Things to do in London 2017: Best tours, attractions, museums, free things
As an American who lived in London for six months after visiting it dozens of times prior, I feel like I can give a combination of a local's perspective and that outsider view from the eyes of a tourist. London is an amazing city so filled with top attractions that no one ever sees them all, so it's just a matter of choosing the ones that appeal to you most and then budgeting your time.
If you've got 4 days or less in London it's highly recommended you do at least one tour on either the hop-on, hop-off bus or the cruise along the Thames, or preferably both. Do it early in your trip and you'll know where almost everything is so you can go back to the things that interest you the most.
Best tours of London
London is a huge city and it would take at least a week to see most of the famous sights and landmarks on your own. You can see most of the top sights on a bus or boat tour, and both are very worthwhile if you've only got a few days. Walking tours are highly recommended as well.
Hop-on, hop-off bus tours
Several different companies offer very similar tours with very similar routes. The main route can last up to 5 hours or so if the traffic is bad, which it often is in London. If you start near Victoria Station or Big Ben, then taking the first 3 hours or so might be the best use of your time. If you hop off at the Tower of London you've seen 80% of the interesting stuff.
If the weather is nice enough you definitely want to get a seat on the top deck of any of these buses. And the ones that offer live commentary are usually far more entertaining than the ones that only offer recorded commentary. These bus tours are highly recommended for a first visit to London, especially if you'll only be here for a few days. Included in the London Pass.
- Adult: £32 (2017 prices)
- Child: £15
Discounts are often available online.
Thames hop-on, hop-off cruise
Since historic London and Westminster were both originally built along the Thames, you can actually see many things on this hop-on, hop-off river cruise that you can't see from the bus or on foot. There are only a handful of stops, running from Westminster Bridge (next to Big Ben) to Greenwich. You also get very entertaining live commentary, so this is also highly recommended if the weather is decent.
The part of the cruise between Westminster Bridge and the Tower Bridge is much more interesting than the section between Tower Bridge and Greenwich, so don't feel bad about only doing that part. If you want to visit the Observatory or the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, then the Thames cruise is a great way to get there. Included in the London Pass.
- Adult (24-hour): £16
- Child (24-hour): £8
Free walking tours
The “free” (actually tips-based) walking tours craze began in Berlin in 2003 by Sandeman's New Europe, and they are one of a few companies offering similar free walking tours of London that last around 3 hours each. The idea is that the tour is free, but if you enjoy it then a tip of £5 or £10 is very much appreciated at the end. These tours tend to be very entertaining and are a great way of meeting other tourists.
Since London is such a huge city and these are walking tours, you only get to see one small area of the city, although it is the oldest and most historic area. You can just show up at the starting point, but they prefer if you reserve your free spot so they can have enough guides. They also offer quite a few other walking tours for £12 per person.
London Walks: Specialty walking tours
If you don't like the idea of a walking tour with many backpackers and other cheapskates, you should consider the excellent walking tours from this company founded in the 1970s. They offer dozens of different themed walks, including general walks of the same historic districts that the “free” tour covers.
Each walk lasts about two hours and is guided by a professional who knows the walk extremely well. They offer walks of rock & roll sights, and Sherlock Holmes sights, and many more interesting themes.
- Adult: £10
- Child: free
Best attractions in London
These are our picks for the best and most worthwhile attractions in London. They are a mix of historic, fun, and thrilling.
Tower of London
The “Tower” of London is actually a large fortress complex that dates back about 1,000 years to the beginnings of London as we know it. The White Tower is at its center, but you can also see the Crown Jewels and many other buildings along the walls and throughout.
It's very impressive to see in person, and you can take excellent photos of the nearby Tower Bridge from the grounds, but don't expect a rollicking good time unless you are a history buff. It's worth taking one of the free one-hour tours given by the Beefeater guards that start every 30 minutes or so. Included in the London Pass.
- Adult: £28
- Child: £13
Located just west of Heathrow Airport, about 30 km from central London, Windsor Castle is far easier to reach than you might expect, and very worthwhile. If you really want to see what a proper royal castle with lush grounds looks like on your tour of London, this is the one to see. The little town of Windsor is almost worth the trip itself.
From Paddington Station, which is near hundreds of hotels, it's one stop on an express train to Slough and then one stop on a special local train that takes you into Windsor. All of it, including those train rides, are included with the London Pass.
Dating back to the 13th Century, Westminster Abbey is arguably the most impressive church in the world in terms of ornamentation. For most visitors, this church is more central and easier to reach than London's other famous church, St. Paul's Cathedral (below). If you only have time to see one of these historic masterpieces, this is the one to visit.
The location right next to Big Ben and Parliament means that you'll probably be passing by the entrance many times during your stay, whether you want to or not. Hop-on, hop-off buses stop right outside, and the hop-on, hop-off Thames cruises leave from Westminster Bridge, which is a short walk away. Included in the London Pass.
- Adult: £20
- Child: £9
St. Paul's Cathedral
Just as impressive as Westminster Abbey (above), but in different ways, St. Paul's Cathedral is also more than 700 years old, and it's the seat of the Bishop of London. While Westminster Abbey is more ornate inside (some say cluttered), St. Paul's is more open, and it also continues as a place of worship on a daily basis. The Sir Christopher Wren architecture is another major feature, as the main dome was the tallest building in London until 1967.
St. Paul's is impressive indeed, but it's located in “The City” alongside the financial buildings and not close to as many other sights or transit links as Westminster Abbey. Enthusiasts of historic cathedrals will want to see both, but either one will be very impressive. Included in the London Pass.
- Adult: £18
- Child: £8
Discounts for booking online
London Eye (Ferris wheel)
While the London Eye does look like an amusement park Ferris wheel, it's actually a bit different. Instead of small seats or cabins, the London Eye has large capsules that hold up to 25 people standing up. Each rider gets to do one revolution, which takes 30 minutes. The views during the ride are excellent, as it's located just across the river from Big Ben and Parliament.
The ticket queues here can be long, especially on busy days. Buy your tickets online for a specific departure time and you'll be able to skip the long queue. They offer many other ticket packages that include extras. The prices below are for the Standard Entry.
- Adult: £26 and up
- Child: £21
Discounts for booking online
Churchill War Rooms
England played a fascinating role in World War II, and anyone who is curious about it will want to visit the Churchill War Rooms. Located a short walk from Westminster Abbey, the Churchill War Rooms are the actual headquarters of the British military during WWII, with the offices and bunks still mostly intact.
They also have a flashy museum dedicated to the life of Churchill himself. This might be boring to children or even those without an interest in WWII, but it's a top sight for those who are curious. Included in the London Pass.
- Adult: £19
- Child: £9.50
London Bridge Experience
Built into the walls and basement of an underpass near the London Bridge, the London Bridge Experience is a relatively new attraction. The first half of the one-hour interactive show is an entertaining and funny history of London performed by actors who serve as guides. The second half is a straight-up haunted house with plenty of thrills and screams built in.
The London Experience is designed to be funny, entertaining, and scary, so it's not really anything like a museum. It can be very fun in groups, and especially if you like haunted houses. If you don't like haunted houses, skip it. Included in the London Pass.
- Adult: £26.95
- Child: £21.45
I used to make fun of the idea of visiting a “wax museum,” especially anywhere near the price of these Madame Tussauds places. Then I actually visited one and I instantly became a fan. As silly as it might sound, the wax figures are unbelievably impressive and you can stand a few inches away and still expect them to turn their head and say something to you.
The London location is the original one and it's almost always crowded. It's not too close to other major attractions, but it is close to many hotels. Buy online for a substantial discount.
- Adult: £35
- Child: £30
Save £6 each by buying online
Open to the public since 1847, London Zoo is the oldest scientific zoo in the world and still one of the most impressive. The location in Regent's Park, just north of central London, means that it's easy to reach, but also that it doesn't have enormous sprawling grounds.
If the weather is decent then this is obviously one of the top attractions for younger children in all of London. You might not expect to see lions, tigers, gorillas and the like in central London, but they are indeed here.
- Adult: £25.50
- Child: £18.50
Famously where the Queen lives and where the royals have lived in London since 1837, Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms and a huge estate just out back. There are actually 3 attractions here. The State Rooms are the big draw, as they show off the most impressive rooms and decorations in the palace for about two months each summer while the Queen is in Scotland.
The State Rooms require reservations and are open from late July through September each year. The year-round attractions are the Queen's Gallery and the Royal Mews (horse facilities), which can be included in one ticket if you book the State Rooms. The Queen's Gallery and Royal Mews are included in the London Pass.
- Adult: £23
- Child: £13
Located in Kensington Gardens, which is adjacent to Hyde Park in West London, Kensington Palace is much older and more historic than Buckingham Palace. But it's also not nearly as impressive if I'm being honest. This is where Princess Diana used to live with Charles (and without him) and it's where William and Harry still live, although you won't get near their quarters.
If you are a Princess Diana fan you will be impressed by the displays of some of her most famous outfits and some other items. If not, this is probably not a great choice compared to many of the others on this list.
- Adult: £19
- Child: free
Discounts for buying online
Hampton Court Palace
Real history buffs absolutely love Hampton Court Palace, as it was the primary home of Henry VIII among others. Set on very large grounds, the palace was built starting in 1515, so it captures that whole Tudor period of English history. The palace is very impressive, but it's not nearly as ornate as Buckingham Palace.
Hampton Court Palace is well west of central London and it takes about an hour to get there by train. This one isn't probably ideal for those who don't enjoy this period of history, although the palace does feature traditional hedge maze, which is much more challenging to exit than you might expect.
- Adult: £23
- Child: £11.50
Discount for buying online
(Arsenal, Chelsea, Wembley, Twickenham, Wimbledon)
Fans of the Arsenal, Chelsea, or England football teams will want to consider touring one or more of their stadiums, as each has an elaborate tour offered on non-match days. The England rugby team also has a popular tour, and the Wimbledon tennis center has its own.
If you aren't a fan of any of these teams or sports then this is definitely something to skip. But if you are a fan, these are once in a lifetime chances to visit the locker rooms and out on the pitch (except Wimbledon) of where your favorite athletes perform.
Best museums in London
The kind taxpayers of the United Kingdom pay the tab for many of Europe's best and most famous museums, so we visitors can enjoy them for free.
Easily one of the best and most famous museums in the world, the British Museum is centrally located and most of the enormous collection is free. Among the many famous items in the collection here are the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. You can see the highlights in 30 minutes if you like, so it's worth a look for almost anyone.
- Admission: free
Located in a disused power station on the south bank of the Thames, the Tate Modern is another that is worth a quick look if you are in the area. This is a modern art museum with collections that are well spread out over the huge building complex. Many locals say that most of the art is “rubbish” but at least it's interesting and the main collection is free.
- Admission: free
Victoria and Albert Museum
Rather than artworks, the Victoria and Albert Museum features furniture and decorative arts. It's all beautifully presented, but it's not everyone's cup of tea. Since it's free to get in, it might be worth a little look if you are in the neighborhood.
- Admission: free
Natural History Museum
Similar to Natural History Museums elsewhere, the one in London is packed with stuff animals dating all the way back to the dinosaurs. Needless to say, it's most popular with children, and it's extremely well done for what it is with many interactive displays.
- Admission: free
Probably the most traditional museum of the bunch, the National Gallery features European paintings from the 13th to 19th Centuries, including famous works by DaVinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and just about any other European artist you can think of.
- Admission: free
Best shopping experiences in London
When it comes to shopping, London has it all. You can find every imaginable chain store along Oxford Street, but also several other areas where independent and unique retailers are offering things you can only begin to imagine.
Oxford Street: Chain stores and low prices
Europe's busiest shopping street is a bit under 2 kilometers (1.2 miles), and it's completely lined on both sides with just about every chain store that has a presence in Europe. In fact, many chains such as Marks and Spencer have two stores on Oxford Street, while fashion chains including Zara and TopShop have 4 stores each.
Selfridges might be the most famous store on Oxford Street, but the huge Primark location just across from it seems to be the most popular. This largest Primark location sells clothes and accessories so inexpensively that it's hard to believe, which means that it's always packed.
Camden Markets: Quirky, unique, & fun place to spend a few hours
Exit the Camden Road tube station and walk a couple short blocks north. This puts you in the heart of the Camden Markets area, with the Camden canal locks at its center. There are little indoor and outdoor markets all over the place, and not a chain in sight.
You can find the latest fashions here, often at very good prices, but it's really the whole spectacle of it that is the big draw. There are many hundreds of stalls and shops in one small area, as well as food stands and other restaurants and pubs. If Oxford Street sounds like a drag, then go here because it's gloriously the exact opposite.
Portobello Road: Famous Notting Hill shopping area with street stalls
Whether you've seen the Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant film or not, it's worth taking a stroll along Portobello Road at least once. The small street is lined with interesting little shops, but there are sidewalk stalls up and down the street most days of the week. Saturday is the biggest day and it feels like an outdoor party, but there are things to see every day.
The neighborhood in general is really fun and interesting, although you won't find much nightlife here. Take the tube to the Notting Hill Gate station and then follow the crowds north two short blocks to find the bottom of Portobello Road. There are food stalls operating late in the week and on Saturday, but only during the daytime.
Covent Garden: Former produce market now a shopping and entertainment area
Closer to most of the famous attractions than the others, the Covent Garden shopping area is worth a look even if you aren't interested in buying anything. This former farmer's market has been transformed into a trendy market space featuring crafts and gift items, with a few chain stores thrown in.
Some of the best musicians and buskers in London perform here on any day of the week, and it's always crowded with your fellow tourists. It's only a short walk from Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus, so you'll be nearby whether you try to or not.
Best free things to do in London
You can find dozens of lists of free things to do in London all over the internet. For our money, here are the best and most interesting.
London has a well-earned reputation for being an expensive place to visit, but fortunately all of the state-run museums are free to visitors. This includes all of the most famous ones mentioned above and a few dozen more. Even people who aren't normally the museum crowd can at least pop in one or two of them and look around for half an hour or so, if only to say that you've been there.
Obviously all four of the shopping streets mentioned above are free if you don't buy anything. Oxford Street can be quite frustrating and crowded if you aren't in the mood to buy, but the other three places are major tourist attractions on their own. Camden Market is by far the largest and most entertaining, but many people love Portobello Road at least as much.
Borough Market: Farmer's Market and food stalls
This farmer's market near the south bank of the Thames is just over 1,000 years old, though it doesn't look it. These days it's mostly high-end fruits and veggies surrounded by interesting food stalls serving a wide variety of dishes that you won't find in most other places. Just walking through is fun and worthwhile, even if you aren't hungry when you enter.
Walk the south bank of the Thames
The best and longest walk in London is along the south bank of the Thames, which has been transformed into a unique shopping and entertainment zone. Start at the Millennium Bridge for the famous photo looking across to the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, and pop into the Tate Modern for a quick look while you are there. Then walk west towards Westminster Bridge, which takes you past many restaurants, bars, outdoor stages, a little carnival, and the London Eye.
Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus
If you've ever seen a film that has had its international or European premier in London, it was almost certainly at one of the three huge cinemas that face Leicester Square. It's fully pedestrianized and there are usually buskers and performers in multiple places, so it's a very entertaining area to see at least once. Piccadilly Circus is just a couple of blocks away, and it's got London's closest answer to Times Square-style lights.
Visit one of London's famous parks
While it may not be as thrilling as most of the others on this list, London does have many exceptional parks and on a nice day a stroll through one of them is very worthwhile. Green Park and St. James's Park both surround Buckingham Palace, and are also close to the much larger Hyde Park, which also contains Kensington Gardens and Kensington Palace. The Prince Albert Memorial on the south edge of Hyde Park is one of the most ornate outdoor displays in the world.