Instantly recognizable icons like Big Ben and St. Paul's Cathedral welcome you to history-laden London, the UK's multicultural capital that's a tireless innovator of art and culture.
Traveling to London this summer? 8 questions to ask yourself before you go
8 min read — Published Jul 12, 2022
Headed to London this summer? Here are a London expert's top tips to travel smart.
Discover some of the most unique and fulfilling experiences your next destination has to offer.
Tips & Travel trends to help you pick the perfect time to visit this destination.
Add visiting these must-see local hot spots and culture centers to your next travel itinerary.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout London.
A splendid mixture of architectural styles, Westminster Abbey is considered the finest example of Early English Gothic. It's not merely a beautiful place of worship – the Abbey is still a working church and the stage on which history unfolds. Never a cathedral (the seat of a bishop), Westminster Abbey is what is called a "royal peculiar", administered by the Crown. Inside Westminster Abbey At the heart of the Abbey is the beautifully tiled sanctuary, the stage for coronations, royal weddings and funerals. Architect George Gilbert Scott designed the ornate High Altar in 1873. In front of the altar is the Cosmati Pavement, dating to 1268. It has intricate designs of small pieces of stone and glass inlaid into plain marble, which symbolize the universe at the end of time (an inscription claims the world will end after 19,683 years). At the entrance to the lovely Chapel of St John the Baptist is a sublime translucent alabaster Virgin and Child, placed here in 1971. The most sacred spot in the Abbey is the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, which lies behind the High Altar; access is restricted to guided tours to protect the fragile 13th-century flooring. King Edward, long considered a saint before he was canonised, was the founder of the Abbey, and the original building was consecrated a few weeks before his death in 1066. Henry III added a new shrine with Cosmati mosaics in the mid-12th century where the sick prayed for healing – and also chipped off a few souvenirs to take home. The Quire dates from the mid-19th century © Dean and Chapter of Westminster The Quire (choir), a stunning space of gold, blue and red Victorian Gothic above a black-and-white chequerboard tiled floor, dates to the mid-19th century. It sits where the original choir for the monks' worship would have been but bears little resemblance to the original. Nowadays, the Quire is still used for singing, but its regular occupants are the Choir of Westminster Abbey – about 30 boys and 12 "lay vicars" (men) who sing the services and evensong. The impressive Lady Chapel is at the eastern end of the church © Dean and Chapter of Westminster Henry VII's magnificent Perpendicular Gothic–style Lady Chapel, with an impressive fan-vaulted ceiling and tall stained-glass windows is at the eastern end of the church. Opened in 2018, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries are a museum and gallery space located in the medieval triforium, the arched gallery above the nave. Among its exhibits are the death masks and wax effigies of generations of royalty, armor and stained glass. Highlights are the graffiti-inscribed chair used for the coronation of Mary II, the beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the Litlyngton Missal from 1380 and the 13th-century Westminster Retable, England's oldest surviving altarpiece. The Unknown Warrior was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey in 1920 © Dean and Chapter of Westminster At the western end of the nave near the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, killed in France during WWI and laid to rest here in 1920, is St George's Chapel, which contains the rather ordinary-looking Coronation Chair, upon which every monarch since the early 14th century has been crowned (apart from joint monarchs Mary II and William III, who had their own chairs fashioned for the event in 1689). Apart from the royal graves, keep an eye out for the many famous commoners interred here, especially in Poets' Corner, where you'll find the resting places of Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Alfred Tennyson, Samuel Johnson and Rudyard Kipling, as well as memorials to the other greats (William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters etc). Another set of illustrious stones is in Scientists' Corner near the north aisle of the nave, including the final resting places of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and the ashes of Stephen Hawking. The octagonal Chapter House dates from the 1250s and was where the monks would meet for daily prayer and their job assignments, before Henry VIII's suppression of the monasteries some three centuries later. To the right of the entrance to Chapter House is what's claimed to be the oldest door in Britain – it’s been there since the 1050s. Used as a treasury, the crypt-like Pyx Chamber dates from about 1070 and takes its name from boxes that held gold and silver to be tested for purity to make coins. Westminster Abbey is the resting place of many famous people © Grzegorz_Pakula / Shutterstock History Much of the Abbey's architecture is from the 13th century, but it was founded much earlier, in AD 960. Henry III began work on the new Abbey building in 1245 but didn't complete it; the Gothic nave was finished under Richard II in 1388. The Lady Chapel was completed after 13 years of construction in 1516. For centuries, the country's greatest have been interred here, including 17 monarchs from King Henry III (1272) to King George II (1760). Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned here, with the exception of a couple of Eds who were either murdered (Edward V) or abdicated (Edward VIII) before the magic moment. It has also hosted 16 royal weddings, the most recent being that of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011. Tickets and other practicalities Sightseeing visitors must book their tickets in advance via the website. There is an additional charge for a multimedia guide. The Abbey is open for worship and individual prayer, and there are daily services. Check the website for the schedule. Evensong is 5pm on Tuesdays and 3pm on weekends. Photography is allowed inside the church, but beware that there are restrictions on what you can photograph and when.
One of London's most amazing attractions, Tate Modern is an outstanding modern- and contemporary-art gallery housed in the creatively revamped Bankside Power Station. A spellbinding synthesis of modern art and capacious industrial brick design, this gallery has been extraordinarily successful in bringing challenging work to the masses, both through its free permanent collection and fee-charged big-name temporary exhibitions. The original gallery lies inside what was once the boiler house for the power station, now called the Natalie Bell Building in recognition of a local community activist. The stunning Blavatnik Building, with a panoramic 10th-floor viewing terrace, opened in 2016, increasing the available exhibition space by 60%. Use the Holland Street entrance to go straight into the vast Turbine Hall © Tom Eversley / Shutterstock The Turbine Hall The first space to greet you as you pour down from the side entrance at Holland Street into the Natalie Bell Building is the astounding 3300-sq-meter Turbine Hall. Originally housing the power station’s huge electricity generators, this vast area has become the commanding venue for large-scale installations and temporary exhibitions. The annual commission aims to make art more accessible and has led to popular and often interactive pieces, such as Kara Walker's Fons Americanus, a 13m-tall working fountain that highlights the history of the slave trade; a full-on playground of three-person swings installed by Danish art collective Superflex; and a maze of geometric gardens called Empty Lot by Abraham Cruzvillegas, which took soil from parks around London and watered it for six months to see if anything grew. Note that if you enter from the riverside doors, you’ll end up on the more muted level 1, but stairs lead down to the main floor of the Turbine Hall. Tate Modern's permanent collection is spread across both buildings © Mark Chilvers / Lonely Planet Permanent collection More than 60,000 works of the permanent collection are on constant rotation, and the curators have at their disposal paintings by Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Installations have included works by Joseph Beuys, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Ai Weiwei, along with films by Rebecca Horn and photography by Zanele Muholi. The collection is arranged by both theme and chronology on levels 2 and 4 of the riverside Natalie Bell Building and on levels 0, 3 and 4 of the Blavatnik Building. A great place to begin is the Start Display on level 2 of the Natalie Bell Building: this small, specially curated taster features some of the best-loved works in the collection and gives visitors useful pointers for understanding modern art. The Blavatnik Building increased exhibition space by 60% © 4kclips / Shutterstock Architecture The 200m-long Natalie Bell Building, made of 4.2 million bricks, is an imposing sight, and was designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, who scooped the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2001 for their transformation of the former power station. Significant achievements include leaving the building's central 99m-high chimney, adding a two-storey glass box onto the roof and turning the cavernous Turbine Hall into a dramatic exhibition space. Herzog and de Meuron also designed the new 10-story Blavatnik Building extension. Head for the 10th-floor Viewing Level © vladimir zakharov / Getty Images Viewpoints Don't miss sublime city views from the 10th-floor Viewing Level of the Blavatnik Building and the view of the River Thames and St Paul's Cathedral from the 6th-floor cafe in the Natalie Bell Building. Head to the level 4 bridge connecting the two buildings to get a lofty view of Turbine Hall. Tickets and information Tate Modern’s permanent collection is free to visit, but timed tickets are required for all visitors, including Members. Tickets for special exhibitions start from £15. Book online in advance. Free guided tours of the permanent collection may be available – check at the information desk when you arrive. There are three stations located within five to 10 minutes' walk of the gallery: Blackfriars (rail, District and Circle Lines), Southwark (Jubilee Line) and London Bridge (rail, Jubilee and Northern Lines). To visit the sister museum Tate Britain, hop on the RB2 riverboat service from Bankside Pier.
Why you should go With its thunderous, animatronic dinosaur, riveting displays about planet earth, outstanding Darwin Centre and architecture straight from a Gothic fairy tale, the Natural History Museum is astonishing. Kids are the target audience, but adults will be equally mesmerized. Go on a journey through the times of dinosaurs with a visit to the Dinosaurs Gallery in the Blue Zone, an absolute must for those traveling with children. It's packed with specimens from tiny fossils to a colossal triceratops skull, but it's the animatronic T-rex that steals the show. The T-Rex is a highlight of a visit to London's NHM © Kotsovolos Panagiotis / Shutterstock Also in the Blue Zone you can learn all about Human Biology, and stroll the Mammals gallery, which is lined with life-size creatures from hippos to horses. A model of a blue whale is suspended dramatically from the ceiling. Adults will love the intriguing Treasures exhibition in the Cadogan Gallery (Green Zone), which displays a host of unrelated objects, each telling its own unique story, from a chunk of moon rock to a dodo skeleton. Also in the Green Zone, the Mineral Gallery is a breathtaking display of architectural perspective leading to the Vault, where you'll find the Aurora Collection of almost 300 colored diamonds. In the Orange Zone, the vast Darwin Centre focuses on taxonomy, showcasing 28 million insects and six million plants in a giant cocoon; glass windows allow you to watch scientists at work. Travel through a sculpture of Earth in the Red Zone, where you'll learn all about the natural forces that have helped shape our world. A blue whale skeleton is the centerpiece of Hintze Hall © ExFlow / Shutterstock At the center of the museum is Hintze Hall, a huge room resembling a cathedral nave. The blue whale skeleton you see on entering the hall was unveiled in 2017, replacing the famous cast of a diplodocus skeleton (nicknamed Dippy), who has gone on a long tour of the UK. The transfer itself was a painstaking engineering project, disassembling and preparing the whale's 4.5 tonnes of bones for reconstruction in a dramatic diving posture that greets museum visitors. Seasonal treats at the NHM include the beautiful Wildlife Garden (April to November), next to the West Lawn, which encompasses a range of British lowland habitats, including a meadow with farm gates and a bee tree where a colony of honey bees fills the air. From Halloween to January, a section of the museum by the East Lawn is transformed into a glittering and highly popular ice rink, complete with a hot-drinks stall. The NHM's ice rink is very popular through winter © Gordon Bell / Shutterstock Tickets and other practicalities It's free to enter the museum, although donations are welcome. There is a charge for special exhibits. Book well ahead for Wildlife Photographer of the Year and ice-skating. The best time to come to the museum on weekdays is after 2pm when school groups leave; at weekends arrive as soon as it opens. More than five million visitors come each year, so lines can often get long, especially during the school holidays. If the main Cromwell Road entrance is looking congested, head to the Exhibition Road entrance round the corner. Entrances at Queen's Gate and Exhibition Road are wheelchair-accessible.
Seeing a play at Shakespeare's Globe – ideally standing under the open-air "wooden O" – is experiencing the playwright's work at its best and most authentic. You can also join an informative guided tour, which takes you around the theater and gives access to an exhibition about Shakespeare, theater in the 17th century and life in Bankside. The original Globe Theatre The current Shakespeare's Globe is located just 160m from its original location on Park Street from 1599, its footprint marked on the ground but partially covered by apartment blocks and Southwark Bridge. In 1613, the thatched roof caught fire after a theatrical cannon explosion during a performance of Henry VIII, and the theater burnt to the ground. The Globe was quickly rebuilt, and it remained the home of Shakespeare's company until 1642 when all theaters were closed by the Puritans. It was demolished a couple of years later. The reconstructed theater resembles the original as closely as possible © Doug McKinlay / Lonely Planet The reconstructed Globe Theatre Despite Shakespeare's worldwide popularity, the original Globe Theatre was almost a distant memory when American actor Sam Wanamaker came searching for it in 1949. He began fundraising for a memorial theater, and work started in 1987. Sadly, Wanamaker died four years before the theater opened in 1997. Unlike other venues for Shakespearean plays, Shakespeare's Globe was designed to resemble the original Globe as closely as possible, from the materials used in construction to the open-air stage that exposes viewers to London's changeable skies. It's built with 600 oak pegs, specially fired Tudor-style bricks and thatch from Norfolk. The plaster contains goat hair, lime and sand, as it did in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare wrote for both outdoor and indoor theater, and outside the Globe's April to October season, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – an indoor candlelit Jacobean-style theater similar to what Shakespeare would have used in winter – puts on year-round performances. Standing tickets are sold for as little as £5 © Kamira / Shutterstock Tickets and tours Plays run in the Globe from April to October, and tickets can be bought for as little as £5 if you're willing to stand throughout. During the season there are fewer tours, especially during afternoons when matinees are showing, so make sure you visit in the morning. Tours are on foot (including steps) and last around 50 minutes. Plays and tours take place whatever the weather – be sure to dress appropriately.
Why you should go With almost six million visitors trooping through its doors annually, the British Museum in Bloomsbury, one of the oldest and finest museums in the world, is Britain’s most visited attraction. Through the varied (and occasionally controversial) collection, you'll see some of the world's greatest treasures, and learn a little more about how England sees the world today. You could spend a lifetime navigating this vast and hallowed collection of artefacts, art and age-old antiquity and still make daily discoveries. If you're not sure where to start, join a tour or pick up a Highlights map, a self-guided hour-long tour, for a precis of the museum’s treasures. Whatever your approach, there are several blockbusters you don't want to miss: the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics (head upstairs for the Egyptian mummies); the controversial Parthenon sculptures , taken from Athens' Acropolis by Lord Elgin (British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire); and the vast Etruscan, Greek, Roman, European, Asian and Islamic galleries. Other must-see items include the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo Ship Burial relics and the winged bulls from Khorsabad. Be sure to visit the Ancient Egypt galleries © Jaroslav Moravcik / Shutterstock History Begun in 1753 with a "cabinet of curiosities" sold to the nation by physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane, the collection mushroomed over the ensuing years through acquisitions, bequests and the indiscriminate plundering of the empire. The grand Enlightenment Gallery was the first section of the redesigned museum to be built in 1823. The light-filled Great Court, restored and augmented by architect Norman Foster in 2000, has a spectacular glass-and-steel roof. In the center is the Reading Room where Karl Marx researched and wrote Das Kapital; Virginia Woolf and Mahatma Gandhi were also cardholders. Tickets and other practicalities It's free to visit the permanent collections at the British Museum, but there are charges for special exhibitions. In order to control visitor numbers, you need to book a timed slot online ahead of arrival.
One of London’s best parks, Hyde Park spreads itself over 142 hectares of neat gardens, wild expanses of overgrown grass and glorious trees. As well as being a fantastic green space in the middle of the city, it's home to a handful of fascinating sights, and hosts live concerts and events through the year. The eastern half of the park is covered with expansive lawns, which become one vast picnic-and-frolic area on sunny days. The western half is more untamed, with plenty of trees and areas of wild grass. If you're after somewhere more colorful (and some shade), head to the Rose Garden, a beautifully landscaped area with flowers year-round. A little further west, you'll find the Holocaust Memorial Garden, a simple stone marker in a grove of trees. You won't want to miss the Serpentine or the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain either. Once you've found the perfect spot in the park, hire a deck chair (one/four hours £1.80/4.80, all day £9). They are available throughout the park from March to October, weather permitting. Hyde Park is central London's largest green space © Andrew Holt / Getty Images The Serpentine Hyde Park is separated from Kensington Gardens by the L-shaped Serpentine, a small lake once fed by waters from the River Westbourne. Between June and September you can swim at the Serpentine Lido, where a swimming area within the lake is ring-fenced. There is also a paddling pool for children. If you'd rather stay dry, rent a paddle boat from the Serpentine Boathouse. Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain This memorial fountain is dedicated to the late Princess of Wales. Envisaged by the designer Kathryn Gustafson as a "moat without a castle" and draped "like a necklace" around the southwestern edge of Hyde Park near the Serpentine Bridge, the circular double stream is composed of 545 pieces of Cornish granite, its waters drawn from a chalk aquifer more than 100m below ground. Unusually, visitors are actively encouraged to splash about, to the delight of children. The Serpentine SolarShuttle Boat ferries passengers from the Serpentine Boathouse to the fountain on weekends from March to September (every day from mid-July to late August). Deck chairs are available for hire through the warmer months © Doug McKinlay / Lonely Planet Speakers' Corner Frequented by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell and William Morris, Speakers' Corner in the northeastern corner of Hyde Park is traditionally the spot for oratorical flourishes and soapbox ranting. If you’ve got something to get off your chest, do so on Sunday, although you’ll mainly have fringe dwellers, religious fanatics and hecklers for company. It’s the only place in Britain where demonstrators can assemble without police permission, a concession granted in 1872 after serious riots 17 years before when 150,000 people gathered to demonstrate against the Sunday Trading Bill before Parliament, only to be unexpectedly ambushed by police concealed within Marble Arch. Some historians also link Speakers' Corner with the nearby Tyburn gallows, where condemned criminals might speak to the crowd before being hanged. The Serpentine Gallery is one of two galleries in Hyde Park © Ron Ellis / Shutterstock The Serpentine Galleries Constituting some of the most important contemporary-art spaces in town, these two galleries are a major draw. South of the Serpentine lake is the original Serpentine Gallery, in which Damien Hirst, Andreas Gursky, Louise Bourgeois, Gabriel Orozco, Tomoko Takahashi and Jeff Koons have all exhibited, set in a 1930s former tea pavilion in Kensington Gardens. Sister establishment the Serpentine Sackler Gallery can be found within the Magazine, a former gunpowder depot, across the Serpentine Bridge. Built in 1805, it was augmented with a daring, undulating extension designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid. The galleries run a full program of exhibitions, readings and talks. A leading architect who has never previously built in the UK is annually commissioned to build a new "Summer Pavilion" nearby, open from June to October. The Rose Garden has colorful flowers all year round © irisphoto1 / Shutterstock History Henry VIII expropriated the park from the church in 1536. It then became a hunting ground for kings and aristocrats, and later a place for duels, executions and horse racing. The park was the site of the Great Exhibition in 1851, and during WWII became a vast potato bed. Hotels near Hyde Park To the northside of Hyde Park, around Lancaster Gate, Queensway and Bayswater Tubes, there are some decent budget accommodation choices. Kensington is packed with high-end hotels near the park. The best options there are: 37 Trevor Square Knightsbridge Hotel Lanesborough
The Science Museum will mesmerize with its interactive and educational exhibits covering everything from early technology to space travel. Take the family along to nurture a wide-eyed fascination for the complexities of the world and the cosmos. Here are the most popular galleries and displays at the Science Museum, along with all the practical information you need to plan your visit. The Garden The basement at the Science Museum is home to the Garden, an incredible sensory play zone, perfect for children under the age of six. Here they can play with water, light, sound, and work on their construction skills. Take a waterproof apron or a spare set of clothes for the water-play area, which is usually besieged by splashing tots. Making the Modern World Gallery The Making the Modern World Gallery on level 0 is a visual feast of locomotives, planes, cars and other revolutionary inventions. Objects on display here track progress from industrialization in the 1750s through to the present day. See real modules that have been into space at the Exploring Space gallery © Science Museum Group Exploring Space Also on level 0 and a perennial favorite is Exploring Space, a gallery featuring genuine rockets and satellites. There's a full-size replica of the Eagle, the lander that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon in 1969, and the real Soyuz module that transported astronauts Tim Peake, Yuri Malenchenko and Tim Kopra back from the International Space Station in 2016. Information Age Gallery The fantastic Information Age Gallery on level 2 showcases how information and communication technologies – from the telegraph to smartphones – have transformed our lives since the 19th century. Standout displays include wireless messages sent by a sinking Titanic, the first BBC radio broadcast and a Soviet BESM-6 supercomputer. Mathematics: the Winton Gallery Also on level 2 is Mathematics: the Winton Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, is a riveting exploration of maths in the real world and how it can impact on all aspects of everyday life. Explore the medical world in the Wellcome Galleries © Science Museum Group Medicine: the Wellcome Galleries The Medicine Galleries, which opened on level 2 in 2019, look at the medical world using objects from both the museum's collections and those of Sir Henry Wellcome, pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector. See the world's first MRI machine, a prosthetic arm, and robotic surgery tools, alongside more recent developments such as vials from COVID-19 mass vaccination campaigns. Flight Gallery The Flight Gallery on level 3 is a favorite place for children, with its gliders, hot-air balloons and aircraft, including the De Havilland Gipsy Moth airplane Jason I, which Amy Johnson flew to Australia in 1930. There are also various flight-simulators to try out (additional charge): have a 3D flights with the Red Arrows; replicate a low-level mission aboard a Typhoon fighter jet; and take part in a virtual-reality experience with (a digital) Tim Peake, British astronaut, on Space Descent. Wonderlab, with hands-on exhibits and live experiments, is an absolute must for inquisitive children © Science Museum Group Wonderlab Also on level 3, Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery (adult/child £11/9) explores scientific phenomena in a fun and educational way. Kids will love the hands-on exhibits where they can recreate sound waves, sit by a model Earth as it orbits the sun, run test flights of their own paper plane creations over a giant fan, experiment with pulley systems, and challenge their engineering skills by building a bridge with curved blocks. Daily shows include live experiments with – occasional explosions – and knowledgeable "Explainers" are on hand to chat you through anything in the gallery that piques your curiosity. Tickets and other practicalities General admission to the Science Museum is free, but must be booked online in advance. Visitors wanting to go to a specific gallery should check if tickets need to be booked in advance, and beware that your visit may have strict time restrictions (for example, visits to the Garden are for 20-minute slots only). There are charges for tickets to the IMAX, virtual-reality experiences, flight simulators, Wonderlab, and special events. There is a cafe and snack bar within the museum. Lifts and toilets are accessible throughout, and it's possible to borrow a wheelchair.
Built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham, Buckingham Palace replaced St James's Palace as the monarch's official London residence in 1837. Queen Elizabeth II divides her time between here, Windsor Castle and, in summer, Balmoral Castle in Scotland. If she’s in residence, the square yellow, red and blue Royal Standard is flown; if not, it's the Union Flag. The 19 lavishly furnished State Rooms are open to visitors when Her Majesty is on vacation from mid-July to September. The State Rooms inside Buckingham Palace The self-guided tour starts in the Grand Hall at the foot of the monumental Grand Staircase, commissioned by King George IV in 1828. It takes in architect John Nash's Italianate Green Drawing Room, the State Dining Room (all red damask and Regency furnishings), the Blue Drawing Room (which has a gorgeous fluted ceiling by Nash) and the White Drawing Room, where foreign ambassadors are received. Admission includes entry to a themed special exhibition (royal couture during the Queen's reign, growing up at the palace etc) in the enormous Ballroom, built between 1853 and 1855, and these displays are often the main reason for a visit. The Throne Room is rather anticlimactic, with his-and-her pink chairs monogrammed "ER" and "P". If the Royal Standard is flying above Buckingham Palace, it means the Queen is there © Tetra Images / Getty Images The Palace Garden Wandering the gardens is another highlight of a visit to Buckingham Palace – in addition to admiring some of the 350 or so species of flowers and plants and listening to the many birds, you’ll get beautiful views of the palace and a peek at its famous lake. Picnics are allowed, but with some restrictions. Tickets and other practicalities Buckingham Palace is open to visitors in the summer months when the Queen is on vacation. It can also sometimes be visited in winter (December to February), but only on select days. Entry is by timed ticket, which is best booked online in advance. The self-guided tour, using excellent audio-guide commentary, takes about two hours. Security is airport-style and unsurprisingly strict. Large bags are not permitted inside. Ask staff to stamp your ticket before you leave for free access for a year. The State Rooms are fully accessible, but it's a long tour involving lots of standing and with few places to sit down. Have a snack and use the toilet before you enter. There's a cafe and toilets but only at the end of the tour, and it's not easy to get there and then back to where you left off. The closest Underground stations to Buckingham Palace are Green Park on the Piccadilly, Victoria and Jubilee Lines and St James's Park on the District and Circle Lines. © David Steele / Shutterstock Changing of the Guard If you're not able to tour the Palace itself, you may want to see the pageantry of soldiers in red uniforms and bearskin hats parading down the Mall and into Buckingham Palace. The 45-minute Changing of the Guard ceremony swaps out the Old Guard (Foot Guards of the Household Regiment) with the New Guard on the forecourt, and ends with a full military band. The pomp and circumstance can feel far away when you're near the back trying to watch through a forest of selfie sticks, so get here at least 45 minutes before the main event. It's free to attend – check the calendar online as the ceremony is sometimes cancelled due to bad weather or road closures.
Both the elected House of Commons and the House of Lords, who are appointed or hereditary, sit in the sumptuous Houses of Parliament, officially called the Palace of Westminster. This neo-Gothic building dates from the mid-19th century – its oldest part is 11th-century Westminster Hall, one of only a few sections that survived a catastrophic 1834 fire. A visit to the Houses of Parliament is a journey to the very heart of British democracy. The iconic Big Ben (Elizabeth Tower) is undergoing restoration © Sara Lynch / EyeEm / Getty Images Big Ben The palace's most famous feature is its clock tower, Elizabeth Tower (better known as Big Ben), covered in scaffolding until restoration works are finished. Big Ben is actually the 13.7-tonne bell hanging inside and is named after Benjamin Hall, the first Commissioner of Works when the tower was completed in 1859. Westminster Hall One of the most interesting features of the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the English monarchy from the 11th to the early 16th centuries, is Westminster Hall. Originally built in 1097, it is the oldest surviving part of the complex; the awesome hammer-beam roof was added between 1393 and 1401 and is the largest medieval timber roof in northern Europe. The only other part of the original palace to survive the devastating 1834 fire is the Jewel Tower, built in 1365 and used to store the monarch's valuables. Westminster Hall was used for coronation banquets in medieval times and served as a courthouse until the 19th century. The trials of William Wallace (1305), Thomas More (1535), Guy Fawkes (1606) and King Charles I (1649) took place here. In the 20th century, monarchs and Prime Minister Winston Churchill lay in state here after their deaths. The House of Commons and the House of Lords sit in the Palace of Westminster © Mirek Osmera / 500px The House of Commons and the House of Lords Parliament is split into two houses. The green-hued House of Commons is the lower house, where the 650 elected Members of Parliament (MPs) sit. Traditionally the home of hereditary blue bloods, the scarlet-decorated House of Lords, with around 800 members, now has peers appointed through various means. Both houses debate and vote on legislation, which is then presented to the Queen for her Royal Assent (in practice, this is a formality; the last time Royal Assent was denied was in 1707). At the annual State Opening of Parliament in May or June, the Queen takes her throne in the House of Lords, having arrived in the gold-trimmed Irish State Coach from Buckingham Palace (her crown travels alone with equerries in Queen Alexandra's State Coach). Visiting Parliament Currently all visits to Parliament are suspended, but virtual tours and workshops are available. Once tours resume, book your slot in advance (usually only available on a Saturday), and be prepared for lines and thorough security checks before you're allowed access to the building. UK residents can also approach their MPs to arrange a free tour. When visiting restrictions lift and Parliament is in session, visitors are welcome to attend debates for free. It’s not unusual to have to wait for hours to access the chambers. The best (and busiest) time to watch a debate is during Prime Minister’s Question Time at noon on Wednesday. The debating style in the Commons is quite combative, but not all debates are flamboyant argumentative duelling matches – many are rather boring and long-winded.
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