London has proven an irresistible source of inspiration to film directors over the decades and provided an epic backdrop for all manner of productions, from feel-good rom-coms to feel-quite-on-edge thrillers. As a result, the city is fizzing with recognisable locations which are yours for the scouting. Once discovered, take the opportunity to reenact relevant scenes and ponder your Oscar speech.

A woman pretends to walk through the wall of Platform 9¾ at King's Cross Station
All aboard the Hogwarts Express at King's Cross Station © chris-mueller / Getty Images

Immediate disclaimer: the UK capital has appeared on the big screen more times than James Bond has taken down anonymous henchmen, so the following recommendations are but the briefest of snapshots from the vast library of films set in London.

Family flicks and wide-eyed kids

Plenty of classic characters from London-based children’s literature have found their way into film. Mary Poppins (1964), the musical fantasy produced by Disney and based on the character created by PL Travers, is a prime example and was an extraordinary success upon release, winning five of the 13 Academy Awards for which it was nominated. Although it was filmed in the US, you can see Travers’ home (the inspiration for the Banks’ house in the stories) at 50 Smith St, Chelsea. 

Leadenhall Market was used in the Harry Potter movies to represent Diagon Alley.
Leadenhall Market – or is it Diagon Alley? © Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB / Shutterstock

More recently, the Harry Potter film franchise used plenty of London locations, with famous scenes being shot on the Millennium Bridge, which in The Half Blood Prince is called Brockdale Bridge and attacked by Death Eaters, and in Leadenhall Market, which in The Philosopher's Stone is depicted as the magical shopping street Diagon Alley. Dedicated fans will also want to jump on their Firebolts and fly to King's Cross Station to have their photo snapped by a replica Platform 9¾.

The world’s most beloved bear has made two film outings in recent years, in Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017), to the rapturous acclaim of just about everyone – look out for his statue in the station that gave him his name. And a movie of The BFG (2016), based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 book and featuring memorable scenes at Buckingham Palace, was met with similar approval.

Rom-common denominators: Curtis and Grant

When it comes to wildly successful rom-coms set in London, two names dominate the credits: writer and director Richard Curtis and actor Hugh Grant. Between them they’ve written, directed and appeared in such British classics as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), which follows a group of London-based friends through a series of increasingly amusing set-pieces (the chapel in Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College and the church of St Bartholomew-the-Great have starring roles); Notting Hill (1999), named after the West London neighbourhood in which it’s set (check out our insider’s guide for locations from the film, like protagonist William Thacker’s bookshop); and Love Actually (2003), with its interlacing love stories set in a Christmassy London, featuring many well-known locations including the South Bank, Selfridges and 10 Downing Street.

The interior of St Bartholomew-the-Great church is one of London's oldest.
Beautiful, ancient St Bartholomew-the-Great church has been used in many movies including

Curtis and Grant were also involved in the first two films of the blockbusting Bridget Jones trilogy starring Renée Zellweger: Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), in which the diarist’s flat is above the Globe Pub in Borough Market.

The thrill of it all

London is a thrilling city so it stands to reason it’s been used for some of cinema’s most thrilling scenes. Zombie classic 28 Days Later (2002) reveals a post-apocalyptic capital, its rubbish-strewn streets hauntingly deserted, with a particularly memorable moment showing main character Jim (played by Cillian Murphy) walking over an empty Westminster Bridge towards the abandoned Houses of Parliament. Guy Ritchie’s Academy Award–nominated Sherlock Holmes (2009) has Robert Downey Jr playing fiction’s most famous detective in late Victorian London, with scenes shot in St Paul’s Cathedral and some fantastic (computer-generated) footage showing a Tower Bridge still under construction. The BBC TV adaptation, Sherlock, set in contemporary London and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is also well worth a watch, using several locations in the city including St Bart’s Hospital in Smithfield for a rather famous death scene.

Nelson's Column rises above Trafalgar Square in central London.
Trafalgar Square is almost as popular with film-makers as it is with tourists © Geoff Stringer / Lonely Planet

London is frequently visited by globe-trotting action heroes – itchy feet mean they rarely stay in the city for the duration of an entire adventure, but they generally leave their mark. Britain’s most famous spy, James Bond, drops in and out of the capital at whim. He usually visits the MI6 building in Vauxhall (the incredibly conspicuous real life headquarters of Britain’s Secret Service), and in one recent outing (played by Daniel Craig in Skyfall) was seen in the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, and careering down the Thames in a speedboat. Others in this vein include Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), who appears in a brilliantly suspenseful scene involving a journalist being stalked by an assassin in Waterloo train station (spoiler alert: it’s not a good day for freedom of the press), and Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, who in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) can be seen leaping across rooftops on Blackfriars Bridge.

Cops and robbers

London is as gritty as it is glitzy and has often provided an atmospheric setting for shady underworld characters doing their shady underworld thing. The Krays (1990) charts the rise to power of notorious real-life gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who ran organised crime in London’s East End in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the climatic moments in the film, as per real life, is when Ronnie confronts a rival in the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel (spoiler alert: it’s not a good day for rivals of Ronnie Kray). Another London gangster classic, The Long Good Friday (1979), starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, shows a variety of rundown locations in the east of the city, including derelict docklands (a far cry from this area today), but at the end adds a touch of glamour in the iconic Savoy Hotel.

Ye Olde Mitre is hidden away in a narrow alleyway.
Ye Olde Mitre, one of London's oldest pubs, had to wait hundreds of years for its close up © Stuart Ayton / Alamy Stock Photo

More recent and lighthearted crime capers have come from writer and director Guy Ritchie. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) has an ensemble cast (including the brilliantly belligerent ex-footballer Vinnie Jones) dashing around London’s seedy underbelly. Park Street, directly opposite the western entrance to Borough Market, is instantly recognisable as the location of the gang’s hideout and the setting for some of the film’s most memorable moments. Ritchie’s next production, Snatch (2000), was a similar outing and equally fun. This story involved a gargantuan diamond making its way through various hapless hands, and at one point one of London’s best (and hardest to find) pubs, Ye Olde Mitre, puts in a cameo.

Cinematic experiences in London

One place in London guaranteed to give you movie déjà vu is the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, seemingly every film-maker’s go-to location for period backdrops. As well as the aforementioned Four Weddings, it's also been used in movies as diverse as (deep breath) Les Misérables (2012), Thor: the Dark World (2013), Cinderella (2015), The King’s Speech (2010), Garfield 2 (2006) and Sense and Sensibility (1995) – you could visit just this single spot and arguably claim to have had a decent exploration of London’s cinematic heritage.

The grand, elegant Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich has been used as a backdrop in dozens of movies.
Where do I know you from? Greenwich's Old Royal Naval College is much used as a movie set © Neil Setchfield / Lonely Planet

And while discovering locations from movie sets is lots of fun, there are plenty of other ways to connect with film in the city too.

Leicester Square, the de facto home for UK film premieres, is where red carpets are rolled out on a regular basis. The square itself isn’t that inspiring, despite a huge makeover a few years ago, but if it’s Hollywood A-Listers you’re after, there are few more likely places to spot them. A short walk to the east, a more fulfilling experience can be had at the London Film Museum, which features over a hundred cars and artefacts from the James Bond film franchise among its displays.

Across the river, the British Film Institute (BFI) shows thousands of films every year on its four screens, one of which is the BFI IMAX, the largest in the country. The BFI is also the central location for the London Film Festival, which occurs annually in the second half of October. An alternative that focuses more on homegrown talent is the East End Film Festival, which is taking a break in 2019 but will be back in 2020.

Rethinking the inherent passivity of movie-going, Secret Cinema puts on interactive film experiences across the capital within purpose-built sets, and has proven wildly popular: reclining with popcorn this ain’t. Rooftop Film Club offers a more traditional experience with the twist that screenings are on rooftops around the city, which makes for a great way to spend a summer’s evening under the stars (weather permitting). A similar, more grounded experience amid splendid architectural surroundings can be enjoyed at Somerset House with Film4’s annual Summer Screen.

Lastly, and perhaps most exquisitely of all, the glorious venue that is the Royal Albert Hall intermittently puts on Films in Concert, which involves iconic movies being shown on a giant screen with a live orchestra playing the score. Truly epic.

Aaaaand cut: that’s a wrap.

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