The National Gallery started out quite small. In 1824, the British government purchased a collection of 38 pictures from a wealthy banker and put them on display in his townhouse, but it didn’t take long for private donations to come trickling in. The early directors dreamed of something bigger, and a larger site was soon needed to house everything the gallery would contain.
Today, the collection is kept in an impressive pantheon-style building raised on a terrace atop Trafalgar Square, with its round fountains and double-decker buses flowing by below. More than 2,300 masterworks have found their home behind the columns of the National Gallery, dating from the Middle Ages through the 20th century and including pieces from big names such as Monet, van Gogh, da Vinci, Holbein, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Ruben and van Eyck.
Piccadilly Circus is the meeting place of many of London's most famous roads. Here beautiful Regent Street (shopping heaven), famous Piccadilly (Fortnum and Mason's, The Ritz, the Royal Academy of Art), and cultural Shaftsbury Avenue intersect. In the middle of it all is the famous 1893 statue of Eros, the winged messenger of love, which commemorates Lord Shaftesbury.
The circus was originally created as part of a plan to connect Carlton House, the home of the Prince Regent who became King George IV in 1820, to Regent's Park. When Shaftesbury Avenue was created in 1885, the area became busy with traffic and advertisers saw the potential for advertising; in 1895 London's first illuminated billboards were put up in Piccadilly Circus. For the next century it was London's version of Times Square but now only one building carries billboards. For history buffs, the name Piccadilly dates from the 17th century and comes from piccadill, a type of collar or ruff.
Lined with grand Victorian buildings and big-name shopping boutiques, Regent Street was London's first dedicated shopping block, dating back to the early 19th century. Running for just over a mile (2 km) between Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus, the historic boulevard is now both a major traffic thoroughfare and one of London's busiest streets, welcoming more than 7.5 million annual visitors.
Regent Street is well-established as a shopping Mecca, with over 75 flagship stores including Liberty department store, Hamley’s Toy Store and one of the world’s largest Apple stores, plus designers like Burberry, J.Crew, Anthropologie and COS. Above the dazzling shopfronts, the street is also home to an impressive array of Grade II listed buildings, including the All Souls Church, built by acclaimed architect John Nash, and an eye-catching collection of contemporary street art.
London Bridge is the oldest bridge over the River Thames. While the current incarnation of the bridge dates from the 1970s, there has been a bridge in this place since around 50 AD, when the Romans drove some wooden piles into the river's mud. Since then there has always been a bridge here, and for a long time it was the only one. (Nowadays there are many bridges crisscrossing the Thames.)
Sadly, London Bridge is not one of the prettiest of the Thames bridges, although its name might be the most famous. Expecting the name to conjure up something special, people often mistakenly call Tower Bridge London Bridge. This leads to the story that an American bought London Bridge in 1968, thinking he'd bought Tower Bridge: what he did buy now spans a lake in Arizona.
A cultural melting pot by day with glittering riverside views at night, London’s South Bank is one of the city’s most vibrant destinations. Best known for its proximity to so many of London’s prime attractions, South Bank is opposite the Houses of Parliament, a mere stroll from Covent Garden and the Tate Modern and home to the London Eye, the Imperial War museum and the renowned Royal Festival Hall. Despite the tourist hoards, this stretch along the Thames waterfront (an area running from Lambeth to Blackfriars bridges) maintains its laid-back London cool and makes for an idyllic stroll through the heart of the city. And with everything from music concerts to art galleries crammed into the area, the only problem is deciding where to go first.
The vibrant heart of central London, Leicester Square is among the capital’s most important navigational landmarks, located at the center of the West End Theater District, on the cusp of Soho and Chinatown. Leicester Square is always buzzing with activity during the evening hours and has long been renowned as the center of the capital’s film industry, home to 5 of the city’s biggest cinemas and regularly rolling out the red carpet for star-studded European Premieres.
Recent renovated, Leicester Square remains one of the top destinations for an evening out in London, with dozens of bars, nightclubs, casinos and restaurants, including favorites like the Häagen-Dazs restaurant, M&M World, Wagamama and Pizza Hut. Also on the square is the Trocadero shopping and entertainment center, a number of ticket booths offering cut-price West End theater tickets and several of the city’s most luxury hotels.
The brainchild of the Sellar Group, The Shard now holds the record for the tallest building in the E.U., with the vertical structure measuring an impressive 1,016 feet high. It’s a project some 12 years in the making, employing the skills of architectural visionary Renzo Piano (best known for creating the Pompidou centre in Paris), who not only designed the structure to appear like a gigantic ‘shard of glass’ piercing the skyline, but carefully constructed the angled glass panes to reflect and refract light, creating a prism-like exterior that changes color with the skies.
The futuristic skyscraper takes the place of the Southwark Towers, overtaking it’s predecessor with 72 floors to its 24, and as one of few tall buildings conceived in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, is designed with stability, durability and shock-absorption in mind.
Standing proud on Greenwich dock, the Cutty Sark is one of London’s principal maritime attractions, the world’s only surviving tea clipper and an iconic landmark of Greenwich pier. One of only three surviving period ships built in its style, the Cutty Sark, designed by Hercules Linton, was constructed in 1869 for the Jock Willis Shipping Line and was one of the fastest tea clippers built on the cusp of the steamship revolution. The 963-ton vessel is now a popular tourist attraction, listed on the National Historic Ship Register and housing a museum that not only tells the story of the ship but allows visitors to explore the ship’s interiors, restored to their former glory. Visitors can explore the cargo holds and living quarters of the merchant seaman; walk the decks and look out to sea from the helm; and delve into the fascinating stories of the ship’s epic voyages.
Blackfriars Bridge is the busiest of the four bridges located in central London. It crosses the River Thames bringing both road and foot traffic from one side to the other. The bridge has been updated several times, but the current bridge is 923 feet long, 105 feet wide, and has five wrought iron arches. Stone carvings decorate the piers of the bridge. On the east side the carvings show marine life and seabirds, and on the west side the carvings depict freshwater birds. This reflects the tidal turning point in the river. Most river boat tours along the River Thames will sail underneath the Blackfriars Bridge along with Millennium Bridge, Southwark Bridge, and London Bridge.
In 1982 the bridge gained international notoriety when the body of Roberto Calvi, a former chairman of Italy's largest private bank, was found hanging from one of the arches of the bridge. Five bricks were attached to his body, and around $14,000 in three different currencies was found in his pockets.
So infamous is the East London Street of Brick Lane that there was even an award winning novel and movie penned with the same name. The street, running from Bethnal Green to Whitechapel via the equally famous Spitalfields, has a rich multicultural history, first as home to a sizable Jewish population and more recently, as a settlement for many of London’s Bangladeshi immigrants. These days, Brick Lane and its surroundings are renowned for showcasing the eclectic and retro arts and fashions of the East End, as well as the being the destination of choice for curry lovers.
Brick Lane has earned itself a reputation as the go-to destination for sourcing vintage threads, with its annual Alternative Fashion Week cementing its status as an innovative and fashion-forward region of up and coming designers. Vintage stores and retro boutiques are dotted along the street, alongside a growing population of young, local designers, but the real draw cards are the weekly markets.
The political, historical and cultural heart of London, the central district of Westminster is one of the capital’s busiest areas and home to so many of the city’s top attractions that many tourists never venture far outside its boundaries. Most visitors start their tour along the Thames River waterfront, where highlights include the Houses of Parliament, the Gothic Westminster Abbey and Westminster Palace, home to the iconic Big Ben clock tower, while the famous London Eye looms on the opposite riverbank. Close by is the grand central boulevard of Whitehall, which leads to Parliament Square and the Prime Minister's official residence at 10 Downing Street; Trafalgar Square, home to Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery; the Tate Britain and, to the north, the vibrant West End Theater district. Another star attraction of Westminster is Buckingham Palace, the official home of Her Majesty the Queen, linked to the city by St James Park, The Mall and the Horse Guards Parade.
The British Museum is one of the largest museums in the world, comparable only to the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York. Established around 1750, the British Museum originated with Sir Hans Sloane's 'Cabinet of Curiosities' which he donated to the nation. It's now London's most visited attraction with over seven million objects and a wealth of world history - from Egyptian mummies to Roman sculptures, the Greek Parthenon marbles and the Persian Oxus Treasure (thanks to the British Empire's history of conquering distant countries - there is ongoing controversy about whether some of these treasures should now be returned to where they came from).
But this is no dull, dusty cupboard of old bits and pieces. The British Museum has a wide-ranging program of talks, films, family events, activities for kids, cafes and an excellent shop. The museum is housed in an imposing Greek Revival building dating from the 1850s.
If you only visit one store in London, make it Harrods. Established in 1834, it's now world-famous with good reason. It's a place to explore and be amazed by, more than just a department store. With seven floors of retail, the garish Egyptian escalator, sometimes a live opera singer performing in the stairway, memorials to Princess Diana and the renowned Food Hall, you'll be lost in Harrods for hours.
In fact it's such an iconic part of London, it even has its own range of souvenirs! Harrods also has a wonderful specialized range of tea, designer fashions, luxury accessories, cosmetics, furniture, books, and a number of tea rooms and restaurants in which to regain your strength.
From the awe-inspiring dinosaur skeletons to the fascinating creepy-crawlies gallery, London’s Natural History Museum is a trove of curiosities sure to impress all ages. The gigantic museum dates back to 1881 and houses some 70 million specimens, organized into four color-coded discovery zones and hundreds of interactive exhibitions.
As well as learning about human biology and evolution; marveling over fossils and rocks; and seeing a life-size model of a blue whale, visitors can experience an earthquake simulator, challenge themselves with interactive quizzes and get up close to birds, flowers and insects in the wildlife garden. Notable highlights include a huge Diplodocus skeleton and an animatronic T-Rex in the Dinosaurs Gallery; the mind-boggling taxonomy collection in the Darwin Centre; and the Human Evolution Gallery, home to the first adult Neanderthal skull ever discovered.
London is full of dark, terrifying history. At the London Dungeon you can experience the terror of fleeing the Great Fire of London, of being sentenced and sent to Traitor's Gate, or - worst of all - be beheaded or burned at the stake!
Walk in the footsteps of serial killer Jack the Ripper, or sit in the barber seat of notorious murderer Sweeney Todd. Whichever way you like to be terrified, the London Dungeon will send shivers down your spine.
Largely recognized as the world’s greatest museum of art and design, the Victoria and Albert Museum, often nicknamed ‘the V&A’, is one of the capital’s premium museums, taking over a 12.5-acre plot in central London’s South Kensington. Opened back in 1852 and designated in honor of the reigning monarch Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the museum’s vast collection is spread throughout an incredible 145 galleries and spans 5,000 years of creativity.
Containing over six and a half million objects sourced from all around the globe, the free permanent collection is split into four main departments - Asia, Furniture, Textiles and Fashion; Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass and Word & Image. Most notable are the Medieval & Renaissance galleries where a magnificent series of sculptures, carvings and artworks mark the birth of art as we know it; the Jewelry Gallery, with its glittering collection of jaw dropping jewels and the British Galleries.
Just west of London’s famous Hyde Park, the exquisite Kensington Gardens are one of London’s most historic Royal Parks, once forming the private grounds of Kensington Palace. Stretching over 275 acres, the garden’s principal features include the snaking Serpentine lake, an ornamental round pond and an idyllic Dutch garden, dating back to early 18th-century designs by Henry Wise and Charles Bridgeman.
A number of attractions are interwoven by a series of formal avenues, lined with trees and ornamental flowerbeds. A beautiful statue in tribute of Prince Albert (husband of Queen Victoria) takes center stage at the Albert Memorial, a six-meter tall Roman sculpture known as ‘The Arch’ stands proud on the north bank of the pond and the 150-year-old Italian Gardens feature a striking white marble Tazza Fountain.
Running from Regent’s Park at the north end all the way to Oxford Street at the south end, Baker Street is one of Marylebone’s main thoroughfares, but for fans of Sherlock Holmes, it’s much more than just a shopping destination! Immortalized by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the home of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Baker Street has now become one of the most famous addresses in London literature.
Fans should make a beeline for 221b Baker Street, the detective’s fictional home – a grand Georgian townhouse, which now houses the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Next door, you can shop for souvenirs in the official Sherlock Holmes gift shop, then pose for photos with the nearby Sherlock Holmes Statue.
Forever synonymous with the lovable Paddington Bear, star of Michael Bond’s iconic children’s books, Paddington Station ranks as one of London’s most famous train stations. Located in west London, the busy station serves both national railway and London underground trains, making it an important transport hub, as well as offering a high-speed train link to Heathrow airport.
The grand Victorian-era building dates back to the 19th century, but today it’s a modern and bustling station, crammed with shops, cafés and fast food restaurants. Paddington Station is also a key stop on Paddington Bear tours of London and fans can snap a photo with Marcus Cornish’s Paddington Bear statue or shop for official toys and merchandise at the Paddington Bear shop.
As the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury for almost 800 years, Lambeth Palace has a long and significant history, but for most visitors, it’s the building itself that garners the most attention. The palace’s 15th-century monumental gateway, known as Morton's Tower, is an imposing sight, but the oldest parts of the building, including Langton's Chapel and the Crypt date back to the early 13th-century.
Today, Lambeth Palace is open to the public by guided tour only, which grant visitors’ access to the Archbishop of Canterbury's lavishly decorated State Rooms, the Chapel, Atrium and Crypt, the 10-acre gardens and the magnificent, recently renovated Great Hall.
Earning renown as an alternative fashion Mecca during the 1960s, Carnaby Street was once the hippest place to shop, home to iconic boutiques like Mary Quant, Lord John, Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin, and frequented by music icons like The Who and the Rolling Stones. In fact, the famous shopping street has become so synonymous with Swinging London that it’s been name-checked in pop hits like The Kinks’ ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ and TV shows like The Simpsons, and even inspired a musical of the same name.
Today, Carnaby Street is decidedly more demure, but the pedestrianized shopping district still retains its left-of-centre attitude, as well as its distinctive yellow arches and two plaques commemorating mod fashion pioneer John Stephen and The Small Faces (outside no.1 and no.52 respectively). Of course, the main reason to visit Carnaby Street is the shops and there are plenty to choose from, including many independent fashion.