what to do in London
Having trouble figuring out what to do in London? Well, our writers have experienced the very best this city has to offer. So, to ensure you don’t miss any of the good stuff, they’ve compiled a “best of” list to help expedite your search for British excitement.
Houses of Parliament / Big Ben
This superb neo-Gothic has been a British Landmark and the seat of the Lords and the Commons since 1834. The four-faced clock is Britain’s largest and includes the famous 13½-ton bell Big Ben. Take a tour and witness a debate when Parliament is in session.
Members of the two Houses of Parliament, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, have been meeting at the Palace of Westminster since 1265. The Old Palace burned down in 1834, and was replaced by the New Palace of Westminster, a neo-Gothic building with a clock tower housing what is likely the largest clock in Great Britain. The clock was hung in 1858 and contains the 13 and-a-half ton bell “Big Ben.”
Guests can usually sit in the visitors galleries during debates when Parliament is in session. Contact your embassy in the UK several weeks in advance of your visit for a “card of introduction.” Tours of the Houses of Parliament typically cover the House of Lords and the House of Commons, St. Stephen’s Hall and Westminster Hall, the Peers Lobby, Central Lobby and Commons Lobby. Tours also stop at the Prince’s Chamber, the Royal Gallery, the Queen’s Robing Room and Victoria Tower.
Madame Tussaud’s and London Planetarium
Renowned life-like wax figures of the famous and infamous. From American actors to African politicians to British Royalty, you’ll recognize and be able to stand face to face with the next best thing. The Planetarium features exhibits, shows and rides.
One of London’s top attractions, Madame Tussaud’s is a museum that lets visitors mingle with their favorite movie stars, be counted amongst world leaders, or get a picture with sporting heroes. Actually, all of this is true, only the celebrities are made of wax. These wax figures are incredibly lifelike and, if you get caught in the museum when it is crowded, you may not be able to tell who is real and who is wax, at least for an eerie moment.
Over two million visitors a year come to see famous and infamous pop stars & and Royalty depicted here in lifelike wax models. The wax figures are placed in new themed areas, including “The Garden Party”, “Two Hundred Years of Madame Tussaud’s”, “Hollywood Legends” and “The Spirit of London”. Stroll through the glittery music room, where JimiHendrix and Elton John are right around the corner from Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson. The Royalty room features life-like figures of Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth, to name a few. Get a picture taken with Pope John Paul, the Dalai Lama or even Bill Clinton! Getting close to the stars has never been easier or more fun at Madame Tussaud’s. There’s no telling who you will meet.
Marie Grosholtz, who later became Madame Tussaud, founded Madame Tussaud’s in 1835. She learned her skills from her mother”s employer Philippe Curtius, doctor with a talent for wax modeling. Curtius became her mentor and guardian and also introduced Marie to some of the leading luminaries of the time. Today, the wax figures are still painstakingly created, as each model takes up to three months to prepare. And, in the case of creating models of living subjects, the figures must be indistinguishable from the actual person before being approved for display.
The LONDON PLANETARIUM is an excellent addition to the wax museum and is suitable for all ages. First visitors will check in to the Planet Zone and the Space Zone for an incredible intergalactic journey. Then move on to the Planetary Quest, where the Digistar II and the quest to find a new planet for human habitation await.
Tube: Baker Street Station (Metropolitan, Circle, Jubilee, Bakerloo and Hammersmith & City Lines)
Shakespeare’s Globe & Globe Exhibition
Catch one of Shakespeare’s plays where the poet himself acted and directed his masterpieces. Actually, the theater is an exact replica and a block from the grounds of the original theater, but it is an amazing experience nonetheless. The exhibition tells the story of the theater and Shakespeare’s works through text, film, music, multi-media and more.
It is difficult to imagine that until 1997 one of the greatest playwrights in the world – indeed, one who lived and worked in London – did not have a memorial here. It took the efforts of the late Sam Wanamaker, who founded The Shakespeare Globe Trust in 1970, to accomplish this goal. Sadly, construction on the Globe Theatre was not finished until after his death in 1993.
Once construction on the Globe Theatre was completed in June of 1997, it debuted an impressive opening season of Shakespeare’s Henry V and The Winter’s Tale. Each season following has been greeted with much acclaim. However, the theater is much more than just a performance center. The Globe Education Centre is devoted to students seven months out of the year, with courses for students and teachers from the UK and abroad.
Shakespeare’s Globe Exhibition opened on February 3, 2000, and focuses on Shakespeare and his workplace including a guided tour of the Globe Theatre, where visitors may be able to witness a rehearsal during theater season. The exhibit has several displays focusing on the actor, audience and architecture of Shakespeare’s plays and playhouses. The use of film, sound and interactive exhibits enhances the experience. Visitors can compose their own piece of music on an interactive monitor, learn how actors’ parts evolve from hand written manuscripts to printed plays and learn about fashion and theatrical costumes.
Shakespeare’s Globe Restaurant and Shakespeare’s Globe Café are popular spots to sit and relax before the theater or after a tour.
Tube: Blackfriars or Waterloo
Tower of London
Here you’ll stand on the execution site of three British Queens; see the historic instruments of British torture; experience 900 years of royal history when viewing the Crown Jewels; enter Thomas More’s prison cell and see where the wives of Henry VIII lost their heads, just to name a few things
There are over 900 years of history to explore at the Tower of London. Behind the gates and within the towers, stories spread like moss along the crumbling stone walls of kings and queens, prisoners and traitors, executions and royal ceremonies.
Within the Towers there are, of course, the famous Crown Jewels, glittering behind display cases for all to covet. A moving walkway on either side of the case prohibits standing and gawking, mouths agape, at the opulent splendor. Elsewhere, at the scaffold site of the Tower Green, a Yeoman Warder dressed in traditional attire weaves the tale of execution of two of Henry VIII’s wives. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were both beheaded at this very spot.
Imagine the 13 years of imprisonment Sir WalterRaleigh endured, as you tour the Bloody Tower where he was confined with his family. Throughout the grounds, a population of Ravens adds to the doom and gloom. Legend has it King Charles II was told if the Ravens ever left, the monarchy would fall. There have been Ravens here ever since.
Take a tour with a Yeoman Warder to fully experience the Tower of London or at the very least, carry a map with you and perhaps a souvenir guidebook. There are shops within and outside the Tower of London as well as refreshments. Walk along the Wharf outside the Tower before or after your tour. You may come and go in the Tower of London during your visit with a re-entry permit. Plan on spending at least a few hours exploring, be prepared for lots of walking and wear comfortable shoes.
Tube: Tower Hill Station
The Tower Bridge Experience
This Victorian structure was completed in 1894 and has become an international symbol of London. The two towers of the bridge house a museum with excellent photographs of the bridge and the Thames in its early days. The bridge also offers great panoramic views of London.
Learn about the history of the Tower Bridge during a fast paced 90-minute tour offered here daily. Docents take visitors from one side of the bridge to the other and from the high-level walkways down into the engine rooms. Animatronics and interactive displays tell the story of the need for a new bridge and the initial opposition it faced. Learn about the various designs for the bridge that were considered before settling on the design we see today. Key players in the building of the bridge come to life through these animatronic figures and set the stage for a fascinating story.
The bridge, built in 1894, rises almost 600 times a year and offers a spectacular view of London and the Thames River. The Tower Bridge experience is one of the most visited tourist attractions in London.
An architectural medieval masterpiece of the 13th-16th centuries. The church has been the crowning and burial site of monarchs since 1066.
The Westminster Abbey is an integral part of the history of the United Kingdom. In fact, religious services have been held at this site for more than a thousand years. The view from the North Door as you enter the Abbey is truly awe-inspiring, with a beautiful rose window of stained glass directly in front. Former statesmen and royalty are buried at the Abbey, and most of the monarchs have been crowned here.
In addition to coronations, royal weddings and funerals, the Westminster Abbey offers worship every day of the year. This medieval church is the tallest Gothic building in Great Britain and was designed in the shape of a cross. As you walk slowly around the interior of the church, you’ll see the tombs of and memorials to kings, queens, knights, writers, actors, musicians and statesmen.
Purchase either a guidebook or an audio tour to enhance your walk through the Abbey. There is also a free leaflet and an information desk as you enter through the North Door. Each hour, visitors are asked to stop and meditate or pray for one minute and those who do not wish to do so are asked to at least be respectfully quiet. Refreshments are available in the north cloister of the monastery, which is also worth seeing. As you leave, near the West Door there is an Abbey Bookshop with guidebooks and souvenirs.
Tube: St. James Park
Piccadilly Circus and environs
Often referred to as “the Times Square” of London, Piccadilly Circus is one of the most visited sites in London, with its huge neon signs, theaters and shops. Be sure to check out Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square nearby.
Piccadilly Circus is considered the most visited sight in London, and is a hub of activity from morning to night. The London equivalent of Times Square, Piccadilly Circus is formed by the junction of five streets and is one of the busiest traffic circles in the world. People of all walks of life crowd the steps at the base of the statue of Eros (the Greek God of Love, but really meant to be the angel of charity), erected in 1892 as a memorial to the Earl of Shaftsbury, the Victorian philanthropist.
Piccadilly Circus is a good place to meet before heading off to eat, shop or go to area theaters. Soho isn’t too far a walk from here and neither is Trafalgar Square. The fashionable stores of Carnaby Street are also nearby. The area is quite a sight in the evening, with colorful and brightly lit advertising signs illuminating the area, high above the streets. Piccadilly Circus derives its name from a dressmaker who lived in the area during the 1600s during which time he created a frilled collar referred to as a “piccadil”.