March 5, 2024

Destination: London


In this article

London Layover Tour – See the Capital by Bike

You’ve just stepped off the Red-Eye from the US and you’re keen to make use of the lay-over time you have and visit some of the iconic London landmarks. If that’s the case, then let us guide you on a whistlestop jaunt around our glorious city. Your time maybe limited but that’s not to say you can’t enjoy many of the great experiences London has to offer especially if you hop on a bike along the way.

Whether it’s 24 or 48 hours, London is brimming with history, culture, and attractions for you to explore. So, let’s make every moment in ‘The big smoke’ count.

Touching down in London town

British Airways A380 Plane at London Heathrow. Image: Sophie Almeida

You will most likely land at London’s Heathrow Airport from the United States. Assuming this is the case, hop on the Heathrow Express that will bring you swiftly into London Paddington.  

Tip: Arrange for your luggage to be stored securely before you head off into the city. There are facilities to do this at the airport.  

If the plane food hasn’t quite hit the spot, you might well need a coffee (or three) and what better time to sample a classic Full English (English Breakfast). Exit Paddington station via the Grand Union Canal exit and you can enjoy a short walk to a picturesque area known as Little Venice. It is given this name, as you’ll see due to the many waterways and canals intertwined. Dotted along the canals are a number of quaint cafes and pubs that’ll be sure to have a breakfast menu to set you up for the day. Waterside Café is one such eatery you’ll likely pass first as you make your way from Paddington.   

If you want to explore this area further there are fabulous walks along the waterways to other areas of London such as Camden. However, if you’re now looking to press on into the heart of the city then the best thing to do is to rent a bicycle via the ‘rent-a-bike’ options across the capital.  Renting a Lime or Santander electric bike is a tad more expensive than a regular bike, but the extra assistance they provide is great if your legs start to tire!

First stop – A cycle through Hyde Park

Aerial view of The Serpentine, Hyde Park London, England. Image: Shutterstock, Pandora Pictures

From Little Venice, you’ll need to head back in the direction of Paddington station.  

Tip: If you can’t find a bike hire location in Little Venice, they’ll be in abundance at Paddington station.  

Cycle towards the Lancaster Gate entrance of Hyde Park. This route should take approximately 10-15 minutes and will avoid busy main roads. Once inside the park you can use cycle paths to explore. Bare in mind the size of the park is 350 acres. To keep you travelling in the right direction, we suggest heading down W Carriage Dr which will lead you over the Serpentine Bridge and past the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. It is a vast open space with The Serpentine running through the centre. Breathe in the fresh air, catch sight of the swans from the lakeside paths and marvel at the regal architecture as you enter and exit the park. Once you have had your fix of nature, cycle towards the Hyde Park Corner exit.  From here it is a short 3-minute bike ride to one of Britain’s most famous landmarks, Buckingham Palace.  

A royal visit – Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace London
Buckingham Palace London. Image: Sophie Almeida

You’ve seen it beamed across screens all over the world. One of the most famous buildings on the planet. Dating back to the 17th Century, now attracting millions of tourists each year, the iconic Buckingham palace is The Kings official London residence and is a working royal palace. Standing outside the famous black gates, you’ll see the detailed neo-classical architecture and appreciate the grandeur of the palace first hand. Admire the balcony that often takes centre stage during many Royal events and stroll around the perimeter of the palace, seeing if you can count the vast 775 rooms! There are guided tours available to book throughout the year should you wish to pre-plan this for your lay-over. 

However, if you time it right there is plenty of action occurring outside of the Palace with the Changing of the Guard. Scheduled for 11am on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays for 2024. This is a fantastic free of charge piece of British Royal heritage to enjoy. 

Tip: You can see the changing of the guard at a couple of locations next to and outside of Buckingham Palace. Plan your place to watch 

From Buckingham Palace it’s time to jump back on the bike and cycle down Birdcage Walk that will lead you directly to the feet of Big Ben and Westminster.  

Next stop – Iconic London Landmarks

Westminster and Big Ben London
View across the River Thames to Westminster Bridge, Westminster Palace and Big Ben, London. Image: Shutterstock, Mistervlad

After another short 7-minute cycle you’ll arrive at a viewpoint for several of London’s famous icons. You’ll have Big Ben and The House of Commons to your right with Westminster Abbey just behind. In front of you will be Westminster Bridge from which you’ll see the River Thames snaking round and The London Eye on the opposite riverbank.  

Cycle down Abingdon St to the right of Big Ben and you’ll come to the doors of Westminster Abbey, another magnificent building steeped in history of our Kings, Queens, Soldiers, and Statesmen since 960AD.  

Now it’s time to turn around and cycle back up towards Big Ben. Cross the road and cycle down Parliament St and you’ll come to The Cenotaph, a national war memorial and remembrance site. Just ahead of this on the left-hand side you’ll find the home of the current British Prime Minister. Not quite as opulent as The White House, 10 Downing Street is the famous black front door, which you may remember Hugh Grant passing through in the British Movie, Love Actually!  

You can’t stand directly outside the house for security reasons, but you can view the street from the gates.  

From here we’ll leave politics behind and cycle towards some more classic landmarks and a tourist hotspot for lunch, Covent Garden.  

Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden and onwards to St Paul’s Cathedral

Covent Garden London
Covent Garden London. Image: Shutterstock, Olivier Guiberteau

From Downing Street, it is just under 1 mile and takes approximately 8-10mins via bike to Covent Garden. On the way you’ll pass Trafalgar square with Nelsons Column, fountains and a huge number of pigeons!  

Past Trafalgar Square you’ll wind onwards through the outskirts of Theatre District and up into Convent Garden.  

Once entering Covent Garden it’s best to ditch the bike (for now) and explore the pedestrianised area on foot. It’s a labyrinth of small streets with The Market and Piazza central. If your body clock is slightly out of sync and you don’t know what food you fancy, there are endless options. From lite bites, sushi, burgers, pizza and even a fancy 3-course meal, have a wonder and see which smells draw you in.  

Tip: Have a mooch around the bakery windows of the side streets and grab a sweet treat for later. There are some fantastic bakeries in this area so you wouldn’t want to miss out! The Cinnamon buns at Buns From Home are sublime! 

Once you’re suitably full up and you’ve soaked up the atmosphere in this vibrant retail hub it’s time to find another bike rental and move on to see some more attractions.  

Cycling out of Covent Garden there are two routes you can take along to St Paul’s Cathedral. In terms of time and distance there really isn’t much between the two routes. Both are under a 2mile cycle and will take between 11-15 minutes. The first and most direct route passes along Fleet Street, infamous for being the stomping ground of our British Newspaper giants. In truth there isn’t too much to see except for a long London street but it is an easy cycle.  

The second route and our suggested option is to cycle down to the River Thames and follow the river along to Blackfriars Bridge. At the bridge, take a moment to admire two other bridges in view, the Millenium foot bridge and Southwark Bridge, as well as the Southbank area across the opposite side of the river.   

From Black Friars Bridge you’ll head left up Puddle Dock towards St Paul’s Cathedral. You’ll be able to see the dome of the Cathedral as you round the corner. As with all British landmarks there is a lot to admire from the outside. The Grade I listed building is a national treasure and classic icon within the London skyline. The original church was founded in AD 604 but the present structure was updated and completed in 1710.  

If you do have time, the inside is just as impressive if not more so than the outside. The intricate details on the ceilings and archways, along with boasting one of the biggest cathedral domes in the world at 366 feet high, cements St Paul’s amongst other world-renowned architectural structures such as the Roman Pantheon.  

It is free to enter the Cathedral for Worship but if you pay for a sightseeing ticket, it includes entry to the Dome Galleries. The Golden Gallery offers breathtaking, panoramic views of London and you’ll be able to spot many famous landmarks such as the Shard, Tower Bridge and The London Eye on a clear day. This viewing platform is situated 528 steps above the Cathedral floor but is well worth the climb!  

If you’ve still got time and energy to explore, there is one more landmark to visit this side of the River Thames, before crossing over and heading back in the direction you began.  

Tip: As a rule, generally Churches and Cathedrals across England are free to enter for Worship, but this will not allow access to areas for sightseeing. However, if you are time precious this is a good way to quickly see the interior of some of London’s most notable Churches including Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and Southwark Cathedral.  

Cycle to Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge, London
Tower Bridge, London. Image: Susan Q Yin, Unsplash

Leaving St Paul’s Cathedral, you’ll cycle 1.5 miles towards The Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Along the cycle route you’ll cycle past London Bridge and will have a constant view of the modern Shard building gleaming on the opposite side of the river. This route should take approximately 10 minutes.  

Approaching on your bike you’ll have The Tower of London to your left and in front of you the ultimate defining London landmark, Tower Bridge spanning the width of the Thames.  

The Tower of London is part of the Historic Royal Palaces, no longer used by The Royal Family but all hold centuries worth of history from former Kings, Queens, soldiers, and prisoners across the ages. The Tower of London continues to fascinate tourists every year with tales of torture, ghost stories and of course some of the traditions that live on such as Gun Salutes and The Ceremony of the Keys. 

You’ll be able to gain a fantastic view of the Tower of London once you walk up on to Tower Bridge itself. Note, at this point we recommend leaving the Bike behind as you cannot stop on the Bridge if you are on a bike. Therefore, to enable you to enjoy the views from the bridge and admire the structure itself then accessing the bridge by foot is best. It takes approximately 5 minutes to walk across the bridge and it has step free access from street level.  

Like most attractions in London, you can buy a ticket to explore both The Tower of London and inside parts of Tower Bridge. If you do have time during your layover then the Tower of London is highly entertaining, from the protected Raven birds that live there to the Yeoman Warders or better known ‘Beefeaters’ that live with the Ravens and guard the Tower. Of course, you can also catch a glimpse of the majestic Crown Jewels.  

The lesser-known tours of Tower Bridge are fascinating to explore the construction history of the famous drawbridge. Walk across the spectacular glass walkway suspended between the two towers and delve deep into the Engine rooms that once housed the workforce to keep the bridge operational. To add an extra special experience, check the bridge lift times, to see if your layover coincides with a Bridge lift.  

Tip: Although we’ve mentioned the ticketed options throughout this itinerary you can quite feasibly see it all free of charge which saves on time and money! By cycling the route and viewing the London landmarks from the outside only, you do not need to purchase any tickets and avoid lengthy queues and time spent inside. Perfect if time is limited.  

Onward routes

Map of the London Underground. Image: Transport for London

If you follow this itinerary then it is likely to take you the best part of a full day with stops for sight seeing and food. Dependent on the time of year you visit London, it may begin getting dark as early as 5pm but you can tick off a number of fabulous London Landmarks from your bucket list. If this has left you craving more of London then view our walking and cycling holidays in London for a more extensive experience of the City. 

If you need to head back for the airport then you’ll need to make your way back to Paddington station. Since you have spent your day cycling above ground you may choose to navigate ‘The Tube’ (London Underground) for your return journey. In which case you’ll need to catch the tube at Tower Hill next to The Tower of London. Take the District line towards Upminster. At the station Whitechapel, change on to the Elizabeth line. You’ll want to catch a tube train heading in the direction of Maidenhead. This will then take you from Whitechapel to Paddington without any further changes. From Paddington you’ll be able to use the Heathrow Connect to return to Heathow Airport.  

If time allows: An evening in London

London skyline, the shard, london evening
London sunsets with a view of The Shard from a restaurant. Image: Sophie Almeida

If you don’t have to rush off to catch a flight then we have a few options for you to carry on exploring London into the evening.  

Crossing over Tower Bridge, you’ll now be on the South side of the Thames. Find a nearby Rent-a-bike pick up area and cycle towards Borough Market. This is a very short cycle of only 6 minutes. If you prefer to stay on foot, it is approximately 14 minutes. You’ll pass The Shard which is a wonderful sight with the sun going down and reflecting off the glassy. Make sure to look behind you as you make your way along the river as you’ll then have Tower Bridge in view again.  

Borough Market and specifically the stalls are open until 5pm. However, it is a bustling area known for its many restaurants and pubs particularly if you hug the river near to London Bridge.  

If you keep moving along the river, away from the Borough Market you can follow two routes back towards Blackfriars bridge which was the first bridge you encountered. Cycling or walking along the Southbank towards Blackfriars bridge will take no longer than 20 minutes. It is just under 1 mile. Or if you prefer a quicker in-land route away from the river, you can reach Blackfriars in approximately 6 minutes by bike.  

We of course would recommend staying close to the river as this is much more scenic and you’ll see all the landmarks from earlier in the day across the river from you. Illuminated will be Big Ben, The London Eye and The House of Parliament.  

Complete your evening in luxury, with a dinner that boasts amazing views over the Thames from Sea Containers restaurant. Conveniently located in the same building, head up for a post dinner drink  at rooftop bar 12th Knot and catch one last glimpse at the twinkling London skyline.  

Book an Uber or hail a traditional London Black cab back to Paddington for your onward return to Heathrow Airport. 

More time to explore England? Check out our guide to getting around England via public transport.

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