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London: Must-See Places

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London is a truly global city, full of history, culture, art, entertainment, and genuine surprises. You could live here for years and still find yourself blissfully lost in a new-to-you neighborhood of side-by-side townhomes; it would take more than one lifetime to sample a pint at each of the city’s equally unique pubs. The best way to see London as a first-timer is to go with the flow. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, check out these six can’t-miss locations, then wander into a cafe or shop nearby. (Pro tip: Use the Tube and walk as much as you can.) From the hottest new art gallery to the ruins of a 900-year-old church, you never know where you’ll end up or what you’ll discover.

Big Ben
Photo by Henry Be from Unsplash.

Big Ben and the Palace at Westminster

Perhaps the world’s most iconic clock tower, Big Ben is one of the most recognizable cultural symbols of the United Kingdom, and no trip to London is complete without seeing it up close at the Palace of Westminster . Officially, the tower itself is actually called Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben is the nickname of the bell in the clock, but mention you are on your way to see Big Ben and everyone will know exactly what you mean.

To fully appreciate the full silhouette of the tower on the skyline, you’ll want to take the Tube to Charing Cross on the Piccadilly line or Embankment on the District and Circle lines and then walk a few minutes to the edge of the Thames River. From here, enjoy an easy, fifteen-minute walk west along the banks of the river with sweeping views of the London Eye and Big Ben leading right to the Palace of Westminster. It tends to be very crowded right at the base of the clock tower—and it can be difficult to take it all in from that up close—so for the best views, walk all the way across the Westminster Bridge to the garden at St Thomas' Hospital just on the other side. There, enjoy the peace and quiet of the flowers and capture the best photos of Big Ben and the palace together.

Note that if you are planning a trip before 2022, Big Ben will be covered in scaffolding as it has been since August 2017 when renovations began. An exact date for removal hasn’t been set, so keep an eye on the news if seeing Big Ben in all its typical glory is an important part of your London trip. For those who don’t want to wait, you can visit “Little Ben,” a small replica of Big Ben located outside the Victoria Palace theater.

Buckingham Palace
Photo by awerin from Unsplash.

The Royal Palaces

She will probably be too busy to welcome you inside for tea, but you can still get close to the Queen of England by visiting her home in London, Buckingham Palace . You can stand outside the gates at any time or, in the summer months, tour the inside and the gardens (with a ticket purchased online in advance). To fully appreciate the grandeur of the palace and its grounds, start at Trafalgar Square and walk southeast under the Admiralty Arch on to The Mall , a 0.7 mile stretch of street that leads directly to the palace gates. If you’ve ever seen footage of Trooping the Colour, the Queen’s yearly birthday parade, you’ve seen The Mall. Cut through the blossoming greenspace surrounding the lake inside St James's Park , which runs alongside the road and you may even see some of the Queen’s swans floating amongst other waterfowl. At the end of the road, you’ll be able to get up to the edge of the Buckingham Palace gates. If the Royal Standard flag is flying overhead, that means the Queen is currently inside (and not at one of her other twenty-five homes).

Buckingham Palace has the biggest reputation, but it’s not the only Royal Palace in London. For a quieter, more intimate experience, head over to nearby Kensington Palace , where any member of the public can stroll through the peaceful flowering gardens or rest at the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain . Sit for afternoon tea at The Orangery Restaurant on site, the only place in London where you can do so on the grounds of a royal palace. For a more casual affair, wander into bordering Hyde Park and on a hot day grab an ice cream cone from one of the adorable green and white striped ice cream vans.

Tower of London
Altered version of original photo by David Stanley licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Tower of London

St Katharine's & Wapping, London EC3N 4AB, UK

Travel back in time to the London you learned about in history class with a visit to the Tower of London , a towering stone fortress, palace, and prison that sits on the banks of the Thames on London’s east side. Within these very walls, Anne Boleyn was imprisoned and executed, polar bears once roamed, and The Crown Jewels are still kept under close guard. The best way to absorb the 1,000+ years of stories from on site is to do a free tour with a Yeoman Warder, most commonly known as the Beefeaters. Beefeaters are not costumed actors; they are retired officers of the Armed Forces of the Commonwealth tasked with guarding the British Crown Jewels, and they have hosted tours of the Tower since Victorian times. (Pro tip: Yeoman Warder tours leave every thirty minutes from the main gate.) At the end of your tour, don’t forget to retrace your steps to the rooms where the Crown Jewels are kept and enter. No photos are allowed inside, so it's truly something you need to see for yourself.

Note: As of the summer of 2021, Yeoman Warder tours are on pause due to health and safety concerns. Instead, follow a one-way path through the Tower and speak with Yeoman Warders positioned along the way.

Royal Observatory Greenwich
Altered version of original photo by Mike Peel licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Royal Observatory Greenwich

Blackheath Ave, London, England SE10 8XJ

Technically outside of London proper, traveling down river to this university borough to stand on the Prime Meridian line and experience the city at a slower pace is worth the trip. Opt to take a River Bus, operated by Transport for London, on the Thames from the Tower of London to Greenwich and the journey can be a part of the experience.

The boat lets you off at the edge of Greenwich town, and from here, it’s about a 15 minute walk uphill to the Royal Observatory Greenwich in Greenwich Park. Along the way, you’ll pass Greenwich University and the Cutty Sark ship, a 150-year old extreme clipper, now maintained as a historical attraction by Royal Museums Greenwich.

Time your ascent to the Royal Observatory grounds so that you arrive in the early evening as the sun is beginning to set. Home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the Prime Meridian line is clearly marked and you are able to stand over it with one foot on either side. As the sky darkens, a green light beam extends from that line beyond into the sky and cuts across the distant London city skyline.

Make the most of your time in Greenwich by stopping for a pint and a pie or plate of fish and chips at The Cutty Sark along the banks of the Thames before taking the River Bus or the Tube back to Central London.

The British Museum
Altered version of original photo by wallyg licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The British Museum

Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DG, UK

London is famous for its impressive, varied museums, all of which are free and open to the public. While each museum is worth a visit, prioritize The British Museum , the first public national museum in the world and home to one of the largest collections of artifacts relating to human history and culture in existence. There are donation boxes scattered generously across the entrance area, and if you can spare a few pounds, it is always appreciated.

Documenting all of human history from its earliest recordings to the present, it's impossible to do the entire museum in a day — anyone could easily spend days or weeks inside and still discover something new. Assuming you don’t have that much time to dedicate, the best way to navigate all the museum has to offer is to make a suggested donation in exchange for a small brochure that contains a self-guided DIY tour, which takes you across the entire museum using some of the main highlights (including the famous Rosetta Stone) as a guide.

For more detail on what you’ll find inside or inspiration for your return trip, read the book "A History of the World in 100 Objects" by former British Museum Director Neil MacGregor, available for purchase at the museum shop, one of the best places for souvenir and gift shopping in all of London.

Note: The museum is open and remains free, but currently visitors must sign up for a timed entry ticket in advance. Please check their website for up-to-date information.

Borough Market
Altered version of original photo by Magnus D licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Borough Market

8 Southwark St, London SE1 1TL, UK

Like museums, London is famous for its recurring, bustling neighborhood markets, with vendors wielding everything from vintage fashion to street food to flowers and beyond. Borough Market focuses on foods from all over the world and is one of the largest, oldest, and a true local favorite. The most important thing you need to know before venturing into its maze of stalls is to bring cash. Many vendors still don’t accept cards, and cash machines inside are scarce. If you want to avoid crowds, make sure to stay away during the mid-afternoon lunch rush, when nearby residents conjugate inside. Or if you don’t mind navigating and waiting a bit, come exactly during this time for a glimpse of daily local life in London.

The market is big, so you’ll want to do a lap or two before buying the first thing you see. Locals come here not only for a bite to eat, but also to stock up on specialty foods. When in doubt, grab a pitcher of Pimms from Brood and people watch from one of the outdoor tables on Green Dragon Ct.