London's top ten attractions

Eloise Barker

Title photography by DaLiu

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February 2018

From Big Ben to South Ken – if it’s your first time in London, you need to start with the classics. After all, there’s a reason The British Museum attracts nearly six and a half million visitors every year. From Buckingham Palace to the Warner Bros. Studio, here’s our essential list of the top ten sights that make London, well… London.

The British Museum

The main attraction: Stuffed full of ancient treasures, the British Museum nonchalantly displays its historical artefacts. The first thing you’ll see when you pass through the beautiful modern atrium into the ancient collections? The Rosetta Stone. Sitting in a glass case right there in front of you, is the stele that first allowed us to decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. In the Egyptian rooms, you’ll find mummified cats and Kings – plus a beautiful Assyrian Lion Hunt relief. In the ground floor’s Greek rooms the lively Parthenon Sculptures – of gods and centaur battles that once adorned Athens’ great temple – occupy a massive space.

Nearby: Oxford Street is a walk south, or a short tube ride away. Europe’s busiest shopping street is capitalism at its most chaotic. Massive versions of your favourite shops, flagship stores and the brilliant Selfridges department store dominate the area. The plan to pedestrianise part of the street from 2018 should make your visit less vexing. Until then, enjoy the rush.

Nearest tube: Russell Square

Where to stay: The Rosewood London is a glorious five-star hotel, housing a fashionable cocktail bar and a lovely spa.

  • Interior of Westminster Abbey. ©Dean and Chapter of Westminster.

    Choral voices

    The choir of Westminster Abbey are one of the best in the country.

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Westminster Abbey

The main attraction: This Gothic masterpiece charges admission, but the atmosphere inside is worth the fee. It’s here in this church that royals wed – including Princes William and Harry – and where Britain’s most prestigious people are buried. Make a pilgrimage to Poet’s Corner, where Tennyson, Kipling, Hardy and Handel rest in peace. And make sure to look out for the ten modern martyrs adorning the wall above the Great West Door, they include Martin Luther King. It’s difficult to say whether the interior or exterior of the abbey is more marvellous… the answer depends on whether you prefer flying buttresses or royal busts.

Nearby: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are the abbey’s well-to-do neighbours. You can pop into Parliament for a tour or admire the government building’s intricate Gothic architecture from the outside. A hulking statue of Churchill presides over Parliament Square. A new statue of Suffragette Millicent Fawcett will be added in April 2018. Up above, Big Ben is the bell that rings out from the Elizabeth Tower. Unfortunately, this London icon will be covered by scaffolding until 2021 for £61m of maintenance. Across Westminster Bridge, you can’t miss the London Eye, an observation wheel with famous views over the Thames.

Nearest tube: Westminster

Where to stay: Visible from across the Thames, The Royal Horseguards is a prestigious hotel, frequented by politicians on their way to Westminster.

Tower of London

The main attraction: One of London’s oldest and most interesting buildings, the Tower of London was once the city’s VIP prison. This simple Norman fortress is now dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers and guarded by crimson-clad Beefeater guards. It’s here that badly behaved subjects (and even royalty) entered by boat and were kept until the King’s whims changed – or didn’t. Three queens were executed in the tower. However, its current residents, a flock of ravens, have a better time. Legend has it, when the ravens leave, the monarchy will fall. To prevent this happening, the Raven Master feeds them regularly. Also housed at the Tower of London, the glittering Crown Jewels collection includes a sceptre topped with the world’s largest diamond.

Nearby: Tower Bridge and Monument are both nearby. The Victorian bridge that parts in the middle allows high-masted ships to pass through. You can attempt risky Yoga classes on its high pedestrian walkway atop a glass floor. Monument is another climb: 240 steps lead you up for views of London. The structure marks the spot on Pudding Lane from which a baker’s fire spread and destroyed most of London in 1666.

Nearest tube: Tower Hill

Where to stay: Nearby, you can easily relax at the Doubletree by Hilton Tower of London. As the name suggests, this modern, four-star hotel is in a prime location if you want to visit the tower before the crowds.

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  • The Blue Whale in the Hintze Hall, Natural History Museum. ©Trustees of Natural History Museum.

    Big blue

    Hope the blue whale is 25.2m long, and hangs out in the Natural History Museum's impressive entrance: the Hintze Hall.

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  • Up close and personal with her Majesty at Madame Tussauds. ©2016 The Merlin Entertainments Group Ltd.

    That's interesting!

    Marie Tussaud started out as an art tutor in the Palace of Versailles, narrowly avoided execution during the French revolution, and moved to England – where she opened her now-famous wax sculpture exhibition.

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  • National treasures at The National Gallery. ©National Gallery, London.

    Priceless paintings

    Da Vinci, Titian and Turner are among the highlights of the National Gallery.

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Trafalgar Square

The main attraction: Commemorating Lord Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, this sloping square is the nexus of London. From here Pall Mall and Whitehall march off to the west, and Theatreland sits just off to the east. Naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson overlooks proceedings from a 52-metre high column, surrounded by fountains and stone lions. The National Gallery is right on the square behind the Fourth Plinth, which showcases temporary sculpture.

Nearby: The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are two museums that generously display the world’s best art for free. No queues (take that, Louvre!) and no hassle: just quality canvases. The National Gallery hosts six million visitors annually, showing off treasures of European art – like Constable’s The Hay Wain and a version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The National Portrait Gallery is a who’s who of famous faces from Paul McCartney to Elizabeth I, painted by celebrated artists from Holbein to Hockney.

Nearest Tube: Charing Cross

Where to stay: W London is full of curvy furniture, good lighting and glamorous barflies, and is set in the heart of Theatreland.

Buckingham Palace

The main attraction: Watching the change of guard at Buckingham Palace is an essential stop on the tourist trail. The Household Division of the British Army, primarily clad in red and black, march in formation with a brass band. The spectacle occurs daily at 11am during the summer and a few times each week in winter. (Weather permitting, as no one likes a wet busby). You can actually tour inside the palace, too, and marvel at the sumptuous State Rooms during ten weeks in the summer.

Nearby: Have you heard of the Churchill War Rooms? You’d be forgiven if you haven’t; it’s supposed to be a secret. During World War II, Churchill conducted Cabinet meetings underground in this secret space – and even slept here on occasion. You can also visit a Churchill Museum on site to learn more about Britain’s best known Prime Minister. When you’re done, you’re not far from the Apollo Victoria Theatre, long-time home to the popular musical Wicked.

Nearest Tube: Green Park

Where to stay: Fancy and classic, The Grosvenor is conveniently situated near Buckingham Palace, and right next to Victoria Station. (It’s especially convenient if you’re coming from Gatwick Airport.)

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  • Tate Modern at Bankside, London. ©Louisa Cook / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Amazing Tate

    A concrete cathedral of modern art, the Tate opened a massive extension, named the Blavatnik Building, in 2017.

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Exhibition Road

The main attraction: The Natural History Museum displays dinosaur skeletons, the Science Museum features rockets, and the graceful halls of the V&A showcase design – in addition to myriad ceramics and the world’s first Christmas card. These three free museums are spread along one long graceful road through leafy west London. At the end of the road you’ll find the very Victorian Royal Albert Hall, a domed rotunda that resembles a red velvet cake. If you can see a classical concert here, do.

Nearby: Harrods in glamorous Knightsbridge no longer sells live lion cubs, but it still attracts an international crowd of big spenders. Check out the famous Egyptian room, which is adorned with golden sarcophagi. For more fashion shopping, head to Harvey Nicks down the road.

Nearest tube: South Kensington

Where to stay: The Rembrandt is a small, quiet four-star hotel that’s literally across the road from the V&A.

Madame Tussauds

The main attraction: Want to meet the Queen? Your best chance of gaining a royal audience is a visit to Madame Tussauds Museum, where you’ll meet Her Royal Majesty’s wax double. The museum houses realistic wax sculptures of Britain’s beloved celebrities. Educational and entertaining in equal measure, test your friends’ knowledge of footballers and film stars, and enjoy the new Star Wars section.

Nearby: Regent’s Park is a beautiful landscaped park and garden that makes the London one of the leafiest capitals in the world, alongside Hyde Park, Green Park, St James’s Park and Kensington Gardens. There’s a beautiful rose garden, ZSL London Zoo and an open-air theatre that gives the West End some serious competition.

Nearest tube: Baker Street

Where to stay: The Dolphin House serviced apartments are a great choice for families on a longer stay in the city.

Visit Madame Tussauds

Tate Modern

The main attraction: The four Tate galleries guard some of Britain’s most valuable art. The Tate Modern is the most spectacular and one of the world’s biggest modern art galleries following its recent expansion. Matisses, Dalís, Picassos, Bacons, Pollocks and Rothkos fill the permanent collection, whilst large-scale installation art remains in the cavernous Turbine Hall. The gallery’s stream of blockbuster exhibitions features amazing loans and pieces from the Tate Galleries’ enviable stockroom.

Nearby: Traverse the Thames via the Millennium Bridge for a great view of St Paul’s Cathedral. Its prominent dome features a famous Whispering Gallery, where the smallest sound can carry to someone listening on the other side. Down below in the crypt, you’ll find the tombs of Alexander Fleming and Sir Christopher Wren.

Nearest tube: Blackfriars

Where to stay: The Hilton London Bankside is chic, modern and handy for repeat visits to the Tate.

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Royal Museums Greenwich

The main attraction: Celebrate Britain’s naval history in the elegant village of Greenwich. You can examine the hull of the Cutty Sark, the sleek sailing vessel that once transported Britain's essential tea supply. The marvellous ceiling in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College is worth the crick you’ll get in the neck. You can also book a tour, don a hard hat and a high vis, and get a closer look at the art, thanks to a special observation deck. For standout views of the city, you can stroll up the hill in Greenwich Park.

Nearby: It’s weird to stand in Greenwich and think that all distances in the world are measured from a single line on the ground beneath your feet. The Greenwich Meridian is found at the Royal Observatory. Straddle it, and feel as if the world really does revolve around you.

Nearest tube: Greenwich

Where to stay: Park Plaza Westminster Bridge is near Waterloo station, on a direct line to Greenwich. With massive rooms, this modern hotel is great for families; and you can swim in the indoor pool.

Warner Bros. Studio Tour

The main attraction: Accio tickets! If you’re a Potterhead or a film nut, don’t pass up a chance to see the sets of the Harry Potter movies at Warner Bros. Studio, Watford. It’s a massive, comprehensive display of every prop, costume and potion ingredient that you’d ever wish to see from the films. Lovingly detailed, down to the intricate carvings on the wizards’ wands and the precise green shade of Rita Skeeter’s Quick-Quotes Quill, the display is the work of a team who clearly loved their job. A tip: the studios are huge, so don’t dawdle too much on the first exhibits, or you’ll burn out before you even reach Diagon Alley.

Nearby: If you get the train to the studios from Euston, you might have time to pop in to the Wellcome Collection. This free museum of medicine lies opposite Euston station. King’s Cross station, the next tube stop down, has more Harry Potter magic, with Platform 9 ¾ and a small Harry Potter shop. Those who’ve had enough of Potter can visit the British Library’s treasures gallery and see Da Vinci’s notebooks, handwritten Beatles lyrics and the score from Handel’s Messiah.

Nearest tube: Euston (for onward travel by rail to Watford)

Where to stay: The Ampersand Hotel is quirky enough for young Harry Potter fans, and quiet enough for families.

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