21 Top Places to Visit in London (for 1st time visitors)
Bursting at its perimeters, there are so many amazing places to visit in London and each with its own unique story to tell. It is one of the best cities in the world for a reason.
London has left behind a structure, palace, or monument as it’s moved through every era of its rich history that spans thousands of years.
Mixed in with that is a vibrant, modern tale to tell with street art, world-class museums, unique architecture, great food and coffee, and magnificent views all around.
We spent 10 days in London (and I once lived there for over 2 years). All of our tips are based on personal experiences.
I wanted this post to focus more on places to visit in London rather than things to do. Although some of these are interchangeable, I’ll have two separate posts that will focus just on the top attractions in London and then things to do in London like “see a show in the West End” or “eat a pub lunch”.
Some of these places in London are neighborhoods to explore, like Camden, Kensington and Shoreditch. Others will be tourist attraction places like the Tower of London or the Shard.
We have individual, in-depth posts on several of these places to visit in London coming soon with lots of tips, memorable moments, and inspiring photos.
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Many of the paid attractions are on the London Pass by Go City, which is a great money saving discount tourist card for a select number of days or attractions.
Depending on your math, you could either use it for all the attractions you want to do, or use the card for the most expensive and then purchase separate tickets for the cheaper attractions individually. (We were gifted a 3-day city pass)
St Jame’s Park
My favorite of all the parks in London is the 58-acre St Jame’s Park. It’s home to the Mall and Horse Guards Parade and is on the doorstep of Buckingham Palace. The Mall is a grand processional route, lined with trees, which has seen many historic ceremonial parades over the years.
It’s the smallest of the Royal Parks and has a quiet beauty about it with its manicured gardens, blooming flowers, ponds, ample birdlife, and meandering paths under the shade of hundreds of trees.
There are beautiful views from here of the London Eye, Westminster, St James’s Palace, the Horse Guards Parade, and Buckingham Palace from the footbridge spanning the central lake.
When I lived in London, I would often walk through here on my commute to a nearby bar I worked at. It was a heavenly commute!
Let the path through St James’s Park take you to one of the most famous palaces in the world. Odds are the Union Flag will be flying above Buckingham Palace which signals that the Queen is not in residence. The Royal Standard is flown at royal residences only when the sovereign is present.
Queen Elizabeth has decided to live the rest of her days mostly in her favorite place, Windsor Castle.
The most popular thing to do is see the Changing of the Guards. We timed it for our last day, which also happened to be the day they don’t perform! So, check the schedule before planning your itinerary.
The views are quite lovely from the perspective of the Queen Victoria monument and water fountain out the front of Buckingham Palace. This marble monument, 25 metres high, commemorates the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.
You can tour the palace on select days. See more tours of Buckingham Palace here.
Borough Markets, London Bridge + South Bank
Foodies will love visiting the Borough Markets on the South Side of the Thames near London Bridge
Borough Markets are a collection of stalls and vendors selling fresh produce. Whether you’re hungry for strawberries dipped in chocolate, soft local cheeses, bowls of Vietnamese pho, sausage rolls or a refreshingly swet peach prosecco, you’ll find it here.
I’ll warn you; weekends are shoulder to shoulder busy. During the week it is a much quieter experience.
We loved the coffee from Monmouth Coffee, one of the best we had in London.
The Southbank region where the markets are located has iconic London views, the trendy Tate Modern, and fun pubs lining the river, we loved the Anchor Bankside (4 minute walk). You never know what you might see walking the narrow cobblestoned streets around here.
While here, consider visiting:
- London Bridge Experience (fun attraction on our London for teens )
- Tate Modern
- Millennium Bridge
- Founder’s Arms Pub
Ready to see the more affluent neighborhood with a dash of Royal?
Kensington (including South Kensington) is one of the most beautiful places in London with elegant streets lined with period architecture, beautifully landscaped gardens and parks, fine museums, and elegant stores.
You’ll also find restaurants that range from casual pubs and bakeries to upper class fine dining.
- High Tea at The Ampersand Hotel
- Coffee: Farm Girl
- Harrod’s – in nearby Knightsbridge
- Natural History Museum
- V & A museum
- Science museum
Kensington Palace and Gardens
We decided at the last minute to visit Kensington Palace (like when we walked up to the front door) and we’re so glad we did. As it was on the afternoon of our arrival, it was our first Royal London experience and a perfect introduction for the girls to Royal London.
Kensington is known as the home of the Young Royals.
It’s the official residence of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (i.e. Prince William and Kate) and their children. Harry and Meghan lived here for a time, and most famously, it was beloved Princess Diana’s home.
I remember visiting Kensington when Diana died, and its perimeter was several feet deep with flowers.
This is also where the legendary Queen Victoria was born. You can follow her Royal footsteps on a tour through her re-imagined childhood rooms and the King and Queen State Apartments. and the magnificent King’s State Apartments and Queen’s State Apartments.
I loved the Life Through a Royal Lens exhibition sharing the Royal Family through photography, the views from the windows, the elaborate Kings Staircase and King’s Gallery.
And the most beautiful Kensington Gardens with their memorial to Diana and the legacy of her working doing good for the world.
I wish we had longer to explore but we had to rush to get to our high tea at the nearby Ampersand Hotel.
Get your tickets here in advance for the palace.
Piercing the sky above London is the needle-like structure of the Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe.
It’s quickly becoming a London icon and popular place to visit, especially for the incredible views from its 72nd floor open-air platform. There is an enclosed viewing platform on level 69 as well.
The Shard View is an expensive thing to do in London, but the 244m high sweeping London views make it worthwhile. You get a fantastic perspective of the River Thames snaking through the city east to west.
Aim for about an hour before sunset, so you can experience the dusk golden light views, sunset panoramic views, and nighttime views when those London lights sparkle.
You must reserve your tickets in advance. (It will also save you money). This attraction is included in the Go City Card. This would be the star event of the pass!
Want to experience 5-star luxury with these views? The Shangri La Hotel is located on Level 34 of the Shard. Each room has floor-to-ceiling windows providing spectacular views of the city, and maintains the theme of Oriental elegance found throughout the hotel. Check availability and book your stay here.
Soho + the House of MinaLima
I wish we spent more time exploring Soho. Every time we walked through this neighborhood I felt its magnetic bohemian vibe.
It used to be a rocking place for nightclubs and music venues, but has quietened down in that regard. It’s still a much loved and proud LGBTQ area of London, and there are a lot of fun cafes, stores, bars, and restaurants here.
On this family trip to London, we visited The House of MinaLima in SoHo – a must for all Harry Potter fans. I made a list of our things to do in London with teens.
This gallery and store showcases the graphic art of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films, all of which was exclusively designed by Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima.
It’s only while exploring the Wizarding World art on display here that you realize just how much these graphic designers are responsible for the magic of the Harry Potter films.
I enjoyed our self-guided tour of Westminster Abbey more than I thought I would, as did our kids (14 & 10).
Not only is this place of worship the finest example of early English Gothic architecture, but it is also the Royal Church. Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned here and many have been married in the abbey as well.
A self-guided audio tour through the abbey shares the history and stories of the church.
You’ll walk through the beautiful, tiled sanctuary where weddings happen; the elaborate quire; visit the tombs of many royals and important people; pay your respects at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier; and see the bland Coronation Chair.
Don’t miss the Poets Corner where you’ll find the resting places of some of England’s finest: Chaucer, Dickens, Tennyson, Kipling, and Hardy.
I also enjoyed seeing the perspective of the abbey from walking around the cloisters and gardens.
Big Ben & Houses of Parliament
More a thing to do than a place to visit, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are usually high on the list of any visitor to London.
The Houses of Parliament is where all the important business in running the country happens. You can tour inside during select days and times. I was fortunate to have a friend working there when I lived in London who invited me in for a drink at one of the pub’s inside. It was a cool experience!
Big Ben is the 13.5 tonne iconic clock tower that most visitors gaze up at. Officially, it’s the Elizabeth Tower, but everyone calls it Big Ben after Benjamin Hall, the First Commissioner of Works when it was finished in 1858.
You can see it from many viewpoints in London, including the London Eye, Westminster Bridge, cruising along the river, and our favorite, from Parliament Square.
Parliament Square is next to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. It has statues of well-known political leaders including Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela.
One of our favorite iconic London photos we captured on our trip – that even local Londoners didn’t know about – was that of Winston Churchill looking out upon Big Ben.
Around the corner from here is no. 10 Downing Street, the official office of Britain’s leaders, and the home of the Prime Minister. You can only glimpse the Georgian building and its black front door from afar as the entrance to the street is now blocked off by security.
Don’t let its small outside appearance deceive you. It’s actually three houses joined in one and has around one hundred rooms!
St Paul’s Cathedral
One of the most famous cathedrals in the world, St Paul’s Cathedral is one of London’s most magnificent buildings seen throughout the city.
In fact, there is a rule that St Paul’s must be visible from eight separate places throughout London which is why so many of the modern skyscrapers are unusual shapes. They are making room for that line of sight!
Now that you’ve seen that impressive dome from around the city, it’s time to see it from the inside and learn about this architectural masterpiece from Sir Christopher Wren, built after the Great Fire of London between 1675 and 1710.
We visited on a guided tour with Monograms travel, but standard admission includes an audio guide. Visit the crypt to see memorials of hundreds of well known and great people, including the bodies of Wellington and Nelson lying directly under the dome.
Sadly, the whispering gallery around the base of the dome was closed when we visited, but this is one of the best things to do in St Paul’s as well as the Stone Gallery and Golden Gallery, both at the top of the dome offering incredible views of London.
Ask the attendants if they can take you to the spiraling Harry Potter staircase. This staircase in St Paul’s was used as the “Divination Stairwell” located in the North Tower of Hogwarts Castle for the Harry Potter films, .
Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour
At the top of Kalyra’s London experiences for teens was the Harry Potter Studios tour. Located about one hour northwest of London, this backlot tour will take you through sets, props, and interactive exhibits of the real movie settings of the Harry Potter film series.
You’ll be amazed at how they created magical scenes from such small, intimate settings. We all loved this magical deep dive into the Wizarding World.
Allow for three to four hours for the self-guided tour. That will give you enough time to read the stories, ride a broomstick, walk through the forbidden forest and those scary spiders, and drink butterbeer.
See our family’s experience at the Harry Potter Warner Bros Studios here.
Trafalgar Square is one of the most famous places in London to visit.
It’s really the center of London and has always been a place for Londoners to gather, whether that is to bring in the New Year together, or protest, rally or march for important rights and causes.
The 52-m high statue of Lord Nelson dominates the square as do the lions representing Britain’s courage. (You’ll see them all over London). The National Gallery is the stunning building in the background.
One of my favorite things about Trafalgar Square are the pedestrian lights surrounding it. They are LGBTQ traffic lights that include two men and two women holding hands and forming a heart, and various gender symbols including a transgender sign.
Tower of London
A Tower of London tour with an entertaining, red-coated Beefeater is one of the most popular things to do in London.
Yeoman Warders have been guarding the Tower of London since Tudor time when Henry VIII decided that the Tower should be protected by part of the royal bodyguard.
They were originally part of the Yeoman of the Guard – the monarch’s personal, crack bodyguard who traveled with him everywhere.
Nicknamed ‘Beefeaters’, the Yeoman Body of 32 men and women are all drawn from the Armed Forces, and must have an impeccable record of service and high ranks.
They give free 45-minute tour and share entertaining and gruesome stories of its macabre history from its former years (and I mean centuries) as a Royal residence, armory, treasury, and zoo (thank goodness they stopped that!)
The Tower of London is actually a castle comprising twenty-two towers but sitting in the middle is the original White Tower built in the 1070s by William the Conqueror. The walls, towers, and moat surrounding it came in the 1200s and have been there ever since.
After your tour, you can walk around the old castle grounds to see the:
- exorbitant crown jewels held in the Waterloo Barracks
- the beheading place of Ann Boleyn and Catherine Howard (King Henry VIII’s wives)
- the prison towers and see the fascinating etchings on the walls (especially the elaborate astronomical ones)
- The famous ravens in the courtyard keep an eye on everyone. Are they the spirits of all the tortured souls executed here?
- The Bloody Tower, where the prince brothers were held for safety and later disappeared, said to be murdered by their uncle Richard III for the crown. As we live in Raleigh, we enjoyed learning about Sir Walter Raleigh’s 13-year imprisonment here and seeing his personal herb garden.
- walk around the castle battlements for beautiful views of Tower Bridge and the River Thames.
We all really enjoyed this top attraction of London.
Thankfully, during our post pandemic visit (and early start) we had no lines at all. If it were a “normal” day just the lines to see the crown jewels themselves would be 2.5 hours long. My personal opinion is it’s not worth the wait – but not much is in my eyes!
Honestly, while they were absolutely stunning, I could not help but think about how much world poverty and peasant challenges could be solved if these just weren’t sitting here in thick glass protected by the military looking beautiful for people to gawk at.
Get there for doors opening and buy a skip the line ticket. The Tower of London is notorious for its long lines, which can extend into the hours. Tickets will also be cheaper online.
Wowzer! This was my first-time visiting Regents Park, Central London’s biggest park, and I was impressed.
Regent’s Park is one of London’s eight Royal Parks and covers an area of 395 acres. Its beauty unravels as you walk across grassy meadows, past water sculptures and topiaries; through colorful, blooming gardens; and across multiple playgrounds and sporting fields.
- Queen Mary’s Garden
- Boating Lake
- Open-Air Theater (performances in the summer)
- Avenue Gardens
- ZSL London Zoo
See our post on Camden for more tips and photos.
When I first moved to London in 1997, Hyde Park was on my top places to visit in London list.
It’s one of the most well-known of the London Parks, most notably for its long history as a site of protest and rallies and for its Speakers Corner, where people from all walks of life share their opinions.
My youthful hippy heart was attracted to it for these reasons. On this trip, I didn’t love it as much as the other London Parks, but it’s still one of the things to do in London for those seeking a little nature respite.
Hyde Park is right near Buckingham Palace and has a beautiful rose garden, trees to climb for the kids, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, and a pretty lake. We enjoyed the views here with a coffee from the waterside café. It wasn’t the best coffee, but it wasn’t awfully bad either.
Another of the iconic and unique places to visit in London is Tower Bridge. Almost anyone coming to London is already familiar with the elegant beauty of its neo-Gothic turrets and blue suspension cables.
You can head up into the north tower to the (paid) Tower Bridge Exhibition to learn more of the engineering and history. Or, walk across Tower Bridge for free and get great views overlooking the Thames and back over the Tower of London.
You can also go up and inside the towers for higher views and to learn more about the bridge. It is a paid attraction and is included in your London attraction pass.
Check for times when the Tower Bridge will raise up its bridge arms so boats underneath can pass by. They do have to book it 24 hours in advance so you can plan ahead for this cool experience.
On average, Tower Bridge opens its bascules around 800 times a year, that’s around twice a day. Check opening times here.
Take a river cruise to see it from underneath as well.
As we’re not big museum people, we popped into the British Museum for “just a quick visit” and I instantly regretted it.
The British Museum is outstanding, and I highly recommend it as one of the places to visit in London (for longer than an hour).
It’s England’s largest museum and known to be one of the oldest and finest in the world with vast collections that span Egyptian, Greek Roman, European, and Middle Eastern cultures and histories.
I loved the collection of Egyptian mummies and the Rosetta Stone. Pick up a confusing map when you arrive, which will have the most notable sights to see if you are short on time. It’s massive!
Near this London Museum is the historic Plough Pub. We recommend stopping in at this quite refined yet very cozy Victorian pub for lunch or just a pint!
Our good friends from Raleigh Curt and Jenny recommended it to us as their favorite pub in London. Curt’s dad’s ashes sit in this pub, so we popped in to say G’day and have a drink with him.
One of the most well-known places to visit in London is Covent Garden. That was my weekend playground when I lived in London. With the absence now of Aussie bars, it has a more refined feel to it, and I still love it!
Wander the cobblestoned areas surrounding the central marketplace, which had its beginnings as a convent garden in the 1500s. It served different purposes from then, but by the 1800s it had developed into the largest produce market in the world. Its overwhelming size prompted its relocation in 1974.
Thankfully, the community fought against its demolition and it was persevered into this gorgeous tourist and shipping destination in 1980.
There are endless restaurants and bars and local stores. Wander down the small alleyways off the square to see what you discover. Performers rotate all day long on the street just below the balcony of the famous Punch and Judy pub (good luck trying to get on it!).
You’ll also find several theaters. The girls and I watched Matilda at the small Cambridge Theater. It was fantastic and we highly recommend watching a theater show on your visit to London.
Camden Town is known for its alternative, punk rock, grunge vibes. It’s gotten a little more yuppy since I lived in London, but the personality of “Come as you are!” still reigns supreme.
Camden has a long history of live music. It was the home of Amy Winehouse, and the Hawley Arms is known as Amy’s pub as she frequented it so much.
Craig and I enjoyed having a pint at the live music venue Dublin Castle, which is where Coldplay got their first start. It’s also the place where Bonn Scott, lead singer of ACDC drank himself to death.
Be careful in Camden, it’s a party place.
We learned a lot of these musical facts, from the very cool mural inside our Holiday Inn hotel located right on the canals.
The other popular reason to visit Camden is for the daily Camden Markets, most popular on the weekends. Here you’ll find loads of stalls selling all kinds of wares including an abundance of food stalls representing cuisines from around the world.
There is a walking path here along the canals that takes you right to Regents Park. You can also catch a boat along the canals to Little Venice or vice versa.
Welcome to Hip Shoreditch!
Since I lived in London, this East London neighborhood has sprinted past Camden and Soho as the hippest, most alternative part of London.
We visited on a Monday, so it was much quieter than a weekend. I think I’d rather take in the atmosphere on the weekend when it’s more alive with its buzzing markets and street activity.
One thing you’ll notice about this place to visit in London in comparison to other neighborhoods is the abundance of street art dressing up the walls.
Street art in the UK is still technically illegal and considered a criminal activity, which means street art can pop up quickly, but taken down just as fast.
Shoreditch is the anomaly and is the epicenter of London’s street art scene as they fight back on the vandalism label. The most well-known secret street artists of all time – Banksy has left his mark in Shoreditch several times.
Running through Shoreditch is Brick Lane, known for vintage shopping and outstanding Indian restaurants. This was the place to go for your favorite curry dish even when I lived in London in 1997.
Prices have gone up though with this area’s gentrification. Gone are the five-pound curries, but the rich, aromatic flavors and smells are ever present. We got a suggestion from a local Indian to eat at Monsoon and it was a great choice!
What was once the world’s largest brewery, The Old Truman Brewery is now a space for edgy markets, vintage stores, bars, and live music venues. Columbia Flower Market on Sundays is meant to be phenomenal and fragrant
Shoreditch Street Art tour – this came so highly recommended to us, but we could not make it work with our schedule. Definitely a thing to do in London when we return. Check out this Shoreditch tour here.
No trip to London would be complete without a visit to Greenwich, the home of time located about 40 minutes southeast of Central London along the Thames.
A way to make this awesome day trip from London City even better is to turn it into a sightseeing cruise along the River Thames.
You can either do a guided river cruise with commentary or take the faster Thames Clipper. If you do another Thames River sightseeing cruise, I’d skip the guided commentary to Greenwich and just get the ferry.
Greenwich has a lovely English village feel yet sits on the edge of royalty with its grand architecture and palace heritage.
A highlight is a visit to the Royal Observatory, the place of time! It’s here you can learn the fascinating history of how the Royal astronomers experimented and studied the stars to come up with today’s modern version of time.
Even better are the views from here as you look out across the leafy greens of Greenwich village and Greenwich Park, the old hunting park behind the palaces. Looking beyond that is the stunning buildings of the Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum, and the Old Royal Naval College, likened to architectural splendor of the Palace of Versailles.
I loved visiting the Queens House more than I thought I would and the National Maritime Museum is also worth visiting.
In the village, you may want to wonder through the Greenwich covered market and stop for lunch or a drink. We had coffee at Gail’s Bakery, lunch at Grind, and a drink at the Gipsy Moth.
Richmond is an area many first time visitors to London (or those with less time) may not get to experience, but it’s one of my favorite places in London to visit.
We didn’t get to it on this trip, we considered it, but since the flowers weren’t in full bloom we decided to hold off instead of wasting our money visiting the nearby Kew Gardens, but I have been before!
Richmond is a leafy neighborhood on the Thames River. This is where you come to get to know a quieter and slower side of London.
Along the way, you’ll find the very popular and beautiful Kew Gardens. You can also go deer spotting at Richmond Park, walk along the river, and explore the Tudor palaces of Hampton Court, home of King Henry VIII.
After visiting here, get on the tube to the next stop and have lunch down by the river at the Slug and Lettuce, followed by a lovely walk along the Thames.
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