Ranked one of the greatest places to live in or to visit, London has been the capital of England since the Tower of London was built in 1078. Among the oldest cities in the world and one of the most cosmopolitan, Britain’s largest metropolis is a globally influential hub for finance, culture and the arts. At its centre is the Houses of Parliament, the iconic Big Ben clock tower and renowned Westminster Abbey.
One of Britain’s most iconic buildings, Buckingham Palace is the scene of London’s most popular display of tradition and where you can witness the Changing of the Guard and see meticulously dressed soldiers marching to the rhythm of military drums. Between July and October, you can visit 19 of the palace’s magnificent State Rooms and explore the Palace’s Garden. St Paul’s Cathedral, as the Anglican cathedral of the Bishop of London, has been a place of worship for over 1,400 years. Built and rebuilt five times, its interior is awe-inspiring and its dome, framed by the spires of Wren’s City churches, has dominated the skyline for over 300 years. Venture down to the crypt and discover the tombs and memorials of some of the nation’s greatest heroes such as Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.
The British Library’s collection includes well over 150 million items in the most known languages from around the world. It receives copies of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland and is home to some of the earliest dated printed books, the Diamond Sutra, and one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. The foundation of English law, the Magna Carta, manuscripts by Shakespeare and Dickens and copies of The Beano – all have a home at the British Library. Take to the skies in the London Eye, one of the world’s tallest Ferris wheels. The gradual rotation in one of the 32 high-tech glass capsules takes approximately 30 minutes and gives an ever-changing perspective of London. To add to the appeal, book a private capsule and add a glass of Pommery Brut Royal champagne, it’s certain to enhance the experience.
Alternately, head to the top of The Shard, London’s 95-storey skyscraper and the tallest building in Western Europe. Having fast established itself as a London landmark, The View from The Shard boasts floor-to-ceiling windows with amazing cityscapes. Walk the Millennium Bridge and bike along the South Bank on a Santander Cycle, London’s bike hire scheme. Take in one of your favourite musicals on London’s West End. Renowned for its long-running hit shows such as The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, the area is synonymous with historic theatres and exceptional live entertainment. Catch a show at the reconstructed Shakespeare Globe Theatre and visit the Globe Exhibition to listen to recordings of riveting Shakespearean performances.
Browse legendary brands on Carnaby Street, a shopping mecca tucked behind Oxford and Regent Streets that’s full of independent, flagship stores and some of the city’s best places to eat and drink. This pedestrianised street remains one of London’s best shopping destinations. Creative Carnaby is known for being at the heart of London’s swinging ’60s when the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elizabeth Taylor were regular visitors. Borough Market in Southwark has been there since at least 1014. Still operating as a wholesale market in the early hours, it’s now best known as a foodie’s paradise where discerning Londoners come to buy top-quality produce. There’s also an amazing array of street food and a dedicated covered area to linger in.
The Tower of London
Of great significance in England’s history, the Tower of London on the north bank of the River Thames has served as a treasury, prison, Royal Mint, arsenal, menagerie, and vault to house the British Crown Jewels. One of Her Majesty’s Royal Palaces, the fortress is secured by moats with two concentric walls and numerous guarded towers. It has been the infamous setting of royal tragedy and is steeped in myths and legend. Some even say it might be haunted. It was in the 1070s when William the Conqueror, fresh from victory, built the massive stone fortress in London to defend and proclaim his royal power. The Tower took around 20 years to construct with Masons arriving from Normandy, bringing with them stone from Caen in France. Most of the actual labour was provided by local Englishmen.
Over time the Tower was adapted to defend and control the nation. Henry III (1216-72) and Edward I (1272-1307) expanded William’s fortress, adding huge defensive walls with a series of smaller towers, also enlarging the moat. In so transforming the Tower into England’s largest and strongest ‘circular’ castle with one ring of defence inside another. Arms and armour were made, tested and stored there until the 1800s, and the Tower controlled the supply of the nation’s money with all coins made at the Tower Mint from the reign of Edward I until 1810.
Medieval kings built magnificent royal lodgings, using the Tower to protect their possessions – and themselves, with Kings and Queens storing their jewels, robes and ceremonial regalia at the Tower of London for over 600 years. A unique collection and possibly the most visited objects in Britain, the Crown Jewels include the Imperial State Crown, worn by the monarch for the State Opening of Parliament. At the heart of the collection is the Coronation Regalia, a collection of highly symbolic objects in use since 1661, many at the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.
The first zoo in London was housed at the Tower in the 1200s, holding a menagerie of exotic wild animals never before seen in London, including lions and a polar bear received as royal gifts. The collection extended to include eagles, pumas, a tiger and jackal, as well as more lions and leopards, some occasionally revenging their captivity and lashing out at the keepers. By the 19th century, the Menagerie was in decline and concerns over animal welfare led to its closure in 1835. Stories of ghosts haunt the Tower and Anne Boleyn – who lost her head here, is said to stalk the site of her execution. Arbella Stuart, Elizabeth I’s cousin who starved while under arrest for marrying without royal permission, is said to frequent the Queen’s House still. While the Yeomen tell chilling tales of a huge bear who occasionally appears to frighten visitors.
The famed Yeoman Warders or ‘Beefeaters’ are recognised as symbols of the Tower and have been there for centuries. Originally part of the Yeomen of the Guard, today they guard the visitors and carry out ceremonial duties such as unlocking and locking the Tower each day in the Ceremony of the Keys. A superstition states ‘if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it’ – and there are always at least six resident ravens kept at the Tower of London, their presence believed to protect The Crown. A visit to this intriguing 900-year-old monument can fill a whole day.
Museums, art, natural science and Britannia
London is home to some of the finest museums and art galleries. The British Museum is dedicated to human history, art and culture with highlights being the Parthenon sculptures, Lewis Chessmen and The Rosetta Stone. The world-famous Egyptian stone and key to deciphering the hieroglyphs. The National Gallery offers visitors the chance to see iconic works by the likes of Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Titian and Botticelli. With over 2,300 works of art that cover key moments in Western European art, from the 13th to the early 20th century, the collection dates back to 1824.
The Tate Modern Turbine Hall museum homes a world-class collection of contemporary art in a former power station next to the River Thames. Large-scale installations are displayed in the vast Turbine Hall with works by Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichenstein, Salvador Dalí and Tracy Emin throughout. The museum was founded in 2000 and celebrated its 20th anniversary with an immersive exhibition by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
The Natural History Museum’s collection tops 80 million specimens and is known in particular for its dinosaur exhibits, however, covers the fields of botany, entomology, mineralogy and zoology. Opened to the public in 1881 based on the collection of 17th-century physician and botanist, Hans Sloane.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is a leading museum of art, design and performance with Queen Victoria herself laying the foundation stone in 1899. This museum has a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects, covering over 5,000 years. Topics covered include architecture, furniture, fashion, textiles, photography, sculpture, painting, jewellery, glass and ceramics. The V&A also holds book arts, Asian art and materials related to design, theatre and performance.
Green Spaces and City Parks
London may be a big city but there are plenty of open spaces to retreat to for a picnic, bird spotting, cycling and walking. The centrally located Hyde Park with more than 4,000 trees, a lake, meadow, rose gardens and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, as well as historic Speaker’s Corner, is one of them. The 140-hectare royal park is the biggest in London and is fondly referred to as the city’s ‘green lung’. Adjoining Kensington Gardens are home to Kensington Palace, the Albert Memorial, Peter Pan Statue, beautiful flowers, green grass for picnics and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground.
Follow the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk, a seven-mile-long walk charted by 90 plaques set in the ground, that take you within sight of buildings and locations associated with the Princess during her life. Hampstead Heath offers wonderful walking trails and bathing ponds. Branded an island of beautiful countryside, you’ll never tire of this thriving inner-city escape. Another Victorian green space is Wandsworth’s Battersea Park, which comprises 80 hectares of parkland, and features fountains and a small-scale children’s zoo.
The beautiful gardens at Regent’s Park span 166 hectares and were designed in 1811 by renowned architect John Nash. Named after King George IV, Regent’s Park comprises magnificent formal gardens, laid out pathways, the 12,000 roses in Queen Mary’s Gardens and a Boating Lake. It also has the largest outdoor sports area in London, and an Open Air Theatre. Covering 1,000 hectares, the views from the top of the hill in Richmond Park are stunning. Renowned for its unrefined woodland gardens and deer herds, Richmond Park’s rich history includes notable royal connections dating back to Edward’s reign in 1272. There are ancient trees, historic buildings and numerous rare wildflower species.
Kew Gardens is the perfect escape from the city. Visit the beautiful glasshouses including Palm House and its exotic rainforest, the Princess of Wales Conservatory which demonstrates ten of the world’s climatic zones, and the Waterlily House with its giant lily pads. You’ll love the Treetop Walkway which soars into the tree canopy offering a bird’s-eye view of the gardens. Kew Palace is the former summer residence of King George III.
Star-studded restaurants, Afternoon Tea and the familiar English Pub
Confirming the city as an exceptional dining destination, London has over 60 Michelin star restaurants; eight with two stars and five with three. Among these is Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester Hotel, Core by Clare Smyth, Helene Darroze at The Connaught and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Sketch, Pierre Gagnaire’s uber-chic Mayfair restaurant, and the exploratory gourmet institution, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is aptly local too.
Afternoon Tea is a quintessential British practice created during Queen Victoria’s reign white simply to indulge and socialise in the utmost style. London has countless offerings of this British staple, from elegant servings at the Ritz Hotel, The Goring, Claridge’s or even at The Royal Albert Hall. Expect tasty patisserie, sensational just-baked scones, incredible finger sandwiches, perfectly brewed tea and even a glass of Champagne to further lift the spirits.
Don’t miss a good old English Pub crawl. Suggestions include the traditional Royal Oak in South Wark and the Kings Arms in Waterloo for ambience, steak tartare with Marmite and toast, as well as their Scotch Eggs. The Harp in Covent Garden is a little removed from the crowds, while The George Inn near London Bridge is the city’s last surviving coaching inn and has a cobbled courtyard that’s a drawcard for that thirst-quenching pint in Summer.
Where to Lay Your Head
From golden chandeliers and marble staircases to gilded ceilings and serene sanctuaries, London erupts with grand dame hotels and Michelin-star restaurants, many establishments frequented by the celebrities the city has always drawn. In the heart of elegant Mayfair is Brown’s Hotel, where history and 21st-century sophistication connect. The retreat of choice for royalty, presidents and literary greats over the centuries, Brown’s is an enduringly distinguished address in London. Similarly, Claridge’s is the epitome of timeless elegance and remains one of the top 5-star hotels in the city.
The Lanesborough Hotel is a destination in itself. Proudly flaunted as London’s most luxuriant accommodation, their 93 guest rooms are tended by discreet staff who pander to your every need. Overlooking Hyde Park and near Buckingham Palace, with luxury marble and Regency-style furniture, their dining experience includes the Michelin-starred Céleste. At the top of Regent Street, the prestigious Langham Hotel’s stylish restaurant, Roux at the Landau, offers gourmet dining in collaboration with chef Michel Roux Jr. Guests can enjoy afternoon tea at Palm Court or retreat to the award-winning bar, Artesian. Dating back to 1865, Langham opened as Europe’s first Grand Hotel and has occupied an unrivalled position in the heart of London ever since.
The Connaught’s granite-edged water feature at the entrance emits clouds of vapour. The effect is mesmerising, and an apt introduction to a hotel that mixes modern with traditional hospitality. First opened in 1897, The Connaught retains much of its Edwardian charm. Hélène Darroze at The Connaught restaurant earned the French chef a second Michelin star for her gastronomic flair, while the Coburg Bar and Connaught Bar are equally accoladed. The Ritz in Piccadilly is one of the most famous hotels in London and where golden era stars, including Charlie Chaplin, have frequented. The hotel opened in 1906 and is renowned for its quintessential British afternoon tea and the Michelin-starred Ritz Restaurant often described as the most beautiful dining room in the world.
The Dorchester on London’s glamorous Park Lane is a symbol of British heritage. With a 1930s art deco exterior, it houses 250 rooms and suites designed with classic English interiors, while the roof suites have wraparound outdoor terraces overlooking the city skyline. The on-site restaurant, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, deservedly boasts three-Michelin-stars.
London is big and the Tube or Underground is the most convenient way to navigate it. As a treat, rent a Rolls Royce, the benchmark of British sophistication, which will allow you to move around in ultimate style. For an aerial perspective, book a private tour or transfer with the London Helicopter Company. London’s official black cabs can be hailed in the street or at designated ranks. Uber and Bolt add to the convenience.
It couldn’t be easier with London conveniently serviced by six major airports: London City, London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted, London Southend and the UK’s main gateway, London Heathrow. Eurostar, an expansive rail network and numerous ferry connections make getting to the city a breeze.