Must-see in London

The Treasures you Can’t Leave London Without Seeing

Storied, historic, and world-famous, London has you well covered when it comes to top-notch fun, entertainment, and culture.

Luke Abrahams
15 June 2023

London is iconic for a reason, and it’s mostly thanks to its cobweb of world-famous landmarks. The London Eye, Tower of London, and Buckingham Palace have all found cult status over the years and many of the capital’s historic treasures have appeared in countless films and TV shows. But the real question is, where to begin? To make it easier for you, here are 20 of the must-sees to add to your ever-growing London bucket list.

The Palace of Westminster, Westminster

Nothing comes close to this London icon. Famous the world over, Big Ben (Elizabeth Tower) has starred in everything from novels to Hollywood blockbusters. The center of political life in the UK, the first session of parliament was held in St Stephens Chapel in 1275. Under the scepter of King Henry VIII, it eventually became the permanent seat of the British government, made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. What you see now is mostly the work of architect Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. Inside and out, it’s a wonderful mash-up of styles crowned by Gothic towers, gargoyles, and intricate arches. Tours last 60 to 90 minutes and will whizz you through both houses, Westminster Hall, the monarch’s Robing Room, and the impressive Royal Gallery.

Westminster Abbey, Westminster

This is the place to go to see Gothic grandeur in all its spectacular splendor. Kings and queens are crowned here, and over the years, the Royal Peculiar has become synonymous with a handful of regal weddings. It might sound morbid, but most flock here to gawp at famous graves, busts, and grandiose walled dedications. 30 monarchs are buried inside the Abbey’s walls, including Edward the Confessor and Queen Elizabeth I, alongside famous dukes, countesses, scientists, and poets, from Isaac Newton to Charles Darwin and Thomas Hardy. Upstairs, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries are well worth a visit to check out various totems that detail the Abbey’s 1,000-year-old-history, and you’ll also get a stupendous view of the neighboring Palace of Westminster and the church itself. The Abbey also plays host to classical concerts and recitals, so it’s well worth checking out what’s on before you visit.

St Paul’s Cathedral, the City of London

London’s most famous cathedral is a testament to the word “resilience.” This is the sixth version of the iconic place of worship to stand on this site after the others fell victim to fires and political rebellion. What you see today is celebrity architect of the day, Sir Christopher Wren’s version, which, since 1708, has survived several monarchs and the infamous German Blitz of WWII. Most will know it for its starring role in the wedding of Princess Diana and then-Prince Charles, but beyond its regal and naval history (Lord Nelson is buried in the crypt), lies a fascinating world of architectural brilliance. Tours last about 90 minutes and cover all the classics, from the high altar to the fresco-flecked Whispering Gallery and the marvelous dome from which you can get a fantastic view of London. It’s 528 steps up, and seriously worth the muscle burn. Several church services run throughout the week, as do Choral Evensong sessions, which are free to enjoy.

Buckingham Palace, Green Park

One of the world’s most famous palaces began life as the home of Lord Goring. Sadly for him, the aristocrat was forced to relinquish his home to King George III because of a flaw in his contract…and then Buckingham Palace was born. Standing at the end of The Mall, it remains the residence of the British monarch. Thankfully for us normal folk, the King throws open the gates once a year so that we can all get a peek of the fantastic art and regal opulence hidden behind its walls. The State Rooms are only open from August through September, but you can access the Queen’s Gallery all year long without being stopped by the guards. Though the King and family are very private, you can get a glimpse of them leaving the palace on important state occasions, from the opening of parliament to coronations and more.

Tower of London, the City of London

Book the Tower’s Yeoman Warders Tour

It’s best to book yourself on a tour with one of the Tower’s Yeoman Warders (AKA Beefeaters). They know the place inside out and will be dressed in full costume, so the picture opportunities are quite literally endless.

Welcome to the most famous prison in the world. A UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, “The Tower,” as it’s locally known, is one of London’s most grizzly landmarks. The medieval fortress, perched north of the River Thames next to Tower Bridge, goes back 900 years and was once the unfortunate home for notorious criminals, imprisoned monarchs, and exotic animals – including King John’s lions and a fearsome polar bear that once belonged to King Henry VIII. I strongly advise you to arrive very early to see the Crown Jewels minus the crowds.

The Tate, Southwark

A visit to The Tate is non-negotiable. Aside from its internationally celebrated collection of pioneering art and sculptures, the former factory is an architectural jewel. Designed just after WWII by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the gallery first opened in the year 2000 to usher in the new millennium. Over 800 works of art are on display from artists hailing from more than 50 countries. Big names include Matisse and Picasso, and they are one of the very few art galleries in the world that have displays split 50-50 between both male and female artists. The gallery is known for its big-scale, blow-out temporary exhibitions that have showcased sell-out shows from the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Barbara Hepworth, and Damien Hirst, so our advice is to book well before your trip to ensure you get a slot.

Natural History Museum, South Kensington

The never-ending line to get into the British Natural History Museum proves just how popular it is. 80 million plant, animal, fossil, rock, and mineral specimens, as well as those magnificent dinosaur fossils clock in thousands of visitors every day who pile in to see star attractions. This includes a 25.2-meter-long blue whale skeleton and an actual piece of Mars. The building is equally impressive. Alfred Waterhouse’s purpose-built museum is best described as an ode to nature with walls carved to reflect all sorts of animals, from creepy crawlies to monkeys and exotic beasts. Many of the specimens are housed inside the Darwin Center, where they take up a colossal 17 miles of shelf space. And get this, you can see some of the coolest behind-the-scenes experiences in the Spirit Tour of the museum. Expect vials containing flora and fauna collected by Charles Darwin on his voyages to the Galapagos Islands along with a chance encounter with Archie, an incredibly preserved 8.62-meter giant squid.

The Shard, London Bridge

Love it or hate it, The Shard knows how to make an impression. Having joined London’s ever-changing skyline in 2012, the UK’s tallest building houses everything from a swanky Shangri-La hotel to multi-million-pound apartments and restaurants. The biggest draw, however, for this Renzo Piano-designed colossus is its sky-high observation deck. From floors 69 through to 72, you get some of the most spectacular views of London, and on a clear day, can see out to the surrounding English countryside. Nearby landmarks, like the Tower Bridge and the City of London, form an impressive vista to behold. Plus, if the London smog is kind, you can get a stellar photo of the London Eye and Big Ben in the distance. There’s a fun silent disco on select Saturday nights, as well as gigs and other buzzing events, too.

The London Eye, Waterloo

London’s other observation extravaganza is well worth the hefty price tag for a 30-minute spin. It was built, like the Millennium Dome (or as it’s now known, the O2 Arena), to celebrate the year 2000. Since then, it’s been the focal point for London’s annual New Year’s Eve fireworks show and marking other events from London Pride to St. Patrick’s Day. Apart from the balconies of nearby hotels, the A-list Ferris wheel provides unbeatable views of The Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, and if you know where to squint, Nelson’s Column. It rarely ever stops spinning, except for a brief period in the winter for maintenance repairs, so time your visit right for some of the dreamiest panoramas London has to offer.

Tower Bridge, City of London

Book Way In Advance

It might seem obvious, but book well in advance. London’s attractions get notoriously busy, especially during the summer period and around peak times, such as sunrise and sunset. Those who try to wing it will only be left disappointed.

When it was finished way back in 1894, Tower Bridge was considered an absolute marvel of Victorian engineering thanks to its old steam engines and bling design. Since its opening, planes have flown through it, grand ships have sailed underneath her famous walkways, and, over the years, the bridge has served as a famous backdrop in countless movies and TV shows. For all things Instagram-related, bridge raises happen 850 or so times a year to registered boats, and it’s well worth paying the small entry fee to gander through the bridge’s engine rooms and old walkways for stellar views of the city. There’s also a glass floor on the upper walkway for dizzying sights of the city below, plus the odd zen yoga session to make your visit even more memorable.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square

From the medieval period to the present day, over 2,300 artworks are on display inside London’s premier art gallery. Located in the heart of London in Trafalgar Square, it’s the perfect place to swing by if the weather takes a turn or you find yourself needing an extra dose of culture. Free to enter, the gallery houses several important works of art that span centuries. Must-sees include Van Gogh’s sunflowers, a dizzying collection of works from JMW Turner, Cézanne’s bathers, and the odd Monet. Throughout the year, the gallery plays host to several exhibitions that do carry an extra charge, but most of the collection is ticket free and there are several free talks and tours well worth booking in advance.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Thankfully, your bank account does not have to be in the millions to enjoy a show at London’s old grand opera house. Aside from the Drury Lane Theatre and the market, the Royal Opera House is easily one of Covent Garden’s most recognizable landmarks. There’s been a theater here since 1728, a wondrous time when audiences from all over the country rushed to London to hear new works by the composer, Handel. The beautiful Grade 1-listed façade you see now is version 3.0 and offers you the chance to see both operas and ballet spectacles in one of the West End’s largest and most traditional auditoriums. Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and more are seasonal hits worth booking a ticket for and there are plenty of swanky bars and restaurants in which to wine and dine if you’re in search of an extra special blowout treat.

The British Museum, Bloomsbury

This was the first public museum in the world when it opened its doors in 1759. Today, the British Museum remains as popular as it was in its heyday with over six million visitors flooding through its walls to see magnificent galleries piled high with some of the planet’s finest antiquities and rare treasures. The uber-photogenic domed Great Court is a feast for the eyes and the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian Hall, and Parthenon Galleries will be a feast for your eyes for hours on end. If you’re pressed for time, free 20-minute tours are on offer and will whisk you through all of the major highlights.

Borough Market, London Bridge

If you are a real foodie, this is the market to know. Dating back to the 13th century, this is London’s oldest sprawling paradise of gourmet grub and grade A goodies. I would not visit on a very empty stomach as to put it simply, it is sample heaven. Gorge on everything from cheeses to olives, exotic meats, fresh bread, pastries, and more. Then there are the street food vendors. Elevated to a tee, the globe’s cuisine is at your fingertips. French confit duck, German bratwurst, Spanish chorizo, Ethiopian stews, Italian spit roasts, and exceedingly posh Scotch eggs are constant lunch staples that will guarantee a return visit. Saturday is the best day to see it all in action, but if you prefer fewer crowds, a slimmed-down market springs to life on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Kew Gardens, Kew

Though it’s far out of the city, it’s well worth the long Tube ride to explore the world’s OG ornamental gardens. There are over 300 acres for budding horticulturalists and flower sniffers to explore at Kew Gardens. Indigenous flora and fauna constantly wow, as do super Instagrammable exotic Victorian greenhouses, nature trails, and treetop walkways. The star attraction, Temperate House, is the largest period glasshouse in the world and possibly the most beautiful of them all. Ideal for a cutesy summer picnic or a breath of fresh air from the smog of the city, other major highlights include the Titan Arum inside the Princess of Wales Gallery, the mammoth Chinese pagoda, and for those who adore nothing more than royal history, the very storied Kew Palace.

Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark

We are sorry to disappoint, as this is unfortunately not the original Globe, but a pretty darn good recreation of the one Shakespeare himself would have approved of. The first globe burnt down in 1613 and stood not so far from its Elizabethan ancestor. What you see now is the result of a decades-long campaign spearheaded by the late American actor Sam Wanamaker, who, along with several benefactors, helped bring back to life the original home of Shakespeare’s plays with painstakingly accurate detail. Shows run all the time and can be seen either from a comfy-ish seat in the stalls or in the ever-popular and very cheap “groundling” tickets where punters can watch all the action standing right in front of the stage. Daytime tours of the place are also available.

Harry Potter Studio Tour, Watford

Though it’s not technically in London, the short trek north of the city is worth the effort for potty Potterites. Aside from getting your hands on a Butterbeer, you can see all the film sets, costumes, props, models, and a miniature version of Hogwarts used in JK Rowling’s hit wizarding odyssey. You can also quite literally step inside movie favorites The Great Hall, the Forbidden Forest, Diagon Alley, and Gringotts Bank, as well as take a spin on a broom for a game of Quidditch, The gift shop is a destination in its own right, but be warned, your life savings will take a near-definite hit.

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

The best time, I find, to explore London is the first thing on a Sunday morning. Even though it’s a massive city, you can practically have the whole thing to yourself if you’re an early bird here – it’s pure magic.

Greenwich is a sight to behold. Leafy parks wow, landmark maritime museums constantly inspire, and with all its Neoclassical, Italianate façades, the place is simply stunning through and through. Overlooking it all is the Royal Observatory. Perched at the tippy top of Greenwich Park – right by the famous Cherry Blossom walk – it was built in 1675 under the orders of King Charles II. Inside, it contains the apartments of Sir John Flamsteed and other Astronomers Royal, along with a load of Astro time-keeping instruments and special clocks used since the 14th century. While most head straight for their Prime Meridian Line Instagram shot, the country’s largest refracting telescope is also housed here, in addition to John Harrison’s four timekeepers, which were once used to crack the problem of longitude. It’s also worth heading to the Astronomy Centre to touch a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite and for the chance to see a show in the knockout planetarium.

British Library, King’s Cross

This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest and most important libraries in the world. Open to all, the British Library has amassed an awesome collection of nearly 150 million items (and growing) and artifacts from the world of literature. It’s often frequented by students frantically finishing their research papers (I was one of them), but the public can apply for access to the reading rooms to gander at the collection. The real draw, however, are the permanent exhibits inside the John Ritblat Gallery. Free to enter, the literary totems you might see include Shakespeare’s first folio, the Gutenberg Bible, Handel’s Messiah, drafts of the Magna Carta, hand-written letters from the likes of Queen Elizabeth I, and lyrics from The Beatles. The original manuscripts are often on rotation, but over the years, the works of George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens have seen the light of day.

The Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington

This South Kensington landmark is a melting pot of fashion, textiles, and decorative art, and is, without doubt, one of the city’s greatest assets. Spread over seven floors, there are some 150 galleries to explore, showcasing the worlds of fancy furniture, sculpture, art, metal and glass work, jewelry, and dress spanning 700 years. You won’t see it all in a day, but the fashion galleries are a must, as are the Raphael Cartoons and the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. The open-air courtyard is also dazzling and worthy of a pit stop to devour a slice of cake from the ever-so-tasty food hall.

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About the author

Luke AbrahamsLuke Abrahams is a London-based freelance journalist specializing in news, luxury lifestyle, and travel features. Luke was previously the features social media editor at the London Evening Standard. His work has appeared in more than 25 U.K. and U.S. publications, including British Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, The Times, Town & Country, The Telegraph, Condé Nast Traveller, Time Out, House & Garden, Suitcase, Elite Traveler, Insider, and more. So far, Luke has visited 82 countries. His favorite is Italy, and it always will be.