Things to Do in London
Westminster Palace, home to the British Houses of Parliament, is right on the river Thames. A magnificent Neo-Gothic building dating from 1840, it's most recognizable from the clock tower at one end known as Big Ben. (In fact, Big Ben is actually the bell inside the tower.)
Parliament is made up of two houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords and both have their meeting chambers inside here. It is possible to sit and watch from the Visitors' Gallery if you like seeing grown men taunting each other with bad jokes. Once a year, the Queen puts on her crown, sits on her Throne in the House of Lords and officially opens Parliament.
Since it was officially opened on New Year's Eve 1999 (as part of the millennial celebrations), the London Eye has become one of London's most popular attractions. It has 32 sealed 'pod' capsules, fitting a total of 800 people, revolving on a huge Ferris wheel. One go-around takes half an hour with the wheel rotating at only twice the speed of a tortoise sprinting, so you can step on and off without the wheel needing to stop!
The London Eye is the fourth-tallest structure in London, so the far-reaching views over London are spectacular. On a clear day you can see as far as Windsor Castle. And the slow speed of the rotation means there's plenty of time to see everything and take lots of photos.
The Thames is the longest river in England, the second longest in the United Kingdom. It flows from the west in the Cotswolds, passing through Oxford and London, ending at the sea at Southend-on-Sea in Essex. As far up as Teddington on the western edge of London, the river is tidal. Once the lifeline of London trade and communication, it's still busy with boats: sightseeing boats and houseboats mainly.
Once the only way across the river was to ford it, then London Bridge was built by the Romans. Nowadays many bridges criss-cross the river, the pedestrian Millennium Bridge, Tower Bridge and Albert Bridge are among the prettiest.
The Thames is home to many species of fish and birds - particularly white swans which are to this day all still owned by the Queen. The river is also used by rowers and yachtsman but not swimmers - the water is not the cleanest.
The British Museum is one of the largest museums in the world, comparable only to the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York. Established around 1750, the British Museum originated with Sir Hans Sloane's 'Cabinet of Curiosities' which he donated to the nation. It's now London's most visited attraction with over seven million objects and a wealth of world history - from Egyptian mummies to Roman sculptures, the Greek Parthenon marbles and the Persian Oxus Treasure (thanks to the British Empire's history of conquering distant countries - there is ongoing controversy about whether some of these treasures should now be returned to where they came from).
But this is no dull, dusty cupboard of old bits and pieces. The British Museum has a wide-ranging program of talks, films, family events, activities for kids, cafes and an excellent shop. The museum is housed in an imposing Greek Revival building dating from the 1850s.
Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic sights in London. It was opened in 1894, designed to echo the nearby Tower of London although the two have no association except proximity. The bridge is a bascule bridge which means the span lifts to allow ships and yachts through headed for the Pool of London, the port area just upstream of Tower Bridge. River traffic takes priority over road traffic and cars have to wait when a boat wants to come through.
The bridge has two high towers suspended by wires from the land and linked by a high-level walkway between. This was designed for pedestrians to be able to cross the river even when the bridge was open and you can still walk across it today. A common confusion is that Tower Bridge is actually called London Bridge but in fact that is the next one upstream, a much plainer bridge.
London Bridge is the oldest bridge over the River Thames. While the current incarnation of the bridge dates from the 1970s, there has been a bridge in this place since around 50 AD, when the Romans drove some wooden piles into the river's mud. Since then there has always been a bridge here, and for a long time it was the only one. (Nowadays there are many bridges crisscrossing the Thames.)
Sadly, London Bridge is not one of the prettiest of the Thames bridges, although its name might be the most famous. Expecting the name to conjure up something special, people often mistakenly call Tower Bridge London Bridge. This leads to the story that an American bought London Bridge in 1968, thinking he'd bought Tower Bridge: what he did buy now spans a lake in Arizona.
More Things to Do in London
Dating from the 1820s and named after Admiral Nelson's last great victory, Trafalgar Square is a hub of London life. With the National Gallery on one side, beautiful church St Martin in the Fields just across the road and the famous Nelson's Column with its guarding lions, it's London's grandest square. It's here that London celebrates moments such as Chinese New Year and winning the Olympics, as well as having a huge Christmas tree each year. It's also here that Londoners show their displeasure about things such as wars and curbs on freedom on speech.
Trafalgar Square is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world pass by. There's a common belief that if you sit here for half an hour you will see someone you know, because the whole world passes through Trafalgar Square at some point.
The political, historical and cultural heart of London, the central district of Westminster is one of the capital’s busiest areas and home to so many of the city’s top attractions that many tourists never venture far outside its boundaries. Most visitors start their tour along the Thames River waterfront, where highlights include the Houses of Parliament, the Gothic Westminster Abbey and Westminster Palace, home to the iconic Big Ben clock tower, while the famous London Eye looms on the opposite riverbank. Close by is the grand central boulevard of Whitehall, which leads to Parliament Square and the Prime Minister's official residence at 10 Downing Street; Trafalgar Square, home to Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery; the Tate Britain and, to the north, the vibrant West End Theater district. Another star attraction of Westminster is Buckingham Palace, the official home of Her Majesty the Queen, linked to the city by St James Park, The Mall and the Horse Guards Parade.
At the heart of London’s historic Docklands, the waterfront district of Canary Wharf has transformed itself into a financial powerhouse in recent years, becoming, along with the City of London nearby, one of the capital’s most important business centers. The modern district is now home to the world or European headquarters of some of the biggest names in banking and media, and it certainly looks the part, with its gleaming skyscrapers and glass-fronted high-rises, including the 235-meter-tall One Canada Square, the tallest building in the UK until the arrival of The Shard.
It’s not all about work in Canary Wharf though – the revitalized docks now serve as an urban playground for the city’s most affluent residents, with a suitably elegant selection of bars and restaurants, and a thriving shopping district. Additional highlights include the unique Traffic Light Tree, an installation artwork by Pierre Vivant; the Centaur.
The National Gallery started out quite small. In 1824, the British government purchased a collection of 38 pictures from a wealthy banker and put them on display in his townhouse, but it didn’t take long for private donations to come trickling in. The early directors dreamed of something bigger, and a larger site was soon needed to house everything the gallery would contain.
Today, the collection is kept in an impressive pantheon-style building raised on a terrace atop Trafalgar Square, with its round fountains and double-decker buses flowing by below. More than 2,300 masterworks have found their home behind the columns of the National Gallery, dating from the Middle Ages through the 20th century and including pieces from big names such as Monet, van Gogh, da Vinci, Holbein, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Ruben and van Eyck.
Theatrically inclined visitors to London will delight in the relatively recently reconstructed replica of the Globe Theatre, with which the Bard was famously associated. Guided tours of the facility offer an unparalleled glimpse into the theatrical craft, culture and community that thrived during Shakespeare's day (and in response to the author's mighty quill).
Originally constructed in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company (the so-called Lord Chamberlain's Men), the structure was decimated by a fire 14 years later. A second structure was promptly erected, only to be closed in 1642, a mere 26 years after its founder's death.
A faithful replica of the structure (dubbed “Shakespeare's Globe”) was opened to the public in 1997, just 750 feet from the site of its predecessors. It offers the world's largest exhibition dedicated to the greatest scribbler in the English language, complete with actors, recordings and interactive displays.
The brainchild of the Sellar Group, The Shard now holds the record for the tallest building in the E.U., with the vertical structure measuring an impressive 1,016 feet high. It’s a project some 12 years in the making, employing the skills of architectural visionary Renzo Piano (best known for creating the Pompidou centre in Paris), who not only designed the structure to appear like a gigantic ‘shard of glass’ piercing the skyline, but carefully constructed the angled glass panes to reflect and refract light, creating a prism-like exterior that changes color with the skies.
The futuristic skyscraper takes the place of the Southwark Towers, overtaking it’s predecessor with 72 floors to its 24, and as one of few tall buildings conceived in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, is designed with stability, durability and shock-absorption in mind.
The Tate Modern is one of London's best and most-loved art galleries. Located in an old power station on the south bank of the Thames, the huge turbine hall makes an imposing entrance and wonderful art space for innovative and playful artworks - kids especially love it. The other gallery spaces show a range of the world's most significant modern art in changing exhibitions around various themes.
Tate Modern has an excellent shop and its cafe, overlooking the Thames River and St Paul's Cathedral, is a great place to rest your feet and mind with one of the best views in London. The Tate Modern is one of four museums: Tate Britain (just down the river), Tate St Ives (Cornwall) and Tate Liverpool. Tate Modern and Tate Britain are connected by riverboat so it's easy to move from the modern art at the Tate Modern to the British art of the Tate Britain.
Visitors can explore the ship’s nine decks where the restored living and working quarters (including a sick bay and a dental surgery) and a series of interactive exhibits provide a full sensory experience of life on board during World War II. Climb the ladders between decks; walk in the footsteps of the ship’s 950-strong crew, discover the inner workings of the engine room and visit the interactive Operation room.
A striking example of Palladian architecture with its imposing Corinthian columns and regal façade, the Mansion House makes a fitting residence for the Lord Mayor of London. The official residence and head office of the Lord Mayor since 1752, the house remains an important political center, hosting numerous civic meetings, fundraising events, receptions and dinners throughout the year.
The Mansion House is open to the public for guided tours (weekly or by appointment), allowing visitors to admire the opulent drawing rooms, peek into the Old Ballroom and marvel over the Egyptian Hall, actually designed in a classical Roman style. Highlights of a visit include the 18th-century Hallkeeper's Chair; the glittering crystal chandeliers in the Salon; and the Harold Samuel art collection, which features notable paintings and sculptures by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists.
One of London’s most fascinating yet often-overlooked museums, Sir John Soane’s Museum is dedicated to its namesake, the much-celebrated neo-classical architect who designed a number of acclaimed Regency-era buildings including, most famously, the Bank of England. The museum, housed across three purpose-built houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Central London, was the personal project and one-time home of Soane, designed to inspire and showcase his works to budding architects and students. Opening to the public after his death in 1837, the museum, although recently restored, remains true to Soane’s original design and displays over 20,000 architectural drawings and models.
The building itself is also part of Soane’s work, with highlights including a unique geometric staircase and an exquisite mirrored dome ceiling in the Breakfast Room.
Immortalized on-screen in the eponymous 1999 romantic comedy film, Notting Hill is much more than just a backdrop for the famous Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts’ love affair. The west London district, stretching over Ladbroke Grove, Portobello Road and parts of North Kensington is one of the city’s hippest destinations, lined with vintage boutiques, bijou cafés and indie music venues. Located between the upmarket neighborhoods of Knightsbridge and Kensington, Notting Hill brings a dash of bohemian cool to the stately Victorian townhouses and cobbled side streets, making it the perfect location for the annual Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest and most flamboyant street festival.
Notting Hill is also home to the world famous Portobello market, where one of the largest antique markets in the world is held alongside stalls selling everything from vintage and alternative clothing to handmade crafts and jewelry.
Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Gherkin’ for its unusual shape, the dazzling glass-fronted skyscraper, 30 St Mary Axe, is among London’s most distinctive landmarks, looming 180 meters over the City of London financial district. Largely regarded as a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, the award-wining design was the work of Norman Foster and the Arup Group, and includes energy-conserving features like spiraling light wells and ventilation shafts.
The now-iconic office building opened its doors on 28 April 2004 and today is home to companies like Swiss Re and Sky News, as well as hosting London’s highest private members’ club on its top floor, and occasionally pop-up restaurants and bars, taking advantage of the magnificent 360-degree views.
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