Sometimes, an extended layover is unavoidable. We tend to do our traveling in the winter, and while returning from a faraway destination during the off-season, we occasionally find ourselves stuck overnight. Instead of bemoaning the extra time required to get home, we try to make the best of our time on the ground, wherever we are.
On a recent trip abroad, we found ourselves with an extra 18 hours in London. Here’s how we squeezed every last drop out of our “bonus time” in one of our favorite cities.
Returning to the United States from Istanbul in January, our options for a quick flight home were pretty limited. No matter how we sliced it, we were going to have a lengthy layover somewhere. We opted for the longest of them, an 18-hour stop at London’s Heathrow Airport.
We chose London for a few reasons. We love the city, and it’s a place we’ve traveled to numerous times before. We weren’t going to be bummed if we missed out on Big Ben or Buckingham Palace, since we’d seen them already. A quick weeknight evening afforded us a terrific opportunity to explore a specific neighborhood, almost as if we were locals. Finally, London is an easy city to navigate, and there’s no language barrier. All of these factors made London the perfect option for our brief stay.
Anyone who’s traveled to London knows that Heathrow is a bit far afield from the city center. Instead of hailing a cab that could take up to an hour -- or spending that same amount of time crammed into the Tube with all our luggage -- we opted to take the Heathrow Express. This train is comfortable, easy to reach from the terminal, and fast! We arrived at Paddington Station in just 15 minutes. With round-trip fares starting at £37, it’s not the cheapest way to travel back and forth from the airport; however, it is the most expedient. In this case, since we had limited time on the ground, we found it to be well worth the cost. Express trains run every 15 minutes, so we sailed right on and were on our way.
We knew that the train would drop us at Paddington Station, and we needed a place to dump our luggage and freshen up before heading out for the evening. We opted to stay near Marble Arch, at the northeast corner of London’s famous Hyde Park, because it was close to Paddington as well as the neighborhoods of Marylebone and Mayfair. We chose a decent budget hotel that was within walking distance of the station. We didn’t need it to be luxe, since we only planned to spend a short time in the room.
After a 10-minute walk, we reached our hotel. We immediately checked in, rolled our luggage up to the room, and put on a few more layers to combat the midwinter London chill. When we headed out down Edgware Road, we laughed: We’d just come from Istanbul, and it seemed in some ways that we hadn’t left. The area adjacent to Paddington is full of kebab shops, Middle Eastern cafés, and even a Simit Sarayi, the fast food chain we’d stepped into several times during our time in Turkey. London is home to many of these little neighborhood enclaves that offer amazing international food. We decided we’d gotten our fill of Turkish cuisine, and instead wandered down to Hyde Park for a stroll before dinner.
London’s Marble Arch is situated at the corner of Hyde Park, but it wasn’t always intended to grace this corner of London. Commissioned by King George IV and designed by John Nash in 1827, the Marble Arch was supposed to serve as a gateway to Buckingham Palace to celebrate the British victories in the wars against Napoleon. However, after the king’s death, the landmark was criticized for being too expensive, and Nash was fired. Another architect was hired to finish the project in a more modest style. Completed in 1833, the Marble Arch was still grand, but it was certainly scaled back. Sculptures and friezes already finished for the original design were used elsewhere throughout the city of London. In 1850, the city decided to move the arch -- stone by stone -- to its current location. The entire process took just three months.
Carved from a grey and white marble from Italy, the Marble Arch shone beautifully in the moonlight as we took a closer look. We wandered around the monument; its decoration and panels are full of symbolism. On the north side are three female figures representing England, Ireland, and Scotland. Another panel depicts Peace standing upon the trophies of war.
From there, we took in a bit more of the 350-acre Hyde Park. It’s a popular spot for bicyclists and joggers and is home to playgrounds, sports fields, and traditional English gardens, but it was quiet and still as we explored. Hyde Park is also crammed with monuments and statues. Our favorite was the Animals in War Memorial. Unveiled in 2004 to mark the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I, this monument is dedicated to the animals who served alongside the Allied powers. It was constructed after a national appeal brought in donations that totaled £2 million.
After our walk, we decided it was time to hit the pubs. We wound our way through Mayfair, the posh neighborhood that’s home to both Bond Street, with its exclusive auction houses, and the world-famous Savile Row. Renovated row houses in Mayfair surround picturesque green squares, and the scene is quite British!
We stopped at The Grazing Goat in nearby Marylebone, where we snagged a table and a few pints. While we didn’t dine there, we noted that the restored restaurant offers an extensive menu and a traditional British Sunday roast. Upstairs, there’s a small inn with eight bedrooms, and the restaurant is open seven days a week. The bar was busy, but not rowdy. It was a wonderful, cozy spot.
It was getting quite late, and we wanted to make sure we could tuck in a good dinner before the restaurants closed for the evening. We went right across the street to Boxcar, a tiny restaurant with locally sourced offerings scrawled on a chalkboard up front. We were lucky enough to snag a table without reservations, and we split a chateaubriand and a side of chips. It was a delicious -- and filling -- British meal.
It had been a long day of travel, and we were stuffed to the seams from our huge dinner, but we wanted to stop by one more pub. We stepped into the traditional-looking City of Quebec, just steps away from the Marble Arch, to grab a final pint. The bar featured Victorian decor, including dark wood paneling and old-fashioned beer taps. We ordered our drinks, and I started to realize that I was one of the only women in the pub. We later learned that City of Quebec is London’s oldest LGBTQ bar. We wished we had visited on a night the downstairs piano bar was open, but we enjoyed our time there nonetheless.
The next morning, we got up bright and early, packed up our belongings, and walked down to Paddington. Thankfully, the British grocery chain Marks & Spencer was open, so we loaded up on coffee and a few healthy snacks (as well as plenty of shortbread and jelly babies to stash in our checked luggage!) before heading to the train platform. As luck would have it, the Heathrow Express was just 3 minutes from leaving the station, and we arrived at the airport just a short time later to begin our final journey home.
We were so glad we made the most of our quick stay in London. As it turned out, just a little planning went a long way when it came to maximizing our time in the city. It was an unforgettable evening.