See also: Where to Stay in London
Chockfull of historical landmarks that loom in antique grandeur, London is an undeniable biography of the United Kingdom’s growth. From the striking Tower of London, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey to the charming street markets, pubs and artistic endeavors, the city takes on the role of an innovator and philosophical creative. Where some districts posture with haughty dignity and others are friendly and humble, London appeals with its multicultural nature. For all its gloomy weather may suggest, the city is more lively than you can imagine – and here are some must-visit sites to as an introduction to local culture:
Wave to Royalty at Buckingham Palace
You are probably familiar with the Buckingham Palace via onscreen celebrations by the Royal family, but why not insert yourself into the picture? Drop by a bit past eleven in the morning to witness the changing of the guards. You can even test their mettle by doing a silly dance in front of them, but only a rare few manage to ruffle those long, feathered hats. Alternatively, help yourself to an art-focused tour of Buckingham Palace’s magnificent collection. You might even be lucky enough to spot Queen Elizabeth peering out from a window.
Admire Big Ben & Houses of Parliament
If there was to be a landmark comparable to Buckingham Palace’s elevated status, the collective Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower have earned the “iconic” title under the name of Big Ben. Originally referring to the massive bell inside the tower, Big Ben has come to mean the clock tower as a whole. Some of the heaviest pieces of functional monuments (the bell weighs over 13,000 kg and the clock’s minute hands 100 kg); its crafts work is detailed in nature, amounting to 312 glass pieces per clock dial! Incredibly stalwartly, the Big Ben has survived bombing raids like a gatekeeper of history. Visit at night to see the four clock faces in illuminated beauty.
Bask in the grand St. Paul’s Cathedral
Cathedrals exude certain poise and weightiness that is universal, and St. Paul’s Cathedral holds the same sway over visitors. A resplendent visage of white stone, pillared layers, capped domes and spired towers, the largely neutral toned interior creates an almost untouchable ambiance. Nevertheless, it is a safe haven for the religious and a historical art collector for others; the Cathedral houses Victorian mosaics, dome murals and more that draws interesting discourse on how art and faith intersects. Books and documents coveted over its thousand year existence are lovingly maintained and (some) open to public.
Westminster Abbey will enrapture you
Having played witness to countless Royal coronations, funerals and weddings since 1066, Westminster Abbey isn’t just another church. Founded in 960AD and further expanded in following centuries, this Gothic structure will feed your architectural dreams for days – solid stonework, intricate carvings and knots, arched pillar ways and motif-embroidered nooks do little to paint a comprehensive picture of its cavernous halls. Cosmati pavements, misericords, oil paintings and stained glass are only part of the art mastery on display. Westminster Abbey is an open place of worship, museum, mausoleum and more, its riches coalescing in elegant harmony.
Travel through time and space at The Royal Observatory
You know the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) we use to figure out time zones? Well, visit the Royal Observatory and stand on the world’s Prime Meridian as the audio guide uncovers the history of this time system. Take in the universe with London’s sole planetarium and journey through space by tracking advancements in astronomy.
Catch a musical at West End
Definitely shimmy up to London’s West End with high expectations, because it guarantees the best of production design, performance and storytelling in dozens of venues. The architectural mix is impressive, running from the neo-classical to Victorian, but the true gems lie with the theatrical experience. Catch stunning performances by talented cast; Les Miserables, Lion King, Wicked and Cats are few classics not to miss! While tickets are pricey, they’re worth every penny.
The hipster neighborhood of Shoreditch
Head East to the heavily industrialized Shoreditch which has grown out of its abandoned factories and trade beginnings into a lively neighborhood that loves art. Creatives have moved into the area, bringing with them vintage stores, unique exhibitions and vibrant street art. While its nostalgic spirit is slowly eroding thanks to the rich people moving into Shoreditch’s prime estate, Princelet Street’s 18th century houses and Old Spitalfields Market retains much of Georgian and Victorian architecture. Village Underground event space is another scene-stealer, regularly hosting performances and exhibitions; The Old Truman Brewery complements with food stalls and street art.
Tower of London & Tower Bridge
A historical castle sitting on the bank of River Thames, the Tower of London is at once a fortress, royal palace and prison. The dazzling Crown Jewels (that’s 23,578 gemstones exactly) may be centerpiece, but torrid stories of treachery and passion are imbedded in these walls. Join a tour for an in-depth exploration of this keep’s past, and meet the guardian ravens. Nearby Tower Bridge is another iconic landmark, where you can walk across the glass floor in a breath-stealing move.
Perusing the British Museum
Dedicated to history, art and culture, the British Museum is a three-time devotee to preserving the riches of the British Empire. With approximately eight million works on display and in the archives, it hosts one of the most prevalent collections sourced throughout the peak of British reign. Where you can expect permanent galleries to exhibit dated artefacts and priceless artworks, the museum also encourages thought through their discursive blog and various events, including screening of international films and themed talks.
Exploring Covent Garden
Beautiful, old-fashioned Covent Garden colors your trip with terrace restaurants, pop-up stores and indoor market, cobbled Piazza and Market Building a nostalgic base under its up-and-coming reputation. From orchard garden to residential square to the fashionable space it is today, Covent Garden has become a strong cultural presence. Street performance originated on its streets, inviting puppeteer shows and casual musicians to keep people entertained between meals and shopping.
Dig in at Maltby Street Market
The delicious smells wafting from the railway underpass comes from Maltby Street Market. Prepare for street food that tastes like fine dining, but pairs well with craft beer and weekend laze. European and African cuisine are served alongside local bites and fusion Chinese food stalls, so you can pick your favorites.
Enter the quirky Neal’s Yard enclave
Turn down a small alley and enter Neal Yard’s picturesque, other-worldly micro-village. Like something out of a fantasy novel, this colorful corner street erupts in warm brick tones, yellow and blue windows, green leaves curling down three-story buildings. Packed tightly together are tiny cafés, cozy coffee shops and eateries, organic products and an eclectic mix of beautifying shops. While not exactly a secret, many miss this charming spot in their rush to explore bigger attractions. If you like the cute and quiet though, this is a not-to-miss area!
Entertainment at its max at Soho district
Get your shades out and cool persona ready because Soho district is the entertainment den. Energy buzzes the streets day and night, exchanging daylight shopping, cute cafés and secondhand bookstores for electrifying clubs and music bars at night. Theatres and classy venues aside, it is also home to the more risqué drinking holes and burlesque shows. It is also an LGBT friendly area with many gay and lesbian bars.
Trafalgar Square: a crossroads of attractions
The linchpin that holds it altogether, Trafalgar Square is one of those spaces you stumble on without prior planning. The Square itself boasts commemorative Nelson’s Column and stately lion statues, but what marks it as prime attraction is its cultural central location. The contemporary Fourth Plinth, purveyor’s utopia National Gallery and Saint Martin-in-the-Fields church toe its borders, with Whitehall and Big Ben in perfect line of sight. Trafalgar Square also coaxes art onto the streets, hosting events and performances all year round, festive spirit peaking with London’s biggest Christmas tree during winter merrymaking.
Shop big at Oxford Street
Locals tend to avoid Oxford Street if they’re not in it for mainstream brands and trending eateries, but tourists inevitably drift towards the easy shopping and dining options. With hundreds of shops including global brands like Victoria’s Secret, Adidas, Forever21, Aldo and other luxury goods, it’s your standard retail space. Or maybe you’re in the area for social media worthy cafés and restaurants instead, indulging in a range of fine dining and afternoon tea spots.
Take the Thames Clipper
Get a unique perspective of London by taking the Thames Clipper; a ferry that crosses the river. Taking a boat in itself might not be the most thrilling thing to do, but depending on your route, you’ll go past various London highlights! A cheaper mode of transport that you can pay for with your Oyster card, the Thames Clipper is definitely a to-do experience at least once.
Spend hours at the Museum of London
Nary a museum like this one! Tracing back London’s history from prehistoric times to the present, the Museum of London presents a deep dive into the city’s pivotal moments and general timeline. Permanent galleries determine a ‘London before London’ before moving on to tell of the harrowing plagues and wars, and how recent years have shaped this world city. Various summer programs, temporary exhibits and creative events cater to crowds of all ages, making history interactive and fun. It is also free, which is always a bonus!
Relax within Hyde Park
Hunting grounds turned Royal Park, Hyde Park is one of the largest green spaces in central London at 350-acres wide. You can expect the usual lawns, walking and jogging paths and plethora of plantation. Boat or swim in the Serpentine, or cool down your feet at the Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. Making use of its scale, tennis courts and horse riding facilities are also available for more active visitors; those looking to relax can settle down at the waterside café. More notably, interact with the local community by attending the Speaker’s Corner on Sunday mornings, where people share their stories and lead thought-provoking sessions on life issues.
Scrutinize the Sherlock Holmes Museum
Diehard Sherlock Holmes fans will love this small-scale museum. Set in a 19th century Victorian house with matching décor, it replicates Sherlock and Watson’s living quarters as well as the set-up of specific cases. Whether you’re an avid follower of this eccentric detective through the original novels or BBC’s series, it is a quick but fun detour to fill up any gaps in your itinerary.
Take in the crowds of Piccadilly Circus
While not literally a circus, Piccadilly Circus is nonetheless a spectacle that has featured in various travel guides. Why? It’s a road junction blazing with neon signs, passing double-decker buses and throngs of people splitting off in five directions. It is crazy, colorful and exceedingly regular city behavior. Snap a proof shot with the winged angel statue or Piccadilly Lights, a series of stacked advertisement screens. Strike out towards West End for a musical or Trafalgar Square’s galleries. There is nowhere more “heart of London” than this busy junction.
Walk along Notting Hill’s Portobello Road
Whether you’ve watched the movie of the same name or not, Notting Hill’s shabby chic image is one for the cameras. Low-level buildings, brick exteriors and colorful façades set the theme for this area, and especially so along Portobello Road. On Saturdays, this street comes alive as the world’s largest antiques market where the weekday offers fashion, fruits and veggies. People flood in to hustle and haggle on specialty and thrift items, as well as fresh produce.
Boutique shopping at Seven Dials
Hemmed in by Convent Garden and Soho is the aptly named Seven Dials; seven atmospheric streets converging to present London’s top shopping destination. A mix of international labels, independent boutiques, beauty stores that cater to both genders and local up-and-coming brands, Seven Dials is shoppers’ heaven. The multitude of traditional pubs, snazzy cafés and fancy cocktail bars offer plenty of spaces to rest your feet and fuel for more shopping. Variety is the running theme and it’s obvious. Come Christmas, fairy lights are strung up to give the space a magical vibe.
Visit the London Zoo (Regents Park + Primrose Hill)
Follow up your Lion King musical night with a visit to the London Zoo; visit the real-life compatriots of the classic animation. Or, simply spend some time drifting around Regents Park and amuse yourself by watching amateur cricket competitions. Picnics are very much done in this city – prep a basket (or plastic bags) full of your favorite sandwiches, cakes and a tumbler of hot tea and perch atop Primrose Hill for stunning London views.
Historic tour of Southwark
There is plenty to see in Southwark and no better way to explore by walking. Start around London Bridge and walk under a railway bridge towards Southwark Cathedral. Keeping to the route, you’ll come across a 1577 ship replica, the ruins of Winchester Palace at an old dockyard, and skim along the water to reach Tate Modern. History has left its mark for you to appreciate.
Touring the National History Museum
A stunning façade and equally jaw-dropping interior that takes inspiration from cathedrals and castles alone make the National History Museum irresistible. Wait until you delve into the museum’s collections and stories of Earth and life; learn about dinosaurs via a Jurassic dig, or ponder on the mysterious effects of the moon on Earth. Discover British wildlife and how human development has affected ecology. Your questions about this planet will all be answered.
Explore around Camden Canal
Camden is relatively more residential but not without its delights! Extending out around Regent’s Canal is a labyrinth of street markets and boutique stores. Where Camden Market focuses on fashion, Lock Market and Lock Village expand to used books, jewelry and unusual items. The varied eateries and street vendors are another local draw, offering anything from Italian treats to pan-Asian cuisine. What Camden is really known for however, is its live music scene. Majority of the bars may tend towards jazz and blues, but some big bands have emerged from these humble (if legendary) venues.
Appreciate nature with Kew Gardens
With 120 hectares of land dedicated to over 30,000 plant life species, it is no wonder Kew Gardens is further out from central London. Still, you have to visit this World Heritage Site – it is one of the world’s most vital botanical garden. Between the artsy mass of the Hive, the glass and iron 1800s greenhouse and conservatory, the excellent Treetop Walkway and stunning Japanese Garden alone, you’ll never want to leave this cultivated nature post. Be spontaneous with your wandering as it’ll surprise you at every turn; Kew Gardens seem to have everything.
Awe-inspiring art at National Gallery
Another grand landmark, the National Gallery lines one side of Trafalgar Square in its 1800s glory. Hung up on burnished red walls are paintings from mid-13th century to early 20th century, over 2,300 works by famous artists such as Velázquez, Van Gogh, van Eyck and Michelangelo. Temporary exhibits range from Spanish renaissance works to contemporary photography, all carefully selected in complement to each other.
Vintage shopping and street art at Brick Lane
Shoreditch’s Brick Lane deserves its own mention as the epicenter of vintage shopping and street art. Sundays are special fun days, a pop-up food market featuring international cuisine, thrift clothing and live music. Be sure to spend some time at Sunday Upmarket and Backlane Market. While you’re wandering about, vibrant pieces of street art will jump out at you – and you’ll inevitably start hunting them down. For a more productive street art hunt, join a tour and learn more about the artists behind some of East London’s most iconic artwork.
Alight the London Eye
Whether you just want to look up from its base or take a turn on this 135-meter high Ferris wheel, the London Eye is an icon. Thanks to its slow turn, you’re gifted a glorious 360 degrees view of the city; thirty glorious minutes of photo taking opportunity. It is fairly romantic if you’re travelling with a partner for some celebratory event, but do buy tickets online to skip the long lines.
Tour the Wembley Stadium
Wembley Stadium is much loved as the home of English football, headquartering the national football team and host of the FA Cup Final, The Football League Cup Final, The Rugby League Challenge Cup Final and more. Over 2 million visitors flood its premises every year for both sporting and music events. Tours are available for the curious, bringing you backstage to the Dressing Rooms, the Press Conference Room, Players’ tunnel and Royal Box. You can even go down pitch side and feel for yourself just how massive the venue is.
Uncover Harry Potter secrets
Wrap up with a magical hunt for Harry Potter spots around the city. You might not be magical enough to cross through the entrance to Platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross Station, but you can definitely snap a shot of yourself pushing the trolley. Join a walking tour to film locations or step up your game with a Warner Bros Studio Tour for some behind-the-scenes insight. Immerse yourself on the set of Diagon Alley then hop on board Hogwarts Express! What better journey than one through the books?