Travel - Destinations
By: - at July 31, 2013

Top 15 Best London Attractions

“There’s no place like London,” the character Anthony Hope sings after listing all the places he has been to as a sailor in the musical Sweeney Todd. Truer words could’ve never been spoken, or in this case, sung. What begun as the Roman settlement Londinium and the neighboring trading post Lundenwic roughly 500 years later, grew together to become the British capital through fire, invasions, pestilence and wars. It’s a city with a vast history and it displays it proudly. You can quote whatever stereotype you like about the Metropolis; it has more than enough sights and experiences to prove them wrong. Over time, London has made its name as the home of fashion, music, theater and so much more that compiling all of it could fill a whole shelf of books.

London England Big Ben at night

Obviously, it’s impossible to make a top 15 list of must-sees that caters to all tastes, especially with a diverse city such as London. Still, when you consult a travelling guide as a first time visitor, you’ll be swamped by the amount of things you’ll want to do and see, and you’ll find yourself caught in a schedule that resembles a tightly regulated business trip more than a holiday. The following list is a selection of sights and locations to give you a rough guidance to the most notable, according to visitor numbers.

15)  The London Dungeon
For those not weak-of-heart and interested in London’s darker history, the London Dungeon, founded 1974 by Annabel Geddes, offers an entertaining and occasionally scary 90-minute program. Recently relocated from Tooley Street, London Bridge to County Hall on Southbank, the Dungeon offers a refreshing mix of museum, horror cabinet show and fun ride that is regularly updated with new experiences. While it’s not advised to visit the Dungeon with small children, young adults and families with teenagers can find great pleasure in experiencing a thousand years of London history as accused criminals, victims and witnesses.

London Dungeon England Horror Museum

You are guided by a selection of one of the 20 live actors through 18 shows based on historical and legendary London. Among the most remarkable experiences in the Dungeon is the indoor boat ride that guides you through Traitor’s Gate as a criminal due for incarceration, and the relatively new Extremis Drop Ride to Doom, imitating the hanging of a criminal at the gallows. A great way of experiencing your later sightseeing locations is to visit the Dungeon first. Walking through Whitechapel afterwards will feel very different after going through a staged chase by Jack the Ripper.

14)  Convent Garden
Actually called Convent Garden Square to avoid confusion with the district it’s located in, the former vegetable and flower market is now the home of expensive boutiques, cafés and street artists. Due to its Tuscan portico, the Victorian building is also known as Convent Garden Piazza or simply as the Piazza. According to the Merian travel guide on London, the fourth Earl of Bedford commissioned Inigo Jones in the sixteenth century to build a church, which later became St. Paul’s, and three terraces, with the words that it all may not be nobler than a barn. Upon this, Jones promised to design the noblest barn in all of Europe. If one goes by the amount of visitors flocking to the Piazza, he did a quite good job of it. The Piazza is also famous as the place where Eliza meets Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady.

Convent Garden London England
 By Diliff (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The vast array of different performances surrounding the building cater to every taste. From rock to folk music, jugglers and small acting performances, it’s a great place to take a rest from a long day of sightseeing and being a tourist. Whether you’re part of a school excursion and brought your own picnic, or if you’re visiting London with your family and the kids are complaining about being hungry, you can pick a seat by a performance you enjoy or a café or restaurant nearby. Since Convent Garden has a roof, you can relax, safely sheltered from any occurrence of classic London weather.

13)  Hyde Park
London’s largest royal park spans over 142 hectares and is more than just a park. While the flower bed arrangements, the Serpentine Lake and fountains are definitely worth seeing, especially in the summer when you want to take a break from the bustling Metropolis, the Park is also home to and adjoins several sights.

Marble Arch London England Hyde Park

If you come toward Hyde Park from Oxford Street, you’ll get to see the Marble Arch, once located in front of Buckingham Palace and then deemed too imposing. Should you then feel the need to express your opinions to anyone willing to listen, you can just cross the road to Speaker’s Corner and join others in their exercise of freedom of speech. Further on lay the former location of the Tyburn Tree, a popular destination for catholic pilgrims, and Tyburn Convent, where paintings commemorate the lives and deaths of 105 martyrs, whose remains are buried within the Convent. Along the Serpentine Lake are the Edward Jenner and Peter Pan Statues, the Serpentine Sackler and Serpentine Contemporary Art Galleries and the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. Beyond that you’ll find yourself in Kensington Gardens, where the Albert Memorial and Diana Memorial Playground with the Elfin Oak are located along with Kensington Palace, home of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. Nearby is the Royal Albert Concert Hall and on this side of Hyde Park are the Holocaust Memorial Garden, the Seventh July Memorial, Queen Elizabeth Gate, Apsley House, New Zealand and Australian Memorials and Wellington Arch, leading toward Green Park and the Buckingham Palace Gardens.

Hyde Park London England

12)  Camden Market
Northwest of Regent’s Park and one of the outermost spots mentioned on this list, is Camden Market. With London being infamous as a shopping paradise, it’s impossible not to hear of Camden Market in that context. Camden Market is actually a conglomerate of several markets, the four largest being Buck Street Market, Lock Market, Canal Market and Stables Market. Each offers somewhat differing wares, although some overlap. Generally, you’ll find clothing, jewelry, hand-made items and small items in Buck Street Market, food and various knick-knacks in Canal Market, larger items such as ceramics, furniture and instruments in Lock Market, and antiques, carpets and vintage fashion in Stables Market. Most notable throughout Camden Market is the appearance of it all being one long stretch of shops that are practically wedged between each other, the sheer amount of tattoo parlors, and street sellers making use of what little space is found in-between is mind boggling. Even if you are not planning on buying anything, Camden Market is worth a look due to its variety. The food stalls around Lock and Stables Markets reflect this fact just as much and for visitors with a budget, eating there is worth your while. An especially fun part of the eating experience are the communal tables where you can meet people from all over the world—many of them guests in London just like you. Keep in mind that while some markets are open throughout the entire week, several only operate from Thursday to Sunday.

Camden Market London England

11)  Tower Bridge
Unavoidable and a definitive must-see is one of London’s greatest landmarks – Tower Bridge. With the popular example of the height of Victorian architecture depicted on pretty much every second postcard, it would be a very embarrassing conversation to have with friends if you cannot boast of at least one picture taken with Tower Bridge seen somewhere in the background. Don’t worry though: due to its central location near several other landmarks, like the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s Globe, it’s impossible to miss.

Tower Bridge London England

Based on the architecture of the Tower and envisioned by Horace Jones and John Wolfe Barry, Tower Bridge was the world's largest drawbridge after a building time of eight years from 1886 to 1894. It could clear the path for incoming ships within three minutes, which sounds quite impressive when one considers that it was once operated with steam. Tower Bridge has been opened with the use electricity and oil since 1976 and now only opens about 900 times a year. For those interested in seeing the event, the timetables are available upon inquiry. Should you miss it, the connected Tower Bridge Experience along with the pedestrian crossing above street level offer insight on the landmark itself and a wonderful panoramic view upon the surrounding city.

10)  Palace of Westminster/Houses of Parliament
Unmistakably dominant in London’s skyline and along the view from the Thames are the Houses of Parliament and the adjoining clock tower known as Big Ben. Built between 1834 and 1860 by Charles Barry, the building is a prime example of a different architectural period than most others on this list, namely the new gothic period. The seat of the House of Lords and House of Commons stretches across an impressive two kilometers of the Thames bank. It houses a hundred stairwells and 1200 rooms, amongst them the only remnant of the old Palace of Westminster that burned down in 1834. Westminster Hall was built in 1099 and with the Palace, was the home of the English monarchy from the eleventh to the early sixteenth century. However, it is more known for being a courtroom until far into the nineteenth century and played host to court proceedings against William Wallace and Guy Fawkes. To anyone interested in the parliament proceedings, you can sit in on the debates of either House. Free seats are available; however, foreign residents cannot reserve in advance and are forced to wait in line. The Wednesday twelve o’clock debate between the Prime Minister and the Opposition in the House of Commons is especially popular.

Parliment Big Ben Palaces of Westminster London England

Although pretty much everyone calls the 97 meter high clock tower Big Ben, the name itself actually refers to the 13-ton bell. It, in turn, was named after the man responsible in the final year of construction, Benjamin Hall. Since 1858 it chimes every full hour and rings in the New Year, while four smaller bells chime every quarter hour. The famous melody that is also used by the BBC to open their news program consists of the first eight bars of an aria from Händel’s Messiah.

9)  Shakespeare’s Globe
Although there is nothing left of the original Globe Theater, thanks to the efforts of the American actor Sam Wanamaker and several generous benefactors, it has been rebuilt as historically accurate as possible just a few meters shy of the original location of the famous ‘Wooden O’. This meant using the same base materials of the original building. Construction spanned over ten years. This however, was definitely a worthwhile investment. Constructed out of 600 oak beams, purpose-built Tudor bricks, reed, goat hair, lime and sand, Shakespeare’s Globe has become the place to go for the most authentic experience of Shakespearean theater and times.

Shakespear's Globe Theater London England

Beside the Theater itself, you can visit the exhibition located below the building accompanied by a guide. After a brief historical run-down of the original Globe and the new one, you can get a few insights into theater mechanics and the history of the district of Bankside, which was once London’s red light district. Tours to the excavation site of the other Shakespearean stage, the Rose Theater, are also available. As part of the tour, you can enjoy one of Shakespeare’s plays, though if you’re aiming to get the full experience by watching as a groundling (a standing audience member), you might want to rest a bit. As a groundling, the only place you can sit is on the floor itself. Also, keep an eye on the weather. Umbrellas are not permitted to groundlings, as it obstructs the view.

Interior of Shakespear's Globe with Audience
Shakespear's Globe Audience Interior London England
 By Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

8)  The British Museum
Based on the collections of royal doctor Sir Hans Sloane, the British Museum was founded 1753 and was accessible to the public from 1759 onwards, becoming the world’s first public museum. In the vein of the Enlightenment, it is dedicated to presenting a huge amount of historical objects to visitors without charging an entrance fee. The British Museum also works on the conservation and restoration of these items and conducts research based on the collection. Although several parts of the collection have been outsourced to other locations such as the National Gallery, the Natural History Museum and the British Library, the size of the building and the amount of exhibits make it impossible to see in a single visit. However, there are several infamous exhibits that you most certainly have heard about and should see.

British Museum London England

Part of the building itself is the centrally located former Reading Room of the British Library, where several great thinkers of history have been visitors just like you. According to popular opinion, Karl Marx wrote his key work on economics and political theory Das Kapital within this room. In the Ancient Egypt exhibit the unusual mummy of Ketebet, an elder summoner of Amun, and the Rosetta Stone, the key element to deciphering hieroglyphs, are among the most popular and well-known. Representative for Roman and medieval British history are the Lindow Man, a well-preserved bog body from the first century, and the Anglo-Saxon remains recovered from the seventh century boat grave of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Further exhibits include the mask of Tezcatlipoca, which is covered in a mosaic of turquoise; the gold figurines of the Oxus Treasure from Persepolis; and the Parthenon Cornice from Greece.

Egyptian Mummy at the British Museum
Egyptian Mummy British Museum London England

7)  National History Museum
Based on the natural science collection of the British Museum, the National History Museum is considered to be one of the most important natural history museums worldwide and also holds a relevant position as research facility. Departmentalized into the areas of botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology and zoology, the museum now has a collection consisting of over seventy million objects. Among these are the well-known diplodocus skeleton in the entrance hall and the 22 million preserved specimens in the Darwin Center. The National History Museum is a great place to go for families with children, and not only because of the paleontological exhibits. The majority of the departments display their information and objects in an appealing manner, such as the crystal and gemstone adorned black walls of the Earth Gallery and the earthquake experience in the Restless Surface Gallery.

Museum of Natural History London England

6)  The Art Galleries
London has the privilege of being the home of several art galleries and museums with long-standing histories. Among the most popular you’ll find are the Tate Britain and Modern, the National Gallery, the Design Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Depending on your taste in art, you can visit the galleries hosting classics or have a taste of modern developments in art.

The National Gallery
National Gallery London England

If you prefer classical styles, you can visit one of the world’s largest art museums – the National Gallery. It displays artworks from all important periods in history and can pride itself on the names in its collection. Amongst its most famous artists on display are Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, van Gogh, Renoir, Rubens and Rembrandt. Tate Britain focuses more on historical British art, ranging from the sixteenth to the end of the twentieth century. For example its prime exhibit contributors are William Turner and John Constable. A wider range of exhibits and periods are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which categorizes its collection in themes such as the Jewellery Gallery, Fashion Room or regional galleries. The most modern of the lot are Tate Modern and the Design Museum. As the name indicates, Tate Modern is actually a subsidiary of Tate Britain and continues where Tate Britain leaves off: artwork of the twentieth century to today. Meanwhile, the Design Museum regularly changes its exhibit and in the past has displayed works on themes such as Formula-1 race cars and Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Tate Modern Gallery
Tate Modern Art Gallery London England

5)  Westminster Abbey
Seeing Westminster Abbey alone could take an entire day, considering the amount of historical events this landmark has witnessed. Since the eleventh century, all English monarchs bar Edward V and Edward VIII have had their coronation in this grand example of gothic architecture. As the case with several cathedrals, Westminster Abbey consists of styling from more than one architectural epoch and has gone through several additions throughout the centuries. Once truly just an abbey belonging to a Benedictine cloister, it received add-ons commissioned by several kings.

Westminster Abbey London England

Due to its meaning to the English monarchy, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has become somewhat of a museum of English and British history and historical figures, even though it has an adjoining museum in what once had been a monk’s dormitory. The names of the parts of the building speak for themselves. The northern transept, the first area after entering through the northern portal, has often been named Statesmen’s Aisle due to the statues and memorial plates commemorating politicians of English history. Also a well-known part, thanks to recent history, is the Sanctuarium, where Prince William married Kate Middleton. Other notable sights include the Coronation Chair, the elaborate high altar, Chapter House and College Garden. Additionally, the monarchs from the years 1272 to 1760, along with several well-known musicians, scientists and artists have found their rest within the memorial, including Charles Dickens, Henry Purcell and Isaac Newton amongst them.

Interior of Westminster Abbey
Interior Westminster Abbey London England
 Joe Mabel [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

4)  Madame Tussaud's
It’s nearly impossible to get around Madame Tussaud's. The wax figure cabinet located on Marylebone Road barely needs any further words of introduction. In 1835, the museum was founded by its eponym who began her career in Paris in the midst of the French Revolution. Beginning with figures of Voltaire, Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, Marie Tussaud proceeded with making death masks of guillotined heads. After presenting her collection in form of a travelling show and a string of bad luck that stranded her in Great Britain, Madame Tussauds settled in Baker Street.

Madame Tussards Wax Museum London England
 I, Citizen59 [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The collection is regularly updated to display wax figures of well-known contemporary celebrities, such as the Queen, Barack Obama, and Lady Gaga. While the more popular figures, especially if freshly revealed, attract a huge crowd that results in waiting time to get the desired photo with them, that leaves more time with figures that have been on display for a while. A remnant of Marie Tussaud’s original cabinet is the horror cabinet, which has its own popular history of being impossible to spend a night in. To shorten the very off-putting wait at the entrance, it’s advisable to book tickets for the cabinet in advance.

3)  The Tower of London
A central element of historical and contemporary London is the infamous Tower. Contrary to the name, the Tower is more than that. Spanning across five hectares, it boils London’s history down to its essentials. Within the castle complex that’s surrounded by a classic moat you’ll find a part of the city wall of Roman Londinium, the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, where several historical figures, among them Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey, have been put to rest. The Waterloo Barracks attract the most interest. The flood of visitors to the home of the exhibit of Elisabeth II’s coronation and the Crown Jewels have made it necessary to install moving walkways that transport you through the vault. These speed up during peak times, so try and avoid those if you want to take more time.

Tower of London England
 By pikous ( [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Beside the buildings and their content, a tour given by one of the Yeoman Wardens, guards of the Tower since 1485, is highly recommended. Their enchanting tours give a wonderful insight into the history of the Tower and begin every half hour between 10am and 3:30pm at the Middle Tower. The tours end at the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. Also of note is the elaborate Key Ceremony performed by the Yeoman Wardens to lock the main gates. Due to the many people flocking to see it in the evenings, you can visit the unlocking ceremony at 9am instead or book tickets in advance.

Yeoman Warden giving tour
Yeomen Warden at Tower of London England

2)  London Eye
Officially named the EDF Energy London Eye, the 135m high Ferris wheel is a newer addition to London’s landmarks, but has become an essential part of the Southbank skyline. Developed in the – forgive the pun – eye of the millennium and introduced to the public in 2000, the 32 glass gondolas with enough space for 25 people take half an hour to take a full turn. In this time, if the weather permits, you can view London’s landmarks from the distance and take in the entirety of the city.

London Eye England

Glass Gondola on the London Eye
London Eye Glass Gondola England
 By William Hook from Stafford, United Kingdom (London EyeUploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

1)  Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard
The main residence of the ruling monarch since Queen Victoria in 1837, Buckingham Palace has undergone several changes before it became what it is today. Built in 1703 for its namesake the Duke of Buckingham, it was bought by King George III as a house for his wife, Queen Charlotte, in 1761 and remodeled upon his behest. Later, his son, George IV, alongside with John Nash, architect of Trafalgar Square and the Brighton Royal Pavilion, turned the building into a palace that almost doubled the original’s size. After her coronation, Queen Victoria had the State Dining Rooms and the Ball Room added in Baroque style. The Buckingham Palace front as we see it today is only one of the most recent additions. Other than a few weeks in August and September, during which the Royal family spends their holiday in Balmoral, Scotland, the Palace is not accessible to the public.

Buckingham Palace London England
 By Diliff (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

In the months from May to July, you can witness the Changing of the Guard on a daily basis. The remaining months from August to March are dependent on the weather, but the schedule is planned to have the Changing happen every alternate day. No matter when you plan on visiting, the Changing begins at 11:30am in the Buckingham Palace courtyard. You can watch the traditional Foot Guards of the Household Regiment follow a strict, thirty-minute ritual in their full regalia. As it is a popular sight, you should get there early to get a good place to stand and get the full viewing experience.

Changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guards London England

These fifteen attractions are just the surface of what London has to offer and among the most visited. The best advice that can be given to first time and returning visitors is to go ahead and brave the metropolis with just the help of a map. The most memorable sights are the ones you don’t actually plan on visiting or don’t even know about. Their advantage is that you rarely have to deal with hordes queuing at the entrance and you’ll be surprised how interesting some things are when you see them in person, as opposed to a literary description.





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