10 Things to do in London
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” – Samuel Johnson (Life of Samuel Johnson), 1791
This is possibly one of the most ubiquitous quotes about London. But then again, the quote still holds true. You can have lived in London for a long time or may just have visited it very often, but there are still new things to discover.
For those who have never been to this busy, multicultural and historic city, I have assembled my personal top 10 things to do on your first trip to London. This is my personal selection and you can swap things around and add hundreds of other things to do but if you only have a couple of days in the city, this is a good way to start your adventure.
As handy as London’s tube network is, the best way to see the city is by walking. The tube map can be deceiving and so it’s best to walk most of the distances in the inner city anyway (though be advised to bring good shoes or you may have to take a break from exploring on your second day).
By walking through London you get a feel for the different parts of the city and the times that they were build in. London City is the oldest part of town and so you will find many small alleyways that still bear the name of the time that they were first set up in. At the opposite part of town, in Westminister, you can experience the parks and large streets that were designed to represent and show London’s greatness.
Don’t be afraid to get lost either because that is really the most exciting thing.
2. Visit the Tower of London
Every guide book tells you to visit the Tower and you will probably know snippets of its history or have heard of one of its most famous inmates: Elizabeth I. The Tower is as essential to the London experience as the Thames, Buckingham Palace, Marks & Spencer and overcrowded tubes.
I’ve been to the Tower three times (or maybe four) and at my last visit, I still spend the better part of a day there. So definitely plan at least half a day so that you get to see every part of this Medieval fortress.
To get a sense of the place, it’s best to start with a guided Beefeater tour (though they don’t like to be called that) which start right behind the entrance every 30 minutes and are included in the price of admission. The tour ends in the Chapel Royal of Saint Peter Ad Vincula right beside the Tower Green and from there you’re free to roam through the White Tower, Tower Walk or Waterloo Barracks.
A definite highlight are the crown jewels in Waterloo Barracks. It’s best to go in if you see that there’s no queue because then, the guards might let you walk past the main display of crowns twice (or three times if you’re as enchanted by them as I was).
The only downside is the hefty price of admission of £24.50 (as checked on 4. May 2015).
3. Visit one of London’s countless museums
While we are at admission prices, we might move on to London’s many many excellent museums. Why? Because the admission to all of London’s major museums is free! Marvelous, right? So no guilt if, after two floors of magnificent paintings, you just can’t take any more historic faces. You can just come back the next day or move on to one of the other fabulous museums.
My personal favourite is the National Portrait Gallery at Trafalgar Square. While the National Gallery one door over houses paintings by van Gogh, Botticelli, Holbein, and many others, the Portrait Gallery houses the famous faces of English history. The something painting of Shakespeare, several portraits of Elizabeth I., Queen Victoria, the modern Royal Family and of every other famous person in British history. One painting if more enchanting than the next, so it’s worth to spend a while at the Gallery.
Other great museums are the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum. All are absolutely magnificent and worth every second that you spend in them. Do think about donating some money though, so that the museums can stay free for many more years to come.
My personal must see museums the next time I’m in town are the Museum of London Docklands and the Tate Modern. I’ve been to the basement of the Tate Modern before and have stood in front of its impressive façade many times, but I’ve never actually been inside to see the art.
4. Take your lunch outside and sit in one of London’s many parks
To save money and to feel even more like a local, you can pick up your lunch at a supermarket. My personal favourites are Marks & Spencer on a “plenty of money”-day or Tesco on a “not so much money”-day. Both do excellent sandwiches, salads and cut up fruits and veg, as well as a wide variety of dips and even hot snacks. Some franchise cafés, such as Prêt-a-mange and Eat, also sell fantastic wraps, sandwiches, cakes and hot soups at reasonable prices.
Once equipped with lunch, you can retreat to one of London’s many parks and find a bench (some parks also have beach chairs which can be rented for a small price) and just enjoy the view. My personal favourite is St. James’s Park which offers views of Buckingham Palaces or Horse Guards Parade and the London Eye, depending on where you sit.
5. Enjoy a coffee at the famous Monmouth Coffee
Now this recommendation is sort of hearsay but I have heard it from enough reliable sources to include it in this list. If rumors are right, this is the best coffee in London. Monmouth has three locations in London; one in Borough Market, one in Covent Garden and one in Bermondsey.
And to give this rather unsubstantiated recommendation some depth, have a look at these two YouTubers trying Monmouth Coffee for the first time and tell me that that’s not coffee one seriously has to try: London with Louis – Mr Ben Brown Vlog.
Update: I can now officially say that the coffee at Monmouth is really really good. I went to the store near Borough Market which was pretty busy on a Saturday afternoon but they worked surprisingly efficient so the wait wasn’t very long at all.
6. Soak in the history of the city
London is all about the history. Whether you’re visiting the Tower of London, the East End, Shakespeare’s Globe or just walking around, you can’t escape London’s rich history.
So just take your time, read the blue plaques on many of the houses to find out which famous person used to live there, visit a play at the Globe, stroll through the East End and Docklands, or join one of the historic tours which start between the Monument and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
7. See the Changing of the Guards
It’s one of the most touristy things you can do in London (which will be obvious once you’re standing in front of Buckingham Palace at 11am) but definitely worth doing.
During summer, and weather permitting, the Changing of the Guards takes place every day and starts at 11am. During winter, and weather permitting, the ceremony takes place every second day but I would recommend to check online before you head to Buckingham Palace.
8. Get lost in the streets of Southwalk
When you think about London, you might think of Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, the Tower of London and Oxford Street. All of the most well-known London sights are on the northern side of the river but it is definitely worth venturing south of the Thames and to explore the area between Tower Bridge and Westminster Bridge.
My highlights of this area are Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Southbank Centre and the Jubilee Gardens. It might not seem like the most exciting thing to do but to walk from east to west (or the other way around) gives you a great impression of the size of the city and the people within it. I really like the book market in front of the Southbank Centre, too. So if you like books, keep an eye out for that.
9. Enjoy the view
One great way to do so, is by taking a ride on the London Eye. It’s cheapest and easiest to book the tickets online because then you can skip the queue and head straight for the great views. But beware: the price of admission is a hideously high. It’s £29,95 for a 30 minute ride!! I haven’t been able to convince myself to do it but if you do, do tell me if it was worth it.
Another great place to experience the view is from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Apart from the Cathedral which is absolutely gorgeous, you can hike up a lot of stairs to enjoy the view from the outside galleries around the dome. The price of admission is £18 and definitely worth it, since you’re not only seeing a great view around the City but also get to explore one of the oldest churches in London.
And then there are all the other places you can get a great view from. Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath, Primrose Hill in Regent’s Park, the Monument, Emirates Air Line and, most recently, the Shard.
10. See Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square is one of my favourite places in London. It has everything you need: history, great views, fountains, plenty of photo opportunities, live music (usually), it’s central and, best of all, you can watch people take pictures in the oddest of poses (generally on top of a lion or leaning against Nelson’s column).
Whatever you are doing in London, you will stumble upon Trafalgar Square eventually. Whether you’re coming from Westminster and Houses of Parliament, from Soho, Covent Garden or Buckingham Palace, this beautiful vibrant square is the center of tourist London.
So just take your time, watch the people around you and soak up the energy that surrounds this magical place.