What to Do on a Layover in London

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We love long layovers. Not only do they offer a chance to stretch our legs,  but they also give us a chance to explore new places. And, with a little planning, we can make the most of our time and turn a long layover into a mini-vacation—at no extra cost!

When we moved from Bali to Panama, our flight itinerary took us through London, England. We can tell you from experience—being on a layover in London can be a lot of fun.

You don’t need to spend your layover trying to catch forty winks on a hard seat in the departure lounge or sit in one of the airport cafes drinking coffee after coffee until you get glassy-eyed from being on a caffeine high.

Assuming you are eligible for a visa, you can leave the airport during a layover and do some sightseeing! Both Gatwick and Heathrow have excellent train connections, and they’re much faster than relying on Uber or a taxi.

ⓘ PRO TIP: Lugging around your backpack and carry-on luggage slows you down—and most attractions won’t let you keep it with you anyway. Stop by a Bounce luggage storage in the city to keep it safe and explore London freely.

How much time do I need for a layover in London?

Train in the London Underground

Heathrow Airport is very large and security lines are often long. At the very least, you will need at least 3 hours between flights to avoid any stress while transiting the airport. You will need a minimum 6-hour layover if you plan to leave the airport, counting time to get to/from London plus immigration and security screenings.

If you’re flying through Gatwick Airport, allow a minimum connection time of 90 minutes. However, you may need more time if you’re connecting to a flight within the U.K., as you’ll also need to pass Border Control, collect your bags, clear customs, and then check in to your ongoing flight.

But it’s always better to err on the side of caution and give yourself more time than less. You’ll certainly appreciate a longer layover if your flight is delayed.

So what can you do with a long layover in London? Read on.

What to do on a layover at London Heathrow

If you’re on a layover at Heathrow Airport, getting into London is easy. The Heathrow Express operates a swift, 15-minute service between the airport and Paddington Station, with departures every 15 minutes from 5 am until midnight.

All of these activities are near Paddington Station:

Hyde Park

Hyde Park sidewalk lined with trees and lights

Weather permitting, there’s no better place than Hyde Park to beat jet lag with a between-flights leg stretch. This beautiful 350-acre green space is probably one of the few places in London where you can get a breath of fresh air.

If your layover is between April and October and you have enough time, you can hire a pedalo and go boating on the Serpentine.

Portobello Road Market

Looking to do something that locals enjoy? If you’d rather spend time soaking up the real atmosphere of London, hop on the Circle Line, get off at Ladbroke Grove, and walk to Portobello Road.

The Portobello Road Market is a chaotic daily event that will show you the city’s true character. While it’s best known as a place for unique antiques, you’ll also find vintage goods, street eats, souvenirs, and more on offer.

The market is always teeming with people searching for a bargain, and the many street performers are highly entertaining.

ⓘ TIP: If you’re a fan of the movie Love Actually, you won’t want to miss the famous blue door from the movie. It is located near Portobello Market on Westbourne Park Road.

Skylark Roof Garden

When you want somewhere scenic for brunch or an evening cocktail with views of the city skyline, the Skylark Roof Garden is perfect.

This rooftop bar is located on the tenth floor of 4, Kingdom Street, which is less than a ten-minute walk from Paddington Station. If a Tiki Zombie Killer doesn’t cure your layover blues, then nothing will!

Sherlock Holmes Museum

Sherlock Holmes' living room

Arrive in Paddington, then change to the Circle Line on the underground, and in less than ten minutes, you’ll be at Baker Street. Baker Street is where you’ll find the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

It’s not a huge museum, so it doesn’t take long to browse the exhibits. Still, you’ll get a fascinating insight into the fictional character and the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

What to do when you’re stuck at London Heathrow

There will be times when your layover at London Heathrow just isn’t long enough to leave the terminal buildings. Yes, that can be a bit disappointing, but you can still make the most of your time.

All terminals at Heathrow—except for terminal one—have airport lounges where you can spend your time while waiting to board your connecting flight. All the lounges at LHR have comfortable seating, serve cold food or light meals and drinks, and offer free wi-fi. And some, like the Plaza Premium lounge at T5 Departure, offer shower facilities and areas where you can grab a nap.

Heathrow’s terminal 5 has a wellbeing and spa center where you can indulge in aromatherapy or oxygen therapy, a full body massage, a facial, or a pedicure. It might not be the ideal way to spend a layover in London, but the good thing is that you’ll feel great when you’re ready to board your flight.

If you find shopping more therapeutic than spa treatments, you’ll be pleased to discover that every terminal at Heathrow has a good selection of shops. There are good transport connections between the terminals, so you can visit them all.

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Houses of Parliament and Big Ben's Elizabeth Tower, with boat in the Thames River in the foreground. Text overlay says "Best things to do with a layover in London"

What to do on a layover at London Gatwick Airport

When you have a layover at Gatwick Airport, the best thing to do is to jump on the Gatwick Express and head into the city. The Gatwick Express takes you between the airport and Victoria Station in 30 minutes, with departures every half hour.

What can you do near Victoria Station? Let’s begin with:

Visit Buckingham Palace

While the royal family may not invite you in for a cup of tea and cucumber sandwiches, you can stare at the residence through the metal railings.

The palace is only a few minutes on foot from Victoria Station, and if you time it right, you might even get to see the ceremonial changing of the guards.

See Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

Elizabeth Tower and Westminster Abbey reflected in the Thames River

When you arrive at Victoria Station, change to the Circle or District line on the underground system, and in less than five minutes, you’ll be in Westminster. Once you’re back above ground, you’ll be staring at some of the most iconic buildings in London, namely Big Ben and Westminster Palace.

If you’re have the time, take a walk across Westminster Bridge to the London Eye or take the 40-minute London Eye River Cruise.

Eccleston Yards

Eccleston Yards is a super spot for shopping, eating, and drinking that’s just five minutes from Victoria Station. More of a community than a shopping center as such, here you’ll find a courtyard surrounded by renovated Victorian buildings housing boutiques and restaurants.

There are also yoga pods and a wellness center if you need some between-flight therapy.

Apollo Victoria Theatre

With an evening layover at Gatwick, you can get out and enjoy some quality entertainment. The Apollo Victoria Theatre is a stone’s throw from Victoria Station and has been staging the hit musical Wicked for 15 years.

While there’s not much chance the actors will forget their lines after all that time, you will struggle to get a seat unless you book well in advance.

What to do when you’re stuck at Gatwick Airport

Man sitting in a chair in an airport with British Airways plane outside the window

If you’re stuck at Gatwick Airport because of time or British weather, don’t let it get you down. There are more things to do than trying to spot Gary Gatwick, the airport mascot, making his way through the terminals.

It might not be to everyone’s taste, but when you’re starting to get bored, playing tombola can be a life saver. You’ll find sporadic games with prizes for the winner taking place in the airport’s terminal five.

While you’re there, pop into Juniper and Co for a cocktail. Sipping one of their delicious concoctions will help the time pass a lot quicker.

To avoid feeling bloated and uncomfortable when you board your plane, try one of the Asian food bowls at Wagamama. It’s just the right sized meal to keep you going without making you feel overfull.

If you just want somewhere quiet where you can chill with your feet up—maybe with a bite to eat or an adult beverage—Gatwick has several airport lounges that will fill the bill. If you are a frequent flyer or hold a premium ticket, you may be eligible for free admission. If not, you can often purchase lounge access

Each of the various lounges offers different facilities and features. Some offer a la carte dining and a full bar service while others don’t, so check online which one suits you best before booking a place.

Final thoughts

No matter which of the city’s main airports you fly into, there’s so much you can do when you have a layover in London. Even if you only have a few hours, use the express train services from the airports to the city center, and you’ll be able to make the most of the time you have.

Don’t have too much of a good time, though, as the last thing you’ll want to do is arrive back at the airport to find your flight has taken off without you! Whatever you choose to do on your layover, guaranteed, it’ll be better than counting the planes taking off and landing.

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Written by Dan

Professional photographer specializing in street, food and travel shots.

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10 thoughts on “What to Do on a Layover in London”

  1. Great photos! We regret not taking advantage of a layover we had in London. Hop on hop off tours can definitely be excellent to see more in less time.

    • True, Debbie. Also, those who have more time will find that, besides being a great orientation to the city’s layout and history, HOHO tours can also help you check off those attractions that require little more than a “been-there-seen-that” photo.

  2. The view from the London Eye is amazing!! WOW… even though I wanna check it out one day, I am so afraid of heights that I am sure I will freak out when I get up there and won’t be able to look around.
    Amazing photos!!

    #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • I had thought I might as well, but I found the solid framework very reassuring. Not to mention that the floor is solid, there’s a handrail to hold on to and the turn is so slow that the movement is hardly noticeable.

  3. Stunning sunset pictures, Linda. I’ve been in London for a week and still didn’t get to see all I wanted. I’d imagine spending only one day there will leave you wanting to get back. At least, you’ve got a taste of the place.

    • I agree, Anda. Dan did a fabulous job with his camera.

      When we originally planned our move from Bali to Panama I practically begged Dan for a week in London. He was so eager to settle in our new home that he would only agree to a few nights. Once we were in the city though, he agreed that London requires at least a week.

    • We actually stayed for four days, but the HOHO bus on the first day proved to be a good one-day introduction to the city in itself.

  4. Some great shots of London! I agree the hop-on hop-off is fab for a short stopover. Even when you get stuck in the notorious traffic you are still sightseeing. And, the tube gets so hot in the summer.

    • Yes, it’s a simple solution when you want to see a city in only a few hours.

      An additional, unexpected bonus of the bus was that we got to see a lot of automotive models we’d never seen in the U.S. 😉

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