14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in London
It's little wonder London is one of the world's top tourist destinations, attracting upward of 15 million visitors each and every year. Britain's capital city is a vibrant arts and entertainment center (its theaters are always busy), and 50 years after the Beatles, the country's music scene still rocks.
London also boasts one of the planet's greatest concentrations of cultural attractions. From royal palaces to the people's parliament, from Roman ruins to castles and cathedrals, you could spend endless days exploring London's sites without ever running out of unique things to see and do.
1 The Tower of London
From prison to palace, treasure vault to private zoo, the magnificent Tower of London has fulfilled many different roles down the centuries. One of Britain's most iconic structures, this spectacular World Heritage Site offers many hours of fun and fascination for visitors curious about the country's rich history - after all, so much of it happened here. The massive White Tower, built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, victor of the famous Battle of Hastings, dominates the 18-acre property and is home to the world's oldest visitor attraction, the amazing 17th century Line of Kings with its remarkable displays of royal armaments and armor. Other highlights include the famous Crown Jewels exhibition, the Beefeaters, the Royal Mint, and gruesome exhibits about the executions that took place on the grounds.
2 Trafalgar Square and Nelson's Column
Trafalgar Square is one of London's best-known tourist spots. Built to commemorate Lord Horatio Nelson's victory over the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805, its most notable feature is Nelson's Column. Constructed entirely from granite, this 185 ft high monument overlooks the square's fountains and bronze reliefs, cast from French cannons and depicting England's greatest victories at Cape St Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Circling Trafalgar Square are numerous other interesting attractions, including the imposing Admiralty Arch, St Martin-in-the-Fields (the royal parish church), the superb National Gallery with its valuable painting collection, and the Whitehall area, home to the Houses of Parliament.
3 St Paul's Cathedral
The largest and most famous of London's many churches - and undoubtedly one of the most spectacular cathedral's in the world - St Paul's Cathedral sits atop the site of a Roman temple. The previous church structure was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and Sir Christopher Wren designed the re-build. Today, the twin Baroque towers and magnificent 365 ft dome of St Paul's are a masterpiece of English architecture. If you're up to it, be sure to walk the stairs with their spectacular views of the dome's interior, including the Whispering Gallery.
4 The London Eye
Built to mark London's millennium celebrations in 2000, the London Eye is Europe's largest observation wheel. Its individual glass capsules offer the most spectacular views of the city as you embark on a circular tour rising 443 ft above the Thames. The journey lasts 30-minutes, often quicker than the time spent queuing for your turn. If you can, reserve your time in advance.
Hours: Daily, 10am-8:30pm
Admission: From £29.50 (online discounts available)
Address: Riverside Building, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Rd, London
5 Buckingham Palace
One of Britain's most iconic buildings, Buckingham Palace was built in 1837 and has been the London residence of the Royal Family since Queen Victoria's accession time. If you're wondering whether the Queen's in, take a peek at the flagpole atop the building: if the royal standard is flying day and night, she's at home. On special state occasions she and members of the Royal Family may even put in an appearance on the central balcony.
When she's away at her summer palace in Scotland, visitors can purchase tickets for tours of the State Rooms, the Queen's Gallery and the Royal Mews (from £34.50), while the wonderful Changing of the Guard ceremony can be seen most days at 11.30am (free).
6 Westminster Abbey
Another location with a long association with British royalty, Westminster Abbey stands on a site that's been associated with Christianity since the early 7th century. Officially known as the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster, Westminster Abbey was founded by Edward the Confessor in 1065 as his place of interment. From his burial in 1066 until that of George II almost 700 years later, most sovereigns were not only crowned here but they were buried here too. More recently, it's become famous as the preferred location for Royal Weddings.
7 Covent Garden
The always-bustling area known as Covent Garden centers on the Market, with its excellent specialty shops, fashion boutiques, craft stalls and cafés. Covent Garden also includes Long Acre (the main thoroughfare), the retail areas of Neal's Yard and Seven Dials, and the Central Square with its street performers. Other landmarks are the Royal Opera House and St Paul's Church. Dating from 1633, the church is often referred to as the Actors' Church as it contains the graves of many 18th and 19th century actors. Other nearby cultural venues are the London Coliseum, home to the English National Opera Company, and Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the world's oldest theater.
8 Hampton Court Palace
Another great Thames-side attraction, Hampton Court is one of Europe's most famous palaces. Its Great Hall dates from Henry VIII's time (two of his six wives supposedly haunt the palace), and it's where Elizabeth I learned of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Other interesting features include the Clock Court with its fascinating astronomical clock dating from 1540, the State Apartments with their Haunted Gallery, the Chapel, the King's Apartments and the Tudor tennis court. The gardens are also worth visiting - especially in mid-May when in full bloom - and include the Privy Garden, the Pond Garden, the Elizabethan Knot Garden, the Broad Walk, an area known as the Wilderness and, of course, the palace's famous Maze.
9 Greenwich - Home of Britain's Seafaring History
Greenwich is a highlight of any visit to London. For centuries the hub of Britain's naval power, the area boasts numerous attractions and can take hours, if not days, to explore properly. First stop should be the Cutty Sark, the last of the 19th century tea clippers that once sailed between Britain and China, the fastest ship of its day. The ship is located adjacent to the Old Royal Naval College, the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre with its exhibits showcasing over 500 years of maritime history, and the Palladian mansion known as Queen's House.
There's also the impressive collection of the National Maritime Museum, the largest of its kind in the world and illustrating the history of the Royal Navy from Tudor and Stuart times to the Napoleonic Wars. Afterwards, take a stroll around the 183-acre Greenwich Park, the oldest of London's eight Royal Parks with its many beautiful gardens and walking paths.
10 Hyde Park
Covering 350 acres, Hyde Park is London's largest open space and has been a destination for sightseers since 1635. One of the park's highlights is the Serpentine, an 18th century man-made lake popular for boating and swimming. Hyde Park is also where you'll find Speakers' Corner, a traditional forum for free speech (and heckling). Another Hyde Park landmark is Apsley House, former home of the first Duke of Wellington and purchased after his famous victory at Waterloo. Now a museum, it houses Wellington's magnificent collections of paintings, including Velázquez's Waterseller of Seville, along with gifts presented by grateful European kings and emperors. England's greatest hero is also commemorated at the Wellington Arch.
11 The Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum (aka the V&A) is part of a South Kensington-based group of museums that includes the Natural History Museum and Science Museum. Founded in 1852, the V&A covers close to 13 acres and contains 145 galleries spanning some 5,000 years of art and related artifacts. Exhibits include ceramics and glass, textiles and costumes, silver and jewelry, ironwork, sculpture, prints and photos.
12 Whitehall and Parliament
Stretching from Trafalgar Square towards the seat of power in Parliament Square, Whitehall - named after the road - has for centuries referred to an area synonymous with the British Government. As you walk up Whitehall, you'll pass important buildings such as the Admiralty, the famous Horse Guards with its horse-mounted soldiers, and past the little cul-de-sac with the famous name of Downing Street. There, No 10 is the official residence of the Prime Minister.
Finally, you'll reach the Houses of Parliament, seat of Britain's government for many centuries and once the site of a royal palace (Westminster Palace) occupied by William the Conqueror. Tours of the parliament buildings are available, and offer a unique chance to see debates and other lively political discussions taking place. Also of interest are the Cabinet War Rooms used by Winston Churchill in WWII.
13 The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
Kew Gardens - officially called the Royal Botanic Gardens - is situated in southwest London on the south bank of the Thames and is a wonderful place to spend time as you enjoy the numerous plants grown amidst its 300-acres. Laid out in 1759, the gardens became government property in 1841. In 1897 Queen Victoria added Queen's Cottage and the adjoining woodland. A variety of tours are available free with admission, and many musical and cultural events are held here throughout the year.
14 The Two Tates: Tate Britain and Tate Modern
Once collectively known as the Tate Gallery, London's two Tate galleries - Tate Britain and Tate Modern - comprise one of the world's 's most important art collections. Opened in 1897 as the basis of a national collection of significant British art, the gallery continued to make acquisitions and needed more space to properly display its collections. The end result was the establishment of Tate Britain in Millbank on the north side of the Thames as home to its permanent collection of historic British paintings. A superbly transformed power station across the Thames became home to the modern art collections. Art lovers can spend whole day viewing both sites, conveniently connected by high-speed ferry.