Visiting London for the First Time? Here’s What To See and Do

1. Visit the historic buildings

The exterior of Westminster Abbey and the surrounding winter trees.

London’s filled with iconic buildings and monuments.Photo Credit: Anthony Cruz / Viator

If there’s one thing London *isn’t* lacking, it’s grandeur.

You’re likely to feel a shiver down your spine as you gaze up at the towering Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (officially known as the Elizabeth Tower), arguably one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. You can head inside the political powerhouse on a guided tour, many of which combine it with a visit to Westminster Abbey—the grandiose location of not just one or two, but 17 royal weddings (and the site of numerous royal family tombs).

Related: 8 Must-See London Neighborhoods and How To Visit

2. Cruise the Thames River

The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben as seen on Thames River cruise in London.

Witness some of London’s most famous spots on a Thames River cruise.Photo Credit: Mistervlad / Shutterstock

Go fast, slow, or with sandwiches in tow.

The banks of the Thames River read like a who’s-who of London landmarks. From the city’s main artery, you can admire the London EyeSt. Paul’s CathedralTower BridgeShakespeare’s Globe, and many more of the top things to see in London.

Tick them all off on a London sightseeing cruiseevening options let you see the landmarks illuminated after dark, while an afternoon tea version means you can indulge in a popular British pastime as you sightsee. You can also up the ante during a high-octane, high-speed ride on a RIB boat, which is one of the most fun things to do in London if you feel the need for speed.

3. Visit a royal residence

The fountains of Hampton Court Palace.

Hampton Court Palace is a popular royal landmark.Photo Credit: zefart / Shutterstock

Castles and Tudor palaces comprise some of the best royal places to visit in London.

Two of the country’s most fabulous royal landmarks are within easy reach of the capital—whether you’re traveling by car or train. In southwest London, you’ll find Hampton Court Palace, where infamous Tudor monarch Henry VIII lived in (un)happy matrimony with his six wives.

Then in the Royal Borough of Windsor there’s the 900-year-old Windsor Castle, which boasts the title of the largest occupied castle in the world. For a day trip fit for a king or queen, opt for a tour that combines the two.

4. Watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony

The Changing of the Guard ceremony taking place outside Buckingham Palace in London, UK.

While watching the Changing of the Guard ceremony may be crowded, it’s definitely a must-do.Photo Credit: cowardlion / Shutterstock

Soak up the splendor of Buckingham Palace.

There are few other places in the world where you can witness a Changing of the Guard ceremony as elaborate as the one that takes place outside of London’s royal residence each day. Combine it with a tour of the top London attractions, or if you’re visiting for the two months of the year the palace is open to the public, get exclusive access to the former home of the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, now the royal residence of King Charles III.

5. Stroll through Soho

Shopping crowds going up and down Carnaby Street in Soho in London.

Carnaby Street is a fun shopping street.Photo Credit: Ale Argentieri / Shutterstock

Explore London’s bustling cultural labyrinth.

No visit to London is complete without circumnavigating Soho, a maze-like enclave in central just off the famous Oxford Street shopping hub. Avoid getting lost by taking a walking tour of the labyrinth (the streets of which still disorient lifetime residents). Tours typically cover the bright-red lanterns of Chinatown; the dazzling billboards of Piccadilly Circus; the glittering theaters of the West End; and the Instagram-worthy adornments of Carnaby Street.

Related: 13 Must-Visit Filming Locations in London

6. Travel back in time to the Tower of London

Tourists look out at the Tower of London by the River Thames in London, UK.

The Tower of London is a top attraction in London.Photo Credit: Gloria Chu / Viator

Tales of murder and mutiny await.

If you’re a history buff, you’ll be dying to delve into London’s ancient past at the Tower of London—home to the world-famous crown jewels and a gruesome, sordid history that dates back to 1066. Book ahead of time to guarantee entry to the incredibly popular attraction, taking advantage of tours that include a guide or opt for early, skip-the-line access for insight into almost a millennium of history.

7. Discover the street art of Shoreditch

Shoreditch street art of Andy Warhol on a building in a courtyard full of people at London picnic tables in London, England.

Shoreditch is filled with top street art.Photo Credit: DrimaFilm / Shutterstock

Explore the city’s capital of cool.

In London’s east end, Shoreditch has undergone a radical transformation over the past couple of decades. Now, the quirky enclave boasts a booming nightlife scene, an abundance of Michelin-starred restaurants (or street food, if you’d prefer), art galleries, and the city’s best street art.

Walking tours can help you locate the best graffiti, which is rarely indicated on maps, but is usually found with a trusty local guide. Brick Lane is equally enticing, with its vintage shops and aromatic selection of Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants, hailed as some of the best in the world outside of Asia.

8. Soar to the summit of the Shard

A view of The Shard, London's largest bulding.

Enjoy the view from the tallest tower in Western Europe.Photo Credit: inProgressImaging / Shutterstock

Soak up the views from London’s biggest building.

The tallest tower not only in London but in Western Europe, The View from the Shard is the best place to enjoy panoramic vistas of England’s capital. Head up to the observation deck via the high-speed elevator, which whisks you to an indoor gallery perched between the 69th and 72nd floors of the building. The gallery delivers a worthwhile view from the top of the city’s sharpest skyscraper, and is particularly fabulous at sunset, when a skip-the-line ticket could save you ample time waiting in line.

Related: Where To Find the Best Views in London

9. Meander London’s markets

Market vendors sell bread at Borough Market in London, UK.

Borough Market is one of the top food markets in the city.Photo Credit: Viator

You’ll find an eclectic mix of antiques, cheese, and Chinese food.

London’s markets are where the capital’s energy reaches its catharsis. In fact, they’re a big part of the city’s culture and specialize in everything from flowers (Columbia Road on a Sunday) to fashion (Spitalfields). Markets on all week include Camden Lock, famous for its sub-culture and music scene; and Borough Market, a wonderland of artisanal food. Be sure to sample British staples such as sausage rolls, Scotch eggs, and cheese.

Related: 8 Quintessentially British Dishes and Where To Eat Them in London

10. Get cultural at the city’s museums

Inside the foyer of the British Museum in London, England, with people walking about.

Most of London’s museums and galleries are free to enter.Photo Credit: Annapurna Mellor / Viator

For history, art, science, and more.

With more than 200 museums registered in the capital—many of which are free—a museum visit (or several) is a must for first-time London visitors. The Science Museum and the Natural History Museum are ideal choices for families with kids, while the British Museum is a history buff’s dream, boasting at least 8 million artifacts from across the globe.

Art fans should head to the National Gallery, which features art from greats such as Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh inside a regal, beautiful building. Private tours help you better navigate the museums, skip long lines, and easily tick off those highlights. If you’re looking for contemporary art, head south to Tate Modern, where you’ll find artwork by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol.

Related: 8 Best Weekend Getaways From London

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