No Invite? No Problem! The Best Ways to Explore London

Didn’t get your invitation to THE wedding in the mail? No problem—you don’t need a royal invite to hop a plane to Londontown. I first fell in love with London during a 2004 study-abroad tour. Bitten by the Britannia travel bug again, I returned last November and fell head over heels once more. Whatever your reasons for visiting England’s capital—whether Will and Kate’s royal love story is fueling your interest or you’re heading across the pond for non-tiara-related purposes—it never hurts to have some inside advice. Here are my personal top recommendations for discovering this world-renowned city on your own terms:


Hyde Park

It’s beautiful and vast. Be sure to check out Serpentine Lake, Princess Diana Fountain, Albert Memorial, Peter Pan statue, Speaker’s Corner (which is especially entertaining on Sundays), and the Rose Garden.

Kensington Palace

Make sure to at least take note of this beautiful home while you’re in Hyde Park, although I would recommend skipping the tour—its modern, over-the-top tour takes away from the splendor and history of the palace. I do, however, recommend stopping by the Orangery to have a spot of tea (hot chocolate in my case) and some scones and clotted cream.

Natural History Museum

Near the Victoria & Albert Museum, this museum houses jaw-dropping exhibits on everything from dinos to meteors.

Harrods

Forget the overpriced clothing and gadgets, the food halls are where it’s at. Take the gaudy and spectacular Egyptian-themed escalator to get there; make sure to visit the Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed memorial at the bottom.

Buckingham Palace

As if you would—or could—miss this one!

Westminster Abbey

One word: amazing. So many famous graves (the English literature major in me swooned when I first laid eyes on Poet’s Corner), not to mention the upcoming wedding venue of my longtime royal crush. If only I had known that Prince William was into commoners….

House of Parliament Tour

Look up and stare at Big Ben (which is actually the name of the bell inside the clock)—and pinch yourself, because you’re in London! I didn’t have time to do the tour here, but I did watch some political debates at the House of Commons (they take place on Mondays and Thursdays; no reservation required; additional info here). While in the area, take note of the protestors and interesting signs they’re toting. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

The National Gallery

Go! It’s free (like most museums in London), and it houses one of the greatest collections of Western European paintings in the world by Turner, van Gogh, and Rembrandt, to name just a few.

National Portrait Gallery

Make sure to set aside a good chunk of time to explore this museum, which is home to hundreds of portraits of famous British men and women from throughout the ages; I had to rush through it, and regret it.

Big Bus Tour

Admittedly an extremely touristy way to see London, but a great way to get oriented. The entire tour takes place on a double-decker bus, and the hop-on/hop-off tour packages makes getting around even easier (more info here). Some tours include a relaxing river cruise along the Thames.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Learn more about Shakespeare’s life or see his words come alive at the Elizabethan replica.

London Eye

This is a wonderful way to see London, and well worth the pounds. Go when the sun is setting so you can see London in both the daylight and at dusk.

The Tower of London

Fascinating and full of grim history—and the Crown Jewels are here, too. Next time I go, I plan to attend the Ceremony of the Keys, which requires a two-month advance reservation.

Tower Bridge Exhibition

From breathtaking views of London to a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes, the Tower Bridge Exhibition is just as cool as it sounds. Make sure to say hello to Geoff, the cute elderly man who works there. Note that the price of admission also gets you a ticket to London’s Monument, which commemorates the fire of 1666.

Millennium Bridge

I love this bridge, especially at sunset. Some say it’s wobbly, but don’t worry—as far as I could tell, it’s pretty stable! There’s something of interest on both ends: St. Paul’s Cathedral on one, and the Tate Modern on the other.

St. Paul’s Cathedral

I revisited this iconic feature of the London skyline in December, and spent almost an entire day soaking in its vastness, history, and beauty. I also took the multimedia tour, which I highly recommend. Make sure to set aside some quality time to visit this place right: explore the American Memorial Chapel (try to spot George Washington’s image on the stained glass murals), the crypt, and Oculus. Try out the Whispering Gallery’s unique acoustics, and climb to the very top of the dome to reach the Golden Gallery, where you can enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of London. In all, it’s 530 steps to the top, but you won’t regret making the leg-burning climb.

Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly/West End is London’s entertainment district, which centers around Leicester Square (pronounced Less-ter) and Covent Garden. I recommend seeing Les Misérables at the Queen’s Theatre or The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Covent Garden

A major tourist magnet to be sure, but also a fun shopping area. Stop in at Thorntons Chocolates and Ben’s Cookies for some sweet, unforgettable treats.

Trafalgar Square

Look up and you’ll see Lord Nelson; look down and you’ll see lions, pigeons, and locals, oh my!

The British Museum

It’s epic. Where else can you move so freely through Ancient Greece and Egypt?

London isn’t all that England has to offer. If you have time, take a day trip to Oxford, Cambridge, Windsor, Bath, or Salisbury. On my last visit, I went to Oxford (by bus) and Cambridge (by train), and both were incredible.

With all its charms—many of which I didn’t even list, like the Tube, decent weather, extended daylight hours, and a robust local tourist industry—London will have you wrapped around its little finger in no time.

For more recommendations on London, pick up our Moon Metro London guide.

Cheers!

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