Whether you’re embarking on a whistle-stop tour of the capital or a two-week trip, make sure you find time for these 6 unmissable attractions that offer a snapshot of London’s unique heritage, culture and incredible cityscape.
Soar 135 metres (443 feet) above the River Thames and come face-to-face with the majestic Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in one of the world’s tallest Ferris wheels. It’s no surprise the London Eye is the city’s most popular paid tourist attraction, offering an incredible bird’s-eye view of the capital’s finest architecture, from Renzo Piano’s Shard to Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. The elegant structure was first opened to celebrate the turn of the millennium, and with each pod containing just 25 people, it’s a leisurely way to familiarise yourself with the city without having to jostle for the best position. Head here when the sun sets for dreamy views of the capital’s skyline.
Just over the river you can explore the depths of the underground bunker where Sir Winston Churchill and his cabinet secretly plotted the war against Nazi Germany. Navigate a labyrinth of rooms and corridors below the streets of Westminster to discover what life was like for the staff who spent thousands of hours working alongside Churchill in the hidden nerve centre of the city. A highlight of the Churchill War Rooms is the Map Room, which has remained exactly as it was since the lights were switched off in 1945.
While it’s now the ceremonial home of the Crown Jewels, this 1,000-year-old building has had many incarnations in its lifetime. From a zoo containing exotic creatures in the 13th century to a tower of torture, imprisoning the likes of Anne Boleyn, Guy Fawkes and Sir Walter Raleigh, the Medieval Tower of London is a must-visit for some in-depth insight into British history. Today, some of its traditions are still going strong, including the Ceremony of the Keys, an elaborate ritual of locking up the tower at night. Be guided by one of the Yeoman Warders or legendary Beefeaters on your visit, who will show you around the many attractions, including the Queen’s dazzling collection of jewels, the extensive Royal Armouries and the iconic White Tower – the oldest part of the building.
Harry Potter fans are invited to leave the land of the Muggles and be transported behind the scenes to explore the spellbinding film sets, props and enchanting costumes on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. Walk in the footsteps of Harry, Hermione and Ron down the cobblestoned Diagon Alley, tour the impressive Great Hall, and hang out in the Gryffindor common room. It’s also the chance to discover the wizardry behind the special effects and animatronics – you can even have a go at riding a broomstick. Last but not least, head to the legendary Platform 9¾ and hop on board a re-creation of the Hogwarts Express train before departing back to London. The studios are just over half an hour away from Euston station, with a 20-minute train journey and 15-minute shuttle bus.
Dating to the 17th century, Buckingham Palace has become one of London’s most recognisable buildings, and yet visitors rarely step inside. Take the opportunity to go beyond the golden gates during just 10 weeks of the year and explore the palatial grandeur of the royal State Rooms, where monarchs have entertained guests for centuries. Head up the sweeping grand staircase designed by John Nash and discover paintings by some of the world’s greatest artists in the Picture Gallery, from Rembrandt to Rubens. There’s also the chance to view exquisite examples of French and English furniture in the elaborately decorated White Drawing Room – look out for the extraordinary gilded grand piano. In the dramatic Throne Room, you’ll come across the same chairs used by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for the 1953 coronation, while in the epic Ballroom you’ll get a taste of what a royal banquet would look like.
Top off a trip to the capital with a visit to Renzo Piano’s momentous skyscraper. Being the tallest building in the city at a staggering 309.6 metres (1,016 feet) means this glittering giant also boasts the best views. Head up to the 72nd floor and you’ll be able to see for 40 miles in every direction; follow your eye along the snaking River Thames and you can even catch a glimpse of the rolling hills beyond the city. Although the building in its finished form dates only to 2012, the Shard has already dominated London’s cityscape, quickly becoming one of the capital’s most recognised and beloved icons.