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Visiting London for the First Time? Here’s What To See and Do

Enjoy London’s impressive mix of ancient history and contemporary culture on your first trip to the English capital.

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Jade is a writer with a passion for travel, drag queens, and baked goods. Her happy place is South America, but when she's not exploring the world, she enjoys cooking and reading Gothic novels in her London flat.

From iconic monuments perched on the banks of the Thames River to funky neighborhoods covered in street art to leafy, peaceful parks and one of Europe’s best dining scenes, London is a treasure trove for first-time visitors.

Thanks to the sheer number of attractions, it can feel a bit overwhelming to ensure you're making the most of your London debut though. So, here’s a selection of must-sees that represent every facet of the capital, from food and fashion to art and architecture.

1. Visit the historic buildings

The exterior of Westminster Abbey and the surrounding winter trees.
London's filled with iconic buildings and monuments.Photo Credit: Anthony Cruz / Viator

If there's one thing London *isn't* lacking, it's grandeur.

You’re likely to feel a shiver down your spine as you gaze up at the towering Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (officially known as the Elizabeth Tower), arguably one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. You can head inside the political powerhouse on a guided tour, many of which combine it with a visit to Westminster Abbey—the grandiose location of not just one or two, but 17 royal weddings.

2. Cruise the Thames River

The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben as seen on Thames River cruise in London.
Witness some of London's most famous spots on a Thames River cruise.Photo Credit: Mistervlad / Shutterstock

Go fast, slow, or with sandwiches in tow.

The banks of the Thames River read like a who’s-who of London landmarks—from the city’s main artery, you can admire the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe, and many more. Tick them all off on a sightseeing cruiseevening options let you see the landmarks illuminated after dark while an afternoon tea version means you can indulge in a popular British pastime as you sightsee. You can also up the ante during a high-octane, high-speed ride on a RIB boat.

3. Visit a royal residence

The fountains of Hampton Court Palace.
Hampton Court Palace is a popular royal landmark.Photo Credit: zefart / Shutterstock

Travel back in time to castles and Tudor palaces.

Two of the country’s most fabulous royal landmarks are within easy reach of the capital—whether you’re traveling by car or train. In southwest London you’ll find Hampton Court Palace, where infamous Tudor monarch Henry VIII lived in (un)happy matrimony with his six wives. Then in the Royal Borough of Windsor there’s the 900-year-old Windsor Castle, which boasts the title of the largest occupied castle in the world. For a day trip fit for a king or queen, opt for a tour that combines the two.

4. Watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony

The Changing of the Guard ceremony taking place outside Buckingham Palace in London, UK.
If you can catch the Changing of the Guard ceremony, you won't forget the sight of it.Photo Credit: cowardlion / Shutterstock

Soak up the grandeur of Buckingham Palace.

There are few other places in the world where you can witness a Changing of the Guard ceremony as elaborate as the one that takes place outside of London’s royal residence each day. Combine it with a tour of the top sights, or if you’re visiting for the two months of the year the palace is open to the public, get exclusive access to the former home of the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, now the royal residence of King Charles III.

5. Stroll through Soho

Shopping crowds going up and down Carnaby Street in Soho in London.
Carnaby Street is also a joy.Photo Credit: Ale Argentieri / Shutterstock

Explore London’s bustling cultural labyrinth.

No visit to London is complete without circumnavigating Soho, a maze-like enclave in central just off the famous Oxford Street shopping hub. Avoid getting lost by taking a walking tour of the labyrinth (the streets of which still disorient lifetime residents). Tours typically cover the bright-red lanterns of Chinatown; the dazzling billboards of Piccadilly Circus; the glittering theaters of the West End; and the Instagram-worthy adornments of Carnaby Street.

6. Travel back in time at the Tower of London

Tourists look out at the Tower of London by the River Thames in London, UK.
The Tower of London is so worth the visit.Photo Credit: Gloria Chu / Viator

Tales of murder and mutiny await.

If you’re a history buff, you’ll be dying to delve into London’s ancient past at the Tower of London—home to the world-famous crown jewels and a gruesome, sordid history that dates back to 1066. Book ahead of time to guarantee entry to the incredibly popular attraction, taking advantage of tours that include a guide or early, skip-the-line access for insight into almost a millennium of history.

7. Discover the street art of Shoreditch

Shoreditch street art of Andy Warhol on a building in a courtyard full of people at London picnic tables in London, England.
Shoreditch is filled with top street art.Photo Credit: DrimaFilm / Shutterstock

Explore the city’s capital of cool.

In London’s east end, Shoreditch has undergone a radical transformation over the past couple of decades. Now, the quirky enclave boasts a booming nightlife scene, an abundance of Michelin-starred restaurants, art galleries, and the city’s best street art. Walking tours can help you locate the best of the graffiti, which is rarely indicated on maps, but usually found with a trusty local guide. Brick Lane is equally enticing, with its vintage shops and aromatic selection of Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants, hailed as some of the best in the world outside of Asia.

8. Soar to the summit of the Shard

A view of The Shard, London's largest bulding.
Enjoy the view from the tallest tower in Western Europe.Photo Credit: inProgressImaging / Shutterstock

Soak up the views from London’s biggest building.

The tallest tower not only in London, but the entirety of Western Europe, there’s no better place to enjoy panoramic vistas of England's capital than from The View from the Shard—the observation deck at the top of the city’s sharpest skyscraper. A high-speed elevator whisks you to the indoor gallery, which is perched between the 69th and 72nd floors of the building. It’s particularly fabulous at sunset, when a skip-the-line ticket could save you ample time waiting in line.

9. Meander London’s markets

Market vendors sell bread at Borough Market in London, UK.
Borough Market is one of the top food markets in the city.Photo Credit: Viator

You’ll find an eclectic mix of antiques, cheese, and Chinese food.

London’s markets are where the capital’s energy reaches its catharsis. In fact, they’re a big part of the city’s culture and specialize in everything from flowers (Columbia Road on a Sunday) to fashion (Spitalfields). Markets on all week include Camden Lock, famous for its sub-culture and music scene; and Borough Market, a wonderland of artisanal food. Be sure to sample British staples such as sausage rolls, Scotch eggs, and cheese.

Related: 8 Quintessentially British Dishes and Where To Eat Them in London

10. Get cultural at the city’s museums

Inside the foyer of the British Museum in London, England, with people walking about.
Most of London's museums and galleries are free to enter.Photo Credit: Annapurna Mellor / Viator

For history, art, science, and more.

With more than 200 museums registered in the capital—many of which are free—a museum visit (or several) is a must for first-time London visitors. The Science Museum is an ideal choice for families with kids, while the British Museum boasts 8 million artifacts from across the globe. Art fans should head for the National Gallery, which features art from greats such as Da Vinci and Van Gogh inside a regal, beautiful building. Private tours help you better navigate the museums, skip long lines, and easily tick off those highlights.

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