Huge, fast-paced, and jam-packed with activities and attractions, the sheer variety of things to see and do in London can feel slightly overwhelming at times, especially for first-time visitors. Fortunately, help in on hand. Whether you prefer strolling through leafy parks, taking in some culture at a first-rate museum, or getting up close and personal with the animals at one of the world’s finest zoos, you’ll find no shortage of outstanding activities and experiences on our round-up of the 20 best things to do in London.
20. Enjoy a pint at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
If you’re going to London, it would be remiss of you not to visit at least a few of its iconic pubs. If you can only squeeze in one, make it Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Tucked away in a narrow alley off Fleet St., the pub was once the stomping ground of the likes of Thackeray, Dickens and Dr. Johnson – these days, the legendary figures may have been replaced by a more contemporary clientele, but its dark, intimate surrounds, rickety floorboards, warming fireboards, and low beamed ceiling will instantly transport you back in time.
19. Take a ride on the London Eye
As Ferris Wheel’s go, you’ll struggle to find one better than the iconic London Eye. Tickets cost upwards of £27 depending on the type you select; once you’ve paid your money, take a seat, set your camera to go, and get ready for a truly astonishing, birds-eye view of the surrounding city. Just one word of warning: at 400 feet tall, the Eye is no place for those with a fear of heights.
18. Discover St Paul’s Cathedral
While Westminster Abbey is arguably London’s best known (and impressive) church, St Paul’s Cathedral comes in a close second. Its majestic dome will take your breath away, while the far-reaching views over the London skyscape offered from the top of the Golden Gallery will do the same (that is, if you have any left to lose after hiking the 528 steps it takes to get there). Once you’ve finished your tour, wrap up your visit with a bite to eat at the excellent café tucked away in the crypt.
17. Take a tour of the Houses of Parliament
Regardless of whether you opt for a guided or self -guided tour, the sprawling Houses of Parliament won’t disappoint. As you wind your way through the Westminster Hall, the House of Commons Chamber and the Royal Gallery, you’ll be struck by the stunning architecture, beautiful detail, and all-pervading sense of history. If you want to record your visit for prosperity, wander over to Westminster Bridge, which offers some of the most Instagram worthy views in London.
16. Down a cuppa at Claridge’s
If you’re visiting the capital of tea-loving Britain, you should fit in at least one afternoon tea while you’re there. For a true treat, head to Claridge’s for some truly sublime sandwiches, scones, and patisseries (not to mention an extensive selection of teas). The terrace at The Goring or the regal Orangery are equally superb places to enjoy a teatime treat, while the Mad Hatter’s Tea at the Sanderson is a quirky, but no less enjoyable, alternative.
15. Discover the Natural History Museum
With more than 70 million specimens and exhibits, the Natural History Museum has more than enough to keep you entertained for an entire day. Its exhibit of a simulated earthquake would be the standout in most museums, but here, it has to compete with some serious competition from the likes of the Museum of the Moon, Orbit: A Journey Around Earth in Real-Time, and Palaeoart - Reconstructing the Past. As the museum does switch up its exhibits from time to time, download the app to better plan your visit.
14. Take in the exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Those looking to explore London on a budget are in luck. One of its best museums, the Victoria and Albert Museum (sometimes referred to simply as V&A) offers visitors the chance to experience its mammoth collection completely free of charge. As well as its permanent collections showcasing architecture, textiles, furniture, drawings, and jewelry from numerous time periods and countries, the museum also hosts an ever-evolving series of temporary collections – check out their website beforehand to plan your itinerary properly.
13. Browse the stalls at Camden Market
Whether you want vintage t-shirts, designer bags, rare vinyl, or rare breed lamb, the ever- vibrant, enduringly-popular Camden Market is where you’ll find it. Packed with over 200 vendors selling every type of consumer good you could conceive of, the market is as big a hit with locals as it is with tourists (who no doubt enjoy the uniquely British sight of the hippest of hipsters rubbing shoulders with tweed-wearing pensioners). Cool, fun, and located within striking distance of the beautiful Regent's Park and Primrose Hill, it’s a great place to while away a morning.
12. Step back into the past at the Churchill War Rooms
London is rich in historical detail, nowhere more so than the Churchill War Rooms. The labyrinth-like corridors of the underground bunker used by Winston Churchill and his cabinet during the bombing raids of the Second World War give a detailed insight into the story of the period, while the rich array of exhibits is thought-provoking and detailed. Given the popularity of the site, queues can be lengthy: aim to visit as early in the day as possible to avoid the worst of them.
11. Browse the art at the Tate Modern
For those with a taste for modern art, the Tate Modern is a must-visit. As well as its huge collection of pieces from British artists, it also showcases some of the finest work from international artists like Dali and Picasso (although given that pieces are grouped by theme rather than artist, you may have to do a little digging to find them). For a deeper insight into the works, be sure to download the Tate App to your smartphone before you visit.
10. Take a snap at Tower Bridge
If you’re into architecture, you’ll not want to miss Tower Bridge. Built in 1886, the bridge is fairly modern in comparison to the city’s other architectural wonders, but it still manages to be full of historical detail. If the sight of its movable roadways lifting to let a ship pass through isn’t impressive enough, the breathtaking views it offers of the Tower of London, St. Paul's Cathedral, and The Shard surely are.
9. Catch a show in the West End
The UK equivalent of Broadway is THE place to go to catch a show. The quality of the productions is never short of first-rate, while the seemingly infinite variety of new and classic shows means you’ll never be short of options. The atmosphere, meanwhile, is worth the visit alone… as, obviously, is the chance to run into one of the many famous faces that frequent the district
8. Visit the National Gallery
When we say London's National Gallery is huge, don’t take it for hyperbole. The cavernous building is so vast, visitors are equipped with a color-coded map to make sure they don’t get lost forever in the labyrinth-like corridors. While getting to the grips with the layout can be a challenge, it’s more than worth the effort – as home to such world-famous pieces as Botticelli's "Venus and Mars" and Van Gogh's "Sunflowers”, the museum’s 2,300 in-house pieces are some of the finest you’ll find anywhere. Just remember to wear comfortable shoes to survive all the walking you’ll need to do to see them.
7. Take a stroll in Hyde Park
If the hustle and bustle of the UK’s biggest city is starting to give you a headache, beat a hasty retreat to the superbly tranquil Hyde Park. What was once the stomping grounds of King Henry VIII is now the city’s premier destination for those looking to enjoy a relaxing day in nature. As well as simply being a great place for a quiet stroll, the Park (which stretches outwards into the equally beautiful Kensington Gardens) is full of attractions and activities to keep you amused: ride a boat along the Serpentine Lake, take a moment at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, or see who’s rallying the crowds at Speakers' Corner.
6. Enjoy the lights of Piccadilly Circus
The UK equivalent of Time’s Square is as lively, vibrant a place as you could imagine. Lying right at the heart of the action, Piccadilly Circus is 24/7, 365 days a year, entertainment heaven. Offering easy access to the delights of the West End and Oxford street, the range of restaurants, shops and nightlife spots on offer is unparalleled. Visit during the night to see the stunning sight of age-old buildings lit up in neon glory.
5. Visit Westminster Abbey
Anyone who’s ever watched a televised royal wedding and dreamt of visiting the setting shouldn’t miss Westminster Abbey. The medieval church has born witness to hundreds of regal ceremonies over the years, as well as become the final resting place for such lauded figures as Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling, along with half-sisters, Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor. To really get the most of the experience, take the 90-minute Verger-led tour to visit the Shrine (which houses the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor), the Royal Tombs, Poets' Corner, the Cloisters and the Nave.
4. Buy a souvenir at Portobello Road Market
London is teeming with markets, but of all of them, Portobello Road Market reigns supreme. With more than 1000+ vendors selling everything from antiques and art to clothing and food, you’ll be spoilt for choice. If you can, skip breakfast before you visit: the range of street food options is divine (as too, are the offerings of the many restaurants lining the market).
3. Visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace
While going to London doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get to see the Queen, it does at least mean you get to visit her official residence. The world-famous Buckingham Palace is one of London’s architectural highlights, while its stunning grounds are more than worthy of its regal occupant. For a real insider’s look into the rich cultural and historical significance of the palace, take a tour of the 19 State Rooms – their rich opulence and array of exquisite artworks is breathtaking. If you can, time your visit to coincide with the Changing of the Guards, which takes place daily at 11 a.m. from April until late July, and every other day for the rest of the year.
2. Admire the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London
If you can stand the tourists, a visit to the historic Tower of London should be on every visitor’s itinerary. While the exterior may be slightly unimpressive, the interior is anything but. The crown jewels exhibition is usually top of everyone’s agenda, but the equally fascinating, 350-year-old exhibition "Line of Kings" in the White Tower is just as worthy of your attention. While you’re free to take a self-guided tour, it’s well worth signing up for the entertaining (and free) Yeoman Warders tour to make sure you don’t miss anything you shouldn’t.
1. View the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum
Few museums in the world can rival the architectural majesty of the British Museum. Fewer still can match the scale or quality of its antiquities collection, which includes everything from the Rosetta Stone to the Elgin Marbles and Lindow Man. So numerous are its exhibits that travelers rarely feel satisfied with just the one visit: however, if just the one is all you can spare, make sure to catch all the highlights by taking a guided tour (most of which, like the admission, are free).
Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson