Great cities are defined by their iconic skylines, and there’s no better example for how landmarks can encapsulate tradition, history, progress, and ideology than these iconic buildings detailed below. Although difficult to narrow down selections to just these five – as expected for a city as rich in culture, art, and history as London – these structures are those buildings that no one could imagine the city without.
With its central location in the heart of London, its impressive size – 77,000 square metres of floor space – and its quintessentially British character, Buckingham Palace has served as the Royal family’s living and working quarters since the reign of Queen Victoria, who moved the royal court there upon her accession in 1837. The building’s origins are relatively modest: the original “Buckingham House” was constructed by the Duke of Buckingham in 1703 on privately owned property, and was later transferred to the crown during the reign of George III to become Queen Charlotte’s private residence. Today, the palace is owned not by the royal family, but by the British state, and has become a tourist hotspot and a cultural symbol, with attractions such as the Changing of the Guard. A union between history and the modern day, Buckingham Palace is both the weekday home of the Queen and Prince Philip among others, and the workplace of approximately 800 people.
Buckingham Palace, Westminster, London SW1A 1AA, United Kingdom, +44 20 7766 7300
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral, the crowning achievement of Sir Christopher Wren, sits in all its historical splendour atop Ludgate Hill in the City of London. The site’s history as a holy ground dates all the way back to back to 604 AD, but the building which has become synonymous with the London skyline is relatively young. The construction began and ended in the architect’s lifetime in the seventeenth century. Since then, the building has carried a special meaning for Londoners and tourists alike. Images of the dome withstanding the devastation of the Second World War are not unusual as a representation of national pride and strength. Although it is a fully functional church with daily services, St. Paul’s has also served as the location of iconic historical events, from the jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, to the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and the funerals of Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.
The Palace of Westminster
Ask any tourist what image they associate the most with London, and their excited response will be “Big Ben!” The seminal clock tower, officially known as the Elizabeth Tower, and the Houses of Parliament alongside it, are recognisable to almost anyone, which explains why they have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. The location of the site on the River Thames has been of crucial strategic importance from as early as the Middle Ages. The structure was also the principal residence of the monarch in the medieval period, until the reign of Henry VIII, when a fire destroyed the royal residences of the palace. After another fire in 1834, the reconstruction of the Palace was handed over to Sir Charles Barry and his winning gothic-style design. This structure currently stands as the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and has become the archetypal symbol of British government. Despite many attempts to relocate Parliament, the tradition and historical associations of the site have proved too important to overlook.
The Palace of Westminster, Westminster, London SW1A 0AA, United Kingdom, +44 20 7219 3000
No other building in London has such a sweetly familiar nickname as 30 St. Mary Axe, and it stands out in this list as being a contemporary piece of architecture to compete with its huge historical counterparts. Despite its modern style, it can actually be seen as a compromise of tradition and modernity – the previous architectural proposal for the site, the Millennium Tower, was planned to rise 92 stories above the city’s skyline, dwarfing its neighbours. The Gherkin is less ambitious, with its 40 stories, but its design is no less innovative and no less striking. The postmodern vision of Norman Foster was completed in 2003, after only two years of construction. Its tenants are high-profile international companies, and the building has received many architectural awards since its completion. In a city with as much pride in historical architecture as London, it takes a truly special design to win the hearts and minds of tourists and locals alike as one of the most iconic shapes on the city skyline.
30 St Mary Axe, London, EC3A 8EP, United Kingdom, +44 20 7071 5029
With its unforgettable Hellenic portico entrance and a permanent collection of approximately 8 million works to rival the grandest museums all over the world, Sir Hans Sloane’s vision – which opened to public in 1759 – attracts some 6–7 million tourists per year, ranking it first nationally and fourth globally. Despite its incredible size, the British Museum‘s collection is so extensive that only 80,000 objects of the entire collection are on display – a stunning 1%. This is both due to the sensitivity of certain artifacts, and the sheer numbers the museum holds in its collection. The collection spans an extremely broad spectrum of time periods, locations, and cultures. The collection contains such paradigmatic pieces as the Rosetta Stone, parts of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, and even pieces from one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. It is truly a building with paramount symbolic importance, establishing the city and the country as one of the pioneers of exploration and the restoration of tradition.