There is no better way to experience the English culture than right on the streets of this remarkable city. Whether you are interested in the long and tumultuous history of the British monarchy, or you want to explore the newer parts of the city, a trip to London should definitely be on your bucket list.
With over 8 million inhabitants, the British capital manages to perfectly conserve its unique history while also keeping up with modern times.
Explore the iconic Buckingham Palace for a closer look at the dramatic history of the British royal family but don’t forget to visit other royal residences spread throughout the city. The Kensington Palace, the old Tower of London and the iconic Westminster will give you a unique view into the lives of some of the most important rulers in the world.
London boasts a great number of exquisite museums, most of which are free. However, the most interesting one is, by far, the National Gallery, which houses some of the best artworks in the United Kingdom.
Make sure you take time to explore all of the beautiful parks in the city, weather you visit the massive Hyde Park and the adjacent Kensington Gardens, or you prefer to interact with some cheeky squirrels in St. James’ Park.
Nevertheless, London is not only about old palaces and medieval estates. Some of the most intriguing modern buildings can be admired from the south bank of the River Thames. A stroll on the Queen’s Walk is the perfect way to experience the city’s atmosphere. Admire every one of the bridges as you make your way from the iconic Big Ben and London Eye to the City Hall and the breathtaking Tower Bridge.
London is also famous for its amazing shops, but the most interesting shopping experience will definitely be found at the Borough Market, where you can indulge in delicious dishes and traditional specialties from around the world.
Don’t forget to stop right on the border between the eastern and western hemisphere. In Greenwich district, visitors can find out more about the glory days of the Royal Navy and step on the actual zero meridian.
All in all, London is an amazing vacation destination thanks to its great concentration of cultural attractions, from royal palaces to castles, impressive cathedrals, splendid museums and parks worth getting lost into.
1. Buckingham Palace
One of the most iconic palaces in the United Kingdom is, without a doubt, the Buckingham Palace. The royal residence for the past century and a half, this wonderful palace still enchants its visitors to this day.
Originally the palace was simply a mansion built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham. However, about 60 years later, King George III bought the estate and turned into a private residence for his wife, Queen Charlotte. Throughout the years the mansion was enlarged, and several wings were added to the original building. When Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837, what was formerly known as “The Queen’s House” became the official royal palace, or the Buckingham Palace. Since then, every British monarch has lived there, including the current one, Queen Elisabeth II.
Today, it is one of the most well-known buildings in the world and a great touristic attraction, not only because of its great beauty, but mostly for the chance of catching a sneak peak at a member of the royal family.
With an eclectic mix of architectural styles, this palace has been augmented and refurbished several times, accordingly with every monarch’s taste. Nowadays, many rooms inside the palace can be visited including the fabulous State Rooms. However, these tours are only available during summer, when the Queen is spending time at Balmoral, her palace in Scotland.
The main attraction of the Buckingham Palace is the Changing of the Guard. A free show which takes place every day during summer and every other day during winter, at 11.30 am, this procession attracts thousands of curious tourists every time. Those who want to learn more about this impressive tradition can take a tour of the Guards Museum, right next to the palace, where they can admire different types of uniforms, weapons and three centuries old artefacts.
Those lucky enough to be able to explore the inside of the palace should definitely start their tour with the State Rooms. Here, visitors will get a chance to admire brilliant masterpieces by Canova and Van Dyck, while also exploring the Throne Room, the Music Room, the two drawing rooms and the Picture Gallery, which features paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Rubens.
Another great highlight of the palace is the Royal Mews. Here tourists can see some of the carriages the royal family uses during certain ceremonies. The most beautiful one is without a doubt the Gold State Coach, which was built in 1762 for King George III. The carriage is so heavy that is takes eight horses in order to pull it. However, it has been used for every coronation since the crowning of George IV in 1821.
Another beautiful carriage is the Glass Coach which is over a century old and has been used mostly for royal weddings. However, the carriages are not the only interesting vehicles here – most royal limousines are also housed here, including the rare Rolls Royce Phantom VI.
There are many other parts of the palace that can be visited, including the Clarence House, the official residence of the Prince of Wales, and the Queen’s Gallery, which houses hundreds of art works from the royal collection.
After so much history, the best way to unwind is by taking a stroll near the palace. Visitors have two choices – the Mall or St. James Park.
The Mall is a large avenue connecting Buckingham Palace to the Admiralty Arch and Trafalgar Square. Through this avenue visiting head of states are escorted to the palace, usually in the company of the Queen. During major celebrations, the royal family usually passes through the Mall while thousands of people greet them from the sides.
St. James Park is one of the most beautiful green spaces in London. And since the city is renowned for its beautiful parks, that says something. This 57 acres park, right in front of Buckingham Palace, houses a plethora of birds, including several species of ducks, swans and even pelicans. What is more, dozens of squirrels roam the trees and lawns of the parks, and most of them are very friendly, particularly with visitors who also happen to carry treats.
2. Palace of Westminster
The home of the UK Parliament, the Palace of Westminster is as intriguing as it is breathtaking. This extraordinary building is the meeting place between the two houses of the Parliament – the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
Thought the original building dates from the Middle Ages, the palace that we see today was finished in 1870, after it was demolished during a fire 36 years earlier. This gorgeous palace was built in a Victorian neo-Gothic style to match the nearby Westminster Abbey.
The very first royal palace was built on these grounds during the 11th century and it was the primary royal residence until it was destroyed by a large fire in 1512. After that, the building served only as the home of the English Parliament. However, when a second fire destroyed most of the palace, Westminster was once again rebuilt. The new palace has over 1,000 rooms, interior gardens, 100 staircases and 3 miles of passageways.
The most well-known part of this building is a bel tower, named after Queen Elizabeth but commonly known as the Big Ben. Though the Elizabeth Tower can only be visited by permanent residents of the United Kingdom.
The Palace of Westminster has two main areas – the House of Commons and the House of the Lords. The House of Commons is located in the northern part of the building and it can be easily recognized by the green leather upholstery which decorates almost the entire area. On the other hand, the House of Lords in located in the southern part of the palace and it is decorated with red leather upholstery.
Most parts of Westminster are opened to the public, even when the houses are in session. During those times, visitors can sit in the Strangers’ Gallery and watch the lively debates.
However, the most impressive part of the palace is the Westminster Hall. This is the oldest part of the building, dating back to 1097. When it was built it was the largest one in Europe. The 250 feet log hall was the scene for many important events throughout history, including the trial of Sir Thomas More and King Charles I. In 1653, Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector in this hall.
The Queen’s Robing Room is another interesting part of the palace. This is the place where the monarch prepares for the State Opening of Parliaments and it features a richly decorated throne. The room’s walls and ceiling are covered in frescoes featuring the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Right next to the Robing Room, there’s one of the largest rooms in the palace, the Royal Gallery. Most royal processions and important diplomatic events take place inside this opulent decorated room.
The heart of the Westminster lays in the Central Lobby also known as the Octagon Hall thanks to its shape. Located under the Central Tower, this is the intersection between the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the public entrance, the libraries, the Lower Waiting Hall and St. Stephen’s Hall. Those who stand right underneath the great chandelier in this hall can see both the Speaker’s Chair and the Royal Thorne.
3. South Bank
Combining the old and the new London, the South Bank of the River Thames offers tourists a plethora of attractions, from the famous London Eye to the historic Globe Theater. If you don’t have enough time to fully explore London, then a walk on this side of the river is the perfect way to experience the atmosphere of this amazing city.
Start your journey from the Westminster Bridge, with one more look at the Palace of Westminster. The London Eye is just a few yards away, in the Jubilee Gardens. This Giant Ferris wheel also known as the Millennium Wheel, has become one of the most recognizable symbols of London, since it was built in 2000. During its first six years this was also the world’s tallest Ferris wheel.
Today, tourists love to take a ride on the wheel, despite very long lines. The amazing views from the top include the Palace of Westminster with the Big Ben, Whitehall and most of London’s South Bank.
Right next to the Eye, the Jubilee Gardens offer a welcome place to rest for tired tourists. Created in 1977 to mark the Silver Jubilee of Elisabeth II, this green space was redesigned in 2012, just in time for the Diamond Jubilee of Elisabeth II and the Summer Olympics.
The pier along the Tames is mostly pedestrian and it is lined with some of the most interesting buildings in the city. One of the most peculiar one is the Southbank Center, a very important art center in the city. Built over half a century ago, this peculiar complex features the Royal Festival Hall, the Purcell Room and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Though the concerts that are held here on a regular basis are quite impressive, the actual building is well worth a look.
Right next to the Southbank Center, film buffs can take in a movie at the BFI Southbank, formerly known as the National Film Theatre. This venue houses three screens and it usually shows classic movies, including silent ones, and foreign films.
Another great perk of taking a stroll alongside Thames is the fact that you get to admire some of the most beautiful bridges in London, including the Millennium Bridge which connects the Tate Modern museum with St. Paul’s Cathedral. This pedestrian bridge offers great views over the river but also one of the most photographed spots in London – the St. Paul’s Cathedral seen from the South Bank, framed by the bridge’s supports.
There are several interesting landmarks in this area, including the distinctive building of the Tate Modern museum. Housed in a former Bankside Power Station, this interesting museum features thousands of modern and contemporary art pieces and the national collection of British art since the turn of the century. This is also one of the most visited modern art museums in the world thanks to a number of masterpieces by Monet, Matisse, Rothko, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Dali and many more.
On the other side of the Millennium Bridge, one of the most important buildings in the world attracts thousands of visitors every day. The famous Shakespeare’s Globe Theater is not the actual theater where the Bard created some of his most popular plays, but a reconstruction finished in 1997. The original Globe was built by Shakespeare’s playing company in 1599, but it was destroyed by fire, 14 years later, during a production of Henry VIII. Though the theater was rebuilt a year later, it was once again closed and demolished in 1644. The present day version was reconstructed flowing evidence from both buildings with traditional materials and techniques that were used during those times. During summertime visitors can take in a play, or they can simply take a tour of the theater and find out more about its amazing history.
As you approach the Tower Bridge, you’ll soon realize that some of London’s landmarks are not necessarily on land. The last survivor cruiser of the Royal Navy, HMS Belfast, is docked on the Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. This mighty vessel was commissioned in 1938 and participated in Allied landings during D-Day. The boat is part of the Imperial Museum and houses an impressive naval collection.
Among all the historical buildings, the London City Hall with its bizarre shape is quite a sight. This round building made mostly out of glass was completed in 2002 and because of its peculiar shape it has gained a number of nicknames, including “the Onion”. Outside the City Hall a sunken amphitheater called The Scoop hosts open air performances during summer.
4. National Gallery
London has a multitude of museums and most of them have a fee entrance. However, the most interesting one is, without a doubt, the National Gallery. This amazing building in Trafalgar Square houses a great collection of masterpieces from the 13th century to the beginning of the 1920.
The National Gallery is among the few art museums which were not formed by nationalizing an existing royal collection. In fact, the British Government bought 38 paintings from the collection of John Julius Angerstein and that was the beginning of one of the most interesting art collections in the world. Originally the museum was housed in two small venues at Pall Mall, but soon a new building was erected in order to accommodate the growing number of masterpieces purchased by the British Government. That is when the building in Trafalgar Square was built, in 1838.
Years later, after many donations and purchases, the museum had to be enlarged several times in order to accommodate the new pieces. Today, the National Gallery houses about 2,300 paintings by 750 artists.
The museum is divided into four wings, all housing different types of paintings. The Sainsbury Wing is the newest part of the building and it houses paintings from 1260 to 1510, including masterpieces by Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Bellini, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. There’s also an extensive collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings, including works by van Eyck, Bosch and Lucas Cranach the Elder.
The West Wing features paintings from 1510 to 1600 including the famous Entombment by Michelangelo, Tintoretto’s St George and the Dragon, and a number of pieces by Titian, El Greco, Durer and Pieter Bruegel.
The most intriguing paintings are housed in the North Wing, which features works of art from 1600 to 1700, including masterpieces by Rubens, Rembrandt, van Dyck, Vermeer, Velasquez, Caravaggio and Murillo.
Finally, the last part of the building, the Eat Wing, houses paintings from 1700 to 1920, including pieces by John Singer Sargent, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, William Turner, Ingres, Delacroix, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Goya, Renoir and Van Gogh.
After so much beautiful art, a few moments in Trafalgar Square are all you need. Make sure you spend some time in this marvelous square which features the Nelson’s Column flanked by two fountains. This is a hot spot not only for Christmas and New Year’s festivities, but also for political demonstrations.
The square also houses a number of statues and four plinths, three of which are topped with sculptures of generals and majors. The forth one is empty and it is used for specially commissioned art works. Every few years, the art work changes. Thus far there has been a scale replica of the HMS Victory in a glass bottle, a sculpture of a model horse skeleton and a giant blue cockerel.
5. Hyde Park
Escape the noise of the city in one of the largest urban parks in Europe. Hyde Park covers over 350 acres of green space and adjacent to it, there’s another beautiful park – Kensington Gardens. Together they form the largest urban park in the British capital and it is a true oasis of clam and fresh air.
Hyde Park was created in 1637 and it houses several touristic attractions including the Speakers’ Corner, several monuments, a plethora of statues and a rose garden.
Right in the middle of the park, the ginormous Serpentine Lake is one of the most beloved spots in the entire green space particularly for those who love boating. This lake is used for a number of swimming marathons, since it has a maximum depth of 17 feet. Among the oldest traditions here is the 100 yard race which takes place every Christmas morning. This competition was started in 1864 and the winner gets the Peter Pan Cup, which, at the beginning was awarded by author J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.
Not too far from the lake, a monument dedicated to the beloved Princess Diana attracts many tourists every day. The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, shaped like an oval stream bed, is said to represent the spirit of the princess.
One of the most popular spots in Hyde Park is the Speakers’ Corner, an area where public speaking is allowed. This area, near Marble Arch, has been the spot for many protests and riots throughout history and many important political leaders have used this platform to talk to the people, including Karl Marx, George Orwell and Vladimir Lenin.
However, the main reason for which Hyde Park is such a popular spot among locals and tourists alike is its beautiful wide lawn that are perfect for an afternoon in the sun and even a good old fashioned picnic.
6. Kensington Palace
The United Kingdom and London in particular has a great number of amazing palaces and castles, many of them belonging to the royal family. Though Buckingham Palace is the most famous one in London, Kensington is just as beautiful and interesting. Located near in the western part of the city, right by the park with the same name and Hyde Park, this amazing building has been a residence for the royal family since the 17th century.
Built by Sir George Coppin in 1605 as a small mansion the village of Kensington, this building was purchased by King William II, less than a century later, and turned into a royal residence. Since then the building was augmented and renovated several times and housed many important members of the royal family, including the newly married Prince of Wales and his wife Princess Diana. Today, among the many residents of the massive palace, the most famous ones are the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who moved there in 2011.
Though most of the palace is a private residence, the State Rooms are open to the public. This area of the building was neglected until the 19th century, when Queen Victoria restored the beautiful rooms and they were turned into a public museum in 1899. Nowadays, visitors can admire beautiful exhibits featuring antique furniture, memorabilia belonging to some of the most notable residence of the palace, including pieces of clothing belonging to Queen Elisabeth, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana.
The garden around Kensington Palace is just as beautiful. Visitors can admire a sunken garden several fountains and a flower walk. If that’s not enough, a massive park lays just outside the palace’s gates.
7. Tower of London
Discover a piece of London’s history at one of the oldest buildings in the city. In almost 1,000 years since this impressive building was erected, the Tower of London was a royal residence, a prison and even a zoo. Today it is one of the most sought after touristic attractions and for good reason.
This historic castle located on the north bank of the Thames was built at the beginning of the 11th century. The first part to be erected was the White Tower, commissioned by William the Conqueror. This tower would later give the name of the entire building. Since then, several other building were added and today the Tower of London is actually a complex of edifices surrounded by a moat.
The Tower of London was used as a royal palace until the end of the 15th century. During the next two centuries the palace was a prison. Anne Boleyn was imprisoned and then executed here, while Queen Mary I held her sister Elizabeth, who would later become Queen Elizabeth I. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the tower was restored and fortified several times, and during World War II, the building was once again used as a prison. After that the Tower of London was mostly a museum. In fact this is one of the oldest touristic attractions in the British capital. Since the 19th century, foreigners expressed great interest in this building, not only for its beautiful design, but also of the fact that for most of this time, it housed the Crown Jewels since 1669.
Today visitors can explore the inside of the tower, including rooms restored to their former glory, particularly those where kings and queens used to stay. What is more, at least six ravens are always kept on the grounds of the palace at all times because of the popular belief that if the ravens are gone, the kingdom will fall.
One of the most popular parts of the tower is the Jewel House which has been storing the Crown Jewels for almost half a century. Here visitors can admire the amazing collections a pieces used by many kings and queens. The most interesting pieces are the pure gold St. Edward Crown which is still used for crowning of British royals, and the Imperial State Crown which is set with more than 2,800 diamonds and other precious stones.
Another interesting exhibit is the Coins and Kings one. Since the Royal Mint was once housed on the grounds of the Tower of London, there is no wonder that an extensive collection of coins are featured in an impressive exhibit.
One of the most interesting traditions in London is the ceremonial closing of the gates at the Tower of London by famous Beefeaters. This 700 years old tradition also known as the Ceremony of the Keys features the Chief Warder presenting the keys to the tower to the Resident Governor. The ceremony begins every evening, at 9.40pm.
In the end, after such a fascinating history lesson, a few moments of recollection by the river is all you’ll need. Make sure you take in the sights over the South Bank, but, most of all, take a good look at the impressive Tower Bridge. One of the most recognizable bridges in the world, Tower Bridge was built in 1894 and it’s over 200 feet tall.
8. St. Paul’s Cathedral
The most important church in the UK, St. Paul’s Cathedral is also one of the largest ones in Europe. With its easily recognizable dome, this beautiful white church has been dominating London’s skyline for over three centuries.
The seat of the Bishop of London, St. Paul’s was erected on the site of a Roman temple. The church was built in 1711, after the Great Fire which burnt down a large part of the City of London in 1666. The building features two Baroque towers and a 365 feet high dome. Until the 60’s this church was the tallest building in the city.
Today, visitors can explore the opulent interior of this massive cathedral and admire the breathtaking frescoes and many statues. However, the most interesting part of the cathedral is the Whispering Gallery. This gallery is 100 feet high, around the dome, and it is famous thanks to its remarkable acoustics. While standing in the gallery, you can hear a whisper from across the dome which is 112 feet in diameter. From up there, visitors get a beautiful bird eye view over the cathedral and admire the frescoes which cover the dome’s walls. Above the Whispering Gallery there are two more galleries one of which runs outside the dome. From there visitors are rewarded with unbelievable views over the city.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is the resting place for a number of important people, including the architect who built this architectural wonder, Christopher Wren, but Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington as well. In fact, tourists can explore the cathedral’s crypt where there are housed many tombs of important people, including artists Turner, Constable and Reynolds.
9. Borough Market
Indulge in some retail therapy at the largest food market in the city. Everything you might want to buy or admire will definitely be in this eclectic building in the southern side of the city.
This market is a true melting pot of most cultures around the globe. Here you’ll get the unique opportunity to experience cuisines for every corner of world.
Borough Market is also one of the oldest markets in London and it is located on the southern end of London Bridge. The first ever mention of this place was in 1276, but it is thought that the market was built around 1014. Though throughout the centuries, the market changed its location, the present building was erected in 1851, with an Art Deco style entrance, which was added in the 30’s.
Thanks to its key position near the river, this market became the most important one in the city. During the 20th century it was mainly a wholesale market which was selling mostly produce to shops and restaurants. Today, Borough Market has become one of the most fashionable and interesting places to have a meal and shop in London.
Here you’ll find different traditional specialties from all over Europe, including freshly baked bread and pastries. But, the best part of the market are the street food stalls which serve dishes from around the world and will offer an extraordinary culinary experience to any visitor. This area is usually crowded at lunchtime, when not only tourists, but Londoners who work nearby flock to the street food stalls for a great lunch.
Usually the market hosts many events, food demonstrations, workshops and tastings for the pleasure of patrons.
A little further away from the city’s center, Greenwich has a long history mostly connected with the Navy. Furthermore, this district is also famous for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian of 0° longitude and the Greenwich Mean Time – GMT.
Located on the banks of the eastern section of the Thames, Greenwich was the traditional base of the Royal Navy. Today it houses many interesting touristic attractions including an observatory, the Royal Naval College, a park and a museum.
One of the most intriguing features of Greenwich is the Cutty Sark, the last remaining tea clipper from the 19th century. Built in 1869 this vessel set the record for passage from Australia under sail. Today it is preserved as a museum ship and it has become a popular touristic attraction.
If you want to find out more about the UK’s magnificent trips to the furthest corner of the Empire then you should definitely visit the National Maritime Museum. Its impressive collection features the history of the Royal Navy since the Tudor Dynasty. Apart from several displays and interactive exhibits, visitor can admire some of Turner’s seascapes and portraits of sea men by Reynolds and Gainsborough.
One of the most interesting and unique experience a tourist can have here is being able to stay right on the zero meridian of longitude which goes through the Meridian Building of the Royal Observatory. The zero meridian divides the world into eastern and western halves and it is marked by a steel rod in the floor. Inside the Royal Observatory, which was founded in 1675 by Charles II, tourists can admire a beautiful collection of old astronomical instruments, but also the largest telescope in the UK and an amazing planetarium, all housed under the impressive dome of the Equatorial Building.
Greenwich also boasts the oldest royal park in London, dating back to 1427. The 183 acres Greenwich Park was designed by French King Louis XIV’s gardener and it features several beautiful gardens and the Prime Meridian Line. The best part of the park is the fact that visitors get to admire some of the most impressive views over the city and the river, particularly at sunset.