I lived in London for three years. As more and more time separate me from that period I find myself feeling increasingly nostalgic. Which is rather surprising given that London is technically not my kind of town in terms of walkability – in a vast city with seemingly unlimited options of paths to take, there are too few visual delights that are tucked away from main routes. Nice pockets, eye-catching buildings and welcoming squares do exist but the ratio to “just ok” is not very high.
On the other hand, London offers so many impressive points of interest that it is impossible to do them all justice even in a space of a week. If you come to London for just 3 or 4 days, you will have to make some hard decisions in regards to which sights to skip in your itinerary.
Some hot spots in the center are unmissable and you will find yourselves there regardless of my recommendations. You should linger on Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square, check out Piccadilly Circle, regain a measure of serenity in St. James’s Park or lounge for a while in Green Park. I am also partial to lively Covent Garden area. You should definitely take a stroll on Thames Path along South Bank (it is called Queen’s Walk on a stretch).
You should stop by a market. I have heard that Borough Market declined in recent years but it used to be our favorite for food browsing and sampling (it remains highly rated on TripAdvisor, so make what you want of it). Camden Market is great for clothing and other goods for sale. If you are in town on a Saturday and do not mind crowds, you should go to Portobello Market to look at antiques and bric-a-brac (some shops and stalls operate on other days as well but it’s a more subdued experience); you can also explore the surrounding streets of Notting Hill, which is one of more walkable pockets.
You should stop by Westminster Abbey. Architectural majesty aside, the place is chock-full of memorials to famous Brits. Try to keep track of how many historical figures you recognize. This is also a location for every royal coronation for several centuries as well as many other important ceremonies. Time investment: 1 hour-plus.
You should see the Tower of London. So much history is concentrated here, it is hard to take it all in on a single visit. The excellent audioguide will take you on a couple of trips around the grounds and through all exhibitions, including prison cells, armories, and, of course, the royal jewels. Time investment: At least 2.5 hours.
You should visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is one of the most impressive Christian churches in the world, with a number of fascinating features. Do not miss climbing up to and experimenting at the Whispering Gallery under the dome. It obviously works best if you are not alone, so one of you can quietly speak close to the wall and another of you can hear what is being said on the opposite side. If you do not have a companion, you can attempt to intercept other people’s conversations, if that does not make you uncomfortable.
Climbing all the way up to the dome opens up sweeping views over the city, but you have to go all the way to the highest level for unobstructed views. Time investment: 90 minutes.
You should visit British Museum. It is an incredible collection of treasures from all corners of the formerly mighty empire. There is a certain connotation of a number of artifacts having been plundered from conquered lands, but as hard it is to condone such happenstance on moral level it is equally hard to miss an opportunity to see them up close. Time investment: 2 hours-plus.
Quite a few of the sights listed in this section are practically unmissable in my book and if you have a week or more, you should see them all. But for a shorter visit, you will need to pick what is most important to you.
Keep in mind that many of the largest museums offer entirely free entry to their permanent exhibitions.
If you agree that the major art collections cannot be dropped from any reasonable itinerary, you could visit National Gallery. Although it is probably a notch below places such as Louvre, Hermitage, or Vatican Museums, it is still a magnificent collection of classical painting. There are also regular special exhibitions that may or may not require a fee to enter. Time investment: At least 2.5 hours.
If you want another perspective into British history, you could visit National Portrait Gallery. I am not an ardent fan of portraiture as a genre, but the appearance in portrait of seemingly every person of note in the last few centuries is quite captivating. Time investment: 90 minutes at a canter, could be several hours if you look at every portrait and read every inscription.
If you want more arts, you could see if there is an interesting exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. That will certainly be at extra charge and each exhibition runs for several weeks. Time investment: 90 minutes or longer, depending on how much you linger in front of every painting.
There are several smaller art collections that may be worth consideration, although they require fee for entry, such as Courtald Gallery, Wallace Collection, and others.
If your tastes in art lean towards contemporary, you could visit Tate Modern. A connoisseur will surely appreciate its significant collection. Time investment: At least 90 minutes.
If you are interested in decorative arts and design, you could visit Victoria and Albert Museum. There are so many fantastic collections on display, I suspect every visitor will find something to their liking. Time investment: At least 2 hours.
If you are fascinated by natural history, you could go to Natural History Museum which boasts a famous dinosaur display. Time investment: At least 2 hours.
If you want a close-up exposure to various scientific discoveries and technological progress, you could visit Science Museum. This is one of the most kid-friendly points of interest in town, with many interactive displays and hands-on activities, plus an IMAX theater, an arcade, and a 3D simulator. Launch Pad is a favorite section for many – a playground for the inquisitive minds. Time investment: At least 2 hours.
If you want to explore one of the most iconic London landmarks, you could see Tower Bridge Exhibition. Views over London, glass floor above Thames, and Victorian engine rooms are among the highlights. Time investment: 1 hour.
If you are a WWII buff, you could visit Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum. Well-preserved quarters of the wartime leadership and personnel feel sufficiently claustrophobic and the audioguide narration is very compelling. Time investment: 1 hour.
If you want more history of military endeavors, you could go to the Imperial War Museum. Tanks, planes, all kinds of weaponry, detailed exhibitions on both World Wars will impress any enthusiast. In addition, the museum hosts one the most bone-chilling Holocaust exhibitions that I have ever seen – that section is probably not to be visited in the company of young children. Time investment: 2 hours.
A separate part of the Imperial War Museum is HMS Belfast, a Royal Navy cruiser. You will learn a tremendous amount of stuff about life on a naval vessel and your kids will have a chance to climb all over various gun stations. Time investment: 1 hour.
If you are a fan of one the most famous detectives in literary history, you could stop by Sherlock Holmes Museum at the fictional location that have been made real on Baker Street. The apartments are furnished and decorated as they might have been in Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination. There is an actor dressed like and pretending to be Dr. Watson who would engage you with reminiscences of his and Holmes’s adventures. Time investment: 30 minutes.
If you want a famous piece of history of the performing arts, you could visit Shakespeare’s Globe. With enough of an advance effort, it is possible to procure tickets for an open-air performance at the replica of the original Elizabethan theatre. Simply taking a guided tour is a great option. Time investment: 1 hour.
If you want to see one the most luxurious royal palaces in Europe, you could visit Buckingham Palace. It opens for visitors for only the second half of the summer, so the timing of your stay in London is key to being able to see it. The palace has a pretty somber exterior, so it will be ever more a surprise how exhuberant the interiors are. Time investment: 2 hours-plus.
If you are a fan of classical music, you could get tickets to a performance at Royal Albert Hall. You could also go on a guided tour, but make sure to combine that with a performance. If you are in town between mid-July and mid-September, you could partake in 120-year-old tradition of proms, performed daily at the famous music venue. The standing tickets to a prom cost nominal amounts of money and can be procured in the hours leading to the show; reserved seating costs what you would expect from a leading concert hall. Time investment for guided tour: 1 hour.
You could – and probably would – take a spin on the London Eye. It quite obviously offers opportunities to see London from above without having to climb stairs of a church tower. The cheapest tickets are for entry at specific time intervals, so on busy days you may not be able to get on until a few hours later. There are more expensive options, including “any time” and “fast track”, the latter allowing you to skip most of the queue of people with tickets to the same time interval. Buying tickets in advance may lock you into bad weather, so consider your options carefully. Time investment: 1 hour-plus, including the queue to get on.
If you are interested in more macabre bits of history, you could visit London Dungeon. Occasional “boo” effects aside, it is not exactly a “haunted house” but rather a visual history museum with the focus on epidemics, executions, famous crimes, etc. Buy tickets in advance or you could be in for a 2-hour wait. Time investment excluding ticket lines: 90 minutes.
If you are into high-end shopping, you could visit Harrods, one of the most famous department stores in the Western world. Or you could opt for more narrow focus and peruse Fortnum & Mason and even have your afternoon tea there (which unsurprisingly is considered to offer the best selection of teas).
In fact, this is a borderline should item (except not everyone likes tea), but you could go for an afternoon tea at a number of high-end hotels or restaurants. Partaking in a traditional aristocratic activity has got to become one of the highlights of your trip.
If you have enough extra time and are adventurous enough to venture beyond city center, there are many remarkable points of interest further afield, each of which would require at least half a day if not a full day. You could go to Greenwich to see the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian. You could admire Windsor Palace or Hampton-Court Palace. You could explore the vast variety of flora at Kew Gardens. And this is not an exhaustive list.
I wouldn’t spend my time and money on Madame Tussaud’s. Some people may cherish their only opportunity to have their picture taken with a celebrity or a famous political figure, but the cost-to-value proposition is just not there for me. It is also one of those locations where on busy days you will interminably wait to get in if you don’t buy tickets in advance. Time investment excluding ticket lines: 1 hour-plus.
You may be a die-hard fan of the late Princess Diana, but I wouldn’t recommend visiting Kensington Palace, where she lived for a decade and a half. There is very little that is exceptional in the State Rooms and among exhibitions, and the entry is plainly overpriced. Time investment: 1 hour.
I wouldn’t bother to see the ceremony of changing guard at the Buckingham Palace. Most of it happens in the palace courtyard beyond the fence, so unless you come hours in advance to secure a spot right by the fence you will not see much more than the guards marching up The Mall before the ceremony. Even on a rainy day, once the company enters the gates, your line of vision towards the ceremony is likely to be non-existent.
There you have it, the sights of London categorized. If your opinion differs from mine or you think that I omitted something of importance, I would love to hear from you.
My original London Travelog entry.