned out to be an amazing adventure around London. I made plenty of mistakes but if I could go back in time, I wouldn't change anything. Ok, maybe I would get a better print of that google map. But, in the end, the best type of experiences happen when you least plan your trip. Here is what you need to know to ensure you have a smooth time in the British capital if you don't want to end up starving, lost or frustrated.
1. You can spend 24 hours in London, although you need a predetermined plan
2. You need to pack sandwiches just in case you end up being rushed around with no time to dine in a restaurant
3. You need to make sure you arrive in London as early as possible
4. You need to make sure you book your coach/train/plane as late at night as possible
5. You will fall in love with London and end up coming back for more. Trust me on this
6. If you are really adventurous, ditch your plans and just walk around for hours exploring London on foot.
I very much enjoyed my first trip to London, a super fun memory I’m very fond of. What would you like to do for 24 hours in London? What’s not to be missed in your opinion? Let me know in the comments section below.