50 of London’s most iconic places
Three concrete tower blocks, maze-like walkways and a gorgeous conservatory – the Barbican estate is a stunning brutalist structure, but it’s also much more. Built in the ’60s, it’s a symbol of what housing in London could have been: a utopian sky city with affordable homes rubbing up beside grander ones. Now even the pokiest Barbican flat seems like a mansion (with a price tag to match). But the buildings are still open to all – as is the Barbican Centre. It serves up some of the city’s best culture from its concrete box.
We may all tut at people standing on the wrong side of escalators, but Londoners are a selfless bunch at heart. The biggest reminder of this is the ‘Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice’ in Postman’s Park, which remembers city dwellers who ran back into fires, gave up their life jackets or otherwise ended up giving their lives to save others. Tributes date back to the 1800s, but the most recent was added in 2009: a thank-you to Leigh Pitt, who died two years earlier while saving a drowning boy in Thamesmead.
It says something about Londoners that despite spending half our lives commuting on trains underground, we still get excited at the prospect of going on a train underground. The train in question? The Mail Rail. Up until 2003 it ran six and a half miles under our city, between Whitechapel and Paddington, transporting 4 million items of post a day at its peak. Now, the public can ride on it as part of the new Postal Museum. It already feels like a classic London activity.
We may be a city of sinners but we do love a good trip to church. As long as that trip involves hot chocolate and a spine-tinglingly amazing music and/or comedy performance. Islington’s stunning Union Chapel moonlights as a gig venue, specialising in intimate, goosebump-inducing one-offs. Proper legends Amy Winehouse, David Byrne and Patti Smith have all played in its nineteenth-century gothic, stained-glass surroundings. Pass the hymn book.
Wilton’s is a nice place to visit. It does well-curated, intimate theatre and cabaret. But there’s more to this fantastically atmospheric Victorian music hall. Wilton’s is a palimpsest: there’s a story about the shifting tides of London in its ravaged brickwork and wonky floors. It’s a last vestige of working-class East End entertainment, in an area that has suffered poverty, The Blitz, unsympathetic redevelopment and neglect. It was a base for anti-fascists in the 1930s. It’s a survivor, and proof that the spirit of London can be encapsulated in bricks and mortar. It also proves that Londoners will always want places to come together. At a time when our city’s nightlife is under threat, that feels important. Chris Waywell
Far be it from us to endorse the building that was home to the Inland Revenue (shudder) for 150 years, but Somerset House’s programme of cultural events and scintillating exhibitions more than redeems it. Shaking off the stuffy air associated with grandiose buildings, the courtyard alone is one minute hosting London Fashion Week events, the next blaring out rock gigs, projecting a thoughtful season of films or covered in a sheen of ice for the Christmas skating season.
Who’d have thought a shop made out of the timbers from two old ships would become the most glamorous department store in our city? Liberty is where Londoners shop when they’re feeling fancy. The mock-Tudor façade has been tempting us in since 1924, though the iconic fabrics were around decades before Oscar Wilde was a sucker for them: he took a wardrobe stocked with the prints on a trip to America. Other department stores could never.
When it first opened in 1979, Gay’s the Word was the UK’s first shop dedicated to gay and lesbian books. Since then it’s stocked everything from erotic fiction to queer theory, but it’s the activism born here that has really left a mark on London. It was the meeting place for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners during the strikes of the ’80s and it’s still a thriving hub for LGBT+ meet-ups – but the community have had to fight to keep things that way. In 1984 the shop’s directors were charged with conspiracy to import indecent books. The public rallied around the bookshop, raising a £55,000 defence fund. Donations also piled in when a brick was thrown through the window this year. Thank God this grassroots fighter is still going strong. Isabelle Aron
Built on the site of a bakery that was destroyed during WWII, the Young Vic was meant to be around for a mere five years. But here we are almost 50 years later and it’s still providing high art at low prices. Everyone from Helen Mirren to John Malkovich has trodden its boards and London’s cultural tapestry has gained a thread of neon thanks to its ambitious but accessible productions.
Trust us morbid Londoners to be proud of a graveyard. Opened in 1839, its list of people buried and commemorated here reads like top of the funeral pops: Karl Marx, George Michael, Christina Rossetti, Jeremy Beadle, Queen Victoria’s midwife and a man who went down with the Titanic make up just some of the VIPs. And if big-name graves aren’t your bag, you’ll surely be into the fact that in the ’70s the graveyard was a hotspot for vampire hunters.
Originally home to a stuffy accounting firm, 180 The Strand now hosts London Fashion Week and loads of cooler-than-you creative companies, the most exciting of which is arguably The Vinyl Factory – its amazing AV shows have reinvigorated London’s appetite for exhibitions. From exhibits by Kanye West and Beyoncé collaborators to free video art exhibition ‘The Infinite Mix’, this is where pop culture and art intersect thrillingly in London.
Everything about Trafalgar Square is iconic, from Nelson and his huge column to the pigeons that divebomb tourists. Presiding over it all is the National Gallery, a palatial monument to high art. You’d be hard pressed to find a greater collection of masterpieces. Works by Vincent van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci draw such big crowds that it’s officially one of the five most-visited art museums in the world. In fact, the art here’s so vital that it even got evacuated to Wales before WWII.
Sir Henry Wellcome wrote in his will that he wanted his assets to be used to ‘improve mankind’s wellbeing’. It sounds like an extra move, but while he’d been alive he’d already funded research into tetanus, diphtheria and antihistamines. The Wellcome Trust continues his work by supporting groundbreaking medical research. The associated collection has been educating Londoners about health and biology ever since. It also houses the funnest library you’ll find this side of ‘Indiana Jones’.
The Royal Court theatre is where playwrights go to get experimental. Known in the ’50s for its kitchen-sink dramas, the Sloane Square auditorium has blossomed into a playground for The Next Big Thing. Both Laura Wade’s ‘Posh’ and Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ were first produced here. Its creative emphasis on international voices and new and often challenging writing have given it unparalleled influence on London’s arts scene.
The most impressive – and, let’s face it, fun – school-trip destination London has to offer, the Science Museum is more than just an attention trap for kids. A hangover from the Great Exhibition, it was once part of the same museum as the V&A. Now it’s consciously uncoupled from its neighbour, so whether you’re looking for a full-sized model of the European Space Agency’s first ever spacecraft to explore Mercury or live experiments at a Chemistry Bar – this spot is a reminder of the march of progress and sarnies scoffed on a coach.
You’d struggle to find anywhere that captures the spirit of London better than this street food rabbit warren. The earliest mention of the market dates back to 1014. Since then it has operated under many guises: a semi-illegal medieval trading hotspot; a bustling wholesalers; a declining relic; and, now, a national institution. But each incarnation has had a strong sense of community. In 1756, it was Southwark parishioners who raised £6,000 to save the market from closure; and in 1906, 21 trustees from the local community were picked to manage it. After the terror attack in June 2017, it was this sense of community that led to a global outpouring of support for the victims and the traders whose livelihoods were threatened. A year on, it’s thriving. Alexandra Sims
As cultural spaces become rarer, Peckham’s Bussey Building is a shining reminder of what’s possible when industrial units get a local makeover. This former cricket-bat factory was saved from demolition by community group Peckham Vision & The Chronic Love Foundation (CLF) in 2007. Now it’s a top arts venue during the day and home to some of London’s best parties at night. Known for championing a line-up of musical styles from afrobeat to disco at its legendary Soul Train nights, it’s truly the pride of Peckham.
This is the epicentre of London’s biggest cultural events. It’s here that MIA, Bowie and Robert Smith curated line-ups for Meltdown and where Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Malala Yousafzai have given talks as part of ‘WOW – Women of the World’. Wander around the Royal Festival Hall and you’re as likely to bump into an avant-garde harmonica troupe as a freelancer piggybacking the wi-fi.
We’re all photographers now, with our phones and various app-based embellishments. Standards at The Photographers’ Gallery are perhaps a little higher. This was the first public gallery in the UK devoted solely to photography when it opened in 1971. It’s still a safeguard of the vital art of photography beyond the screen in your pocket.
Along the cinematic sweep of the Thames and in the dramatic dinginess under Waterloo Bridge is where London keeps its highest-brow cinema: a cultural mecca and the heart of the London Film Festival. Londoners gather here to watch, then discuss with academic precision, everything from the mise-en-scène of ‘Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion’ to the great cosmic joke that is ‘Citizen Kane’.
Usually the bizarre homes of architects who died 200 years ago are bloody miles away, in Yorkshire or somewhere. But Sir John Soane was always immersed in London, and his house is mere minutes from the West End. A contender for most eccentric interior in the capital, chez Soane is a taster menu of his architecture: a mix of styles, influences and tricks (such as indirect lighting) lend it a sombre yet playful atmosphere. It’s both domestic and monumental, theatrical and severe. Soane designed many significant London buildings, from the Bank of England to Dulwich Picture Gallery, and his work inspired the design of the red phone box. But his own home is his greatest legacy: the personal statement of a London genius. Chris Waywell
This David Attenborough of museums feeds Londoners’ endless fascination with all creatures great and small via taxidermied animals, bionic dinosaurs and the recently added four-and-a-half-ton blue whale skeleton in the foyer. It keeps us from forgetting our place in the world, and that nature exists beyong our window boxes and parks.
Going to the Royal Albert Hall is incredibly special. You can actually feel your heart swelling as you walk up those iconic steps outside, then gaze up into the breathtaking dome as your favourite band, orchestra or speaker gets to it on stage. With awesome acoustics and space for 5,000 while somehow always making you feel part of an intimate crowd, the RAH is like no other venue. And, of course, it’s the home of the legendary Proms.
Venue says Join us for headline acts, classical coffee mornings, late-night jazz, and everything in between. Unforgettable experiences since 1871.
The original Globe may have burned down centuries ago, but this reconstruction opened in 1997 – so we can party like it’s 1599. Run with the eternal optimism of an outdoor theatre in London, the building may be traditional but its performances aren’t. Inventive new approaches to Shakespeare’s plays keep audiences on their toes – literally, since you mostly watch them standing up. It’s an almighty tribute to London’s most famous playwright.
Just the first national public museum in the world, no big deal. Opened in 1759, the British Museum is technically older than the USA and home to some of the world’s most important artefacts, including the Rosetta Stone (key to deciphering Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics) and ab-rippling Ancient Greek sculptures from the 1,500-year-old Parthenon Temple. Proof that the ‘Love Island’ cast didn’t invent the chiselled torso.
Three years ago, on a particularly unlucky Friday the 13th, this much-loved arts centre went up in smoke. Thankfully, after a lengthy renovation, it will officially reopen this month. But it won’t be all shiny and new – the walls charred by the fire will remain as they were to serve as a reminder of the blaze. That might seem like a maverick move, but this cultural hub, which inhabits the old Battersea Town Hall, doesn’t play by the rules. From encouraging experimentation through ‘scratch’ (work-in-progress) performances to offering a space for theatre-makers to make their big break (it played host to Punchdrunk’s breakthrough show ‘Masque of the Red Death’), it’s where new ideas are born. Isabelle Aron
‘‘Alright, sausage?’. ‘Are you getting enough?’. ‘I’m a mess’. These are just a few of the choice phrases you’ll find up in lights at Walthamstow’s neon wonderland. Its was founded by artist and designer Chris Bracey, who made his mark on Soho’s bars and strip clubs in the ’70s and ’80s with his neon masterpieces. He sadly died in 2014, but his love of being lit in the city lives on in this museum of sorts. It’s not just signs, either. You’ll also find a statue of Jesus brandishing a couple of neon guns and a downsized replica of the Statue of Liberty with pink neon lettering that reads, ‘I’m waiting for my man’. Hidden away in an unlikely spot on an industrial estate in E17, there’s nowhere else quite like God’s Own Junkyard. It’s decades of seedy Soho history distilled into a few square metres. As the hand-painted sign outside proudly declares, this is ‘heavenly junk in a hell of a location’. Isabelle Aron
You’ve not truly visited east London if you’ve not had a Beigel Bake bagel. This 24-hour institution produces around 7,000 bagels a day. In business since 1974, it’s still beloved by shoppers, clubbers and cabbies. We dare you to walk down Brick Lane without being enticed by its bready aroma and salt-beef fillings. And why not? Those holey rolls are a tasty piece of London history and just a few pence a pop.
What is the Horniman? A museum? An aquarium? A town hall? Its roots lie with Victorian tea trader Frederick John Horniman, who brought home so many curiosities that apparently his wife said: ‘Either the collection goes or I do.’ So he did the decent thing and opened a museum. More than 100 years later, his desire to bring the world to Forest Hill is still going strong. Look out for the giant stuffed walrus.
Scour London for as long as you like and you won’t find anything quite like this place. Step in to this pristinely preserved 1950s-style dance hall – the only one left in the UK! – and it feels like time has stood still. There’s an air of ‘The Shining’ about it when it’s empty, but ghosts seem less of an issue when it’s jumping to the sounds of swing music, intimate gigs or music video shoots (Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’ to be exact).
In some ways Soho’s tiny, winding French House is a typical London boozer: there used to be tens of thousands like it all over the city. But these days it’s also atypical: no music, TV or phones. No gastro grub or pizza oven. It was a haven for artistic types and the exiled French in WWII, hence its eccentric half-pint-only policy and unusually high sales of Ricard. London’s pubs are under pressure: celebrate their greatness at The French House.
What do Paul O’Grady and Princess Diana have in common? They’ve both got ties to iconic LGBT+ venue the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. O’Grady spent years performing at the south London pub in his drag persona Lily Savage. As for Lady Di, she apparently spent an evening there dressed as a male model alongside pals Freddie Mercury, Cleo Rocos and Kenny Everett (#squad). The RVT’s appeal goes way beyond its celeb fanbase, though. As one of London’s oldest LGBT+ venues, it was given Grade II-listed status in 2015 after a campaign from regulars fought to save the space from regeneration. It’s the first UK building to be listed because of its significance to LGBT+ history and heritage. Long live the RVT! Isabelle Aron
London is a city scarred by war and our unflinching Imperial War Museum weaves powerful stories of it, with nearly 11 million big guns, fighter jets and other artefacts. First opened in Crystal Palace in 1917 as a way to record the (then ongoing) experiences of the Great War, the collection now resides in Elephant & Castle’s most imposing building. Its importance lies in both remembrance of the horrors and the overarching message that we should strive for peace – something that feels worryingly relevant right now.
Off the lobby of the swanky Mondrian Hotel you’ll find the best cocktail bar in the world. We’re not just saying that, it’s official. Dandelyan – second venture of Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka booze superhero Mr Lyan – has won more awards than Meryl Streep (although she’s never been up for World’s Best Cocktail Bar as far as we know), thanks to its gloriously inventive cocktails which perfectly represent London’s amazing, protean bar scene. Chalk bitters, crystal peach nectar and dandelion capillaire for all!
The home of time itself, and if that’s not iconic, we don’t know what is. Where else can you have one foot in the Western hemisphere and one in the Eastern? Nowhere officially recognised by the ’Gram, that’s for sure. Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed recorded 50,000 observations trying to work out longitude back in 1675, and even then he didn’t crack it. Another guy solved the problem after Flamsteed’s death. Your Instas are his legacy.
The Tate Modern’s former power station chimney and architecturally befuddling Switch House are as off-kilter yet recognisable as the (sometimes challenging) modern art housed inside. The vast Turbine Hall is the building’s heart: there isn’t a secular space like it in London. Its 3,300 square-metres have played host to huge (and hugely memorable) installations, starting with Louise Bourgeois’s giant spider, ‘Maman’, back in 1999. Come and be awed.
You don’t get to be one of the world’s greatest cosmopolitan metropolises without creating a bit of a history. The Museum of London is where we go to remember where it all came from – every twist and turn that makes our city what it is, is here, from prehistoric flint tools to our most prized artefact: a bit of the famed Fatberg.
When the Queen demands a museum be named after her, you don’t say no. Victoria laid the first stone in the foundations of this west London treasure trove. Now it traces 5,000 years of fashion, art and craftsmanship: an eccentric mix of old and new, beautiful and useful, modern and classic that feels stupidly and wonderfully British. It’s a place to deep-dive into the significance of everything, from a Constable painting to Elizabethan ruffs – and it was host to that sold-out Alexander McQueen retrospective.
If the Young Vic represents the future of theatre, the Old Vic reps London’s magnificent heritage and turbulent present. For 200 years it has been expanding London’s world views with an eclectic programme of traditional and cutting edge performance. Without it we wouldn’t have the National Theatre or half of the thrillingly inventive companies keeping London cultured today.
Each portrait you see here is more than a nice picture: it’s a snapshot of a life and a time. Want to see the most famous painting that may or may not be of William Shakespeare? Or perhaps a video of David Beckham sleeping? The NPG is your go-to. Plus there are 326 portraits of Her Maj Queen Elizabeth II to examine, in case you need a refresher on what she looks like.
Want proof that Londoners have always been suckers for all things morbid? This Victorian museum is it. The 5,000 human specimens in jars here include gout-affected hands and a chimney sweep’s scrotal tumour. Londoners turn up in droves for rare open days where they can marvel at the maladies that have plagued us through the ages, and thank their lucky stars for the NHS.
Take a stroll through Crystal Palace and you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into London’s very own Jurassic Park, except, wait… everything’s slightly off. The 30 dinosaurs here have humps on their backs, legs like lions and chubby torsos. They were created by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in 1852, six years before Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, so they’re a mish-mash of the limited research available and a lot of imagination. While the big fellas might not be the most accurate prehistoric sculptures in the world, they still have huge importance in our city. Not only were they the very first dinosaur sculptures ever made, they’re now a representation of Londoners’ love of the underdog (underdino?). Time Out readers voted the beasts their favourite sculpture in London. Let the haters hate, the Crystal Palace dinos will never become extinct. Isabelle Aron
Want a list of buildings instead?
Our list of the city’s best buildings showcases the city’s unique mix – from the iconic to the unsung