In this series, Lonely Planet's team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provide tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. This week Tom Hall, a Londoner and Lonely Planet’s VP of Experiences, tackles a query from a US traveler coming to Europe.

Question: Hey Lonely Planet, I have an 8-hour layover at Heathrow airport as I transit from the US to Athens. As I’ve never been to London before, is it doable to leave the airport and see some sights in that time? 

Tom Hall: Eight hours will go very quickly and the reality is you have as little as half of that as available sightseeing time.

The busy streets of London with the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in the background
The busy streets of London with the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in the background © Alexander Spatari / Getty

Timing the trip from Heathrow into central London

To get into central London from Heathrow passengers must disembark, clear immigration, hop on one of the fastest transport options – the Elizabeth Line (about 32 minutes, £11 roundtrip) or Heathrow Express trains (about 22 minutes, £37 roundtrip) to Paddington station. From there, it’s an onward tube ride to some of London’s biggest attractions.

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I’d allow 90 minutes for all that, though it may well take longer. Last week I flew into Heathrow, excited to be there 10 minutes early, and then sat in a funk as our jet took 45 minutes to reach its gate.

Returning to Heathrow, you’ve got to reverse the process. Arriving back at departures 90 minutes before your flight leaves should be enough if you have your boarding pass already, even if airlines advise being there earlier. One major time-saver is checking your luggage all the way through, so be sure to do this if possible.

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Tower Bridge In Peak Season
Tower Bridge in peak season © Luke Deakin / EyeEm / Getty

How to make the most out of 4 hours in London

Even with all these hurdles, with 4 hours you can start to experience some of the UK capital’s main attractions. This is ample time to reach Tower Bridge and stroll west along the South Bank of the River Thames to the Houses of Parliament, with a stop for a quick bite at Borough Market. If queues are kind, you could even manage a spin on the London Eye.

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Alternatively, focus on one big attraction, several of which could happily occupy 2 hours or more. St Paul’s Cathedral offers 2-hour booking slots – and for this reason, may work better than a visit to Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace (whose State Rooms are open to visitors only in the summer months).

The British Museum interior
Enjoy free entry into the British Museum  © Chaokai Shen/500px

You could pick a few galleries in the free-to-enter British Museum or National Gallery. Or if that’s all a bit full-on, aim for the classic London experience of afternoon tea at a hotel like The Goring, or a pint in one of the city’s many, many pubs.

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