There have been many famous quotes or literary references made about London. The 15th century poet William Dunbar called London ”the flower of all cities” while the 19th century novelist Walter Besant is said to have declared on his deathbed ”I’ve been walking about London for the last thirty years, and I find something fresh in it every day.” If this latter was so in Besant’s time then its truth has increased a thousand-fold since then. England’s capital is packed to the brim with world-famous historical landmarks, royal palaces, giant-sizes museums and art galleries with global reputations to match, cathedrals and churches whose stories disappear way back into the mists of time, famous and heroic sons and daughters, acres of beautiful parkland and enough tales to fill a vast library with books.
Trying to see London in one day is like trying to fly to the moon during a morning coffee break. However, many of the city’s most iconic must-see sights are clustered within close proximity to each other. Several can be covered on foot and where the distances stretch a little further London has an amazing underground system which typically takes you to within a stone’s throw of where you need to be. Augmenting this extensive public transport system is the huge bus network or there are taxis by their thousands.
The itinerary set out below for a day in London is intended to be entirely walk-able but it is fairly packed. Alongside the main stars are included several asides or suggested detours which range from the heights of hidden and enchanting to the bizarre. It is unlikely you will be able to fit in every suggestion and every detour but with careful planning of your time you should be able to fit in a good selection. Of course it is possible that one of the many iconic and vast museums, galleries or attractions draws you in so fully that you find hours have raced by without you noticing. Or you may find yourself wandering down a winding lane and discovering something you want to investigate which doesn’t even feature in this list at all. In which case you can mix and match and adjust the suggestions here to fit your own tastes and timings.
A Morning in London
A London fact often of great surprise to visitors is that 40% of the city is made up of green space for locals and tourists to enjoy: garden squares, huge commons and an incredible 3,000 parks. Of this latter perhaps the most famous is Hyde Park, one of London’s eight Royal Parks. With the whole dotted about with landmarks and points of interest it can be a great starting point and a lovely gentle introduction to the capital.
Established way back in the 16th century by Henry VIII, Hyde Park was then a royal hunting ground which opened its gates 100 years later to the public. Today the park’s 350 acres are a firm favorite with the locals who use it as a place to jog, stroll, cycle and enjoy the sun when it shines. In its centre is the famous Serpentine –a large artificial lake which serves as boating lake, a place to feed the ducks and during the summer a means of cooling down.
As you stroll the tree-lined pathways flanked by flower beds and sweeping lawns you may chance upon any number of statues, memorials, fountains or dedicated garden areas such as the heavily-scented Rose Garden which is frequently described as spectacular. Be sure to include a visit to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain and the bandstand –one of the country’s oldest. Of the memorials one of the most poignant is that of Animals in War which has free-standing sculptures of laden mules, a horse and a dog approaching and passing through a bas relief wall depicting all kinds of other animals including goats, elephants and even glow-worms. Erected using publicly donated money, this large thought-provoking war memorial is dedicated to every animal which went to war –and frequently gave their life -with the British military and Allied forces in the conflicts of the 20th century.
Another iconic landmark of Hyde Park is Speaker’s Corner which has been an official ‘right to speak’ site since the end of the 19th century. As a political and religious soapbox spot from which anyone can address whomever shows the inclination to listen, Speakers’ Corner’s has seen oral deliveries from the likes of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Although stories differ on quite how it all began it is thought it may all stem from the custom of allowing condemned men and women to make a final speech before being hanged. For centuries the public execution Tyburn Gallows were once located very near to the present Speakers’ Corner spot which suggests there may be something in this theory.
Around Hyde Park
While you are in the vicinity you might like to take in a few more of London’s famous landmarks which are all situated very close to Hyde Park.
Marble Arch–Located just outside Hyde Park and a few steps from Speakers’ Corner can be found the impressive triumphal portal known as Marble Arch. If you think this large 19th century arch standing all alone on a traffic island looks a little out of place that is because it was originally intended as a gateway into Buckingham Palace and re-sited here in 1847.
Kensington Palace–At Hyde Park’s eastern extremes can be found Kensington Palace which was where Queen Victoria was born and grew up and also home to Princess Diana after her marriage to Prince Charles –heir to the British throne. Until the 1700s it served as residence for several reigning monarchs and is today still home to several members of the royal family including Prince William and Prince Harry along with their wives and children.
Kensington Gardens are open to the public and feature the historical water gardens known as the Italian Gardens along with memorials,fountains and statues while also making up part of the 7 mile Diana,Princess of Wales Memorial Walk. One of the most famous of the statues is the bronze cast of Peter Pan complete with mice, rabbits and fairies and located on the very spot where Peter landed after escaping his nursery in the novel ‘The Little White Bird’. If you want to take a peek inside the royal palace the state rooms are also open to the public.
Westminster Abbey, The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
Once you have finished wandering Hyde Park and exploring its surrounding points of interest you are perfectly located to visit Westminster-a location which has several highly significant London landmarks within sight of each other. Westminster is home to the famous Westminster Abbey, the palace of the British Parliament and the iconic clock known as Big Ben.
Dramatically Gothic from the outside and almost overwhelmingly beautiful from the inside, UNESCO World Heritage listed Westminster Abbey, which receives more than 1.5 million visitors annually, is widely considered to represent one of the capital’s best architectural examples. Although its stunning appearance is reason enough to visit, Westminster Abbey also has huge cultural significance as the official coronation site for every king and queen who has sat on the English and British throne since William the Conqueror in 1066. It has also witnessed a plethora of royal weddings including that of Prince William in 2011 as well as acting as venue for the funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. Within its boundaries are buried many former kings, queens and royal consorts along with thousands of historically famous figures including poets, writers, musicians, aristocrats, heroes of every ilk and other notable persons such as Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking.
You may need to limit your time in this lovely 13th century building –still incidentally a working church -if you want to fit some of the other iconic London attractions into your day. Do at least try though to check out the 13th century Coronation Chair, the lavishly decorated Chapter House with its stained glass and sculptures and 11th century door –Britain’s oldest -and Poet’s Corner. Here you will find the graves of greats such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling.
Located side by side with Westminster Abbey and sitting on the banks of the Thames is the huge Palace of Westminster,home to the UK government and collectively known as the Houses of Parliament as it contains both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable buildings on the planet, the fantastically Gothic palace features a series of spires and towers which include the internationally famous Big Ben. Although technically Big Ben is the name of the tower’s largest bell the whole tower and its enormous clock are widely referred to by this name. For those who prefer accuracy the tower’s true title is the Elizabeth Tower. For the year 2017 until 2021 the iconic chimes of Big Ben will be seldom heard as it undergoes an elaborate restoration program; the exceptions are New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday.
The majority of visitors will simply want to drink in the sight of this building’s incredible exterior or capture the lovely sight of its golden reflection in the Thames during the hours when it is atmospherically floodlit after dark. However, for those who would like a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the workings of the UK government it is possible to take a parliament tour by self-guide audio or with a guide. While exploring the spectacular interior and its various chambers complete with exquisite fittings and rich artworks are reward enough on their own other notable highlights include the chance to enter the very chambers where laws are debated and passed or even to watch the Prime Minister at work from the public galleries
Morning Coffee Break in London
After a start of fresh open-airstrolls and a multitude of famous sights along the way you will almost certainly be ready for a pause and a refueling coffee break. London is bursting at the seams with cafes of every kind ranging from the tiny and tucked-away to those of the huge and grand type. If beautiful surroundings are high on your priority list head to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Not only will this leave you conveniently located for the rest of your morning adventures but will also give you a choice of spaces to enjoy your refreshment break –three interior rooms as well as a lovely garden cafe option. While each of the offerings is wonderfully different all guarantee exceptional elegance and the interior spaces –dating from the Victorian era –also come with a rich historical atmosphere. These rooms were in fact the first museum restaurant in the world. For fans of the Victorian designer William Morris head to the Morris Room with its bottle-glass windows. Those who enjoy grandeur should make their way to the gilded-glitter of the Gamble Room –the most lavish of the cafe choices. Here drinkers and diners sit beneath a stunningly decorated ceiling and embellished arches raised on ornate columns while surrounded by expanses of tiling and grand paneling. A good selection of hot and cold drinks along with snacks, light bites and meals are all available.
For the coffee connoisseur who rates quality above everything else a good choice in the area is the Tomtom Coffee House in the affluent district of Belgravia. The baristas here are of the master variety, the latte art beautiful and the coffee machinery state-of-the-art. All of this along with their own roast beans ensures the establishment retains its reputation of serving coffee as good as it gets in the West End. Offering a selection of hot and cold food including a variety of coffee-break suitable sweet treats and snacks, Tomtom has seating options both indoors and outside and consistently receives good reviews for its atmosphere and friendly staff.
A Choice of Museums
With any hunger and thirst pangs satisfied and your legs having had a break you can start thinking of what comes next in your day out in London. London has literally hundreds of museums and its most famous regularly feature in the top 10 list of London’s most visited cultural attractions. While the sheer size of these museums,the fact that many are housed within stunning historic buildings and their world-class reputations are partly responsible for such popularity there is also another wonderful element. The majority of London museums –including all its most iconic -are completely free to enter. This means you can try out several and if something doesn’t really appeal simply move onto the next. Three of the capital’s most famous museums –the Victoria & Albert, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum -are all clustered together in one spot. This makes them a great place to head if you would like to have a quick tour of each for a mix and match experience. Alternatively you can pick one and explore it a little more thoroughly.
The Victoria & Albert Museum
Typically referred to as the V&A, this free-to-enter museum receives around 3.5 million visitors per year; nowhere else in the world has a decorative arts collection as large as that found here. Dating from the mid 1800s, the V&A is vast, made up of 145 galleries which house more than 2 million objects sourced from every corner of the planet. While wandering its 12.5 acres and gazing upon collections which include textiles, furniture, jewelry, weapons, costumes, painting and sculpture you will take a journey through history which spans 5,000 years. While the treasures contained here would take an entire book to list some of its principal highlights include an exquisite 18th century Swedish bridal crown, the 1793 mechanical toy known as Tipoo’s Tiger which was made for an Indian sultan and the highly detailed Unicorn Tapestry which is more than 500 years old.
Although much of this museum’s collections are of the ancient kind there are some surprising modern additions too such as the Rapid Response Collecting exhibition which was introduced in 2014. With a diverse and eclectic range which includes toys, mobile phone apps and the humble umbrella, the collection’s purpose is to bring together objects which showcase the design and manufacturing world’s ‘major moments in recent history’ and which have either made headline news or played a significant part in advancing design ideas.
Along with its permanent exhibitions the V&A regularly hosts some fascinating temporary exhibitions which may incur entrance fees.
The Science Museum
Another of the city’s free-to-enter world-class museums, the Science Museum which dates from early Victorian times is home to around 300,000 items all pertaining to science in some way. Many of these have enormous global significance. These unique exhibits include such things as the very first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, the oldest surviving steam locomotive known as Puffing Billy dating from 1813, the first ever jet engine and Stephenson’s Rocket which became the basis from which steam engines took their principle design for the next 150 years. As might be expected from a museum which showcases major scientific discoveries and advancements the collections are constantly being added to; some more recent introductions include a 3D cinema and a digital technology wing.
One of the museum’s most beloved features is its large numbers of interactive exhibits which are purposely designed to appeal to both children and adults. An example of this -and one of the most popular areas of the museum (which also incidentally attracts an admission charge)-is ‘Wonderlab’ which opened in 2016 after a £6 million make-over. If any of the interactive features take too much puzzling ‘Explainers’ are on hand to help out while also conducting live experiments or staging shows.
The Natural History Museum
Recognized as one of the world’s most important centre’s of natural history and research and attracting more than 5 million visitors every year, the Natural History Museum regularly features in London’s top 5 ‘most visited lists. This free institute is perhaps best known for its behemoth-sized Diplodocus dinosaur cast –affectionately known as Dippy –which was originally unveiled in 1905 and was one of the first things visitors would encounter after passing through the museum’s main entrance. Today it is a 25 meter blue whale skeleton which hangs in the spot which Dippy occupied for almost 40 years until 2017; Dippy himself has gone on tour.
Often referred to as a ‘Cathedral of Nature’ due to its cavernous chambers and grand-scale architecture, the museum’s Victorian era building is widely accepted to be a work of art in its own right. The striking Romanesque design features some incredible detailing such as the main gallery ceilings which are covered with decorative tiles depicting various plants.
Otherwise, the Natural History Museum is home to an 80 million item collection divided into botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology and zoology. The entire space is vast and to help visitors navigate its expanse the whole is color-coded and split into zones. The Blue Zone is where all the animals can be found and is home to the museum’s most impressively large exhibits including its dinosaurs. The Green Zone is where you will find everything evolution-focused and the fossils while the Red Zone is where Earth’s forces are explored with highlights including an earthquake simulator and moon rocks. The final zone –the Orange Zone -incorporates the Darwin Centre where you can watch scientists at work in their laboratories, view historical specimens from Darwin’s own collection and wander the tranquil Wildlife Garden. It can be easy to miss all kinds of treasure here so if you are a little limited on time consider taking one of the pre-set trails. These themed walking journeys allow you to take in some of the museum’s major highlights.
Although the three museums detailed above all sit cheek by jowl and so make life easy London has a seemingly endless list of other options for visitors of every taste ranging from the secret gem-like to further famous examples. Within the mix are several museums of the decidedly quirky or niche kind such as the Magic Circle Museum, the Old Operating Theatre –definitely not for the squeamish –and the Sherlock Holmes Museum.
London’s number one most visited cultural attraction is the British Museum which dates from 1753 and was the world’s first national public museum. It is one of the largest museums to be found anywhere on the planet -home to just short of 100 galleries which together represent 2 miles of exhibition space. Some of its principle treasures include the Rosetta Stone –the ‘key’ which made translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs possible, Samurai armor and the 12th century set known as the Lewis Chessmen carved from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth.
Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard Ceremony
While you are unlikely to have time to fit in a visit inside Buckingham Palace without foregoing your museum time, it would be unthinkable to set foot in England’s capital city without at least gazing on its famous facade. Behind this of course the palace is private residence to Queen Elizabeth II.
Both the Royal Mews and the palace’s state rooms are open to the public with this latter offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the grandeur of the throne room, the enormous and lavish Victorian ballroom and the picture gallery with royal treasures on display throughout. The Royal Mews allows visitors close encounters with the royal family’s historic carriages and livery costumes worn by the royal household. Among the collection can be found the 18th century seven meter Gold State Coach –so fantastical it could have materialized straight from the pages of a fairy tale. Needing eight horses to pull its weight, this gilded carriage has been used for the coronation of every king and queen since 1821.
For many the highlight of any London visit is watching the quintessentially British pageantry and pomp of the Changing of the Guard at the palace which takes place daily at 11 am during the summer months and on alternate days the rest of the year. During the ceremony regimental guards in full regalia of scarlet tunic and high-rise hats known as bearskins march from Wellington Barracks to Buckingham Palace accompanied by a regimental band.
Lunch in London
You will have had a fairly packed morning if you have followed the itinerary above and will no doubt be very ready to rest your feet and senses for a while as you enjoy your London lunch. Venues of every kind from simple cafes to Michelin starred restaurants can be found here and in quantities so vast you probably couldn’t cover them all in a lifetime. To narrow things down a bit and to conserveyour time and energy the suggestions here have been purposely chosen because they lie in close vicinity to either where your morning ended –Buckingham Palace –or where your afternoon will begin in Trafalgar Square.
Just a stroll across Green Park from Buckingham Palace can be found the Palm Court Lounge at the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel. This incredibly elegant Art Deco venue is best known for its award-winning afternoon teas. However it also offers sandwiches, salads and an all-day menu and if you enjoy beautiful stylish surroundings you would be hard pressed to beat this. To make things especially easy this establishment has a paired menu feature which suggests which particular beer or wine to match with their bites or meals to best satisfy a refined palate.
If you head the other direction from Buckingham Palace, across St James Park towards the riverbank, you will arrive at One Twenty One Two. Part of the prestigious Royal Horseguards Hotel, the restaurant has its own claim to the title award-winning with inside space made up of plush red velvets and impeccable white linen. There is also a charming outdoor terrace to enjoy when the sun shines. The name gives a nod to a once-upon-a-time neighbor of the hotel, Scotland Yard; this was their telephone number. The contemporary continental menu uses British-sourced ingredients and typically has a two-course deal for lunchtimes.
For those who would prefer to lunch like the locals in traditional pub-like surroundings Trafalgar Square has plenty of options. One of the most highly rated of these is the Admiralty which has an elegant whitewash facade with contrasting canopies and a few street-side tables for those who prefer to lunch outside. Although the Admiralty has a good menu choice with some British classics included, a daily changing specials board and a reputation for restaurant quality food, its signature dish is its hand-made pies. If you can’t make up your mind which of the mouth-watering shortcrust pastry stuffed options to go for you can try a tasting board. This offers three different mini pies with three different ales.
An Afternoon in London
Hopefully your lunch will have sufficiently recharged your batteries for your afternoon hours of exploration which will include a collection of some of the city’s most iconic attractions –Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and the Tate Modern. If you have the energy and the inclination there are also several optional interesting asides thrown into the mix which include a secret garden inside a bombed-out church and a Victorian arcade so enchantingly magical it has been used as a filming location in the Harry Potter movies.
London is packed with famous palaces, museums, parks, galleries and other fascinating or culturally and historically significant places to explore. However, there are also some must-visits on any London itinerary which are not so much about what you can see there but rather about simply standing in some iconic spot. Trafalgar Square is one such of this type and although this famous plaza has several fountains, sculptures and interesting architecture to explore it is really just about being here. Pause a while at one of its benches and soak up the atmosphere –which in this central spot is about as London as it gets. Trafalgar Square is bordered on one side by the National Gallery while soaring above it all is its principal monument –the 169 ft 3 in (51.6 m) Nelson’s Column. This graceful column is topped by a 5 m (16ft) statue of Admiral Nelson himself in honor of the naval Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 which was to bring him both victory and death. The bronze statues which guard the base of this column –known as the Trafalgar Square lions –are one of the most photographed sights in all of London. The square also has two fountains, added in 1845 and beautifully illuminated at night, with dolphin, mermaid and triton center-pieces which were part of a 1930s redesign.
Traditionally visitors to Trafalgar Square would feed the wild pigeons and there were plentiful vendors ready to supply the food. However, the populations became such a pest that in 2003 feeding was banned and the mayor of the time set about eliminating them from the square completely using a hawk to help in the process. While you are in Trafalgar Square be sure to check out what is popularly known as London’s tiniest police station dating from the 1930s. No longer in use except for storing cleaning equipment, the ‘station’ is nothing more than a telephone box-sized compartment in which just one man could fit and which most tourists simply pass without giving a second glance.
Your next main port of call is going to be the Tower of London but there are a couple of detours you might like to make to take in the city’s famous cathedral and a secret garden gem tucked away in the ruins of a bombed out church.
St Paul’s Cathedral
Venue for royal weddings and state funerals, 17th century St Paul’s Cathedral with its famous dome forms an instantly recognizable part of the London skyline. Like so many of London’s most famous buildings, St Paul’s is incredibly beautiful, made up of elegant pale stone and ornate architectural features –this time English Baroque. More than 1.6 million visitors every year come to wander the majestic interior of this grand church or climb the 259 steps to the dome and experience the acoustic phenomena of the Whispering Gallery.
Christopher Wren’s designed cathedral was part of the massive rebuild which took place following the Great Fire of London in 1666 and among its many other claims to fame is that the tomb of Admiral Lord Nelson is located here. Notable funerals include the Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill and also that of Admiral Lord Nelson while famous weddings include that of the current heir to the throne, Prince Charles, to Lady Diana Spencer.
While Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral unquestionably take the prize for the capital’s most famous religious buildings the city is packed with other churches. But there are also some distinctly different ones such as St Dunstan-in-the-East which is no longer a living church but nevertheless something of a survivor. It was rebuilt following damage in the Great Fire of London and treated to a new Christopher Wren-designed steeple but was all but destroyed by a direct hit bomb which fell during the relentless ‘Blitz’ of the Second World War, hundreds of years later. All that remained were two opposing walls and the steeple. In the 1960s it was decided to convert the ruins into a tucked-away public garden which few realize is even there. Today tree branches grow through the bombed-out window arches, ivy covers its ancient walls and climbing flowers weave their way through the ruins. The overall effect is magical and poignant.
There are few physical reminders today in this thriving capital of the damage London suffered during a time which killed thousands of citizens and destroyed more than a million homes. St Dunstan-in-the-East is one of the last.
The Tower of London
While your journey of adventure and discovery through London so far has shown you gardens both secret and grand, palaces and otherwise places of stunning beauty or grand majesty The Tower of London really is something incredibly different. For starters it could have emerged straight from the pages of a fairy tale -a castle shrouded in dark tales and guarded by ravens in which queens and princes have been imprisoned and which also happens to be home to priceless jewels. Visiting London without experiencing this legendary fortress, quite simply put, is unthinkable and it would seem the 2.7 million people who visit here every year agree.
Like so many of London’s principle sights, the Tower of London’s story is one of ancient history which began with William the Conqueror,almost 1,000 years ago,who built the castle to show the country he had invaded he was here to stay.
While the Tower has served a variety of purposes one of its best known roles and that which seems to most gruesomely fascinate visitors is that of prison and place of execution. Confinement here however was not for the masses but typically reserved for the best in the land –high-born lords and ladies and royalty. Confinement to the Tower for some meant relative luxury while for others languishing in filthy dungeons was their fate. The most famous of the Tower’s prisoners were four English queens –Elizabeth I before she was queen, two wives of Henry VIII both charged with treason which history suggests was almost certainly unfounded and the 16 year old Lady Jane Grey who was queen for only 9 days. While Elizabeth was released and eventually crowned, the other three queens were executed on Tower Green inside the Tower of London. Today a memorial sculpture exists on the very spot where Anne Boleyn and several others were executed by beheading The Tower also had a reputation as place of torture –particularly during the 1500s and 1600s-which today forms the basis of so many of the castle’s tales and legends. Guy Fawkes –the Catholic conspirator who planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James I –is one of the most famous of those known to have been tortured here to extract a confession.
For many the highlight of a Tower visit is the Crown Jewels, stored in the Tower since the 17th century. This collection of 23,578 glittering gems, famous the world over, are kept under constant armed guard. Keep your eyes peeled for the ‘In Use’ signage which identifies those still used today by the Queen for state ceremonies. While you are free to wander the Tower as you wish a tour with one of the Royal bodyguard -known as Beefeaters –is included in the admission price and incredibly popular. These entertaining tours bring the Tower’s tales of intrigue, torture, execution and history to life and are a mine of information for any questions you may have.
Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the six famous ravens during your visit. Legend tells that if ever the ravens leave the Tower the crown will fall. Each of the seven ravens (a spare is always kept) have names and wander the grounds freely during the day under the care of a Raven master. The Tower ravens can fly and in the past some have decided Tower life is not for them. One raven was even dismissed from his post for his tendency to eat TV aerials.
A Few Interesting Detours
The area around the Tower of London has several interesting things to see ranging from a tiny secret sculpture to a soaring monument which you might like to check out while you are in the vicinity. It is unlikely you will be able to tick them all off your list or even any at all if you are pressed for time but the choice is yours.
Philpot Lane Mice Sculpture
Philpot Lane is a seven minute walk from the Tower of London and here can be found what qualifies as the capital’s tiniest public sculpture. Located above head height on a building can be seen two little mice nibbling away at a shared piece of cheese. The building is an office block with a Cafe Nero at ground level and now the mice –once purple -are painted the same white as the building façade they are very tricky to spot. The building itself dates from the mid 19th century but there is no record of when the mice first appeared or any hint of who their creator might have been. Different versions abound –sometimes tragic –of the story behind the minuscule mice but as no-one truly knows for sure the sculpture’s beginnings it remains as just one more unsolved London mystery.
The Great Fire of London Monument
While the mysterious mice are unseen by most the Great Fire of London Monument –just two minutes away on foot from the tiny sculpture -is impossible to miss. This ornate Doric column topped by a golden fire urn soars up into the London sky to a height of 202 ft (62m) and is close to the exact Pudding Lane spot where the 17th century blaze began in a bakery. The fire which raged for 4 days destroyed thousands of houses, 87 churches and St Paul’s Cathedral before it was stopped near Smithfields, also marked by a monument known as the Golden Boy of Pyre.
The monument dates from just a few years after the 1666 fire itself and was designed by Christopher Wren –the architect responsible for the new St Paul’s Cathedral which rose from the ashes of that destroyed by the flames. The monument can be climbed to access a viewing platform surrounded by a mesh cage which was added in the mid-1800s after a spate of suicides.
St Olave Hart Street
A ten minute walk from the Tower of London will bring you to St Olave which, appearing as a relatively ordinary church from the outside, few would think to explore further. However this small church –one of the capital’s smallest -is packed with the historically significant and is certainly worth taking a small detour for. Its history is thought to stretch back to the 11th century and although badly damaged it was one of the few medieval churches to survive the flames of the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The church and tiny graveyard contain the earthly remains of many wealthy merchants from the 1400s and 1500s but there are several other notable persons buried here too. These include spies of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Ramsay who is believed to have been the woman who brought the Bubonic Plague to the city. One of the church’s most famous worshippers was Samuel Pepys –the famous 17th century diarist –and the church contains a memorial to his wife which he had placed to be visible from his pew. Charles Dickens is another famous connection;he would come often to visit the gateway from Seething Lane –a portal adorned with a macabre collection of skulls which Dickens referred to as St Ghastly Grim.
Be sure to take a peek into the subterranean vaulted crypt while you are here too to see the well.
So magical in appearance is this Victorian covered shopping arcade it doubled as the setting in the Harry Potter movies for Diagon Alley where students would head to buy wands and other wizardly supplies.Located on a spot which has been marketplace since the 14th century, the current highly ornate arcade was built in the late 1800s and became an instant hit with Victorian shoppers. The whole is a wonderful mixture of cobbled street, sculptured architecture, elaborate detailing and old world shop fronts bathed in its entirety in a golden light which filters down from the arched ceiling glass panels way overhead.
Crossing the River -Tower Bridge or London Bridge
You will now need to make your way across the famous Thames to reach your next port of call and while doing so can tick yet another iconic London sight off your must-see list. London has a grand total of 33 bridges spanning its north-south banks but none are more famous than London Bridge and Tower Bridge which sit side by side and close to the Tower of London. You can take your pick of which to choose.
Without doubt 19th century Tower Bridge with its ornate twin towers connected by a 143 ft (44m) high walkway is the prettiest of the two and many would argue is the most beautiful in all of London. The bridge deck with its two massive cantilevered halves which are raised on average around twice daily to allow bigger ships to pass underneath is free to cross. If you want to cross the higher walkway or explore the behind-the-scenes engine rooms there is an admission charge. Seeing the bridge raised is really quite spectacular so if you’d like to time your visit with this event check out the official website which details the times and days of such several months in advance.
Steel box-girder London Bridge on the other hand, although famous, is far from what most people would consider picturesque. The first bridges on this site were Roman timber structures, later replaced by a stone bridge which survived for 600 years. The current bridge was opened in 1973.
Whether you choose to cross the Thames via London Bridge or Tower Bridge you cannot fail to spot the Shard on the southern bank –the UK’s highest building and on the list of top 100 tallest buildings in the world. Finished in 2012, visitors can today get an amazing view from the 801 ft (244 m) open-air observation deck –double the height of any other view point in the city -which allows you to take in all of London at a glance
The Tate Modern
16 minutes on foot from the Shard will see you arriving at The Tate Modern art gallery: the only London cultural attraction more visited than this in 2017 was the British Museum. An incredible 4.7 million visitors flock here annually but thanks to some clever designing and spacious galleries it seldom actually feels crowded.
The Tate Modern, opened in 2000 inside an old power station, is one of the world’s largest modern art museums and like all of London’s other major museums and galleries is completely free to enter. Although the gallery’s emphasis is principally British art dating from 1900 many international artists are also featured including Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Organized by art theme, Tate Modern is filled with modern masterpieces but there is also plenty of the highly bizarre variety which, while providing entertainment for the average visitor, may only be truly fathomable to the absolute art connoisseur.
If you need a short break from gazing upon the beautiful and the curiously outlandish head to the 360 degree viewing terrace located on the 10th floor for some spectacular city panoramas and to see if you can locate some of the famous landmarks which have been part of your London adventure so far.
An Alternative Afternoon of Shopping
London is so famous for its incredible diversity of shopping possibilities that many travel here for that reason alone. England’s capital city offers everything from sprawling markets to highly exclusive institutions frequented by the fabulously rich and famous.
If you decide to fill your afternoon with shopping you will be conveniently placed after your lunch venue to hit the West End within minutes of walking. This major shopping area includes Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street and Covent Garden.
Head to Oxford Street to find the famous Selfridges or explore the elegance and quality of Regent Street which is home to some of London’s oldest and most quintessentially British shops. Exclusive Bond Street and Mayfairare typically the haunts of those with the biggest bank balances and are full of high-end designer and luxury goods with famous names such as Burberry and Tiffany & Co.found here.
If you are looking for something a little more unusual to take home as gifts or souvenirs and are more a fan of small-size independent retailers or on the hunt for quirky goods head to Covent Garden, Carnaby Street or Spitalfields. Covent Gardens and Carnaby Street –both within close walking distance of Trafalgar Square –are pedestrianized and great locations for one-of-a-kind gifts, unique hand-crafted jewelry, striking art or for picking up goods from designers likely to go places but yet to hit the big time. Carnaby’s collection of streets -the area from which exploded the fashion and cultural revolution of the 1960s –is crammed not just with independent shops but some wonderful and equally one-of-a-kind cafes, restaurants and bars if you need to take a pause in between your exciting purchases. Spitalfields in the East End is an easy tube ride from Trafalgar Square and along with its creative boutiques home to Old Spitalfields Market which sprawls inside a highly picturesque Victorian arcade and sells just about everything including clothing, antiques and street food.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in London
When you have finished the last of your afternoon’s sightseeing it will be time to start thinking about dinner. If you have managed to fit most of the suggestions here into your London day you will certainly have earned some kind of relaxing pre-dinner drink and downtime too.
When it comes to drinking spots London seems to have something on practically every street corner. Venues include historic pubs, wine bars with vibes ranging from hip to tastefully chic, elegant cocktail lounges, beer gardens, riverside hideaways and grand hotels. For those who enjoy a view along with their sun-downer drinks the city also has an incredible range of rooftop bars. One of these is dress-to-impress Sushisamba–38 floors up the Heron Tower -which isn’t just the highest rooftop drinking venue in London but the whole of Europe too. The journey up by the external glass elevator is an adventure in itself and the cocktails –with both classics and contemporary delights –regarded as high quality.
Other highly rated rooftop bars include the West End’s chic Aqua Spirit cocktail bar and the sophisticated Savage Garden found at the top of Double Tree by Hilton London with views of the Shard and the Tower of London and a retractable roof for when the weather isn’t quite so kind. The former has a terrace as lovely as it gets with sofas, soft lighting and wooden decking .
For pre-dinner drinks with an entirely different view, consider taking a sunset cruise on the Thames. Most cruises of this kind include sparkling wine and canapés and often live music with the night-lit views of some of the city’s headline stars such as Big Ben, the historic 19th century Cutty Sark ship, Shakespeare’s Globe and Westminster the undisputed highlight. When it comes to picking a dining venue you might find yourself overwhelmed by the choice. In the not too distant past true food connoisseurs may have heaped scorn on the capital’s culinary choices but today things couldn’t be more different. London is now widely considered to offer one of the most fantastically diverse restaurant scenes in the world, its entirety filled with award winning venues and with talented chefs offering exciting innovation and ultra-modern creativity as part of the mix.
To make life as easy as it gets you could continue seamlessly from sun-downer drinks to evening meal at any of the rooftop venues detailed above which all have highly-rated restaurants. For something very different consider taking advantage of London’s pop up scene. If you are not familiar with this concept a pop up is basically a temporary restaurant which may exist for just one night or several weeks. In London the scene is not just thriving but threatening to take over from set-location restaurants on an ever-increasing scale. For many discerning London diners this has become the way to go and not only because you may find yourself in any number of unique locations ranging from antique shops to tube carriages and vaulted crypts to barges; dining in a London Eye capsule has even been possible. Incredible quality food is the second element which explains this scene’s phenomenal rise in popularity as talented chefs on their way to the top choose to go down this route. So, you may well find yourself sampling the crafted dishes of some future celebrity while existing stars sometimes go incognito for a bit of diversion and fun.
The Evening Standard which is free from outside tube stations often lists the latest pop up venues while the London Pop Ups website has them all.
Thames dinner cruises are another popular choice which deliver scenic and atmospheric dining and evening entertainment in one easy option.
An Evening in London
You could spend a year in London trying a different venue or experience every night and still barely scratch the surface. London after-dark has something for everyone –headlining West End shows, themed night tours, live music in every genre possible and in venues ranging from tiny to colossal, river cruises, pop up comedy clubs and probably anything else you might be able to imagine.
London justifiably has a reputation as an expensive city but it also has an incredible choice of free things to do. Included on this extensive menu are some truly unexpected delights such as the free ‘rush-hour concerts’ staged by the Royal College of Music which might be a piano recital in a church or a larger gathering of classical musicians in some other historical venue. The South bank Centre also has an astonishingly large choice of free music and entertainment too.
Theatres and Shows
For many no visit to London is complete without taking in one of the West End theatre performances. While theatres can be found in just about every area of London with some incredible pop up options also contributing to the ‘what’s on’ possibilities, the city does have a definite theatre hub colloquially known as Theatreland. Located in the West End, this area contains around 40 venues with Drury Lane, Shaftesbury Avenue and the Strand generally considered its principal theatre streets. While there is no knowing quite what might be found currently being staged the majority of shows are musicals, comedy performances and plays of both the time-honored classic and the brand-new contemporary variety.
Sometimes the bigger and trending performances might be sold out but the wealth of options means booking tickets on the day of a performance –practically right up to the moment when the stage curtains slide back -is often possible.
The London Eye at Night
On your day’s meanderings you will almost certainly have spotted the distinctive giant wheel of the London Eye, even if only at a distance across the river. For more than 10 years the London Eye has proved to be the city’s most popular paid-for tourist attraction with around 10,000 people per day choosing to step into one of the glass view capsules for a ride which takes them 443 ft (135 m) above the streets of London. Each of the 32 giant capsules –one for every London borough –can hold up to 25 people at once and a journey around the wheel takes about 30 minutes. Interestingly, there is no Number 13 capsule.
A ride on the London Eye during the day is such a difference experience to that of night time that many visitors choose to do both and there are even tickets which offer twice-in-one-day options. Deciding to ride the London Eye at night can also in itself be a varied experience depending on the time of year you visit. In the summer the sun sinks late in the evening which means a night ride could allow you to still clearly take in a host of London landmarks –there are more than 50 if you can count them all; each capsule has diagrams to help you too. Time it right and you might also get to see the sunset from on high while also watching the magical sight of London lighting up. If night has fully descended then spotting all of the landmarks will be less easy but at these times another kind of wonderful is your reward. A million lights will glitter as far as the eye can see with the river’s lights, multi-colored reflections and floodlit bridges snaking off into the distance. Some of London’s most iconic landmarks are fantastically lit at night too –such as St Paul’s, Westminster, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge.
Although a standard ride is spectacular enough for most there are also special packages available such as a champagne experience, a chocolate tasting or the opportunity to hire a private capsule for a truly intimate experience with someone special. All tickets include entry into the London Eye 4D Cinema Experience. This short revolutionary film experience which contains 3D aerial photography is quite moving as well as highly entertaining.
The towering Shard also offers night view experiences and is actually more than 100 meters taller than the London Eye.
Jack the Ripper Night Walks
While undoubtedly gruesome in the extreme, the tales of the unsolved Jack the Ripper murders which took place over a period of just a few months in Victorian London have captured public interest for more than 100 years. Understandably Jack the Ripper walking tours –especially after dark to infuse the experience with the appropriate atmosphere –are not hard to find. During these tours, which typically take about 2 hours, you will be regaled by tales about what is known for sure, the most likely identity of the killer (a debate which rages to this day) and of course visit the White chapel sites where the murders were committed and the bodies of his victims found.
Night Bus Tours and River Cruises
Few would argue that London after-dark is something of a spectacular sight. Many even insist it is the only way to really see this famous capital. Some of the city’s best-loved landmarks are simply transformed into dazzling versions of their day time self with highly powerful floodlights. Others are lit with such artistic craft that they become even more beautiful than they appear in the daylight. Tower Bridge is one perfect example of this. Elsewhere the waters of the Thames catch every sparkle of light and reflect it back in almost every color possible. You can of course wander these sights on foot but as you have probably done a fair amount of foot-pounding already in your London day you can also see all of this in a more relaxed way with either a night bus tour or evening cruise.
Several of the night cruises offered, as already discussed, come as a package with dinner and drinks while live entertainment, music and even dancing are typically part of the deal. While bus tours tend to include commentaries to explain what you are looking at cruises don’t. Their focus is more about enjoying a drink, meal or music as the brilliantly lit sights drift by. Additionally of course buses have more freedom of route than a cruise boat so you are likely to take in many more sights with this choice.