As I’ve written before, me and London share some kind of special bond. It’s related to me going to an English-speaking school with English teachers in Finland, but never visiting Britain (or any other English-speaking country, for that matter) before the age of 16. I remember feeling immediately at home when I first got off the tube from the airport and saw my first red telephone box – cheesy, I know, but from that moment on, to me, London has felt familiar and warm. And incredibly exciting.
I’ve been to the city many times now, and during the last two trips, I’ve taken it upon myself to capture the most classic London sights on (digital) film. London is such an immense city that it’s impossible to go through all of the sights in one blog post, but I’ll try to list the must-sees for a first-timer. This post concentrates purely on attractions; trying to add museums, cafés/restaurants/pubs or emerging, hip areas into this post would quickly turn it into a guidebook.
So, here goes: 15 London classics. I’m warning you, though – be prepared for massive tourist jams when visiting these sights!
1. Buckingham Palace
What better place to begin the list than the centre of British sovereignty? Buckingham Palace is the official residence of the Royal Family and Queen Elizabeth II herself. In addition to laying eyes on the spectacular building, the golden details on the gates, the Victoria Memorial and the many other statues in front of the palace, what’s worth seeing is the changing of the guard. You know those men with tall, furry black hats and red coats you see in every illustration of London? The changing of the guard is when you’ll see them performing a sort of routine/parade as they change shifts. The schedule of the ceremony varies – check this site for the exact timetables.
2. The Parks
The many parks of London are next on the list, since they’re such an important part of the city’s look and feel. Especially during summertime, you could spend hours and hours wandering around the ridiculously picturesque parks with their ponds, birds and flowers. This particular photo was taken in St James’s Park when the first flowers of March were pushing their heads up from the ground. Fun fact: there’s a Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, where anyone can give a speech on Sundays.
From Buckingham Palace, most of the major parks are at your fingertips. Take a stroll on the Princess Diana Memorial Walk in Green Park, or head east through St James’s Park towards Westminster and enjoy lake views and birds such as swans and pelicans along the way.
3. Westminster Abbey
Just outside of St James’s Park, you’ll find the gothic masterpiece that is Westminster Abbey. Perhaps the most famous cathedral in the United Kingdom, the Abbey is known as the venue for coronations and weddings of the British monarchs. Personally, I love visiting architecturally significant cathedrals and churches – I always get all calm and solemn when I enter a church, but the feeling’s slightly different each time, depending on the unique atmosphere of the venue. There’s usually quite a long line at Westminster Abbey for those who want to go inside, but if you have some time to spare, I’d definitely recommend it. You can buy tickets online in advance.
4. Big Ben & The Palace of Westminster
My personal opinion is that you haven’t truly experienced London if you haven’t seen Big Ben. It’s a true London landmark (I had a 3D puzzle of the iconic clock tower when I was a kid!). The tower is part of the Palace of Westminster, the meeting point of the Houses of Parliament of the UK. Unfortunately, the great bell inside the tower has been silenced for the moment for conservation work, which is scheduled to last until 2021. We won’t be able to hear the hourly bongs of the clock for another four years, but if you’re super eager for the experience, you can visit during New Year’s Eve when the clockmakers have promised to ring the bell despite the maintenance work!
5. London Eye
London Eye is a massive ferris wheel located on the banks of the river Thames. It’s right opposite to the Palace of Westminster, which means that by hopping on, you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the Palace – and of the whole city centre. I’ve ridden it only once, but I remember it vividly; we had amazing views of Big Ben, all the main bridges over the Thames, and the modern buildings of The City (such as the triangular Shard and the rocket-like Gherkin). As with Westminster Abbey, the queues can be off-putting, but you’ll save some time if you buy a ticket online and get into the (slightly) shorter queue for people who’ve purchased their tickets in advance. If you’re short on time and can only invest time into one or two queues, I’d say the London Eye should definitely be high up on your priority list. Looking at London from up above is just an experience.
6. The London Underground
The next London classic on the list is the Underground, or the Tube. The Tube merits its own place on the list because you just can’t separate it from the city. The network is really impressive; you can get just about anywhere with the Tube, and it’s hard to take even a short walk in London without seeing at least a couple of the red signs. The London Underground is actually the world’s oldest underground railway system – parts of it date back to 1863. Some of the stations look their age, too, but the shabby, somewhat claustrophobic tunnels are part of the Tube’s charm.
London stretches over a pretty huge area, so you can’t really expect every attraction to be within walking distance from your accommodation. The Tube is really handy for tackling longer journeys, like the one from Westminster to St Paul’s (the next item on the list). Check this map when you’re unsure what the quickest connection from place A to B is! And for God’s sake, please remember to mind the gap between the train and the platform.
7. The Millennium Bridge & St Paul’s Cathedral
One of my favourite London views is the ensemble of the modern Millennium Bridge and the Romanesque dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s always a bit eerie to take a walk on the bridge, though, because I can’t help but picture Death Eaters circulating the bridge and bringing it down into the river… The structure and the surrounding views offer many cool photo opportunities, so take your time and stroll along!
8. Shakespeare’s Globe
On the south end of the Millennium Bridge stands Shakespeare’s Globe, a modern reconstruction of the 16th century Globe Theatre associated with William Shakespeare. The original theatre burned down in 1613, but the present one was built only in 1997. I’ve actually been to see Romeo and Juliet at the Globe years ago, and the experience was really memorable. We sat in the circular wooden galleries and peered down at the stage as actors recited Shakespeare in old English, with part of the audience standing down on the floor in front of the stage (like they apparently did centuries ago). The whole area isn’t actually covered by the ceiling – only the galleries are covered, which leaves the centre of the theatre under the bare sky. The stage has its own roof, but there’s always a chance that the spectators standing on the floor have to pull out umbrellas if the weather turns.
9. The Tower of London
The Tower of London is familiar to anyone who’s studied their history or watched TV series of medieval England (I’m not disclosing which group I belong to). The Tower has a bloody history, since in the 16th and 17th centuries it acted as the notorious prison where you could be sent to at the King’s pleasure. Today, it plays host to many historical displays and the English Crown Jewels, which can be viewed as part of the tour. Personally, I found the place quite impressive – I love visiting old castles and fortresses where history seems to creep onto your skin.
10. The Tower Bridge
The famous 19th century Tower Bridge is located right next to the Tower. To be honest, I don’t know that much about the bridge and don’t have an awful lot to say about it, except that it’s another classic sight that’s an essential part of the London cityscape. The bright turquoise details give it some extra charm!
11. Trafalgar Square
Moving back towards the city centre, Trafalgar Square is another nice place to visit. It’s characterised by the tall Nelson’s column in the middle (not visible in the picture, though), the four lion statues guarding the column, the beautiful fountains and the National Gallery at the square’s edge. I know I said I wasn’t going to go into museums in this post, but if you’re an art fan, the National Gallery is a true gem – fancy taking a look at some van Gogh, Michelangelo, Cézanne, Monet or Rembrandt? Pop in for a visit, it’s free!
12. Piccadilly Circus & Leicester Square
Phew, took me a long time to get here, but finally, we’re in the commercial centre of London – Piccadilly. The above shot is from last March, when part of the square was under renovation, so the place isn’t looking as flashy as normal. But you get the picture, don’t you? Between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square (located just a stone’s throw away), you’ll see lots of bright lights and find huge showcase stores like the M&M World and the LEGO Store. The area is home to nightclubs, movie theatres, casinos and musical theatres – it’s all a bit much, but an experience in itself.
13. Shopping on Oxford St & Regent St
When you walk northwest from Piccadilly Circus, you’ll find Regent Street, lined with some of the most regal white buildings you’ll ever see. Regent Street and the perpendicular Oxford Street form together the biggest shopping area in London. Warning: you could get lost for hours and come back with a considerably lighter wallet…
Even though the aim here is not to describe whole areas of London, the area of Soho is really worth mentioning. Soho is lined by Regent Street in the west, Oxford Street in the north, Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue in the south, and Charing Cross Road in the east, and in between lies the centre of London nightlife. In the 20th century, Soho was known best as a red light district, and that feel is still present on its streets and in its clubs – however, you’ll also find hip bars and cafés and an incredibly diverse spectrum of restaurants in the area. It’s also home to London’s Chinatown, which is located at the south end of the area, close to Leicester Square. The images above are from the western parts of Soho, close to Regent Street, where you’ll find more shopping opportunities. Classic shopping tips in Soho: Carnaby (photo on the left), and Liberty London (photo on the right with the medieval-style building).
15. Portobello Road in Notting Hill
Last but certainly not least: Portobello Road in Notting Hill. Portobello is known for its pastel-coloured buildings and many vintage shops, which together form the Portobello Market. The street is usually quite packed because of tourists on a pilgrimage to see the colourful houses, but regardless, it’s an interesting place to visit. I loved rummaging through the vintage maps and prints sold in many of the shops – one of these days (or, more accurately, one of these London visits) I’ll actually make the purchase! Taking photos of the pastel buildings is irresistible, but please refrain from climbing people’s front steps and posing for photos as many of the tourists do – the locals seem quite irritated by it, since many of them have hung up signs forbidding photography.
So, there it was: my 15-point list of London classics. Like I said in the beginning, it’s such a huge town that it’s impossible to try to describe the whole city in one post, but I think I did a pretty good job giving tips for first-timers! After all, the main tourist attractions are popular for a reason: London wouldn’t be London without them. I’m sure that in the future, I’ll be making posts of less known areas of London – I certainly mean to venture further into, for example, eastern London in my next visits. Writing this post got me all hyped for hopping on the train and venturing into the city in two days; I’m currently visiting my sister in Nottingham, and together, we’re doing a little London trip in the weekend (mostly because we want to nerd out at the Harry Potter Studio Tour). ♥ Stay tuned for more travel photos and tips!