If you’ve got a layover at Heathrow, even one of those diabolical short overnight layovers where it’s not economical or practical to get a hotel, consider yourself lucky — it could be Gatwick. Or worse, it could be a train station and you’ll be standing outside waiting for it to open or tramping up and down the banks of the Thames in the rain like you’re being narrated by Tom Waits.
Or you can make the most of it and leverage some of the lesser known overnight pastimes London offers.
It’s hard to work it out from just the name, but this London institution is a gym. The Gym offers four advantages to the layover victim.
1. It’s a gym. Get a workout and get a shower or just get a workout or just a shower or just sit about sipping juice smoothies and discreetly watching the pathologically fit remain that way.
2. It’s everywhere. There are eleven London locations so you can almost certainly get to one, have an early morning workout or ogle or whatever you choose from the above menu while remaining within walking distance of your platform. There’s a The Gym in West Hampstead, convenient to Eurostar. There’s one at Waterloo if you’ve got an early train to Portsmouth or Windsor. They’re in Hounslow literally walking distance from Heathrow airport. They’re opening more locations as we speak.
3 and 4. It’s open 24 hours and offers a £5 one-day membership. I’m not counseling loitering (I’m kind of counseling loitering) but even if you’re not planning on running the risk of getting healthy that’s a pretty good deal for a clean, warm place with showers and fit people.
The Prince Charles Cinema
The Prince Charles is the only repertory cinema in the UK that “does not receive funding from the Arts Council”! And apparently, that’s meaningful!
Whatever it might mean in theory in practice the Prince Charles is a casual, evocative little centrally located cinema that seems to have a mandate to bring cheer to the layover casualty. They’re open 24-hours (or they wouldn’t be on this list) and they do unashamedly low-brow marathons like Alien, Schwarzenegger vs Stallone and Die Hard — and they go on all night long. The only downside to this arrangement is that you’ll likely have to leave in the middle of a feature.
The Prince Charles has a snack bar, of course, in addition to a real bar but anyway it’s located just off Leicester Square in London’s tiny Chinatown so you can cram a pretty intense London experience into a fairly short layover. Note that this is a tiny, 50-seat theatre so if you know about your layover in advance you might want to buy your tickets online.
The cynical might suggest that the recent loosening of the rules governing London casinos are a wholesale money-grab at the expense of those with no self-restraint. To the layover patsy, though, 24-hour opening times and instant registration mean multiple locations throughout London where they can risk their entire vacation budget in exchange for a happy, well-lit, entertaining environment in which to while away the hours until departure.
Unfortunately the rule changes also heralded a new age of wall-to-wall bling and where it was once possible to hang around a casino, watch sports on TV and linger at the bar there’s no more room for that and you’ll either have to play or loiter very cleverly. Entry is free, though, so you could consider money lost on the slot machines a fair price to pay for shelter during your layover or you can try just getting some chips and lingering at the table games disguised as a high-roller biding your time.
There are twenty casinos scattered over London so you’ll probably find something near where you need to be in the morning but the more central you are the easier it’ll be. Don’t forget to have your passport with you and to be at least 18 years old.
What I first said
Having said all that I’d like to give a final endorsement to the first proposal which involved the Thames and the rain and Tom Waits playing in your head — this might still be among the very best ways to spend an overnight layover in London.
Wholly inappropriate image courtesy of Frankfurt Airport “lounge” (Joi Ito) / CC BY 2.0