Founded by the Romans in 43AD, London initially became an important city in Roman Britain. Although little remains from this period, some ruins remain, including parts of the Roman walls and the remains of a Roman theatre. After the Romans departed, the city’s influence waned until the site was refortified by Alfred the Great. The Norman conquest saw the city become increasingly important until it was established as the capital of England – a fact reflected by the many royal palaces and homes which still exist today.
Much of London’s history speaks for itself, with a wealth of historic sites providing an insight into the lives that thousands of years of Londoners have led. Here’s our pick of 30 of the most famous attractions – from Buckingham Palace to Highgate Cemetery – which you shouldn’t miss.
1. British Museum
The British Museum is one of the world’s foremost museums of history and anthropology. The museum has some of the largest and most revered collections from around the globe ranging from Babylonian stonework and Samurai armour to pottery and glass from the Roman Empire.
Three hour and children’s’ itineraries are available on the museum’s website and at the museum itself. Alternatively, free audio guides are available or visitors can book a highlights tour in advance for a fee, which take place daily. You can book this online or by calling the museum.
2. London Mithraeum
In September 1954 during the construction of a huge new office block for insurance firm Legal & General, builders discovered a Roman temple which sat on the banks of the long-lost River Walbrook (now a City of London street), an ancient tributary of the Thames and source of fresh water, vital to the running of the Roman city of Londinium.
The good news is that the owners of the original location of the temple, media behemoth Bloomberg have brought the temple back to life by way of ‘an innovative museum experience that will change the way we encounter archaeology.’ The resultant experience is both fascinating and superbly presented and definitely one to visit.
3. Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament or ‘Palace of Westminster’ is where both houses of the UK Parliament are located. Originally part of the great royal palace that had been home to English monarchs for over 500 years, Westminster Palace became the home of parliament in the 16th century after reign of King Henry VIII, when Henry moved the royal family out of the Palace of Westminster following a fire.
The original Westminster Palace burned down in 1834, and the building you see today is the result of the subsequent rebuilding by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. The iconic clock tower, housing Big Ben, is probably the most famous part of this building and the complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
4. The Tower of London
The Tower of London, originally known as the White Tower, was commissioned by the first Norman king, William the Conqueror and work on it was underway by the 1070s. It was designed as a fortress-stronghold, a role that remained unchanged right up until the late 19th century. There is a great deal to see and do at the Tower: the beefeaters, ravens, site of the menagerie and just walking around it to soak up the history. Allow plenty of time for your visit.
5. Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery is a graveyard in London where the famous philosopher and political economist Karl Marx is buried. It is also the burial site of several other prominent people, including several novelists, artists, political activists and professionals. A list of famous internments can be found on Highgate Cemetery’s website. Guided tours of the East Cemetery, where Marx is interned, take place on the first Saturday of each month starting at 2:15pm and last around an hour.
6. Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is an iconic medieval structure and the site of many historic royal and national events, from coronations and weddings to burials and even deaths. Centrally located in London, Westminster Abbey was first constructed in the eleventh century by King Edward the Confessor, a Saxon king who dedicated this new church to St Peter.
To have an informed visit and to see the most interesting parts of the abbey, take a tour, as just wandering around can be overwhelming. Poets’ corner is one of the main attractions, it being the burial site of many prominent non-royal figures. One of the other most impressive sites is the Coronation Chair, produced in 1300-1301 under the orders of King Edward I. Its purpose was to accommodate the Stone of Scone, which the king had brought from Scotland.
7. Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum is dedicated to exploring worldwide conflicts throughout history. The exhibitions in the London Imperial War Museum cover, amongst other things, different aspects of the First and Second World Wars including military history, the Holocaust, women’s roles in the conflicts, wartime artwork and the political issues of the time.
The Imperial War Museum is particularly child-friendly, with temporary exhibitions such as a reconstruction of a World War I trench.
8. London Roman Wall
The London Roman Wall was built between around 190 and 220 AD and stretched for about three miles from Blackfriars to Tower Hill. This defensive wall protected what was then the important Roman city of Londinium. Prior to the building of the London Roman Wall, Londinium already had a fort, parts of which were now incorporated into the new wall.
Over the centuries, most of the London Roman Wall has been obscured by medieval additions and other development. However, there are some well-preserved parts which can still be seen today. The map highlights one of the more prominent remaining sections of the London Roman Wall, that at Tower Hill.
9. Cabinet War Rooms
The Cabinet War Rooms are part of the underground bunker complex in London where Winston Churchill and his government operated during World War Two. The Cabinet War Rooms were left untouched from 1945, when they were no longer needed, until the 1980s when they were restored and opened to the public.
Those which are open today include the cabinet war room, where Churchill’s war cabinet met, Churchill’s office, and his bedroom. This underground office block even included a canteen and a hospital. Visitors should allow at least 90 minutes to savour the atmosphere of this iconic Second World War site.
10. Kew Palace
Kew Palace was built around 1631 by merchant Samuel Fortrey. The 17th century palace is noted for its distinctive decorative brickwork and gables, and it is the oldest surviving building in the Kew botanical gardens.
The Palace was opened to the public in 1898. The ground and first floor rooms at Kew have been restored to reflect the Georgian era, while the second floor has remained untouched.
11. HMS Belfast
HMS Belfast is a Royal Navy light cruiser ship that played a role in both World War II and the Korean War. It is now open to the public in London under the remit of the Imperial War Museum. Launched in March 1938, HMS Belfast was commissioned by the Royal Navy in 1939, not long before the outbreak of World War II.
During the war, HMS Belfast took part in the blockade on Germany, patrolling northern waters from the Scapa Flow naval base in Orkney, among many other roles. HMS Belfast’s next wartime role would occur in the 1950s, during the Korean War, where she was one of the first ships to go into action to support American and South Korean Troops. HMS Belfast was involved in a few peacetime missions before finally being taken to London in 1971.
12. Jewel Tower
Originally part of the medieval Westminster Palace, the Jewel Tower was built in 1365 to hold the riches of Edward III, earning it the name of the ‘King’s Privy Wardrobe’. Following a fire in 1834, the Jewel Tower and Westminster Hall were the only buildings of the palace to survive.
Today, the Jewel Tower is open to the public under the remit of English Heritage. Visitors to the Jewel Tower can view its fourteenth century vault, an exhibition about Parliament’s history and view the remains of its medieval moat and quay. A visit usually lasts around half an hour.
13. 10 Downing Street
10 Downing Street in London has been the residence of every British Prime Minister since 1730, when it was presented to Sir Robert Walpole. Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, and architect William Kent converted the three existing buildings of 10 Downing Street into a single large one, known collectively by its now famous address, connected to each other by what is known as Treasury Passage.
Since that time, 10 Downing Street has been the location from which Prime Ministers have run the country and entertained heads of state and governments from around the world. 10 Downing Street’s iconic black door hides a warren of offices and state rooms as well as numerous conference rooms, dining rooms, private apartments, kitchens and cellars.
Over the years, 10 Downing Street has undergone renovations and modernisations to bring it into the 21st Century. It is not possible to tour 10 Downing Street, except of course by invitation, although the official website does have a virtual tour. There are also several audio files available on the Downing Street website detailing the building’s history and that of its residents.
14. Banqueting House
The Banqueting House in Whitehall, near Horseguards Parade, is the only complete building of the Palace of Whitehall to remain standing. The original Palace of Whitehall was acquired from Cardinal Wolsey by Henry VIII and was a royal residence until James I came to the throne in 1603.
From 1654 until 1658, the Palace of Whitehall was the home of the revolutionary and statesman, Oliver Cromwell. After the restoration of King Charles II to the throne in 1660, the Palace of Whitehall once again became the royal residence and the Banqueting House once again was used for its original purpose. In 1698, a huge fire burned Whitehall Palace to the ground. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to convert the Banqueting House into a chapel to replace the one destroyed in the fire.
15. Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace has been the official residence of Britain’s monarchs since 1837, at the start of the reign of Queen Victoria. With its 775 rooms, Buckingham Palace was originally built for the Dukes of Buckingham at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
In 1761, Buckingham Palace, then known as Buckingham House, was acquired by George III who rechristened it “The Queen’s Residence” and had it remodeled by Sir William Chambers. When the building passed to George IV, he continued the renovations, and, from 1826 under the remit of architect John Nash, began transforming Buckingham Palace into the building with which we are familiar today. These changes took around 75 years to implement. The first monarch to actually live there was Queen Victoria. Today, Buckingham Palace is the official London residence of Queen Elizabeth II.
16. Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace is a medieval palace once favoured by Henry VIII which has served as everything from a royal residence to a prison. In 1514, Thomas Wolsey, soon to be made cardinal, leased Hampton Court for a period of 99 years. He began rebuilding on a grand scale, converting Hampton Court into a lavish palace.
Upon the fall of Wolsey, Henry VIII took Hampton Court Palace for himself. Henry set about further renovation of Hampton Court Palace, rebuilding and extending the existing palace, at a staggering cost of over £60,000. The palace was used as a country retreat by Edward VI and Mary I. Elizabeth I used it as a venue for diplomacy and Hampton Court Palace was also used by James I, but none of them altered the buildings to any great extent.
17. Kensington Palace
Originally built for the Earl of Nottingham, Kensington Palace was acquired by King William III in 1689, after he and his wife, Mary II, had taken the throne from her father, James II. They employed Christopher Wren to rebuild and improve it.
Other monarchs enjoyed the atmosphere at Kensington Palace. These included Queen Anne, Mary’s sister, and her husband Prince George of Denmark. Her successor to the British throne, George I, had new state rooms built, and Queen Caroline, wife of George II, had the gardens laid out. In the time of George III, Kensington Palace ceased to be the monarch’s residence, and it housed some of the more minor Royals.
18. Nelson’s Column
Nelson’s Column is a tribute to one of the great men in British history: Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, victor of many naval battles, including the Battle of Trafalgar (hence the name of the square). Constructed in the nineteenth century, Nelson’s Column commemorates the death of this iconic figure.
Nelson’s Column is the best known of the statues in Trafalgar Square. One plinth still awaits a permanent tenant, and is currently used for a series of exhibits by British artists.
19. Eltham Palace
Eltham Palace is a spectacular Art Deco palace built in the 1930’s alongside a 15th Century medieval hall. The Great Hall of Eltham Palace is still extant and was originally built for the Yorkist king Edward IV in the 1470s and his grandson, Henry VIII, spent much of his childhood here.
However, the ‘new build’ at Eltham Palace, dating from the 1930s is a wonderful example of Art Deco. When Stephen and Virginia Courtauld built their 1930s Art Deco mansion beside the Great Hall of medieval Eltham Palace, they created a masterpiece of 20th century design.
20. Tower Bridge
The impetus to build Tower Bridge began gaining momentum in 1876, when it was decided that there was a need for a bridge to the east of London Bridge to accommodate the increasing commercial development in that part of the city. A competition was launched for the design of this new bridge, as a result of which city architect Horace Jones and engineer John Wolfe Barry were chosen to collaborate on the project.
Tower Bridge was opened in 1894 by the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). The walkways, much used by the population, were closed to the public from 1910 to 1982 as many ‘undesirables’ were using it. They were reopened in 1982 and now Tower Bridge offers a wonderful exhibition on its structure and engineering.
21. Battle of Barnet
The Battle of Barnet took place on the 14th of April 1471 and was one of the most decisive and bloody encounters of the Wars of the Roses.
There is little left of the battlefield now, but there is a monument on the A1000 road, which gives as good a view as any of the battlefield, which is now agricultural land, with little in the way of public footpaths. Like many of these medieval battlefields, the actual site is disputed, and is always under review.
22. The London Royal Air Force Museum
The Royal Air Force Museum (RAF Museum) in Hendon in North London has a series of exhibitions dedicated to the history of the RAF and aviation in general. Housing a fantastic collection of over 100 aircraft, the RAF museum has an impressive selection of planes including some of the most famous to have ever graced the skies.
Also on show at the London Royal Air Force Museum are a series of objects and structures from throughout the history of aviation, such as two World War I hangars, a World War II Battle of Britain exhibition and a timeline of aviation history.
23. Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum, better known as the V and A, in London is one of the world’s most prominent museums of design and decorative art.
Housing a vast array of items from around the world and throughout history, including Ancient Chinese art, Indian sculptures and medieval and renaissance masterpieces, the millions of artefacts and works displayed by the Victoria And Albert Museum span a period of over 3,000 years.
24. Big Ben
Big Ben is often thought to be the name of the iconic clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. In fact, ‘Big Ben’ is the nickname of one of the bells of this clock tower, originally called the Great Bell. It is unclear exactly where the name Big Ben originated, although it is thought that it was probably named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the man in charge of commissioning the structure. Another popular, although less likely, theory is that it was named after Ben Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer of the mid nineteenth century.
In any event, most people now think of the whole of the clock tower as Big Ben. The clock tower of Big Ben was begun in 1843 and completed in 1859, while the clock was completed later that year and first sounded its bells on 7 September.
25. Kenwood House
Kenwood House is a picturesque historic stately home in North London run by English Heritage. Initially built in the seventeenth century, Kenwood House subsequently underwent a renovation in the mid-eighteenth century.
Today, Kenwood House is famous for its summer concerts, held in its extensive gardens. It also houses an impressive art collection, including works by Vermeer, Constable and Rembrandt to name a few.
26. Apsley House
Apsley House was the home of one of Britain’s most heroic figures, Arthur Wellesley better known as the Duke of Wellington. In fact, Wellington lived there following his most famous victory, that over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Named after the Baron Apsley, who originally built it in the 1770s, Apsley House came to be owned by the Wellesley family in 1807. The Wellesleys extended and altered Apsley House, transforming it into the building we see today. Now managed by the English Heritage, Apsley House has a range of worthwhile things to see, such as its remarkable regency interiors and exhibits relating to the Duke of Wellington. There are many things at Apsley House which belonged to the Duke, including his impressive art collection, much of which once formed part of the Spanish Royal Collection and which includes pieces by several famous artists such as Canova and Velazquez.
27. Fenton House
Fenton House in Hampstead in North London was built in the seventeenth century and has since remained almost entirely unchanged. It is unclear who built Fenton House, but it has been continuously occupied over the period of three hundred years.
Today, Fenton House and its gardens are managed by the National Trust and the house includes exhibits of, amongst other things, porcelain and early keyboard instruments.
28. St James’s Palace
St James’s Palace has been the official residence of the British Sovereign since the reign of King Henry VIII. In fact, it was under Henry VIII that the redbrick Tudor structure of St James’s Palace was begun in 1531 on the former site of a hospital. It was mostly completed by 1536. Much of this original work remains today, including a gatehouse, parts of the state rooms and the Chapel Royal.
With its status of royal residence, St James’s Palace has played host to many an important event. Amongst these was the death of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy in 1536, the signing of the treaty of the surrender of Calais by Mary Tudor in 1558 and the births and baptisms of numerous future monarchs such as Charles II, James II, Mary II and James Francis Edward Stuart.
29. Clarence House
Clarence House has been the London residence of several members of the British royal family and is now the home of the Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. Built from 1825 to 1827 next to St James’s Palace, the prime location of Clarence House has made it the perfect place for royals to call home. The first member of the monarchy to live there was King William IV.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother moved in in 1953 and resided there for almost fifty years. Meanwhile, a newlywed Queen Elizabeth II also lived at Clarence House with The Duke of Edinburgh for a time in 1947.
30. Ham House
An opulent 17th century mansion, Ham House in London was once a bustling political playground for the courtiers of the Stuart dynasty from the reign of James I to Charles II.
Built by Sir Thomas Vavasour in 1610, Ham House epitomised the great competition for the favour of kings which was rampant during the seventeenth century and was often the battleground for courtiers competing for influence and power. In a time of intrigue and rivalry the material wealth of Ham House, still seen in the impressive collection of original furnishings and textiles, gives visitors a first-hand understanding of just what wonders were at stake for the glitterati of the English court.