Vibrant and edgy London offers a hoard of things to do and famous places to visit; here are just 10 of the top attractions and activities in London.
The best tourist attractions in London are world-renown but the true grit of London is revealed through numerous eclectic art galleries, hip markets, ethnic restaurants, street performances and a trendy bar culture. London is about contrasts – besides the top London attractions, there is a range of activities in London not to be missed, from highbrow tea to soapbox public debates. While there are too many top things to see in London to fit in a single list, this list of top 10 places to go in London will give you a taste of the best places London’s has to offer.
1. Take a boat trip between the two Tates – Tate Britain and Tate Modern
Jump on the Tate Boat to visit the two Tate art galleries, both of which are located on the banks of the river Thames. Tate Britain on Millbank, founded by Victorian sugar magnet and philanthropist Henry Tate (Tate & Lyle sugar is still sold today), displays British Art from 1,500AD to the present day. Artists include Turner, Constable, Gainsborough, the Pre-Raphaelites, Moore, Hepworth, Emin and Hirst. Tate Modern on Bankside houses international modern and contemporary art by the art world’s biggest and brightest names, in the old Bankside Power Station designed by Sir Gilbert Scott. The Turbine Hall at the heart of the galleries was once filled with vast electricity generators and is now used for constantly changing large-scale art installations. You get a great view of Sir Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece St Paul’s cathedral from the front of Tate Modern and can walk over the steel suspension Millennium Bridge for a closer look.
2. Sample the food and drink at Southwark’s Borough Market
Borough Market, not far from London Bridge, is the oldest and largest food market in London – and a must for all foodies. Food has been traded in the area since the 11th century and a market has been in this location since 1756. Pick your way through the maze of stalls in the ornate Victorian building and choose from the array of exceptional foods and drinks from Britain and around the world. You’re just a short walk away from The Shard, London and Western Europe’s highest building. Ride up 1,000ft for a drink, a meal, the silent disco or to just take in the view – at 40 miles high, 360 degrees, it’s spectacular.
3. Enjoy a play the Elizabethan way at Shakespeare’s Globe
Shakespeare’s Globe, on Bankside, is an authentic reconstruction of the original Elizabethan playhouse the Globe Theatre, which was designed in 1598 and stood nearby. Britain’s most famous playwright William Shakespeare was one of four actors who bought a share in the Globe and many of his most famous plays were performed there – in fact, the theatre burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII when a stage cannon set fire to the thatched roof. US actor and director Sam Wannamaker initiated the project to rebuild the Globe in 1949 but it wasn’t until 1997 that his dream was realised. Today it’s one of the best venues in the world to enjoy Shakespearean drama in its original setting. The circular theatre is open to the elements with wooden benches surrounding much of the stage, with a large standing-only area in the middle called the Yard.
4. Go green in Hyde Park
Any of the eight Royal Parks in London are perfect for topping up on some green therapy, although Hyde Park covering 350 acres in the centre of London is one of the prime parks. Listen to people expressing their views at Speakers’ Corner, the traditional site for debates and public speeches since the mid-1800s, or get up on your own soap box (anyone can turn up to talk on any – lawful – topic). Row a boat on the Serpentine lake, or glide across on the UK’s first sun-powered Solarshuttle. Take in some contemporary art at one of the two Serpentine Galleries. Jog or ride a horse along Rotten Row, where the rich paraded on horseback in the 18th and 19th centuries. Children will love exploring the giant wooden pirate ship, teepees and sensory trail in the Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground in the Kensington Gardens part of the park or paddling in the Princess of Wales Fountain. You’re a stone’s throw away from the swanky Knightsbridge shops (including Harrods and Harvey Nichols), restaurants and bars at the south end of the park, and the frenetic Oxford Street with its flagship stores of most major chains can be accessed via the north-east corner.
5. Travel through centuries in the British Museum
Hidden in the backstreets behind New Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road is the British Museum, a vast edifice which looks like a Greek temple and houses the Rosetta Stone, the controversial Elgin Marbles, the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo ship-burial, numerous Egyptian Mummies, alongside about eight million other artefacts.
There are lots of fascinating smaller museums in London, too. See where 19th-century surgeons could slice off a leg within a minute – and without anaesthetic – at the Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge. Head to the Freud Museum – which was once the physiologist’s home in Hampstead – and ponder your relationship with your mother as you view Sigmund Freud’s writing desk and the famous Berggasse psychoanalytic couch .
6. Take a cable car to explore time, space and the sea in Greenwich
Jump on the Emirates Air Line cable car from Royal Victoria to North Greenwich to visit Greenwich in south-east London – a World Heritage Site and home to Greenwich Mean Time. Walk up the hill in Greenwich Park to the Royal Observatory, where you can stand astride the Greenwich Meridian Line at longitude 0°, the reference for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), discover the story of time, name a star, view the night sky through the Great Equatorial Telescope and enjoy spectacular views of the city at any time.
Right on the riverfront is the Baroque masterpiece the Old Naval College. It has white columns and domes outside and a spectacular painted hall inside. It was once a naval hospital, and built on the site of Greenwich Palace (birthplace of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) in the 17th century. More recently, it was used as a location in the Les Miserables, Pirates of the Caribbean: on Stranger Tides and Gulliver’s Travels.
You can also go aboard the 19th-century tea clipper Cutty Sark, visit the National Maritime Museum, browse the funky stalls of Greenwich Market or just hang out in the area’s cool bars and restaurants.
7. Don’t lose your head at the Tower of London (although the wife of Henry VIII did)
The Tower of London, founded in 1066 by William the Conqueror, has been used as a prison, Royal residence, armoury, treasury, Royal Mint and animal menagerie. Today you can see the Yeoman of the Guard (‘Beefeaters’) guarding the Crown Jewels (when the Queen of England’s not wearing them), the White Tower (the castle keep in the middle) and the scaffold site where Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s wife, and others were executed. Don’t forget to count the ravens – legend has it that if the six birds ever leave the Tower, the fortress and the Kingdom will fall.
Tower Bridge – the one that opens up to allow vessels through – is right next door. If you dare, walk the new glass floor over the high level Walkways. On the south side of the river, directly opposite the Tower of London you’ll find City Hall (the Mayor of London’s HQ), The Scoop open-air sunken amphitheatre with free music and theatre, and the 20th century warship HMS Belfast.
8. Hang out with the hipsters in Hoxton and Shoreditch
Hoxton and Shoreditch, just north of the city in London’s East End, are rough, gritty and where you’ll find the coolest bars, nightclubs, restaurants, independent shops and galleries in London. Head for Hoxton Square and walk outwards. Brick Lane Market and Old Spitalfields Market are in the area. For the latest information about what’s on, see London’s listing guide TimeOut. On a Sunday morning treat yourself (or your hangover) to a traditional full English breakfast of egg, bacon, sausage, tomatoes, beans in a cosy café, before buying armfuls of flowers at Columbia Road flower market in Bethnal Green.
9. Take tea at the Ritz
Afternoon tea is one of the quintessential English experiences and what better place to enjoy it than in the posh Palm Court of the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly. The Palm Court is an extravagant, glass-roofed room filled with ornate gilded mirrors, chandeliers, golden statues and flower displays. While you sit at a table covered with starched white linen, impeccable waiters will offer you a choice of 16 different varieties of tea served from a silver tea service, a selection of delicate sandwiches (crusts cut off, of course), freshly baked scones, jam and clotted cream and other pastries – while a pianist plays gently in the background. You do have to dress the part: men must wear a jacket and tie and neither men nor women can wear jeans, trainers or sportswear.
10. See democracy in action at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster
Take a tour around the ornate Gothic Palace of Westminster – this is the Houses of Parliament, where the House of Commons and the House of Lords meet. When Parliament is sitting, you can watch Members of Parliament (MPs) debating current issues or proposed laws in the House of Commons; Prime Minister’s Question Time is the liveliest – you’ll have to queue for tickets. Take a photo of Big Ben, although it’s the bell inside the Elizabeth Tower that’s actually called Big Ben.
Medieval Westminster Abbey is on the other side of Parliament Square and you’re only a stone’s throw away across the Thames from the London Eye and the theatres, art galleries, restaurants and street performers on the South Bank.