London is huge, fast-paced and packed with things you’ve been told not to miss. It's a great city, but it can be hard for a first-time visitor to know where to start. Here are our recommendations for the top ten places to make a priority.
1. Tower of London
A world of English eccentricity strikingly enclosed in an imposing 11th-century fortress – the Tower of London is a great place to kick off your explorations. Arrive as the doors are unlocked and head straight to the Crown Jewels to avoid the afternoon queues. Join a Yeoman Warder’s tour for a fascinating and personal insight into the life and grisly history of the complex, or book a winter Twilight Tour to see the tower’s more spooky side.
2. Stroll the south bank
A great way to get your bearings and take in a slew of sights en route is a west-to-east walk along the south bank of the Thames. Getting off at Westminster tube will leave you right by Big Ben, but cross Westminster Bridge for better views, and an eyeful of the remarkable Houses of Parliament. From here, the southern riverbank offers a roll call of top-draw icons: the London Eye, the Southbank Centre, Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.
3. Take afternoon tea
The quintessentially English indulgence of whiling away an afternoon eating dainty sandwiches and drinking tea will leave you feeling really rather upper class. For the classic experience head to Claridge’s or the Ritz, or in the summer try the terrace at the Goring or the stately Orangery. For something more quirky, you can’t beat the Mad Hatter’s tea at the Sanderson, or the innovative creations served up at the Modern Pantry.
4. British Museum
It’s crammed with such an array of treasures, you could probably spend your whole trip in the magnificent British Museum. Free eye-opener tours helpfully allow you to focus on specific parts of the vast collection. Alternatively, take in the highlights by wandering through the Great Court, with its stunning glass-and-steel roof designed by Norman Foster, and don’t leave before you’ve seen the Rosetta Stone, the Mummy of Katebet and the Lewis Chessmen.
5. A night out in Soho
If you have to choose one place in London to let your hair down, it’s hard to go wrong in Soho, a densely packed warren of nocturnal good times. For centuries a bohemian quarter, it has served as the city’s red-light district, and since the 1980s been a hub for London’s gay community. Join the pavement loiterers waiting for a table at Polpo or Flatiron (flatironsteak.co.uk), or book ahead for a meal in the startling surrounds at Bob Bob Ricard (bobbobricard.com). Then opt for an old-school pint or four in the Dog & Duck (nicholsonspubs.co.uk/thedogandducksoholondon), cocktails at Mark’s Bar (marksbar.co.uk/thebars) or beers on the balcony at The Yard (yardbar.co.uk).
6. South Kensington museums
A trio of world-class museums lie within steps of each other in this wealthy neighbourhood, their grand edifices proving an equal draw to the glories within. To see a more unusual side of the Science Museum or the Victoria & Albert, and mingle with some Londoners, try one of the monthly ‘Lates’ when they open their doors into the evening and offer music and food alongside the exhibits. Or take it one step further with a Dino Snores sleepover at the Natural History Museum.
7. Visit the Queen
No trip to the capital would be complete without a glimpse of what the Royals are up to. The simplest way to see a bit of sovereign ceremony is to watch the Changing of the Guard, the age-old ritual of iconic bearskin-hatted regiments swapping shifts outside Buckingham Palace. Arrive early for a good view. If you hanker after more, you can tour the palace itself in August and September, while the Queen is on her hols.
8. Centre stage
London is arguably the best place in the world to go to the theatre, often surpassing New York City for big-name stars. For the most famous faces and glitziest productions, head to the West End. Excellent alternatives for equally high-quality drama are the Donmar Warehouse, the Almeida, the Royal Court and the Barbican.
9. Hang with some hipsters
Sunday is a great day to see trendy East London come alive. Wander up Brick Lane for bric-a-brac, street food and vintage-clothes stalls. At its northern end, Boxpark (boxpark.co.uk) hosts a range of labels in shipping-containers-turned-stores and nearby Redchurch St sports a strip of designer boutiques. Cobbled Columbia Road will be busy with a beautiful fresh-flower market, and a short walk northeast brings you to Broadway Market, awash with laid-back bars, restaurants and cool shops.
10. Village London
Among London’s many charms are the hidden corners that still preserve a whiff of a bygone village era. A great place to soak up that more relaxed and local atmosphere is quaint Hampstead. Wander the cobbled alleys, browse the bourgeois boutiques and then stretch your legs across the gloriously wild heath, before retiring to the cosy Garden Gate pub, housed in a 19th-century cottage.