London is one of those cities that just comes up so often you almost forget it’s a real place you can travel to and explore – sort of like New York City, or Rome. But when I think about what I want in an urban travel experience, it’s actually tough to beat this gorgeous, historic capital. A significant place in the western world dating back to the time of the Romans, and one of our great modern cities today, it’s a city full of landmarks, activities, and quirky, one-of-a-kind spots.
Big Ben & The Houses Of Parliament
London is like just a few other cities in the world in that there are multiple landmarks that truly define it. That is to say, there isn’t one prevailing sight or postcard image that everyone agrees best represents the city. But when I think about London, it’s Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament I picture first.
In person, this dual landmark looks nothing short of royal (which I suppose is somewhat ironic given that it houses the more democratic side of Britain’s faux-monarchical government). The tower housing Big Ben (Ben, people will be quick to tell you, is the clock itself – not the whole tower) actually looked bigger than I expected, and the whole complex, for lack of a better word, is so grand and ornate it will make you wish we still built things this way.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
This 17th-century cathedral, with its domed roof (inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica, and the inspiration for the U.S. Capitol) might not make everyone’s short list of London landmarks. But as a modern gal I can’t help but love this building, not only for its Baroque beauty, but for its significance in so many good films! Daniel Craig’s James Bond walks along the top of the cathedral; Jude Law’s young Dumbledore hangs out in the same spot; Tom Cruise even leapt off the building for a Mission Impossible stunt!
Built in its modern form in 1065, Westminster Abbey s breathtaking in large part because of its history. It’s one of the truly lovely things about London that there are structures this ancient, not in roped-off clearings a few miles out of town, or relocated to large rooms within museums, but simply standing in the middle of the city. The Abbey exudes age and significance, such that even if (if I’m being honest) I’ve seen prettier cathedrals, I may not have seen one that makes this much of an impact.
My own favorite thing about visiting the Abbey though, wasn’t actually looking at it from the outside. Rather, it was reading about and exploring some of the burials and memorials within. That may sound a little bit macabre, but it’s actually just fascinating how many major historical figures were laid to rest here.
As a final note: If you’re not familiar with London, you should know that you can see Westminster and the Houses of Parliament (and Big Ben) in one go. You can walk from one to the other, literally, in minutes!
I almost didn’t list the Tower Bridge because you more or less can’t help but admire it from multiple angles during your time in London. Still, it has to be among the most unique major urban bridges in the world, built as if someone had some leftover parts from a castle, shrugged, and made a bridge out of them. It’s also fun to realize that this bridge was built in the late-19th century, but made to blend in with some of the other landmarks listed here, which are centuries older.
- Hanging out in Trafalgar Square may not be one distinct activity, but it’s something I loved doing in London. Constructed to commemorate a British victory in the Napoleonic Wars, it’s now a lovely, vast public space dotted with fountains and monuments and surrounded by pretty buildings. The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are right there, and well worth ducking into, though you’ll also have plenty of fun just watching people and hanging out enjoying your surroundings.
- For my money, seeing live football (or soccer, take your pick) is also a must. What you’ve heard about this sport being a religion in the UK hasn’t been exaggerated. People sport their favorite clubs’ kits throughout match days and crowd into pubs to watch if they aren’t headed to the actual stadiums. Top UK betting websites handle major wagering activity with each and every match (though I didn’t bet on football myself while I was there, I have to admit I was tempted!). And the stadiums themselves are, frankly, glorious. My personal recommendation is to see Arsenal at Emirates Stadium, but there are several major pro teams in London.
- I’d also recommend, as unoriginal as it may be, that you see a show while you’re in town. If you want to do the touristy thing, the Globe Theatre (an imitation of William Shakespeare’s own) is always active, and makes for a different sort of experience. Personally though, I fell in love with London’s West End, which is a theater district to rival any in the world. It’s a buzzing, exciting place where there are always big shows going on, and a night out there will probably wind up being one of your most memorable experiences.
A compartment on the Coca-Cola London Eye might be the height of “touristy” activity, but it’s also unlike anything else in the world. Yes, other cities have ferris wheels, but I don’t believe there’s another city so beautiful to look down on with a ferris wheel that goes this high. It’s very much worth your time and money (it’s not too expensive), though I’d recommend riding at night – maybe with some champagne.
The Old Red Lion Theatre Pub
The Old Red Lion is one of the oldest active pubs in Europe. There’s actually some debate, I discovered, about which London bar is actually the oldest. There are also some complicating factors, such as whether or not it “counts” if a place was rebuilt or relocated, but considered the same establishment. None of this really matters though. Grabbing a pint in a London pub that dates back to 1415 is the sort of thing that gives you chills.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour
The Warner Bros. Studio Tour in London may sound like the kind of thing you could enjoy at various studio-related facilities around the world (sort of like how you can go to a Universal Studios on several different continents). But that’s just not the case. This is your best chance to immerse yourself in the world of Harry Potter, and let’s be honest: that’s what half of us most want out of a trip to London! Sadly, I could find the Leaky Cauldron in my travels….