London Heathrow Airport isn’t much of a tourist sight unless you’re fascinated by airplanes. Yet it is one of the world’s busiest international airports so chances are many of us will end up going there at some stage and some will need to while away a few hours or even longer.
Most people who stay in a Heathrow airport hotel treat it as a pure overnighter – just a place to eat and sleep. But there are in fact several fascinating places within easy travelling distance of the airport which are well worth a visit. Here are five suggestions:
1. Village life in Denham and Stoke Poges. You’ll need a car (or minicab) for this trip, but if you have one it’s a simple journey along the M25 (about 15 minutes). Denham is a picturesque village with a number of wonderful traditional pubs; visit The Swan for a taste of the local Rebellion Brewery’s ale. The village’s single street is flanked by fine Georgian brick and older half-timbered houses; a walk across the golf club is a pleasant way to work up an appetite.
If you really want to find a traditional gem of a pub though, you’ll have to take to the winding, steep green lanes that lead to the Royal Standard of England near Beaconsfield.
The drive itself feels like a voyage into ancient England, and the pub seems hardly to have changed since the Tudor age, with low ceilings and panelled walls. There’s a wide selection of beers from craft breweries as well as ciders and perries, and good food – but turn up early, as the pub quickly gets crowded.
A little further away, Stoke Poges has a charming flint-built church, and it was probably in the churchyard here that the poet Thomas Gray wrote the famous Elegy in a country churchyard; he is buried here, and there is a fine classical monument outside the church. The church also contains one amazing oddity – the ‘bicycle window’ of 1634 which appears to show a naked trumpet-playing angel riding a Renaissance bike!
2. Little India in Southall. Fancy a taste of Indian culture? No need to fly to Mumbai! A completely different experience is within easy reach of Heathrow (the train route is slightly convoluted on the Piccadilly line and overground but it’s only a short 15-minute minicab ride away) in Southall with its vibrant Indian culture. Shop for saris or fabric in the covered shopping arcades, or visit Jas Musicals to buy a bansuri (flute) or to gaze at sitars and tablas.
For food, you could go for a curry and you’ll find plenty of choice in Southall – but there’s so much more to Indian food. Buy a crisp, freshly-fried samosa on the street, or Indian sweeties like barfi (fudge) or rasgulla (sweet dumplings).
You’re also welcome to visit the Sikh gurdwara in Havelock Road – said to be the largest Sikh temple outside India.
3. Windsor Castle is linked to Heathrow by the 71 or 77 bus from Terminal 5 (±45 minutes by bus or 15 minutes by minicab). It was founded by William the Conqueror and still retains some of the original Norman work, though it’s been much added to over the centuries. It’s still a working royal palace, too, where the ceremonies of the Order of the Garter take place in the fine Perpendicular chapel of St George. The castle was also the venue of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018.
Even if you don’t feel in the mood for castle visiting, if the weather’s fine you can take a walk in Windsor Great Park with its majestic avenues of chestnut and plane trees and views of the castle across the landscape.
The 60/61 bus on the other hand will take you to Eton College, Britain’s top public school and the other side of the river from Windsor. Guided tours of the college show the Chapel, a sort of miniature King’s College Chapel with its tall Gothic windows, and late medieval wall paintings which, preserved by being whitewashed over at the Reformation, are surprisingly clear though not at all colourful (they are mainly in monochrome grisaille).
4. Legoland UK is not far from Windsor at all, and there’s a shuttle bus from Windsor railway station, or you could drive the 12 miles from Heathrow (±20 minutes by minicab). What is there to say about Lego? You either love it or hate it – but if you love it (or your children do) Legoland could be a great way of using up a spare day at the end of your holiday or spending a few pleasant hours between connections.
5. Hampton Court Palace is one of my favourite places in the UK. It has everything: Tudor red brick architecture with medieval charm; intricate zig-zag spiral chimneys; Christopher Wren’s classical architecture; a maze; formal gardens; rich tapestries, great paintings, bright stained glass; the Thames running not far away. You can even get a bus from Heathrow, number 111 (± 1 hour) – though there is also an alternative, delightful opportunity of taking a riverboat to the palace if you are coming in from central London. Get fast track tickets for Hampton Court Palace.
Venture into Central London
If you have sufficient time (layovers of six hours and longer) for a visit to Central London, I recommend taking the Heathrow Express train which gets you to Paddington Station in 15 minutes. Choose from a wide range of tours in Central London, purchase a ticket for the Hop-on, Hop-off Bus (which includes a Thames River cruise) or explore this amazing city on your own with a London Pass. Alternatively, you can opt for a private transfer – the driver will greet you at Arrivals and drop you off at your address in Central London. Make sure you’re back at Heathrow Airport about two hours before your flight!
Check out my travel planning resources page for travel tips and advice.
Overnight layovers in London
If you have an overnight layover, you could:
- book a hotel in the vicinity of Heathrow Airport
- book a hotel in Central London. I would only recommend this option if you have time to see a bit of the city as well, for instance, if your layover is more than 20 hours. In this case, I recommend booking a hotel in the vicinity of Paddington Station. Travel to/from Paddington Station in Central London on the Heathrow Express train (a 15-minute journey). If it’s your first visit to London and you have limited time, I recommend booking a tour on the Hop-on, Hop-off Bus (which includes a Thames River cruise). You should be back at Heathrow Airport at least two hours before your flight.
If you have a non-EU passport, have connecting flights at London Heathrow Airport and would like to see some of these places during your layover, please check for visa requirements to enter the United Kingdom. US citizens who have a valid passport are not required to obtain a visa for a tourist visit to the United Kingdom (stay of up to six months). Should you require a visa, you can apply for an online visa (iVisa.com).
A post by Andrea Kirkby and Keith Jenkins.