London Layovers: 8 Things to See and Do in Under 12 Hours

London is a sensational city with diverse attractions. If you’re lucky enough to have a long enough layover, there’s plenty to do to get a taste of the city in a short timeframe. Forget the hour-long Tube ride and grab the Heathrow Express for a quick trip to begin at central Paddington Station or grab a taxi for extra convenience. Time is on your side with this guide when you’ve got 12 hours to spare and want explore some of London’s finest sites but still make it back for you flight.

8. Take an Easy Guided Tour

A guided tour of London is the perfect way to spend a layover in the city and an affordable option for those wanting to see as many famous landmarks as possible. A London layover tour picks passengers up directly from the airport and begins a drive around the city to many different attractions. Often, these tours can be customized so you can see what you want and skip any place that seems uninteresting. The best part is you’ll have a pro get you back to the airport in time for your next departure. Most tours operate from the classic London double decker bus so you’ll get great views too. Explore historical sites such as Big Ben and the Tower of London, see the mighty Thames River, and enjoy a stop for some of London’s best pub grub and a cold pint before heading back.

Evikka /
Evikka /

7. Boat Pub and River Walk

Tamesis Dock is London’s version of a boozy barge, sidled up on the banks of the Thames. The pub serves up hot food and cold pints as well as live music and special events. Grab the Heathrow Express to a river stop and hit this old converted Dutch barge for a bite. Then take a walk along the river to see Hungerford Bridge, the Ministry of Defense, the London Eye, and Trafalgar Square. Continue on St James Street through to Downing to get a look at Big Ben, Parliament Square, the time-honored Westminster and Westminster Abbey (Dickens resting place). The entire walk takes about two hours—this is a great option as you can choose to spend more time at any of the attractions and skip others. This excursion is perfect for independent travelers who prefer exploring with ease and going with the moment.

Juriah Mosin /
Juriah Mosin /

6. Tate Modern and a Neighborhood Jaunt

If you’re planning on keeping sightseeing to a minimum, and want to experience a Tube ride, “mind the gap” and jump on the tube from Heathrow to iconic Tate Modern set by the shores of the Thames. Count on an hour each way on the Tube, and then get out and explore London’s finest art museum. Take a good chunk of time to explore -this is one of London’s finest after all. If you’re ambitious, you can hop back on the Tube to another destination but the surrounding neighborhood is a fun area to explore. Here you’ll find the Millennium Bridge, Borough Market, and nearby London Bridge. There are countless places to eat and drink, shop, and just enjoy a walk. If you’re an art hound, take a quick tube ride east to Hayward Gallery at Southbank Centre for a revolving schedule of impressive art.

Tupungato /
Tupungato /

5. The Emirates Air Line and the Museum of London

Take Heathrow Express into central London and grab Jubilee Line to North Greenwich station on the west side (or stop on the river’s east side at Royal Victoria Station). There, get off and head to the Emirates Air Line, a sky-high ride across the River Thames with sublime panoramic city views. Just 12 kilometers west is the celebrated Museum of London, where exhibitions and artifacts relay history from prehistoric times spanning to present day. This is no boring museum; there are photography and art exhibits, exhibitions of London’s different eras, and lots of special events like current weekend tours of Billingsgate Roman House and Baths, a site rarely open to the public. Don’t miss out on London’s legendary Prawn on the Lawn, a daytime fish monger and nighttime seafood bar, before heading back for the next leg of your journey.

Emirates Air Line London

4. Legoland

If you’re traveling with younger kids, a stopover could end up being an exciting day at Legoland, UK. Legoland is in Windsor near the Queen’s castle and a short ride from Heathrow Airport. From Windsor Rail Station, grab a shuttle bus to the resort or, if renting a car, drive the short 23 kilometers from Heathrow. You’ll be rewarded with a kid’s paradise perfect for an all-day affair or just a few hours of fun. If you’re visiting in warm weather, there are plenty of water-based rides and attractions to enjoy, like Land of the Vikings, or if you’ve got a mini-engineer on hand, head to Legoland’s Discovery Zone and learn how to build robots. The park is nothing short of amazing, and though it’s not classic London, it’s a fun and relaxing treat for the kids, who will tire out and sleep well on your next flight.

Photo by: Legoland Windsor
Photo by: Legoland Windsor

3. Little India (Southall)

The large Indian population throughout London has created a subculture of its own, most definitively found in London’s Little India on Gloucester Road. The area is ripe with attractions if you venture out of the borough, but there’s plenty to do and see while there to keep occupied for hours. Located in London’s West end, Southall is in the Ealing district of London. It’s diverse and lively and filled with terrific shops, restaurants, food stalls, and so much more. With strong Pakistani and Indian roots, Southall is a destination in its own right. Women don vibrant saris, food stalls cook up aromatic Indian desserts and samosas, and little shops are adorned with fabrics in all the colors of the rainbow. The sound of Bhangra music is thick in the air as the streets buzz with activity. It’s really a unique and unforgettable place to visit when in London.

Dutourdumonde Photography /
Dutourdumonde Photography /

2. Windsor Castle

It’s less than an hour from Heathrow Airport to Windsor Castle in Berkshire, a must-see for many first-time London visitors. Windsor Castle is captivating, especially if visiting in early morning or leaving at dusk. A mass of windows adorns the sweeping fortification, flanked by beautiful gardens and tons of green space. This is the Queen’s digs, and definitely fit for royalty, filled with ornate antiques and artworks. See the Drawings Gallery exhibition, explore everything miniature at the Queen Mary’s Doll’s House, and delve into a treasure trove of royal collections at the State Apartments, all over 13 acres. Following the extravaganza, you’ll be ready to wet your whistle and grab a bite at one of the historic English pubs or restaurants in nearby Eton or Windsor town center. If the castle sparks a royal frame of mind, hire a carriage and tour Windsor Great Park.

Windsor Castle London

1. Heathrow Express to Paddington

From Heathrow, get on the Heathrow Express and take it to Paddington. It’s an easy walk from there to beautiful Hyde Park. Take a walk through to Kensington Gardens and Palace and continue on to the nearby Natural History Museum east of the palace. Following that, hop on the Tube, grab the District Line and stop at the Embankment departure point to walk to Hungerford Bridge. The south bank is easily accessible from there; it takes you either to the Globe Theater, a replica of Shakespeare’s theater (or skip it and explore the impressive Tate Modern).  At this point, walk back the same way to St Paul’s Cathedral and get back on the Tube: you’ll take the Central Line, then Piccadilly Line and get back to where you started. If there’s time, check out any of the several galleries, museums, and a proper English pub along the way.

Heathrow Express to Paddington

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