London is huge, fast-paced and packed with world-class things to do, see and experience. With so many options, it can be hard to know where to start, whether you’re a first-time visitor or coming back for more.
You could be taking advantage of free entry at top art galleries and museums, learning about the city’s history, or seeing a captivating West End show – really almost anything is possible. These are the 13 best experiences in London that you won’t want to miss.
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1. Step back in time at the Tower of London
A world of English eccentricity strikingly enclosed in an imposing 11th-century fortress, the Tower of London is the place to start a visit to London. Not only is the tower an architectural odyssey, but it’s home to the world’s largest diamond (the controversial Cullinan diamond); a dazzling array of armor and weaponry; and a palpable sense of ancient history at every turn.
Planning tip: It’s well worth getting here early – you will need at least half a day for exploration. Arrive as the doors are unlocked and head straight to the Crown Jewels to avoid standing in line. Next, join a Yeoman Warder’s tour for a fascinating and personal insight into the life and grisly times of this fortress-palace.
The South Bank is a must-visit destination, packed with top sights and a lot of activity © Tony C French / Getty Images
2. Stroll the sights of 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 Elizabeth Tower). From there, cross Westminster Bridge for stellar views of the remarkable Houses of Parliament. The South Bank offers a roll call of top-draw icons and entertainment and is a great place to go if you’re traveling with kids. Although it’s inescapably touristy, a rotation on the London Eye is a must for any first-time visitor to the capital. The big wheel takes 30 minutes to do a full turn, at its peak reaching a height of 135 meters, providing spectacular views of iconic landmarks from its glass capsules. Book tickets in advance to avoid the lines.
Further along the South Bank, you’ll find some of London’s top sights, including Southbank Centre, Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe theater, with views across the river to St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and the skyscrapers of The City.
Detour: Take a break at Borough Market near London Bridge, where there are pubs, restaurants, dairies, bakers and gourmet food stalls.
Notting Hill Carnival is a celebration of Black London © Daniel Samray / Shutterstock
3. Explore London’s Black history
London’s Black history is rich and fascinating and stretches back several centuries. Across the city, there is a growing desire to acknowledge, own and celebrate it. Begin your journey by joining one of the 12 walking tours in central London with Black History Walks. Then head down to the Docklands to learn about the capital’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade at the Musem of London Docklands before meandering south to marvel at the vast Black archives at Brixton’s Black Cultural Archives. Next, indulge in some of the delicious local Caribbean cuisine and take in many of the city’s finest Black artists at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning.
The street signs in East London’s Brick Lane are also in Bengali © eddygaleotti / Getty Images
4. Make the most of Muslim London
London was once the capital of an empire that ruled over more than half the world’s Muslims, so it is no surprise that the city is home to a vast number of Muslim cultures and rich in Islamic heritage. Start with the amazing Islamic collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Jameel Gallery or the British Museum’s Albukhary Gallery – between them, these former imperial institutes hold over 115,000 Islamic items – before learning where Arabic was being taught in 17th century London on an eye-opening Muslim History Tour. Then finally, treat yourself to a choice of the capital’s most delicious Muslim cuisines: try a fiery curry along East London’s Brick Lane; head north for London’s most authentic Anatolian dishes, or West along Edgware Road if Middle Eastern cuisine is your thing.
Tate Modern houses British and international modern and contemporary art © Carlos Neto / Shutterstock
5. Be wowed by contemporary art at Tate Modern
A vast shrine to modern and contemporary art, the much-loved Tate Modern enjoys a triumphant position right on the River Thames. Housed in the former Bankside Power Station, the gallery is a vigorous statement of modernity, architectural renewal and accessibility. Enter via Holland Street to experience the incredible vast Turbine Hall, which used to house the power station’s electricity generators, and is now home to large-scale installation art.
Local tip: The permanent collection is free, and the gallery’s ziggurat extension, the Blavatnik Building, opened in 2016, provides 60% more exhibition space and a new (and free) vantage point in London. Exhibition spaces are pushing the conceptual envelope, too, with installation and performance art.
Westminster Abbey has hosted 16 royal weddings in 900 years © alice-photo / Shutterstock
6. Imagine the royal weddings of yesteryear at Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is an extraordinary place and has been the heart of the country’s royal and religious life for centuries. 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. As a result, almost every nook and cranny has a story attached to it. It’s acted as the venue for weddings and funerals – 17 monarchs are buried here, and 16 royal weddings have been hosted here, the most recent being that of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011.
Among the highlights, you will find the oldest door in the UK, Poets’ Corner, the Coronation Chair, 14th-century cloisters, a 900-year-old garden, royal sarcophagi and much more.
Planning tip: Be warned that the crowds are almost as solid as the abbey’s unshakeable stonework, so aim to join the line first thing in the morning.
The British Museum is London’s most-visited attraction © Anna Levan / Shutterstock
7. See the world’s treasures at the British Museum
With almost six million visitors trooping through its doors annually, the British Museum in Bloomsbury is Britain’s most-visited attraction. It is crammed with such an array of treasures (many of which, controversially, were taken from other countries), you could probably spend your whole trip navigating the vast and hallowed collection of artifacts, art and age-old antiquity, and still not be done. 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 key to deciphering hieroglyphics, and the other-worldly mummies.
South Kensington is home to three world-class museums, all within a short walk © elRoce / Shutterstock
8. Learn about nature’s history at South Kensington’s museums
A trio of world-class museums lie within steps of each other in this wealthy neighborhood, their grand edifices proving an equal draw to the glories within. With seven floors of interactive, educational and eye-opening exhibits, the spellbinding collection at the Science Museum mesmerizes adults and children in equal measure. You could spend days in the huge Victoria & Albert Museum, which houses the world’s leading collection of decorative arts, and still be astounded at its variety and depth. With its thunderous, animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex, riveting displays about planet earth, outstanding Darwin Centre and architecture straight from a Gothic fairy tale, the Natural History Museum is an astonishing work of curatorial imagination. Start in Hintze Hall where a diving blue-whale skeleton hangs from the ceiling.
Local tip: To see a more unusual side, and mingle with some Londoners, check in advance to see if any “Lates” are running, when the museums open their doors into the evening and offer music and food alongside the exhibits. There are even occasional sleepover events called Dino Snores at the Natural History Museum.
Millions of people watch the Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace each year © David Steele / Shutterstock
9. Watch the guards change at Buckingham Palace
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 at 10:15 unless you happen to be very tall). If you hanker after more, you can tour the palace itself from July through October (the State Rooms will not reopen to the public in 2022, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II).
Built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham and then purchased by King George III, Buckingham Palace has been the Royal Family’s London lodgings since 1837 when Queen Victoria moved in. On a tour, visitors can get a peek at the State Rooms – a mere 19 of the palace’s 775 rooms – and wander through the stunning gardens.
Hyde Park Serpentine man-made lake is one of many highlights in the park’s 142 acres © IR Stone / Shutterstock
10. Relax in the gloriously green Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens
London’s urban parkland is virtually second to none and is the place to see locals at ease and in their element. Hyde Park alone ranges across a mighty 142 hectares; throw in Kensington Gardens, and you have even more space to roam and everything you could want: a central London setting, a royal palace, deck chairs, boating opportunities, open-air concerts, art galleries, magnificent trees, a tasteful granite memorial to Princess Diana as well as a magnificently overblown memorial to Prince Albert facing the grand form of the Albert Hall.
Visiting historic pubs is part of the London experience © christo mitkov christov / Shutterstock
11. Down a pint at a historic English pub
London minus its pubs, such as the character-filled centuries-old Lamb & Flag and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, would be like Paris sans cafes. Pub culture is a part of London’s DNA, and the pub is the best place to see local people in their hop-scented element. Longer opening hours have cemented pubs as the cornerstone of a good night out across the capital. They’re also a favorite for family-friendly long weekend lunches. Gastropubs dot London’s culinary cosmos, many rivaling the best restaurants.
Local tip: If you have to choose one place in London for an evening out, make it Soho, a densely packed warren of after-dark delights. For centuries a bohemian quarter, Soho has served as the city’s red-light district and, since the 1980s, has been a hub for London’s LGBT+ community. Opt for an old-school pint or four in the French House, Bar Termini, Yard or the White Horse.
Watching a theater or musical performance is one of London’s most sought-after experiences © Willy Barton / Shutterstock
12. See a world-class theater show in the West End – and beyond
London is one of the best places in the world to catch a theater performance, so take the opportunity while visiting (even on a budget!).
For the most famous faces and well-known productions, head to the West End. This area is synonymous with musicals; look out for classics like Les Misérables or Mamma Mia!. Other big titles include family-favorites Matilda, The Lion King or Wicked, as well as Six!, Heathers The Musical and The Book of Mormon (definitely not family viewing!).
If musicals are not your thing, get onto TodayTix and see what else is playing. Also, check out independent theaters from Donmar Warehouse to Soho Theatre to catch up-and-coming talent for around the same price as a pint of beer.
Not exactly in the West End, but if Shakespeare is more your thing, you will love an Elizabethan-style experience at Shakespeare’s Globe. You’ll need to book ahead for a standing ticket as one of the all-weather “groundlings” who watch from the open-air yard before the stage (or pay extra for a seat in the gallery). The theater is a triumph of authenticity, right down to the nail-less construction, English-oak beams, original joinery and thatching (sprinklers are a modern touch).
Enjoy dainty finger sandwiches, patisserie and warm scones at Claridge’s in London © lucydphoto / Getty Images
13. Take traditional English afternoon tea
The quintessentially English indulgence of whiling away an afternoon eating dainty sandwiches and cakes and drinking tea may give you the feeling you’re being observed by Lady Whistledown herself. Despite looking like you’ve walked in on a Bridgerton party, these establishments are perfectly welcoming. And there’s no need to dress to the nines. Smart casual attire is fine (in other words, no trainers, joggers or sweat shirts).
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 at Kensington Palace. It’s called afternoon tea, but you can book your tea almost any time of the day. Pre-booking is highly recommended as slots can book out, especially on weekends and in the peak season.
Planning tip: Make sure you arrive suitably hungry. It might not look like much food in the pictures, but all those plates of delicate treats really does add up to a mini feast.