As a leading world cultural capital, London is a thriving city that appeals to travelers from around the globe. It is ranked first among Europe’s most visited cities as it welcomes more than 16 million visitors per year. The city is home to many different attractions, including museums, grand cathedrals, and medieval structures still in use today. Here are five things you must see when visiting London for the first time.
The infamous Tower of London has an ominous history dating back more than 1,000 years. William the Conqueror had the Tower built with construction beginning soon after his coronation in 1066. The imposing edifice served as a fortress-stronghold until the late 1800s. The Crown Jewels exhibition features the dazzling symbols of monarchy still used in modern ceremonies, including coronations, royal funerals, and the state opening of Parliament.
The Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters, offer entertaining guided tours beginning every 30 minutes near the Tower’s main entrance. The origins of these members of the Royal Bodyguard date back to the days of King Edward IV in the mid- to late 15th century. The guards are all former members of the armed forces.
London Tower has a bloody past that includes the torture of many prisoners, mostly during the Tudor period. All the prisoners sentenced to spend time there were accused of treason. The manacles and the rack were the two main types of torture practiced by the Tower guards. Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s wives, was imprisoned in the tower before her execution in 1536. Her daughter, Elizabeth, was confined to the tower in 1554 before becoming Queen of England. The final execution took place in 1747 when Lord Lovat was beheaded. The execution block made of solid oak is on public display in the White Tower.
Members of the British monarchy have resided inside the walls of Buckingham Palace since 1837. In modern times, it also serves as an administrative headquarters for the Royal Family.
The State Rooms are open to the public when not in use by the Queen or other Royal Family members for hosting official events. The portraits hanging on the wall leading up the Grand Staircase are the same ones chosen by Queen Victoria. Visitors can take an audio tour through the palace’s State Rooms and a guided tour of the gardens.
The gardens feature a tennis court and 39 acres supporting more than 200 trees and 350 species of wildflowers. Guests can witness the Changing of the Guard daily in June and July and every other day through August and September. The pageantry lasts approximately 45 minutes while the New Guard marches from Wellington Barracks to Buckingham Palace to relieve the active regiment and become the Queen’s Guard.
The National Gallery, founded in 1824, is in Central London in Trafalgar Square. The current building was completed in 1938 and is the third to display the collection. The art museum features more than 2,300 original paintings from the mid-13th through the 18th century. The collection represents all Western European styles, including late medieval, Renaissance Italian, and French impressionism. Some of the world’s most famous masterpieces are on display including Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Venus and Mars by Sandro Boticelli, and the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.
The Elizabeth Tower at the British Houses of Parliament is among the most iconic of all London landmarks. The nickname Big Ben actually refers to the massive bell housed inside the tower, which is 96 meters tall. The tower’s unique layout allows only a limited capacity for visitors. This is why only UK permanent residents are permitted to apply for tours. International visitors may book tours for the Lords Chambers and the Commons at Westminster Hall. Guests have the option of taking a self-guided audio tour or a tour led by a knowledgeable guide.
The London Eye is the massive observation wheel dominating the skyline on the River Thames’ south bank. Alternately known as the Millennium Wheel, it was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world when it opened in 1999. The wheel is 120 meters in diameter and 135 meters tall. Riders climb aboard one of 32 air-conditioned capsules. Each capsule accommodates 25 passengers who have the option of sitting or standing. A single revolution takes 30 minutes and offers spectacular views of the city during the day and after sunset.
A visit to London is a treat for anyone who has an interest in medieval history or the arts. Visit world-class galleries or tour ancient buildings with surprising backgrounds. Make your first visit to this vibrant city a memorable one by visiting these five popular attractions.