The Best Things to Do in London
For culture, art, history, nightlife, and food, London can’t be beat. What else do you need? From the tippy top of the Shard to the dungeons at the Tower of London, from the green swaths of Hyde Park to the stones of Westminster Abbey, from the Tate Modern to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, squeeze as much time as you can into exploring this fascinating and thoroughly modern city.
Riverside Building, County Hall, South Bank, London SE1 7PB, UK
The giant ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames is made up of 32 futuristic glass capsules - all of which are sealed, air-conditioned and big enough to house 25 guests. Riding the attraction is effectively being stuck in a bubble, albeit one that offers 40km views in all directions (see if you can spot Windsor Castle in the farthest distance on a clear day). This is the wheel that never stops turning, and while views at the top are stunning, you won’t feel the ascent/descent: the Eye does one full rotation every 30 minutes, and turns so slowly passengers walk on and off at ground level. Curiously there is no capsule 13; since the number is thought to be bad luck, its been replaced in the lineup by the infamous no.33.
Clive Steps, King Charles St, Westminster, London SW1A 2AQ, UK
This underground bunker lay undisturbed for 30 years after the end of World War II, and is now open to the public in its restored original state. The maps are as they were the day the war ended. It’s moving to contemplate that this is where Churchill and his staff planned the defense of Britain, and the free world. The adjacent museum to the Great Man offers a quite even-handed view of his life, which was relatively undistinguished except when it really counted
Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, London N1 2UN, UK
Possibly no music venue in London has quite as intriguing a backstory as the Union Chapel in Islington. The 19th-century Gothic Revival church, with its mosaic floor, its carved ceiling, its stained glass windows, and its chunky brick belltower, is a sight to see of itself. But since it began hosting gigs to help pay for the building’s restoration it has become one of the trendiest and most popular music destinations in the city. It has hosted everyone from Bjork and Patti Smith to Ryan Adams and Elton John, yet still very much operates as a church, with a liberal, progressive congregation supporting an outreach that’s as musical as it is Biblical.
7 Leicester Pl, London WC2H 7BY, UK
There’s something almost cheeky about the Prince Charles Cinema. Tucked in a little alley behind Leicester Square, it seems to thumb its nose at the great swathes of visitors who go to the square to spend silly money in its vast multiplexes. If you don’t want to drop $20 on a second-rate blockbuster, the slightly dilapidated but always charming Prince Charles will offer you an eclectic mix of nearly new and utterly classic films for a fraction of the price. If you’re free to go to a daytime screening, it’s even cheaper. Then there are its famous marathon screenings, where you can spend an entire weekend geeking out on John Hughes movies, or staying overnight for a Harry Potter sleepover. It’s more than a cinema, really—it’s a community center for movie geeks.
St. Martin's Pl, London WC2H 0HE, UK
Nestled in the corner next to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery isn’t as overwhelming as its larger sibling. It’s an absolute beaut of a gallery, with a permanent collection (free to view) of portraits of everyone you’ve ever heard of, from Elizabeth I and Winston Churchill to the Duchess of Cambridge and Amy Winehouse, while its programme of exhibitions never ceases to fascinate. Portrait Restaurant and Bar has a breathtaking view over Trafalgar Square and Whitehall, taking in Nelson’s column, the Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye. If you’re around between June and September don’t miss the famous BP Portrait Award, which displays the best contemporary portraiture in Britain today.
103 Borough Rd, London SE1 0AA, UK
South Bank has both the best river walk in London and the city’s liveliest cultural centers, so a walk along it is a must. The path takes you from the Globe and the Tate Modern along the Thames—passing Gabriel’s Wharf with its stellar restaurants and bars—to the National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, and the London Eye. A two-mile strip has never held so many different entertainment opportunities; you could spend weeks along it without getting bored. That’s not to mention the regular outdoor performances and the unparalleled views of the bridges over the river, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament.
Renzo Piano’s Shard has divided opinion with its 309 meters (1,000 feet) of spiky glass construction and jagged top. But there’s no denying its sensational views. Access them by booking a meal at contemporary-British restaurant Aqua on the 41st floor, or head up to the viewing platform on the 68th floor for a fascinating bird’s-eye glimpse over the train lines threading out from London Bridge station across the river and into the city beyond.
Hampstead, London NW3 2QD, UK
Hampstead Heath is a legend: 800 acres of wide-open space dotted with ponds, woods, walking tracks, and the odd stately home. North Londoners take pride in this place, where you will find dog walkers, picnickers, Saturday soccer players, and hardy outdoor swimmers at all times of the year. It brings a touch of true wilderness to the city, and it’s also home to a lido, a stately home with an unrivalled art collection (at Kenwood House), and the famous bathing ponds established by the Victorians (and thus separate for gentlemen and ladies). Parliament Hill also offers one of the best views in London.
93 Guilford Street
There’s nowhere more exclusive in London than Corams Fields—because this is the one square in the city where adults aren’t allowed, unless they’re accompanied by a child. A seven-acre park and playground, funded by charity for the past 80 years to keep a sanctuary in the middle of town where kids can play safely, this is a great stop off if you’re heading into or out of the West End with your family. There’s a city farm, a paddling pool, a cafe, and events throughout the year.
149 Piccadilly, London W1J 7NT, UK
Famously given the address No 1, London when it was first built on the north side of Piccadilly, the Duke of Wellington’s former home is one of the few Georgian houses in London that still stands alone. From Hyde Park Corner you see it in all its grandeur, and a visit inside (it’s operated by English Heritage) brings you face to face with an extensive collection of 18th- and 19th-century art. Personally, Most interesting are the cases displaying some of Wellington’s personal affairs—including weapons, military medals, and armor. He is one of England’s most famous military leaders and hero, and you shouldn’t leave the country without learning about him.
183 Euston Rd, London NW1 2BE, UK
Completely unique and always fascinating, the Wellcome Trust, not far from the British Library, is a free museum devoted to the marvels of the human body. It has regular exhibitions, taking sideways scientific looks at everything from the the anatomy of the brain to the secrets of sleep (and their exhibition on death was not remotely as morbid as it sounds). But it’s worth a visit any time for its permanent collection, which combines clever hands-on exhibits that teach you about your own body with thoughtful artworks that reflect on the human condition—who knew your pancreas is halfway up your back? Plus it has a great cafe and bookshop.
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP, UK
Sir John Soane was an 18th-century architect who died nearly 200 years ago. He was also an undiagnosed hoarder. The man’s townhouse, which has been left untouched since his death and which free to the public, is an extraordinary jumble of his collection of antiquities—he had to modify the building in order to cram them all in. There’s even a genuine Egpytian sarcophagus in his basement (which originally housed a Pharaoh). It’s impossible to describe how completely bonkers his house is, and you’re not allowed to take pictures inside, so you’ll need to see it with your own eyes. Once a month you can join the Soane Lates for a candlelit exhibit. These are highly popular so be sure to book ahead.
Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG, UK
Checking out the famously preserved mummies at the world’s oldest public museum is on many London wish lists, but there’s much more to the British Museum than ancient Egypt. Other must-sees include the Elgin Marbles and the African masks, both part of an enormous collection that spans ancient Iran to modern Sweden. The Great Court, which was cleverly revamped with a geometric glass roof by Foster + Partners in 2000, is a spacious gathering area with a shop and a café—and a sight worth seeing in itself.
If you’re looking for a moment of peace and reverence surrounded by gothic grandeur and ancient history, head for this often overlooked gem. It doesn’t get the noisy crowds of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, but Southwark is one of the most beautiful, dramatic, and historic places of worship in the city, its flagstones worn by a millennia of pilgrims and prayers. An Augustinian priory was established here in the 12th century and the Gothic church was reconstructed in the 13th after a fire, and its great arched ceiling and richly decorated chapels transport you back there with surprising ease. There are five services a day to which all are welcome, but to get the full effect, head to one where their outstanding choir is singing. You’ll get chills.
Bankside, London SE1 9TG, UK
It’s impossible to ignore the hulking 1950s architecture of the Tate Modern, slap-bang in the middle of the most-walked part of the South Bank. A visionary refurb of this former power station has resulted in an artistic behemoth with multiple gallery spaces (containing both free exhibitions and ticketed exhibitions), including the fantastic Turbine Hall for oversize installations. Outside, the Millennium Bridge leads over the Thames to the City and the great domed St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Cromwell Rd, South Kensington, London SW7 5BD, UK
These are the museums that all British children within schooltrip distance of London have visited at some point, and they’re just as much fun for adults. The Natural History museum, Science Museum, and Victoria & Albert museum are clustered around the bottom of Exhibition Road where it meets Cromwell Road. Taking in all three in a day is possible, if daunting. Covering everything from prehistoric creatures to the latest space missions—via the art and design of Britain and her erstwhile empire—these three museums are Britain’s answer to the Smithsonian, and a half day in them is enough to blow your mind with things you never knew. The Science Museum specializes in hands-on exhibits that are great for kids, and the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum are a must.
What was once a private hunting ground for Henry VIII is now a favorite destination for London locals and visitors alike. One of the eight Royal Parks, Hyde simultaneously serves as a natural oasis and civic hub. A day on the green has endless possibilities: unpack a picnic at Serpentine Lake; take a stand at Speakers’ Corner; reflect at the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain; ride horseback or attend a rock concert. However you choose to watch the world go by here is guaranteed time well spent.
Chester Rd, London NW1 4NR, UK
Regent’s Park in London lives up to its name and is quite royal, boasting rows of manicured flowers and plants. (There’s also a theater, zoo, and walking paths.) I always make a beeline for the Rose Garden: a circular garden chock-full of roses of various fragrances, shades, and shapes. Benches border the garden and are picturesquely linked by vines and even more flowers. The BBC tower looming in the distance makes an interesting contrast but reminds you that you’re still in the middle of a city. Those with allergies, beware.
20 Deans Yd, Westminster, London SW1P 3PA, UK
William and Kate’s wedding brought a 21st-century focus to this 700-year-old abbey, which is built on the same spot as a Benedictine monastery enlarged by Edward the Confessor in the 1040s. The site of every coronation since 1066, it boasts an ornate Gothic architecture that gives it a statuesque presence, dominating Parliament Square; it’s easy to combine with a visit to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament next door.