In a city as massive (602 square miles / 1,560 square kilometers) and as old as London, there are enough culturally significant attractions to fill a lifetime. However, there are some London attractions that should be at the top of every traveler's list. Here are the 10 sights you need to see while in town, with background information and everything you'll need to know to visit.
The London Eye is 135 meters high, which makes it one the world's tallest observation wheels. It has 32 capsules and carries around 10,000 visitors every day. The London Eye has become the most popular paid-for UK visitor attraction, visited by over 3.5 million people a year. While traveling in complete safety you can see up to 40 kilometers away in all directions from each capsule.
The London Eye really has to be included in a trip to London. Because of the way the capsules are suspended it allows for a full 360-degree panorama when you're at the top of the wheel. Tickets can be booked online, which really is the right thing to do as it saves a lot of time. The queues look long when you arrive, but they move quickly as everyone is issued with a timed ticket. Don't forget your camera!
In 2009, the London Eye 4D Film Experience opened and is included in the London Eye ticket price. It is a fantastic 4D film to entertain you before your trip. The 4D effects are superb and this short film has the only 3D aerial footage of London.
An alternative way to see London from a high-level is to head to Greenwich in southeast London and try the London cable car / Emirates Air Line which connects The O2 to Royal Docks across The Thames. You won't have the central London views but it's still an exciting way to see London from up high.
Tower of London
The Tower of London is where the Crown Jewels are housed, and they're quite spectacular. It's also where you can stand on the execution site of three English queens!
The Tower of London was home to the kings and queens of England for many years. (Buckingham Palace has been the official London residence of Britain's sovereign since 1837.)
The Tower of London was a prison and many famous prisoners were held there, including Sir Walter Ralegh: he was held in the Bloody Tower for 13 years, but made use of his time by writing "The History of the World" (published in 1614) and growing tobacco on Tower Green. The Tower of London held prisoners from the middle and upper classes, so there are no dungeons.
Public executions were held on Tower Green, including two of Henry VIII's wives: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
The Tower Bridge Exhibition is also worth seeing and is only a short walk away. Tower Bridge's architect, Horace Jones, and engineer, John Wolfe Barry, took 8 years to complete the bridge, which opened on 30 June 1894. It remained the only river crossing east of London Bridge till the Dartford Crossing (a tunnel) opened in 1991.
Buckingham Palace is Queen Elizabeth II's official residence and has been the official London residence of Britain's sovereign since 1837. It was once a townhouse owned by the Dukes of Buckingham back in the eighteenth century. George III bought Buckingham House in 1761 for his wife Queen Charlotte to use as a family home near to St James's Palace, where many court functions were held.
The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace have been opened to the public for the Annual Summer opening, in August and September, since 1993, after the fire at Windsor Castle in November 1992. Initially, the Summer Opening was considered a way to pay for the damage at Windsor Castle, but it became so popular that The Queen has continued to allow visitors every summer. The Queen is not at Buckingham Palace when it is open to the public — she goes to one of her country residences.
If you are visiting at a different time of the year, go along to see the Changing of the Guard. It happens on scheduled days, so check before setting off and arrive early to get a good position to watch the action!
How could you miss one of the capital's most iconic areas? Come and marvel at Nelson's Column and the four huge lion statues. Feeding the pigeons is now discouraged (due to the spread of diseases), so please don't bring them any treats.
On the north side of Trafalgar Square, you can visit the National Gallery and just around the corner on St. Martin's Lane is the National Portrait Gallery. Both have free permanent displays and regular special exhibitions.
Trafalgar Square was designed by John Nash in the 1820s and constructed in the 1830s. It is both a tourist attraction and the main focus for political demonstrations. Look out for the George Washington Statue and the World's Smallest Police Box, as well as the London Nose.
Within walking distance of Trafalgar Square, you can easily go shopping in Covent Garden, have a meal in Chinatown, walk down Whitehall to Parliament Square and see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, or walk down the Mall to Buckingham Palace.
Tate Modern is the national gallery of international modern and contemporary art from 1900 onwards. The gallery opened in 2000 in a converted power station on the south bank of the Thames in an imposing position opposite St. Paul's Cathedral. You can visit again and again as it's free and the modern art displays change quite frequently. You'll often find enormous installations in the Turbine Hall on the ground floor.
Museum of London
This is the place to visit if you're interested in London's history. The Museum of London documents the history of London from prehistoric times right up to today. It's about Londoners as much as the city as the people have made the city what it is today.
Learn about London from the days when the whole population would fit on one double-decker bus! Make sure you see the Lord Mayor's Coach, which was built in 1757 and is still used every year for the Lord Mayor's Show.
The British Museum opened in 1753 and prides itself on remaining free ever since then. The British Museum houses more than an incredible 7 million objects, and it would probably take a week to see everything.
Don't be fooled into thinking the British Museum is full of artifacts from old England. No, in days gone by the English were incredible warriors and the British Museum is full of the treasures the soldiers brought back from distant shores. Those treasures include the Rosetta Stone, an Easter Island statue, and the earliest known image of Christ.
The collection of Egyptian and Greek antiquities are without a doubt amongst the largest and best known in the world. Part of the collection consists of the controversial Elgin Marbles, brought back from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin whilst he was serving as Ambassador to Constantinople at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and subsequently bought for the museum by the English government.
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is all about discovering the natural world around us and appeals to all age groups. I remember seeing the dinosaurs when I was five years old, and seeing them now still gives me the same tingle down my spine. The Blue Whale is outrageous to see as you really can't imagine how big a life-size model has to be until you walk underneath it. Don't miss 'The Power Within', where you can experience what an earthquake feels like!
The Natural History Museum is one of the big three museums in South Kensington. It's a wonderful Victorian building housing the weird and wonderful of the natural world, and every winter there is an ice rink on the east lawn: Natural History Museum Ice Rink.
Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament are only a short walk down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square. The building is stunning from Parliament Square, but it's worth taking a walk over Westminster Bridge and getting the view from the South Bank. Note, Big Ben is actually the name of the bell in the clock tower (St. Stephen's Tower), which chimes every 15 minutes.
The UK Parliament is one of the oldest representative assemblies in the world. The site of the Houses of Parliament is the Palace of Westminster, a royal palace and former residence of kings. Edward the Confessor had the original palace built in the eleventh century. The layout of the Palace is intricate, with its existing buildings containing nearly 1200 rooms, 100 staircases, and well over 3 kilometers (2 miles) of passages. Among the original historic buildings is Westminster Hall, used nowadays for major public ceremonial events.
Tours inside the Houses of Parliament for overseas visitors are available on Saturdays throughout the year, and weekdays too during the summer recess.
Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)
Near the Natural History Museum and Science Museum in South Kensington, the V&A, as it's known to the locals, is a great museum of art and design and holds over 3,000 years worth of artifacts from many of the world's richest cultures, including the most comprehensive collection of British design and art from 1500 to 1900. There's furniture, ceramics, photography, sculpture, and much more.
Make sure you stop for tea in the cafe, which is located in the V&A's original refreshment rooms, the Morris, Gamble, and Poynter Rooms. These three rooms formed the first museum restaurant in the world and were intended as a showpiece of modern design, craftsmanship, and manufacturing.