The capital of the United Kingdom is the largest city in all of Europe, both demographically and financially. It has a curious peculiarity that not everyone knows and that will serve to understand some of the recommendations that we indicate in this London guide : 2000 years ago, the Romans founded Londinium. That settlement, walled at the time, is what is now known as the City of London , which is a small city of about 8,800 inhabitants in an area of about 2.6 square kilometers.
Around this small city, Greater London or Greater London is located . The City of London is governed by a different mayor and laws than Greater London. In addition, within Greater London we also find the City of Westminster , which is where the royal family and government buildings are located.
The Thames, its historic buildings, palaces, museums, restaurants and bustle will make you not have a minute to get bored. London is a city that offers all kinds of entertainment and for all audiences.
Essential things to see in London
London is the cultural capital par excellence. We like to visit the city from time to time and try its different restaurants for its varied gastronomic offer. If you are making a city break or if you stay longer, we recommend a lot of interesting places to discover this great city.
One of London’s most recognizable icons, along with Big Ben, is Tower Bridge . Built in the Victorian style 120 years ago, this suspension and bascule bridge over the River Thames is considered one of the greatest works of engineering. Its two towers are joined at the top and at the bottom it has a drawbridge, which opens about 800 times a year. Large boats or boats with masts over 9 meters can request its opening if they give 24 hours notice. The bridge is freely accessible to vehicles and pedestrians, but if you want to visit its towers and the exhibition inside, you must obtain a ticket.
If you think of London, one of the first images that comes to mind is surely that of Big Ben , thus calling the great bell housed inside the clock and the tower. In 2012, to celebrate the queen’s jubilee, it was renamed Elizabeth Tower. It is located in the northern part of the Palace of Westminster, it has a height of more than 96 meters and was built in 1858 after the destruction of the palace due to a fire. The clock was designed by Augustus Pugin and each of its four faces measures more than 7 meters in diameter. Unlike most of London’s monuments, foreign visitors do not have access to the interior of Big Ben.
Buckingham Palace has been the official residence of the British Royal Family for more than 150 years, although today it functions mainly as an administrative headquarters. This “little palace” in the middle of the city has more than 700 rooms, some of them reception rooms, offices, rooms for palace workers and many others for royalty and guests. In summer, the palace is open to visitors on foot and you can see different rooms such as the coronation room, the great staircase designed by John Nash, or furniture and objects, among others. The rest of the year, one of the most important attractions is the changing of the royal guard, which brings together thousands of people 3 to 4 times a week.
TOWER OF LONDON
Located right next to Tower Bridge and the Thames, this World Heritage Site castle has been used by various kings and queens for protection over time. More than 1000 years ago, William the Conqueror ordered the construction of the Tower of London , a palace-fortress located in the center of the city and with a history full of lights and shadows. During its existence it has had different functions, including prison, where characters such as Ana Bolena or Santo Tomás Moro were executed. Today you can visit its interior and the collection of the British Crown jewels, as well as learn about its history.
The River Thames rises near Kemble and, along its more than 340 km, passes through Oxford, and through the center of London, supplying water to the city. One of the most popular options for seeing London is to choose one of the many companies that offer riverboat rides . There are tourist companies with which to contract a tour or a more “local” option for getting around, such as the London River Services boats, with ferries that take you from one bank of the river to the other side. There is a curious fact, next to the river there is a path for trekking called the Thames Path , almost 300 km long. A kind of “Camino de Santiago” that leads you through small towns and big cities.
ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL
Its impressive white vault is one of the most iconic elements of the City of London. Located on top of a hill, at the highest point of the city, this Anglican cathedral, in its 300 years of history, has seen many events such as royal weddings, celebrations of reigns and funerals of historical figures, as well as a Martin Luther King’s speech in 1964. Inside St. Paul’s Cathedral , we can admire the frescoes from the Whispering Gallery, its vault, its arches, the choir and numerous works of art, which are well worth a visit and the cost of the entry.
Built in 1819 to connect Regent Street and Piccadilly, Piccadilly Circus has become one of the most famous squares in central London. Its amalgamation of neon lights and screens with advertisements leave no one indifferent. Different brands have advertised on these screens over the years, including Coca Cola, with one of the longest-running ads. A curious fact is that Yoko Ono paid a large sum of money to maintain the phrase “Imagine all the people living life in peace” by John Lennon, for a few months. In addition to these illuminated signs, we find a statue of the Greek god Anteros, the Criterion Theatre, the London Pavillion and numerous shops.
They say that Trafalgar Square in the City of London is the center of democracy and protest. Most weekends you will find demonstrations, something that the local government allows as a matter of tradition. It was created to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar, in which the armies of several countries tried to overthrow Napoleon off the coast of Cadiz. In its center it has kilometer zero from where all the distances of the United Kingdom are counted, something like our particular Puerta del Sol. The Nelson column, in honor of the victorious admiral, built in 1840 is one of the most visible icons, thanks to its more than 46 meters high.
Leicester Square is a square within the City of Westminster that was built in the 17th century and named after an iconic mansion, Leicester House. Nowadays, it is a very busy place and quite famous for having numerous cinemas and theaters where some of the most important releases of contemporary cinema are seen. In the center of the square, a small garden and a statue of William Shakespeare welcomes us. Its four entrances are dedicated to some of the square’s most famous residents, Isaac Newton among them. In summer, open-air cinema sessions are organized, perfect for a night out in London if the weather is good.
Interesting things to visit in London
As we have already mentioned, London is the city of never ending, you can spend weeks here to get to know just some of its thousands of corners. Here we recommend some more sites.
WESTMINSTER ABBEY AND THE PALACE
Westminster Abbey or Westminster Abbey is a Gothic-style Anglican church located in the City of Westminster, right next to the palace of the same name. Built around the 10th century and later rebuilt, today it is a World Heritage Site. As one of the most important religious temples in the country, royal weddings and funerals of monarchs and public figures have been held inside. Some of them, buried here like Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, Livingstone or Rudyard Kipling.
Also in the City of Westminster we find London’s Soho , a multicultural and entertainment area, I would say almost world famous. So much so that the word Soho has been exported to other cities. During the 19th century and part of the 20th, the Soho area concentrated prostitution and sex shops, later filling up with theaters and attracting intellectuals and artists. Nowadays, we find theaters, bars and shops in its streets. Some of its most iconic streets are Carnaby Street, where we will find big brand stores, and Old Compton Street, focused on the gay public.
Globe Theater was a theater for which William Shakespeare wrote plays together with his company. It was built in 1599 on the south side of the Thames. A few hundred years later, in 1997, actor Sam Wanamaker, based on extensive research and plans and writings of similar buildings of the time, rebuilt the original theater on the same site and named it Shakespeare’s Globe . During the first period of this new phase, works were carried out only during the day to take advantage of sunlight, emulating the theater of 1599, in which there was no electric light.
HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT
Along the banks of the Thames, we find The Houses of Parliament or Palace of Westminster , which houses the two chambers of the United Kingdom Parliament. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, the neo-Gothic building from the 16th century was rebuilt in the 19th century as we know it today. The best known tower of the several that it has is the famous Big Ben, one of the most recognizable icons of London. Inside, the palace has more than 1,000 rooms and several halls and chambers.
Close to Leicester Square and Soho, we find Chinatown , a vibrant area with buildings decorated with dragons and other symbols of the Asian country. Initially, before World War II, Chinatown was located in Limehouse due to its proximity to the port and the numerous cargo ships that arrived with Chinese sailors. In the 1970s, businesses began to open in its current location. Taking a walk through its streets we can choose from hundreds of restaurants and shops to enjoy a bit of its flavors, smells and colors.
CHURCHILL WAR ROOMS
Set aside at least an hour and a half to visit the underground bunker from where Winston Churchill and his team planned the Allied attack to victoriously end World War II. Beneath Westminster, the Churchill War Rooms , a maze of streets built in 1938–39, provided shelter for government offices in the event of aerial bombardment by the enemy. Currently, we can visit the museum where we find the meeting rooms, offices, the Map Room, rooms and objects such as silent typewriters and telephones. These rooms ceased to be used in 1945 after the surrender of Japan.
There is little we can say about Abbey Road that is not already known. World famous for the photo of The Beatles in 1969 crossing its pedestrian crossing, this street in the Camden neighborhood, very close to Regent’s Park, will always be remembered for the cover of the famous album of the same name that the four from Liverpool recorded in Abbey Road Studios. As a curious note, the sign that indicated the name of the street had to be placed very high on a building since it was the object of constant robberies. Today, the recording studios are still operating and artists of the stature of Aretha Franklin or Pink Floyd have recorded some of their albums here.
ROYAL ALBERT HALL
Opened in 1871 by Queen Victoria and located in the City of Westminster, this important theater was built to promote the culture of Londoners. The round-shaped building is made of red bricks and has a frieze around it depicting the arts and sciences, with 16 different scenes. Since its opening, Royal Albert Hall has hosted numerous concerts and events of all kinds, from classical music to rock, conferences and events such as the Cirque du Soleil. Its main hall has a capacity for more than 5,000 attendees.
Designed by John Nash in 1827 from white Cararra marble, Marble Arch was built to commemorate Napoleonic victories at the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar. Initially located at the entrance to Buckingham Palace, at a certain point they had to extend the palace and moved the arch piece by piece to Park Lane, on one side of Hyde Park. At present and after several transfers, it works as an island to regulate traffic.
The tallest Ferris wheel in Europe and one of the most striking attractions in London, this is the London Eye , also called the Millennium Wheel. This Ferris wheel is located next to the Thames and was built in 1998 by Marks Barfield, a British architecture studio. Each of its 32 capsules can hold up to 25 people and takes about 30 minutes to complete a full revolution. If you like taking photos and being able to admire cities from above, the London Eye is something you should not miss.
Kensington Palace , opened in the 16th century, was the birthplace of Queen Victoria. Currently, the queen’s heir grandchildren live in some of the apartments that the palace has. On one side of Kensington Gardens, in Hyde Park, stands this two-storey building with numerous corridors and gardens. To visit its interior, you can choose one of its four routes and observe rooms, halls decorated with paintings and frescoes on their ceilings, or an exhibition of royal costumes.
In the City of London, we find Temple Church , a church built by Knights Templar in the 12th century to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Templar churches were built in a circular fashion to emulate the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. After the abolition of the Templars, the church became part of the crown and today it functions as an Anglican church, where in addition to the usual ceremonies, concerts are held and it has a famous choir.
They say that the British Library is the national library with the largest number of cataloged items in the world (about 180 million), including books, manuscripts, magazines, records, videos, etc. The national library was part of the British Museum, but in 1973, it was separated from it. Access is free and it has some exhibitions where you can see manuscripts by Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Wolf or Charles Dickens, and even a Bible printed by Gutenberg. Tours are also conducted to learn about the history and architecture of this building that houses some of the wonders of the world.
In 1884, during an international conference, numerous agreements were established regarding time zones, since, until then, there were too many. In this way, it was established that the meridian that passes through the Greenwich Royal Observatory , in the London neighborhood of the same name, would be the zero or initial meridian . From there, the longitudes would be counted and the universal day would begin, which begins at midnight. Today it is a museum open to the public with some curious astronomical artifacts.
ST PANCRAS AND KING’S CROSS
Looking for the train to take you to Howarts School in Witchcraft? Then you shouldn’t miss the permanent installation where Harry Potter and his companions began their journey. Look for platform 9 ¾ in the station, between platforms 9 and 10. In addition to this, in the King’s Cross area you can enjoy the fun accessible fountains in Granary Square, its parks, Canopy Market or the Regent’s Canal. Here you will also find St Pancras International Train Station .
Just a few steps from the Waterloo tube exit, we find Leake Street , a street with a 300-meter tunnel that has become the only legal work of art (graffiti is illegal in London) in the open air . In 2008, Banksy created the first graffiti in the tunnel, during her Cans Festival and since then hundreds of artists have followed him. This graffiti tunnel is part of the regeneration of the South Bank area where restaurants and shops are planned to open. We leave you a link where you will find Banksy’s graffiti mapped in London .
Museums to visit in London
We all know that the sun doesn’t always shine in London, so if you have a predilection or a rainy day catches you, we suggest some museums you shouldn’t miss.
Founded in 1753, the British Museum was the first of its kind in the world. It all started with the personal collection of a naturalist, Sir Hans Sloane, donated to the crown and continued with the expansion of both archaeological and ethnographic research. The museum houses the Rosetta Stone, a fragment of an Egyptian stela dated to 196 BC
NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
Until a couple of years ago, the main dome of the Natural History Museum in London exhibited the skeleton of a diplodocus. For those of us who visit today, we will be surprised to find the skeleton of an imposing blue whale. This building, built in 1864, houses some specimens collected by Charles Darwin at the Darwin Centre.
Founded in 1824 in Trafalgar Square, The National Gallery is a museum in impressive buildings, with a collection of paintings from almost every genre. It is a very interesting walk through European painting, containing paintings by Paul Cezanne, Johannes Vermeer, Monet, Van Gogh or Rembrandt, among others.
Converted since its opening in 2000 (in a new location) into one of the most visited modern art museums in the world, the Tate Modern in Bankside, has a permanent collection with works by Picasso, Dalí, Warhol, Bacon and Marcel Duchamp, among others. In addition, its temporary exhibitions are well worth a visit.
Opened more than 200 years ago, and with multiple locations today in Asia, America and Europe, Madame Tussauds is the most famous wax museum in the world, or the one that includes the most famous. Taking a walk through its rooms, we can find wax figures of characters from comics and adventures, from movies like Star Wars or Bollywood actors, as well as the British royal family or athletes.
MUSEUM OF LONDON
Free access, the Museum of London , tells the story of the British capital from its first settlement, even before the Romans, to the present day. For us it is interesting to know the cities from within and this museum, with its many rooms with permanent collections, shows us through objects and documents, all the comings and goings of London until it became the city it is today.
VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM
Art and design intermingle at the Victoria and Albert Museum , which contains one of the largest sculpture collections in the world. Founded in 1852, extensions and galleries have been built over the years to house its huge collection. Whether you like architecture and the art of other cultures or ceramics, painting and fashion, this is a museum to visit.
SHERLOCK HOLMES MUSEUM
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the works of this famous detective that we have all known since our childhood. The Sherlock Holmes Museum is located on Baker Street, right where the protagonist in the stories lived. Inside, a reproduction of the rooms as they would be when Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson occupied them has been created.
Parks to visit in London
The positive part that it is always raining in this country is that everything is always very green. Below we recommend some open spaces where you can enjoy nature.
Regent’s Park , is one of the largest green areas in the city, where Londoners play sports or rest on the grass. On the Regent’s Canal you can take a boat ride and enjoy Little Venice. It has a garden with more than 12,000 roses, called the Queen Mary Rose Garden , one of the most beautiful in London. There is a tour of the outer part of the park, where you can admire the beautiful villas that surround it.
ST JAMES PARK
Between Buckingham Palace, St James Palace and Westminster, we find another of London’s eight royal parks, St James Park . With more than 400 years of history inside, we will find animals such as pelicans, foxes, squirrels or bats, among others. Something very striking is The Mall , a large ceremonial promenade that leads to Buckingham Palace.
HYDE PARK AND KENSINGTON GARDENS
Hyde Park is the largest park in central London. It is well known for hosting rallies and has a Speakers Corner , where anonymous citizens give speeches on different topics. In the Serpentine lake you can rent boats or even swim. On the other side of the lake, Kensington Gardens , were the palace gardens, and today they are freely accessible and you can walk around quietly.
If you are looking for a different plan and escape from mass tourism, taking a route on foot, by bike or by boat through Regent’s Canal will come in handy to get to know this bohemian area of London a little better. The canal was built to link with the Thames and facilitate the passage of goods from the north of the country. You can start in Camden Town and walk about 4 km following the course of the canal to Regent’s Park. A little further on, you come across Little Venice , where there are nice houseboats.
CHELSEA PHYSICAL GARDEN
Founded in 1673, Chelsea Physic Garden is the oldest botanical garden in the city, with more than 5,000 medicinal plants inside. Initially created by apothecaries to study the healing properties of plants, it was a private garden and it was not until 1983 that it was opened to the general public. Inside, we will find different exhibitions, greenhouses and how other cultures use plants for healing purposes.
Declared a World Heritage Site, Kew Gardens is the royal botanic garden and has more than 50,000 species in its collections. With the research, maintenance and recovery of extinct species, in addition to education as drivers, visiting these gardens becomes an experience. In addition, it is only 30 minutes from central London, so it can be a good getaway for a couple of hours.
Very close to Regent’s Park, following the Regent’s Canal, we find a bohemian and quiet area, with houseboats called Little Venice . This little Venice that, without entering into comparisons with so many other cities bathed by canals, invites us to dream of a houseboat and a café watching the boats go by. In recent years it has become an alternative to living in London, which is why the number of houseboats has increased a lot and licenses are hardly granted anymore.
SWIMMING LAKES HIGHGATE
On one side of the Hampstead Heath park , we find Highgate , a beautiful residential neighborhood in London. In this green area there are three ponds, one for men, one for women and a mixed one called Hampstead Heath Ponds where you can swim almost all year round. On sunny and hot summer days the club is usually full and it can be more like being on a Mediterranean beach in the middle of August, if it weren’t for the fact that we are surrounded by large trees.
Being the largest market in all of London makes it a bustling place full of life. This is Camden Market today . What started with a few craft and food stalls in the 70’s opening on Sundays, today is a place full of shops, cafes and bars packed with visitors. Events and concerts are also held at its facilities.
The city’s most famous flea market, Covent Garden , is located in the neighborhood of the same name and is now one of the city’s most attractive shopping districts. Full of shops, both fashion and antiques or art and jewelry. Inside, in addition to the shops, we will find street performances, as well as places to enjoy a lot of gastronomic options.
In the famous district of Notting Hill , the one with the colorful houses that we have seen in a famous movie, there is a no less famous and bohemian market on Portobello Road . This antiques market has been held every day since the beginning of the 19th century. The famous writer George Orwell occupied one of the houses on Portobello Road for a time.
OLD SPITALFIELDS MARKET
This East London market is known for its small producers and fine crafts. Old Spitalfields Market dates back to the 17th century, but in its current location, a listed building, it has been around since the 19th century. Different activities are organized every day and Thursdays are dedicated to vintage and Fridays to vinyl records.
In a building with a lot of flavor we find the Borough Market , the oldest fresh produce market in London. In its labyrinthine interior, there is a variety of fruits, vegetables, fish and meat on the stalls. This market serves both retail and wholesale. In addition, it has a program to improve and prevent the generation of waste into the environment and is committed to biodegradable and compostable packaging.
BRICK LANE MARKET
In the neighborhood of Brick Lane, in East London, the nerve center of the Bangladeshi community, you will find some of the best restaurants to try a good curry. If you want to get the most out of Brick Lane Market , it is best to visit it on a Sunday, as it is the day when the streets are filled with second-hand vendors and many Londoners come to look for some bargains.
LIBERTY’S DEPARTMENT STORES
In the Liberty Department Store or Liberty’s , as many people know them, they sell all kinds of items, from clothes to furniture to gifts. They were created more than 150 years ago and have lived through all the eras of British fashion creating collaborations with famous designers, even today. The building where these warehouses are located in Soho is a listed building of Tudor design.
Housed in a historic and listed building, Greenwich Market has over 200 years of history in its current location. After the First World War, its decline began until, in the 1980s, the first craft shops began to open. We will find small street food establishments from different parts of the world, clothing, books and artisan jewelry. A good place to get lost for a while.
What to do in London
As we have already mentioned, London is the city of never ending, so we propose some plans.
We have already said that London’s cultural offer is exceptional and it is the world capital in many fields, including musicals . Many of these works remain on the bill almost indefinitely, in theaters in the West End area , Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square or Covent Garden, so we can see classics like The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables or some more modern ones like The Lion King or Thriller.
Every day of the week, any day of the year you can go out in London and find a live concert of the musical style that you like the most. There are thousands of concert halls, here we will tell you about some of the ones we have seen: Sala Scala in King’s Cross, with several rooms where you can dance and enjoy yourself; The Grand , a smaller room where you can dance comfortably, very close to Clapham Junction station; and Nambucca Hall , north of London, perfect for concerts, pay attention to its calendar of events.
They say no visit to London is complete without a visit to its theatres. In addition to musicals, in the West End , in the area of Covent Garden and its surroundings, you have the cultural offer of more than twenty theaters, including the National Theatre , the Barbican or the Prince of Wales Theatre . In addition, some agency offers walking tours and visiting the backstage of some of the most famous theaters and tell anecdotes about each one of them.