As I prepared for weekend trips during my semester abroad, one of the first things I did was check the New York Times’ “36 hours” features for recommendations. In these articles, reporters give their recommendations for the best way to spend 36 hours in a given city: what to do, where to see, and the ever-important where to eat. However, while I searched out these articles for nearly every city I visited while abroad, I never thought to see what the Times had to recommend in London, the city I was actually studying in. Curious, I did some research and found that they had actually written three different pieces – not surprising, due to the staggering amount of things to do in London. While some of the recommendations were places I had been, the majority of them were not. As I read them, I realized that there is a huge difference between 36 hours for tourists and 36 hours for those of us actually living in that city. Certainly, I hit all the big tourist attractions during my time in London – Big Ben, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey. And while I would definitely recommend these places to others, they are not the first ones that come to mind. What comes to mind are the smaller places, the ones that I visited time after time until they began to feel worn-in and familiar. The ones that, at the end of three months, felt like they belonged to me in some deep, intrinsic way. The ones that hurt the most to think about now that I’m an ocean away from them. Here, then, is my own version of 36 hours in London – not the exciting tourist hotspots, but the places and events that shaped my study abroad experience.
- Borough Market
My favorite part about my flat in London was that it was only a short, ten-minute walk to Borough Market. One of the biggest food markets in London, Borough is host to a colorful array of stands selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to Balkan pastries to cream-filled, melt-in-your-mouth homemade doughnuts. The vendors are friendly and cheerful, and the atmosphere is lively but relaxed (at least, when it’s not too crowded). The market does tend to get busy on weekends, so it’s best to try to go right around opening time and duck out before the mobs of hungry customers descend. Grab a chocolate croissant and a cup of strawberry-apple juice, and you’re good to go.
Nearest tube station: London Bridge
- The South Bank
Now that you have your breakfast, it’s only a quick walk from Borough to the Thames River. The pathway along the river is dotted with plenty of benches, the perfect place to sit and eat your breakfast while enjoying the gorgeous view across the river. Once you’ve eaten, take a stroll along the path right next to the river for some of the prettiest views of London. Along the way, the path is dotted with cute stores and cafés, as well as some of London’s more famous landmarks like Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern. Shakespeare fans should definitely head into the Globe to get a tour of the old theater, and anyone interested in modern art will be sure to love the Tate, with all of its unique paintings and sculptures. Then make your way down towards Waterloo Bridge, where you’ll find the real South Bank. This small area is packed with quirky shops and restaurants, and the South Bank Centre usually has something interesting going on like a photography exhibit or a pop-up thrift store. If it’s near Christmas time, you have to check out the South Bank Christmas Market – a classic outdoor Christmas market with yummy food and perfect gift ideas.
Nearest tube stations: London Bridge, Waterloo, Blackfriars
- Lincoln’s Inn Fields
After spending some time on the South Bank, cross the Waterloo Bridge and make your way to the Strand, a lively area full of students, cafés, and great shopping. A little ways away from the hectic pace is Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a small park complete with tennis courts and a little snack bar. It’s the perfect place to snag a bench and relax while reading a book or listening to music. Sometimes being in a busy city can get overwhelming, but in the peaceful Lincoln’s Inn Fields you might even forget you’re not in the middle of the countryside.
Nearest tube stations: Holborn, Chancery Lane
- Tea time
Of course, you couldn’t spend a weekend in London without experiencing high tea! One of the most classically British experiences there is, you’ll love trying new kinds of tea while stuffing your face with scones and sandwiches (in a very polite and classy manner, of course). You can find teashops all over the city, but if you’re really feeling like splurging check out The Savoy, a hotel right on the Strand. It’s definitely expensive, but in exchange you get unlimited refills of tea and food – it’s like a tea buffet! Beyond that, the food is delicious and the restaurant is beautiful!
Nearest tube stations: Charing Cross, Covent Garden
- Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Park
Yes, it’s touristy, but you really can’t go to London without at least a quick look at the grand home of Queen Elizabeth. There’s usually a massive crowd packed outside, but it’s worth braving the mob to see possibly the most well-known building in London. Once you’ve gotten your fill of royalty, you can wander around the beautiful landscapes of St. James’s Park.
Nearest tube stops: St. James’s Park, Green Park, Victoria
6) Charing Cross Road
One of London’s most famous streets, book lovers in particular won’t want to miss the bookstores of Charing Cross Road. From the old-fashioned used bookshops to the massive, six-story Foyle’s; there is truly no better place for a bookworm to spend an afternoon. And if reading’s not your thing, there are plenty of other shops along the way to catch your fancy! Plus, you can duck into one of the many cute cafés along the street for a quick cup of tea or coffee!
Nearest tube stops: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road, Covent Garden
- Leicester Square
Fair warning: Leicester Square is crazy busy and often packed with tourists, and because of this, some people try to avoid it as much as possible. But for some reason, I absolutely love it. It always feels full of life and crackling with energy, and at night, with all the buildings lit up, this is even more true. But the best part of Leicester Square is the Odeon Leicester Square, a movie theater that often hosts premieres for major movies. It’s worth swinging by to see if there’s anything going on that night, and if there is, fight your way through the crowd for a good view of the stars on the red carpet!
Nearest tube stops: Leicester Square, Picadilly Circus, Charing Cross
For dinner, find a pub where you can order the unofficial national food of England, fish and chips! Much like tea, there are hundreds of pubs across the city, and you really can’t go wrong no matter where you go. But since you’re already nearby, the Mulberry Bush in Waterloo was one of my personal favorites. A beautifully decorated pub near the South Bank, the Mulberry Bush looks like a stereotypical British pub straight out of the movies. The food is great, and there’s even an array of board games to choose from if you want some entertainment!
Closest tube station: Waterloo
8) Pedicab pub crawl
While I’ve been trying to avoid “touristy” activities, this is one that I simply can’t help but recommend. Gather a group of your friends and sign up for this unique pub crawl, which takes you around the city on a massive, multi-person pedicab. Along the way, you’ll stop at a few historical and well-known pubs specially chosen by your knowledgeable guide. It’s a great way to see a few pubs in one night, but it’s the experience of biking through the bustling city at night that will really stay with you. You might feel a little stupid, but blast some music and just go with it!
9) Trade Coffee
For a delicious breakfast in a great location, head to Trade Coffee in East London. The café has a nice, cozy feel with people sitting around to eat breakfast or do some work. The food and drinks are delicious, too – I would personally recommend the blueberry pancakes and a smoothie, although the homemade granola bars are also amazing!
Nearest tube stations: Aldgate, Aldgate East
10) Old Spitalfields Market
A short walk from Trade is Spitalfieds, a covered market that sells everything you can imagine and more. Stalls are set up throughout selling everything from clothing to food, blown glass to old records, jewelry to paintings. In addition, around the stalls is an array of stores and restaurants, basically guaranteeing that you can find anything you need. You could easily spend hours wandering around Spitalfields, and the friendly vendors and camaraderie among customers makes the environment even more fun to be in.
Nearest tube stations: Liverpool Street, Shoreditch High Street, Aldgate East
11) Hyde Park bike ride + Kensington
The legendary Hyde Park is a must-do for anyone visiting London. However, the park is so huge that it could take you hours, or possibly even days, to see the whole thing by foot. Luckily, you can use the Barclay’s Bikes system to rent a bike for a couple hours, and for only a few dollars! Biking is truly the best way to see the park, and you can get in a little exercise too! Make sure to check out Kensington Gardens, which is connected to Hyde Park – you can even stop by the famous Kensington Palace!
Nearest tube stations: Knightsbridge, Lancaster Gate, Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner
12) Knightsbridge and Harrods
After working up an appetite from all that biking, head into Knightsbridge to grab a bite to eat. The neighborhood is full of cafés and restaurants where you can get anything you feel like for lunch. If you’re craving some more pub food, I would especially recommend the Grenadier, a tiny, historical pub hidden down a back street. Next, head over to Harrods, London’s most famous department store! Harrods is pretty much heaven for a shopaholic, but just about everyone will enjoy walking around and marveling at the gorgeous displays and wide range of merchandise.
Nearest tube station: Knightsbridge
13) Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill
Before you leave London, take the tube to Regent’s Park, another gorgeous and vast park near Camden. You can walk around a little, but once the sun starts to go down (and yes, sadly, if it happens to be the winter the sun will set before 5pm) make your way to Primrose Hill, a section at the edge of the park. Although the walk up might not feel too steep, the top of the hill gives you one of the best views of London, with the city skyline clearly visible beyond the sweeping range of trees of Regent’s Park. And if it’s not too cloudy, it’s also the most beautiful place to watch the sunset. As the sky turns pink and orange and the sun starts to fall behind the skyline, take a moment to soak in the view and appreciate all the beauty and magic of London.
Nearest tube stops: Camden Town, Chalk Farm
Although it’s hard to try to squeeze my entire study abroad experience into 36 hours, the best part of London is that there are so many places I could have chosen instead. I was constantly stumbling onto hidden places and new discoveries, making every day in London feel like an adventure. It’s so easy to hop on the tube or a bus and wind up in a neighborhood you’ve never visited before, or at a landmark you’ve always wanted to see. That’s one of the greatest things about London, and about study abroad in general – every day has the potential to be an adventure if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and explore. London will always hold a special place in my heart, both for introducing me to so many amazing places and for teaching me to always keep exploring and make every day an adventure. So while I hope you found this guide useful as a starting point, the real 36 hours in London should be up to you – wander off the beaten path, go on an adventure, and I guarantee you’ll end up with your own list of favorite places, as well as some amazing memories.