travel guide

The Most Important London Landmarks

London, the capital of England and the United Kingdom, has a history that stretches back to the first century CE when the Romans built a bridge over the River Thames and constructed the largest city in Britannia, calling it Londinium.  Today, it is an ultra-modern city and, with a population of almost 9 million souls, it is the biggest city in Europe and one of the largest in the world.  People from all over the world come to visit for many reasons, to wonder at the home of one of the oldest monarchies in the world, to take photographs that include the iconic red buses, the red telephone boxes, the black taxi cabs, and the Horse Guards that guard the Queen and her  Ministers around Westminster.  Furthermore, it has amazing cultural features such as over 250 art galleries, more than 170 museums (most of them free), around 39 theatres in the West End alone, with many more in the Greater London districts and a good choice of venues to hear opera, classical music and contemporary rock, blues, jazz and popular music.  However, London is also an architectural gold mine with historical landmarks such as Tower Bridge and Houses of Parliament juxtaposed with the streamlined ultra-modern skyscapers such as the Shard and the Cheese Grater.   Below is an outline of many of the most important landmarks with a link to find out more about each one. 

Big Ben & the Houses of Parliament

 

The Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, is the seat of Parliament in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  It is built on the north bank of the Thames in the heart of London.

The clock tower with its bell is actually the Elizabeth Tower and it is the bell that strikes the time which is actually called Big Ben.  However, the tower itself has become known by everyone, at home and abroad, as Big Ben

 

Trafalgar square and Admiralty Arch

Trafalgar Square is a public square established in the early 19th century to commemorate the British naval victory of Lord Horatio Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar against Napoleon.  The site has acted as a landmark since the 13th century and it is from here that distances from London are measured. 

The square is also the centre for democracy and protest with many rallies and demonstrations on various political issues being staged there. The statues and fountains on the square are surrounded by museums, galleries, cultural spaces and historic buildings. 

Trafalgar Square has recently had a facelift, it is fully pedestrianised, the feral pigeons have been removed and also now has a cafe and seating in the square itself.   Admiralty Arch is a landmark structure that gives access from Traflagar Square up the Mall to Buckingham Palace. 

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace is the London residence and administrative headquarters of the monarch of the United Kingdom. Originally it began life as the town house for the Duke of Buckingham in 1703.  It was then passed to King George III who refurbished it as a private house for Queen Charlotte in 1761. 

The first time that it became the official residence for a reigning monarch was when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837.  It is one of the few working palaces left in the world.  During the summer time parts of the State Rooms are open for visitors to tour. 

Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace, set in Kensington Gardens was one of the buildings designed by the highly acclaimed 17th architect, Christopher Wren.  It was where Queen Victoria was born and where Princess Diana lived after her divorce from Prince Charles.  You can visit part of the palace to see the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. 

 

The Tower of London

The Tower of London was originally built as a fortress by William the Conqueror to consolidate the invasion of Britain in 1066.  It is a complex of several buildings which includes the Jewel Tower, which was built in 14th century to house the treasures of Edward III and, today houses the Crown Jewels and the White Tower from which The Tower of London’s name derives.  The buildings are set within two concentric rings and are surrounded by defensive walls with originally a moat.   It has served as a royal residence, a prison, a menagerie and has always played a central part in the history of England.

 

Tower Bridge.

 

This famous bridge is actually not that ancient.  It was completed in 1894 in the Neo-Gothic style.  It’s piece de resistance is its lifting central sections which allow large ships to pass underneath.  This was crucial up until the 1960s when London Docklands saw many large ships passing up and down the River Thames.

 

 

Squares of Central London.

Apart from Trafalgar Square, mentioned above, the other magnet for visitors, whether tourists or locals, are the Piazza at Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.   

Covent Garden Piazza

The Covent Garden Piazza is the central square in what used to be the old fruit and vegetable market in London.  This market was relocated to a improved site in 1974 and the Piazza is now an extremely popular tourist site with independent shops and a covered market selling craft goods.  The historical buildings around the square include the Royal Opera House, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and the London Transport Museum.  The piazza itself is a sought after space for street performers who have to audition for an allocated slot with the owners of the site. 

Leicester Square

Leicester Square is the place where you can find London’s most important cinemas, including Empire, Leicester Square, which is often the venue chosen for film premieres, the famous Odeon, Leicester Square and Prince Charles Cinema popular for marathon film runs and cult films. Also on the square itself and in its immediate vicinity can be found theatres and the newly revamped Hippodrome theatre – now a casino.  The centre of the square has always had a small green space, this has now been improved and includes a statue of William Shakespeare as its centrepiece. 

 

Piccadilly Circus

 

Don’t be fooled by the name ‘circus’.  This word means the circular junction where intersecting streets meet and from this point Piccadilly, Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue and Haymarket all meet.  It is a famed tourist destination and meeting point, especially to sit on the steps of the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain with its statue of Anteros, mistakenly known as Eros. Aside from this fountain and statue it is London’s equivalent to New York City’s Time Square with its video display and neon advertising hoardings which are mounted on the square’s northwest corner.  In the heart of London’s West End it is surrounded by impressive buildings but the most splendid is the London Pavillion building on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street.  Formerly a music hall theatre it is now a shopping arcade and also part of the Trocadero Centre. 

The British Museum

Attracting over 6.4 million visitors every year this is quite possibly one of the most famous attractions in London. 

Located in the Bloomsbury area of London, with the closest underground station being Tottenham Court Road it is free to enter and houses around 8 million artefacts from all over the world, of which 800,000 are on display. 

These include the fabulous Rosetta Stone, the mummies in the Egyptian room and the Elgin marbles. 

 

South Kensington’s Natural History Museum, Science Museum and the V & A Museum.

South Kensington is the heartland of London’s museums.  Three of the most popular are the architecturally magnificent Natural History Museum with its fabulous exhibition of dinosaur skeletons, the Science Museum with its steam engines, space rockets and interactive exhibits and the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A) with its wonderful exhibits of art and design through the ages. All these museums are free although special exhibitions will charge an entrance fee. 

Madame Tussauds. 

Just a couple of minutes walk from Baker Street underground station is Madame Tussauds Waxworks museum with its life-sized wax replicas of famous people that includes political, historical and celebrity entertainers.  Its infamous Chamber of Horrors, depicting various methods of execution, has now been replaced with the Sherlock Holmes Experience, reflecting the museums location on Baker Street. 

Westminster Abbey

westminster-abbey.Very close to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben you will find Westminster Abbey. Founded originally in 960 AD by Benedictine monks this place of worship has been, since 1066 AD, the place where kings and queens of England are crowned and where most of them have their remains placed as their final resting place. Buried here too are many prominent Prime Ministers, military leaders, scientists, actors and poets as well as being the site of the grave for the Unknown Warrior.    At its heart is the medieval shrine of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.  The building we can see today was begun in 1245 AD by Henry III and is one of the most important Gothic buildings in England.

 

St. Paul’s Cathedral

Since the 7th century AD a place of worship dedicated to St Paul has stood at the highest point in the City.  The  Great Fire of London in 1666 saw the total destruction of the large medieval cathedral with its 400 ft. steeple and the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral we see today was built by Christopher Wren between 1675 and 1711.  It is a prime example of English Baroque architecture and broke radically with previous ecclesiastical designs. As well as its august interior, which includes the Whispering Gallery , a circular walkway at the base of the dome, the cathedral also houses a number of mosaics, mural  and sculptures, which include the famous Henry Moore sculpture Mother and Child. 

The Royal Albert Hall and The Albert Memorial

In memory of her Prince Consort, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the Grade 1 Listed concert hall venue, the Royal Albert Hall. The architecture of this beautiful circular building features a storied mosaic frieze and a glazed-iron domed roof.  Inside is the monumental Henry Willis organ, the biggest organ in the British Isles with nearly 10,000 pipes. Every year the Proms Classical concerts are held in the Hall but the space is also a venue for ballet, tennis or boxing events, ceremonies and conferences.   Opposite the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington Gardens is the very ornate  Albert Memorial which she had built to commemorate his death from typhoid in 1861. 

The Globe Theatre

On the south bank of the River Thames, in the London Borough of Southwark is a beautiful reconstruction of an open-air Elizabethan theatre.   

The original theatre where William Shakespeare performed some of his plays was on this site in the 16th century. 

This wonderful reconstruction is considered quite realistic with its 16th century architectural elements such as a water reed thatch roof.  It houses an audience of around 1400 spectators.  

The London Eye

london eyeThis huge Ferris Wheel, standing at a height of 135 ft offers spectacular views of the whole of London and the River Thames.  Also known as the Millennium Wheel, it is the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel and one of London’s most visited attractions. 

It also features a 4-D cinema and a champagne bar. 

Some more quirky and lesser known places to visit especially if your interest is in the architectural splendour or quirkiness of the attraction include the following.

St. Pancras Hotel and Train Station. 

Situated in Kings Cross was opened in 1868 and the hotel shortly afterwards in 1873 and 1876.  Fabulous examples of the Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.  The hotel has been taken over by Marriott Hotels and fully renovated.  The sumptuous interior is worth a look.  Have lunch in its gorgeous roof garden or dine in the splendour of one of its restaurants.  

Battersea Power Station.  

From the 1930s until the 1980s this iconic electricity generating station was supplying electricity to much of London. 

Now defunct as a power station it being redeveloped by Norman Foster & Partners to be London’s 3rd largest retail venue, with Apple’s London offices located here plus a bustling foodie hub, cultural centre and hundreds of new homes. 

The building became especially well known when a photograph of it was used on the LP cover of Pink Floyd’s album, Animals.   

Benjamin Franklin House.

36 Craven Street WC2 and quite close to Charing Cross Station is the former home of America’s Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin who arrived in 1757 and spent 16 years living at this residence.  The house is no a museum and is open to visitors. 

Highgate Cemetery

Located in north London, close to Parliament Hill Fields, Highgate Woods and Hampstead Heath is this wonderful Victorian cemetery which opened in 1839.  Many famous people have found this to be their last resting place including the cemetery’s most notable ‘resident’, Karl Marx’.  His monument is visited by hundreds of people every year who come from all corners of the world.  Aside from Karl Marx’s grave, the cemetery also has a fascinating necropolis featuring some incredible Gothic tombs and buildings. 

Landmarks in the City of London

One interesting fact about London is that there are actually two Londons: Greater London which includes the West End and everything (and more) that we have mentioned above but also; the City of London – known as the City or the Square Mile.  The City of London is the historic original London and today is the historic financial district with its own government, its own mayor and its own independent police force.  Within its boundaries are the Bank of England and  the Stock Exchange as well as some impressive corporate skyscrapers which tower above  the medieval street plan below.  At its heart is the landmark of St Paul’s Cathedral but also it contains the Monument, the London Wall, The Museum of London and some fine architecture both old and brand new. 

The Monument.

Or, to give it its proper name – the Monument to the Great Fire of London is close to London Bridge and stands at the spot on Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London began in 1666. Designed by Christopher Wren it’s structure consists of a fluted Doric column topped with a gilded copper urn of fire.  Its height marks the distance from the site where the blaze began.  160ft up is a viewing platform that visitors can reach via the 311 stepped staircase.  Once the public viewing gallery is reached there is a breath-taking vista of London from all directions. 

The London Wall was built by the Romans in around 200 AD as a defensive wall.  Over time much of this wall has been demolished to incorporate the expansion of the City and to improve the flow of traffic. Fragments of it however can be seen in places throughout the City.  In particular, just outside Tower Hill tube station you can see the largest section still standing, equally in the basement of One America Square building or along Cooper’s Row by the Tower of London. 

The Museum of London

Just a few minutes walk away from St. Paul’s Cathedral and overlooking some of the remains of the Roman London Wall is the fabulous Museum of London.  Housed in a building constructed in the 1970s as part of the Barbican Estate it documents the social history of London and its inhabitants from prehistoric times until today. With over 6 million artefacts it has the largest urban history collection in the world.  Recently planning permission has been granted to allow the Museum to move to a new site in a converted Victorian market building in Smithfield, Clerkenwell.  This is scheduled to happen within the next year or two. 

The New Skyscraper Buildings. 

Over the last few decades the skyline of the City has changed considerably with the City of London now home to some of the world’s most impressive modern architecture.  One of the most iconic is 30 St Mary Axe, commonly known as the Gherkin ( a British type of pickled cucumber) which was nicknamed thus because of its rounded shape.  Build by Foster & Partners in 2004 it is 41 stories high and won the Stirling Prize.   However, the tallest building is the Shard, designed by Renzo Piano in the neo-futurism style and completed in 2012 it is over 309.6m tall, on 73 floors with 44 lifts.  Not only is it the tallest building in London it is the tallest building in the EU.  Inside are a number of offices, a hotel, restaurants and a viewing gallery.  22 Bishopsgate, known colloquially as just Twentytwo, is a commercial skyscraper completed in 2020 and designed by Karen Cooke of PLP Architects.  It occupies a prominent site in the financial district of the City and has 62 storeys and is 278m tall. There is a public viewing gallery at the top which is free to access, unlike the Shard where you have to pay £25 to visit the top.  It is also planned that the market place inside and the bars and restaurants will gradually be opened to the public.   One Canada Square at Canary Wharf was designed by Cesar Pelli and completed in 1991.  Until the construction of the Shard it was the tallest building but has now slipped into 3rd place.  It stands at 235m and is instantly recognised by its distinctive pyramid peak.   Other imposing buildings include two that were built by Richard Rogers.  Firstly, the Lloyd’s Building.  Completed and opening in 1986 it is modelled on the famous inside-out design of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.  It features external elevators and service functions which allow easy maintenance.  Nearly 30 years later, in nearby Leadenhall Street, another Richard Rogers skyscraper opened in 2014.  Nicknamed the Cheesegrater its unusual design is angled at 10 degrees to protect the skyline views of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  These are just some of the ambitious structures completed but, throughout the City and in the West End itself, there are more with some currently still under constructions. 

Greenwich

A short distance by train, underground, bus or river boat from central London takes you to the London Borough of Greenwich.  Nestling on the banks of the River Thames it is famous for its maritime history, it is home to a restored 19th century tea clipper ship, the Cutty Sark.  Here too is the enormous National Maritime Museum with 14 different galleries exhibiting many fascinating accounts of seafaring.  The museum is situated within a UNESCO World Heritage Site which also includes the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Christopher Wren and is the focal point of Greenwich’s maritime history.  Here too is the Queen’s House, built by George III for his Queen Charlotte and overlooking the tranquil Greenwich Park is the Royal Observatory where you can straddle the Greenwich meridian line and visit the Planetarium and the museum which is a mine of information on time and space. 

About 5 miles from Greenwich is Eltham Palace.  A former royal residence from the 14th to 16th centuries it consists of a medieval great hall with a impressive hammerbeam roof that is considered to be one of the largest of its type in England.  In the 1930s however, the house was extended and it is now held up as one of the best examples of Art Deco in its design and in its decoration.