When you plan your first trip to London, your first thought is probably of excitement, followed by a slight sense of panic upon realizing just how much there is to see there. Choosing what to see in London as a first-time visitor can be tough, but that’s why I’m here ;)
Before you start planning, there are a couple things to keep in mind:
-First things first, London is huge. There is no way you can see everything on a visit. Heck, I was there for 10 months and still have so much I want to see!
-Second, London has something for everyone. Take a look at the list below and see what sticks out to you. All these sights are in central London and fairly easy to reach by foot, tube or cab. There is so much more to see in London, so if you have seen all these attractions and/or want some more ideas, feel free to shoot me a message! I’ve helped many people plan their first trip to London and I always like to assist fellow anglophiles :)
One of the most iconic landmarks of London (and the UK for that matter), Big Ben is what people call that beautiful clock tower at the Houses of Parliament. Unbeknownst to most, however, is that Big Ben is actually the name of the bell in the clock tower, which is actually called Elizabeth Tower. Whatever you decide to call it, Big Ben is a great first starting point in London.
Insider tip: if you want an even better view of Big Ben and Parliament itself, cross Westminster Bridge and turn right to get a truly iconic shot of this beautiful city.
Want to a go inside? Unfortunately, you can’t go inside the clock tower unless you are a citizen. Plus, tours have been suspended while they refurbish the clocktower. If you are a politics buff, you can book a tour into the Houses of Parliament, which is very cool!
This is one of the things I regret not making time for when I lived in London. I planned to see it on one of my last days in London but then fell too ill to leave my bed. For now, I’ll just have to make do with seeing the Abbey in movies…
The London Eye
Originally only meant to be a temporary attraction, the London Eye has become a well-known part of London’s skyline. Brave the crowds and book a ticket for a ride, or marvel at the giant Ferris wheel from the banks of the Thames.
Want to see how the royals live? Take a stroll by Buckingham Palace. The Palace is one of the only working palaces left and is open every summer from the end of July until the beginning of October. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there when it was open, but I did venture over to Windsor Castle, just outside of London, which is beautifully situated on Windsor Great Park.
Lucky for you, all major museums in London are free. The British Museum is quite possibly the most famous and features all sorts of
treasures the British empire stole from its colonies beautiful works of art. You don’t have to devote absurd amounts of time in this museum, but at least pop in and take a look at the Rosetta Stone or some Egyptian artefacts! If you’re more into art, check out the National Gallery (pictured below). I spent about 5 hours exploring that one.
Once a former Anglo-Saxon settlement from the 7th century, Covent Garden today is a very popular tourist attraction and shopping site. It was even a red light district in the 18th century before an act of Parliament was passed to create the building that covers the market today. While it is crowded, like most tourist attractions in London, it is worth a visit, especially if there is a cool exhibition inside the covered part. Head over during Christmas for beautiful decorations.
Insider tip: Want to see the cutest hidden spot near Covent Garden? Head to Neal’s Yard, a small alleyway just a few blocks away filled with insanely colourful buildings and great pizza. Easily one of my favourite streets in London!
Calling all Harry Potter fans! This bridge appears in the Half-Blood Prince film and connects pedestrians from the heart of South Bank to the north of the river. Just to the north is St. Paul’s Cathedral. To the south, is the Tate Modern, a great modern art museum that was recently refurbished.
Did you know: The bridge was closed shortly after it opened after pedestrians complained that it was ‘wobbly’. It remained closed for two years after that whilst modifications were made and reopened in 2002.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
The present-day St. Paul’s Cathedral dates from the 17th century and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It was the tallest building in London from 1710 to 1967 if you can believe that! It is a beautiful church that offers regular services and visiting hours. However, pictures are not allowed inside so you’ll just have to marvel at the interior without your camera. Exception: the Cathedral occasionally hosts open nights where they allow photography. So if you’re a keen photographer and want to shoot in St. Paul’s check their website for one of these nights!
Insider tip: If you want views of St. Paul’s without the cost, head to The Monument to the Great Fire of London where you can climb 311 steps for £4.50 (or £3.00 for students).
This is easily my favourite place in London, and quite possibly the world! If I could go back to London and only was able to visit and eat the food at Borough Market, I would go in a heartbeat. I wrote a guide to the best food at Borough Market and am constantly dreaming about all the delicious food there (this is not an exaggeration, just ask my friends and family…). Go there if it’s the only thing you do in London!
Often called London Bridge, Tower Bridge is actually the iconic bridge in London. You know, the one with the pretty towers on it. It really is impressive and worth a visit. For nice views of the bridge, walk along South Bank, east of Borough Market. You can also see Tower Bridge whilst on London Bridge!
The Tower of London
Arguably one of the coolest (and oldest) historical sights in London is located in the city centre. The Tower of London was one of my favourite touristy spots in London simply because there is so much history there. Definitely take the time to visit if you can, but be sure to arrive early to beat the crowds.
Home to the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, Heron Tower and the Walkie Talkie (and soon to be home to the Scalpel and probably some other funnily-named buildings), the City, also known as the Square Mile, is one of the financial services hubs in London and home to the skyscrapers in central London. Not necessarily a necessary stop in London, you’ll surely notice these skyscrapers peeking into the skyline wherever you are in London. I mainly like their names.
There are many beautiful parks in London and I love each and every one of them. For a first time visitor trying to see the main sights, Hyde Park is probably the most convenient park for your visit. It’s huge, centrally located and beautiful. If you want to explore more parks, check out Regents Park to the north, Battersea Park to the south, or Richmond Park to the south-west (where there are deer!).
I was lucky enough to have a view of the Shard from my room in London. It is the tallest building in the UK and the fourth-tallest building in Europe. If you’re feeling fancy, make a booking to grab a cocktail from one of the restaurants at the top; or, you can pay for the viewing deck at the top of the Shard.
Harrods + Fortnum & Mason + Selfridges + Liberty London
Want to go shopping in the largest (and most luxurious) department store in Europe? Harrods is the place to go. It really is an incredible and opulent place that is hard to describe. It can get very crowded but take the time to explore the different floors (I like to find the most ridiculous and expensive things possible). If you want to spend a little more time there, head to the Tea Room on the second floor where you can get tea and scones £15.
If you’re more in the Marylebone or Piccadilly areas, head to Selfridges or Fortnum & Mason or Liberty London for some equally grand shopping.
London for first-timers can be overwhelming. Hopefully, the above attractions give you a better idea of what you want to see on your first visit to London!
Looking for some peace and quiet in London, read about my favorite quiet spots in London.
Have you been to London before? What was your favourite sight?