Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in London
Since it was officially opened on New Year's Eve 1999 (as part of the millennial celebrations), the London Eye has become one of London's most popular attractions. It has 32 sealed 'pod' capsules, fitting a total of 800 people, revolving on a huge Ferris wheel. One go-around takes half an hour with the wheel rotating at only twice the speed of a tortoise sprinting, so you can step on and off without the wheel needing to stop!
The London Eye is the fourth-tallest structure in London, so the far-reaching views over London are spectacular. On a clear day you can see as far as Windsor Castle. And the slow speed of the rotation means there's plenty of time to see everything and take lots of photos.
Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic sights in London. It was opened in 1894, designed to echo the nearby Tower of London although the two have no association except proximity. The bridge is a bascule bridge which means the span lifts to allow ships and yachts through headed for the Pool of London, the port area just upstream of Tower Bridge. River traffic takes priority over road traffic and cars have to wait when a boat wants to come through.
The bridge has two high towers suspended by wires from the land and linked by a high-level walkway between. This was designed for pedestrians to be able to cross the river even when the bridge was open and you can still walk across it today. A common confusion is that Tower Bridge is actually called London Bridge but in fact that is the next one upstream, a much plainer bridge.
The Thames is the longest river in England, the second longest in the United Kingdom. It flows from the west in the Cotswolds, passing through Oxford and London, ending at the sea at Southend-on-Sea in Essex. As far up as Teddington on the western edge of London, the river is tidal. Once the lifeline of London trade and communication, it's still busy with boats: sightseeing boats and houseboats mainly.
Once the only way across the river was to ford it, then London Bridge was built by the Romans. Nowadays many bridges criss-cross the river, the pedestrian Millennium Bridge, Tower Bridge and Albert Bridge are among the prettiest.
The Thames is home to many species of fish and birds - particularly white swans which are to this day all still owned by the Queen. The river is also used by rowers and yachtsman but not swimmers - the water is not the cleanest.
Westminster Palace, home to the British Houses of Parliament, is right on the river Thames. A magnificent Neo-Gothic building dating from 1840, it's most recognizable from the clock tower at one end known as Big Ben. (In fact, Big Ben is actually the bell inside the tower.)
Parliament is made up of two houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords and both have their meeting chambers inside here. It is possible to sit and watch from the Visitors' Gallery if you like seeing grown men taunting each other with bad jokes. Once a year, the Queen puts on her crown, sits on her Throne in the House of Lords and officially opens Parliament.
Theatrically inclined visitors to London will delight in the relatively recently reconstructed replica of the Globe Theatre, with which the Bard was famously associated. Guided tours of the facility offer an unparalleled glimpse into the theatrical craft, culture and community that thrived during Shakespeare's day (and in response to the author's mighty quill).
Originally constructed in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company (the so-called Lord Chamberlain's Men), the structure was decimated by a fire 14 years later. A second structure was promptly erected, only to be closed in 1642, a mere 26 years after its founder's death.
A faithful replica of the structure (dubbed “Shakespeare's Globe”) was opened to the public in 1997, just 750 feet from the site of its predecessors. It offers the world's largest exhibition dedicated to the greatest scribbler in the English language, complete with actors, recordings and interactive displays.
At the heart of London’s historic Docklands, the waterfront district of Canary Wharf has transformed itself into a financial powerhouse in recent years, becoming, along with the City of London nearby, one of the capital’s most important business centers. The modern district is now home to the world or European headquarters of some of the biggest names in banking and media, and it certainly looks the part, with its gleaming skyscrapers and glass-fronted high-rises, including the 235-meter-tall One Canada Square, the tallest building in the UK until the arrival of The Shard.
It’s not all about work in Canary Wharf though – the revitalized docks now serve as an urban playground for the city’s most affluent residents, with a suitably elegant selection of bars and restaurants, and a thriving shopping district. Additional highlights include the unique Traffic Light Tree, an installation artwork by Pierre Vivant; the Centaur.
The Royal Air Force Museum London gets travelers in touch with history and puts them up close with more than 100 on-site aircrafts that are ready to be explored. Visitors will learn about World War I on an interactive tour of the brand new First World War in the Air exhibit, and travelers can see a life-sized model of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet—the only one of its kind displayed in the world!
Young aviation enthusiasts can get a taste of air traffic control operations in an interactive display that lets them run the show. The Princess Mary’s RAF Nursing Service gives visitors a different view of war, with a behind the scenes look at those who have cared for the sick and wounded since the early 1900s. Travelers in search of education and entertainment agree, the Royal Air Force Museum London is worth a visit.
More Things to Do in London
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.
Dating from the 1820s and named after Admiral Nelson's last great victory, Trafalgar Square is a hub of London life. With the National Gallery on one side, beautiful church St Martin in the Fields just across the road and the famous Nelson's Column with its guarding lions, it's London's grandest square. It's here that London celebrates moments such as Chinese New Year and winning the Olympics, as well as having a huge Christmas tree each year. It's also here that Londoners show their displeasure about things such as wars and curbs on freedom on speech.
Trafalgar Square is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world pass by. There's a common belief that if you sit here for half an hour you will see someone you know, because the whole world passes through Trafalgar Square at some point.
Visitors can explore the ship’s nine decks where the restored living and working quarters (including a sick bay and a dental surgery) and a series of interactive exhibits provide a full sensory experience of life on board during World War II. Climb the ladders between decks; walk in the footsteps of the ship’s 950-strong crew, discover the inner workings of the engine room and visit the interactive Operation room.
Part of London’s famous series of Imperial War Museums, the original Churchill War Rooms, set in the Prime Minister’s secret underground headquarters. The maze of rooms in the basement of a Whitehall building, initially set-up to protect key government figures from the Blitz bombings, were known as the ‘Cabinet War Rooms’ and became a vital center of operations from 1940 to 1945.
After the end of the war, the rooms remained secret until they were opened to the public in 1984 after restoration efforts by the Imperial War Museum. Today, the museum explores the life and legacy of Winston Churchill and includes stories, speeches, photos, video interviews and documents. Here, you can explore the main Cabinet War Room, the ‘Courtyard Rooms’, the ‘Bunker’ and the ‘Map Room’
The busiest shopping street in Europe, London’s Oxford Street is home to over 300 stores—from the capital’s flagship Primark to the country’s second-biggest department store—art deco showstopper Selfridges.
Following the old Roman road to Oxford for a mile and a half, Oxford Street runs from Marble Arch in the west end to Tottenham Court Road in the east end, and some of the other flagship stores you’ll find include Debenhams, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, and the world’s biggest Topshop — it covers five floors, 90,000 square feet of retail space, and sees a whopping 28,000 visitors a day. It hasn’t always been glitz and glamour for Oxford Street, though. The road was once notorious as the route prisoners would have to take from Newgate Prison to reach the gallows near Marble Arch. You wouldn’t know that today, especially in winter when the whole street sparkles as it gets decked in Christmas lights.
Greenwich is a quaint village area of London just downriver from central London. It is most famous for its maritime history and as home to the Royal Observatory. Located at zero degrees of longitude, all the world's time zones begin here with Greenwich Mean Time. Greenwich was also once a fashionable 17th century retreat from London and there is much grand architecture to be seen including the magnificent Observatory, the Queen's House and the National Maritime Museum.
A 15th-century royal palace, at one time home to Henry VIII and birthplace of Elizabeth I, it was rebuilt in the 18th century and is now the Old Royal Naval College. Don't miss the Painted Hall which took 19 years to complete.
The Tate Modern is one of London's best and most-loved art galleries. Located in an old power station on the south bank of the Thames, the huge turbine hall makes an imposing entrance and wonderful art space for innovative and playful artworks - kids especially love it. The other gallery spaces show a range of the world's most significant modern art in changing exhibitions around various themes.
Tate Modern has an excellent shop and its cafe, overlooking the Thames River and St Paul's Cathedral, is a great place to rest your feet and mind with one of the best views in London. The Tate Modern is one of four museums: Tate Britain (just down the river), Tate St Ives (Cornwall) and Tate Liverpool. Tate Modern and Tate Britain are connected by riverboat so it's easy to move from the modern art at the Tate Modern to the British art of the Tate Britain.
Renowned throughout Victorian times as the home of the working class, the birthplace of Cockney Rhyming Slang and the stomping ground of the notorious Jack the Ripper, London’s East End has long been associated with the grittier side of the capital. But despite its rough-around-the-edges image, the East End remains one of Londoners’ favorite haunts and its high population of young and immigrant residents has made it one of the city’s most cosmopolitan and ever-evolving districts, teeming with fashion-forward nightclubs, vintage emporiums and modern art galleries.
Since the Olympic Games took over the city in 2012, East London has undergone a 21st-century makeover, with the vast Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park now sprawling over Stratford and a cluster of glitzy shopping malls and chic eateries springing up around it.
Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Gherkin’ for its unusual shape, the dazzling glass-fronted skyscraper, 30 St Mary Axe, is among London’s most distinctive landmarks, looming 180 meters over the City of London financial district. Largely regarded as a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, the award-wining design was the work of Norman Foster and the Arup Group, and includes energy-conserving features like spiraling light wells and ventilation shafts.
The now-iconic office building opened its doors on 28 April 2004 and today is home to companies like Swiss Re and Sky News, as well as hosting London’s highest private members’ club on its top floor, and occasionally pop-up restaurants and bars, taking advantage of the magnificent 360-degree views.
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.
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.
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