Parliament and the Big Ben Clock Tower as seen from across the River Thames

London Guide for Beginners – Must See Attractions

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London is one of the greatest cities in the world. Its history spans to the 1st century when the Romans built a tiny walled village next to the River Thames (pronounced Temz). Today, it is one of the world’s largest cities and the second most visited city in the world, just behind Bangkok.

A first trip to London can be overwhelming. There are countless things to see and do. With a limited amount of time, you must plan well and identify your personal “must see” list of attractions. 

To keep things simple, this guide organizes London’s must-see attractions into three full days. We included a fourth bonus day for those with a little more time

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. It is possible to spend longer at any attraction. For example, most visitors stay at the Tower of London 3 to 4 hours, but to see everything would take a whole day.

Timings also presume you won’t be entering every attraction. Many of London’s must-see attractions are best from the outside; you don’t need to pay and go inside 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 will need more days in the city.

General tips
  • National museums are free, though donations are welcome.
  • Often it is faster to walk between destinations instead of taking the Underground. Transport London has a wonderful Underground map with estimated walking times between stations.
  • The UK includes tax in the price, so the advertised price is what you pay.
  • Purchase tickets online whenever practical to get a discount and avoid the long ticket lines.
  • Attractions often offer the option to “gift aid” your admission. You can only participate if you pay taxes in the UK.
Map of the London sights
Day 1

Buckingham Palace

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

A visit to the palace’s State Rooms include 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.

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 apart for most lenses to get a decent photo of the palace.

Make 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

Buckingham Palace

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 to see the ceremony you must get there early and look for a spot along the fence. The next best spot 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

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.

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

If you are a UK resident, you can request a free weekday tour of Parliament through your MPs office. You do not need to be politically associated to request a tour. Residents can also usually request a tour of the Elizabeth Clock Tower; however, these tours have been suspended during the refurbishment of the tower.  We did both tours through our MP; it 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)


Unfortunately, the famous clock tower is under repairs until 2021. Primarily covered with scaffolding today, at least one clock face will remain visible during the restoration work.

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

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 to get on the London Eye. The first is the ticket line. Here you purchase tickets and select your 15-minute time slot to enter the line for the attraction. During busy periods, time slots can be for much later in the day.

We recommend purchasing tickets online ahead of time. This way you know when to arrive. You can purchase on the day, but you lose the £3 discount.

When you arrive within your 15-minute time-slot, you join the line to get on the London Eye. The wait can be in excess of an hour during busy times. Fast track tickets are available for an extra £10 when you purchase your 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

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 it’s three gallery levels, and the crypt.

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

The Stone Gallery at 376 steps from the ground floor is the first level of the dome that you can reach the outside. 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

St. Paul's Cathedral as seen from Millennium Bridge

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 recommend reserving at least 4 hours. Use the museum’s 3-hour selection tour but spend a little more time exploring the Mesopotamia, Greece and Roman, and Egyptian rooms. On their website, click on each of the objects they recommend to find the room it is in.

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

If you are looking for a way to spend the evening, it may be a great time to catch a show in London’s West End. Equivalent to New York’s Broadway, the West End is the place to see world-class theater.

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. In general, this is a great area to walk through in the evening, especially Piccadilly Circus with all of its lights.

If you don’t care which show you see, there are a few last-minute ticket booths near Leicester Square.  Discounts of 30-45% off the face value are typical. Buying tickets two days ahead or the day before gives the best chance for availability, but it is not necessary. 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 have found last minute discounted seats for Les Misérables, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and Stomp. Plus, tons of lesser known shows.

We use TKTS whenever we can as they have the best prices. Their lines can get very busy but usually only take around 20 minutes.

Another place we use is the Leicester Square Box Office. Though make sure you check the location of the seats on the theater’s website or on before purchasing.

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

Estimated Time: Shows typically run 1.5 to 2 hours

London's Theatre District. Shaftsbury Ave near Piccadilly Circus
Day 3

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 it’s most interesting history comes from its days as a prison.

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 of London lit up at night

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.  

Sometimes with the sun, it is easier to get photos of Tower Bridge next to or on St. Katherine Pier. From the Tower of London, follow the sidewalk along the river and under Tower Bridge. It will be on your right.

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 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

hared 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. Cross Tower Bridge to the south bank (opposite of the Tower of London). Turn right and follow the river past City Hall, the unique circular building on the river.

Just past City Hall there is a little outcropping in the guardrail which makes for a lovely spot to take photos of Tower Bridge.

Continue following the river until you come to the covered Hays Galleria. Walk through the Galleria to Tooley Street. Turn right, then take the escalators on the right just past the Pret. Follow the walkway over the road and through London Bridge Station. The entrance to the Shard is just the other side.

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 Markets. Follow Saint Thomas St. toward Borough High St. Cross over to Bedale St. and the market stretches out from the left.

Borough Market is primarily a food market. There are tons of fresh and yummy places to grab a bite to eat. 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.

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

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

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.  

It is worth heading over to St. Paul’s in the evening and circling the building to get a variety of views. There is a lovely angle from behind Festival Gardens at the corner of New Change and Cannon St.

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 the authentic London pub, the Blackfriar. The pub is across the street from Blackfriars Underground station.

Night view from Millennium Bridge of the Shard. Tower Bridge seen in the distance.
Day 4 - Bonus Day

A great day to catch up on any of the main attractions you missed in your first three days.

If you find yourself with some spare time, here are our recommendations to finish off London’s top sites 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, this is 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. Tons of 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

China Town

From Covent Garden, make your way west to Leicester Square. North of Leicester Square, is London’s China Town area. On Wardour St. is the China Town 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 China Town 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 book store
  • 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

Oxford Circus

If you are looking for the full London shopping experience, head toward Oxford Circus. From Shaftsbury Fountain, follow Regent St. north.

Designer brands from all over the world line Regent’s 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. They are cheap, easy to use, have 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 the city.

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: £1.50 unlimited 1 hour hopper fare, buses are capped £4.50 daily fare

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.

First Trip to London?

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