London Travel Guide


British Museum
The UK's largest museum is the most visited tourist attraction in London, with over 6 million annual visitors. Millennium renovations led to the inner courtyard - hidden from public view for 150 years - being transformed into a spectacular, light-filled Great Court. It is the oldest, most august museum in the world.

Highlights include the weird Assyrian treasures and Egyptian mummies; the exquisite pre-Christian Portland Vase and the 2000-year-old corpse found in a Cheshire bog. With the removal of the British Library to St Pancras, the Reading Room is now open to the public, sadly making Reader's Tickets a thing of the past.

Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace, built in 1705 for the Duke of Buckingham, has been the royal family's London home since 1837 when St James's Palace was judged too old-fashioned and insufficiently impressive. Nineteen of the 661 staterooms are open to visitors for two months each year. Don't miss the changing of the guard.

The Queen opened Buckingham Palace to the public for the first time in 1993 to raise money for repairs to Windsor Castle. The interiors range from kitsch to tasteless opulence and reveal nothing of the domestic life of the Royal Family apart from a gammy eye when it comes to interior decoration.

Camden Market
The huge Camden Markets could be the closest England gets to free-form chaos outside the terraces of a football stadium. They stretch between Camden and Chalk Farm tube stations, incorporating Camden Lock on the Grand Union Canal, and get so crowded on weekends that you'll feel like a sardine in a straitjacket.

The markets include the Camden Canal Market (bric-a-brac, furniture and designer clothes), Camden Market (leather goods and army surplus gear) and the Electric Market (records and 60s clothing).

Covent Garden
Once a vegetable field attached to Westminster Abbey, Covent Garden became the low-life haunt of Pepys, Fielding and Boswell, then a major fruit and veg market, and is now a triumph of conservation and commerce. The piazza is surrounded by designer gift and clothes shops, hip bars and restaurants. Stalls sell overpriced antiques and bric-a-brac.

Houses of Parliament
The neo-Gothic brilliance of the Houses of Parliament was restored by a recent spring clean of the facade. The building includes the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and the grandeur of the incredible exterior is let down only by the level of debate in the interior ('hear, hear').

There's restricted access to the chambers when they're in session, but a visit around 6pm will avoid the worst of the crowds. Check the time on the most recognisable face in the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben.

Nearby, the official residence of the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer (No 10 Downing St) has been guarded by an imposing iron gate since the security forces realised that the lone iconic bobby outside Maggie's door was not sufficient to stop the IRA mortar bomb attack in 1989.

Hyde Park
Humongous Hyde Park used to be a royal hunting ground, was once a venue for duels, executions and horse racing, and even became a giant potato field during WWII. It is now a place of fresh air, spring colour, lazy sunbathers and boaters on the Serpentine. The park has sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore.

Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens, in Richmond, Surrey, is both a beautiful park and an important botanical research centre. There's a vast expanse of lawn and formal gardens and two soaring Victorian conservatories - the Palm House and the Temperate House - which are home to exotic plant life. It's one of the most visited sights in London.

It can get very crowded, especially in the summer. And with nearby Heathrow continuously spitting out jets, there isn't much chance of total peace and quiet. Spring is probably the best time to visit, but any time of the year is delightful.

Natural History Museum
On Cromwell Rd near the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum is one of London's finest Gothic-revival buildings, but even its grand cathedral-like main entrance can seem squashed when you're confronted with hordes of screaming schoolkids. Despite this, it's a gem of a place, a dizzying combination of august artefact and amusement arcade.

Keep away from the dinosaur exhibit while the kids are around and check out the mammal balcony, the Blue Whale exhibit and the spooky, moonlit rainforest in the ecology gallery.

St Paul's Cathedral
Half the world saw the inside of St Paul's Cathedral when Charles and Di tied the knot here in 1981. The venerable building, complete with famous dome, was constructed by Christopher Wren between 1675 and 1710, but it stands on the site of two previous cathedrals dating back to 604.

Its famous dome, the biggest in the world after St Peter's in Rome, no longer dominates London as it did for centuries, but it's still quite a sight when viewed from the river. Visitors should talk low and sweetly near the whispering gallery, which reputedly carries words spoken close to its walls to the other side of the dome.

Tate Britain
The Tate Britain is the keeper of an impressive historical archive of British art. Built in 1897, the Tate underwent an ambitious program of expansion, the Centenary Development, completed in November 2001.

Ten new galleries and five refurbished galleries showcase the collection of peerless Blakes, Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, Hogarths, Constables, Turners and Pre-Raphaelite beauties and provide space for temporary exhibitions and educational projects.

Its sister gallery is the vastly popular Tate Modern.

Westminster Abbey
The resting place of the royals, Westminster Abbey is one of the most visited churches in the Christian world. It's a beautiful building, full of morose tombs and monuments, with an acoustic field that will send shivers down your spine when the choirboys clear their throats.

The roll call of the dead and honoured is guaranteed to humble the greatest egoist, despite the weighty and ornate memorabilia.

In September 1997, millions of people around the world saw the inside of the Abbey when TV crews covered Princess Di's funeral service. Since then the number of visitors has increased by 300% and the visit is now more restricted, with some areas cordoned off.

Sights to take in during an abbey visit include the Coronation Chair, where all bar a few monarchs have been crowned since 1066, the Tomb of Mary Queen of Scots and the 10 statues of 20th-century martyrs.

Off the Beaten Track

Brick Lane Market
Sunday morning means bagels for breakfast at Brick Lane market in the East End. The ground is strewn with blankets covered in everything from rusty nails to gold watches. Haggling's the key, though consonants drop off vowels faster than zeros drop off prices.

Hampstead Heath
Hampstead Heath is one of the few places in London where you can actually forget that you're in the middle of a huge, sprawling city. There are woods, meadows, hills, bathing ponds and, most importantly of all, lots of space. Lose the 20th century altogether in Church Row, Admiral's Walk and Flask Walk, which have intact Georgian cottages, terraces and houses.

After a brisk walk on the heath, pop into the Spaniard's Inn for a tipple or have a look at Robert Adam's beautiful Kenwood House and wander around its romantic grounds.

Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery can't be beaten for Victorian-Gothic atmosphere and downright eeriness. Its overgrown grounds include Egyptian-style catacombs, enough chipped angels to please the most discerning Joy Division fan, Karl the more serious Marx brother and personalised tombs reflecting their eccentric inhabitants.

Holland Park
Holland Park is both a residential district, full of elegant town houses, and an inner-city haven of greenery, complete with strutting peacocks and scampering bunnies, the restored remnants of a Jacobean mansion (now set aside for the world's backpackers), two exhibition galleries and formal gardens.

Kensington Market
Ye olde Kensington Market is the place to go to replace your punk mohair jumper, bum bag and kilt, and why not get a haircut, tattoo, pierced upper ear and a new slogan painted on your leather jacket while you're there?

Other England Attractions

Canterbury Cathedral
The most impressive and evocative, if not the most beautiful, cathedral in England is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of All England. Like most cathedrals, it evolved in stages and reflects a number of architectural styles, but the final result is one of the world's great buildings.

The ghosts of saints, soldiers and pilgrims fill the hallowed air, and not even baying packs of French children can completely destroy the atmosphere. After the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1170, the cathedral became the centre of one of the most important medieval pilgrimages in Europe, a pilgrimage that was immortalised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. Canterbury itself was severely damaged by bombing in WWII and parts of the town have been insensitively rebuilt, but it still attracts flocks of tourists, just as it has for the past 800 years - though numbers may decrease now pilgrims are charged a fee to enter the cathedral.

Durham is the most dramatic cathedral city in Britain. It straddles a bluff surrounded on three sides by the River Wear and is dominated by the massive Norman cathedral which sits on a wooded promontory, looking more like a time-worn cliff than a house of worship. The cathedral may not be the most refined in the land, but no other British cathedral has the same impact. The cathedral shares the dramatic top of the bluff with a Norman castle and the University College, while the rest of the picturesque town huddles into the remaining space on the teardrop-shaped promontory.

Lake District
The most green and pleasant corner of a green and pleasant land, the landscapes of the Lake District are almost too perfect for their own good: 10 million visitors can't be wrong, but they can sure cause a few traffic jams.

The area is a combination of luxuriant green dales, modest but precipitous mountains and multitudinous lakes. Be prepared to hike into the hills, or visit on weekdays out of season if you have any desire to emulate the bard and wander lonely as a cloud.

Arguably the world's most famous university town, Oxford is graced by superb college architecture and oozes questing youthfulness, scholarship and bizarre high jinks. The views across the meadows to the city's golden spires are guaranteed to appear in 30% of English period dramas, but they manage to remain one of the most beautiful and inspiring of sights. Back in the real world, Oxford is not just the turf of toffs and boffs: it was a major car-manufacturing centre until the terminal decline of the British car industry and is now a thriving centre of service industries. The pick of the colleges are Christ Church, Merton and Magdalen, but nearly all them are drenched in atmosphere, history, privilege and tradition. Don't kid yourself, you wouldn't have studied any harder in such august surroundings.

It's the most famous site in prehistoric Europe, and is both a tantalising mystery and a hackneyed tourist experience: tantalising because no one knows why the stones were dragged up from South Wales 5000 years ago; hackneyed because tourists are processed through Stonehenge like cans on a conveyor belt.

It consists of a ring of enormous stones topped by lintels, an inner horseshoe, an outer circle and a ditch. Although it is known that the Henge is aligned to the movements of the celestial bodies, little is known about the site's purpose. What leaves most visitors gobsmacked is not the site's religious significance but the tenacity of the people who dragged the stones. It's estimated that it would take 600 people to drag one of these 50-ton monsters more than half an inch. The downside of Stonehenge is that it's fenced off like a dog compound; there are two main roads slicing past the site; entry is via an incongruous underpass; and clashes between New Age hippies and police at summer solstice have become a regular feature of the British calendar. Each year New Age Druids celebrate the summer solstice, but closer access at other times is strictly limited.

The Cotswolds
This limestone escarpment overlooking the Severn Vale is an upland region of stunningly pretty, gilded stone villages and remarkable views. Unfortunately, the soft, mellow stone and the picturesque Agatha Christie charm have resulted in some villages being overrun by coach tourists and commercialism.

For nearly 2000 years York has been the capital of the north, and it played a central role in British history under the Romans, Saxons and Vikings. It's a great city in which to amble through the spectacular Gothic cathedral, medieval city walls, tangle of historic streets and glut of teashops and pubs.

York is a fascinating city of extraordinary cultural and historical wealth. Its medieval spider's web of narrow streets is enclosed by a magnificent circuit of thirteenth-century walls. The city is thick with museums tracing its long history, and, especially in summer, is a tourist honeypot.

Isles of Scilly
These balmy rocky islands, slap in the middle of the warm Gulf Stream, have a pace of life just one slow heartbeat away from total extinction. There are no cars on any of the five inhabited islands, but all have white, sandy beaches, gin-clear waters and a swag of shipwrecks for treasure-loving divers.

New Forest
Wedged between Southampton and Bournemouth on the holiday South Coast, this huge patch of woodland is the largest area of natural vegetation left in England. It has been that way since William the Conqueror gave the area its name in 1079.

This is one of the wildest and least-spoilt counties in England. There are probably more castles and battlefield sites here than anywhere else in the country, testifying to the long and bloody struggle with the Scots. The most interesting and well-known relic is Hadrian's Wall. The Northumberland National Park has a windswept grandeur that is distinctly un-English in character. The grassy Cheviot Hills, part of the park, are a lonely, beautiful and challenging hiking area. The main town in the area is Berwick-upon-Tweed, the northernmost town in England; the prettiest villages are Corbridge and Brampton in neighboring Cumbria.

The 'blue remembered hills' of Shropshire form one of the most beautiful, peaceful and underrated areas of Britain. The gentle terrain and the low population density make it perfect cycling or open walking country, and the county's capital, Shrewsbury, is probably the finest Tudor town in England.

Visit these other interesting sites!

Hosted in