I'll admit that, even though I have been to London on 3 separate occasions (and spent a week there each time), I've been a terrible tourist in the city.
I have yet to visit ANY of London's museums, despite them all being free. I have yet to take a cruise down the Thames, despite copious amounts of time spent wandering along the South Bank. I hadn't even really been to Buckingham Palace until my most recent trip.
Not that there's anything wrong with avoiding the touristy stuff, of course. There's SO MUCH to do in London that a person could easily spend weeks there and avoid most of the tourist traps. But, to be honest, the touristy bits of London really are worth seeing.
In London, though, everything from transportation to food to entertainment is expensive. And, while I certainly didn't get to enjoy any 5-star restaurants or luxury hotels during my stay in London, I didn't want to sacrifice the things I really wanted to do/see because of my budget, either. Enter the London Pass.
Last summer when I was headed to London, I was given a set of London Passes to try out in the city. The London Pass, in case you aren't familiar, is an attraction card that gets you free (and often fast-tracked) entry into all of London's most popular attractions. You can buy passes for 1, 2, 3, or 6 days, with the 24-hour pass starting at £47.
That may sound like a lot of money, but if you are smart about using your pass, you'll actually save a lot. And, in a city where everything is so expensive, saving money is really important.
I actually failed miserably the first time I tried to use one of my passes. I was in London during the Olympics, and simply did not have a full day to dedicate to being a tourist. I made it to 2 attractions and then had other obligations to attend to. On my most recent trip to London, though, I vowed to do better and actually put my second pass to good use.
Based on my experiences on two separate occasions, here are MY suggestions on how to make the most out of your London Pass:
If you have 1 day…
The 24-hour London Pass is the cheapest — and therefore most popular — option for visitors. But, if you only have 1 day, you really have to budget your time well. You also have to factor in transport time between attractions, which can often take a while if you are relying on London's public transportation.
Here's my ideal 1-day London Pass itinerary:
Tower of London
Begin your morning at the Tower of London. Hop on a free walking tour with a Beefeater to learn all the history and hear all the gruesome stories associated with this 900-year-old fortress (tour lasts about an hour). Then head over to see the Crown Jewels.
Recommended amount of time: 2 hours
St. Paul's Cathedral
From the Tower of London, make sure to snap some photos of Tower Bridge. Then head over the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral (an easy walk) to admire this gorgeous church. Pick up a free audio guide, wander down into the crypts (where men like Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke Of Wellington are interred), and then head up into the dome. The dome has multiple levels, but the top is definitely the goal. It takes 530 steps to reach, but the views out over London are unbeatable.
Recommended amount of time: 1-2 hours
Walk along the South Bank
From St. Paul's, cross over the Thames via the Millennium Bridge and make your way down the vibrant South Bank — my favorite part of the London city center. Grab some lunch at a cafe or pub, and enjoy the buskers and street performers you'll see along the way. Eventually cross back over the Thames via the Westminster Bridge near Parliament. Say hi to Big Ben while you're there!
Recommended amount of time: 1-2 hours
Continue on past Parliament to Westminster Abbey, the gothic cathedral where kings and queens have been crownded since 1066, and also where many royal weddings and funerals have taken place — including William and Kate's wedding in 2011. This church is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and honestly a sight to behold. The details inside and outside are astounding, and a free audio guide will help you notice them all.
Recommended amount of time: 1-2 hours
Cruise on the Thames
Wrap up your day of London sightseeing with a scenic cruise down the Thames. This is voted the #1 thing to do with a London Pass — and for good reason. Your pass actually gets you an all-day hop-on-hop-off cruise ticket, though after a full day of sightseeing you might prefer to just stay on board and enjoy the city slipping by.
Recommended amount of time: at least 1 hour
Unfortunately it's difficult to fit much more into just one day in London. Most major attractions don't open until 9 a.m. and are closed by 5:30. It's difficult, then, to see more. You could, of course, rush through each attraction (or skip lunch) and then perhaps visit one or two more places. If you decided to do that, Shakespeare's Globe theater on the South Bank would be an appropriate addition for this itinerary, or you could even check out the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace, or Kensington Palace in Hyde Park. I would not recommend trying to fit too much in, though — you won't be able to appreciate any of it if you're rushing around.
And, even if you just fit in these 4 attractions, you will more than get your money's worth:
- Tower of London: £19.50
- St. Paul's: £16
- Westminster: £18
- Thames cruise: £17
Meaning you save £23.50 with a 1-day London Pass.
If you have more than 1 day…
Ideally, if you will be in London for a decent length of time and want to fit in quite a bit of sightseeing, you would buy a multi-day London Pass. A 2-day pass is £64, and a 3-day pass will set you back £77 (a 6-day pass, in case you were curious, costs £102). You really could use a pass for 6 days, too, considering there are over 60 attractions and tours that the London Pass covers.
A multi-day pass would be ideal if you wanted to visit some sites outside of Central London. Two that I would recommend would be Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace. Both of these require a train ride, however, and therefore would make better half-day trips than quick stops on a sightseeing tour.
This 900-year-old castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world — and happens to be home to Her Majesty the Queen herself. It's actually really cool that you can visit this castle. You aren't likely to catch sight of the Queen, of course, but you can check out the State Apartments, see St. George's Chapel, and wander around the grounds and gardens. If you're there around 11 a.m., you can also often catch a Changing of the Guard ceremony.
I would recommend a half-day for Windsor simply because the free audio tour alone will take you 2 hours.
(Price without London Pass: £17.75)
Hampton Court Palace
Another place I highly recommend visiting is Hampton Court Palace — a former residence of the infamous King Henry VIII. Along with doing a free audio tour around the buildings, you can also check out any special exhibits the palace has on (when I was there, there was a fascinating exhibit about the royal bedchamber), and then wander around the 60-acre formal gardens. These gardens are truly stunning, and were probably my favorite part of my visit.
You can take the train to Hampton Court from London, or you can ask about boat rides there (either one-way or round-trip).
(Price without London Pass: £16)
There are plenty of other awesome things to see and do with a London Pass, both within the city and outside of it. If I could do it all over again, I would also visit the Churchill War Rooms, tour Shakepeare's Globe theater, and check out Kensington Palace in Hyde Park.
Add a travel card
If you plan to use a lot of public transport with your London Pass, you can add on a travel card to any of the passes (just add £9 per day). This really only saves you money if you plan to visit attractions outside London's city center that would require a longer train ride, though. Otherwise you would be better off getting an Oyster card or buying a travel card yourself.
So, would I recommend a London Pass? Essentially, yes. If you are organized enough to get up early and plan out your day(s) of sightseeing, then a London Pass really can save you a nice chunk of money.
And, in London, every pound saved counts.
Have YOU ever used a city pass like this on your travels?
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