Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege to live/work/study in London. I have little doubt this city is the greatest in the world. Here is a list of London’s top offerings if you can’t stay long but want a well-rounded impression. It’s a mix of historical things and cultural things, mirroring London’s nature as a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis whose identity is inseparable from its heritage.
Obviously this just scratches the surface. If any one of these interests you particularly, you’ll be able to find five or fifty attractions up the same alley. All the things on the following list are within Zone 1 for London transport – be sure to pick up an Oyster card once you get here. Here we go:
Tower of London – This stop is worth it for the Crown Jewels, but also because parts of it have been here for almost 1000 years. There are lots of legends around this site, from the ravens kept on the grounds to the princes who were killed by Richard III and buried secretly here. Bonus: The Tower Bridge is right next to the Tower of London and makes for a great photo opportunity.
Houses of Parliament and Big Ben – Of course, no trip to London is complete without stopping here, if only to see the clock tower from the outside. A great view can be had from the Westminster Bridge, which is generally very crowded, especially later in the day. Westminster Abbey is right next door if you’re into paying to go to church. The Abbey is basically an indoor graveyard for history’s most important Brits, including Darwin, Dickens, and Isaac Newton.
Buckingham Palace – Walk from the Houses of Parliament to Buckingham Palace through St. James Park. The park has a big pond with a fountain, squirrels you can but probably shouldn’t feed, plus pelicans that are descended from ones given as a gift to the monarchy from Russia in the 1600s. The palace is at the far end of the park. If you time things right, you’ll be able to see the changing of the guards out front, around 11:30 a.m.
Pubs – This is a crucial part of British culture. It seems as if there’s one on every block, and they’re great community places. I recommend going around lunchtime if you want to eat, because pubs get very busy – as in standing room only – around 5 with everyone stopping for a post-work pint on the way home. Ye Olde Chesire Cheese on Fleet Street, where a pub has been since the 1500s, is just one of your many options.
The British Library and Platform 9 ¾ – If you have any interest in Harry Potter or just want to show everyone that you’re an American tourist, stop by the main lobby in King’s Cross Station to snap a picture at Platform 9 ¾. Go early, or get ready for some line time. Next door to the station, stop by the permanent exhibit at the British Library. It contains handwritten lyrics by the Beatles, handwritten first drafts by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and bunch of composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.
St. Paul’s Cathedral – If you’re going to pay for one church in London, I recommend this over Westminster Abbey, unless you’re really set on seeing those tombs. The architecture and the mosaics on the inside are beautiful, and if you go on a day when the stairs to the top are open, the view from the dome is incredible. For awesome views of the Cathedral itself, take the elevator to the roof of the shopping centre next door.
The British Museum – London has a ton of free world-class museums. If you’re oriented toward history rather than art and only have time for one stop, the British Museum is definitely it. It has the Rosetta Stone, an Easter Island head, lots of mummies, and a big chunk of the Parthenon. If you’d rather see art, check out the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square.
Brick Lane Market – The Sunday market on Brick Lane in the East London neighbourhood of Shoreditch hands down one of my favourite parts of living here. It’s in a neighbourhood that traditionally attracted a lot of Bangladeshi immigrants, so there is a lot of great food from all over the world. The alleys are covered with graffiti done by professional artists, and the warehouses have been converted into markets selling crafts, antiques, and of course, Asian food.
Harrod’s – This is a famous (and very impressive) department store in posh west London. The fact that their art department sells pieces by Rembrandt and Matisse tells you everything you need to know about what kind of people actually shop here. Their food department is a good stop. The neighbourhood also has three major museums, Natural History, Victoria and Albert, and Science. The Natural History Museum is probably the most popular museum in town; there are dinosaurs involved.
Shopping – My favourite shopping area is absolutely Covent Garden, because it is mostly pedestrian-only streets, has a great Christmas market, and is close to the centre of the city. Mayfair is an upscale neighbourhood with all the most famous brand name stores, with the most popular streets being Carneby Street, Regent Street and Bond Street.
Bonus: The River Thames – Several landmarks, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament, are connected by the river. The South Bank’s path is particularly inviting, and winds past both Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the London Eye. Walking is a fantastic way to see the city, and there’s no better place to do that than along the Thames.
If you have time:
- Regent’s Park – London has a lot of great parks, but this one has a really great view of the city from Primrose Hill. Parts of the park have a Paris-but-clean vibe and a sweet canal borders the north end of the property. Also, don’t be worried if you see monkeys in the trees; the zoo is in the park and you can see some of the exhibits from the outside. (You’ll be really confused for a minute. Why are there giant squirrels? Is this Jumanji? Did I pay for this? Etc.)
- The Shard – This is the tallest building in Western Europe. It got its name because it looks like a piece of broken glass, following the London tradition of giving iconic buildings names that degrade their architecture. (The skyline also includes the Cheese Grater and the Walkie Talkie.) The observation deck is pricey, but I really enjoyed seeing the city from a new angle.
Places to avoid:
- Leicester Square. Don’t even think about it. They have film premieres here but it is insanely crowded and touristy and you will get lost and/or pickpocketed and/or harassed by a club promoter.
- Oxford Street. This is the most popular shopping street in town. All of the tourists go there to spend money and step on each other’s feet.
- Piccadilly Circus. It’s like a sadder, smaller version of Times Square. There’s not much to do other than buy key chains and postcards at the sixty souvenir shops and have people you don’t know blow cigarette smoke in your face.
For more, check out my post about 13 ways to avoid looking like a tourist in London.