Visit the Queen
London has hundreds of attractions to tick off the ‘to do’ list so it can be difficult to know where to start. However, one thing is for sure, whatever you get up to in the city, you’ll experience a memorable and enjoyable day out.
There are numerous ways of getting around the capital. Hop on hop off bus tours are a great way to cover large portions of the city if you’re short on time and if the weather is great then an open top double decker gives a fantastic viewpoint from which to take in the many landmarks. You can hop on and off at over 80 stops across the city and tickets last either 24 or 48 hours. If you prefer to explore on foot however, then why not book on to a walking sightseeing tour? From traditional visitor trails and foodie tours to ghost tours and those that take London’s many movie locations, there are all sorts to choose from and the experienced guides will mean you get to hear some of the city’s lesserknown tales.
Should you rather go it alone however, then a good place to start on any visit to London is a visit to the Queen. Okay, so you won’t actually get to meet her in person but if the Royal Standard is flying, that means she is at home. You can stand right outside the gates and watch the changing of the guard for free but if that isn’t enough then book a ticket to go inside and see The Queen’s Gallery, which is open all year round and houses Her Majesty’s personal collection of treasures. From February to November you can also gain access to the Royal Mews and in August and September the State Rooms are open to visitors, as well as for special tours on certain dates throughout the year (when the Queen isn’t at home). If you’re in town in June, you may also get a chance to see Trooping the Colour.
Since 1748 Trooping the Colour has marked the official birthday of the British sovereign and now takes place on Horse Guards Parade, by St James’s Park. This impressive display of pageantry is carried out by her personal troops, the Household Division, with the Queen herself attending and taking the salute. After the event, the royal family gathers on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to watch an RAF flypast. After taking in the home of the monarchy, just a short walk will take you to the Palace of Westminster – the place where the laws of the land are deliberated – in London’s Parliamentary Quarter.
Guided and audio tours (offered in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Mandarin) of the Houses of Parliament offer a unique combination of 1,000 years of history, modern-day politics and stunning art and architecture. Tours take around an hour and walk you through the House of Lords and House of Commons. A child-friendly version of the audio tour, aimed at youngsters between the ages of seven and 12, is also available. Most of what is seen on the tour was built in the mid-19th century, following a devastating fire in 1834, but the route also incorporates the magnificent Westminster Hall, dating from 1097.
Other highlights include the Queen’s Robing Room, Royal Gallery, Lords Chamber, Central Lobby and the Commons Chamber, where the lively debates take place. You cannot visit Westminster and not marvel at the world’s most famous bell – Big Ben. Designed by architect Charles Barry as part of the Palace of Westminster, Elizabeth Tower (the 96-metre-tall clock tower which houses Big Ben) was completed in 1859 and the quarter bells chimed for the first time on September 7 that same year.
Since 1748 Trooping the Colour has marked the official birthday of the British sovereign and now takes place on Horse Guards Parade, by St James’s Park
If you’re a UK resident, you can usually arrange a tour of the tower through your local MP or member of the House of Lords. However, the tower and clock are currently undergoing a mammoth four-year restoration programme, during which tours will not run. The project also means the bell will have to be silenced for a number of months while maintenance work is carried out on the clock mechanism. In the meantime, merely admiring its iconic architecture from the outside is a spectacle in itself – just be aware scaffolding will partially restrict views while the work is being carried out.
If you’re interested in great figures from England’s history then you will find many of them laid to rest inside Westminster Abbey. A total of 17 kings and queens are buried here, along with dukes, countesses and famous characters from the past including Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Lawrence Olivier. Tributes to over 3,000 departed souls are located all over the abbey’s chapels and cloisters, including the famous Poets’ Corner in the South Transept, where creative greats, such as Jane Austen, William Blake and William Shakespeare, are all commemorated. This building of Gothic splendour is also where numerous royal weddings have taken place over the years, as well as every coronation since 1066. There are daily tours available in English, which will highlight the various interest points, led by the Abbey Vergers. The tours last for approximately 90 minutes and include the Shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor, the Royal Tombs, Poets’ Corner, the Cloisters and the Nave. The tours don’t need to be booked in advance but times vary each day, so please check availability on arrival.
The Abbey is a working church and therefore subject to occasional closures at short notice. Please check the website for opening times prior to visiting. For another memorable display of music, head east from Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral, in the ‘City’. Designed by Christopher Wren after its predecessor burnt down during the Great Fire of London in 1666, the stunning domed building houses a mesmerising geometric staircase, which looks a little like a giant snail’s shell. You can buy a sightseeing ticket, which allows you to walk around inside the cathedral. Venture down to the crypt to see the tombs of Admiral Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Christopher Wren, climb up into the dome and don’t forget to test your hearing in the Whispering Gallery; the circular walkway around the inside edge of the dome has such amazing acoustics that you can be heard right across the other side of the walkway, even when you talk softly.
Those with a head for heights (and a fair bit of stamina) can walk up even further to the Stone and Golden Galleries to see remarkable views over London. If you visit between 10am and 2pm Monday to Saturday, then your entry ticket includes a guided tour but there are also free services that you can attend throughout the week, as well as Choral Evensong sessions, which take place every day at 5pm (3.15pm on Sundays). Head west of Westminster and you can experience another of the royal palaces.
If you’re interested in great figures from England’s history then you will find many of them laid to rest inside Westminster Abbey. A total of 17 kings and queens are buried here, along with dukes, countesses and famous characters from the past including Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Lawrence Olivier
Kensington Palace might not boast the same notoriety as Buckingham Palace, but it is linked to some of the most loved princesses of modern times. It was here, in 1837, that the then Princess Victoria was awoken to be told she had become Queen, while Princess Diana lived here from the day she married Prince Charles until her untimely death in 1997, when the palace’s iconic gold gates became the focus for thousands of tributes and flowers to the ‘queen of hearts’.
In the same way that the fashion media is obsessed with the Duchess of Cambridge and Duchess of Sussex’s designer attire today, so was it infatuated with Diana’s outfits, so it’s little wonder that the former home of the ‘people’s princess’ has become known as the royal residence most associated with glamour and style. It’s somewhat fitting, then, that it often hosts major exhibitions of dresses from the Royal Collection. The latest, Diana: Her Fashion Story runs until February 2019 and features the pale pink Emanuel blouse worn for Diana’s engagement portrait by Lord Snowdon in 1981 and Victor Edelstein’s iconic ink blue velvet gown, famously worn at the White House when the princess danced with John Travolta. Entry is included in the ticket price. While at Kensington Palace, you’ll also get to see the Queens’ State Apartments from the time of William III and Mary II and explore the life and times of a young Victoria. You can wander around the grounds and the entrance areas of the palace for free including the Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground with its huge wooden pirate ship, a sensory trail, and various toys and play sculptures, while the cafe is a lovely spot on a sunny day.
The more formal gardens (included in the main palace entry ticket) are also well worth meandering through, if you have time. A royal is never, of course, fully dressed without their accessories and while Kensington Palace is home to the ‘royal wardrobe’ in terms of clothing, the Tower of London is where the Crown Jewels are kept. The entire collection features over 140 historic ceremonial objects, including regalia and vestments worn by kings and queens of the country at their coronations, as well as the Imperial State Crown, which is worn by the Queen at each State Opening of Parliament. However, the Crown Jewels are not the only reason to visit the Tower of London. This 11th-century fortress is a fantastic day out whatever your interests might be and is one of the country’s finest historical attractions. Spanning a triumphant 1,000 years of history, the tower has so much going on that you can easily spend a whole day here. Make sure you join one of the tours led by the Yeoman Warders (popularly known as Beefeaters) and you’ll hear entertaining tales of intrigue, imprisonment, execution, torture and more. The tours begin every 30 minutes, last approximately an hour and are included in the entry price.
Another big draw to the tower is the Royal Armouries’ exhibition in the White Tower, with swords, armour, morning stars (spiked maces) and other gruesome tools for separating human beings from their body parts. For younger children, there are swordsmanship games and coin-minting activities. If budgets are tight but history is your thing, then head to the National Maritime Museum, where you can learn about England’s historic battles at sea including heroic tales of Admiral Lord Nelson and cheeky pirate escapades all for free. The collection at the National Maritime Museum is an unparalleled treasure trove of artefacts, models, maps, art and memorabilia and is positioned at the heart of the Royal Museums Greenwich, which also includes the Queen’s House, the Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory. Overlooking the rest of the Royal Museums Greenwich, from the top of the hill, the Royal Observatory explores Greenwich’s connections with time.
Built in 1675 on the orders of Charles II, the building contains a vast selection of instruments used in timekeeping since the 14th century. John Harrison’s four timekeepers, used to crack the problem of longtitude, are here as well as the country’s largest (28-inch) refracting telescope, from 1893. There’s also the Astronomy Centre, housing a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite, and the Peter Harrison Planetarium. This 120-seater auditorium is carefully positioned with its semi-submerged cone tilted at 51.5 degrees pointing to the North Star and its reflective disc aligned with the celestial equator – it screens daily and weekend star shows.
It’s somewhat fitting, then, that it often hosts major exhibitions of dresses from the Royal Collection. The latest, Diana: Her Fashion Story runs until February 2019 and features the pale pink Emanuel blouse worn for Diana’s engagement portrait by Lord Snowdon in 1981 and Victor Edelstein’s iconic ink blue velvet gown
Maritime magic, the London Dungeon and Shrek’s Adventure
Meanwhile, down at the Cutty Sark, you can discover what life was like on board the world’s sole surviving tea clipper, which was the fastest ship of her time. In 2012, this award-winning visitor attraction was re-opened, having undergone a £50 million restoration after it was almost destroyed by fire five years earlier. The refurbishment saw the legendary 19th-century sailing ship raised over three metres to enable visitors to walk directly underneath and touch the original hull planks and iron framework of the ship, which date back to 1869.
Keeping with the maritime theme, kids of all ages will love the Sea Life London Aquarium, situated on the South Bank, near Waterloo. The attraction is part of the Merlin group and there are often buy-one-get-one-free ticket deals floating about, so make sure you look out for those. You can also buy a Merlin pass, which gets you into a variety of attractions for a set price so it’s worth considering if you plan on visiting a few. The journey through the aquatic wonderland starts with a stroll through Shark Walk and over a glass window that peeks down into the two million-litre aquarium below.
Then comes the Atlantic Depths with its sand eels and different breeds of octopus, before you come to Tidal Reach, a collection of creatures from British waters. Along with rock pool displays of brightly-coloured anemones and the gliding green sea turtles that swoop past overhead as you walk through the Ocean Tunnel, there’s a chance to get down deep with the sharks as you peer into the Pacific Wreck gallery and see if you can find Nemo and Dory among the clownfish and blue tang in the Coral Reef zone. Feeding sessions take place daily for the sharks, rays, penguins, terrapins and seahorses, so make sure you check out specific times on the website before you go so you can time your visit accordingly.
Just next door to the Sea Life centre is another Merlin attraction, the London Dungeon. Promising tales of murder, torture and other foul deeds from London’s horrible past, the attraction is sure to scare the jeepers out of you, but you’ll also get plenty of laughs along the way. Designed as a living museum, the dungeons feature a cast of actors, who lead visitors through a 90-minute tour of 18 different interactive shows that tell engaging stories of torture, murder and terror. You’ll get to take a boat ride to the ‘Tower of London’ just as traitors did during Henry VIII’s reign, hear the inside story on the Gunpowder Plot from Guy Fawkes himself, and walk the streets stalked by Jack the Ripper.It’s not surprising that it’s not recommended for children under 12.
Younger children can pop next door, however, and check out Shrek’s Adventure, which takes visitors on a journey in search of the famous big green ogre. Developed in conjunction with DreamWorks Animation, the attraction brings to life the hilarious world of Shrek and his friends through a combination of 10 laugh-out-loud live shows and classic sets from the Shrek films with captivating storytelling, an amazing 4D ride, dramatic multi-million-pound special effects and extraordinary animation.
Those who find their way out and escape the clutches of the evil Rumpelstiltskin are rewarded with a DreamWorks finale including walk-through scenes from Madagascar and Kung-Fu Panda, plus a chance to come face-to-face with Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon.
Keeping with the maritime theme, kids of all ages will love the Sea Life London Aquarium, situated on the South Bank, near Waterloo
From famous ogres to human A-listers, over in Marylebone, you can meet some 300 ‘famous figures’ at Madame Tussauds. Madame Tussaud brought her show to London in 1802, 32 years after it was founded in Paris, and it’s remained in the same premises in London since 1884. The collection of waxworks includes movie stars from past and present, from Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, to Audrey Hepburn and Charlie Chaplin, as well as members of the royal family, including its newest recruit, Meghan Markle. You can even attend a royal garden party and have tea with the queen! You’ll find Mo Farah, Muhammad Ali, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Usain Bolt among the immortalised sportsmen and women, while Kim Kardashian and Kanye West can be found hanging out and taking selfies in the party area. But Tussauds isn’t just about lifelike dummies. There are a number of attractions including the new ‘Alien: Escape’ experience; Spirit of London – a taxi ride through 400 years of London life – Marvel Super Heroes 4D, which features waxworks of Iron Man, Spiderman and Hulk and The Sherlock Holmes Experience, during which visitors must help Dr Watson find the enigmatic Sherlock.
Talking of the formidable detective, he and his sidekick are the subject of one of the newest crazes taking London by storm in a Sherlock Holmes-themed immersive game experience. Sherlock: The Game is Now’ is a real-life game in which participants must think like the detective to solve a mystery. For those into their 1990s nostalgia The Crystal Maze experience will transport you right back into the cult TV show with its brilliantly reconstructed sets and games that will test both your physical and mental skills and endurance for those sought-after crystals. While adults and older children in the family might want to play kid for the day enjoying one of these gaming experiences, the younger ones usually can’t wait to play at being grown-ups. Let them go wild at Westfield London’s KidZania, where they can take on real-life role play activities and career paths, which just happen to teach them important life skills along the way. Places of ‘work’ include an aviation academy, the fire and rescue unit, recycling centre, supermarket and fruit and nut bar factory and as they enter, children receive currency, which they can either add to by working and/or spend on fun rewards along the way.
While there are plenty of attractions undercover to keep all ages entertained, when the sun is shining there’s nothing better than enjoying the outdoors. Since Victorian times, London Zoo, in Regents Park, has amused and enlightened visitors of all ages but over the last couple of decades it has changed almost beyond recognition. Originally opened as a collection for scientific study in the early 1800s, the 36-acre park is the world’s oldest scientific zoo and now supports conservation and works to ensure animal welfare. From the nocturnal galleries of the Rainforest Life pavilion to the recreated South American coastline of Penguin Beach and African setting of Gorilla Kingdom, each area has been carefully designed to show off animals at their best without disturbing their daily habits.
The Land of the Lions enables visitors to get closer than ever before to the world’s most feared predators, while the Tiger Territory houses two examples of the critically-endangered species of Sumatran tiger and their cubs. Daily events include talks and feeding times, but there are also one-off events throughout the year, including ‘Sunset Safari’ openings on summer evenings. If you have a full day spare, you can have a go at being a keeper for the day and you don’t even have to leave when the zoo closes up for the night as you can now sleep overnight, in lodges right next to the lion enclosure! Regents Park isn’t the only place in London where you can find wild animals roaming. Battersea Park Children’s Zoo can be found by the picturesque riverside walk in Battersea Park, where you can meet monkeys, lemurs, meerkats, otters, farmyard animals and aviaries filled with birds. There are special animal encounter sessions and a play area, where your little monkeys can run wild.
Since Victorian times, London Zoo, in Regents Park, has amused and enlightened visitors of all ages but over the last couple of decades it has changed almost beyond recognition
Outdoor escapades and adrenaline-inducing activities
For a unique glimpse at what life is like for a honey bee, pay a visit to the 17-metre-high Hive installation at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Visitors can stand, lie or sit within the massive lattice structure as thousands of LED lights flicker and an orchestral arrangement plays, triggered by the activity of bees in a nearby hive. Kew has recently been named the most Instagramable botanical garden in the country so if you’re a fan of the selfie or want to update your Insta story then once you’ve had your fill of the insect world go and get a bird’s eye view of Kew Gardens from the treetop walkway. The garden’s famous glass house – Temperate House – and Dragon Pagoda have also just recently reopened after refurbishment or you can marvel at the fine collection of botanical art and sculpture that can be found throughout the 300 acres of gardens situated right next to the River Thames.
Talking of which, there are a number of ways to enjoy a great day out on the Thames. Adrenaline junkies should book a Thames RIB Experience, which will hurtle you about the river in a rigid inflatable boat at 30 knots. There are a number of routes to choose from but the most popular takes about 40 minutes to travel from Westminster to Tower Bridge at a sedate pace until it passes the tower and beyond the stretch of the river governed by speed restrictions, where the turbo engines kick in and the RIB skims across the open water, turning in terrifyingly tight figures of eight. It’s the quickest, most thrilling way to travel the Thames and probably the closest you will get to a white-knuckle ride in central London. While central London may not have any theme parks as such, there are a few other ways to get an adrenaline fix.
If you head to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, you’ll find the world’s tallest and longest tunnel slide, Arcelormittal Orbit, which has been incorporated into The Orbit tower structure designed by Anish Kapoor for the London 2012 games. Another London experience, reserved for those who like to get their hearts pumping, is Up at The O2. This unforgettable 90-minute climbing adventure takes participants on an uplifting guided expedition across the roof of The O2 via a tensile fabric walkway suspended 53 metres above ground level. At the summit, an observation platform enables climbers to take in spectacular 360-degree views of London – on a clear day you can see landmarks up to 15 miles away – before descending back to base.
If you’d prefer to travel downhill, Chel-Ski is London’s only indoor ski centre, located moments from Kings Road in Chelsea. With no lifts or queues, it is the perfect venue to brush up on existing skills or take your very first steps into the world of skiing and snowboarding. Expect cool design aesthetics and an engaging environment in which to take to the slopes. Although not quite as high as the O2, another nifty way of getting views of the Thames is by gliding across the river on an Emirates Air Line cable car, which you can board either at North Greenwich or Royal Victoria.
For those who would rather have a slightly more leisurely river experience, there are a number of more sedate river cruises suitable for all ages, as well as a variety of quirky ways to tour the city on dry land. For example, the Pedibus allows groups of up to 12 to cycle the streets of London together while enjoying refreshments from the pedal-powered rickshaw’s bar. You can have a drink, burn a few calories and enjoy the company of your friends – what could be better? Alternatively, you could hop on a more traditional bicycle by taking advantage of the city’s Santander Cycle scheme, which allows you to rent bikes for as little as £2 all over the city. Whatever you decide to get up to on your day (or days) out in London, one thing’s for sure – you’ll never be short of things to do, rain or shine.
Everything you need to know about London
Where to eat in London
The best shopping in London
The best nightlife in London
Your guide to arts and culture in London