One of the things I loved the most about my semester abroad is the fact that I was a mere 20-minute train ride away from one of the biggest cities in the world – London. That means that I got to go and visit it a couple of times in the last three months. It was my first time in this wonderful European city (or in Europe altogether, for that matter), and I was a bit overwhelmed at first because there is just SO much to see! London has a lot of must-see spots and so depending on how much time you are spending there, you probably won’t be able to see everything (it’s totally okay – I didn’t get to see as much as I wanted to, too). So I narrowed down the touristy spots you absolutely MUST see if you’re a first timer in London! Here are the top 10 things you must do in London, especially if it’s your first time!
1. Take a picture of Big Ben.
Did you really go to London if you didn’t see Big Ben? It’s a pretty big landmark here. Sadly, when I went, it had just been announced that Big Ben was going to be silenced for four years for maintenance and was therefore not its usual gorgeous self. However, I was still simply in awe when I saw it! Even under all those scaffolds, it still is one amazing piece of work.
2. See the change of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.
Buckingham Palace is one gorgeous piece of architecture, particularly so during warmer days because of all the beautiful flowers surrounding it. If you’ve seen The Crown on Netflix, then it’s probably on your bucket list. And even if you haven’t (like me), it’s still something worth seeing. The Palace is the official home of the British monarchy and also houses foreign representatives when they come to visit.
But one thing that is most definitely worth seeing is the change of the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. It happens daily at the same time from April to July, and every other day during the rest of the year. It’s a ceremony that is quite entertaining and impressive if you get the opportunity to see it!
3. Ride the London Eye.
The London Eye is another landmark in London. The giant Ferris wheel on the South Bank of the River Thames opened to the public in 2000 in celebration of the new millennium and offers the second highest viewing point in London. If you want to get a beautiful view of the city, the London Eye is the place to go! It’s the most popular paid tourist attraction in the United Kingdom with over 3.75 million visitors annually. I personally haven’t got a chance to actually ride the London Eye, but I have seen it and it’s such an impressive sight! I would recommend booking in advance, as I’ve heard the queue can be quite long. It is a bit expensive, but I am sure you get your money’s worth!
4. Go shopping on Oxford Street.
If you’re more the shopping type, then you must go to Oxford Street! It’s famous for being the shopping center in the city. You’ll find everything you might possibly need, for all price ranges. High-end boutiques as well as more common ones are located here, so make sure you save a few pounds to get yourself something nice in celebration of your time in London!
5. Visit the British Museum.
If you enjoy history and learning about other cultures, then I couldn’t recommend the British Museum enough. Its permanent collection contains over 8 million works – among the largest and most comprehensive in existence – and originates from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. Some of the most famous pieces include the Rosetta Stone, the Colossal statue of Amenhotep III, a reconstruction of the Nereid Monument, Parthenon marbles from the Acropolis of Athens, Cleopatra’s tomb, and then some.
I would recommend blocking a good 5-6 hours if you plan on visiting the entire museum. There is A LOT to see, and if you want to see everything, you’ll probably end up spending the entire day there. It’s so worth it, though, I promise! Otherwise, you can choose the rooms you’d prefer to see – my personal favorites were Ancient Greece, Egypt, Japan, and India. And the best part about all of this? The entrance to the museum is absolutely FREE!
6. Take pictures of the lovely colorful houses in Notting Hill.
We’ve all seen the classic 90s rom-com Notting Hill starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. If not, well, not only are you missing out, but you also probably have seen pictures of bloggers in front of cute pastel houses on Instagram. Either way, you know what I’m talking about. Honestly, there is not much to see in Notting Hill except for those adorable colorful houses… but it makes such a great picture!
7. Visit the Albert & Victoria Museum.
Don’t make assumptions based on its name. It’s not a museum dedicated to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (like I thought). The Victoria & Albert Museum, most often called the V&A, is the world’s largest museum of decorating arts and design and has a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects. It was founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Similar to the British Museum, its collection regroups 5,000 years of art, from ancient times to the present day, from the cultures of Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa. Once again, I would recommend at least 3 hours if you plan on visiting the entirety of the museum (it contains 145 galleries!). And, of course, like most museums in London, the admission is free!
8. Become a real Potterhead at the Warner Bros Studios Tour.
If you read my blog post covering my time at the Warner Bros Studios visiting The Making of Harry Potter, you know just how much I have appreciated my visit. If you’ve seen the movies at all, then you MUST take an afternoon to go take a look! It’s a little bit outside of London (in Watford), but it’s only a 15-minute train ride from London Euston! It’ll bring all the magic from the movies to life, and you might even shed a tear once you get to take a look at the “real” Hogwarts. I would recommend booking far in advance online as tickets sell out quite quickly! And once you’re there, make sure to have your camera ready! There are TONS of photo op opportunities and you’ll probably want to take pictures of everything. I’d plan a good 3 hours if you want to truly enjoy yourself and not feel too rushed!
9. Go to Covent Garden.
Covent Garden is a district of Westminster, in Greater London. It is mostly associated with the former fruit-and-vegetable market in the central square, now a popular shopping and tourist site. The farmer’s market is now a great place for shopping and entertainment, as there are quite a few street performances going on around the square. You’ll also find your favorite boutiques like Ladurée, MAC, and The Body Shop, to only name a few. If you’re there around Christmas time, you’ll find that Covent Garden is particularly stunning with all of its decorations!
10. Stop for afternoon tea.
You haven’t truly experienced England unless you’ve had tea in London. I’ve stopped for afternoon tea a couple of times in different places, but there’s something about having it in London that makes it quintessentially British. I would recommend B Bakery if you’re looking for a cute affordable place! It’s located near Covent Garden and the decor is adorable. The food is super good and the staff is very friendly!
Bonus: Things I wish I had done while in London
One of the things I regret most about my semester abroad is not venturing into London enough. I wanted to visit the rest of England so bad that I kind of neglected London. I did cross quite a few things off of my bucket list, but there is so much more that I wanted to see that I haven’t gotten around to! I guess that means I’ll have to go back and explore some more… 😉 Here’s what I wish I had done while I was in London:
- Trafalgar Square // In my defense, I went there twice and both times, Trafalgar Square had been taken over by some kind of event (including the AMAs in November). I was able to take a quick look, but I couldn’t truly experience the Square and take a picture of the majestic golden lions. There are also a few museums around Trafalgar Square such as the National Gallery, so if you like museums, I would definitely go in the area!
- Sherlock Holmes Museum // If you know me you know I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan. I’ve read all the novels and short stories and have seen many adaptations of them (including my all-time fave, BBC Sherlock). One thing I was hoping to do in London is visiting the museum dedicated to the world’s most famous detective. I did sneak a peek, but I didn’t have time to actually visit it. I’ve been told that it’s very interesting, but it’s a short visit (like an hour long at the most) and a bit overpriced for what it is. Still, if you’re a fan, I think it’s a must!
- Westminster Abbey + Palace // My biggest regret is not visiting Westminster Abbey and Westminster Palace. I saw them from the outside, but we simply bypassed them and I wasn’t able to go inside. Apparently, the abbey is drop-dead gorgeous and my friend would recommend you block out two hours for your visit.
- Tower Bridge // Tower Bridge is often mistaken for the London Bridge, but they are actually two different things. Tower Bridge is the bridge you’re thinking of when you say London. It’s the one that is shown in every movie/tv show set in London. It’s a big landmark in London and is closed to the Tower of London.
- Madame Tussauds // Madame Tussauds is a museum showcasing wax sculptures of celebrities and famous people in London. I’ve been to the Musée Grévin in Montreal (click here to see my day in Montreal!) and absolutely loved my experience, so I thought I would love Madame Tussauds as well, especially because it’s a bigger museum and the figures and galleries are different! The tickets are a bit pricey though, but apparently it’s really worth the experience!
- Kensington Palace + Gardens // Kensington Palace is a royal residence set in Kensington Gardens. It is currently the official London residence of Prince Harry, Kate Middleton and Prince William. I mean, do I need any more reasons to visit? The Kensington Gardens are also absolutely gorgeous and contain many sculptures and other sights. The park is the setting of J.M. Barrie’s book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which is a prelude to the character’s famous adventures in Neverland (there’s a Peter Pan sculpture in the park to commemorate the book!).
- The Royal Parks // Out of the 8 Royal Parks, I was only able to see St James’s Park, located near Buckingham Palace and it was absolutely gorgeous. I can only imagine how beautiful the other parks must be, especially during summertime!
- Shakespeare’s Globe // If, like me, you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you must go to the Globe Theatre, where many of the world’s most famous English author plays were presented! Sadly, the original was destroyed due to a fire in 1613, but this reconstruction is said to be pretty similar to the original one, even if it accommodates only 1400 spectators compared to the original theatre’s 3000. For the true, real experience, try to catch one of Shakespeare plays while you’re there!
- Natural History Museum // You know the museum you see in movies with its exhibition of dinosaur skeletons in what resembles a cathedral? That’s the Natural History Museum. There used to be a large Diplodocus cast in the central hall before it was replaced in 2017 with the skeleton of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling. Either way, if you’re a fan of science and history, this one is said to be quite fun to visit!
Have you ever been to London? What are the things you must do in London, in your opinion?