London’s 50 top attractions
What is it? In 2012, Italian architect Renzo Piano transformed London’s skyline with a strange but striking structure that’s now the capital’s tallest tower. Reaching 244 metres from the ground, The Shard was built with everything in mind: offices, homes, hotels, bars, restaurants and, of course, the alluring viewing platform. From the highest point the public are allowed access (floors 69-72) you get stunning 360° views of the city. There’s also a weekly silent disco up there on Saturday nights and other events, such as Sky-High Yoga or film screenings.
Why go? The floor-to-ceiling windows allow absolutely exceptional views out across the capital – especially on a clear day.
What is it? Ever wondered what London looks like from 53 metres above North Greenwich? No? Bet you’re wondering now! Well, now you can find out with a ticket for Up at The O2, which is the ultimate AAA pass and gains you access to the roof. From there you’ll be able see across the capital, spotting famous sites like the Olympic Park, Thames Barrier, The Shard and Canary Wharf.
Why go? For an incredible 360-degree view that you truly earned a glimpse of.
What is it? This network of curly-wurly red scaffolding lords it over the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park from its position right alongside the Olympic Stadium. Designed by the artist Anish Kapoor and structural engineer Cecil Balmond, it stands 114.5m (376ft) tall – with lifts (and a 455-step staircase) up to two platforms from which you take in the interesting, if not entirely spectacular, view. There are also two of Kapoor's entertaining distorting mirrors inside and the options to abseil or slide down to the ground.
Why go? Two things: the view and the slide. Hold onto your stomach and enjoy the very quick descent down the 12-loop slide.
What is it? Much like the Millenium Dome – or, as its known to those who don’t remember the twentieth century, the O2 Arena – the London Eye was built to celebrate the year 2000. But unlike the ill-fated Dome, the Eye was a resounding success, and it’s hard to picture London’s skyline without it. Actually, this astonishingly popular attraction boasts a mouthful of a title: the highest cantilevered observation wheel in the world. It rarely ever comes to a stop, so you won’t be standing on ceremony when you get on, and before you know it, you’re halfway into the sky and taking in the sweeping vistas of the Thames and wider London.
Why go? The convenient location not only provides a great view of the capital, but easy access to other attractions.
What is it? Like the Pantheon Crypt in Paris, where you can see the tombs and memorials to great figures from history, Westminster Abbey is a popular attraction to peruse the graves, tablets, busts and stone dedications. In fact, seventeen monarchs are buried here, along with dukes, countesses and history’s ‘celebs’ (Darwin, Dickens, Hardy, etc). Founded by Benedictine monks in 960 AD, there have also been 16 royal weddings here and every single British coronation has taken within the Abbey's walls since 1066.
Why go? To see Gothic grandeur at its most glorious.
What is it? A chance to see world famous art, glimpse regal opulence and get inside HRH’s headquarters. Many a tourist and local alike know the iconic façade of Buckingham Palace, standing grandly at the end of The Mall. But it was only in 1913 that this epic addition was made, by King George V and Queen Mary. Before that, in 1633, the palace wasn’t even royal – it belonged to Lord Goring, who was forced to hand over ownership to the Royal Family (under King George III) due to a flaw in his contract. Whoops!
Why go? To snoop around the most famous royal residence in the world.
What is it? A resplendent palace with plush grounds on the edge of south-west London. From the Tudor indoor tennis court to the Royal Maze, from the King’s private loo to the Magic Garden adventure playground, there’s something here for all ages. History buffs and art enthusiasts should purchase the ticket for the Palace and Gardens; those with little ones in tow will appreciate the Magic Garden and Maze ticket.
Why go? To get lost in the Royal Maze.
What is it? The seat of British democracy. A highly recommended audio tour through the House of Lords and House of Commons brings the building to life and takes around 60 to 75 minutes, featuring leading parliamentary figures such as Mr Speaker and Black Rod. If you’re feeling fancy, choose the tour that comes with afternoon tea overlooking the Thames.
Why go? For a unique combination of one thousand years of history, modern day British politics and stunning art and architecture.
What is it? In 1802 Marie Tussaud made her waxwork debut in the capital (32 years after she founded the show in Paris). By 1884 she decided to lay down permanent roots in Marylebone and she’s been there ever since (well, her legacy at least). Visitors to Madame Tussauds today will find some 300 lifelike models. Major actors such as Angelina Jolie and George Clooney come together with the likes of Einstein and Monroe. Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill lead the sports personalities, while Kanye and Madonna give off ultimate attitude in the music section. Elsewhere The Queen stands proudly and YouTube stars, like Zoella, are on hand for the youngsters.
Why go? To snap a selfie with all the famous faces. Instagram, incoming.
What is it? Iconic though St Paul’s may be, the Cathedral as we know and love it today is in fact version six, at least. Mark five was razed to the ground by the Great Fire of London in 1666 – in fact mark three was also destroyed by fire in 1087 – and mark four fell to ruins under Henry VIII’s leadership and parts of it were used to build Somerset House. Thankfully Sir Christopher Wren’s design, which was completed in 1708, survived 12 monarchs and two world wars, and remains popular with tourists and locals alike. If you’ve paid for main admission you’ll be treated to an introductory talk before being taken on a 90-minute tour.
Why go? To test your hearing in the Whispering Gallery and stay for evensong.
What is it? An occasion to enjoy finely cut sandwiches, dainty cakes and the tinkling of dazzlingly shiny silver teapots in the gold and white splendour of the Ritz Hotel’s Palm Court. It’s so popular that you can book sittings from 11.30am-7.30pm – not strictly afternoon, but all accompanied by the delicate sounds of a pianist, harpist or string quartet.
Why go? To pretend you’re in a costume drama.
What is it? There’s more to this ornate Victorian bridge than something cool to look at. You can venture inside. Check out the engine rooms, with the old and new machinery, then head up to glass-floored viewing platform above the draw bridge, where you can learn more about the story behind the magnificent bridge. Dogs are allowed up there too, so bring Fido with you.
Why go? See if you can time it right to see the bridge rising up to let some large water traffic through.
What is it? Where William, Kate, Harry and Meghan hang their hats. This elegant palace has a certain chic style: it played host to the most fashionable salons in Georgian times, was home to Queen Victoria in her youth, then to sassy Princess Margaret and then to classy Princess Diana. Now the main palace is a pretty visitor attraction with tranquil gardens to wander.
Why go? To be dazzled by the outfits in the ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’ exhibition.
What is it? Big Ben is the nickname of the Great Bell inside Westminster’s iconic clock tower, but even locals think ‘Big Ben’ when they see the Elizabeth Tower. You can’t get inside for a tour until 2020 due to maintenance work but you’re a minute away from the river, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey here, so it’s an easy visit.
Why go? To see the clock as you’ve never seen it before.
What is it? The venue where England won the World Cup in 1966. Wembley still has a magic about it, even when you don’t have a ticket for a match or a rock concert. Take the tour and you’ll get to walk down the players’ tunnel and climb the 107 Trophy Winner’s steps, plus, with the use of 360-degree video, experience the electric atmosphere at some of the stadium’s biggest events.
Why go? To feel like a champion.
What is it? A secret, secure bunker, tucked behind Downing Street and Parliament Square, where Churchill and his cabinet could monitor how World War II was going, receive intelligence and give orders. It’s the little details that give the biggest impression, from a daily-updated weather noticeboard to the scratch marks on Churchill’s chair (caused by his ring on a stressed day).
Why go? For history lovers to see the rooms just as they were left after 1945.
What is it? A huge art museum right on Trafalgar Square that’s free to enter. Perfect, whether you’ve got ten minutes in your lunch-break to check out Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ or time to wander the entire, glorious collection of Western European paintings from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Check out the Friday Lates for after-hours access to exhibitions, creative workshops and life drawing salons.
Why go? To stand before artistic greatness, for free.
What is it? Just around the corner from the National Gallery, this is the home of a stunning collection of portraits, from paintings to photography, capturing the essence of notable royalty, celebrities and our enduring fascination with the human face. The permanent collection is free to visit, with ticketed special exhibitions. The National Portrait Gallery also hosts Late Shifts every Thursday and Friday, with DJs, drop-in drawing sessions and more.
Why go? To wander among the great and good.
What is it? A ‘rigid inflatable boat’ that will have you hurtling up and down the river. If you want to ramp up the excitement on the Thames – the kind that would make 007 proud – hop aboard the RIB to travel at speeds of up to 30 knots (roughly 35 mph).
Why go? Because it’s the most thrilling way for adrenaline junkies to see the sights.
What is it? Only the greatest theatre in the world (well, we would argue so, anyway). While it's been more than 50 years since the brilliant Laurence Olivier was its first director, and 40 years since it moved to the South Bank, any directing or performing continues to thrive and prove more popular than ever. Take your pick of entertainment from the three theatres, and if you've got time to kill pre or post-performance, take a seat at one of the various bars or restaurants. And since Travelex 15 ensures hundreds of tickets priced from just £15, you can enjoy London's theatre scene for less than you might expect. Winner.
Why go? For classics and new writing that champion rising talents alongside big-name stars.
What is it? Situated across the road from the ornate golden memorial statue of Prince Albert, is another dedication. The construction of Royal Albert Hall was ordered by Queen Victoria and named after her late husband. Since its completion the hall has hosted music and theatre and continues to do so to this day – most famously hosting the Proms.
Why go? To experience some Victorian opulence.
What is it? A guaranteed fun outing for all the family. The Tower of London offers wonderful architecture, gruesome stories, glittering Crown Jewels, hands-on activities for younger visitors, costumed actors and guides, and worryingly confident ravens. In the winter months they also put up an ice rink here.
Why go? To feast your eyes on a thousand years of history.
What is it? Covent Garden’s grand old opera house. You don’t have to be super-rich to get in on the action – there are reductions for students, senior citizens and those on credits, plus the weekly Friday Rush is a chance to get cheap tickets for the next day’s main performance. Alternatively, take a backstage tour, where you can sometimes spot the Royal Ballet practising their moves.
Why go? To see world-class opera and ballet.
What is it? Budding horticulturalists and anyone with slightly green fingers will have a field day here. There are over 300 acres to explore, right in Zones 1 and 2, filled with indigenous flora and fauna, as well as exotic greenhouses and nature trails. There’s also a treetop walkway and the Grade I-listed Temperate House recently reopened after a five-year refurb. It’s the largest Victorian glass house in the world and quite a sight to behold.
Why go? For a breath of fresh air in the busy city.
What is it? A careful recreation of the kind of theatre Shakespeare would have written all his plays for, in what at the time was London’s home of dodgy ‘entertainment’, Bankside. If you’ve never been, book groundling tickets and stand in the open-air pit like you’re at a rock festival. It makes the Bard’s poetry seem a lot less like homework and a lot more like first-rate drama.
Why go? To see theatre like Londoners in Tudor times did.
What is it? An elegant eighteenth-century landmark and cultural hub on the north side of Waterloo Bridge that hosts several art exhibitions and events at a time, incorporating the Courtauld Gallery and temporary exhibitions in the Embankment Galleries. Hell, even the courtyard (once an Inland Revenue car park) makes itself useful, with the ice rink in winter, fountains in summer and alfresco cinema and live music seasons too.
Why go? For music and movies under the stars.
What is it? A riverside icon dedicated to all things modern and contemporary art. Based in what was the Bankside Power Station, you can discover works by the likes of Warhol, Dalí and Hockney, as well as unusual, eye-grabbing installations, which are all part of the free permanent collection.
Why go? To be inspired and challenged. Plus, if you can get in, the members’ bar has an incredible view of the London skyline.
What is it? The favoured residence of George III that looks more like a massive, ornate biscuit tin than the glittering home of a royal. In the gardens there is a wonderful little cottage built for Queen Charlotte that most definitely trumps any normal garden shed. You can only visit the palace via Kew Gardens (it’s free with entry to Kew), from March to October.
Why go? To discover an often forgotten treasure.
What is it? Experience life aboard the world's last surviving tea clipper right here in Greenwich. See the intricate craftsmanship used in its creation and find out how the crew lived. Thanks to a million-pound refurbishment after a fire in 2007, you can also now walk underneath the hull.
Why go? For the history lesson, and the silent discos they occasionally host here.
What is it? A grey warship, with its guns tilted high, moored close to Tower Bridge, that is a museum nowadays. Open daily, with scenes set to show you what life was like on board a working WWII warship, HMS Belfast is a lively visitor space where you can scoot around the lower levels, exploring the engine room, the kitchens, the dentist’s office and the action stations up on deck.
Why go? To play life-sized battleships.
What is it? A vast museum full of real relics of the bygone ages of London transport, where there’s always a bus or a train to hop on. Find out why tube stations were used as wartime shelters, see decades of beautiful poster artwork and discover how the latest technology will run our services in the future. The LTM always hosts a fabulous Friday Late themed around its newest exhibition.
Why go? To tap into Londoners’ obsession with travel.
What is it? The Regent’s Park landmark that has come a long way since the days when zoos were full of homesick wildlife. London Zoo does a lot of world-class animal welfare work, creating carefully designed settings in which beautiful creatures from gorillas to lizards, penguins to tigers now reside. There’s a dedicated area for small kids and daily shows for the curious of all ages.
Why go? For a chance to experience animals up close.
What is it? The Warner Bros Studio, a short trek north of London, where you can set foot inside the Great Hall, Forbidden Forest and Diagon Alley. See film sets, costumes, props and exhibits that take you behind the scenes of the Harry Potter films. Changing exhibitions are included in the ticket and you get the chance to discover the secrets of the movies’ special effects.
Why go? To finally get your invite into the wizarding world.
What is it? For centuries, the location for the scientific study of the stars and of timekeeping – originally for the benefit of sea navigation. This is where you’ll see the Greenwich Meridian Line marked out, from which point the world’s time zones are measured. You can also see the incredible instruments with which astronomers made discoveries about our universe, long before the digital age, or go stargazing at a planetarium show.
Why go? To straddle time.
What is it? An interactive tour that starts with a breathtaking 4D ride through the sky before you crash-land near a certain ogre’s swamp and find yourself having to flee from the wicked Rumpelstiltskin. You’ll encounter a few favourite ‘Shrek’ characters as you rush from place to place on your mission, including a baffling maze and some scary spills along the way.
Why go? To have a giggle on a whirlwind trip to Far, Far Away.
What is it? Home to sea creatures from all over the world, from Pacific nurse sharks to Antarctic penguins (with a glimpse of what’s swimming past you in the Thames, too). It can get busy, but go off peak and meet the crocs or attend a Sea Life Late, where you can enjoy a glass of bubbly while you watch the behind-glass bubbles.
Why go? To immerse yourself in the life aquatic.
What is it? A buzzing open space and cultural nucleus of the capital, lined with some of the city’s most exciting galleries, theatres and attractions. Start at the Southbank Centre, for free art and live shows, lunch at one of the many restaurants, watch the skateboarders and then wander east past the artists’ enclave at Gabriel’s Wharf, and on to Tate Modern and the Globe.
Why go? For riverside adventures and ace views.
What is it? A tour of London’s nastiest historical moments, with gory stories retold with humour, gooey props and gruesomely costumed actors. You can board a traitor’s boat to the Tower of London, dash through the streets of Whitechapel in pursuit of Jack the Ripper and glimpse stinking Plague London. Gore-seekers can ride a recreation of The Death Express, a line which carried the deceased to their final resting place in Surrey.
Why go? For a romp and a scream.
What is it? A working resource for printed and sound archives that’s open to all. If you nip into the free entrance hall exhibitions you might get to see a scribbled page of Beatles songwriting or a Leonardo da Vinci notebook. There are some stunning illuminated scripts and landmark-scientific items too, including very early photographs. Don’t expect silence to be enforced when a Late at the Library event kicks off.
Why go? For studious research or to see paper-based artefacts.
What is it? Since it opened in 1759 – the first ever national museum for the public – the British Museum has been displaying global artefacts discovered by British explorers. Including the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon sculptures.
Why go? The museum has over eight million objects in its collection, 50,000 of which are on display. That's a lot of bang for your buck, considering entrance to the main areas is free.
What is it? A massive central London park that’s easy to take for granted. Wander into Hyde Park’s vast greenery and eventually you get to the Serpentine lake, where you can take a dip, go boating, board a solar-powered ferry (in summer) or eat pizza by the water. You can also take guided tours of the gardens and little known pet cemetery.
Why go? Because life’s more fun if you stop for a stroll, a bike ride or a picnic.
What is it? A beautiful, crumbling north London cemetery full of overgrown paths that will lead you to several Grade II-listed catacombs and a number of famous remains, including poet Christina Rossetti, architect Sir Lawrence Weaver and philosopher Karl Marx. On a sunny day, it even feels a little less morbid.
Why go? For a romantic day with the dead.
What is it? Museum that traces history from the capital’s beginnings to the present day – you can even see some of the original Roman Wall from its windows. Sense the drama of the Great Fire of London, walk through a Victorian shopping arcade, see the stunning London 2012 Olympic cauldron and get an eyeful of part of the fatberg found lurking in a Whitechapel sewer. Yuck!
Why go? To find out what life was like in Londinium.
What is it? The magnificent South Kensington home of around 80 million plant, animal, fossil, rock and mineral specimens. This fascinating museum, which is also a world-class research institution, is full of natural wonders.
Why go? To come face-to-face with animatronic dinosaurs, a man-sized model of a foetus, a dodo, a giant sequoia tree, an earthquake simulator, glow-in-the-dark crystals and much more.
What is it? A verdant 410 acres of lush, open space, that's only a five-minute walk north of Oxford Circus. Featuring a pretty rose garden, an elegant Open Air Theatre (open spring until September) and tree-lined avenues for jogging, it's a slice of horticultural heaven and a much-needed break spot from the rest of the whirring city. Grab a coffee and sit out with the dog walkers while sneaking a look at amateurs trying to rediscover their five-a-side football skills.
Why go? To escape the Oxford Street crowds.
What is it? London’s oldest royal park and, essentially, Buckingham Palace’s front garden. St James’s Park runs alongside The Mall and offers an easy escape from the traffic noise of Trafalgar Square. The two islands in its lake are home to wildlife and there’s the Princess Diana Memorial Walk to follow if you fancy some gentle exercise.
Why go? To watch the pelicans (which were introduced to the park more than 400 years ago) being fed at 2.30pm daily.
What is it? An incredible, hands-on museum that features seven floors of entertaining and educational exhibits, including the Apollo 10 command module, a virtual reality space-descent experience, old Nokia mobiles and a sixteenth-century artificial arm.
Why go? To discover the incredible Information Age exhibition – which is where the Queen sent her first tweet, signed Elizabeth R.
What is it? When it comes to London's top attractions, Trafalgar Square can't be overlooked. Literally. The pedestrianised square is home to Nelson atop his enormous column. Naturally, bring your selfie stick because posing for pics is a must. Get the lions and fountains in shot (no paddling, please) and check out the latest modern art installation adorning the Fourth Plinth, as London’s red buses circle the busy roads around you. Don’t feed the pigeons (it’s illegal and you can be fined) and check the website before you go to make the most of your visit – there are often free live events happening in Trafalgar Square, including West End Live.
Why go? To take the archetypal, cheesy, London tourist selfie.
What is it? One of the greatest collections of decorative art, design, fashion and textiles in the world. The permanent exhibits in this South Ken cathedral to creativity are free to visit and include a mini pet cemetery.
Why go? To drool over amazing design and gobble up cake in the sunny courtyard. Bliss.