London is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, attracting upward of 15 million visitors each and every year. Britain’s capital city is a vibrant arts and entertainment center (its theaters are always busy), and 50 years after the Beatles, the country’s music scene still rocks.
London also boasts one of the planet’s greatest concentrations of cultural attractions. From royal palaces to the people’s parliament, from Roman ruins to castles and cathedrals, you could spend endless days exploring London’s sites without ever running out of unique things to see and do.
1. The Tower of London and Tower Bridge
From prison to palace, treasure vault to private zoo, the magnificent Tower of London has fulfilled many different roles down the centuries. One of Britain’s most iconic structures, this spectacular World Heritage Site offers hours of fascination for visitors curious about the country’s rich history – after all, so much of it happened here. Inside the massive White Tower, built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, is the 17th-century Line of Kings with its remarkable displays of royal armaments and armor. Other highlights include the famous Crown Jewels exhibition, the Beefeaters, the Royal Mint, and gruesome exhibits about the executions that took place on the grounds. The adjacent Tower Bridge, its two huge towers rising 61 meters above the River Thames, is one of London’s best-known landmarks.
For the best use of your time, especially during the busy summer season, purchase the Tower of London Entrance Ticket Including Crown Jewels and Beefeater Tour in advance, to bypass the ticket office lines. This ticket guarantees the lowest price, helps avoid the crowds, and saves time and hassle.
2. Hyde Park
Covering 350 acres, Hyde Park is London’s largest open space and has been a destination for sightseers since 1635. One of the park’s highlights is the Serpentine, an 18th century man-made lake popular for boating and swimming. Hyde Park is also where you’ll find Speakers’ Corner, a traditional forum for free speech (and heckling). Another Hyde Park landmark is Apsley House, former home of the first Duke of Wellington and purchased after his famous victory at Waterloo. Now a museum, it houses Wellington’s magnificent collections of paintings, including Velázquez’s Waterseller of Seville, along with gifts presented by grateful European kings and emperors. England’s greatest hero is also commemorated at the Wellington Arch.
3. Buckingham Palace
One of Britain’s most iconic buildings, Buckingham Palace is also the scene of London’s most popular display of pomp and circumstance, the Changing of the Guard. Drawing crowds at 11:30am in every season, this colorful and free display of precision marching and music also takes place at St James’s Palace where you can follow the band along The Mall as they march between sites.
Buckingham Palace was built in 1837 and has been the London residence of the Royal Family since Queen Victoria’s accession. If you’re wondering whether the Queen is in, look at the flagpole atop the building: if the royal standard is flying day and night, she’s at home. On special state occasions, she and members of the Royal Family may even emerge on the central balcony.
When she’s away at her summer palace in Scotland, visitors can purchase tickets for tours of the State Rooms, the Queen’s Gallery and the Royal Mews. One of the best ways to tour the palace, see the Changing of the Guard, and experience a traditional afternoon tea, is on a 4.5 hour Buckingham Palace Tour Including Changing of the Guard Ceremony and Afternoon Tea. This tour is a very efficient way of seeing the highlights in a short period of time, and having a knowledgeable guide to explain the history makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable and relevant for first time visitors.
4. The London Eye
Built to mark London’s millennium celebrations in 2000, the London Eye is Europe’s largest observation wheel. Its individual glass capsules offer the most spectacular views of the city as you embark on a circular tour rising 443 ft above the Thames. The journey lasts 30-minutes, often quicker than the time spent queuing for your turn. If you can, reserve your time in advance. The best option is to skip the line completely with a London Eye: Skip-the-Line Ticket. This advance ticket allows you to take a flight at any time on the day you plan to visit.
5. The Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum (aka the V&A) is part of a South Kensington-based group of museums that includes the Natural History Museum and Science Museum. Founded in 1852, the V&A covers close to 13 acres and contains 145 galleries spanning some 5,000 years of art and related artifacts. Exhibits include ceramics and glass, textiles and costumes, silver and jewelry, ironwork, sculpture, prints and photos.
6. St Paul’s Cathedral
The largest and most famous of London’s many churches – and undoubtedly one of the most spectacular cathedral’s in the world – St Paul’s Cathedral sits atop the site of a Roman temple. The previous church structure was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and Sir Christopher Wren designed the re-build. Today, the twin Baroque towers and magnificent 365 ft dome of St Paul’s are a masterpiece of English architecture. If you’re up to it, be sure to walk the stairs with their spectacular views of the dome’s interior, including the Whispering Gallery.
7. Covent Garden
The market halls of Covent Garden are only the beginning of the neighborhood, which encompasses the shops and restaurants of Long Acre and other adjacent streets, those of Neal’s Yard and Seven Dials, as well as the Central Square with its street performers. The halls and arcades of Covent Garden Market are lined with specialty shops and kiosks selling everything from fine handcrafts to tacky souvenirs. Housed in the former flower market, you’ll find the London Transport Museum, filled with historic buses, trolleys, and trams. This area is also where you’ll find the Royal Opera House.
8. Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square
Two of London’s best-known tourist spots, these famous squares lie not far apart and mark the gateways to Soho, London’s lively theater and entertainment district. Trafalgar Square was built to commemorate Lord Horatio Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson’s Column, a 56-meter granite monument, overlooks the square’s fountains and bronze reliefs, which were cast from French cannons. Admiralty Arch, St Martin-in-the-Fields, and the National Gallery surround the square. Piccadilly Circus marks the irregular intersection of several busy streets – Piccadilly, Regent, Haymarket, and Shaftesbury Avenue – and overlooking this somewhat untidy snarl of traffic stands London’s best-known sculpture, the winged Eros delicately balanced on one foot, bow poised. “It’s like Piccadilly Circus” is a common expression describing a busy and confusing scene.
9. Kew Gardens
Officially called the Royal Botanic Gardens – is situated in southwest London on the south bank of the Thames and is a wonderful place to spend time as you enjoy the numerous plants grown amidst its 300-acres. Laid out in 1759, the gardens became government property in 1841. In 1897 Queen Victoria added Queen’s Cottage and the adjoining woodland. A variety of tours are available free with admission, and many musical and cultural events are held here throughout the year.
10. National Gallery
Ranking among the top art museums in the world, London’s National Gallery represents an almost complete survey of European painting from 1260 until 1920. The museum’s greatest strengths are in its collections of Dutch Masters and Italian Schools of the 15th and 16th centuries. Among its highlights are a cartoon (preliminary sketch) of the Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo’s The Entombment, Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and The Waterlily Pond by Monet.