The great English writer Samuel Johnson once claimed that “to tire of London is to tire of life.” With one step on the city’s old cobblestone streets, his words immediately ring true. What can be tiring, however, is trying to choose between the many attractions and sights the city has to offer. Never fear—we’ve got you covered with this quick list of 20 essential things to do during your stay in London!
1. Stroll through St. James’ Park
London is known for its many parks that adorn the city with greenery and nature and provide respite from the busy life of a big city. None offers as much splendor as St. James’ Park, which is located just a short walk from Buckingham Palace (another must-see London attraction). Peeking out from behind the trees and gardens (and even some swans) is a picturesque view of the St. James’s Palace that looks right out of a fairytale.
2. Wander through the British Museum
The UK never lets you forget how far the British Empire once spanned, which is perhaps why this museum in Bloomsbury incorporates so many cultural artifacts from around the world. With pieces like the Rosetta Stone on display and exhibitions ranging from Africa, to the Middle East, to the Americas, this free museum is well worth a visit.
3. Catch a show in the West End
London and theatre have always been inextricably linked. Whether you’re a musical theatre junkie looking to collect more playbills, or you simply want to experience top-quality entertainment, London’s West End theatre district is your best bet. Make sure you visit the half-off ticket booths in the area instead of paying full price.
4. Experience Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
Nowhere else in London can you catch such true Shakespearean drama—or comedy, if you prefer to laugh rather than cry (though the Bard’s tales usually make you do both)—than the Globe Theatre. For a true historical experience, buy yourself a cheap groundling ticket (most go for £5) as members of London’s lower classes once did. Though you’ll have to stand for the performance, it’s worth it for the authenticity of the experience.
5. Share a moment at Westminster Abbey
Let’s face it—everyone is at least a little obsessed with the royal family. Why not see the place where royals have been crowned and married for centuries for yourself? Westminster Abbey, a Gothic masterpiece in the heart of London, has been the stage for many historical events for the monarchy. Make sure to check out the Poet’s Corner, where a number of Great Britain’s most beloved poets, playwrights, and writers are buried.
6. Lunch at Borough Market
Borough Market is the perfect place to go for a fun afternoon with friends or even a casual date. As one of the largest food markets in the world, it sells delicious fresh fruits and vegetables and plenty of multicultural fare. If you’re staying at a flat like this vacation rental in Southwark, save money by doing some of your food shopping at local markets and cooking meals instead of dining out!
7. Ride a “Boris” Bike
If you’re wondering why these rental bicycles are called Boris Bikes, it’s because Boris Johnson was the mayor of Greater London when the initiative was first launched as a way to reduce vehicle traffic. In London there are sights and sounds everywhere you look, so why not take a tour on a bike? You can rent Boris Bikes for a day, a month, or even a year.
8. Shop at Canada Square in Canary Wharf
Many look to London’s big department stores—Harrods, Selfridges, etc.— to do their shopping, and those are certainly great choices. Make sure not to miss Canada Square in Canary Wharf though, as it’s not only home to some of London’s tallest skyscrapers, but it also offers hundreds of stores and boutiques. If you want to make a day of it, visit one of the dozens of restaurants. You’ll undoubtedly find everything you need and more.
9. Sip some afternoon tea
If you went to London and didn’t have a spot of afternoon tea, did your trip really happen? Whether you like your tea with milk or two lumps of sugar, don’t miss out on this local custom. There are plenty of places to grab a “cuppa,” so planning your afternoon around teatime is easy.
10. Enjoy pub food at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
One of the things Londoners enjoy most is grabbing a pint at their favorite pub and chatting with old friends. What some outsiders don’t know is that many pubs serve excellent food and offer their own take on traditional dishes; after all, there’s more to London than fish and chips (though they are definitely worth a try)! Try Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which has been around since the 17th century and once included regulars like Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to get some literary history along with your pint.
11. Find the magic at King’s Cross Station
If you’ve been around for the last decade, you know that Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross station is where Harry and Ron took their first clumsy steps as Hogwarts students. There is, of course, a photo op here (just like many Harry Potter film locations in London), but feel free to enjoy all the beauty of King’s Cross station afterwards. It’s one of Europe’s most beautiful train stations, so even non-Harry Potter fans can tag along.
12. Visit St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral sits on Ludgate Hill, London’s highest point, so its iconic dome is always peeking out of London’s skyline. The structure has survived the ups and downs of London history, from the Great Fire of London (after which part of it was rebuilt) to the Blitzkrieg during World War II. People come from all over the world to walk its famous hallways.
13. Take a day trip to Oxford
Most people know Oxford University as one of the world’s leading academic institutions. The town that’s home to the university is a quaint but idyllic setting, with its own history, lively attractions, and shops. Visit the Eagle and Child pub to sit where J. R. R. Tolkien penned his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Make the two-hour journey from London into a day trip to make sure you have plenty of time to see all the sights!
14. Hang out at Neal’s Yard
The Covent Garden neighborhood of London’s West End is worth a visit, especially if you stumble upon Neal’s Yard and enter its charming, secret world. This alley opens into a courtyard that is home to New Age boutiques and shops that are all painted with different hues of vibrant colors. You can sit and have lunch or tea, take great photos, and boast about having been to a local London treasure.
15. Journey through the Tower of London
If you’re a history buff, you simply have to take a tour of the Tower of London, through which many historical figures passed… and many lost their heads! The tower itself is a historical monument and even keeps part of the original Roman wall that shielded the city from invaders long ago. A tour is a fun way for kids to learn a little British history, so feel free to take the whole family.
16. Observe The View from the Shard
You can get a view of London from the famous London Eye, but there’s a new sightseeing attraction that’s got all the tourists flocking to Southwark. The View from the Shard is a trip to the highest floors of the Shard, London’s official tallest building. Best of all, it’s all indoors, so you don’t have to worry about the fickle London weather ruining your day.
17. Scale the O2
Adventurers seeking an exciting sporting activity can strap on a harness and scale London’s O2 arena. This entertainment venue on the Greenwich peninsula hosts top artists’ performances, offers fine dining and shopping, and now presents a unique athletic challenge: climbing from one end of the arena to the other. Talk about a thrill!
18. Discover quirky Shoreditch
If you’re eager to find an alternative side to the posh streets of central London, head East! Shoreditch is gaining wide popularity as a youthful and eclectic area, boasting cool clothing boutiques, fun pubs, and an overall good time for any of its visitors. It’s even starting to rival the West End. Despite rising rents and a changing character, Shoreditch remains a widely artistic and creative district.
19. Listen to jazz at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho
Ronnie Scott’s, opened in 1959 in London’s West End, began as an intimate basement club where local musicians could perform freely. It didn’t take long to evolve into one of the world’s most famous jazz venues, though luckily the club has maintained the intimacy that audiences crave. Countless artists have graced the small stage, from Miles Davis to Count Basie. Today, it’s still a local hot spot for all music lovers regardless of age.
20. Go back to Tudor England at Hampton Court Palace
Henry VIII was infamous for many things, including leaving the Roman Catholic Church to form the Church of England so he could obtain a divorce and marry Anne Boleyn. Take a trip just 40 minutes outside of London and you can walk through the gates named after this second wife—just before Henry had her executed.
Whether you’re traveling alone, with family, or going on a romantic getaway, relax with the knowledge that the hard work of trip planning has been done for you. Choose your adventure from this list and experience London with the authenticity of a local and the fresh eyes of a tourist. If finding lodging is still on your to-do list, check out the great apartment rentals offered on our website.