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10 Essential Things to Do in London
Not a single person who has ever visited London has complained about a lack of things to do. The British capital is one of the world’s most famous cities and, as such, it’s bursting with things to see and do. Castles here, churches there, wait, that writer lived here? How long has this show been going on? If you’re into history, art, religion, theatre, food or just culture with a capital C, then you’re going to love London. But it can sometimes be hard to prioritize in a city with so many possibilities.
That’s where we come in. We’re not claiming this is an exhaustive list of what to do in London. Such a list would be never ending. However, this article does capture 10 essential things to do in London. If you want to cross some essential experiences in England off your bucket list, this list is for you.
What things are there to see and do in London?
Tour the Tower of London (and Cross the Tower Bridge too!)
Although the name always catches people off guard, the Tower of London is actually a castle, not a tower. It was built in the late 11th century by William the Conqueror after he invaded England and has since been used as the residence of English monarchs, a prison, and even the home of the Royal Mint. Today, it’s best known for housing the Crown Jewels, which you can see as a part of your general admission, although you’ll want to arrive early to beat the queue, which forms soon after opening. It’s worth seeing the Crown Jewels, but the rest of the castle is the real attraction. The central White Tower (see, that’s where they get the name from) houses an armoury and has restored interiors that showcase noble life during the Middle Ages. In other chambers and turrets, you can learn about the famous prisoners of the castle (including Elizabeth I before she was queen), ponder the dark history of the princes who disappeared while staying in the tower, and interact with the ravens that live at the castle to ward off superstition. You can also join a tour by the Yeoman Warders, more popularly known as Beefeaters, who lead tours throughout the castle grounds, telling stories about the past and helping visitors get in the early modern spirit. What’s extra special is that the Tower Bridge is right nearby, so you can cross off both landmarks with a visit here.
See the Tombs of Westminster Abbey
Want to see where the royal coronations take place or the site of the royal weddings? How about seeing the resting place of some of the most famous people in British history? Then head to Westminster Abbey, right behind the Palace of Westminster, which houses parliament. You can book a guided tour, but the audio guide that comes with admission is exceptional—and narrated by Jeremy Irons! The abbey is a monument to British religious, political, scientific, and artistic history. Statues and monuments shed light on key events in England’s past, and the opulent sanctuary is one of the most famous examples of English Gothic style. But the tombs are the highlight here. Soon after entering, you’ll spot the burial sites of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking. Near the end, you’ll come across Poets’ Corner, where famous writers are buried, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling. And all throughout you’ll see the death masks and marble resting places of British monarchs, including Edward the Confessor (the site of whose chapel the original abbey was built upon), Henry V, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and James I. In essence, the church is a mausoleum of the grandest order.
Climb the Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral
Head to the north bank of the Thames near Blackfriars to find the largest church in the city and one of the most impressive cathedrals in all of Europe: St. Paul’s. The cathedral dome is an iconic part of London’s skyline, and also one of the best places to enjoy a view of said skyline if you choose to climb the stairs up to the top. The dome is one of the largest in any cathedral in the world and the church was built on the highest point of land in the city, so the view is legitimately impressive. Inside, the church is one of the most beautiful Anglican buildings in the world, with a deep sanctuary that captures light in a profoundly lovely way. In the basement you’ll find the tombs of several important British individuals, most notably Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Duke of Wellington (you know, the dude who haunted Napoleon’s nightmares). You’ll receive a good audio guide with admission. You can also join some of the Anglican services that take place in the cathedral throughout the day, if you wish.
Gaze upon Artistic Masterworks at the Tate Modern or National Gallery
What’s your taste in art? New or old? Modernist abstractions or Renaissance masterworks? In London, you’ll have no lack of options for galleries, but arguably the two that best define new and old, respectively, are the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. You’ll find the Tate Modern in Bankside in a massive old power plant. Inside, you’ll find Picassos, Rothkos, and temporary exhibitions showcasing leading contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei. The National Gallery is located on Trafalgar Square and boasts over 2,300 paintings from the likes of da Vinci, Vermeer, and Turner. The permanent collections of both museums are free, so don’t feel pressured to spend more than you want in either in order to justify the cost.
See the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
Look, we know the royals aren’t for everyone, but even if you don’t love to gawk at the lives of the most famous royal family in the world, you should swing by Buckingham Palace. For one, it’s a gorgeous building. It also lies right off Green Park, making it a natural spot to check out after a park break. But even if you want to skip the tour, show up at 11am (or earlier to ensure a good view) to see the famous changing of the guard, where the bear-skin hatted soldiers decked out in their iconic red jackets and black pants do their usual rigamarole marching the new shift in and the old shift out. If you do want to tour the building, parts of the palace are open to the public from July to September, while the State Rooms are open in winter and spring. You’ll have to contend with crowds of royal watchers and eager tourists, so come early. Alternatively, you can also visit Windsor Castle, where the late Queen spent the bulk of her time in London.
Gaze upon Ancient Artifacts at the British Museum
There is no collection quite like the one you’ll find at the British Museum. It is exploding with artifacts taken from across the world during the heights of the British Empire. There are moral problems with whether these artifacts should, in fact, still be in London in the third decade of the 21st century, but that’s a conversation for another day. You can easily spend half a day navigating the various halls of the museum seeing Egyptian mummies, ancient earthenware from early Britain, and storied artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone, which was instrumental in helping historians translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. It’s free to visit and you can sign up for free tours. It’s a place to get lost in.
Take in a Play at Shakespeare’s Globe
This isn’t the original Globe, which burned down during Shakespeare’s lifetime. But Shakespeare’s Globe is an exact reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre where Shakespeare wrote and worked in the early 17th century and located only 200m away from where the original once stood. You’ll always find various Shakespeare plays being performed here. You can book tickets ahead or show up on the day for standing room-only tickets, which recreates how most commoners watched plays in Shakespeare’s time. Just maybe don’t take in King Lear or Hamlet if you’re opting for standing room tickets; the runtime might make you beg for a seat.
Watch a Musical in the West End
Aside from Broadway in New York City, London’s West End is the most famous theatrical spot in the world. So it’d be a shame if you visited London and didn’t take in one of the beloved musicals that play here year-round. Les Misérables at the Sondheim Theatre, The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre, The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. Take your pick, grab some affordable tickets (either online in advance or from the box office on the day off), and enjoy some of the show-stopping magic that has defined London’s West End for decades.
Watch the Sunset at Big Ben
First off, let’s get something clear: Big Ben is the name of the clock on the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster, not the name of the tower itself. But everyone knows what you’re talking about if you mention Big Ben, as it’s one of England’s most iconic sights. Unfortunately, you can’t tour the inside of Big Ben unless you’re a U.K. resident, but no worries as the best view of the clock tower is from the outside at sunset. Park yourself on the south side of Westminster Bridge, or better yet, ride the London Eye at the perfect time to see the fading rays of the sun catch the gold of the clock tower.
Have Fish and Chips in a Pub
Some things are cliche for a reason. There is no dish more quintessentially Londonian than fish and chips and there’s no more quintessentially Londonian place to eat it than a pub. Luckily, you won’t have to search hard to find a place that serves fish and chips. Every pub—literally, every pub—serves fish and chips. So find yourself a pub, order a pint and some fish and chips, and experience the most cliched British thing to do for all the right reasons.
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