As a gateway into Europe, London Heathrow is one of the busiest airports on the planet. Based on sheer volume, chances are you’ll have some extra time to waste. Why spend it walking up and down the aisles at Boots or ogling all the stuff you can’t afford at Cartier. Make the most of your layover in Heathrow with these suggestions.
Two things often stop people from making the most of their downtime in a foreign airport – fear of missing their connecting flight and having nowhere to leave their luggage for a few hours. But with a bit of forward planning, you can make the absolute most of your time in London.
But a word of warning – make sure to check your visa requirements for entering the UK before planning to leave the airport.
How to get to London from Heathrow
Don’t be tempted to take the ‘Tube’ – London’s underground system – from the airport or a famous black cab into London – it typically takes too long. The Heathrow Express train is the fastest way into town. You will be at London’s Paddington railway station in 15 minutes (cab or tube will take you at least three times that) and from there, many of the world-famous sights are easily reached by a short Tube ride.
For a 3 to 4-hour layover, head to Windsor or Eton
Just a 15-minute taxi ride from Heathrow are the beautiful ancient towns of Windsor and Eton situated on either side of the River Thames.
The well-known, 900-year-old Windsor Castle is still ‘home’ to the British Royal family making it the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world. St. George’s chapel is a magnificent Gothic structure and if this is the only place you visit, it will be worth the admission fee.
The Queen's Walkway is a hidden gem. The easy, circular 6.37km (3.7 miles) trek links 63 of Windsor's best attractions and views and commemorates the date when the Queen became the longest-reigning British monarch (63 years, 7 months and 3 days).
There are many traditional pubs, cafes and restaurants on the route, and the walk is the perfect way to see Windsor while stretching your legs during a short layover. If you’re lucky, you may also see the colourful pageantry of the Changing of the Guard as they march up Windsor High Street.
Just across the Thames from Windsor is Eton, famous for its 550-year-old private (though called ‘public’ in England) boys school. Alumni include Princes William and Harry and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston. The Eton Walkway, a similar concept to the Queens Walkway, is an easy 3.2km (about 1 hour) circular walk that connects 18 points of interest in the town starting at Windsor Bridge.
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For a 6-to-8 hour layover, go into London
If you have six hours or so, try a Thames river cruise or a guided walk and there’s still time for visiting one or more of London’s famous landmarks.
If you visit St. Paul’s Cathedral, be sure to visit the ‘Whispering Gallery’ where your whisper against the wall will be heard on the opposite side.
From St. Paul’s, it’s a short five-minute walk to the rest of the ‘Square Mile’, which is actually a fraction more than a square mile and is THE City of London. Here you will find exceptional architecture – from the Guildhall and Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral to Norman Foster’s modern ‘Gherkin’.
If time permits, a quick ride in the lift to the 40th floor Gherkin Sky Bar will reward you with a panoramic view of the City. An alternative is the Sky Garden on top of the Walkie Talkie building on Fenchurch Street. Access is free, but you do need to book a ticket on your phone before you go.
For a more leisurely visit, take time to stroll around one of London’s museums or art galleries. Most are free to enter – check out the British Museum, Natural History Museum, the Science Museum or Victoria & Albert Museum.
A hidden treasure, and one that should be a lone stop during a layover from Heathrow, is the site of the Churchill War Rooms in Westminster. It was here that the British Prime Minister and his cabinet lived and worked during the Second World War. Set aside at least 90 minutes for the tour and definitely buy tickets online though there is timed entry.
For a 24-hour layover, make a trip to Little Venice, Greenwich and Soho
A full day layover in London is an opportunity to explore gems away from popular tourist traps. Relatively close by is Little Venice – as the name suggests, is a picturesque canal neighborhood built in the 19th century. During the summer, it’s a wonderful place to stroll and watch the narrow boats glide along Regent's Canal. Close to Paddington, it's easily accessible and only a 15-minute train ride from Heathrow.
A little further is Greenwich, where East meets West – or at least the hemispheres meet and yes, you can stand with one foot in either hemisphere. Explore the architecture of the Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Naval College then wander around the eclectic stalls of Greenwich Market. To end the day, head to Soho for dinner where there is an extensive array of international cuisines to choose from and prices to suit every pocket.
Although Heathrow has luggage storage facilities, not all airports do. Having a place close by to safely store you bags for a few hours will make or break your decision to make good use of those few, precious, idle hours. The answer is BAGBNB. Founded in 2016, BAGBNB is a community network that collaborates with business partners (called Angels) in over 2,500 locations all across the world, who, for a small fee, will store your luggage securely on their premises.
London alone has over 90 Angels whose businesses include cafes, rental outlets or shops. It’s advisable to ‘book’ with your Angel on bagbnb.com before you arrive to make sure their opening hours fit your schedule. Each Angel has been certified by BagBNB but it still pays to be prudent. The cost is five GBP a bag/day in the UK.