The 11 Best Things to Do in London for First Timers
London, the capital of the United Kingdom, is a truly global city offering endless possibilities for travellers. From the best museums and art galleries in the world to renowned theatre and excellent dining, there are so many things to do in London that one article simply can’t cover them all.
This guide will focus on the things to do in London that would be especially appealing for first time visitors. It will help you see the spots that have become cultural symbols and often feature in movies and TV programmes. You will also get to learn about the rich history of the city and marvel at its architectural masterpieces.
Here is the list of London’s top attractions for your first ever visit. Hopefully, you’ll decide to return one day to see more of this incredible city.
- The Best Things to Do in London for First Timers
- See Big Ben & the Houses of Parliament
- Marvel at Westminster Abbey
- Go to Buckingham Palace
- Explore the Tower of London
- Visit a Museum
- Go to Trafalgar Square & National Gallery
- Walk Along the South Bank
- Take a Trip on the London Eye
- Experience the Globe Theatre
- Visit St Paul’s Cathedral
- Watch a West End Performance
- How to Get to London
- Where To Stay in London
- Final Thoughts
- Suggested Reads
The Best Things to Do in London for First Timers
See Big Ben & the Houses of Parliament
The majestic Houses of Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower, a clock tower which is commonly known as Big Ben, are amongst London’s most famous landmarks. Also known as the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament is the heart of British politics with both the House of Commons and the House of Lords located there.
You can simply admire these impressive structures from the outside. Alternatively, you can learn more about their history and UK democracy on a guided tour. Please note, restoration work is currently underway in the Elizabeth Tower, so guided tours are on pause. However, tours of the Houses of Parliament are still on.
You can book your tour on the Houses of Parliament’s website. An adult ticket costs £29.00 (35 USD) per person. Advanced bookings are recommended as capacity is limited.
Marvel at Westminster Abbey
Right next to the Houses of Parliament, you will find Westminster Abbey, one of the most significant religious buildings in England. Although the abbey was founded in 960 AD, the current Gothic-style building was constructed in the 13th century. Religious services started over 1,000 years ago and still take place today.
Westminster Abbey has served as the place for royal coronations since 1066 and witnessed many state weddings and funerals. It is also the burial place for many historical figures, from monarchs and prime ministers to cultural icons including Jeffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens.
If you love history and architecture, Westminster Abbey should definitely be on your list of things to do in London on your first ever visit. It is a truly magnificent place where you feel like you’re encountering living history.
You can book your tickets up to two months in advance on the Westminster Abbey website. An adult ticket costs £25 (31 USD). To add more colour to your experience, you can join a guided tour with a verger for additional £10 (13 USD). You can only book these on the day of your visit.
Go to Buckingham Palace
Arguably one of the most famous palaces in the world, Buckingham Palace is an official residence and administrative centre of the British monarchy. Set within picturesque gardens, the Palace is often used for royal events and ceremonies.
Throughout the summer months, and on some dates in winter and spring, the opulent State Rooms of the Palace are open to the public. You can see available dates and book your tickets on the official Palace website. An adult ticket costs £30 (37 USD).
Visitors to the capital can also enjoy a fascinating display of British Pageantry just outside the Palace. During the iconic Changing of the Guard ceremony, also known as Guard Mounting, the New Guard takes over the responsibilities of the Old Guard. The soldiers wear traditional red tunics and bearskin hats. This exchange is also accompanied with music played by a military band.
The ceremony is free to watch and takes place at 11.00 on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday and daily in the summer. Please note, this schedule is subject to change.
Explore the Tower of London
The Tower of London is a historic castle and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in central London. Founded in 1066, the Tower has since served as a fortress, a royal residence, a prison, a place of execution, an armory, a mint and even a zoo. Many significant historical figures have been imprisoned and sometimes executed within the Tower walls.
When visiting this iconic London spot, I highly recommend joining a Yeoman Warder tour. Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters, will give you an overview of the Tower’s history and its famous prisoners. They are great storytellers with a good sense of humour, so you won’t be bored.
As part of your visit to the Tower, you can also see the famous Crown Jewels. The collection contains over 23,000 gemstones and 100 ceremonial objects of cultural and religious significance, including the coronation regalia. Some of the items are still used for royal ceremonies.
You can book your tickets on the official Tower of London website. General admission is £29.90 (36.50 USD).
Visit a Museum
London is home to numerous museums, some of which are considered to be the world’s best. It’s worth adding at least one to your list of things to do in London on your first visit. Since there are so many, I will focus on some of the big-hitters in this article.
One of the most well-known museums in London is the British Museum. Located in Bloomsbury, it was the first public national museum in the world. Its focus is the history of human cultures from around the world, from prehistory to the present day. The museum’s permanent collection contains eight million objects which is one of the largest in the world. Entry to the museum is free, but advanced bookings are advised. You may need to pay to access some temporary exhibitions. You book your preferred time slot on the British Museum’s website.
Another major London museum is the Natural History Museum located in South Kensington. There you explore the history of life on Earth through its vast collection featuring over 80 million specimens spanning billions of the years. From dinosaurs and fossils to human evolution and wildlife photography, there is lots to explore. General admission to the museum is free. You can book your timed entry slot on the official website. Some temporary exhibitions may require a fee.
If you’re into all things design, look no further than the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A). Named after Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Andrew, it is the largest decorative and applied arts museum in the world. From ceramic and furniture to fashion and photography, the V&A’s collection traces 5,000 years of history of creative pursuits. General admission to the museum is free. Booking is not required.
You can easily spend the whole day at any of these museums and still see only a fraction of their extensive collections. I recommend selecting the exhibits you’d like to see the most in advance, so you don’t get too overwhelmed during your visit.
Go to Trafalgar Square & National Gallery
Visiting the iconic Trafalgar Square is also worth adding to your list of things to do in London. It is a public square featuring monuments, surrounded by elegant historic buildings. At the centre of the square is Nelson’s Column, an impressive monument celebrating Admiral Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Four bronze lion statues guard the Column.
At the corners of the square, you can spot four plinths with statues. Three of these feature historic figures, but the fourth plinth is empty. A statue of King William IV was supposed to be erected there, but due to financial issues this project never came to be. Since 1999, the plinth has been hosting temporary artworks by contemporary artists. You can see what artwork is currently on, as well as past commissions, by visiting this website.
Trafalgar Square is home to The National Gallery, one of the most-visited art museums in the world. Its extensive collection features over 2,300 artworks by some of the greatest European artists such as Rembrandt, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. There is also a collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art by the likes of Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh.
Entry to the National Gallery is free. You can book your arrival time slot in advance on the Gallery’s website to avoid queuing. Access to some temporary exhibitions may require a fee.
Walk Along the South Bank
The walk along the South Bank of the River Thames is one of my personal favourites, especially on a sunny day. As part of this walk, you can admire stunning riverside views, spot iconic London landmarks and enjoy some great food. This part of London attracts locals and visitors alike and is nearly always brimming with activity.
You can begin your walk at Westminster Bridge, across the river from the Houses of Parliament. Then head east. The walk will take you all the way to the iconic Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. You can also do it the other way around, starting at the Tower Bridge and heading west instead.
As you stroll along the South Bank, you will spot the London Eye (see more information on this attraction below), famous performance venues such as the Royal Festival Hall and National Theatre and numerous eateries and pubs. The river bank is also home to Tate Modern, a former power station that has been transformed into a modern and contemporary art institution. Entry is free.
Take a Trip on the London Eye
One of the most famous attractions that you’ll spot while doing the South Bank walk is the London Eye. It is Europe’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel with fantastic views over central London.
The London Eye has 32 glass passenger capsules, one for every London borough. The ride is quite slow and relaxed, so you’ll have ample opportunities for taking photos and spotting the city’s most famous landmarks like Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.
The London Eye does get quite crowded, but if you’re in London for the first time, it’s still worth a trip. You can book your tickets in advance on the London Eye website. Prices start from £32.50 (40 USD) per adult.
Experience the Globe Theatre
Another iconic spot you’ll encounter on your walk along the South Bank, is the Globe Theatre. Its unique round shape is impossible to miss. This theatre is actually a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s original Globe from 1599.
This project was led by American actor and director Sam Wanamaker who launched this initiative in 1970. It was no easy feat to raise funds and replicate the building techniques and materials from the past. The Globe Theatre eventually opened in 1997. Unfortunately, Wanameker didn’t get to see its completion as he passed away in 1993.
Today we can enjoy Shakespeare’s plays in nearly the same playing conditions that his original audiences experienced. However, the site is actually home to two performance venues, the outdoor Globe Theatre itself and the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The performance programme is available on the Globe’s official website.
Watching a performance is not the only way to experience the Globe Theatre. You can join a guided tour where you can learn more about the history of the theatre or a specific play. The full programme is available here. I went to the Globe Theatre Guided Tour and can definitely recommend it. The brilliant guide shared the story of this unique landmark in an engaging way. This tour was also a great opportunity to experience the theatre with fewer people.
Visit St Paul’s Cathedral
The impressive dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is a familiar feature of the London skyline. It is an architectural masterpiece and the seat of the Diocese of London. Architect Christopher Wren designed the building in the late 17th century, as part of London’s reconstruction after the Great Fire of 1666.
St Paul’s Cathedral is a working church, so one of the ways you can experience it is by attending a daily service. They are free and open to all. However, if this is not your thing, you are more than welcome to come in to simply admire its majestic architecture or attend an event such as a concert or art exhibition. You can even climb the Dome to enjoy some fantastic views over London from one of the Dome galleries.
Sightseeing visitors need to pay for their tickets. They are £18 (22 USD) per adult. You can book your tickets on the St Paul’s Cathedral website. There are a number of guided tours on offer as well. You can book them on the day of your visit. Most of them are free for ticket holders, but some may require an additional fee. The current selection of tours is available on this page here.
Watch a West End Performance
If you enjoy performing arts, I recommend booking tickets to a theatre show at London’s West End. It is the heart of the capital’s cultural life with 38 theatres calling this precinct home. Seeing a show there is an opportunity to experience commercial theatre of the highest quality in the English-speaking world.
In terms of what’s on, there’s usually something for everyone. From musical classics such as “Les Miserables” to hilarious comedies like “The Play That Goes Wrong” to dance and opera. The West End is also brimming with bars and restaurants for every budget, so you’ll be able to make a night of it. Some theatres offer show and meal packages. You can see a selection of these here.
Head to the Official London Theatre website to find out what’s on and book your tickets. Make sure you book yours as far in advance as possible to avoid disappointment. Ticket prices are generally high, especially if you want good seats. If you choose to attend a matinee instead of an evening performance or opt for limited visibility seats, the cost will be lower.
How to Get to London
London is served by six international airports with Heathrow being by far the largest. If you are travelling to London from outside Europe, it is most likely going to be your arrival point. Those travelling from Europe might land in Gatwick, London’s second-largest airport, Luton or Stansted. London City Airport is the most central and is connected to a few European and UK cities. Lastly, there is Southend, the smallest London airport by passenger numbers, that operates flights to a limited selection of European destinations.
You can also get to London by train. With about a dozen major train stations, the city is a rail hub connecting many UK destinations. St. Pancras Railway Station in King’s Cross also offers a handful of international services. The popular Eurostar travels to Brussels, Paris, Lille and several other cities in France. I normally use the Trainline app to plan and book my train journeys.
The most budget way of getting to London from other parts of the UK is by coach. Take a look at the National Express website for route options, timetables and prices. The trade-off in this case is often the increased duration of the journey. For example, you can travel from Manchester to London by train in just over two hours. A coach trip could easily be over four. If time is on your side and you want to keep the costs down, this is still a viable travel option.
The best resource to plan your journey from the airport, train or coach station to your accommodation via public transport is the Transport for London website. If you would like to travel in more comfort, there is always the option of taking a taxi. You can arrange a transfer to your accommodation in advance through an online service called Welcome Pickups. This should help reduce the hassle on the day.
Where To Stay in London
London is vast and has accommodation options for all budgets, from hostels to ultra luxurious hotels. The attractions in this guide are quite spread out, so there isn’t one perfect location from where you can easily walk to all of them. Chances are, you will still need to use public transport at some point.
For your first trip, I would recommend staying in an area called Kensington. It boasts stunning architecture, beautiful parks and great dining options. Kensington is also home to the Natural History and V&A museums. With its excellent transport links, you will be able to easily reach other famous landmarks.
London is a travel destination that certainly offers something for everyone. One trip is unlikely to be enough to experience it all. So here’s to many more.
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