Answers from Our Experts (5)
With a fascinating history stretching back more than two millennia, London is one of the most attraction-packed cities in the world. Here are five particularly fine city highlights:
1. The Palace of Westminster
Every visitor to London wants their obligatory snap of Big Ben, but this is just a small part of what makes the Palace of Westminster so special. Known as the cradle of democracy, this site has been home of the English (and later British) Parliament since the 13th century, and laid down the blueprint for many of the freedoms enjoyed by much of the global population today. As a tourist attraction, visitors can arrange tours of Parliament, visit the Jewel Tower or simply take in all aspects of the striking exterior. Westminster Abbey is just opposite, too!
2. The Tower of London
There’s a good reason the Tower of London is such a world-renowned attraction. It may not be the oldest or most impressive castle in the UK, but its varied uses over the centuries as a royal residence, medieval prison, armory and treasury have cemented its unique, illustrious history. From the prison of the princes to the keeper of the Crown Jewels, the ancient walls here have a thousand tales to tell – and the superb exhibitions inside bring them all to life.
3. The British Museum
With literally millions of artifacts spanning the length of human history, the British Museum is home to some of mankind’s most cherished creations, including the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. And you can see them all for free (though voluntary donations are very welcome!)
4. Royal Hyde Park
It may seem like a sprawling urban jungle on arrival, but many first-time visitors to London are surprised to find one of the world’s greenest capitals. This balance between man and nature is perfectly illustrated by Hyde Park. One of eight Royal Parks that cover almost 2,000 hectares of land, Hyde Park is a picnic-perfect parkland that also boasts attractions ranging from the Serpentine to Speakers’ Corner, as well as open-air cultural events during summer.
5. The Thames
When it comes down to it, there’s no better way to get a real sense of London than to stroll along the banks of the Thames. Sure, you’ll pass a wealth of sights along the way, from the London Eye to the Tate Modern, but you’ll also dig a little deeper into everyday London life.
Religion may not be the force in London society that it once was, but the city’s history has bequeathed a fine crop of churches that are well worth a visit.
St. Paul’s Cathedral famously survived the World War II bombs during the Blitz, when all around it was destroyed. Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece of “English baroque” architecture replaced an earlier cathedral on the site that perished in the Great Fire of London, in 1666. If you have a head for heights, climb up to the dome for an earful of the unique acoustics of the Whispering Gallery.
Westminster Abbey has an equally noble heritage. It was inaugurated—in what was then the separate city of “West Minster”—for the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066. Substantially rebuilt in the 1200s, it is considered one of the iconic examples of English Gothic architecture. You could write a textbook on the façade alone.
But Westminster Abbey isn’t the city’s oldest church. Not even close. That honor falls (probably—many City churches are so old that it’s tricky to be certain) to All Hallows by the Tower. The church of William Penn’s baptism and John Quincy Adams’ marriage has a still-standing Saxon arch that dates to the 7th century. Catch it at a quiet time and it’s especially atmospheric to wander in the undercroft and crypt.
If you want to attend a service in one of the City's any historic churches, the Friends of the City Churches keeps an online diary.
There are an almost overwhelming number of fantastic attractions in London, enough to fill up countless visits to the city, whatever your holiday inclinations. Here are three that’ll not only amaze, entertain and educate in their own right, but will also work together to give a sense of what the Big Smoke is all about:
- The city’s newest major attraction (opening on 1 February) is The View from The Shard, a 360-degree viewing gallery at the top of the Shard, Renzo Piano's London Bridge skyscraper. 244m up, it offers unrivalled views across the whole of London, up to a distance of 40 miles. On the day of my visit the weather was terrible – rainy with very poor visibility – but I was still completely enthralled by the experience. From this height the tracks leading into London Bridge station beneath you look like a child’s train set, you get a sense of the curve and scale of River Thames that you just don’t get elsewhere, and you can spy over the rooftops of other attractions, including Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and the Tower of London. It’s also a great way to get your bearings in the city.
- Once you’ve seen the Thames from above, it’s time to go down for a closer look. The river is the reason the Romans founded Londinium here 2000 years ago and it’s as important to the city today as it was then. Many of London’s best attractions are located along the Thames and a sightseeing cruise is a cunning way of learning about them in one fell swoop. Go for one of the operators that offer hop-on, hop-off tickets so that you can be spontaneous about your itinerary.
- One of the most striking aspects of the capital is the way that different historical periods overlap to create a hotchpotch of architectural styles. Balance out your visit to London’s newest, most futuristic building with an immersion in the past at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Built in late 17th century, this awe-inspiring monument somehow survived the terrible bombing of the Blitz while everything around it was destroyed. Admire the extraordinary dome from ground level, then climb to the Whispering Gallery to experience the bizarre acoustic, then up to the Golden Gallery for lovely views across the City. Try and time your visit to coincide with a Sung Eucharist – there’s something very affecting about the sound of voices filling this enormous space.
For history buffs or those seeking an insight into London and Britain’s past, here’s a trio of attractions to add to the itinerary:
The Churchill War Rooms takes visitors back in time to the Second World War, with access to the Cabinet War Rooms, the underground bunker the then Prime Minister, Sir Winston, and British government sheltered during the Blitz, and an interactive museum dedicated to Churchill’s life, among the highlights.
A stone’s throw from Trafalger Square, on 36 Craven Street, is the former residence of Dr Benjamin Franklin: scientist, inventor, and of course, one of The Founding Fathers of the United States. Set over three floors, the 18th century Benjamin Franklin House, maintaining much of the original décor and features, explores Franklin’s life and studies through various artefacts, live performance and visuals.
Westminster Abbey is steeped in history, from William the Conqueror’s crowning in 1066 (the first king to be crowned at the abbey) to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, many a famous foot has walked its aisle and iconic occasion taken place among its gothic walls, with a host of past nobility and iconic British figures laid to rest or commemorated within its grounds: Edward The Confessor, Charles Dickens and T.S. Eliot to name but a few.
Everyone's talking about the shiny new Shard but don't forget the far-more-fun London Eye. You can't beat a giant ferris wheel over London after all, with cracking views of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, as well as along the river.
More traditional attractions not to be missed include Buckingham Palace where you can tour the state rooms, the Tower of London, where the crown jewels are on display in a recently updated gallery, and Trafalgar Square, the city's best public space and home to the infamous Fourth Plinth.
For museums, don't miss the V&A for design from around the world and the Tate Modern for the very best in contemporary art. Shoppers will love Harrods and Selfridges, and those in search of nightlife should head to Soho where the good, the bad and the ugly all exist side by side.