You simply cannot run out of things to do in London. Here, past and present are next door neighbours; you can learn about ancient history in the afternoon and go pub-crawling in the evening. There is so much to explore that, if you ask two Londoners for their favourite things to do, you'll end up with two totally different lists. But if you're a first-time visitor to London, we understand that you might need a little help narrowing down your options. Here are the must-dos that just might convince you to book a return trip sooner than you planned.
Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey
Big Ben needs no introduction, but if you're a first-time visitor to London, it does require a photoshoot. For a jaw-dropping view, take the tube to Westminster Station and follow the signs for Exit 4 (Bridge Street). Climb the stairs at the exit and look up. We promise you'll understand what all the fuss is about. Once you've finished ogling, cross the street and head toward the Houses of Parliament. Believe it or not, you can walk right into the most important rooms in this thousand-year old beating heart of the British government. On Mondays through Thursdays, Parliament allows visitors to sit behind bullet-proof glass and observe Members of Parliament debate some of the UK's most important issues during the House of Commons debates. If you're more interested in history than current events, take one of the top-notch guided or audio tours. Finish your Westminster afternoon with a stroll to Westminster Abbey, just around the corner from Parliament. Westminster Abbey is an architectural wonder, and many of the most important people in British history were buried or married here. Tours of the Abbey are fascinating and worthwhile, but it's especially beautiful to see the space in use during daily services like Evensong, when the voices of the choir echo across the enormous room. All visitors are welcome to attend, regardless of religious background.
There's something undeniably awesome about crossing the very bridge you probably used to sing about as a kid: "London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down." The official (and underwhelming) London Bridge is actually half a mile up the river, but you almost certainly envision Tower Bridge when you sing the nursery rhyme - it's a London icon. Anyone can walk across the bridge at street level, but for a scenic and traffic-free stroll, plan for the Tower Bridge Experience. The experience includes a visit to the original Engine Room - a real treat for engineering geeks - and a fascinating exhibition on the bridge's history. Best of all, you'll get access to the bridge's high-level walkways 42 metres above the Thames, where you'll have the surreal experience of looking through a glass floor and seeing boats pass beneath your feet.
Simply put, no visit to London is complete without a stop at Buckingham Palace. If you're short on time, spend it on the unmistakably British pomp and circumstance of the Changing of the Guard. Arrive early to get a good view through the gate. If you're feeling extra cheeky after the ceremony, unleash your best jokes to try to make one of the guardsmen laugh. If comedy isn't among your skills, don't sweat it: there's a lot more to explore at Buckingham Palace. Check out the Royal Mews (the swanky royal stables, which are still in use) and the latest art exhibition at the Queen's Gallery. During the summer months, make sure you visit the stunningly bejeweled State Rooms, which the royal family still uses. Round out the afternoon by lounging at beautiful St. James's Park, which is directly across from the palace.
The City gets its name from its history as the square mile district once occupied by the Romans, but today, it's known as the financial capital of London. You can spot contemporary architectural landmarks here at every turn, and new skyscrapers seem to pop up by the day. Perhaps that's why stepping into St. Paul's Cathedral, a 17th century marvel within a 21st century neighborhood, feels like stepping back in time. Climb halfway up the dome to the Whispering Gallery to experience an acoustic anomaly: anything you whisper against the wall can be heard on the opposite side of the room. Return to modernity with a trip to the nearby Walkie Talkie building (officially known as 20 Fenchurch Street, but you'll never hear a Londoner utter that name). Free with advanced booking, the building's top floor Sky Garden offers some of the best views in London within a lush indoor green space.
There's no competition: The Tower of London is the best place to explore the incredible, sometimes creepy, often hilarious history of London. The 900-year-old fortress has served countless purposes through the centuries, but today it's most famous as a former prison and the current home of the Crown Jewels. Join a tour led by an official Beefeater (technically known as a Yeoman Warder, or guardian of the Tower) to hear stories of crime, scandal, and even decapitation from a genuine expert. Then, check out a historical reenactment and ride along a series of moving walkways to view the spectacular Crown Jewels. Keep your eyes peeled for the seven official Tower of London ravens. The official Raven Master feeds these beloved birds 170g of raw meat each day - so you might not want to get too close.
The London punk scene's glory days may be long gone, but you can still spot traces of its influence at Camden Market, the lively collection of crowded alleyways filled with clothing and jewellery stalls, food stands, indie designers, and live music venues. Don't be afraid of getting a bit lost. At Camden Market, you'll find some of the best shops in unusual places: nestled beneath an archway or at the end of a narrow cobblestone path. Once you've had enough browsing, grab lunch from a stall and take a seat in the midst of the hubbub for an unbeatable people-watching opportunity.
The London Eye serves no other purpose than gathering visitors in sealed capsules, lifting them off the ground, slowly rotating them through the air for thirty minutes, and lowering them to the ground once again. And yet, somehow, we can't help but fall in love with London from inside those little capsules. Perhaps it's because they offer one of the best panoramic views of the city. Lovebirds, listen up: the views are especially romantic after sunset.
Exit the Eye and step straight into South Bank, perhaps the liveliest one-mile stretch in all of London. South Bank, a riverfront district stretching from Westminster Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge, packs a mighty cultural punch: within just a few blocks, you can immerse yourself some of London's best drama (National Theatre), music (Royal Festival Hall), art (Hayward Gallery), and film (BFI Southbank). These buildings are all free and open to the public, and they're worth a wander for the architecture alone. But the best bits of South Bank will reveal themselves only through a long, leisurely stroll. Take your time exploring the South Bank's outdoor booksellers, tempting food trucks, quirky street musicians, and those magical views of the Thames.
For a taste of old-school British glamour, head to one of the newest buildings in the London skyline: The Shard. At 95 storeys tall, the Shard offers the highest view in the city as well as some of its most elegant surroundings. Your View from the Shard ticket includes access to both the open-air Skydeck and the indoor viewing gallery, but for more of a James Bond effect, we recommend visiting one of the six elegant bars and restaurants in the building, too. Daredevils, make sure to check out The Shard's new virtual reality experiences: The Slide, a hundred-miles-per-hour journey through the skyline, and Vertigo, a death-defying balancing simulation.
London is a fashion capital, and Oxford and Regent Streets are its shopping landmarks. From the haute couture to fast fashion, Oxford and Regent Streets have it all - and a lot of it. There are huge flagship branches of many of your favourite stores here, like Zara, Topshop, and H&M. But the uniquely British shops are the most exciting ones to visit. Iconic Selfridges stands alone as the very best Oxford Street has to offer. This vast, six-storey department store brings beauty to the shopping experience. Even the window displays are works of art. Another classic, Liberty, is less outwardly glitzy, though no less high-end. Stepping into Liberty feels like stepping into the past, from the fireplaces to the cozy wood panelling. If you're looking for gifts to bring back home, check out the scarves and blouses featuring Liberty's famous fabric print.
No matter your taste, there's a museum in London that's perfectly suited to you. Plus, thanks to the UK's cultural budget, you can probably visit that museum free of charge. The National Gallery, located in Trafalgar Square, is an obvious choice, with its encyclopaedic collection of Western art and rich architectural heritage. For a whirlwind tour of human history, visit the British Museum, home to 8 million artefacts from around the world. The British Museum offers such an abundance of riches that it's a good idea to follow one of the free daily tours to avoid getting overwhelmed. Design-lovers, head to the V&A for a grand tour of the history of decorative arts, including an enormous costume collection spanning 400 years of fashion. For a museum unlike any other, try Tate Modern, which houses one of the world's best modern art collections in a former power station. Be sure you spend time in the vast Turbine Hall, which exhibits colossal, jaw-dropping art installations that couldn't fit anywhere else.