I’ve asked author, Julianna Barnaby of “The Discoveries Of” to develop a guide for best London activities and attractions for first-time visitors. I love London and know a native Londoner will do this great city justice. Enjoy!
London is an exciting destination to travel to – with plenty to keep you entertained during your stay. Visiting this cosmopolitan city for the first time? Here are the London activities and attractions you shouldn’t miss.
London. It may be my hometown, and I may be completely biased, but I just don’t think there’s another city quite like it. Historic attractions? Got them. Beautiful vistas? Check. Cool bars and restaurants? Of course.
Awesome as it is, I’ll admit that it can be tough knowing where to start. First time visitors to the city can find it a little overwhelming – but if you take it in your stride, London can (and will) completely blow you away. That’s why I’ve put together this first timer’s London guide – cool tourist sites and a few more off-beat destinations for your trip.
Must See Sights for a First Time Visit to London
Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (both of which are part of the Palace of Westminster) are two of the most famous landmarks in the English capital. Guess it’s pretty fitting as they’re where the country’s laws are debated and made.When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. -Samuel Johnson Click To Tweet
Still, what really puts the Houses of Parliament straight to the top of any London itinerary is the striking 19th-century Gothic architecture. Sitting across from Westminster Cathedral and next to the Thames, they offer some of London’s most iconic views.
Cool as it is to look at the buildings from the outside, why not delve a little deeper and book a tour (self-guided or guided) to take a look inside.
Unfortunately, Big Ben – officially known as Elizabeth Tower since 2012 – is currently undergoing restoration works, however you can still see one of his famous faces. You surely can’t leave London without snapping at least one photo of the world’s most famous clock!
Trafalgar Square is one of the most famous tourist sites in London – a square that is loved by both visitors and locals alike – and should be a part of any London itinerary.
Located in central London, it is home to many quirky icons including the world’s smallest police station (well, technically it’s a lookout, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it), not to mention many a statue charting Britain’s historic figures.A bad day in London is still better than a good day anywhere else. -Unknown Click To Tweet
You also won’t be able to miss the huge Nelson’s Column, commemorating Britain’s victory (with Admiral Nelson at the helm) over France in the Battle of Trafalgar.
Trafalgar Square is a particular delight for art lovers. There are four statue plinths, and the fourth is home to an ever-changing art display. You should also take the opportunity to visit the utterly brilliant National Gallery, which is one of London’s most important museums (and completely free).
The London Eye
One of the things that makes the London skyline so recognisable is the blend of old and new. Alongside beautiful old Gothic buildings, there are more than a smattering of modern wonders like the London Eye.
For those who don’t know, the London Eye is a kind of enormous enclosed Ferris Wheel that opened to celebrate the year 2000.
I’ll admit that I have fond memories of the London Eye, having worked there many a holiday during my teenage years.
It’s quite the sight just to see, but actually riding it is even better. From the comfort of the enclosed glass gondolas, you can get amazing views out over London. In particular, keep an eye out for the Tower Bridge over the Thames, and even the MI6 Headquarters – it definitely has some James Bond vibes. Regular tickets are available as well as special VIP packages where you can skip the queue and enjoy some champagne during the ride.
Editor’s note: The London Eye is in Southbank, a wonderful part of London that frequently gets overlooked. Read more about Southbank.
There are a number of beautiful bridges in London, but none is more iconic than the historic Tower Bridge. Stretching the length of the Thames, it was built in the late 19th century and is one of the most iconic views in London. You simply can’t leave the capital without snapping a photo in front of it!
As well as simply taking in the sight of the Tower Bridge in real life, you can also go inside it to view the Engine Room and walk over the glass-bottom bridge. You’ll feel like you’re literally hovering over London as you watch the traffic zip by underneath you. Pretty cool.“Go where we may, rest where we will, Eternal London haunts us still.” ― Thomas Moore Click To Tweet
The tallest building in the United Kingdom is also one of the most famous tourist sites in London. This is the Shard, an enormous 310 metre skyscraper that literally towers over the other buildings in the capital. Its size and distinctive sharp tip make it impossible to miss – and a definite addition to your London guide.
Although it’s impressive to take it in from the ground, it’s even more amazing to make your way to the observation deck. It’s an unparalleled view of London, if a little dizzying. There’s also a gift shop, while on lower levels you’ll find a number of very fancy bars and restaurants to enjoy (and impress).
Buckingham Palace and The Changing of the Guard
It wouldn’t be a visit to London without indulging in a little Royal fever and paying a visit to Buckingham Palace. Home of the House of Windsor, Britain’s Royal Family, it’s an unmissable stop on any sightseeing tour of London. For much of the year, you can even tour a lot of the inside (although it closes while Queen Liz is in residence).
Although sightings of the Royal Family are definitely not guaranteed (but not altogether unheard of), you can guarantee the sight of the Changing of the Guard.
This cool little ceremony has all the pomp and pageantry you’d expect, and is a wonderful memory of London. It occurs daily during the summer, three times a week for the rest of the year, starting at around 10:45 am (9:45 am on Sundays) – although I’d get there earlier to get a good view.
If You Have More Time, Visit These London Activities and Attractions
While there are many iconic attractions and activities in London, there is so much more to be discovered and should be added to your London guide. The city is just full of hidden gems – here are a couple of my favourites.
Visit London Mithraeum
It’s amazing to think that even though London is one of the world’s most famous cities, it still has many secrets to be discovered. For example, the ancient Roman temple of Mithraeum lay undiscovered for centuries until it was excavated – largely by accident – in the 1950s.
Today, it is one of the most interesting places to visit in London – a remnant of Londinium, the Roman city located around the City of London.
Visiting the Mithraeum is an amazing reminder of the 2000+ year old history of London. As well as the archaeological site and a collection of recovered artefacts, there are also various contemporary art exhibitions on display. Entry is free, but you should book ahead to secure your spot.
Head to Maltby Street Food Market
Food markets are somewhat of a London institution, and they’re just as popular with locals as they are with visitors. If you want to make like a real Londoner, make your way to a food market and buy some delicious – and often unusual – produce.
Borough Market might be the big name, but most in-the-know will tell you that Maltby Street Food Market is really where it’s at. It’s got the same foodie credentials, but with just a little bit of room to move (and breathe). Plus you’ll find some London’s quirkiest and best small producers at Maltby Street- I particularly love stopping by for a G&T at Little Bird Gin.
Top Tips for a First Time Visit to London
- London’s main public transport system, known as “the Tube”, can seem intimidating at first – but it’s the fastest and cheapest way to get around the city. Google maps is great at helping you to navigate the lines, and trains come every few minutes during the day. If you’re staying for a few days, you’ll probably want to load up an “Oyster Card” which you tap to pay for public transport (you can also use your contactless card to pay as you go too).
- Many of London’s best museums are free, so if you’re looking for some budget-friendly ideas – try the museums and galleries! I’ve already mentioned the fabulous National Gallery, but two other great ones are the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. For both, entry to the permanent collection is free, but there are sometimes additional paid events.
- Queuing is a big deal in London, as with most of England. It’s no joke – cutting the line is considered a big no-no in the UK, whether it be to grab your morning coffee or head to the bathroom. Also, when riding escalators in Tube stations, make sure you stand to the right. Londoners might not openly tell you off, but you’ll probably hear some heavy sighing and “tut-tut”-ing if you block the path.
Julianna Barnaby runs the travel and London blog The Discoveries Of, writing for smart people who like to do cool things in awesome places. A born and bred Londoner, she’s passionate about helping people to discover the best the city has to offer.
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