London is a city that's always under construction and its architecture varies dramatically between old and new. The dense City of London, the capital's financial center, is known for its giant glass skyscrapers while more traditional buildings can be found in the government headquarters of Westminster. Whether you're an architecture buff or a casual visitor looking for some cool Instagram shots, London has a lot to offer, from the Shard to the National Theatre.
The Barbican Centre and Estate
Located in the City of London, the Barbican Centre and Estate is a massive Brutalist complex that contains a performing arts center, several restaurants, a conservatory, and numerous apartments. The Estate was built over several years in the 1960s and 1980s and is Grade II listed. The Barbican Centre hosts plays, live music, films, and art exhibitions throughout the year. The Barbican Conservatory, which is home to exotic fish and over 1,500 species of tropical plants and trees, is free to enter at specific opening dates and times, listed online. The Estate itself is worth a visit as well, with many hidden gems throughout the concrete spaces.
The Shard stands 95 stories over London. It was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and completed in 2012 after being first commissioned in 2000. Today it features offices, as well as several restaurants and bars, the Shangri-La Hotel and a public viewing gallery. The viewing platform, which offers 360-degree views, can be found on floors 68, 69 and 72, and is London's highest viewing gallery. Be sure to book a timed ticket in advance when visiting. Another good option for taking in the sights is afternoon tea or cocktails at Aqua Shard. Tea can be reserved in advance online, but the bar is walk-ins only.
Southbank's iconic National Theatre is one of London's best places to see a play. The complex, which contains three different theaters, opened in 1963 with a production of "Hamlet," and has since established itself as a must-go destination for visitors. The building was designed Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley in the Brutalist style. It's now Grade II listed and its foyers are open to the public, with shops, restaurants, bars and exhibitions. The plays can be extremely popular, with tickets selling out far in advance, so be sure to book seats ahead of your visit to London. Before the show head to Counter, a casual eatery on the ground floor that serves street food-inspired dishes.
St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul's Cathedral has existed in London for over 1,400 years and has been built and rebuilt five times. It's an Anglican cathedral with numerous services throughout the day, but non-religious visitors are also welcome and can buy tickets to tour the building's grandiose five levels. Admission includes access to the cathedral floor, the crypt, and the expansive dome. Not only is St. Paul's an iconic site on London's skyline, but the Cathedral, found along the Thames near the City, has a storied history, including a visit from Martin Luther King, Jr. and a connection to the suffragettes.
Houses of Parliament
Located in Westminster on the bank of the Thames, the current Houses of Parliament were designed by architect Sir Charles Barry after much of the former structure burned in the fire of 1834. Also known as the Palace of Westminster, the building now serves as the meeting place for the House of Commons and the House of Lords and is connected to the Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben. Parliament is open Monday to Saturday for visitors to attend debates, committee hearings and events. Guided tours are available, with options for families with young kids, or you can opt for a self-guided tour with a multimedia guide. Tours are available on select dates, so check online in advance before visiting.
Lloyd's Building, which houses insurance institution Lloyd's of London, is located in the City on Lime Street. Built in 1986 and Grade I listed, it's known as an example of Bowellism architecture, where the elevators and ducts can be found on the exterior rather than the interior. It has unsurprisingly been used as a shooting location in numerous movies, including "Hackers," "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Trainspotting." Lloyd's doesn't welcome public visitors, unfortunately, although university and business school groups can email for possible tours.
St. Pancras Hotel and Train Station
The St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel is a Gothic Revival building that dates back to 1873, while the adjacent train station first opened in 1868. It has been known as St. Pancras International since 2007 and houses the Eurostar train, which connects London with Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Visitors can, of course, explore the station, which has numerous shops and restaurants, even if they aren't traveling anywhere, and St. Pancras Hotel's Booking Office Bar & Restaurant overlooks the station from the former ticket hall. Don't miss the grandiose staircase in the lobby, which was famously featured in Spice Girls' "Wannabe" music video.
Royal Albert Hall
Music lovers should head to Royal Albert Hall, a concert venue in Kensington that is also home to the annual BAFTA Awards and the BBC Proms. The circular, Grade 1 listed building opened in 1871 and it has a long history of famous performers, from hosting the Titanic Band Memorial Concert in 1912 to being the site of Adele's iconic performance in 2011. There are numerous events happening in Royal Albert Hall every week and visitors can find the events calendar (and book tickets) online. Royal Albert Hall tours run most days and you can even go behind the scenes to see areas usually off-limits to the public.
Tower Bridge, not to be confused with London Bridge, is a bascule and suspension bridge built between 1886 and 1894. It crosses the Thames and was initially was constructed to ease road traffic. The roadways on the bridge have the ability to lift up, allowing ships to pass underneath, and the bridge has been a London landmark for over a century. The Bridge is open daily to visitors and tickets include access to the Glass Floor and the Engine Rooms. You can also book into one of the Behind the Scenes guided tours, which offers a glimpse of areas not seen by all guests.
Battersea Power Station
Somehow a decommissioned coal-fired power station in Nine Elms has become one of London's most recognizable buildings. Battersea Power Station—which is in the midst of a major transformation into apartments, offices, and retail spaces—was designed by Leonard Pearce for the London Power Company and built as two separate buildings between 1929 and 1941. It's notable in pop culture, from appearing in movies like "The Dark Knight" and "Sabotage," to becoming the cover of Pink Floyd's "Animals" album. Several shops and restaurants are now open in the station's Circus West Village, or you can check out the views from across the Thames.