For the tourist, London is a thrilling place with a multitude of places to visit. Monuments from the capital’s glorious past are everywhere, from medieval banqueting halls and the great churches of Christopher Wren to the eclectic Victorian architecture of the triumphalist British Empire.
There is no shortage of things to do in London: you can relax in the city’s quiet Georgian squares, explore the narrow alleyways of the City of London, wander along the riverside walks, and uncover the quirks of what is still identifiably a collection of villages. The largest capital in the European Union, stretching for more than thirty miles from east to west, and with a population of just under eight million, London is also incredibly diverse, ethnically and linguistically, offering cultural and culinary delights from right across the globe.
The capital’s great historical landmarks – Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and so on – draw in millions of tourists every year. This isn’t a city that rests on its laurels, however. Since the turn of the millennium, all of London’s world-class museums, galleries and institutions have been reinvented, from the Royal Opera House to the British Museum. With Tate Modern and the London Eye, the city boasts the world’s largest modern art museum and Europe’s largest Ferris wheel. And thanks to the 2012 Olympics, even the East End – not an area previously on most tourists’ radar – has been given an overhaul.
You could spend days just shopping in London, mixing with the upper classes in the “tiara triangle” around Harrods, or sampling the offbeat weekend markets of Portobello Road, Brick Lane and Camden. The city’s pubs have always had heaps of atmosphere, and food is now a major attraction too, with more than fifty Michelin-starred restaurants and the widest choice of cuisines on the planet. The music, clubbing and gay and lesbian scenes are second to none, and mainstream arts are no less exciting, with regular opportunities to catch outstanding theatre companies, dance troupes, exhibitions and opera.
London’s special atmosphere comes mostly, however, from the life on its streets. A cosmopolitan city since at least the seventeenth century, when it was a haven for Huguenot immigrants escaping persecution in Louis XIV’s France, today it is truly multicultural, with over a third of its permanent population originating from overseas. The last hundred years has seen the arrival of thousands from the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, the Mediterranean, the Far East and Eastern Europe, all of whom play an integral part in defining a metropolis that is unmatched in its sheer diversity.
The Romans founded Londinium in 43 AD as a stores depot on the marshy banks of the Thames. Despite frequent attacks – not least by Queen Boudicca, who razed it in 61 AD – the port became secure in its position as capital of Roman Britain by the end of the century. London’s expansion really began, however, in the eleventh century, when it became the seat of the last successful invader of Britain, the Norman duke who became William I of England (aka “the Conqueror”). Crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey, William built the White Tower – centrepiece of the Tower of London – to establish his dominance over the merchant population, the class that was soon to make London one of Europe’s mightiest cities.
Little is left of medieval or Tudor London. Many of the finest buildings were wiped out in the course of a few days in 1666 when the Great Fire of London annihilated more than thirteen thousand houses and nearly ninety churches, completing a cycle of destruction begun the year before by the Great Plague, which killed as many as a hundred thousand people. Chief beneficiary of the blaze was Christopher Wren, who was commissioned to redesign the city and rose to the challenge with such masterpieces as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich.
Much of the public architecture of London was built in the Georgian and Victorian periods of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when grand structures were raised to reflect the city’s status as the financial and administrative hub of the British Empire. And though postwar development peppered the city with some undistinguished modernist buildings, more recent experiments in high-tech architecture, such as the Gherkin, have given the city a new gloss.
Top image © Bikeworldtravel/Shutterstock
Considering how temperate the London climate is, it’s amazing how much mileage the locals get out of the subject. The truth is that there’s no best time to visit London – summers rarely get really hot and the winters aren’t very cold.
In fact, it’s impossible to say with any certainty what the weather will be like in any given month. May might be wet and grey one year and gloriously sunny the next; November stands an equal chance of being crisp and clear or foggy and grim.
So, whatever time of year you come, be prepared for all eventualities, and bring a pair of comfortable shoes, as, inevitably, you’ll be doing a lot of walking.
Bloomsbury was built over in grid-plan style from the 1660s onwards, and the formal bourgeois Georgian squares laid out then remain the area’s main distinguishing feature. In the twentieth century, Bloomsbury acquired a reputation as the city’s most learned quarter, dominated by the dual institutions of the British Museum and London University, but perhaps best known for its literary inhabitants, among them T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Today, the British Museum is clearly the star attraction, but there are other minor sights, such as the Charles Dickens Museum. Only in its northern fringes does the character of the area change dramatically, as you near the hustle and bustle of Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross train stations.
The British Museum is one of the great museums of the world. With more than 70,000 exhibits ranged over several miles of galleries, it boasts a huge collection of antiquities, prints and drawings – more than 13 million objects (and growing). Its assortment of Roman and Greek art is unparalleled, its Egyptian collection is the most significant outside Egypt and, in addition, there are fabulous treasures from Anglo-Saxon and Roman Britain, from China, Japan, India and Mesopotamia.
The building itself, begun in 1823, is the grandest of London’s Greek Revival edifices, dominated by the giant Ionian colonnade and portico that forms the main entrance. At the heart of the museum is the Great Court, with its remarkable, curving glass-and-steel roof, designed by Norman Foster. At the centre stands the copper-domed former Round Reading Room, built in the 1850s to house the British Library. It was here, reputedly at desk O7, that Karl Marx penned Das Kapital.
The most famous of the Roman and Greek antiquities are the Parthenon sculptures, better known as the Elgin Marbles, after the British aristocrat who walked off with the reliefs in 1801. The Egyptian collection of monumental sculptures is impressive, but it’s the ever-popular mummies that draw the biggest crowds. Also on display is the Rosetta Stone, which finally unlocked the secret of Egyptian hieroglyphs. There’s a splendid series of Assyrian reliefs, depicting events such as the royal lion hunts of Ashurbanipal, in which the king slaughters one of the cats with his bare hands.
The leathery half-corpse of the 2000-year-old Lindow Man, discovered in a Cheshire bog, and the Anglo-Saxon treasure from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, are among the highlights of the prehistoric and Romano-British section. The medieval and modern collections, meanwhile, range from the twelfth-century Lewis chessmen, carved from walrus ivory, to twentieth-century exhibits such as a copper vase by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The dramatically lit Mexican and North American galleries, plus the African galleries in the basement, represent just a small fraction of the museum’s ethnographic collection, while select works from the BM’s enormous collection of prints and drawings can be seen in special exhibitions. Among fabulous Oriental treasures in the north wing, closest to the back entrance on Montague Place, are ancient Chinese porcelain, ornate snuffboxes, miniature landscapes, and a bewildering array of Buddhist and Hindu gods.
There are a lot of cinemas in London, especially the West End, with the biggest on and around Leicester Square. A few classy independent chains show more offbeat screenings, in various locations – check out the Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman – and there even exist a number of one-off arthouse cinemas. Tickets at the major screens cost at least £11, although afternoon shows are usually discounted, and concessionary rates are offered for some shows at virtually all cinemas, usually all day Monday or at other off-peak times. Anyone with an Orange phone can make use of the half-price “Orange Wednesday” tickets.
The City is where London began. Long established as the financial district, it stretches from Temple Bar in the west to the Tower of London in the east – administrative boundaries that are only slightly larger than those marked by the Roman walls and their medieval successors. However, in this Square Mile (as the City is sometimes referred to), you’ll find few leftovers of London’s early days, since four-fifths of the area burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666. Rebuilt in brick and stone, the City gradually lost its centrality as London swelled westwards, though it has maintained its position as Britain’s financial heartland. What you see now is mostly the product of three fairly recent building phases: the Victorian construction boom; the overzealous postwar reconstruction following the Blitz; and the building frenzy that began in the 1980s and has continued ever since.
When you consider what has happened here, it’s amazing that so much has survived to pay witness to the City’s 2000-year history. Wren’s spires still punctuate the skyline and his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, remains one of London’s geographical pivots. At the City’s eastern edge, the Tower of London still boasts some of the best-preserved medieval fortifications in Europe. Other relics, such as Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire and London’s oldest synagogue and church, are less conspicuous, and even locals have problems finding modern attractions like the Museum of London and the Barbican arts complex.
Economic recession notwithstanding, the City skyline is sprouting a whole new generation of skyscrapers. From 1980, for thirty years, the City’s tallest building was the 600ft-high Tower 42, designed as the NatWest Tower by Richard Seifert (in the shape of the bank’s logo). Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s Building, on Leadenhall Street, completed in 1984, was more remarkable for its inside-out design than its modest height – even with Norman Foster’s 590ft-high Gherkin, it was the shape, not its height, that drew attention. In 2010, the NatWest Tower was finally topped by the Heron Tower, a fairly undistinguished 660-ft skyscraper, at 110 Bishopsgate, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox – on the plus side, public access means you can check out the shark aquarium in the atrium, and pop into the bar-restaurant on the 40th floor. More are planned: Rafael Viñoly’s 525-ft Walkie Talkie, 20 Fenchurch St, so-called because it will get wider as it gets bigger, will include a public “sky garden” on the roof; The Pinnacle, 22–24 Bishopsgate, also by Kohn Pedersen Fox, will be a swirling 945-ft helter-skelter of a tower (with a restaurant on the top floor); and The Cheesegrater, Richard Rogers’ 737-ft triangular-shaped office block at 122 Leadenhall St, is due for completion in 2013.
Since the 1990s, the northern fringe of the City has been colonized by artists, designers and architects and transformed itself into the city’s most vibrant artistic enclave, peppered with contemporary art galleries and a whole host of very cool bars, restaurants and clubs. Clerkenwell, to the west, is the most thoroughly gentrified, whereas Hoxton (to the north of Old Street), and to a lesser extent Shoreditch (to the south), have a grittier side to them. There are few conventional sights as such in all three areas, though Hoxton and Shoreditch are stuffed full of art galleries (most famously the White Cube on Hoxton Square), but their hip nightlife and shopping scenes keep them lively.
Designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1711, St Paul’s Cathedral remains a dominating presence in the City, despite the encroaching tower blocks. Topped by an enormous lead-covered dome, its showpiece west facade is particularly magnificent.
The best place from which to appreciate St Paul’s is beneath the dome, decorated (against Wren’s wishes) with Thornhill’s trompe l’oeil frescoes. The most richly decorated section of the cathedral, however, is the chancel, where the gilded mosaics of birds, fish, animals and greenery, dating from the 1890s, are spectacular. The intricately carved oak and limewood choir stalls, and the imposing organ case, are the work of Wren’s master carver, Grinling Gibbons.
A series of stairs, beginning in the south aisle, lead to the dome’s three galleries, the first of which is the internal Whispering Gallery, so called because of its acoustic properties – words whispered to the wall on one side are distinctly audible over 100ft away on the other, though the place is often so busy you can’t hear much above the hubbub. The other two galleries are exterior: the wide Stone Gallery, around the balustrade at the base of the dome, and ultimately the tiny Golden Gallery, below the golden ball and cross which top the cathedral.
Although the nave is crammed full of overblown monuments to military types, burials in St Paul’s are confined to the whitewashed crypt, reputedly the largest in Europe. Immediately to your right is Artists’ Corner, which boasts as many painters and architects as Westminster Abbey has poets, including Christopher Wren himself, who was commissioned to build the cathedral after its Gothic predecessor, Old St Paul’s, was destroyed in the Great Fire. The crypt’s two other star tombs are those of Nelson and Wellington, both occupying centre stage and both with more fanciful monuments upstairs.
One of Britain’s main tourist attractions, the Tower of London overlooks the river at the eastern boundary of the old city walls. Despite all the hype, it remains one of London’s most remarkable buildings, site of some of the goriest events in the nation’s history, and somewhere all visitors and Londoners should explore at least once. Chiefly famous as a place of imprisonment and death, it has variously been used as a royal residence, armoury, mint, menagerie, observatory and – a function it still serves – a safe-deposit box for the Crown Jewels.
The lively free guided tours given by the Tower’s Beefeaters (officially known as Yeoman Warders) are useful for getting your bearings. Visitors today enter the Tower along Water Lane, but in times gone by most prisoners were delivered through Traitors’ Gate, on the waterfront. Immediately, they would have come to the Bloody Tower, which forms the main entrance to the Inner Ward, and which is where the 12-year-old Edward V and his 10-year-old brother were accommodated “for their own safety” in 1483 by their uncle, the future Richard III, and later murdered. It’s also where Walter Raleigh was imprisoned on three separate occasions, including a thirteen-year stretch.
At the centre of the Inner Ward is Tower Green, where ten highly placed but unlucky individuals were beheaded, among them Anne Boleyn and her cousin Catherine Howard (Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives). The White Tower, which overlooks the Green, is the original “Tower”, begun in 1076, and now home to displays from the Royal Armouries. Even if you’ve no interest in military paraphernalia, you should at least pay a visit to the Chapel of St John, a beautiful Norman structure on the second floor that was completed in 1080 – making it the oldest intact church building in London.
The Waterloo Barracks, to the north of the White Tower, hold the Crown Jewels; queues can be painfully long, however, and you only get to view the rocks from moving walkways. The vast majority of exhibits post-date the Commonwealth (1649–60), when many of the royal riches were melted down for coinage or sold off. Among the jewels are the three largest cut diamonds in the world, including the legendary Koh-i-Noor, which was set into the Queen Mother’s Crown in 1937.
On most days you should be able to catch a concert by one of the five major orchestras based in the capital or one of the more specialized ensembles. Unless a glamorous guest conductor is wielding the baton, or one of the world’s high-profile orchestras is giving a performance, full houses are a rarity, so even at the biggest concert halls you should be able to pick up a ticket for around £15 (the usual range is about £12–50). During the week there are also numerous free concerts, often at lunchtimes, in London’s churches, or given by the city’s two leading conservatoires, the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music.
More sanitized and commercial than neighbouring Soho, the shops and restaurants of Covent Garden today are a far cry from the district’s heyday when the piazza was the great playground (and red-light district) of eighteenth-century London. The buskers in front of St Paul’s Church, the theatres round about, and the Royal Opera House on Bow Street are survivors of this tradition, and on a balmy summer evening, Covent Garden Piazza is still an undeniably lively place to be.
The arcading on the northeast side of the piazza was rebuilt as part of the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House, whose main Neoclassical façade dates from 1811 and opens onto Bow Street. Now, however, you can reach the opera house from a passageway in the corner of the arcading. The spectacular wrought-iron Floral Hall serves as the opera house’s main foyer, and is open to the public, as is the Amphitheatre bar/restaurant (from 90min before performance to the end of the last interval), which has a glorious terrace overlooking the piazza.
The biggest dance festival is Dance Umbrella, a season (Oct–Nov) of new and cutting-edge work.
Few places in London have engendered so many myths as the East End (a catch-all title which covers just about everywhere east of the City). Its name is synonymous with slums, sweatshops and crime, as epitomized by figures such as Jack the Ripper and the Kray Twins, but also with the rags-to-riches success stories of a whole generations of Jews who were born in these cholera-ridden quarters and then moved to wealthier pastures.
As the area is not an obvious place for sightseeing, and certainly no beauty spot – despite all the fanfare around the 2012 Olympic Village – most visitors to the East End come for its famous Sunday markets: cheap clothes on Petticoat Lane (Middlesex Street), clothes and crafts in trendy Spitalfields, hip vintage gear around Brick Lane and flowers on Columbia Road. As for the East End Docklands, including the vast and awesome Canary Wharf redevelopment, most of it can be gawped at from the overhead light railway.
Focus of the 2012 Olympics, London’s Olympic Park is situated in a most unlikely East End backwater, on a series of islands formed by the River Lea and various tributaries and canals. The centrepiece of the park is the Olympic Stadium, surrounded on three sides by rivers, and earmarked to become home to West Ham United football club. Standing close to the stadium, with a bird’s-eye view of the whole site from its public observation deck, is the Orbit tower, a 377ft-high continuous loop of red recycled steel designed by Anish Kapoor, and dubbed the Helter Skelter. The most eye-catching venue, however, is Zaha Hadid’s wave-like Aquatics Centre, to the east, which may have cost four times its original, but at least it looks good. The other truly sexy building is the curvy Velodrome, with its banked, Siberian pine track and adjacent BMX circuit. The nearest tube is Stratford; you can also approach from Hackney Wick Overground or Pudding Mill Lane DLR station.
You can pretty much sample any kind of cuisine in London, from Georgian to Peruvian, from Modern British to fusion – you can even get yourself some Cockney pie and mash. And it needn’t be expensive – even in the fanciest restaurants, set menus (most often served at lunch) can be a great deal, and the small “sharing plates” that are currently all the rage are a godsend if you want to cut costs. While the old-fashioned London caffs are a dying breed, the city has plenty of great little places where you can get quick, filling and inexpensive meals – especially good at lunchtime, most of them are open in the evenings too. Bear in mind also that many pubs serve food,from simple pub grub to haute cuisine.
London’s lesbian and gay scene is so huge, diverse and well established that it’s easy to forget just how much – and how fast – it has grown over the last couple of decades. Soho remains its spiritual heart, with a mix of traditional gay pubs, designer café-bars and a range of gay-run services. Details of most events appear in Time Out, while another excellent source of information is the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. The outdoor event of the year is Pride London in late June/early July, a colourful, noisy march through the city streets followed at the end of the month by a huge, ticketed party in a central London park.
Hampton Court Palace
, a sprawling red-brick ensemble on the banks of the Thames thirteen miles southwest of London, is the finest of England’s royal abodes. Built in 1516 by the upwardly mobile
, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, it was purloined by Henry himself after Wolsey fell from favour. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Charles II laid out the gardens, inspired by what he had seen at Versailles, while William and Mary had large sections of the palace remodelled by Wren a few years later.
The Royal Apartments are divided into six thematic walking tours. There’s not a lot of information in any of the rooms, but audioguides are available and free guided tours are led by period-costumed historians who bring the place to life. If your energy is lacking – and Hampton Court is huge – the most rewarding sections are: Henry VIII’s State Apartments, which feature the glorious double-hammer-beamed Great Hall; William III’s Apartments; and Henry VIII’s Kitchens.
Tickets to the Royal Apartments cover entry to the rest of the sites in the grounds. Those who don’t wish to visit the apartments are free to wander around the gardens and visit the curious Royal Tennis Courts (April–Oct), but have to pay to try out the palace’s famously tricky yew-hedge Maze, and visit the Privy Garden, where you can view Andrea Mantegna’s colourful, heroic canvases, The Triumphs of Caesar, housed in the Lower Orangery, and the celebrated Great Vine, whose grapes are sold at the palace each year in September.
Holborn, on the periphery of the financial district of the City, has long been associated with the law, and its Inns of Court make for an interesting stroll, their archaic, cobbled precincts exuding the rarefied atmosphere of an Oxbridge college, and sheltering one of the city’s oldest churches, the twelfth-century Temple Church. Close by the Inns is the Sir John Soane’s Museum, one of the most memorable and enjoyable of London’s small museums, packed with architectural illusions and an eclectic array of curios.
Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens cover a distance of two miles from Oxford Street in the northeast to Kensington Palace, set in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Other districts go in and out of fashion, but this area has been in vogue ever since royalty moved into Kensington Palace in the late seventeenth century.
The most popular tourist attractions lie in South Kensington, where three of London’s top museums – the Victoria and Albert, Natural History and Science museums – along with the vast Royal Albert Hall, stand on land bought with the proceeds of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Chelsea, to the south, has a slightly more bohemian pedigree. In the 1960s, the King’s Road carved out its reputation as London’s catwalk, while in the late 1970s it was the epicentre of the punk explosion. Nothing so rebellious goes on in Chelsea now, though its residents like to think of themselves as rather more artistic and intellectual than the purely moneyed types of Kensington.
The two-day free festival in Notting Hill is the longest-running, best-known and biggest street party in Europe. Dating back more than forty years, the Caribbean carnival is a tumult of imaginatively decorated parade floats, eye-catching costumes, thumping sound systems, live bands, irresistible food and huge crowds. It takes place on the Sunday and Monday of the last weekend of August.
The London Proms, provide a feast of classical music at bargain-basement prices. Uniquely, there are more than five hundred standing places – £5, even on the famed last night – which must be bought on the door, on the day; seated tickets cost between £7.50 and £90; last-night tickets start at £55. The acoustics may not be the world’s best, but the calibre of the performers is unbeatable, the atmosphere superb, and the programme a creative mix of standards and new or obscure works. And the hall is so vast that even if you turn up an hour or so before the show starts you are unlikely to be turned away.
Although the majority of the city’s sights are situated north of the River Thames, which loops through the centre of the city from west to east, there is no single focus of interest. That’s because London hasn’t grown through centralized planning but by a process of agglomeration. Villages and urban developments that once surrounded the core are now lost within the amorphous mass of Greater London.
Westminster, the country’s royal, political and ecclesiastical power base for centuries, was once a separate city. The grand streets and squares to the north of Westminster, from St James’s to Covent Garden, were built as residential suburbs after the Restoration, and are now the city’s shopping and entertainment zones known collectively as the West End. To the east is the original City of London – known simply as The City – founded by the Romans, with more history than any other patch of the city, and now one of the world’s great financial centres.
The East End, east of the City, is not conventional tourist territory, but has recently emerged as a bolt hole for artists and a destination for clubbers – and of course, in its far eastern reaches, the East End is now home to the Olympic Park. It’s worth exploring south of the Thames, too, from the London Eye, in the west, to Tate Modern and beyond. The museums of South Kensington are a must, as is Portobello Road market in trendy Notting Hill, literary Hampstead and Highgate, in North London, either side of half-wild Hampstead Heath, and Greenwich, in South London, with its nautical associations, royal park and observatory. Finally, there are plenty of rewarding day-trips in West London along the Thames from Chiswick to Windsor, most notably to Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle.
Marylebone, which lies to the north of Oxford Street, is, like Mayfair, another grid-plan Georgian development – a couple of social and real-estate leagues below its neighbour, but a wealthy area nevertheless. It boasts a very fine art gallery, the Wallace Collection, and, in its northern fringes, one of London’s biggest tourist attractions, Madame Tussauds, the oldest and largest wax museum in the world.
Piccadilly, which forms the southern border of swanky Mayfair, may not be the fashionable promenade it started out as in the eighteenth century, but a whiff of exclusivity still pervades Bond Street and its tributaries, where designer clothes emporia jostle for space with jewellers, bespoke tailors and fine art dealers. Regent Street and Oxford Street, meanwhile, are home to the flagship branches of the country’s most popular chain stores.
As wealthy Londoners began to move out of the City in the eighteenth century in favour of the newly developed West End, so Oxford Street – the old Roman road to Oxford – gradually became London’s main shopping thoroughfare. Today, despite successive recessions and sky-high rents, Oxford Street remains Europe’s busiest street, simply because this two-mile hotchpotch of shops is home to (often several) flagship branches of Britain’s major retailers. The street’s only real landmark store is Selfridges opened in 1909 with a facade featuring the Queen of Time riding the ship of commerce and supporting an Art Deco clock.
Almost all of North London’s suburbs are easily accessible by tube from the centre, though just a handful of these satellite villages, now subsumed into the general mass of the city, are worth bothering with. First off is one of London’s finest parks, Regent’s Park, home to London Zoo; Camden Town, famous for its huge weekend market, is nearby. The highlights, however, are the village-like suburbs of Hampstead and Highgate, on the edge of London’s wildest patch of greenery, Hampstead Heath.
For all its tourist popularity, Camden Market remains a genuinely offbeat place. The sheer variety of what’s on offer – from cheap CDs to furniture, along with a mass of street fashion and clubwear, and plenty of food stalls – is what makes Camden Town so special. More than 100,000 shoppers turn up here each weekend, and parts of the market now stay open week-long, alongside a crop of shops, cafés and bistros.
Highgate Cemetery, ranged on both sides of Swain’s Lane, is London’s best-known graveyard. The most illustrious incumbent of the East Cemetery is Karl Marx. Marx himself asked for a simple grave topped by a headstone, but by 1954 the Communist movement decided to move his grave to a more prominent position and erect the hulking bronze bust that now surmounts a granite plinth. To visit the more atmospheric and overgrown West Cemetery, with its spooky Egyptian Avenue and sunken catacombs, you must take a guided tour. Among the prominent graves usually visited are those of artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall.
Although most of the best places to visit in London are north of the River Thames, which loops through the centre from west to east, there is no single focus of interest. That’s because London hasn’t grown through centralized planning but by a process of random agglomeration.
Villages and urban developments that once surrounded the core are now lost within the vast mass of Greater London, leaving London’s highlights widely spread, and meaning that visitors should make mastering the public transport system, particularly the Underground (tube), a top priority.
If London has a centre, it’s Trafalgar Square, home to Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery. It’s also as good a place as any to start exploring the city, especially as the area to the south of here, Whitehall and Westminster, is one of the easiest bits to discover on foot. This was the city’s royal, political and ecclesiastical power-base for centuries, and you’ll find some of London’s most famous landmarks here: Downing Street, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
The grand streets and squares of St James’s, Mayfair and Marylebone, to the north of Westminster, have been the playground of the rich since the Restoration, and now contain some of the city’s busiest shopping zones: Piccadilly, Bond Street, Regent Street and, most frenetic of the lot, Oxford Street.
East of Piccadilly Circus, Soho, Chinatown and Covent Garden are also easy to walk around and form the heart of the West End entertainment district, where you’ll find the largest concentration of theatres, cinemas, shops, cafés and restaurants.
Adjoining Covent Garden to the north, the university quarter of Bloomsbury is the location of the ever-popular British Museum, a stupendous treasure house that boasts a wonderful central, covered courtyard. To the north of Bloomsbury lies King’s Cross, home to the British Library and the city’s Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, and now at the centre of a massive redevelopment project with galleries, restaurants and a swimming pond.
Welding the West End to the financial district, Holborn is a little-visited area, but offers some of central London’s most surprising treats, among them the eccentric Sir John Soane’s Museum and the secluded quadrangles of the Inns of Court, where the country’s lawyers learn and ply their trade.
Fashionable Clerkenwell, to the east of Holborn on the northern edge of the City, is visited mostly on weeknights for its many popular bars and restaurants, but also has vestiges of London’s monastic past and a radical history to be proud of.
A couple of miles downstream from Westminster, The City – or the City of London, to give it its full title – is the original heart of London, simultaneously the most ancient and the most modern part of the metropolis. Settled since Roman times, the area became the commercial and residential heart of medieval London, with its own Lord Mayor and its own peculiar form of local government, both of which survive (with considerable pageantry) to this day.
The Great Fire of 1666 obliterated most of the City, and although it was rebuilt, the resident population has dwindled to insignificance. Yet this remains one of the great financial centres of the world, with the most prominent landmarks these days being the hi-tech skyscrapers of banks and insurance companies. However, the Square Mile, as it’s known, boasts its fair share of historic sights too, notably the Tower of London and a fine cache of Wren churches that includes the mighty St Paul’s Cathedral.
East of the City, the East End and Docklands are equally notorious, but in entirely different ways. Traditionally working-class, the East End is not conventional tourist territory, but its long history of immigration is as fascinating as is its more recent emergence as a bolthole for artists. With its converted warehouse apartments and hubristic tower blocks, Docklands is the converse of the edgy East End, with the Canary Wharf tower – for three decades the country’s tallest building – epitomizing the pretensions of the 1980s’ Thatcherite dream.
The South Bank and Southwark together make up the small slice of central London that lies south of the Thames. The Southbank Centre itself, London’s concrete culture bunker, is now ingrained on the tourist map – thanks, in part, to the nearby London Eye, which spins gracefully over the Thames. The area is going from strength to strength, with the Millennium Bridge linking St Paul’s Cathedral with the former power station that’s home to Tate Modern, London’s beloved museum of modern art.
In Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens you’ll find a large segment of greenery that separates wealthy west London from the city centre. The museums of South Kensington – the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum – are a must, and if you have shopping on your agenda you may well want to investigate the hive of plush stores in the vicinity of Harrods, superstore to the upper echelons.
Some of the most appealing parts of north London are clustered around the Regent’s Canal, which skirts the northern edge of Regent’s Park and serves as the focus for the capital’s busiest weekend market, held around Camden Lock. Further out, in the chic literary suburbs of Hampstead and Highgate, there are unbeatable views across the city from half-wild Hampstead Heath, the sprawling stomping ground of dog walkers and kite flyers.
The glory of south London is Greenwich, with its nautical associations, royal park and observatory (not to mention its Dome).
Finally, there are plenty of rewarding day-trips up the Thames, southwest of the city centre from Chiswick to Hampton Court, an area that is liberally peppered with the stately homes and grounds of the country’s royalty and former aristocracy, from Syon and Kew, to Richmond and Ham.
Bounded by Regent Street to the west, Oxford Street to the north and Charing Cross Road to the east, Soho is very much the heart of the West End. It’s been the city’s premier red-light district for centuries and retains an unorthodox and slightly raffish air that’s unique for central London. It has an immigrant history as rich as that of the East End and a louche nightlife that has attracted writers and revellers of every sexual persuasion since the eighteenth century. Today it’s a very upfront gay enclave, especially around Old Compton Street. Conventional sights in Soho are few, yet there’s probably more street life here than anywhere in the city centre, whatever the hour. Most folk head to Soho to go the cinema or theatre, and to have a drink or a bite to eat in the innumerable bars, cafés and restaurants that pepper the area, which includes Chinatown in the south.
The South Bank has a lot going for it. As well as the massive waterside Southbank Centre, it’s home to a host of tourist attractions including the enormously popular London Eye. With most of London sitting on the north bank of the Thames, the views from here are the best on the river, and thanks to the wide, traffic-free riverside boulevard, the whole area can be happily explored on foot. Just a short walk away lies the absorbing Imperial War Museum, which contains the country’s only permanent exhibition devoted to the Holocaust.
Despite being little more than ten years old, the London Eye is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Standing an impressive 443ft high, it’s the largest Ferris wheel in Europe, weighing over 2000 tons, yet as simple and delicate as a bicycle wheel. It’s constantly in slow motion, which means a full-circle “flight” in one of its 32 pods (one for each of the city’s boroughs) should take around thirty minutes: that may seem a long time but in fact it passes incredibly quickly. Book online (to save money), but note that unless you’ve paid extra you’ll still have to queue to get on. Tickets are also sold from the box office at the eastern end of County Hall.
Now largely built up into a patchwork of Victorian terraces, South London nevertheless includes one outstanding area for sightseeing, and that is Greenwich, with its fantastic ensemble of the Royal Naval College and the Queen’s House, the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, and the beautifully landscaped royal park. The Sunday market is also a popular draw.
The only other suburban sights that stand out are the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a public art gallery even older than the National Gallery, and the eclectic Horniman Museum, in neighbouring Forest Hill.
Greenwich draws tourists out from the centre in considerable numbers. At its heart is the outstanding architectural set piece of the Old Royal Naval College and the Queen’s House, courtesy of Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones respectively. Most visitors, however, come to see the National Maritime Museum and Greenwich Park’s Royal Observatory. With the added attractions of its riverside pubs and walks – plus startling views across to Canary Wharf and Docklands – it makes for one of the best weekend trips in the capital. To reach Greenwich, you can take a train from London Bridge (every 30min), a boat from one of the piers in central London (every 20–30min), or the DLR to Cutty Sark station (every 4–10min).
In Tudor and Stuart London, the chief reason for crossing the Thames to what is now Southwark was to visit the disreputable Bankside entertainment district around the south end of London Bridge. Four hundred years on, Londoners are heading to the area once more, thanks to a wealth of top attractions – led by the mighty Tate Modern – that pepper the traffic-free riverside path between Blackfriars Bridge and Tower Bridge. The area is conveniently linked to St Paul’s and the City by the fabulous Norman Foster-designed Millennium Bridge, London’s first pedestrian-only bridge.
Dwarfed by Tate Modern, but equally remarkable in its own way, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a more or less faithful reconstruction of the polygonal playhouse where most of the Bard’s later works were first performed. The theatre, which boasts the first new thatched roof in central London since the Great Fire, puts on plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, using only natural light and the minimum of scenery. To find out more about Shakespeare and the history of Bankside, the Globe’s stylish exhibition is well worth a visit. You can have a virtual play on medieval instruments such as the crumhorn or sackbut, prepare your own edition of Shakespeare, and feel the thatch, hazelnut-shell and daub used to build the theatre. There’s also an informative guided tour round the theatre itself; during the summer season, you get to visit the exhibition and the remains of the nearby Rose Theatre instead.
Bankside is dominated nowadays by the awesome Tate Modern. Originally designed as an oil-fired power station by Giles Gilbert Scott, this austere, brick-built “cathedral of power” was converted into a splendid modern art gallery in 2000. The best way to enter is down the ramp from the west so that you get the full effect of the stupendously large turbine hall. It’s easy enough to find your way around the galleries, with levels 3 and 5 displaying the permanent collection, level 4 used for fee-paying special exhibitions, and level 7 home to a café with a great view over the Thames. Along with the free guided tours and multimedia guides, various apps are available (Tate has free wi-fi).
Works are grouped thematically. Although the displays change every year or so, you’re still pretty much guaranteed to see works by Monet and Bonnard, Cubist pioneers Picasso and Braque, Surrealists such as Dalí, abstract artists like Mondrian, Bridget Riley and Pollock, and Pop supremos Warhol and Lichtenstein. And such is the space here that several artists get whole rooms to themselves, among them Joseph Beuys, with his shamanistic wax and furs, and Mark Rothko, whose abstract “Seagram Murals”, originally destined for a posh restaurant in New York, have their own shrine-like room in the heart of the collection.
St James’s, the exclusive little enclave sandwiched between St James’s Park and Piccadilly, was laid out in the 1670s close to St James’s Palace. Regal and aristocratic residences overlook Green Park, gentlemen’s clubs cluster along Pall Mall and St James’s Street, while jacket-and-tie restaurants and expense-account gentlemen’s outfitters line Jermyn Street. Hardly surprising then that most Londoners rarely stray into this area. Plenty of folk, however, frequent St James’s Park, with large numbers heading for the Queen’s chief residence, Buckingham Palace, and the adjacent Queen’s Gallery and Royal Mews.
The graceless colossus of Buckingham Palace, popularly known as “Buck House”, has served as the monarch’s permanent London residence only since the accession of Victoria. Bought by George III in 1762, the building was overhauled in the late 1820s by Nash and again in 1913, producing a palace that’s as bland as it’s possible to be.
For two months of the year, the hallowed portals are grudgingly nudged open. The interior, however, is a bit of an anticlimax: of the palace’s 660 rooms you’re permitted to see twenty or so, and there’s little sign of life, as the Queen decamps to Scotland every summer. For the other ten months there’s little to do here – not that this deters the crowds who mill around the railings, and gather in some force to watch the Changing of the Guard, in which a detachment of the Queen’s Foot Guards marches to appropriate martial music from St James’s Palace (unless it rains, that is).
The classic English afternoon tea – assorted sandwiches, scones and cream, cakes and tarts, and, of course, lashings of tea – is available all over London. The best venues are the capital’s top hotels and most fashionable department stores; a selection of the best is given here. To avoid disappointment it’s essential to book ahead. Expect to spend £20–40 a head, and bear in mind that most hotels will expect “smart casual attire”; only The Ritz insists on jacket and tie.
Once famous for its riverside mansions, and later its music halls, the Strand – the main road connecting Westminster to the City – is a shadow of its former self. One of the few vestiges of glamour is The Savoy, London’s grandest hotel, built in 1889 on the site of the medieval Savoy Palace on the south side of the street. As its name suggests, the Strand once lay along the riverbank until the Victorians shored up the banks of the Thames to create the Embankment.
London has enjoyed a reputation for quality theatre since the time of Shakespeare and, despite the continuing dominance of blockbuster musicals and revenue-spinning star vehicles, still provides platforms for innovation and new writing. The West End is the heart of “Theatreland”, with Shaftesbury Avenue its most congested drag, but the term is more of a conceptual pigeon-hole than a geographical term. Some of the most exciting work is performed in what have become known as the Off-West End theatres, while further down the financial ladder still are the fringe theatres, more often than not pub venues, where ticket prices are lower, and quality more variable.
The spectacular Great Court and the renovated Round Reading Room have brought new life to the world’s oldest and greatest public museum.
Bloody royal history, Beefeaters, lots of armour, the Crown Jewels and ravens – and a great medieval castle.
The city’s most atmospheric Victorian necropolis, thick with trees and crowded with famous corpses, with Karl Marx topping the bill.
Take a stroll around the brilliant King’s Cross redevelopment, where galleries, restaurants and public squares have transformed the industrial landscape.
Fly kites, look across London and walk over to Kenwood, for fine art, tea and cakes.
Have a pint of traditional real ale in one of London’s many old and historic pubs, or visit one of the craft brewhouses that are popping up over the capital.
One of the world’s greatest modern art collections housed in a spectacularly converted riverside power station.
See the “mother of all parliaments” at work from the public gallery; book in advance to attend Question Time or take a summertime guided tour.
Visit the offbeat market stalls, shops, cafés and bars on the edge of the East End.
From the Renaissance to Picasso: the National Gallery is undoubtedly one of the world’s great art galleries.
Feast on all the scrumptious free titbits at London’s leading foodie market.
You can still see some of the iconic venues and Orbit Tower, set amid the beautifully landscaped Olympic Park.
Rent a Boris Bike and explore the cycling paths of Hyde Park, or pedal along the Regent’s Canal to Little Venice and beyond.
Soak up naval history at the National Maritime Museum, and climb up to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park to enjoy the view over the river.
For variety and scale, the V&A is the greatest applied arts museum in the world.
Simply the most impressive view in London.
Take a boat to this sprawling red-brick affair, the finest of London’s royal palaces.
Top image © Ram Kay/Shutterstock
Most visitors experience West London en route to or from Heathrow Airport, either from the confines of the train or tube (which runs overground at this point), or the motorway. The city and its satellites seem to continue unabated, with only fleeting glimpses of the countryside. However, in the five-mile stretch from Chiswick to Osterley there are several former country retreats, now surrounded by suburbia.
The Palladian villa of Chiswick House is perhaps the best known. However, it draws nothing like as many visitors as Syon House, most of whom come for the gardening centre rather than for the house itself, a showcase for the talents of Robert Adam, who also worked at Osterley House, another Elizabethan conversion.
Running through much of the area is the River Thames, once the “Great Highway of London” and still the most pleasant way to travel in these parts during summer. Boats plough up the Thames all the way from central London via the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the picturesque riverside at Richmond, as far as Hampton Court.
Established in 1759, Kew’s
Royal Botanic Gardens
manage the extremely difficult task of being both a world leader in botanic research and an extraordinarily beautiful and popular public park. There’s always something to see, whatever the season, but to get the most out of the place come sometime between spring and autumn, bring a picnic and stay for the day.
Of all the glasshouses, by far the most celebrated is the Palm House, a curvaceous mound of glass and wrought iron, designed by Decimus Burton in the 1840s. Its drippingly humid atmosphere nurtures most of the known palm species, while in the basement there’s a small, excellent tropical aquarium.
Political, religious and regal power has emanated from Westminster for almost a millennium. It was Edward the Confessor (1042–66) who first established Westminster as London’s royal and ecclesiastical power base, some three miles west of the City of London. The embryonic English parliament used to meet in the abbey and eventually took over the old royal palace of Westminster. In the nineteenth century, Westminster – and Whitehall in particular – became the “heart of the Empire”, its ministries ruling over a quarter of the world’s population. Even now, though the UK’s world status has diminished, the institutions that run the country inhabit roughly the same geographical area: Westminster for the politicians, Whitehall for the civil servants.
The monuments and buildings in and around Westminster also span the millennium, and include some of London’s most famous landmarks – Nelson’s Column, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, plus two of the city’s finest permanent art collections, the National Gallery and Tate Britain. This is a well-trodden tourist circuit since it’s also one of the easiest parts of London to walk round, with all the major sights within a mere half-mile of each other, linked by one of London’s most majestic streets, Whitehall.
The Queen is colonel-in-chief of the seven Household Regiments: the Life Guards (who dress in red and white) and the Blues and Royals (who dress in blue and white) are the two Household Cavalry regiments; while the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards make up the Foot Guards.
The Changing of the Guard takes place at two London locations: the two Household Cavalry regiments take it in turns to stand guard at Horse Guards on Whitehall , while the Foot Guards take care of Buckingham Palace. A ceremony also takes place regularly at Windsor Castle.
Clearly visible at the south end of Whitehall is one of London’s best-known monuments, the Palace of Westminster, better known as the
Houses of Parliament
. The city’s finest Victorian Gothic Revival building and symbol of a nation once confident of its place at the centre of the world, it’s distinguished above all by the ornate, gilded clocktower popularly known as
, after the thirteen-ton main bell that strikes the hour (and is broadcast across the world by BBC radio).
The original medieval palace burned down in 1834, and everything you see now – save for Westminster Hall – is the work of Charles Barry, who created an orgy of honey-coloured pinnacles, turrets and tracery that attempts to express national greatness through the use of Gothic and Elizabethan styles. You get a glimpse of the eleventh-century Westminster Hall en route to the public galleries, its huge oak hammer-beam roof making it one of the most magnificent secular medieval halls in Europe.
Houses of Parliament
dwarf their much older neighbour,
, yet this single building embodies much of the history of England: it has been the venue for all coronations since the time of William the Conqueror, and the site of more or less every royal burial for some five hundred years between the reigns of Henry III and George II. Scores of the nation’s most famous citizens are honoured here, too (though many of the stones commemorate people buried elsewhere), and the interior is crammed with hundreds of monuments and statues.
Entry is via the north transept, cluttered with monuments to politicians and traditionally known as Statesmen’s Aisle, from which you can view the central sanctuary, site of the coronations, and the wonderful Cosmati floor mosaic, constructed in the thirteenth century by Italian craftsmen, and often covered by a carpet to protect it.
The abbey’s most dazzling architectural set piece, the Lady Chapel, was added by Henry VII in 1503 as his future resting place. With its intricately carved vaulting and fan-shaped gilded pendants, the chapel represents the final spectacular gasp of the English Perpendicular style. Look out for Edward I’s Coronation Chair, a decrepit oak throne dating from around 1300 and still used for coronations.
Nowadays, the abbey’s royal tombs are upstaged by Poets’ Corner, in the south transept, though the first occupant, Geoffrey Chaucer, was in fact buried here not because he was a poet, but because he lived nearby. By the eighteenth century this zone had become an artistic pantheon, and since then, the transept has been filled with tributes to all shades of talent.
Doors in the south choir aisle (plus a separate entrance from Dean’s Yard) lead to the Great Cloisters, rebuilt after a fire in 1298. On the east side lies the octagonal Chapter House, where the House of Commons met from 1257, boasting thirteenth-century apocalyptic wall paintings. Also worth a look is the Abbey Museum, filled with generations of lifelike (but bald) royal funereal effigies.
It’s only after exploring the cloisters that you get to see the nave itself: narrow, light and, at over a hundred feet in height, by far the tallest in the country. The most famous monument in this section is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, by the west door, which now serves as the main exit.
Every weekend trains from Waterloo and Paddington are packed with people heading for WINDSOR, the royal enclave 21 miles west of London, where they join the human conveyor belt round Windsor Castle. If you’ve got the energy or inclination, it’s possible to cross the river to visit Eton College, which grew from a fifteenth-century free school for impoverished scholars and choristers to become one of the most elitest schools in the world.
Towering above the town on a steep chalk bluff, Windsor Castle is an undeniably imposing sight, its chilly grey walls, punctuated by mighty medieval bastions, continuing as far as the eye can see. Inside, most visitors just gape in awe at the monotonous, gilded grandeur of the State Apartments, while the real highlights – the paintings from the Royal Collection that line the walls – are rarely given a second glance. More impressive is St George’s Chapel, a glorious Perpendicular structure ranking with Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, and the second most important resting place for royal corpses after the Abbey. On a fine day, put aside some time for exploring Windsor Great Park, which stretches for several miles to the south of the castle.