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Ultimate London Guide for Beginners: 20 Must See Attractions

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How exciting, it’s your first trip to London! With history spanning from the mid-first century, London is one of the greatest and most historical cities in the world. It’s also one of the world’s largest and the second most visited city, just behind Bangkok. A first trip to London can be overwhelming, especially with a limited amount of time. Though there are countless things to see and do, our London Guide for Beginners makes planning easy for first-time visitors. With a four full-day itinerary of must-see attractions you’ll have your first-trip planning done in no time.

Beginners Guide to London Pinterest Post

To keep things simple, this beginner’s guide organizes London’s must-see attractions into four full day itineraries.

Grouped together by location, attractions are within easy reach of each other. All attractions in this guide are in London’s transportation zone 1.

Timings are based on averages. For example, most visitors stay at the Tower of London for 3 to 4 hours, but to see everything would take a whole day.

To fit everything in, we also presume you won’t enter every attraction. Many of London’s top attractions are best from the outside; you don’t need to pay to go in to enjoy them. London is a wonderful city to walk around and explore the architecture. If you choose to spend more time at the attractions, you may need more days in the city.

General Tips for Your First Trip

  • Often it is faster to walk between destinations instead of taking the Underground. Transport London has a great Underground map with estimated walking times between stations.
  • National museums are free, though donations are welcome.
  • The UK includes tax in the price, so the advertised price is what you pay.
  • Purchase tickets in advance online for discounts and to avoid long ticket lines.
  • Attractions often offer the choice to “gift aid” your admission. You can only do this if you pay taxes in the UK.
Union Jack Flags Hanging, London, UK
For guidance on London’s public transportation, check out our other posts.

Where to Stay in London

On a first trip, we recommend staying in the center of London. Though there are cheaper locations on the outskirts, the city is huge and the time you’ll waste on the Tube is not worth it. 

Where within the city is less important, as attractions are quite spread out. However, we do recommend staying within walking distance of an Underground station.
  • Our favorite area is between Southwark and Waterloo, where we usually stay at the Novotel London Blackfriars. It’s very central and easy to catch the Tube to other parts of the city. Plus, this area has some of the best food options.
  • We also like to stay at the Mercure London Hyde Park. Like most London hotels, the rooms are small, but we love this quiet area. Plus, being close to Paddington Station makes it easy to get around the city, and for day trips outside the city.
  • If you want to be in the center of it all, Page8 in Westminster usually offers good value. Within a 5-minute walk you’re in Trafalgar Square.  

Map of London's Must-See Attractions

The map below plots the itinerary for each day in this first-time visitor guide. Hopefully, it gives you a sense of where the main must-see attractions are.

  • Blue – Day 1
  • Yellow – Day 2
  • Green – Day 3
  • Red – Day 4

Day 1 - London Guide for Beginners

Buckingham Palace

The official residence of the royal monarchy is only open to visitors for 10 weeks in summer. Occasional private tours are available in winter and spring.

A visit to the palace’s State Rooms includes the Picture Room, Drawing Room, Ballroom, and of course, the Throne Room.

The palace does not allow photography, except in the Palace Gardens. Also note, once you enter the palace there are no restrooms until you exit to the gardens at the end.

Buckingham Palace

Even if you can’t visit the interior of the palace, the exterior is still worth the trip. Head to the Victoria Memorial in front of the palace for the best photos. Plus, there are a few areas of the fence where the bars are wide enough for most lenses to get a decent photo of the palace.

Be sure to check the flag on the top of the palace. If the Royal Standard flag is flying (red, blue, and yellow with lions and a harp), then the monarch is in residence. If the Union Jack is flying (red, white, and blue with the St. George’s cross in the middle) the monarch is not at the palace.

Closest Underground Station(s): St. James’s Park, Victoria, Hyde Park Corner, or Green Park

Estimated Time: State rooms tour 2 to 2.5-hours

Changing of the Guard Ceremony

The famous Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place at Buckingham Palace.

The procession starts at Friary Court at 10:30 am. The New Guard marches down The Mall to the palace forecourt with a full brass band. The New Guard enters the forecourt around 11 am. An elaborate ceremony takes place. Around 11:35 am the Old Guard exits and marches to Wellington Barracks.

To get a good spot you must get there early. Try to find a place along the fence. The next best location is on top of Victoria Memorial. You are not likely to get good photos from here because of the fence, but at least you are likely to see the ceremony.

The ceremony takes place daily in summer, but only Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday the rest of the year. The schedule can and does change for special events.

Closest Underground Station(s): St. James’s Park, Victoria, Hyde Park Corner, or Green Park

Estimated Time: About 1 hour

Website: The Household Division

Adult Pricing: Free

Queen's Horse Guard, Buckingham Palace, London, UK

Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard

A lesser-known ceremony is the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard, her majesty’s mounted guards. The ceremony has less pomp than its Buckingham Palace counterpart. However, it is much easier to see and it’s not necessary to get there early. Plus, there’s beautiful horses!

From Buckingham Place, follow The Mall to Horse Guards Road, or follow the path along St. James Park Lake. In Google, it’s easier to find the location using the “Household Division Charity”. The ceremony takes place in the courtyard off Whitehall Road.

Closest Underground Station(s): Westminster or Charring Cross

Estimated Time: 30 minutes

Website: The Household Division – Queens Life Guard  

Adult Pricing: Free

Westminster Abbey

If you watched the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Catherine Middleton, you may be familiar with Westminster Abbey. In total, 16 royal weddings have taken place at Westminster Abbey, dating back over nine hundred years. This includes Queen Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Phillip in 1947.

Steeped in royal history; since 1066, all but two British monarch’s coronation ceremonies took place here. The grand church is also the final resting place of 17 monarchs and countless important British historical figures.

Closest Underground Station(s): Westminster

Estimated Time: 1 – 1.5 hours visit

Westminster Abbey in London

Houses of Parliament & Big Ben’s Clock Tower

The Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, holds the UK’s two meeting places of government. These are the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Though the exterior of the building is striking, it’s most famous for its clock tower. Renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, the tower houses four clock faces and the famous Big Ben bell.

For the best photos, head over to Westminster Bridge and then cross the Thames to the riverfront walkway directly opposite the Parliament building.

Parliament's Clock Tower which holds the Great Bell, Big Ben

For most tourists, taking photos of the exterior is enough. However, if you want to go inside, guided and self-guided audio tours are available on most Saturdays and when Parliament is not in session.

UK residents can request a free weekday tour of Parliament through their MPs office. You do not need to be politically associated to request a tour. Residents can also request a tour of the Elizabeth Clock Tower. We did both tours through our MP’s office; the process was very easy and straight forward.

Closest Underground Station(s): Westminster

Estimated Time: Exterior 30 minutes. Interior tour 1.5 to 2 hours (plus security lines at entry)

Website: Parliament.uk

London Eye

Across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament is the London Eye. Once the world’s largest observation wheel at 443 feet, it takes visitors around in about 30 minutes. Each pod carries up to 25 guests to breathtaking views of the London skyline.

There are multiple lines and timed tickets to get on the London Eye. We recommend buying tickets online. This way you know when to arrive.

When you arrive within your 15-minute timeslot, you join the line to get on the London Eye. The wait can be more than an hour during busy times. Fast track is available when you purchase tickets. Early mornings and later evenings tend to be quieter times.

Closest Underground Station(s): Waterloo or Westminster

Estimated Time: 30-minute ride plus lines

The London Eye observation wheel

The National Gallery & Trafalgar Square

A 15-minute walk across the Golden Jubilee Bridge and up Northumberland Ave. brings you to Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square is a beautifully designed public gathering space known for its historical demonstrations and sports celebrations.

On the square is The National Gallery. The gallery features a collection of artworks from the mid-12th to early-20th centuries. The museum holds some of the world’s most famous pieces, including Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks.

Closest Underground Station(s): Charing Cross Station

Estimated Time: 2 to 3 hours for the highlights

Adult Pricing: Free, donations welcome

 In Trafalgar Square, St. Martin in the Field’s Cafe in the Crypt is often busy but worth the visit for the atmosphere alone. They use local sustainable sources whenever possible, and the food is prepared onsite. Prices are reasonable for the center of London and for the portion sizes.   

London's National Gallery on Trafalgar Square

Day 2 - London Guide for Beginners

St. Paul’s Cathedral

One of the most stunning and iconic buildings in the UK is St. Paul’s Cathedral. The interior is even more astounding than the exterior. Explore the ground floor of the cathedral, the famous dome with its three gallery levels, and the crypt.

It takes 257 stairs to reach the Whispering Gallery on the first level of the dome. Most notable for its design, you can whisper against the wall on one side of the gallery for it to be heard on the other side.

St. Paul's Cathedral as seen from Millennium Bridge

 If you are looking for phenomenal views of the skyline, continue to step 528 for the Golden Gallery and the top of the dome. 

Don’t forget to visit the crypt. Here you will find the resting place of many famous historical figures. This includes Christopher Wren, St. Paul’s architect and Lord Nelson, the great naval commander during the Napoleonic War. The most elaborate tomb is for the Duke of Wellington, a war hero, and former Prime Minster. 

Closest Underground Station(s): St. Paul’s, Mansion House

Estimated Time: 2 hours

British Museum

If you only had time for one museum in London, this should be it. Filled with over eight-million historical artifacts from around the world, it would take you all day to see everything.

The British Museum’s website does a wonderful job of breaking the gallery into artifact tours. We love the museum’s 3-hour selection tour, but also recommend spending a little more time in the Mesopotamia, Greece and Roman, and Egyptian rooms.

Closest Underground Station(s): Holborn, Tottenham Court Road

Estimated Time: 3 to 4 hours for highlights tour

Adult Pricing: Free, donations welcome

Egyptian display in the British Museum

West End Theater District

Equivalent to New York’s Broadway, the West End is the place to see world-class theater and a great way to spend the evening.

The “West End” is not an official area, but generally refers to London’s entertainment district stretching out from Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, and Covent Garden. Even if you’re not interested in a show, the area is great to walk through in the evening, especially Piccadilly Circus with all of its lights.

London's Theatre District. Shaftsbury Ave near Piccadilly Circus

Don’t care which show you see? Discounts of 30-45% off the face value are typical from the ticket booths near Leicester Square. Buying tickets two days ahead or the day before gives the best chance for availability, but it is not necessary. Though, it’s rare to find seats for the most popular shows, especially on the weekend. Sometimes you can get lucky during the week or for matinees.

We found last minute discounted seats for Les Misérables, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, Stomp, and tons of lesser-known shows at TKTS. Their lines can get very busy but usually only take around 20 minutes.

Another place we use is the Leicester Square Box Office. Just be sure to check the location of the seats on the theater’s website or on Seatplan.com before purchasing.

Closest Underground Station(s): Leicester Square for ticket vendors. Various theater locations.

Estimated Time: Shows typically run 1.5 to 2 hours

Day 3 - London Guide for Beginners

Tower of London

Start the day on the east side of the city at the Tower of London. You’ll spend at least 3 to 4 hours exploring the castle and its history.

Though a bit pricey and often crowded, the Tower of London is well worth the visit. Encircled by double ringed stone walls, this Royal Palace and fortification is like no other. Over the centuries the castle has been many things, but its most interesting history comes from its days as a prison.

Tower of London lit up at night

If you can, this is the place you want to go first thing in the morning when the gates open. Also, Tuesdays and Wednesdays can be slightly less crowded.

The first thing you want to do is see the famous crown jewels. The lines get very long later in the day so if you do this at opening you will save yourself a lot of time.

We also recommend joining the free Yeoman Warder tours which run every 30 minutes from 10 am (10:30 Sunday and Monday). You’ll hear about its previous residents and blood chilling stories of the tower’s historic past.

Closest Underground Station: Tower Hill Station

Estimated Time: 3 to 4 hours

Tower Bridge

Often confused with the name London Bridge, the spectacularly beautiful Tower Bridge is next door to the Tower of London. Tower Bridge is free to walk across and gives lovely views over the river and of the Tower of London.

If you are keen for a closer look, guided and self-guided tours are available of the sky walkways and the historic engine rooms. 

The bridge’s lifts are still operational to allow vessels to pass. Check the Tower Bridge website for times when the bridge will lift, if you want to be on the glass walkways when it raises. 

Closest Underground Station: Tower Hill Station

Estimated Time: 1 hour for the inside / 15 – 30 minutes for an exterior visit

Adult Pricing: Free to walk across \ Charges to enter the towers
Tower Bridge London

If you are starving by this point, skip the Shard and head straight to Borough Market. Alternatively, City Hall has a lovely cafe on its ground floor that makes an easy stop.

The Shard

London has some unique modern buildings, the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, and now The Shard. The UK’s tallest building completed in 2012 and quickly became one of the city’s top attractions. From the 72nd floor visitors access an open-air platform with unparalleled views over London.

Alternatively, head to one of the restaurants or bars on the 31 to 33 floors for comparable views.

It’s a lovely 15-minute walk from Tower Bridge to The Shard on the south bank. Plus, just past City Hall, the unique circular building, there is a little outcropping in the guardrail which makes for a lovely spot to take photos of Tower Bridge.

Closest Underground Station: London Bridge Station

Estimated Time: 1 hour

The Shard can be a little pricey. If you’re on a budget there are plenty of fantastic free views of the city, keep reading.

City Hall, The Shard and other London buildings along the River Thames

Borough Market

About a 5-minute walk from the Shard is one of our favorite London food markets, Borough Market. When I used to come into London for work, I always grabbed lunch at this market or from one of the surrounding eateries. There are so many fantastic choices I was never able to try them all!

Closest Underground Station: London Bridge Station

Opening Hours: Open Monday to Saturday 10 am to 5 pm. Note: few vendors open on Monday and Tuesday.

Estimated Time: 1 hour

Adult Pricing: Free entry

Food stalls at Borough Market London

Tate Modern

Head back out to the river by following Park St. from Borough Market. Turn left once you hit the river. It takes roughly 15 minutes to walk from Borough Market to the Tate Modern Museum.

On the way to the Tate Modern, stop for a few photos in front of Shakespeare’s Globe. This open-aired reconstruction of the theater associated with Shakespeare offers 40-minute tours and frequent performances.

View from the Tate Modern of St. Paul Cathedral and Millennium Bridge

Though the Tate Modern always has something that catches our eye, we are not huge fans of modern art. If you are, you will love this large museum. If it’s not your thing, it is still worth the visit for the view.

One of the best free views in the city is from the 10th floor of the Tate Modern Museum. Though it provides 360◦ of the London skyline, the northern view facing the stunning St. Paul’s Cathedral is the star of the show.  

Closest Underground Station(s): Southwark or Blackfriars

Estimated Time: 2 to 3 hours for the highlights

Adult Pricing: Free entry, Free view

Millennium Bridge

Directly in front of the Tate Modern is the Millennium Bridge. The bridge beautifully lines up with St. Paul’s Cathedral, framing a picture-perfect view.

In the evening, the tourist crowds dwindle. You may even be able to get a great photo at sunset. If you can be there for dark, rewarding views of not just the cathedral but also the Shard and Tower Bridge await you.  

Closest Underground Station(s): Southwark or Blackfriars

Estimated Time: 15 minutes, plus time to walk around St. Paul’s

Adult Pricing: Free

If you want a typical pub meal and an English ale to end your busy day, we have the perfect place for you. On the corner of Queen Victoria St. is an authentic London pub, the Blackfriar.

Night view from Millennium Bridge of the Shard. Tower Bridge seen in the distance.

Day 4 - London Guide for Beginners

Day 4 is a great day to catch up on any of the main attractions you missed in your first three days. Plus, if you find yourself with some spare time, here are our recommendations to finish off London’s must see attractions for a first-time visitor.

West End Shopping

The West End isn’t just known for its world-class theater, it’s also a popular area for shopping. Even if shopping isn’t your thing, it’s a great area to walk through and take in the vibe of the city.

Covent Garden

Covent Garden is most known for its covered market areas, and pickpockets, so be cautious.

At Covent Garden Market small shops line the outside whilst local vendors set up stalls inside. Lovely street cafes surround the market and give a good place to people watch. Street performers dazzle crowds surrounding the market.

On the south side of the Covent Garden Market is the Jubilee Market Hall. Best for local souvenir shopping, but there are also some stalls selling handcrafted items.

St. Paul’s Church in front of Covent Garden Market’s west side, is known as the “Actors Church.” It’s an interesting place with lots of events in summer, including free lunch time concerts. It is also home to the Iris Theater which puts on open-aired shows in the summer. Check the church’s website for details of what’s on.

Closest Underground Station(s): Covent Garden

Estimated Time: 1 hour+

Adult Pricing: Free

Shopping in Covent Garden Market

Chinatown

From Covent Garden, make your way west to Leicester Square. North of Leicester Square is London’s Chinatown. On Wardour St. is the Chinatown Gate, but the surrounding areas on Lisle St., Gerrard St., and Rupert St. are interesting places to walk through. It’s also a great area of the city to grab lunch.

Closest Underground Station(s): Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square Station

Estimated Time: 30 minutes+

Adult Pricing: Free

Piccadilly Circus

From Chinatown, continue west following either Coventry St. or Shaftsbury Ave. to the Shaftsbury Memorial Fountain in the center of Piccadilly Circus.

Piccadilly Circus is most famous for its giant TV screens. This will look very tame if you have been to New York or Tokyo.

If you only want to do a little shopping, follow Piccadilly St. toward Green Park. Some notable shops along this route include:

  • Hatchards – London’s oldest bookshop founded in 1797
  • Sotherans – World’s longest established antique bookstore
  • Fortnum & Mason – Founded in 1707. Famous for tea, gift hampers, and a huge food hall

If you want the full London shopping experience, continue toward Oxford Street.

Closest Underground Station(s): Piccadilly Circus

Estimated Time: 1 hour+

Piccadilly Street

Shopping Oxford Circus

Oxford Circus is known as London’s premier shopping experience. Designer brands from all over the world line Regent St. One street over is the famous Saville Row: known for its tailored suits and high-end clothing stores.

Regent Street is also one of the best places to go for Christmas in London. Overhead lights decorate the street and stores go all out on their window fronts.

To continue shopping, from Regent St. make a left on Oxford St. and follow this toward Bond Street Station. The shopping continues all the way to Marble Arch.

Some notable shops along the route include:

  • Hamleys – World’s oldest and largest toy store
  • Selfridges – Second largest store in the UK
  • Fenwick – High-end department store with luxury goods from around the world

Closest Underground Station(s): Oxford Circus

Estimated Time: 1 hour+

Near Knightsbridge Station, is Europe’s largest department store, Harrods of London. Specializing in only the finest goods from around the world, Harrods is sure to impress.

Afternoon Tea in London

One of the best cultural experiences you can do while in London is enjoy afternoon tea. There are plenty of places to stop along your shopping route, but we recommend making reservations at one of London’s luxurious hotel restaurants.

The Green Park area is just one Underground stop from the shopping districts of Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus and Bond Street. This is one of the most luxurious areas of London. Hotels like the Ritz and the May Fair are a short walk from the station and have fantastic afternoon teas.

For more information, see our post on Experiencing Afternoon Tea in England. It tells you everything you want to know about this cultural experience.

Closest Underground Station(s): Various / Green Park recommended

Estimated Time: 1 to 2 hours

Two-tiered tea stand with scones and toppings for afternoon tea

Take a Double-Decker Bus

Another fantastic thing to do on a first trip to London is to ride one of the iconic red double-decker buses. There are formal tour buses, but public transport is cheap, easy to use, has over 700 routes and a great view of the city. Grab the front seats on the top of the bus if you can and let it whisk you around.

Some of our favorite routes are 9, 139 and 11. They go past some of the best sites in London.

Transport London has done a fantastic job putting together a guide on the most popular bus leisure routes. Also, here is the link for Route 11 as it is not included on the leisure routes listed.

Closest Underground Station(s): Various

Estimated Time: 30 minutes+

Adult Pricing: £1.55 unlimited 1-hour hopper fare, buses are capped £4.65 daily fare

London for Beginners Full Guide

We hope you have a fantastic first trip to London. Let us know in the comments what you are looking most forward to doing in London.

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