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London is known as one of the world’s greatest cities, unlike any other on earth, with a long list of famous sights as well as beautiful green spaces, fantastic shopping, an exciting nightlife, and a long, dramatic history. The city is even home to some of the best museums and art galleries on the planet, many of which are free. If you’ll be crossing London off your bucket list soon, here is a look at its must-see attractions.
The EDF Energy London Eye is Europe’s tallest Ferris wheel, set on the South Bank of the River Thames, and a major feature of the city’s skyline. The 443-foot tall structure was built as part of London’s millennium celebrations and boasts some of the city’s very best views from its 32 capsules, which hold up to 25 people. It’s a great way to begin your holiday, providing an unforgettable perspective of the city’s most famous landmarks in just a 30-minute ride. A nighttime ride means fewer crowds and even more spectacular views.
Tower of London
The Tower of London has served as a castle in wartime as well as a monarch’s residence during times of peace, though most notoriously, it’s been a prison and executive site for rebels with a noted haunted history. A perfect activity for a rainy day, you can take an eerie ghost tour or a more humorous Beefeater tour, view the crown jewels and the executioner’s block which beheaded a couple of Henry VIII’s wives as well as a number of troublesome heirs to the throne.
Big Ben is much more than just a clock. The Houses of Parliament’s clock tower is one of London’s most iconic landmarks. Big Ben is technically the name of the massively-sized bell inside the tower which weighs over 13 tons. The clock tower is officially known as the Elizabeth Tower after it was renamed in 2012 in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. The minute hands are nearly 14 feet in length and weigh roughly 220 pounds. Its timekeeping is strictly regulated by a stack of coins that are placed on the huge pendulum, and it has rarely stopped – even after a bomb destroyed the Commons chamber in World War II, the clock tower survived while Big Ben continued to strike the hours. It looks especially brilliant at night when the clock faces are illuminated.
Within walking distance of the London Eye, Westminster Abbey is known as the greatest church in the English-speaking world. It was the setting for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding and the place where England’s kings and queens have been crowned and buried since 1066. The magnificent building is truly a must-see living pageant of the country’s history with 3,000 tombs, the remains of 29 kings and queens, and hundreds of memorials lying within its walls and under its stone slabs. To avoid the crowds, be sure you arrive early. If you’re first in line you can enjoy parts of the abbey in relative peace before a mad rush descends, a rather surreal and unforgettable experience. Services are also open to the public and can be attended by those of any religious denomination.
The London residence of Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace, is open during the summer months while Her Majesty is away on vacation, with the exception of the Queen’s private quarters, of course. Highlights include the State Rooms where the Queen and members of the Royal Family host guests for official affairs – visitors can see some of the most magnificent pieces from the Royal Collection, including opulent chandeliers, paintings by Van Dyck and Canaletto as well as beautiful French and English furniture. If you watched the Royal Wedding, you may recognize the Throne Room, which served as the backdrop in the official photographs of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
The British Museum
The British Museum is not only one of London’s top free attractions, but this internationally renowned museum of history and culture is also an architectural standout and treasure trove as some of the most noted antiquities in the world. It features everything from Babylonian stonework, a world-famous Egyptian collection and artifacts from the Roman Empire to the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles and the Lindow “Bog Man.” The massive collection includes works of man from prehistoric to modern times from across the globe.
This impressive library is the United Kingdom’s national library and one of the world’s greatest research institutions, offering the chance to stroll through manuscripts that have enlightened and brightened lives for centuries. It contains 180 miles of bookshelves in the city’s deepest basement, with one spectacular room filled with glass display cases revealing all sorts of treasures like the Magna Carta, pages from Leonardo’s notebooks, original writing by the titans of English literature – from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Dickens and Wordsworth, illuminated manuscripts from the early Middle Ages and the Gutenberg Bible. You’ll find an entire wall dedicated to music, featuring manuscripts from Beethoven to the Beatles. Computers allow visitors to virtually flip through the pages of some of these incredible works.
The National Gallery is the crowning glory of Trafalgar Square, as the home of hundreds of the most famous and most beautiful paintings in the world. This vast space features Western European paintings from the 13th to 19th centuries, including works by masters like Van Gogh, da Vinci, Picasso, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Renoir and Titan. As it’s free to visit, if you’re limited on time and want to see just one great masterpiece, view Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” The painting is laden with symbolism and features the “anamorphic perspective” which was a technique popular in Early Renaissance art. The seemingly smudged image in the foreground is transformed into a human skull when viewed sideways.
Kensington Gardens and Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace was home to the late Princess Diana and was the birthplace of Queen Victoria. Here you can experience life as a 17th and 18th-century royal courtier while you make your way through lavish King’s and Queen’s State Apartments filled with remarkable paintings from the Royal Collection. The exhibition “Victoria Revealed” is set within the rooms Victoria lived as a child, exploring her life and reign as a wife, mother, Queen and Empress. This stunning palace can be found in the lovely Kensington Gardens surrounding the royal residence, another must-see London attraction.
Kensington Palace and Kensington Gardens sit adjacent to Hyde Park, known as one of the greatest city parks in the world. It covers 350 acres and features a large lake, meadow, more than 4,000 trees and ornamental flower gardens as well as a number of interesting buildings and monuments like the famous Achilles statue, the Joy of Life fountain, The Serpentine Bridge and the Diana Memorial Fountain. Here, there is almost always something to see and do, including swimming, boating and cycling – even just doing a little people watching from park benches can be made for a fascinating afternoon.
You don’t need to purchase anything to enjoy London’s most famous department store, it is well worth visiting just for the experience. Upscale Harrods is really more of an attraction than a place to shop, with its magnificent Egyptian elevator and elaborate Old World interiors along with incredible food halls, the perfumery and even a shrine dedicated to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed (the son of the former owner).
Victoria and Albert Museum
This free museum is the largest museum of decorative and applied arts in the world. It was named in honor of the 19th century royal couple, more often referred to as the V&A. The palatial South Kensington museum is a compendium of applied art across a variety of genres, time periods and disciplines. Collections are arranged by categories like jewelry, textiles, furniture and architecture, making it easier to navigate this incredibly massive museum. It holds the national photography archive, important furniture from medieval times to the present, an exceptionally diverse display of historic musical instruments and an unmatched collection of fashionable dress from the 17th century to today. Temporary exhibitions and free guided tours are offered along with the numerous permanent exhibitions.
Natural History Museum
Just across the street from the Victoria and Albert Museum, this enormous museum is housed in a beautiful Victorian, neo-Romanesque building, constructed in the 1870s specifically to house its massive collection of 50 million specimens. There are hundreds of well-explained, exciting interactive exhibits, including the popular collection of dinosaurs with a roaring T. rex as well as an unforgettable model blue whale. The Central Hall is home to its iconic Diplodocus skeleton. Be sure and take the self-guided tour of the state-of-the-art Cocoon where you can see hundreds of fascination specimens and even peek into laboratories to watch scientists work.
Windsor Castle is a popular day trip from London, located just outside of the city, and as the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. It’s been the official residence of the British sovereign for more than 900 years, with the State Apartments a highlight for many London vacationers. Still very much a working royal palace, Windsor is an official residence of Her Majesty The Queen, whose standard flies from the Round Tower when she’s in residence. The Queen spends most of her private weekends here and takes up official residence for a month over Easter (March to April), which is known as Easter Court. She’s also here for a week each June when attending Royal Ascot and the service of the Order of the Garter.
The London Bridge Experience
The London Bridge actually refers to several historical bridges that have spanned the River Thames between the city of London and Southwark, in central London. The London Bridge Experience is a popular tourist attraction located on Tooley Street in vaults below the southern abutment of the historical bridge, just outside London Bridge Station. It features real-life actors along with stunning special effects and animations, taking visitors on a unique interactive adventure back in time.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is an identical reconstruction of the original building that housed Shakespeare’s theater in London, made entirely from English oak with mortise and tenon joints. The site includes an open-air playhouse on the banks of the Thames River as well as an exhibition space dedicated to the play writer and Swan at the Globe Bar and Brasserie. Performances are engineered to duplicate the original environment during Shakespeare’s time – there are no spotlights, and plays are staged during daylight hours and in the evenings with the help of interior floodlights. There are no speakers, microphones or amplification and all music is performed live.
St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most iconic buildings in the city, and an architectural masterpiece carved into the London skyline. Among its highlights includes the famous Whispering Gallery, known for its mysterious acoustics, as well as a burial crypt housing a host of celebrated British luminaries including Nelson, Wellington and Sir Christopher Wren, the designer of the Cathedral. It’s one of the city’s most popular attractions, so you’ll have to battle a few crowds, but it’s well worth the reward to do so.