London is one of the most historic and vibrant cities on the planet, with an incredible variety of things to see and do. It spent hundreds of years as the seat of the enormous British Empire, which at one point laid claim to a third of the entire planet. As a result, it has become a vast melting pot of culture, entertainment, people and ideas. Whether you like world-famous art, amazing food on almost any budget, walking down endless city streets or soaking up the views from an open-top bus tour – there’s something here to suit every traveler’s taste – and every budget. One of the best things about London is it’s almost unbelievable accessibility. So many of these attractions can be linked up with a short and scenic walk, or for less than the price of a coffee, you can hop on the underground tube system and experience another classic London activity.
This list will take you through 20 of the best and most popular ways to spend your time in this grand old city. Many of the places mentioned are so iconic you’ll recognize the names as soon as you read them but don’t worry – for the more intrepid travelers and the repeat visitors there are some slightly less well-known ways to make your trip authentic and unforgettable. Even better, so many of them are completely free! In no particular order, here they are:
1. Buckingham Palace
Perhaps the first thing a foreign visitor would think of when they hear the word London is Buckingham Palace. Whether you simply want to grip the rails and stare in awe at the grandeur and size of the building or get a far closer look, is entirely up to you. Walk down the massive stately avenues, or through lush green parkland, to one of the most memorable buildings on the planet. At roughly 11 am every day (weather permitting) witness the changing of the guard with all its pomp and ceremony. If you miss it you’ll still be able to see the disciplined guards standing to attention in their famous bearskin hats.
Keep an eye out for the flagpole atop the roof – if the royal standard is flying, the Queen is staying at the palace. If it’s the Union flag, the Queen isn’t currently resident. But don’t despair, you might just have a chance to get an even closer look into the royal lifestyle. For ten weeks over summer and on select days in other seasons, you can purchase tickets to see the magnificent State Rooms for yourself.
2. Shopping on Oxford Street and Beyond
If you love to shop, there are few better places in the world than central London. Start your spree with the huge offerings of Oxford street, Regent street, and (for those with especially expensive taste) Bond street, all easily accessible from one another. If you don’t want to spend, it’s still a classic taste of London – the bustle, the black cabs driving past, crowds of people pouring from the Underground stations. Loads of popular brands keep their flagship stores here, but if you prefer your wares independently sold, try one of the smaller streets (such as Carnaby street) that criss-cross and intersect between the larger promenades.
If you have children, wow them with Hamleys on Regent Street, it’s seven floors are filled with every kind of toy imaginable, packed with wonderful displays and watched by cheery staff – just hope your kids don’t hassle you to buy them everything inside. If you’re feeling extra fancy, take your shopping trip a short drive further to Harrods, the world-famous high-end department store, with it’s themed halls and a near endless list of rich and powerful clientele.
One of the most culturally iconic areas of London is Soho, with its famous nightlife and sometimes sordid past. Originally a place beloved of the aristocracy, it has historically had a reputation for its brothels as well as it’s theatres, and these days it offers (in a much less seedy form) a blend of all of this. It has become a cornerstone of London’s fantastic LGBT scene, offering a variety of bars and clubs to cater to this reputation.
Wandering through in the daytime, you’ll see artisan cafes spilling out onto the streets, quaint old bakeries and nostalgic music shops. At night you’ll hear the club music shake the ground, or perhaps sweet notes of jazz drifting in the air. My personal recommendation is Bar Italia on Frith street – an absolutely classic taste of Italy, open almost 24 hours a day. The coffee cannot be matched. If you are there at the right time, sit outside and you might get lucky enough to catch some music from the famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz bar that sits just across the street.
4. The British Museum
Perhaps no better museum in the world exists than this. Even if you would never usually consider it the tourist experience for you – just pop inside for five minutes (admission is free!), the sheer scale of the building once you enter the main hall is awe-inspiring. Say what you will about the morals of the British Empire, it sure made for an incredible collection of History, Art and Culture – it stands among the largest and most comprehensive that have ever been gathered in one place.
Enormous Assyrian stone carvings bring ancient battles and lion hunts to life, the hugely important Rosetta Stone sits in a glass case not far away. In other rooms, you’ll find historical oddities and priceless treasures from the faraway ancient kingdoms of Greece, Egypt, China and much, much more – over 8 million objects line its lofty halls.
5. The London Eye
There are few more iconic sights than the breathtaking London eye. Sitting in stark contrast to the historic buildings of Westminster that surround it, it is a testament to modern engineering prowess. Originally built to celebrate the new millennium, it offers extraordinary views over the entire city and a classic London experience. Tickets are available to buy for a pod you share with others, but if you want to splurge you can book a private one just to yourself.
6. The Tate
For those who love to inject some culture into their travels, the twin Tate Galleries are unmissable. With no cost to enter, like so many of the city’s greatest offerings (certain exhibitions may have a fee), there is a huge range of artwork on offer. The Tate Britain, situated at Millbank, houses British art from the year 1500 all the way up to the present day. The Tate Modern is centrally located at Bankside, and as you may have guessed, it houses a diverse array of international modern and contemporary art. As well as housing fantastic permanent collections, the ever-changing temporary exhibitions (which are more likely to incur a cost to enter) range from some of the most groundbreaking, to some of the most famous artists and artworks ever to grace the country.
7. Trafalgar Square and its Famous Galleries
At a massive 52 meters tall, Nelson’s column occupies the center of this excellent square, flanked by four imposing lion statues. So named to commemorate victory in the battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic wars, it is the site of London’s grandest Christmas tree, donated by the Norweigan government annually since 1947. The national gallery stands triumphant at the north of the square, is free to enter (certain exhibitions may have a fee) and hosts paintings from the mid-1200’s up to the year 1900. This is where you go for the European masterpieces – your Rembrandt’s, Turner’s, Van Gogh’s, Da Vinci’s and much more. Just off the square is the national portrait gallery, again free to enter, housing portraits of historically important or famous British people.
London’s centrally located Chinatown district draws the eyes and the appetites of almost anyone who passes by. With its beautiful traditional archways and paper lanterns slung like bunting across the streets, it’s as if you’re getting a bonus holiday completely for free during your trip to England’s capital. If you visit during the Chinese New Year you’ll find yourself crammed into the cozy open doorways of local shops, surrounded by enthralled locals and tourists alike, as the wonderfully traditional dragon dance parades down the streets to the sound of beautiful folk music.
Packed with supermarkets selling the closest you’ll find to authentic Asian ingredients in the country, this is the obvious place to come for the finest Chinese cuisine in the city. There are plenty of excellent restaurants to choose from, simply pick the one that looks most appealing to you – none of them will disappoint. While it didn’t quite make the top 20, if your tastes lean more towards South Asian food, Brick Lane is an exciting Bangladeshi community with amazing and often rather cheap meals – so beloved is the curry by the British people that they have adopted it as emblematic of their own national cuisine.
A keystone of the London cultural scene, Camden offers a taste of the bizarre and is free to explore – if you want it to be. The sooner you go, the better, as due to gentrification and new building projects a lot of the iconic market has sadly already been lost. It is still home, however, to a huge array of stalls and shops selling all sorts of wares – antiques, knickknacks, suspicious paraphernalia, exotic clothing and all sorts of counter-cultural objects. Don’t forget the multitudes of street food stalls selling some of the best (and often amongst the cheapest) grub in all of London.
A walk along the canal takes you down to the lovely Regent’s Park as well as London Zoo – the city is so densely packed with things to do every aimless wander becomes a sightseeing tour. Splashing out on a canal boat ride along this same route is a lovely way to explore more while providing some well-needed rest.
10. St Paul’s Cathedral
One of the most memorable buildings to grace the London city skyline is the vast Dome and dizzying spires of St Paul’s cathedral. London’s tallest building until 1967, it is the seat of the Bishop of London. It is well worth the cost of tickets to go inside – the building is not only massive but incredibly intricate, decorated with incredible beauty and detail.
Perhaps the best part of the whole experience is to climb all the way to the very top of the building, and outside, for some of the very best views of the city, you’ll ever have the fortune to see. In my opinion, the skyline here is superior even to the view you get when looking out from the London eye. The North Bank area in the close vicinity of the building is home to some fantastic fine dining, but it will cost you.
11. Covent Garden
Yet another beautiful district in the heart of the city is Covent Garden. Once the home of a vast fruit and vegetable market, it is now home to some of the best independent shopping and fantastic fine dining in all of London. The beautiful arcade, atmospheric restaurants, and gorgeous garden displays make it well worth a visit. Simply walking around the lovely old buildings and brightly colored displays is a peaceful and memorable encounter, and the multitudes of street performers that ply their trade all through the public spaces make it a worthwhile experience even for those with empty pockets.
12. Tower of London and the Tower bridge
Originally founded by William the conqueror in 1066-7, this historic castle has had a rich history. It has been so many different things throughout its centuries-long past – medieval fortress, prison, armory, royal mint, home of the crown jewels, even a private zoo! Pay for a tour that will have your head bursting with engaging stories and characters and see the crown jewels up close for yourself. The magnificent building is awe-inspiring even when viewed from the outside. The nearby Tower Bridge is yet another iconic London landmark. Two massive towers rise 65 meters above the Thames for an unforgettable sight.
13. Kew Gardens
A little bit further from the city center sits Kew Gardens, properly titled as the Royal Botanic Gardens. As well as simply being a beautiful and peaceful way to pass the time (and get a taste of nature in the busy city) – it is known to hold the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world. Wander the expansive grounds and it feels as though you are transported to a new land with every hundred paces. For a more in-depth experience, there are a variety of daily guided tours that are included in the cost of entrance.
Easily accessible from central London on the Dockland Light Railway (The DLR is also a cheap and scenic way to view the area), Greenwich has plenty to offer. Walk the beautiful university grounds – you might recognize the grand buildings from Hollywood films such as Thor: The Dark World. The beautifully restored Cutty Sark is a Victorian Tea Clipper (an old wooden boat, for the uninitiated) that you can pay to board and explore – even have a go on the wheel and learn how to steer the 960-tonne behemoth.
As well as a cable car and the ridiculously huge O2 arena nearby, try walking up to the observatory for incredible views, a tour of the universe in the planetarium, or stand at the beginning of time – this hill is home to the prime meridian of the world and the birthplace of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).
15. The West End Theatres and Piccadilly Circus
Lovers of culture will instantly associate the West End with some of the best theatres in the world. Book tickets at one of the many theatres (perhaps the Criterion) to see the top echelon of performative arts, or wander through fantastic shopping and eating in its many squares and streets. Find the famously busy Piccadilly Circus with its towering LED screens – an attraction in its own right and an excellent staging and meeting point for your central London adventures.
16. Hyde Park
Probably the most famous of London’s many green spaces in Hyde Park. Set over 350 acres, it is a place of historic protest (including suffragette demonstrations) and the tradition carries on to this day. Walking through provides a breath of fresh air in the dense city – marvel at the rollerbladers dancing to their tunes on the avenues, soak up the view from a waterside cafe or plan your visit to intersect with one of the many concerts held here every year.
One of the best things to do is hire a little wooden boat and row past the waterfowl along the glassy Serpentine, as the city skyscrapers poke their heads above the surrounding trees – a bit of fun, or maybe even romance. Afterward, you could head to the world-class galleries that share their name with the water they sit close by. The entry is free – in the summer you can check out the pavilions commissioned each year and completed by world-class architects.
There are few more iconic London sights than the huge clock face of Big Ben, which has reliably tolled at every hour for well over a hundred years. Officially only referring to the huge bell of the striking clock, to most people Big Ben also means the four clock faces and the 96-meter tower they sit on. This tower is actually the north-facing wing of the intricate and awesome Palace of Westminster, these days home to the United Kingdom’s houses of parliament. Approaching along the broad Westminster bridge, the architectural might of the building is a breathtaking sight. You can take a tour inside and even watch the British MP’s debate and try to run the country.
18. Natural History Museum
If you’ve had your fill of London’s bountiful human history offerings, try a visit to the Natural History Museum on Exhibition Road, South Kensington. The Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are also situated on this road. The Natural History Museum has paid admission, but it is well worth the cost. The 80 million-plus exhibits include the famous plaster cast of Dippy – a huge Diplodocus skeleton that greets you near the entrance. There are five main sections – botany, mineralogy, entomology, paleontology, and zoology. You could spend weeks here without seeing everything the museum has to offer.
19. Hampton Court Palace
If you’re prepared to travel a little out of the center, amaze yourself at the home of one of the world’s most iconic monarchs – Henry VIII. It was gifted to him by the disgraced cardinal Thomas Wolsey in a desperate bid to retain his favor at court. The palace has been extended multiple times since it’s construction, and now boasts a complex yet somehow aesthetically pleasing mix of architectural and historical features.
The palace is easy to reach by train, leaving from waterloo station in the center of the city. You have to pay to get in, but there is so much to see – the Tudor great hall and kitchens, the haunted gallery, the baroque palace and fantastic gardens (which are in full bloom around mid-may).
20. Open Top Bus Tour
Here is a great way to pack as much of the city as you can. With a variety of different routes and packages on offer (including buses with functioning bars for the adults), you can tailor an open-top bus experience to suit you. These typically function on a hop-on, hop-off system – so whenever you see something you want to explore, simply get off the bus and take your time. There is sure to be another bus that pulls up within minutes of you deciding to leave. You can of course just stay on the bus for an excellent tour of the entire city. For those without much time or those who love to see loads of attractions in a simple and enjoyable manner – this might be the one for you. There is no easier way to see every major attraction in the city. A 24-hour ticket that gives you access to all 6 routes, over 80 stops, including a free walking tour of the ever-popular changing of the guard – is currently £34 for one adult.
As well as the open-top bus tours, getting yourself an oyster card or a day ticket on the London Underground is a classic and convenient (as well as pretty cheap) way to explore the city. There are stations close to almost all of the central tourist attractions and overland trains will often take you to those that are further out. If you like a walk, there are few better cities to explore on foot – if your accommodation is central grab yourself a map and you can see most of the sights this way, getting one of the most personal and up-close experiences of real London life. With your oyster card you can also hop on the Thames clippers, comfortable boats that have stops along both banks of the river – this is a much cheaper way to explore the waterways than the river tours that are specifically aimed at foreign tourists.