Iconic London: 13 Sites
Our England trip was one we saved and planned for for over a year. I spent many a night scrolling through Pinterest and researching where we wanted to stay and what we wanted to do. Airfare is expensive y’all, so stay as long as you can to make the cost of the flight more worthwhile. (Someone teach me to travel hack so I can go fo free!) Anyway, we were in London for 7 nights which was the bulk of our time. We chose to focus on London and seeing the London sites, rather than trying to squish multiple cities in and glossing over them.
We weren’t in London for all of our trip. The wedding we made the whole trip for was north of Manchester in the town of Clitheroe. We stayed in the countryside for 2 nights, and had our final night in Manchester since that’s the airport we flew out of. I have a series of posts all about our England adventure:
- Iconic London: 13 Sites
- Where to Eat & Drink in London
- Walking in Tolkien’s Footsteps
- England Travel Tips – What You Need to Know
This post is all about the incredibly historic and iconic London sites. When traveling places we don’t do a lot of tours, but London is definitely the city to make an exception for. How can you not see so many overwhelmingly famous and influential London sites?
The London Pass
The first thing to consider is The London Pass. Any and every London travel post mentions this. Depending on how many sites you want to see, it might be worth it. We ordered 3-day passes stateside and picked them up when we got to London. Don’t be fooled by their website – you’re probably not going get into attractions any faster because so many people use the London Pass. If you watch the prices you can catch a sale – ours were £118.90 each instead of £144. Just adding up the cost of attraction entrance fees we basically broke even. Including the Windsor travel and Oyster Card costs we saved some (not a ton) of money. Price out what you want to see to check if it’s worth it.
1. The British Museum
I was in awe of this museum and would absolutely go back! There are so many artifacts that a ton of them just are casually displayed as decoration. The British Empire existed everywhere and this museum is a testament to that. There are magnificent Egyptian displays. There are a zillion old books. It was such a massive building we didn’t see all of it. If there is a location or time period you’re interested in, they have it. Did I mention the museum is free? As with all of London, I would dress in layers. We found it to be hot and stuffy inside.
2. Buckingham Palace
We did not do any of the tours, but did want to see the Palace from the outside. It was a nice walk along The Mall and St. James Park from where we were staying. The attention to detail, even from the outside, was evident. The grounds and fencing were impeccable. I know I just commented on the fences. But they were covered in fancy royal crests. And if you don’t take a picture in front of the Palace, did you even visit London?
3. Hyde Park
A 10-15 minute walk from the Palace will land you at the edge of Hyde Park. This is the largest green space in the city center. Around the cafe and paddle boat launch it was quite busy, but calmed down as we strolled on. I enjoyed the gardens and how clean everything was. Kensington Gardens are within Hyde park and are worth the walk. I found Kensington Palace underwhelming.
4. Windsor Castle
Windsor is ~30 minute tube ride from London, getting off at the Slough station. Don’t let that discourage you; it was worth it! We ended up going on a Saturday morning arriving right around opening time. Mistake. The line was insanely long. Our friends we went with did not have a London Pass and ended up in a much shorter line to buy tickets. The folks at Windsor were nice enough to let us go in with them.
The castle is quite impressive! It’s amazing to me how massive, yet old, it is. The staterooms were cool, but there isn’t much time to linger or explore. Everyone pretty much meandered through in one big line as your path is roped off. I was ok with that, as I felt the best part was gazing at the castle facade.
There is a quaint town around the castle. You could plan to have lunch and do some shopping if you have the time. The town was not necessarily authentic, but was appealing nonetheless.
5. Tate Modern
After we hit Borough Market (a must! Read about it here.), we meandered over to Tate Modern. I do love a good art museum, especially a free one. I was a bit disappointed with this one and thought there were way too many sculptures of feces. Maybe I’m just used to art museums with a more diverse blend of art. Maybe I didn’t find the floor of art that would have impressed me. Perhaps I’m just uncultured swine. I would spend more time at the British Museum or try Tate Britain.
6. Tower of London
How cool is it to say you’ve been in a fortress? Or that you’ve ogled the jewelry of royalty? I’m just be a nerd, but London kept slapping me in the face with it’s historically significant sites. We went here around midday on a Sunday. There was no line and few crowds, except for the Crown Jewels. We didn’t join any of the official tours and wandered around. Allow lots of time for the Tower as there are many layers of the fortress to explore. The Crown Jewels are so worth the wait in line!
7. Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge is right next to the Tower of London. It’s very conveniently named. Even if you don’t go up and see the views from the top, it’s such an iconic landmark to see in person. We watched the bridge being raised and then lowered again from the banks of the Thames. There are stairs to the upper levels (two hallways run parallel to each other) where you can look up and down the Thames as it cuts through London. You can also get married here!
8. Thames River Cruise
Included in our London Pass was a river cruise through City Cruises. We got on at Tower Pier and off at Westminster Pier. I was not impressed with the line and your inability to reserve/schedule a specific time. The first come first serve aspect meant more standing in line. Sailing underneath the many bridges along this stretch of river gave us a different perspective of some of London’s sites. Our tour guide was entertaining and added some history we didn’t know. If you end up with a London Pass, it’s cool to go by boat rather than by land if you are navigating that way anyway. I would skip it otherwise.
9. Westminster Abbey
There was a line when the Abbey opened, but it moved quickly. The spectacular grandeur of this church hurt my neck. I could only look up. Or down. You do end up walking graves and memorial engravings. A building as old as this one that manages to make you feel small and insignificant has to be magnificent. There is no photography inside the church, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
10. Big Ben
Elizabeth Tower is the official name of the structure that most people refer to as Big Ben. Nevertheless, it is arguably the most recognized building in London and can be seen from all over the city. The tower was (and still is) closed for tours while under renovation. It’s located right near Westminster Abbey and the Westminster Pier. The London Eye also gives a nice aerial view.
11. St. Paul’s Cathedral
There’s a lovely courtyard around the building that lots of working folks were enjoying their lunch in. The inside of this church wasn’t as impressive as the Abbey, but I went to climb to the top. We did all 528 steps it takes to get to the observation level on the outside of the dome. The wide stone steps inside the church were worn from millions of feet and circled to an overlook within the cathedral. A mismatch of step styles takes you to the lower outside overlook. Finally, metal stairs within the dome take you to a fantastic view outside. Your thighs might hate you, but your eyes and heart will be happy.
12. The London Eye
We tried a few times to ride the Eye. The first time it was rainy. The next time the line was massive. You can buy tickets in advance, but you risk the weather. This is not included in the London Pass. We went up the same day as we did St. Paul’s, and I thought the cathedral had the better view. While I definitely enjoyed the Eye, if the line is too long or you’re pressed for time, don’t feel guilty skipping this one.
13. The Regent’s Park
This park was a bit out of the way for us. The gardens and flowers were the epitome of picturesque. We saw multiple photo shoots occurring while we were there. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me on this excursion and only took a few pictures on my phone. There’s a small cafe that is a perfect spot to people watch after lots of strolling.
What are your favorite London sites?