London is huge, fast-paced and packed with world-class things to see, do and experience. With so many options it can be hard for a first-time visitor to know where to start – which is where we come in with our list of the 12 absolute must-sees on your trip, from historic buildings to a classic English tradition.
The Tower of London has been a capital landmark for almost a thousand years © Doug McKinlay / Lonely Planet
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 (9am Tues-Sat, 10am Sun & Mon) and head straight to the Crown Jewels to avoid the afternoon queues. Next join a Yeoman Warder’s tour for a fascinating and personal insight into the life and grisly times of this fortress-palace, or book a winter Twilight Tour to see the Tower’s spooky side.
2. Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is an extraordinary place and has been the heart of the country’s royal and religious life for centuries, acting as the venue for weddings and funerals alike (17 monarchs are buried here). It was founded more than a thousand years ago and today displays a mix of architectural styles, with the bulk of its structure dating back to the 13th century. Poets’ Corner in the South Transept is one of many highlights.
Tate Modern is just one of many iconic buildings you'll encounter on the South Bank © Paolo Paradiso / Shutterstock
3. Stroll the South Bank
A great way to get your bearings and take in a slew of sights at the same time is a west-to-east walk along the south side of the Thames. Getting off at Westminster tube will leave you right by Big Ben (officially the Elizabeth Tower), but cross Westminster Bridge for better views, and an eyeful of the remarkable Houses of Parliament. From here, the riverbank offers a roll call of top-draw icons: the London Eye, the Southbank Centre, Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, and views across the river of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and the skyscrapers of The City.
4. Go on the London Eye
Although it’s inescapably touristy, a rotation on the London Eye really is a must for any first-time visitor to the UK capital. Smack bang on the South Bank, the big wheel takes 30 minutes to do a full turn, at its peak reaching a height of 135 metres, providing spectacular views of the Houses of Parliament and other iconic landmarks from its glass capsules. Book tickets in advance to avoid the queues.
Take time for afternoon tea and indulge in some cakes, sandwiches and scones © susannah v. vergau / photos4dreams / Getty Images
5. Take afternoon tea (or down a pint in a pub)
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. For something a bit more down to earth, have a pint in a pub – Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and the Lamb & Flag are good options for lots of centuries-old character.
6. A night out in Soho
If you have to choose one place in London to let your hair down, make it Soho, a densely packed warren of after-dark delights. For centuries a bohemian quarter, it has served as the city’s red-light district and, since the 1980s, has been a hub for London’s gay community. Join the pavement loiterers waiting for a table at Polpo or Flat Iron , or book ahead for a meal in the startling surrounds at Bob Bob Ricard. Then opt for an old-school pint or four in the French House, Bar Termini, Yard or the White Horse.
Don't miss the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum © Flik 47 / Shutterstock
7. British Museum
The British Museum is crammed with such an array of treasures, you could probably spend your whole trip there. Free eye-opener tours 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 Parthenon Sculptures, the Mummy of Katebet and the Lewis Chessmen.
8. 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 (available for both kids and adults) at the Natural History Museum.
You might not see the queen but you'll definitely some of her guards at Buckingham Palace © David Steele / Shutterstock
9. 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 the Guard, the age-old ritual of iconic bearskin-hatted regiments swapping shifts outside Buckingham Palace. Arrive early for a good view (it starts at 11am and it’s recommended to get there for 10.15, unless you happen to be very tall). If you hanker after more, you can tour the palace itself in August and September, while the Queen is on her holiday in Scotland.
10. Centre stage
London is arguably the best place in the world to go to the theatre and enjoy musicals and you should take the opportunity, whether you're a theatre buff or not – there's something to suit all tastes. For the most famous faces and glitziest productions, head to the West End. Big titles at the moment include Matilda and The Book of Mormon, though the hottest ticket is still Hamilton. Excellent alternatives for high-quality drama are the Donmar Warehouse, the Almeida, the Royal Court and the Barbican.
The sights and smells of Columbia Road Flower Market can be enjoyed each Sunday morning © David Burrows / Shutterstock
11. 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 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. The whole area is the best place to see street art in London too.
12. Village London
Among London’s many charms are the hidden corners that still preserve a village feel, apt given the growth of the capital over the years has seen it swallow but not completely obliterate many formerly independent villages. A great place to soak up that more relaxed, 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. Another neighbourhood that’s retained its village-like feel is Notting Hill.