Things to Do in London
Standing proud on Greenwich dock, the Cutty Sark is one of London’s principal maritime attractions, the world’s only surviving tea clipper and an iconic landmark of Greenwich pier. One of only three surviving period ships built in its style, the Cutty Sark, designed by Hercules Linton, was constructed in 1869 for the Jock Willis Shipping Line and was one of the fastest tea clippers built on the cusp of the steamship revolution. The 963-ton vessel is now a popular tourist attraction, listed on the National Historic Ship Register and housing a museum that not only tells the story of the ship but allows visitors to explore the ship’s interiors, restored to their former glory. Visitors can explore the cargo holds and living quarters of the merchant seaman; walk the decks and look out to sea from the helm; and delve into the fascinating stories of the ship’s epic voyages.
Owing legendary status to its monopoly board incarnation – the most expensive property on the board, no less – Mayfair maintains its reputation as one of Central London’s most affluent districts – it was even the birthplace of Her Majesty the Queen. Stretching between Oxford Street, Piccadilly and Regent Street, and bounded by Hyde Park to the West, the area was named after the May Fair held there during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The district’s principal shopping streets include the world famous Bond Street, home to Balenciaga, Christian Louboutin, Jenny Packham and Marc Jacobs, among others and Saville Row, legendary for its exquisite men’s tailoring.
It’s not just shopping that draws visitors to the streets of Mayfair – there are around 20 art galleries in the area, as well as the Handel House Museum, set inside the former home of the renowned composer, and the Royal Academy of Arts lies on the cusp of Picadilly.
Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Gherkin’ for its unusual shape, the dazzling glass-fronted skyscraper, 30 St Mary Axe, is among London’s most distinctive landmarks, looming 180 meters over the City of London financial district. Largely regarded as a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, the award-wining design was the work of Norman Foster and the Arup Group, and includes energy-conserving features like spiraling light wells and ventilation shafts.
The now-iconic office building opened its doors on 28 April 2004 and today is home to companies like Swiss Re and Sky News, as well as hosting London’s highest private members’ club on its top floor, and occasionally pop-up restaurants and bars, taking advantage of the magnificent 360-degree views.
The political, historical and cultural heart of London, the central district of Westminster is one of the capital’s busiest areas and home to so many of the city’s top attractions that many tourists never venture far outside its boundaries. Most visitors start their tour along the Thames River waterfront, where highlights include the Houses of Parliament, the Gothic Westminster Abbey and Westminster Palace, home to the iconic Big Ben clock tower, while the famous London Eye looms on the opposite riverbank. Close by is the grand central boulevard of Whitehall, which leads to Parliament Square and the Prime Minister's official residence at 10 Downing Street; Trafalgar Square, home to Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery; the Tate Britain and, to the north, the vibrant West End Theater district. Another star attraction of Westminster is Buckingham Palace, the official home of Her Majesty the Queen, linked to the city by St James Park, The Mall and the Horse Guards Parade.
The National Gallery started out quite small. In 1824, the British government purchased a collection of 38 pictures from a wealthy banker and put them on display in his townhouse, but it didn’t take long for private donations to come trickling in. The early directors dreamed of something bigger, and a larger site was soon needed to house everything the gallery would contain.
Today, the collection is kept in an impressive pantheon-style building raised on a terrace atop Trafalgar Square, with its round fountains and double-decker buses flowing by below. More than 2,300 masterworks have found their home behind the columns of the National Gallery, dating from the Middle Ages through the 20th century and including pieces from big names such as Monet, van Gogh, da Vinci, Holbein, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Ruben and van Eyck.
Making a name for itself in the 16th-century as the center of London’s printing and publishing industry, it seemed fitting that Fleet Street would be the birthplace of London’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant in 1702, and the street quickly became the de facto home of the British Press. Dozens of the country’s major newspaper offices and publishing headquarters once resided on Fleet Street, including Reuters, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express and the Metro, and although few remain, ‘Fleet Street’ is still used by Londoners to reference the city’s press.
Fleet Street’s most notorious former resident, however, is the fictional Sweeney Todd, the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ and the villainous star of several musical productions and films, including Tim Burton’s 2007 hit. If you believe the tales, the murderous Todd owned a barber’s shop at no. 186, where his victims were killed, then baked into pies by his neighbor Mrs. Lovett.
The British Museum is one of the largest museums in the world, comparable only to the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York. Established around 1750, the British Museum originated with Sir Hans Sloane's 'Cabinet of Curiosities' which he donated to the nation. It's now London's most visited attraction with over seven million objects and a wealth of world history - from Egyptian mummies to Roman sculptures, the Greek Parthenon marbles and the Persian Oxus Treasure (thanks to the British Empire's history of conquering distant countries - there is ongoing controversy about whether some of these treasures should now be returned to where they came from).
But this is no dull, dusty cupboard of old bits and pieces. The British Museum has a wide-ranging program of talks, films, family events, activities for kids, cafes and an excellent shop. The museum is housed in an imposing Greek Revival building dating from the 1850s.
On any trip to London, it's important to celebrity spot. Especially if Robert Pattinson or The Queen are in town. But if they prove to be camera-shy you'll find them more co-operative at Madame Tussauds, in fact, I bet they'll hang out with you for hours. But don't expect deep conversation. Because, of course, Madame Tussauds is a long-established and now worldwide waxworks collection.
Madame Tussaud was a Frenchwoman who made wax death masks during the French Revolution. She brought this travelling exhibition to London and it proved so popular - these heroes and villains were the celebrities of their time -that it's been a permanent fixture at the Baker Street site since 1884. These days you can wander freely among many contemporary heroes of stage, screen, music, sports, politics etc. Their clothing is often bought at celebrity auctions increasing the realism, their hair and makeup is restyled regularly, and each figures costs $125,000 to make!
More Things to Do in London
Located in the district of East London, this historic neighborhood was named after a tiny chapel that crumbled during World War II. And while its unassuming name may not entice the typical traveler, this London destination is filled with history and sites that make it worth a visit.
From old-school breweries like the White Heart Brew Pub, to abandoned slaughterhouses and famous foundries (including the one that cast Big Ben!), Whitechapel is as unique as UK neighborhoods come. And while these oddities make it worth a wander, it’s former residents like the notorious murder, Jack the Ripper, and the much-stories Elephant man who put this community on the map.
Covent Garden is an area of London centered on a popular covered market in the heart of London. Once a monks' convent garden in the 13th century, it quickly developed into a fruit and vegetable market for the city, was redeveloped in 1630 by the Earl of Bedford to be ringed by fashionable residences modeled on Italian piazzas, then became a center for theater and opera. Today the covered market building is a home to shops selling gourmet and specialist foods and souvenirs. The Royal Opera House remains located in Covent Garden, and the piazza area is long famous for its street performers.
Within the wider area known as Covent Garden are many more theaters and a wonderful tangle of narrow streets full of some of London's best shops. Floral Street, Long Acre, Shorts Gardens, Neal Street and Mercer Street have some of London's best and most diverse shopping, leading towards the area Seven Dials, where seven streets converge.
Renowned throughout Victorian times as the home of the working class, the birthplace of Cockney Rhyming Slang and the stomping ground of the notorious Jack the Ripper, London’s East End has long been associated with the grittier side of the capital. But despite its rough-around-the-edges image, the East End remains one of Londoners’ favorite haunts and its high population of young and immigrant residents has made it one of the city’s most cosmopolitan and ever-evolving districts, teeming with fashion-forward nightclubs, vintage emporiums and modern art galleries.
Since the Olympic Games took over the city in 2012, East London has undergone a 21st-century makeover, with the vast Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park now sprawling over Stratford and a cluster of glitzy shopping malls and chic eateries springing up around it.
Immortalized on-screen in the eponymous 1999 romantic comedy film, Notting Hill is much more than just a backdrop for the famous Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts’ love affair. The west London district, stretching over Ladbroke Grove, Portobello Road and parts of North Kensington is one of the city’s hippest destinations, lined with vintage boutiques, bijou cafés and indie music venues. Located between the upmarket neighborhoods of Knightsbridge and Kensington, Notting Hill brings a dash of bohemian cool to the stately Victorian townhouses and cobbled side streets, making it the perfect location for the annual Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest and most flamboyant street festival.
Notting Hill is also home to the world famous Portobello market, where one of the largest antique markets in the world is held alongside stalls selling everything from vintage and alternative clothing to handmade crafts and jewelry.
London is full of huge parks which the locals refer to as the lungs of the city. Hyde Park is one of the biggest and best known. Another of Henry VIII's hunting grounds, it is now a place of concerts, art and horse-riding. The famous Peter Pan sculpture is in the park, as is the Princess Diana memorial fountain.
You can row boats on the Serpentine lake, sit on The Lido in the summer or even swim if you are brave enough. Head to Speakers Corner, the home of free speech. In winter, the park has an ice rink for skating. But most people just bring a picnic and a football or a book, and while away the day in fresh air surrounded by rolling lawns and majestic trees.
One of London’s most celebrated royal parks, Regent’s Park was first laid out by John Nash in 1811, as a hunting ground for Henry VIII and remained a private royal retreat until 1845. Today the 410-acre public park offers welcome respite for the residents of North West London as well as housing the hugely popular London Zoo, where visitors can get up close and personal to an incredible 760 animal species.
The park’s highlights include a boating lake; the recently opened Hanover Gate treehouse playground; the Queen Mary’s Gardens, an exquisite rose garden containing over 400 varieties; and the formal Victorian William Andrews Nestfield’s Avenue Gardens. Perhaps the most famous spot is the idyllic peak of Primrose Hill, as renowned for its many celebrity residents as it is for its expansive views over London, making it one of the city’s liveliest picnic spots.
Piccadilly Circus is the meeting place of many of London's most famous roads. Here beautiful Regent Street (shopping heaven), famous Piccadilly (Fortnum and Mason's, The Ritz, the Royal Academy of Art), and cultural Shaftsbury Avenue intersect. In the middle of it all is the famous 1893 statue of Eros, the winged messenger of love, which commemorates Lord Shaftesbury.
The circus was originally created as part of a plan to connect Carlton House, the home of the Prince Regent who became King George IV in 1820, to Regent's Park. When Shaftesbury Avenue was created in 1885, the area became busy with traffic and advertisers saw the potential for advertising; in 1895 London's first illuminated billboards were put up in Piccadilly Circus. For the next century it was London's version of Times Square but now only one building carries billboards. For history buffs, the name Piccadilly dates from the 17th century and comes from piccadill, a type of collar or ruff.
Few London addresses are as famous as 10 Downing Street, a Grade I listed Georgian townhouse and the official residence and office of the British Prime Minister since 1735. Centuries of government meetings, important decisions and more than a few scandals have taken place behind the property’s iconic black door (which can be opened only from the inside and even the Prime Minister is not given a key) and former residents have included everyone from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair.
For security reasons, access to Downing Street is limited to government officials only and visitors can do little more than peek through the police patrolled iron gates, but it’s still a popular inclusion on visitor’s itineraries, and there’s always the chance of spotting the Prime Minister himself. Those wanting to get a closer look can follow the video tour on the Downing Street website or, if you’re lucky, join one of the Open House London tours.
Set between the grounds of St James’s Palace and the iconic abode to the Queen of England, Buckingham Palace; few picnic spots are as breathtakingly regal as St James’s Park, a 58-acre (23-hectare) stretch, located a short stroll from many of central London’s key tourist attractions.
As well as offering a pocket of greenery amidst the urban sprawl of Central London, the Park’s proximity to Buckingham Palace makes it a popular spot to watch the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony, where the uniformed palace guards change over in an elaborate march and band performance. In addition, the park’s Horse Guards Parade hosts the annual Trooping the Colour military parade to mark the Queen's official birthday, along with the Beating Retreat, a floodlit spectacular featuring marching bands from the Cavalry and Foot Guard regiments, held each June.
The busiest shopping street in Europe, London’s Oxford Street is home to over 300 stores—from the capital’s flagship Primark to the country’s second-biggest department store—art deco showstopper Selfridges.
Following the old Roman road to Oxford for a mile and a half, Oxford Street runs from Marble Arch in the west end to Tottenham Court Road in the east end, and some of the other flagship stores you’ll find include Debenhams, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, and the world’s biggest Topshop — it covers five floors, 90,000 square feet of retail space, and sees a whopping 28,000 visitors a day. It hasn’t always been glitz and glamour for Oxford Street, though. The road was once notorious as the route prisoners would have to take from Newgate Prison to reach the gallows near Marble Arch. You wouldn’t know that today, especially in winter when the whole street sparkles as it gets decked in Christmas lights.
Just west of London’s famous Hyde Park, the exquisite Kensington Gardens are one of London’s most historic Royal Parks, once forming the private grounds of Kensington Palace. Stretching over 275 acres, the garden’s principal features include the snaking Serpentine lake, an ornamental round pond and an idyllic Dutch garden, dating back to early 18th-century designs by Henry Wise and Charles Bridgeman.
A number of attractions are interwoven by a series of formal avenues, lined with trees and ornamental flowerbeds. A beautiful statue in tribute of Prince Albert (husband of Queen Victoria) takes center stage at the Albert Memorial, a six-meter tall Roman sculpture known as ‘The Arch’ stands proud on the north bank of the pond and the 150-year-old Italian Gardens feature a striking white marble Tazza Fountain.
A striking example of Palladian architecture with its imposing Corinthian columns and regal façade, the Mansion House makes a fitting residence for the Lord Mayor of London. The official residence and head office of the Lord Mayor since 1752, the house remains an important political center, hosting numerous civic meetings, fundraising events, receptions and dinners throughout the year.
The Mansion House is open to the public for guided tours (weekly or by appointment), allowing visitors to admire the opulent drawing rooms, peek into the Old Ballroom and marvel over the Egyptian Hall, actually designed in a classical Roman style. Highlights of a visit include the 18th-century Hallkeeper's Chair; the glittering crystal chandeliers in the Salon; and the Harold Samuel art collection, which features notable paintings and sculptures by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists.
A spiraling red steel tower looming 114 meters over the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the ArcelorMittal Orbit’s bold design has polarized opinions since its conception. There’s no denying, however, that it’s an impressive feat of structural engineering and well on its way to becoming one of London’s most iconic landmarks. Erected in honor of the 2012 Olympic Games, the unique creation was a collaborative effort between artist Anish Kapoor, designer Cecil Balmond and steel-and-mining company ArcelorMittal, built using about 2,000 tons of steel, more than half of which was recycled.
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