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.
From the awe-inspiring dinosaur skeletons to the fascinating creepy-crawlies gallery, London’s Natural History Museum is a trove of curiosities sure to impress all ages. The gigantic museum dates back to 1881 and houses some 70 million specimens, organized into four color-coded discovery zones and hundreds of interactive exhibitions.
As well as learning about human biology and evolution; marveling over fossils and rocks; and seeing a life-size model of a blue whale, visitors can experience an earthquake simulator, challenge themselves with interactive quizzes and get up close to birds, flowers and insects in the wildlife garden. Notable highlights include a huge Diplodocus skeleton and an animatronic T-Rex in the Dinosaurs Gallery; the mind-boggling taxonomy collection in the Darwin Centre; and the Human Evolution Gallery, home to the first adult Neanderthal skull ever discovered.
You think you know what food markets are all about? Borough Market will change your mind, as this is a place of food dreams. On Thursday, Friday and especially Saturday, you’ll find both the locals doing their weekly shopping and people who have caught the train in from all over London just to buy the specialties on offer here.
Borough Market has things you won’t find anywhere else. Prepared food, meats, fish, chocolates, fruits, vegetables – all sold by people who love food and can tell you exactly what you’re buying, how it was grown or made. Foodie paradise.
There has been a market in this London Bridge area since the 11th century; it’s been on this site since the 13th century and in St Mary’s Churchyard triangle since the 18th. In the last decade, Borough Market has really won its reputation as London’s best local produce market as some of England’s most innovative and quality growers and food-makers have set up stalls.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in London
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.
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.
Part of London’s famous series of Imperial War Museums, the original Churchill War Rooms, set in the Prime Minister’s secret underground headquarters. The maze of rooms in the basement of a Whitehall building, initially set-up to protect key government figures from the Blitz bombings, were known as the ‘Cabinet War Rooms’ and became a vital center of operations from 1940 to 1945.
After the end of the war, the rooms remained secret until they were opened to the public in 1984 after restoration efforts by the Imperial War Museum. Today, the museum explores the life and legacy of Winston Churchill and includes stories, speeches, photos, video interviews and documents. Here, you can explore the main Cabinet War Room, the ‘Courtyard Rooms’, the ‘Bunker’ and the ‘Map Room’
The 330-meter-long steel Millennium Bridge stands over the River Thames, connecting the St. Paul’s Cathedral to the north with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern at the southern end of the structure.
Due to a noticeable swaying motion, which had some people clinging to the rails feeling seasick and others enjoying the exhilarating ride, the structure had to be closed down only two days after opening in June, 2000. Although it took almost another two years to complete the necessary repairs, install dampeners and make the bridge more stable, it had already become widely famous in the two days it was accessible and earned itself the nickname “Wobbly Bridge.” The suspension bridge is no longer wobbly, but it is still an interesting way to cross the Thames. And due to its low-hanging support beams and rods, the bridge offers nice views of both the City of London and the South Bank.
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.
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.
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.
Set between the grounds of St James’s Palace and the iconic abode to the Queen of England, Buckingham Palace; few picnic spots are as breathtakingly regal as St James’s Park, a 58-acre (23-hectare) stretch, located a short stroll from many of central London’s key tourist attractions.
As well as offering a pocket of greenery amidst the urban sprawl of Central London, the Park’s proximity to Buckingham Palace makes it a popular spot to watch the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony, where the uniformed palace guards change over in an elaborate march and band performance. In addition, the park’s Horse Guards Parade hosts the annual Trooping the Colour military parade to mark the Queen's official birthday, along with the Beating Retreat, a floodlit spectacular featuring marching bands from the Cavalry and Foot Guard regiments, held each June.
There has been a theater on the site of Her Majesty's since 1705, but this incarnation opened in 1897 as a fine example of Victorian civic architecture. Today, the theater is part of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group of entertainment venues, including six theaters throughout London's razzle-dazzle West End.
With a capacity of 1,100 in the main auditorium, Her Majesty's Theatre has been showing the fabulous Phantom of the Opera musical—known for its spectacular stage sets and Lloyd Webber's opera-lite score—since its world premiere in 1986, notching up a record-breaking run of more than 12,000 performances. The show plays to packed audiences nightly.
The theater was given a thorough overhaul in 2014, with many of its paintings cleaned and the stalls re-gilded. The 2.5-hour Phantom of the Opera performance runs Monday through Saturday at 7:30pm, with matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 2:30pm. A variety of afternoon tea and dinner packages are available.
Soho is one of London's most famous areas. Bounded by Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, it's a close-knit tangle of busy streets with some of London's best cafes (Bar Italia), music venues (Ronnie Scott's), pubs (the French House), shops, nightclubs and history. Once famed as a seedy red-light area, now it's a cultural hub, full of actors, artists, musicians, and the center of London's gay scene.
In summer, people flock to lovely Soho Square to loll on the lawn. In winter, stroll Carnaby Street and famous Liberty department store for fashion, or eat decadent cakes at Princi in Wardour Street. Sit outside Bar Italia and celebrity spot, especially before and after theater shows on the nearby Shaftesbury Avenue.
Covent Garden is an area of London centered on a popular covered market in the heart of London. Once a monks' convent garden in the 13th century, it quickly developed into a fruit and vegetable market for the city, was redeveloped in 1630 by the Earl of Bedford to be ringed by fashionable residences modeled on Italian piazzas, then became a center for theater and opera. Today the covered market building is a home to shops selling gourmet and specialist foods and souvenirs. The Royal Opera House remains located in Covent Garden, and the piazza area is long famous for its street performers.
Within the wider area known as Covent Garden are many more theaters and a wonderful tangle of narrow streets full of some of London's best shops. Floral Street, Long Acre, Shorts Gardens, Neal Street and Mercer Street have some of London's best and most diverse shopping, leading towards the area Seven Dials, where seven streets converge.
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.
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