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 six suggestions for things to do near Heathrow Airport during a layover, and ideas for what to do should you choose to venture into central London for a few hours or an overnight stay:
Update: September 2020
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, additional requirements and guidelines have been introduced at Heathrow Airport. These include social distancing (1.5 meters), especially in a queue, and wearing a face mask. Depending on your country of origin, you may only enter the UK under certain conditions such as a recent negative PCR test result. You may also be required to quarantine. Please visit the airport’s website for more info.
1. Grab a pint in Denham or at Britain’s oldest pub
You’ll need a minicab for this trip, but it’s a simple journey along the M25 (about 15 minutes). Denham (map) 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 (map). The Royal Standard of England is perhaps the best pub near Heathrow Airport for a pint amidst a unique historical ambiance. The 30-minute drive from Heathrow feels like a voyage into ancient England, and this 800-year-old pub (arguably Britain’s oldest 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.
2. Visit a village along the River Thames
There are several picturesque villages situated on the banks of the River Thames, and within 30 minutes by minicab to Heathrow, that are well worth a visit to stretch your legs, grab a quick bite and take some pretty snapshots. The closest village I can recommend is Datchet (map), roughly 15 minutes by minicab from Heathrow. Other villages I can recommend are Marlow (map) and Bray (map), home of two of the best restaurants in the UK (The Fat Duck and The Hind’s Head). Both villages are approximately 30 minutes by taxi from Heathrow Airport. In Marlow, I can recommend staying overnight (if your overlay permits) or having a delicious meal at the MacDonald Compleat Angler, a 4* star hotel with two restaurants and lovely views of the River Thames.
3. Experience 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.
4. Wander around Windsor and Eton
Windsor Castle is linked to Heathrow by the 71 or 77 bus from Terminal 5 (±45 minutes by bus or 20 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 across 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).
5. Take your kids to Legoland UK
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.
6. Visit Hampton Court Palace
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.
Should I go sightseeing during a layover at Heathrow Airport?
If you’re considering leaving Heathrow Airport for some sightseeing during a layover, please check if you meet the following requirements:
- your layover is at least FOUR hours long
- your bag is checked through to your final destination or you’re travelling with hand-luggage only, and you have your boarding pass for your next flight. If this is not the case, you’ll need a layover of at least 5 hours for a bit of sightseeing activity
- you have a visa or can confirm that you don’t need a visa to enter the United Kingdom. Read the ‘Visas’ section below for more information
- you can be back at the airport at least 1.5 hours before your next flight; or at least 2 hours if you need to check-in for your next flight.
Should I 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 at least 1.5 hours before your flight (2 hours if you need to check-in for your next 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. If you have a short overnight layover (> 20 hours) but choose to stay in central London, 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 1.5 hours before your flight.
Read my guide to Westminster Abbey
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).
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A post by Andrea Kirkby and Keith Jenkins.