Five Free Things to See in London on a Five Hour Stopover

When I told people that I was going to try and fit in some London sightseeing during my five-hour stopover on the way from Glasgow to Sardinia, they looked at me like I was a little bit crazy. Yes, I was flying from Glasgow very early and had to leave at 4 am to make it to the airport on time and sure, I would probably be absolutely knackered by the time I made it to Sardinia but…I hadn’t been to London in years and the thought of seeing at least a couple of my favourite places again whilst I was there was just too tempting to miss.

I was flying in and out of Stansted so the quickest way for me to get into the city was by jumping on the London Stansted Express (tip – it only cost £16 for the return because I booked in advance, it’s £32 if you don’t). It takes you straight from the airport into London Liverpool Street, which might not look all that close to the main attractions on a map but is actually a great starting point for some free London sights. The Express takes about 40 minutes so I was left with just over three hours of wandering before I had to get back on the train and check-in for my next flight.

The Gherkin, from the steps outside London Liverpool Street Station

The Gherkin, from the steps outside London Liverpool Street Station

  1. The Gherkin

Weirdly mesmerising to look at, The Gherkin is one of those iconic London skyline buildings that shouldn’t be beautiful but somehow just is. In all honesty, I couldn’t remember anyone ever telling me what was actually in The Gherkin so I googled it and all I could seem to find out is that it’s a commercial building and some people apparently have enough money to get married in it.

I wandering around the streets near the building for a while and eventually decided this was my favourite view of The Gherkin – taken from St Helen’s Square (where, if you’re into that type of thing, you can also check out some public art in the form of Sigalit Landau’s ‘O my friends, there are no friends’ bronze shoe sculpture) and showing the steeple of St Helen’s Church on the right hand side.

Taken from St. Helen's Square, with St Helen's steeple just in view on the right hand side

Taken from St. Helen’s Square, with St Helen’s Church in its shadow

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

  1. St. Paul’s Cathedral

My favourite place in London – apart from Tattershall Castle pub-boat, which I sadly did not make it to this time around – is St Paul’s Cathedral.  Beautiful from the outside, beautiful from the inside and offering up some of the most amazing views over the city from the galleries in the Dome, it’s an unmissable London sight.

Technically, St. Paul’s is not free – it costs £18 for an adult ticket – but it’s still amazing to visit if you don’t have the time or money to go inside. I took a wander around the small gardens and cemetery and then sat on the steps for a while (because who doesn’t want to sit on the steps of St Paul’s and then hum the ‘bird’ song from Mary Poppins for the rest of the day?!) before taking some photos.

Classic London - St. Paul's and a red double-decker bus!

Classic London – St. Paul’s and a red double-decker bus!

Tip: On busy days, you’ll be fighting over people to get a good photo from the front of the Cathedral – head down the steps towards Millennium Bridge and stand slightly to the right, where you still get a good photo-op but with less tourists, or take an alternative selfie in one of the random silver balls that line the street (like I attempted to do…)

Alternative-selfie (I'm sure you'll do a better job than me!)

Alternative-selfie (I’m sure you’ll do a better job than me!)

Tower Bridge - taken from the Millennium Bridge, with the Shard on the right.

Tower Bridge – taken from the Millennium Bridge, with the Shard on the right.

  1. Tower Bridge

It’s only a 20-minute walk from London Liverpool Street Station to The Tower of London and Tower Bridge, which is the route I considered taking first but, for a view which includes arguably London’s most iconic structure, I choose to walk to St. Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge instead.

On the centre of the bridge (if you can fight your way through the other tourists taking selfies and, in my case, a camera crew attempting to film something) you’ll get an amazing view both up and down the Thames. If you look right, you can see both The Tower of London and the Shard (London’s tallest building) or, looking straight over the bridge, you’ll see the Tate Modern, which was my next stop…

London skyline from the Millennium Bridge.

London skyline from the Millennium Bridge.

Crossing the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern

Crossing the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern

  1. The Tate Modern

Admission to the Tate Modern is free, apart from those wanting to gain entry into any of the special exhibitions, but with over 70,000 pieces of artwork (that figure blew my mind when I read it) unless you’re a massive fan of a particular artist, there’s plenty to see without paying. From Picasso to Andy Warhol, you can spend hours looking at incredible art without spending a penny!

The Tate is another “should-be-ugly-but-isn’t” London building – I mean, it’s a former Power Station so no one is going to be calling it pretty, but somehow it completely works. I wandered around for 40 minutes or so before I headed to the Tate Café in preparation for my last, free London sight!

Inside the Tate: Hours of free wandering to be had!

Inside the Tate: Hours of free wandering to be had!

Tate Coffee, people watching and an amazing view of St. Pauls

Tate Coffee, people watching and an amazing view of St. Pauls

  1. Takeaway Coffee on South Bank

The last time I was in London, I spent many a sunny afternoon hanging out on the South Bank taking part in my favourite past-time…people watching. It’s potentially the best people watching spot ever (although outside The Social in Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow, is a very close second). From the London Eye right up to the Tate, it’s an observer’s dream! Where else can you watch street performers, listen to live Spanish guitar, have someone try to convert you to (insert any) religion, spot Made in Chelsea wannabes and get chatted up a man dressed as the grim reaper? Plus, if you sit right directly outside the Tate, you’ll have the amazing view of St. Paul’s in the background. This one wasn’t entirely free either– I did spend £2.90 on a (very nice) takeaway coffee from the Tate Café, but all the money goes back into the gallery, helping to keep it free so I figured I could spare the pocket change!

Sitting outside the Tate, taking in the view...

Sitting outside the Tate, taking in the view…

I made it back to London Liverpool Street Station right on time for an Express (they run every 15 minutes so you never have long to wait) and checked-in for my flight to Sardinia with half an hour to spare. I was exhausted, but it was completely worth it to be back in one of my favourite cities – even if only for a few hours!

Do you have any great, free recommendations for London on a timescale? Feel free to leave a comment below! 

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