Over the course of running this site for several years, I’ve learned that people end up visiting London for innumerable reasons – and they end up having a wide range of time to spend there. For some people, their London trip is a destination in its own right (as it was for me on my first international trip); for others, it’s a layover en route to another European destination (I did this on a recent trip in May 2023!).
No matter what brings you to London or how long you have to visit, I want this site to help you. For that reason, I’ve started work on a series of posts about how to spend a few hours in London, and this post focuses specifically on how to spend a few hours in Central London. This is the heart of modern London, home to its most famous attractions, iconic landmarks, and (some of) the most historic areas.
If you are one of those travelers who will be in London for just a few hours, this post can help. Below you’ll find tips on how to plan your time generally, a map of where I suggest visiting in Central London, and more detail on each stop to help you pack as much in as reasonably possible without exhausting yourself.
My only other advice before getting started? Don’t be surprised if you fall in love: London is an amazing city and a few hours is just not nearly enough. While you certainly shouldn’t skip London if you only have a few hours, you might find yourself wanting to plan a return trip. As someone who always feels that way, you’re in excellent company. Okay, now let’s dive in!
Tips if You Only Have a Few Hours in London
To start, I wanted to share some general advice for making the most of a few hours in London – in any part of the city. Here’s what I suggest before planning your time or setting out:
- Choose one part of London – this post focuses on Central London, but I’ll have guides for North, East, South, and West London soon and will add the links here.
- Pick a start and end point – they could be the same spot, or different ones, depending on where you want to go.
- Skip public transit and explore a smaller area on foot; London’s transit system is great but can be time-consuming if you only have a short time to visit the city.
- If you need to store your luggage, there are handy luggage storage services all over London.
Based on that, let’s dive into the specifics of what I recommend for exploring Central London specifically.
Route for a Few Hours in Central London
To start, I thought it would be helpful to start with a map of the places I recommend, and a route I suggest – you can replicate this map for yourself or use your own mapping app to work it out for yourself before setting out.
In total, you’ll walk about an hour, so how long you spend at these stops/in these areas depends on how many additional hours you have to spend in London. If you’re on a short itinerary, you might just stroll through some of them or do a bit of window shopping; if you have a full morning, midday, or afternoon, you might sit down to a meal or pop into one of the museums, churches, or theatres along the way for a bit longer.
Broadly speaking, this is just my suggestion for how to spend a few hours in Central London; there are other parts of Central London you might want to explore more, or other attractions you might want to see. I hope this at least gives you a starting framework to make the most of your time… no matter how long you have, London is a great place to spend time!
Start at Piccadilly Circus
Since you only have a few hours to explore this part of London, I recommend doing it on foot; you’ll see some of the best sights in Central London without waiting for buses or crowding onto the Tube.
As such, you need a start and end point: Piccadilly Circus, which is on the Bakerloo and Piccadilly Lines (there are also lots of buses that run through this area if you’re not staying on a line that easily gets you here). Once you exit the Tube, you’ll be in one of London’s most iconic spots. Admire the statue of Cupid on his plinth, try to avoid the hawkers, maybe stop to watch a busker, and begin making your way east toward Leicester Square.
Explore Leicester Square
It’s a five-minute walk from Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square (pronounced “Lester”). This spot is definitely one of the most touristy areas in Central London – it’s where you’ll find shops like the M&Ms and LEGO stores if that gives you any indication…
It’s also the heart of the West End, where you can snag cheap tickets to a show if you have more time on another day, or admire the facade of the ODEON, which is where red-carpet movie premieres happen in London.
I wouldn’t stay too long in this area – there’s so much else to see – but it is sort of an essential place to visit in London, even if you only have a short time.
Grab a Bite in Chinatown
Just to the north of Leicester Square, you’ll find London’s Chinatown, primarily along Gerard Street; enter from the east where you can pass through the colorful gate to stroll down this street that feels like you’ve suddenly traveled around the globe.
There are lots of great spots to eat on this suggested itinerary for a few hours in Central London, but if you are feeling peckish (either as a mid-morning snack, heading into lunch, or for an afternoon snack), Chinatown is a great spot to be. You can pop into one of the many restaurants to try xiao long bao (soup dumplings, Dumplings’ Legend is the place to go) or order a bubble tea for something a bit sweeter.
Once you’ve strolled up and down the streets of Chinatown (it’s just a few blocks in total), make your way up to Shaftesbury Avenue and turn east again to make the 10-minute walk to Seven Dials.
Go Souvenir Shopping in Seven Dials
I’ll be honest: the Seven Dials area is one I haven’t spent much time in; it’s just off the beaten path enough that most people don’t end up there by accident or on transit while passing through. However, it’s one of the loveliest spots if you are looking for a unique London souvenir.
There are little boutiques, bookshops, and other shops where you can find the perfect gift for yourself or someone back home. There are also cafes and bars if you’re feeling thirsty or want to give your feet a break.
You can spend as long as you like in this area, but whenever you’re ready to continue on, head south toward the river and Covent Garden Market.
Visit Covent Garden Market
The Covent Garden area of Central London is great for delicious restaurants, iconic theatre productions, and historic hideaways – it’s also home to Covent Garden Market which is a mix of shops and restaurants that’s perfect if your timing works for lunch during these few hours’ exploration of the city.
During a recent short layover in London (when we also took advantage of a day-use hotel to store our stuff and rest and freshen up a bit after the flight from the U.S.), my husband and I had a nice lunch with a London friend before strolling around a bit.
You can also enjoy shows by street performers – there’s usually one near the entrance of the market – and the buildings surrounding the market are full of equally compelling spots to explore. If you have the time, the London Transport Museum is fascinating and especially well-suited for families with small children.
Stroll Down to the Embankment
From Covent Garden, it’s a little bit of a walk to the River Thames; if you plug in “Victoria Embankment Gardens,” your mapping app will get you there in 10-15 minutes max. There are lovely trails right along the Embankment where you can watch the boats cruising up and down the Thames, admire views of the Southbank (like the London Eye and Royal Festival Hall), and peer toward the Palace of Westminster – aka the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
Admire the Palace of Westminster
For the best view of London’s most iconic building, head out partway on the western pedestrian bridge of the Golden Jubilee Bridges (there’s an eastern one, a railway bridge, and a western one). Halfway along the bridge you’ll have an iconic view of the Palace of Westminster, the River, the Eye, and more of London’s westward skyline. This is not my favorite view (you won’t have time to reach that during this short itinerary), but it’s one of my top 5 for sure!
When your eyes have drunk their fill, head back up onto the northern side of the Thames and either make your way to Embankment Station (Bakerloo/Circle/Distrcit/Northern Lines), or continue a bit further to Trafalgar Square.
Optional: Walk to Trafalgar Square
If you have the time, Trafalgar Square is another must-see spot in London. While not officially designated as such, Trafalgar Square is the epicenter for transit, events, and orientation in the city. You might spot a cultural festival happening, or a large art sculpture on “The Fourth Plinth” (it’s always changing). You can certainly peer down Whitehall toward Parliament for another iconic view of The Elizabethan Tower which houses Big Big.
From Trafalgar Square, you could also walk back to Piccadilly Circus (7 minutes) or catch a bus back to your accommodation or the airport.
Have any other questions about how I recommend spending a few hours in Central London? Let me know in the comments below!