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?
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:
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
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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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
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 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, so get theatre tickets and enjoy the hit musical Wicked which has been running 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
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 about a London layover
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, we guarantee it’ll be better than counting the planes taking off and landing.