A sprawling collection of diverse neighborhoods forever shifting, evolving and springing surprises where you least expect them, London is a true world city that can feel exhilaratingly expansive one minute and reassuringly local the next.
The old Samuel Johnson quote ‘Tired of London, tired of life’ is well worn but never has a truer word been spoken about a city whose collection of bars, restaurants, clubs, museums, parks, theaters and boutiques could keep you indefinitely entertained.
Like life, London moves pretty fast and today’s hot spot can be tomorrow’s news but the blockbuster sights of royal palaces, historic landmarks, parks and museums will always be ready and waiting. And then there are London’s under-the-radar sights to explore. Whether off the beaten path or hiding in plain sight, the likes of hip East London galleries and a Victorian cemetery serving outstanding gothic beauty are a must. You want to know where to go, what to see and what to do? Let us be your guide and look no further than our list of the ultimate things to do in London. Oh, and when it’s time to sleep we’ve got you covered with London’s best hotels.
Related: The Best Museums in London
Climb the Tower of London
With a gory 950-year history of beheadings, imprisonments, and torture, England’s most perfect medieval fortress and home of the Crown Jewels is shrouded in myth and legend. Established in 1078 by William the Conqueror, the Tower of London comprises 22 ancient towers in a fortified 18-acre site. It has been a palace, prison, and place of execution and has housed the Royal Armouries, the Royal Mint, and the Royal Menagerie. It’s still the only place you can see the 23,587 gemstones and full Coronation Regalia of the Royal Collection, including 10 dazzling crowns.
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Hang with Royals at Buckingham Palace
The official residence of the British monarch is opulently furnished with priceless tapestries, artwork, and marble and gilt galore. Once the private mansion of the Duke of Buckingham, it was transformed into a splendid palace by George IV. Enjoy short tours of Buckingham Palace’s 19 State Rooms while the Royal Family is away on their summer break; experience the fairytale Grand Staircase and take in jaw-dropping architectural details in the monumental Grand Hall and Throne Room. The Picture Gallery contains a collection of Old Master paintings, and be sure to stroll through the 39-acre landscaped Gardens, the largest private garden in the city. The daily Changing of the Guard occurs in front of the palace and while crowds can be large, it remains London’s best free show.
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Explore Medieval History at Westminster Abbey
A triumph of early English Gothic architecture and the site of all but two royal coronations since 1066, Westminster Abbey is steeped in English history, from the solemn tombs of medieval kings and queens to the grand monuments built in honor of nobles, statesmen, and poets. Glory in the massive flying buttresses, the soaring 102-foot nave, and the early Tudor fan-vaulted ceiling in the Henry VII Lady Chapel before pausing at the grave of the Unknown Warrior, a memorial to those lost during the World Wars.
Discover St. Paul's Cathedral
With the second largest cathedral dome in the world, St. Paul’s is a towering masterpiece of English Baroque design, both inside and out. Head straight down the nave for the great space below the center of the dome, where the huge proportions and ceiling vault mosaics are especially impressive. Look for the exquisitely carved limewood Quire screens and choir stalls, before climbing the 259 steps to the Whispering Gallery, where the acoustics enable whispers to echo around the dome.
Explore the British Museum
It would take a lifetime to do justice to the extraordinary collection (spanning 8 million artifacts from over 2 million years) at this museum, Britain’s most visited tourist attraction. The key is to be selective and head for blockbusters like the ancient Egyptian bust of pharaoh Ramesses II and the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. Then enjoy more niche exhibits like Lindow Man, the preserved remains of an ancient Anglo-Saxon who was bludgeoned, garroted, and dumped in a peat bog or the epic Sutton Hoo ship burial hoard of swords, helmets, and treasure, which may have belonged to Raedwald, king of East Anglia in the 7th century.
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See a Play at Shakespeare's Globe
A modern re-creation of the original Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe was built in 1997 just yards from its Elizabethan-era location. Built using materials faithful to the 1599 theater (including goat’s hair, lime putty, and water reed thatching), theatergoers can sit or stand for often raucous, open-air performances of the Bard’s plays between April and October. Tours and an exhibition are available year-round, as are magical candlelit performances in the indoor Sam Wannamaker Playhouse.
Stroll the Galleries at Tate Modern
A must-visit for global art lovers, the Tate Modern wows with its extensive collection of constantly rotating modern art. Split between the monumental seven-level, red brick Boiler House building and the sleek Blavatnik Building extension, you might find epic Ai Weiwei or Doris Salcedo installations in the cavernous Turbine Hall or sold-out special exhibitions focusing on Matisse, Miró, or Frida Kahlo. Arranged thematically, the 60,000-strong permanent collection is in constant rotation, so it’s impossible to plan if you’ll find a specific Pollock or Picasso on any given day (but that’s just part of the fun).
Take a Walk Through Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens
London is famous for its impressive Royal Parks, and the contiguous Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are perfect for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city. The slightly wilder and more rambling 350-acre Hyde Park was once Henry VIII’s deer hunting grounds and a venue for aristocratic duels, promenades, and military reviews. Today you can walk to the Serpentine lake where you can swim or take a spin in a paddleboat before checking out contemporary art at the Serpentine Gallery. Then head west to the more manicured Kensington Gardens, where you’ll find the bronze statue of Peter Pan, the Round Pond, and William III and Mary II’s majestic 17th century Kensington Palace—now home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Explore Hampton Court Palace
One of Britain’s grandest royal palaces, Hampton Court contains some of the finest Tudor architecture in the world and is imbued with an overwhelming sense of history. Highlights include the vast hammerbeam Great Hall, the Tudor kitchens, and the sumptuous royal apartments and ornamental gardens, complete with a 300-year-old trapezoidal maze. Given to Henry VIII in 1528, it became the king’s favorite hunting lodge and pleasure palace. Crammed with gold encrusted tapestries, royal arms, and heraldic badges, don’t miss the Great Kitchens and Wine Cellar, the Haunted Gallery, Chapel Royal, or the crimson four-poster in the King’s Great Bed Chamber.
See World Famous Art at the National Gallery
Since its opening in 1824, Britain’s greatest art collection at the National Gallery has grown to feature over 2,300 of the world’s masterpieces, including works from van Eyck, Holbein, Turner, and Van Gogh. Start with an audio guide at the quieter Sainsbury’s Wing for early Renaissance masters such as Bellini and Uccello (especially his giant The Battle of San Romano) before admiring beauties by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Titian, and Raphael. Classic English masterpieces—such as Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews landscape portrait—are particularly sublime.
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Take a Break for Afternoon Tea
The tradition of taking afternoon tea began in England in the 1840s, and this quintessential English ritual has now become the height of fashion once again. Starting around 4 pm each day, the affair begins with a silver pot of loose-leaf tea served in bone china alongside a three-tiered silver cake stand laden with finger sandwiches, fruit scones, and cakes; champagne and cocktails may also jolly up the occasion. Hit the old grande-dames hotels like the Ritz, Claridge’s,or the Savoy for the full experience, although many less posh hotels also offer a more affordable afternoon tea menu.
Related: The Most Romantic Hotels in London
Indulge in Indian Food on Brick Lane
Walk down Brick Lane and the first thing that hits you is the smell, the sweet scent of spice that wafts tantalizingly from the parade of curry houses that line the southern end of the street. Established in the mid-20th century following an influx of Chittagong-Bengali seamen, the large community that settled in the area turned Brick Lane into London’s curry mecca. Given the high concentration of restaurants crammed into one small area, competition is fierce among the restaurants vying for your custom, which makes deciding where to eat a gamble. Quality varies up and down the street but you can’t go wrong sampling lamb chops, tandoori roopchanda and biryanis at either City Spice, Sheba or Brick Lane Brasserie. Also, remember, when the supply outweighs the demand as it does on many nights on Brick Lane, you can always barter for a group discount.
Related: The Best Restaurants in London
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Get Inspired at the Victoria & Albert Museum
With a vast collection of 2.3 million objects, the V&A is one of the world’s greatest museums of decorative arts and design. From early Christian devotional objects to modernist Naum Slutzky chromium teapots, you’ll find an array of exquisite furniture, tapestries, textiles, porcelain, jewelry, paintings, sculptures, fashion, and photographs spread out across 145 galleries. Happen across highlights like the 16th century Ardabil Persian carpet and Tip’s Tiger, a wooden mechanical sculpture of a striped tiger mauling an East India Company infantryman, made for south Indian Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan.
Get a Bird’s-Eye-View of the City on the London Eye
For an unrivalled bird’s-eye view of the metropolis and beyond, take a ride on one of the world’s tallest observation wheels. The London Eye’s design allows for unobstructed 360-degree views from its 32 glass pods. Situated beside the Thames River at Southbank and overlooking the Houses of Parliament, a gentle slow-moving full cycle of the wheel takes about a half-hour. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see Buckingham Palace and Canary Wharf, and as far away as Windsor Castle, 25 miles west of London.
Drink in Historic Pubs
The history of London’s taverns and pubs is the history of the city itself. From wine-sipping Romans in their tavernae to gin-crazed Georgians, social change through the years can be measured by how Londoners drank. Head for ancient pubs like Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, Ye Olde Mitre in Holborn, or the George Inn in Southwark for a pint and an atmospheric glimpse of London’s past. The Mayflower in Rotherhithe is the historic Thames-side spot where 102 pilgrims set sail for America in 1620, or swing by the French House in Soho, a bohemian paradise for artists and writers in the 1960s.
Related: The Best Pubs in London
Discover the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
Officially known as the Palace of Westminster, the neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament contain the Houses of Commons and Lords (the legislative bodies of the United Kingdom’s government) and the giant clock tower housing Big Ben (one of London’s most beloved icons). Book ahead or wait in line for tickets to watch proceedings from the Public Galleries in both chambers or for 75-minute guided tours when the Houses are in recess. Tours take in the vast 11th century hammerbeam Westminster Hall (site of the first Great Parliament in 1265), plus the gorgeously ornamented interiors and the Victorian Gothic-revival paneled ceilings.
Shop and Stroll in Covent Garden
Originally a 13th-century garden for monks at Westminster Abbey, Covent Garden has changed dramatically over the preceding centuries, with stints as London’s biggest flower and vegetable market and a disreputable home of brothels and gambling dens, before settling on the family-friendly face of “tourist London” it is today. A huge West End neighborhood that covers everything from Shaftesbury Avenue down to the Strand, a stroll through Covent Garden won’t leave you feeling short-changed. Start with the grand piazza at its heart and take in the daily roster of street performers doing their thing before paying a visit to St. Paul’s Church, one of the finest examples of the work of 16th-century architect Inigo Jones. Next, move north towards the hip chain stores of Neal Street before hitting Monmouth Coffee for a macchiato (one of the best in London!) and enjoying it on the steps of the famous Seven Dials sundial.
INSIDER TIPEven if you don’t have tickets to a show, visit Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House to enjoy the architectural beauty of its bar. The price of a glass of fizz in the Champagne Bar is heavily offset by the soaring atrium.
Go Gallery Hopping in East London
With one of the highest concentrations of artists in Europe, East London is fertile ground for some serious contemporary art gallery hopping, with some 150 galleries from Whitechapel to Hackney. Most galleries are open until 9 pm on the first Thursday of each month, and often offer free booze to celebrate new openings or exhibits. Start at the well-established modern art motherlode Whitechapel Gallery near Aldgate East, and work your way north and loop back via edgy and underground galleries like StolenSpace, Maureen Paley, and Kate MacGarry.
Go Shopping at Portobello and Borough Markets
From gourmet food to antiques, you can find nearly everything at London’s most famous street markets, Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill and Borough Market in Southbank. First established by Roma trading horses and herbs in the 1870s, Portobello meanders a few miles north from Notting Hill Gate to Goldbourne Road, with over a thousand antique shops and stalls, which give way to fruit and vegetable stands, then sizzling food, vintage clothes, and eclectic bric-a-brac stalls. Borough Market, in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral and housed under wrought-iron Victorian railway arches, has been around much longer, possibly since Roman times, and is known for its cornucopia of 120-plus high-quality fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, pie, and artisanal bread and cheese stalls. A slew of delicious market restaurants complete the full gastro experience.
See Theater in the West End
Thanks to some of the world’s best actors and directors, London’s contributions to the theater world give Broadway a run for its money. With some 50 theaters crammed into the West End (including some of the world’s most historic like Sadler’s Wells from 1683), top theater experiences range from classic Shakespeare at the National Theatre to racy contemporary dramas in the resplendent, Louis XVI-style Wyndham’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.
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Eat the Best Dim Sum in Chinatown
Established in the 1970s just south of Soho, Chinatown represents the perfect example of London as multicultural melting pot. On any given day, Gerrard Street will be packed with tourists and Londoners alike, squeezed into the strip of restaurants, supermarkets and bakeries between the impressive red gates at either end. The first rule of Chinatown: avoid the all-you-can-eat buffets that work on filling the stomach rather than tantalizing the taste buds. Instead, go for dim sum and sample the best cha siu bao, har gow, and fried turnip cake in town. For classic Cantonese restaurant décor–think dragons, gold and plenty of red–head for either Golden Pagoda or Golden Dragon on Gerrard Street, where brusque service is all part of the experience. For a more contemporary take on dim sum, Dumplings Legend is, well, legendary for its house-made parcels poached, steamed, and fried to perfection. When you’re done with dim sum, stop off at the Golden Gate Bakery for coconut buns to savor later.
Visit Greenwich Observatory to Gaze at the Stars
Along with posing in a red phone box and hailing a black cab, capturing yourself standing legs split either side of the Meridian Line in Greenwich is one of the most cliched tourist photo ops in London, but hey, if it ain’t broke… To clarify, the Meridian Line marks zero-degrees latitude and the international prime meridian line. If that sounds a little too much like a redundant line on the ground then don’t fret, there are plenty more reasons to visit Greenwich. From the views over London from the top of the hill in Greenwich Park to the Royal Observatory and Planetarium, the stunning interiors of the Queen’s House to the famous Cutty Sark tea clipper ship, Greenwich is basically one giant, quaint neighborhood exhibit.
Mix Old-World Mary Poppins Charm and Hip East London Style at Columbia Road Flower Market
For a sprinkling of Mary Poppins magic, there’s nowhere in London quite like Columbia Road Flower Market. Located in the East End, close to Shoreditch and Brick Lane, the weekly market runs every Sunday from 11 am until 5 pm with traders out at the crack of dawn to ready stalls filled with everything from gypsophila to orchids. Hip coffee shops, haberdashery shops, trendy stationers and tea shops line either side of the street, with the mass of flower sellers taking over the road, turning the place into one long gauntlet of foliage. Amazing in summer, but even better in winter when it’s all about mulled wine and festive feels.
Take an Atmospheric Stroll Through Highgate Cemetery
To London what Père Lachaise is to Paris, Highgate Cemetery is not as morbid as it sounds, in fact, there’s something positively invigorating about wandering its leafy paths. A whimsical, gothic Victorian burial site, beauty is found everywhere within its wild, bucolic boundaries. The final resting place of many a significant historical figure, from Karl Marx to Malcolm McClaren, it hosts a collection of amazing funerary architecture that covers everything from monumental masterpieces to curious eccentricities, contributing to its standing as one of London’s most thoughtful stops for sightseeing.
Hang With Massive Mammals at the Natural History Museum
While the collection of ancient dinosaur fossils, giant squid, meteorites, Neanderthal skulls, and treasures from the private stash of Charles Darwin are all worth setting aside an afternoon to see, arguably the true star of the Natural History Museum is the building itself. Built in 1881, the beauty of the magnificent edifice is evident both inside and out, from the terracotta tiles of the exterior (a neat ploy to resist the Victorian soot) to the painted murals of the canopy ceiling and the Victorian mosaic floor of the spectacular interior. In winter, an ice rink takes pride of place in the museum’s front garden, making it undoubtedly the most beautiful place in London for a festive skate.
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