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London is a huge city, so all individual listings are in the appropriate district articles and only an overview is presented here.
The first landmark that any tourist should make a beeline for is any that allows them to get an aerial view of the city. This allows you to familiarize yourself with all of London’s landmarks at once, as well as offering stunning views of the capital. This means a visit to either the London Eye, the Shard or the Monument:
- The London Eye is the world’s largest observation wheel, standing at 135 metres over London’s Southbank. A full rotation of the wheel takes 30 minutes, and costs £23 per person.
- The Shard offers London in its entirety, with an 72nd floor observation platform offering a 40 mile view of the city and beyond. It costs £25.95 (if booked online, £30.95 on the day) to reach this platform, with a second visit free if bad weather ruins your view. Situated in London Bridge, the Shard is a landmark in its own right as one of London’s foremost futuristic skyscrapers.
- Built as a memorial to the rebirth of the city following the catastrophic Great Fire of London in 1666, The Monument is perhaps the least well known of the city’s views. Designed by Christopher Wren, its 62m pillar can be climbed by a series of 311 steps, leading to a viewing deck offering great views of the surrounding City of London. It is not as high as either the Shard or London Eye, but at £4 is also a fraction of the price, and equally fun to scale.
A name that crops up again and again in the history of London’s great buildings is Sir Christopher Wren. Tasked with the job of rebuilding London after the Great Fire of London destroyed a third of the medieval city in 1666, his plans were sadly rejected, but he did leave the city with 51 new churches, as well as the world-famous St Paul’s Cathedral in [[Check out our guidelines and learn how to create your own! London/Holborn-Clerkenwell|Holborn]] with its majestic dome and renowned ‘Whispering Gallery’.
Directly across the river from the cathedral are two London landmarks that offer insight into two very different eras in London’s past. Crossing on Millennium Bridge from St Paul’s you will see Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern. The former is a late 20th Century reconstruction of the original theater where many of the Bard’s greatest plays were first performed, a piece of Elizabethan London recreated in 1997. The latter is a striking converted power station, with a large brick tower that looms strikingly over the river.
Following this river west, you come to perhaps London’s most famous landmark — Big Ben, part of the Palace of Westminster (which also includes the Houses of Parliament), although the clock tower is technically called the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben is the name of the bell that chimes every hour). The Palace of Westminster is open to the public for viewing parliamentary debates, tours of the building are available during August-September when Parliament is away on summer recess and every Saturday throughout the year.
Whilst in the Westminster area, Buckingham Palace is a must-see. The official London residence of the Queen, it is open for tours during the summer months only. Even when it is closed to the public, the regular ‘changing of the guard’ is a big tourist draw, a celebration of British pageantry that dates back to 1660.
Long before Buckingham Palace was a royal residence there was the Tower of London in the east of the city next to the famous rising Tower Bridge. It is over 900 years old, contains the Crown Jewels, guarded by Beefeaters, and is a World Heritage site considered by many to be the most haunted building in the world.
From a landmark with nearly a millennium’s worth of history to one that is constantly evolving, Piccadilly Circus is one of the most photographed sights in London. The statue of Eros stands proudly in the middle while the north eastern side is dominated by huge screens showing advertisements. Originally famed for its neon, this has since been mostly updated to become a huge digital billboard, but still remains as awe inspiring and even brighter than it was before.
From here, walk through Leicester Square to encounter Trafalgar Square, the home of Nelson’s Column, the lions, and the ‘Fourth plinth’, a site for modern public art that has seen everything from a giant blue cockerel to a succession of the British public who each got an hour to stand on it. Overlooked by the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, it is the nearest London has to a center.
- Buckingham Palace – The official London residence of the Queen, also in Westminster. Open for tours during the summer months only, but a must-see sight even if you don’t go in.
- The London Eye. The world’s third largest observation wheel, situated on the South Bank of the Thames with magnificent views over London.
- Marble Arch is a white Carrara marble monument designed by John Nash. It is located in the middle of a huge traffic island at one of the busiest intersections in central London where Oxford St meets Park Lane inMayfair. It used to stand in front of Buckingham Palace, before it was moved to its present location.
- Piccadilly Circus is one of the most photographed sights in London. The statue of Eros stands proudly in the middle while the north eastern side is dominated by a huge, iconic neon sign.
- St Paul’s Cathedral, also in the City, is Sir Christopher Wren’s great accomplishment, built after the 1666 Great Fire of London – the great dome is still seated in majesty over The City. A section of the dome has such good acoustics that it forms a “Whispering Gallery”.
- Tower Bridge – Is the iconic 19th century bridge located by the Tower of London near the City. It is decorated with high towers and features a drawbridge; you can visit the engine rooms and a Tower Bridge exhibition.
- Tower of London – Situated just south east of the City, is London’s original royal fortress by the Thames. It is over 900 years old, contains the Crown Jewels, guarded by Yeoman of the Guard (sometimes erroneously called ‘Beefeaters’), and is a World Heritage site. It is also considered by many to be the most haunted building in the world. If you are interested in that sort of thing it’s definitely somewhere worth visiting. Sometimes there are guided ghost walks of the building.
- Trafalgar Square – Home of Nelson’s Column and the stone lions, and once a safe haven for London’s pigeons until the recent introduction of hired birds of prey. It recently attracted controversy over the ‘Fourth plinth’, previously empty, being temporarily home to a Marc Quin sculpture, ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’. Overlooked by the National Gallery, it’s the nearest London has to a ‘centre’, and has recently been pedestrianised. Classical music concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
- Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (including Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament) in Westminster. The seat of the United Kingdom parliament and World Heritage site, as well as setting for royal coronations since 1066, most recently that of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The Palace of Westminster is open to the public for viewing parliamentary debates, tours of the building are available during August-September when Parliament is away on summer recess and every Saturday throughout the year.
- 30 St Mary Axe or The Gherkin, a peculiarly-shaped 180 m- (590 ft-) building in the City, which provides a 360-degree view of London on the 40th floor.
- The Shard, a futuristic skyscraper that was topped-out in 2012 and dominates the London skyline. It’s the tallest building in the EU at 310 m (1,017 ft) and features a viewing deck on the 72nd floor.
Museums and Galleries
London hosts an outstanding collection of world-class museums, including three of the world’s most visited. As well as these internationally famous collections you can find nearly 250 other museums across the city. Best of all, many of these let you see their permanent collections for free, including must-visit places like:
- British Museum
- National Gallery
- National Portrait Gallery
- Victoria and Albert Museum
- Natural History Museum
- Tate Modern
- Tate Britain
In contrast to this, independent museums will usually charge you to enter. This is also true of temporary exhibitions at the free-to-enter museums above. Although amounts differ, it is usually around £10-£15. However, the money-conscious tourist can see a significant number of masterpieces without having to spend a penny.
At the British Museum (London’s most popular museum and the second most-visited in the world) for example, visitors can see the Parthenon marbles, the Rosetta Stone and one of the world’s biggest collections of mummies all for free. And that is just some of the 80,000 objects on display in the museum at any given time.
Alongside this museum and other renowned collections are over 250 art galleries. Although some require an appointment and/or have limited opening hours, most are open to the public and free to visit. From the classical to the contemporary, all forms of art imaginable can be seen in London. Work from famous artists from Da Vinci to Damien Hirst can be seen in the city, alongside thousands of other world-famous works and the famous works of the future.
Aside from these world famous establishments, there is an almost unbelievable number of minor museums in London covering a very diverse range of subjects. Although the big museums and galleries like the V&A, Tate and British Museum are not to be missed, many of London’s quirkier or lesser known museums are well worth your time.
From the handheld fan to Sigmund Freud, many subjects have surprisingly fascinating museums all of their own, with Greenwich’s Fan Museum and the Freud Museum in Hampstead just two of the many exhibition spaces that fit that description.
Dental equipment, Sherlock Holmes, gardening …all three of these things have museums dedicated to them in the capital, their sites sitting alongside the museums and galleries you might expect in a big city, like the Natural History Museum or Museum of London. And with so many of them free, there really is no excuse but to explore them whilst in London.
The ‘green lungs’ of London are the many parks, great and small, scattered throughout the city including Hyde Park, St James Park and Regent’s Park. Most of the larger parks have their origins in royal estates and hunting grounds and are still owned by the Crown, despite their public access.
Despite a reputation as ‘the Big Smoke’, a sprawling urban metropolis of concrete, and London is surprisingly green. In fact, London is 47% green space, spread out amongst some of Europe’s most beautiful parks.
Most of the biggest began as royal estates and/or hunting grounds, and are still owned by the Crown. These so-called ‘Royal Parks’ cover 5,000 acres, and are all free to enter at any time. There are eight Royal Parks, which are:
- Hyde Park and adjoining Kensington Gardens make up a huge open space in central London and are very popular for picnics.
- Regent’s Park is wonderful open park in the northern part of central London.
- St James’s Park has charming and romantic gardens ideal for picnics and for strolling around. St. James’s Park is situated between Buckingham Palace on the west and Horse Guards Parade on the east.
- Hampstead Heath is a huge open green space in north central London. Not a tended park as such and is remarkably wild for a metropolitan city location. The views from the Parliament Hill area of the heath south over the city are quite stunning.
- Richmond Park also is a huge green space, but has a thriving deer population that is culled in the spring. Excellent place for cycling.
- Holland Park is a large woodland located in the centre of London. It is a great place to go if you are after some peace and quiet. In the middle of the park is Kyoto gardens were you can buy food and drinks.
- Bushy Park, near to Hampton Court Palace, is the second-largest park in London. More low-key than its larger cousin, Richmond Park, it too has a large deer population. Bushy Park contains numerous ponds, bridleways, two allotments, and at its northern edge, the National Physical Laboratory.
Of these, Richmond Park is by far the largest, at more than double the size of even the second biggest park in London, Wimbledon Common. Slightly out of Central London, its 955 hectares are the perfect place for a day trip. As well as great cycling routes, it is famous for its deer population. Richmond Park has been home to a herd of 600 deer since around the 16th Century, and as long as you keep a respectful distance (the recommendation is 50 metres) from them you are welcome to wander amongst them.
Perhaps most famous of the parks is Hyde Park and the Kensington Gardens that back onto them. Although they feature less to catch the eye than many of London’s parks, their large expanses and central location makes them a popular picnic spot for tourists visiting popular nearby attractions like the Natural History Museum, Science Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum.
In fact, many of these Royal Parks can be found near major tourist attractions, making them ideal for a spot of lunch or just to get away from the bustle around these venues. St James’ Park, for example, is just off of Buckingham Palace, and features a beautiful garden walkway as well as a family of swans.
Regent’s Park can be found in front of the London Zoo, with visitors from the park being able to see a large part of the south side of the zoo for free from the park, including the giraffes. It also has some of the best formal gardens of all the London parks, enclosed by hedges and bursting to life with flowers and fountains.
Hampstead Heath is another popular choice a little out of the centre. Not a tended park as such, it is remarkably wild for a metropolitan city location. The views from the Parliament Hill area of the heath south over the city are quite stunning. It also features a famous outdoor swimming pool for those fancying a dip on a hot day — or for braver souls, you can join the Hampstead Heath Winter Swimming Club.
Bushy Park, near to Hampton Court Palace, is the second-largest park in London. More low-key than its larger cousin, Richmond Park, it too has a large deer population. Bushy Park contains numerous ponds, bridleways, two allotments, and at its northern edge, the National Physical Laboratory.
There are also many parks in London not part of the Royal Parks well worth exploring. Principal among these is Victoria Park in Hackney. Though a fair walk from either Mile End or Homerton stations, it rewards the walk. Featuring a boating lake and a Chinese Pagoda amongst other sights, it is less well known than the other parks and so tends to be quieter, and offers great walks along the lake and the canal.
However, London also offers all sort of other park spaces both small and large worth exploring. Well-known green areas include both Wimbledon and Clapham Common as well as Holland Park, but there are many where the pleasure lies in discovering them out of the blue in an otherwise urban environment.
With nearly 900 of them found in all but three of London’s boroughs, Blue Plaques are among the most familiar features of the capital’s streetscape. The first Blue Plaques were erected to celebrate great figures of the past and the buildings they inhabited, but in the 150 years since the first was put up this has widened to include plaques that commemorate famous events. Visitors to London can now find the homes or workplaces of everyone from Clement Attlee to Emile Zola, and the sites of famous events like the forming of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or the first broadcast from the BBC.
After the Society of Arts founded the scheme in 1866, the first Blue Plaque (at the birthplace of Lord Byron at Cavendish Square) was put up a year later. Initially, the scheme was designed to mark out notable buildings to save them from demolition, but ironically the site of this first plaque was demolished in 1889. However, around 15 of these early plaques still survive, including ones for military leader Lord Nelson , poet John Keats and French Emperor Napoleon III, whose plaque at 1c King’s Street is the oldest still standing.
Although widely known as ‘Blue Plaques’, it should be noted that it is only since the 1960s that they have been in that color as standard. Some Royal Society of the Arts plaques are blue, but the colors vary, and those put up when the London County Council took over the program in 1901 were brown or a shade of blue-grey very different from the royal blue of today’s plaques.
To confuse matters even further, there are some plaques that are not blue and are not Blue Plaques. The term ‘Blue Plaques’ describes the plaques erected by the Royal Academy or any of the three organizations that took over from them: the London County Council (1901-1965), the Greater London Council (1965-1986) and English Heritage from 1986 onwards. Due to a deal with the Corporation of the City of London, the mile stretch of the City of London itself has its own commemorative notices which are also blue, except for one red Blue Plaque in tribute to author and dictionary-writer Samuel Johnson at his home in Gough Square. Transport for London also has its own plaques that are red.
For those interested in finding London Blue Plaques, they can be found in all boroughs except Barking and Dagenham, Havering and Hillingdon. The most concentrated area for them is the borough of Westminster, which has a third of all Blue Plaques, commemorating figures as diverse as Samuel Pepys and Chopin. However, they can be found as far afield as Croydon to the South and Enfield to the North. Additionally, the selection panel of experts are committed to giving Blue Plaque status to around twelve new buildings every year, meaning the number to discover is ever-growing.