Our years of being residents of London are quite far in the past by now – we repatriated to the US in 2009 – but it certainly remains one of the cities that we know best and appreciate best.
In addition to the summary below, you can also check out my Shoulda, Coulda, Wouldn’t essay on London.
For the sheer number of museums, galleries, and other top attractions, London is a strong contender for the title of the “cultural capital of the world”. Many of the major museums are free for anyone to enter to see their permanent exhibitions.
The Westminster Abbey ♥♥♥ is a very impressive architectural masterpiece of the 13th to 16th centuries and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It also presents a unique pageant of British history, including the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the tombs of kings and queens, and countless memorials to the famous and the great. It has also been the setting for every Coronation since 1066 and for numerous other royal occasions. There are several nice stained-glass windows, and impressive chapels and altars. Royal tombs are often lavishly decorated. Kids of all ages engage in recognize-the-famous activity, moving from monument to monument around the cathedral’s chapels.
The Tower of London ♥♥♥ is one other top attraction in the city that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Onetime a defensive fort, onetime a royal castle, and onetime an infamous prison, it is bursting with history at every step. Among many points of interest inside the complex are armory displays, the magnificent royal jewels collection, various prisoner dwellings, and always entertaining Beefeaters and ravens.
The nearby Tower Bridge, arguably the most emblematic of London sights, offers an interesting Experience tour ♥♥, which starts with a short movie on the history of its construction, and follows that with a walk on the bridge’s upper level, at 45 meters high, with fantastic views over the river and the city. Along the way, one can try a hand at various Victorian games. There is also a treasure-hunt-like “What Victorians did for us” activity that goes well with children.
St Paul’s Cathedral ♥♥ is one of the greatest Christian cathedrals in the world. It is in fact the fourth cathedral to occupy the site, the earliest dating from 640 AD. The present building was designed by the court architect Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1710 after its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. The imposing building’s interior is far from luxurious, but ceiling mosaics around the choir are nothing short of amazing, marking the departure from the usual frescoes depicting biblical scenes; they are instead colorful, ornamental, and gilded. Several hundreds of narrow, twisting steps lead up to three levels of galleries. The first one, Whispering, gets its name from a curious acoustic effect: A whisper into the wall on one side of the gallery is clearly heard if you put your ear to the wall on another side. Two upper galleries provide sweeping views of the city; the view from the uppermost is completely unobstructed.
The National Gallery ♥♥ has a very nice collection of European paintings dating back to the 13th century. Special exhibitions (for a fee) rotate throughout the year. There are always dedicated children’s activities on weekends.
The National Portrait Gallery ♥ offers an engrossing excursion into British history through depictions of famous people who shaped its course. All portraits on display are well annotated with short bios and descriptions of occasions for which they were painted. Putting famous names with faces is quite enlightening.
The British Museum ♥♥♥ is simply an incredible collection of exhibits from all over the world. Impressive open-space galleries contain an unparalleled collection of artifacts from ancient and not-so-ancient civilizations. Rosetta Stone all by itself is worth coming to the museum. An entire gallery is filled with statues and reliefs from the Greek Parthenon – they may actually be returned to Greece in the foreseeable future. Kids’ “activity backpacks” are available for different ages, each providing up to two hours of tasks to occupy inquisitive minds.
A vast collection of objéts d’art from the last two millennia, the Victoria & Albert Museum ♥♥ has something of interest for everybody. Sculptures, paintings, masonry, ironwork, and literally every other type of arts and crafts are presented in over a hundred galleries. There are many hands-on side exhibits and quite a number of kid-friendly activities. The museum is largely organized along the lines of different cultures and eras. It can hardly be covered in a day, but it also does not apply any pressure in terms of must-see exhibits. You can simply wander galleries, literally stumbling upon masterpieces of craftsmanship.
The Natural History Museum ♥♥ is another one of South Kensington’s Big Three (together with V&A and Science museums). Located in a palatial building, it has an unrivaled collection that promotes the discovery of the natural world. Dinosaurs’ skeletons, models of animals, birds and fishes, exhibitions on natural resources and phenomena – it all comes together to provide enjoyment for kids of all ages. Younger kids can equip themselves with explorer kits and embark on treasure hunts and various educational activities. This is probably the most children-friendly museum in a city where every museum offers dedicated kids’ activities.
The Science Museum ♥♥♥ is chock-full of exhibits devoted to scientific discoveries, technological progress, and various aspects of human innovation. Displays range from models to historical exhibits to computerized interactive activities. The Launch Pad gallery is a hands-on children’s activity center, with several dozen scientifically-minded and simply fascinating things to do. The museum also houses an IMAX theatre, a computer-games arcade, and a 3D Simulator, all accessible for extra fees.
The Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum ♥♥ is nearly a must-see for anyone fascinated with the subject of the Second World War. The War Rooms convey their claustrophobic nature from the very first steps and illustrate the living accommodations of the top politicians and military personnel rather vividly. The audioguide, included in the price of admission, provides excellent narration and many captivating facts and tidbits about the Blitz and wartime operations. The wing of the Churchill Museum collocated with the War Rooms, is an excellent tribute to the great statesman, with dozens of interactive displays charting Churchill’s biography and hundreds of artifacts.
The Imperial War Museum ♥ has enough tanks and planes on display to satisfy any fan of military craft. There are also thorough exhibitions on the First and Second World Wars, complete with a simulated trench (for the former) and a simulated Blitz experience (for the latter). There is also a powerful and bone-chilling exhibition on the Holocaust, not for those weak of heart and certainly not for younger children. The display chronologically follows the catastrophic events from Hitler’s rise to power through the end of World War II.
Another attraction for weaponry buffs is the HMS Belfast, a naval cruiser moored between the London and Tower Bridges on the South Bank of the Thames. You can visit various rooms and sections, climb upon guns (always popular with the kids), and learn a wealth of stuff about life on a warship.
Madame Tussaud’s wax museum is one of the most popular destinations in London. It is terribly overpriced and invariably sports long queues if you do not buy tickets in advance. There are over a hundred models of celebrities and historical figures in the current collection. Some are very lifelike, others look nothing like themselves. Throngs of tourists incessantly photograph themselves with Brad and Angelina, and especially David and Victoria Beckham. Additional attractions include Chamber of Horrors (serial killers and guillotine victims), Chamber Live (with live actors mixed with wax figures, all trying to scare the bejesus out of you), Spirit of London (amusement-park-like ride through centuries of London history) and, in a grand finale, an animated movie with funny aliens discoursing on the subject of earthling celebrities (the movie is played in an observatory-like hall projected onto the dome).
The Sherlock Holmes Museum at – where else? – 221b Baker Street, will certainly resonate with the fans of the famous detective, even though the artificially-created dwelling of a fictional character may feel no more than a curiosity. It is very nicely done, with three levels of a tiny building chock-full of furniture and exhibits representing all that we know of Holmes’ and Watson’s abode, from chemistry equipment to insect collection to smoking pipes. It is faithfully maintained, which makes it appear more authentic than a lot of less-fictitious quarters. There is even a rather phlegmatic fellow, dressed as Watson, who greets you and allows you to take pictures with him. If you are so inclined, you can engage him in a conversation related to the nature of the exhibits.
The Tate Modern gallery occupies a converted power station building in the hip Bankside area on the south bank of the Thames. It is certainly worth a visit for any admirer of modern (or rather “post-impressionist” art). There are a few expressionist works as well, but not enough to improve my overall lukewarm feeling of a collection of this kind. Your mileage may vary. There are, nonetheless, interesting children’s activities, so if you are looking to expose your offspring to unorthodox concepts and keep them engaged in the process, you might find just the right things at Tate.
Shakespeare’s Globe ♥ is an awesome open-air theater, where performances are held from April to September. At other times, you can go on a guided tour that starts every half-hour and lasts for about 45 minutes. You’ll hear about the storied history of the place and will be able to appreciate many of its fun attributes.
Courtauld Gallery at the Somerset House houses a comparatively small collection of paintings, among them a couple of dozen expressionists. Not exactly enough to warrant a targeted visit, but as an add-on diversion to doing some other stuff in the West End theater district, it can be a nice stop.
Covent Garden ♥ can be overcrowded and noisy (especially on Saturday nights), but it is a fun place to walk around, with a small market, many interesting shops, and a plethora of good places to eat. It is probably one of the best places in all of London for people-watching. There are always several street performances happening on its various corners. Note: Stay away from the Covent Garden tube station – it easily gets congested at busy times, and there are no escalators – only slowly running lifts, – so you may need to schlep up 180 steps to get to the ground.
The State Rooms of Buckingham Palace ♥♥ are as impressive as in any other royal palace. Equipped with a complimentary audio guide, you will stroll through several drawing rooms, galleries, and especially splendid Royal Dining Room and Music Room. The fact that all of the rooms are in continuous use by the royalty and their guests, gives them some additional allure. The palace is open for only 7 weeks each year, from late July through late September.
Next to the palace, the Royal Mews is both a working royal stable and an interesting collection of State vehicles (read, carriages).
The ceremony of changing guard at the palace has some colorful and interesting components, but, on balance, is quite disappointing. The problem is that for the most part, the ceremony happens behind the gates, in the palace courtyard. And the only people who see something are those lucky ones standing right against the gates. But to get a spot there, you need to stake the ground an hour or more prior to the ceremony; and then just wait there, with nothing to do except make sure that you do not get elbowed out. The rest of the spectators – and there are thousands of them – line the sidewalks of the square and the steps of the Queen Victoria Monument. They get to see marching bands and guard companies getting to and from the palace courtyard, but little beyond that.
St James’s Park ♥♥ and Green Park ♥♥ are two very nice patches of greenery in the heart of Westminster. They give you a perfect respite from the city and its traffic on your wanderings in the area.
Kensington Gardens ♥♥ is a large, pleasant park in West London. We walked through it a couple of times, fed hungry obnoxious geese by the pond, and spent some time at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground. The latter is a gated marine-themed playing area, dominated by a tall ship. There are swings, jungle gyms, and other implements to make every kid happy.
Kensington Palace, at the edge of the park, is quite overpriced and only slightly curious, with several sequential exhibitions. My impression of it is clearly dated – I have always advised people against spending time on it.
Looking out on the Gardens is The Royal Albert Hall ♥. You will certainly be driven by it if you take a bus tour around the city, and you may come in for a tour of the building. While an awesome sight in itself, the Royal Albert is first and foremost a magnificent performance arena, so if you have an opportunity to attend a classical music concert ♥♥♥ there, I highly recommend it. There is a scheme for very cheap standing-room-only tickets available a couple of hours before performances, but buying a regular ticket, coming in with some time to spare, and taking in the grandeur of the place, capped with a great acoustic experience of the performance itself, will not leave you disappointed.
Regent’s Park ♥♥ is another large park, north of the central London area. Its boating lake is very popular with visitors, and it has everything that a park should offer, namely, plenty of picnic space and various snack stands. There are also a couple of semi-formal gated garden areas within the park confines, open to the public, but not well-known, that are ideal for a quieter relaxation.
The British Airways London Eye ♥ is a huge Ferris wheel located on the South Bank – you can’t miss it. Large glass capsules, each accommodating up to 25 people, accomplish full circle in a bit over 30 minutes, providing excellent views of London and its major landmarks. The movement of the wheel is quite slow, which affords ample time to take in the views. On the other hand, the movement is constant, so there is a limit to how much you can linger and your fellow travelers are likely to attempt to take a hundred snapshots each, constantly interrupting your reverie. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations, often requiring long queuing times. Late afternoons tend to be less busy, but it is fairly impossible in-season to just walk up, buy tickets and get on.
The London Aquarium is located near the London Eye. It is neither large nor fancy, providing samples of various marine ecosystems. The touching tank is the biggest attraction, and there are several lectures at specific times.
If you are interested in the gruesome bits of history, you might fancy the London Dungeon. Located on the South Bank within walking distance of the Tower Bridge, it is one of the more expensive attractions in town. Contrary to common misconceptions, it goes for history lessons a lot more than for simple “boo” effects. The rooms, rides, and displays are themed around executions, epidemics, and famous murderers, but while the experience is certainly aimed at making you uneasy, it is not at all like Disney’s “Haunted Mansion”. I’m told that some kids especially enjoy petting live rats at the Dungeon, but my eldest daughter refrained from shocking me so when we visited together.
The famous Portobello Market ♥♥ in Notting Hill is a great place for those interested in antiques, jewelry, accessories, and bric-a-brac. The eponymous street is made pedestrian by the market-goers, with both makeshift stalls and resident shops participating in the fair. The street is quite narrow, and the people are quite numerous. Movement along the succession of vendors is very slow, but you get a chance to take a look at all the different wares. On days other than Saturdays, there are only small remnants of the overall market, but the street is significantly quieter.
For food, there is Borough Market ♥♥, which sits by the Southwark Cathedral near London Bridge. All kinds of produce, delicacies, specialty foods, and sweets can be found here, for quite reasonable prices. Cheeses and meat stalls offer tasters of their wares, and many places are there to sell food for consumption on-site, be it oysters, burgers, or paellas. At the end of the market day (around 4 pm), you may even be offered the remaining delicacies for free or at a big discount.
Two grand department stores merit a look regardless of whether shopping is your thing or not. Harrods ♥♥ on Knightsbridge is the world-famous one, selling anything and everything in the “luxury goods” category across its million-plus square feet of commercial space. You may also like its food halls on the ground level. Fortnum & Mason ♥♥ is more widely known as the premium tea brand, but its store on Piccadilly is a lot more than a vast selection of teas. The domestic utensils department is entirely fascinating.
Classical concerts ♥ – usually for free – are offered in many city churches throughout the year. Highly recommended – be on the lookout for posters.
London’s transportation system is very extensive and can get you anywhere in the city, including its outer edges. Underground stations are within easy walking distance from virtually anywhere in the city center. The service is reasonably frequent (although disruptions happen now and then) and the stations and the trains are reasonably well-maintained. The “each line has its own track” principle necessitates occasional long walks between connecting stations, but there is ample signage and plenty of maps to lead you to your destination. A few older stations in the city center do not have escalators.
Several underground lines have branches. It is important not only to know the name of the line that you need but also to keep an eye that the final destination of the train that you are getting on is on the right branch of the line.
A vast network of commuter trains is integrated with the subway. The trains are collectively called the National Rail but are operated by two dozen different companies and connect suburban areas with the city center.
Plus, there are over 800 municipal bus routes. Double-decker buses are fun to ride, but the bus network is not easy to navigate without certain local knowledge (each stop provides an outline of the route, but you’ll need to carry a map of bus routes and figure connections on your own).
The fare structure is quite complicated, and the access control on all underground stations and central train stations is very strict both for entry and exit. On the positive side, if you use a reloadable Oyster Card, the system will automatically cap the daily cost of your travel, so frequent transportation usage will result in lowered costs per trip.
Over the first decade of the third millennium, London’s dining scene has become so diverse that there are literally hundreds of excellent places to eat for every taste in the world. Whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in London. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
Here are a few places worthy of specific recommendations, based on our time living in London: J Sheekey (in St Martin’s Ct in Soho), a historic establishment that is one of the top seafood restaurants in town; Montplaisir (on Monmouth St in Soho), offering an authentic French culinary experience; Mamounia Lounge (on Curzon Street in Mayfair), with a pretty fashionable crowd and an excellent Mediterranean fusion cuisine; La Porte des Indes (on Bryanston St the Marble Arch), advertised as the “Indian cuisine with a difference”, which is entirely delectable; Mango Tree (on Grosvenor Pl on the corner of the Buckingham Palace grounds), a renowned Thai restaurant serving traditional cuisine in a sophisticated setting; Goya (on Lupus St in Pimlico), an excellent tapas place; L’Aventure (on Blenheim Terrace in St Joh’s Wood just a couple of blocks away from the famous Abbey Road Beatles crossing), with another fantastic French menu; Asakusa (half a step from Mornington Crescent underground station in Camden), a hole-in-the-wall wonderful Japanese eatery; Black & Blue (at a corner of the Borough Market), a brilliant steakhouse; Buenos Aires Cafe (on Royal Parade in Blackheath), specializing in Argentian-Italian cuisine.
London is a vast city – there is no single location that can put you within walking distance of the majority of sights. The extensive transport options make staying practically anywhere in the city center workable.
Additionally, there are quite a few great attractions that are located towards the city’s edges. They can all be quite easily reached by city transport, and most would feature on the visitor itineraries.
Greenwich ♥♥ is a World Heritage property in its own right, holding a special magnetic attraction to visitors for the Prime Meridian. Greenwich Park ♥♥ is a vast hilly expanse of grass and trees, bordering the bustling central part of the town. The Royal Observatory ♥ is located at the top of the hill within the park, with galleries dedicated to the history of timekeeping and marine navigation, the apartments of the Royal Astronomers in centuries past, the old telescope up in the dome, and the Planetarium. Guided history presentations are available throughout the day at no cost. The viewpoint by the Observatory offers unparalleled views of London’s Docklands area, including Canary Wharf office towers.
Under the hill, the National Maritime Museum ♥ is a compact set of galleries devoted to naval history and sea exploration. Queen’s House ♥ is practically bereft of furnishings and the Royal Apartments are primarily an art gallery these days, heavily themed around marine and naval life. American visitors may be interested to know that this classical building was a model for the White House.
Further toward the river bank, the Royal Naval College is a group of buildings with several remarkable features, such as the breathtaking Painted Hall ♥♥, with its incredible ceilings, and the beautiful neoclassical Chapel of St Peter and St Paul ♥ (also known as Old Royal Naval College Chapel). There are scheduled guided tours and extensive reading materials for those who prefer to explore on their own.
About two blocks from the busiest entrance to Greenwich Park, a mildly curious Fan Museum has a couple of dozen exhibits related to fans and their making. Greenwich Market ♥♥ is the most fun on the weekends. It is located in the center of the town and is a lively jumble of colors and smells. It consists of three parts – crafts, food, and antiques – crammed together under one roof. The historic ship Cutty Sark, moored by the Thames at the center of the town, has recently reopened following a botched refurbishment and a fire.
Greenwich’s neighbor, Blackheath ♥, is separated from the park by a vast swath of open meadow – the Heath. While it is probably a place too far for an average traveler, Blackheath’s center – a picturesque intersection of several roads – is a quintessential English charming village within easy reach from the center of the huge metropolis. The impressively positioned Church of All Saints offers a visual highlight on the heath. The walk around the village center could take as little as 15 minutes, but the temptation to step inside some of the shops is too high…
The Windsor Castle ♥♥, which remains the official residence of the British monarch, as well as an oft-used location for various State occasions, is grand and magnificent. The State Apartments boast great armor displays and a worthy-of-top-gallery collection of paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Holbein, and others. The grandeur is actually fairly understated – not a bad thing, really, just slightly below awe-inducing for those who’ve seen a lot of opulent palaces.
There is an incredible in its detail Dolls’ House as a separate stopping point of interest (prepare to wait in line for an hour or so), and a marvelous St. George’s Chapel within the castle’s precincts.
If you have enough time, you may want to spend a bit of it strolling through the busy shopping-and-eating area around the castle, as well as walking across the river to the atmospheric Eton village.
It is probably true that once you’ve been to a botanic garden, you’ve been to all of them, yet Kew Gardens ♥♥ (aka Royal Botanic Gardens) is clearly among the stand-outs in this category, deserving of its own place in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Spread-out grounds are impeccably maintained and utterly spectacular, with thousands of species of trees and vegetation, and a plethora of strategically placed memorial benches for unhurried relaxation. Several glasshouse galleries hold enough educational content to satisfy the most curious. A number of thematic gardens are equally enticing, while the Rose Garden is simply magnificent. In addition, there is a variety of other “points of interest” (secluded buildings, groves, ponds, scenic views), plus aquatic displays and many children’s activities. The gardens can easily fill a whole day for those inclined.
With all of the above, you are unlikely to spend time exploring Kew Palace, but it’s an option.
Hampton Court Palace ♥♥ is another fantastic place to include in the itinerary. It consists of several apartments, built in different styles for different kings and queens. While furnishings are sparse, the rooms themselves are quite resplendent. The Great Hall of Henry VIII’s wing is utterly majestic with a superbly carved ceiling. The Tudor Kitchens wing is a fascinating insight into the cooking and eating customs of the English court, accompanied by requisite smells and sounds.
Costumed guides provide free tours and commentary throughout the palace. Musical performances on medieval instruments occur at various places. Several times a day, in the main kitchen hall, costumed musicians play music with the help of kitchen utensils.
The palace grounds are very nice, with several sculpted gardens, as well as a less formal park. The famous Maze is a curious diversion, although hardly a must.
In the amusement parks category, Legoland, located near Windsor, will likely most impress the younger kids and is mentioned here only as a possible diversion for longer itineraries in London.
A few other destinations are not too likely to feature on a tourist itinerary but are included here because we are aware of them. They all offer certain diversions to people who have time to get away from beaten paths.
Eltham Palace ♥, in southeast London, is an early 14th-century royal residence that stood abandoned for nearly 300 years until a wealthy aristocratic family bought it in 1933 and converted it into a richly decorated Art Deco mansion. There is an impressive Great Hall, built in 1470, several fine mid-20th-century rooms, and 19 acres of gardens.
Chislehurst Caves are a moderately interesting attraction with origins going back millennia. The 20 miles of man-made underground passages acted as mines, bomb shelters, a onetime entertainment venue, and a location for “Doctor Who” filming in their history. Half-hour-long guided tours depart hourly and, while somewhat hurried and sketchy, they still provide fascinating glimpses into history.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery is a small art museum housing a nice permanent painting collection and offering regular rotating special exhibitions.
Despite its location in the southwestern “corner” of the country, London is well connected by roads and by the train network with the rest of the country. Practically any destination in England can be explored on a day trip from the capital city (although many can easily sustain multi-day visits). See this article for options.