The best things to do in central London
The ornate mock Tudor exterior and the warren of rooms and galleries are all part of the magical experience of a shopping trip to Liberty. Established in 1875, the original store sold fabrics and fine objets d’art from the Far East. Eclectic style throughout its fashion, beauty, gift and home departments continues to set rather than follow trends, with leading designers selling exclusive ranges through the store.
Whether it was to bring the audience closer to the action or just because they hadn’t invented chairs yet, back in Shakespeare’s day theatregoers would spend performances on their feet. At the Globe theatre on the South Bank the tradition continues, with 700 standing tickets released for each performance. Not only do these tickets cost a very affordable £5, they also offer the best view of the show – assuming you’re not incredibly short, that is.
Tim Hunkins' eccentric collection of mechanical sculptures looks nothing special from the outside, but don't be deterred. If you're a fan of all things quirky, ironic and genuinely original, venture inside, fork out for some tokens and get stuck in. You can do a spot of money laundering, experience a total eclipse (by getting into a cupboard and shutting the door, basically), have your foot tickled by dodgy-looking chiropodist or test your nerve by seeing how long you can bear to hold your hand beneath the salivating jaws of ferocious dog. Prepare to be charmed.
London’s biggest independent bookshop moved into a shiny new home just a few doors down from its original home on Charing Cross Road in 2014. Swapping cluttered warrens of rooms for glass mezzanines, Foyles now has space for over 200,000 titles plus an auditorium for author talks and, rather splendidly, live music curated by Ray’s Jazz. There’s also an art gallery, a café and a nifty interactive search tool that makes tracking down books a doddle (handy, given there’s four miles’ worth of bookshelves here). It’s also an incredibly beautiful shop just to stroll around. Take that, internet!
Bilingual street signs, colourful pagodas, lion statues and grand red and gold gates welcome you to Chinatown, the area between Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue that’s packed with restaurants and shops devoted to Asian culture. Browse the weird and wonderful products in supermarkets such as See Woo, pop into Chinatown Bakery for a cheap, delicious lunch or end your night out with a meal in Four Seasons, a Wardour Street restaurant that stays open until 4am.
Can’t decide between the Picassos at Tate Modern and the Constables at Tate Britain? Do both! The Tate Boat (decorated with Damien Hirst dots) runs along the Thames between Tate Britain by Vauxhall Bridge and the Tate Modern on Bankside every 40 minutes during gallery opening hours, seven days a week (except Dec 24-26).
The city’s iconic red buses may not be a constant feature on the roads these days, but you can admire them at these Covent Garden vehicle vaults – without having to wait ages for one to arrive. Hop aboard for a taste of what it’s like to navigate London from the driver’s seat of a bus or tube train; kids even get their own fleet of miniature versions to play on. Design buffs should head straight for the classic poster displays.
Seeing a play isn’t the only reason to visit Denys Lasdun's 1970s concrete edifice. Behind-the-scenes life there is like a permanent piece of site-specific theatre, which you can explore on daily tours with guides who have a seemingly endless supply of fascinating anecdotes about the building and its history. Book a table for afternoon tea afterwards at House, the National's newest restaurant. The menu is wittily themed to reflect past productions and the moreish pork pie – a nod to the National's production of 'Sweeney Todd' – is not to be missed.
If you've already paid your respects to Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles, it's time to delve deeper at the BM. You’ll find the Merman in the Enlightenment gallery. It once belonged to Queen Victoria's grandson Prince Arthur of Connaught and is said to have been caught in Japan, in the eighteenth century. It's not true though; this specimen is a cut-and-shut job – and it's not pretty. The head and torso of a monkey has been attached to the tail of a fish using the dark art of taxidermy to create what is possibly the capital's most fascinating fake.
Housed in a former air-raid shelter in Soho, Cahoots is a theme bar, but, somewhat impossibly, a cool one. Tapping into Londoners’ fixation with public transport and all things retro, it models itself on a wartime tube station, complete with vintage signs, shiny tiles and a replica train carriage upholstered in that famous geometric fabric. Elaborate cocktails are served by staff in full costume – it’s the only time you can legally drink on the tube, and in great style.
Every weekend a great gang of street food vendors materialise behind the Royal Festival Hall, determined to make sure you don't go hungry, whether you're headed for a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a free informal dance in the RFH's Clore Ballroom or one of the great seasonal festivals on the river bank. Grab a craft beer and snack on freshly barbecued corn on the cob, or fuel up on something substantial like delicious Iberican braised pork cheek and butter bean purée from the Donostia Social Club van, or spicy Korean barbecue from Korrito.
The city’s most famous bridge recently gained a daring glass floor on the high walkways, meaning visitors can now look straight down to the road and river 42 metres below. Each of the six glass panels is 11 metres long and weighs more than 500kg. Try not to think about that as you're walking across them. Regain your equilibrium by taking in the stunning views of London to the east and west from the windows.
Facts? Figures? Historical accuracy? All totally overrated, if you believe the comedy duo behind this fun, fallacy-filled walking tour of the city. Starting every Thursday at 7pm outside St Paul’s Cathedral (look for the ‘flamboyant jackets’), the tours cost £10, last around two hours, and comprise of a healthy mixture of improvised skits and out-and-out porkie-telling. Highlights of the route include the South Bank, the Thames Mermaid and Trafalgar Square. One of which we suspect may be made up.
Arthur Conan Doyle visited the original waxworks as a boy, when it was located in the Baker Street bazaar and legend has it that the experience was one of the reasons he was inspired to set his classic detective stories here. It’s fitting, then, that you can crack your own mini-mystery in the bowels of Madame Tussauds. Holmes himself has gone missing and you must look for clues through a beautifully designed set, travelling from Edwardian Baker Street to the sticks, meeting shady characters along the way.
The IWM’s First World War Galleries examine the politics and legacy of the 1914-1918 conflict, but also day-to-day life in the trenches. In photographs, artefacts like tins of food, and a collection of letters (many from fighters who never came back), the museum tells a powerful and moving story.
Every one of the world’s great touring art exhibitions passes through the Tate galleries, the Royal Academy or the National Gallery at some point, while the Hayward’s reputation for hosting innovative art ensures world famous names attract queues around the block. Booking ahead is always advisable, and don't forget First Thursdays – free evening openings at east London galleries.
The Magna Carta, works of Shakespeare and Dickens, copies of The Beano – they all have a home at the British Library. However, you can also see original manuscripts handwritten by some of the world’s greatest musical talents. See early drafts by John Lennon of ‘In My Life’, ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ written on a piece of Lufthansa-headed paper.
Almost every one of London’s top museums is free to visit, leaving you no excuse to plead ignorance in matters of natural history, science, fashion or world culture. It also leaves you with spare cash for the excellent special exhibitions at the V&A, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, and for dynamic live shows and 3D films at the Science Museum.
Making the city’s skyline a whole lot more spiky than it used to be, the Shard has quickly become an iconic London landmark. The tallest building in Western Europe, the tower has floor-to-ceiling windows offering amazing views. The public visiting area, The View From the Shard, allows you to look out 244 metres above ground level, as if you’re perched over the city on your own cloud.
Okay, at an elegant 0.6mph, the London Eye doesn’t really spin, but the views as it wheels round to 135 metres above the ground can be pretty thrilling nonetheless. Look out over the Thames and central London (you can even see if the Queen’s opened her curtains at Buckingham Palace), or book a special package – options include romantic champagne trips and a two-trip ticket so that you can ride early in the morning and at dusk on the same day.
Secondhand, vintage – call it what you want, London has a sense of serious style for clothes and accessories you won’t see anyone else in. We’re not talking charity shop finds here. Vintage Showroom just off Seven Dials, for example, is a proper pre-loved gents store for carefully sourced army surplus and old-school classics, while nearby Blackout II (Endell Street) has affordable threads for Downton wannabes and lovers of ’70s chic. For more style inspiration from yesteryear, check out our rundown of London’s best vintage stores.
If you’re taking a tour of this grand palace of politics you can book ahead to enjoy afternoon tea afterwards. Sadly there’s no chance of seeing the PM – teas are served on Saturdays and selected days during Parliament recess – but you can nibble on savouries and cakes in in the elegant Terrace Pavilion with views of the Thames rarely enjoyed by the public.
Tucked into a little dry dock in bustling Bankside, the full-sized replica of the Golden Hinde galleon looks like it’s just dropped out of the sky, ‘Time Bandits’-style, from another century. As well as daily tours and pirate fun days, there’s the Family Overnight Living History Experience: dress as Tudor sailors, learn about life on a ship then bunk down on the Gun Deck after supper.
The capital has many excellent art spaces dedicated to photography. Atlas in Marylebone specialises in classic and modern twentieth century work, photojournalism and fashion, Hamiltons in Mayfair shows and sells works by greats such as Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts, and the Photographers’ Gallery on Ramillies Street boasts space for special exhibitions, a bookshop and a print sales room.
Though London’s cycle hire scheme was the idea of long-gone London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan is now in the top job, the bulky red steeds will forever be known as ‘Boris Bikes’ after Boris Johnson under whom the scheme was implemented in 2010. Download the Santander scheme’s mobile app to check the status of your nearest dock and to plot a cycle-friendly route through town.
When saxophonist Ronnie Scott opened a basement jazz club in Soho in 1959, he created a space where musicians could play in an intimate setting rather than big concert halls. From Miles Davis and Count Basie to Nina Simone, all the legends played at Ronnie’s. It moved to its present home on Frith Street decades ago and remains a must on any great jazz musician’s tour itinerary.
Both inside and out, Sir Christopher Wren’s baroque beast is a marvel to look at, but it also sounds pretty awesome, too. Up in the Whispering Gallery (the indoor balcony at the base of the dome), the acoustics of the cathedral’s architecture create a bizarre aural phenomenon: stand on the exact opposite side of the dome as a friend, whisper something (‘I’m watching you’ works rather nicely) and they’ll hear you loud and clear, despite being over 100 feet away. Spooky.
Discover something new at an institution with centuries of Covent Garden heritage. The Royal Opera House backstage tour takes you around the auditorium and behind the scenes, often with a chance to see the Royal Ballet in class. The Velvet, Gilt and Glamour Tour offers a look at the building’s architecture as you hear stories of the opera greats who have performed there.
Sir John Soane’s Museum in Holborn takes its name from the architect whose sprawling art collection it houses (he built the Bank of England, so wasn’t short of a few bob). Among the museum’s biggest crowd-pullers is a series by fellow Londoner William Hogarth entitled ‘A Rake’s Progress’, which, in eight scenes, charts the downfall of a young man who inherits and squanders a fortune.
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Whether you’ve lived here all your life or you’ve just arrived at Heathrow, we're all spoilt for brilliant things to do in London. From picture-postcard attractions to hotspots in odd spots, by day and night, from art to wildlife, there are, in fact, many more than 101 things to do in London.
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