London offers up spectacular collections of visual art and most museums are free. The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is filled to almost overflowing with Western European paintings from the 13th to 19th Centuries, including classic works by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Renoir.
Newer works are held at the Tate Modern, a former power station converted into a spectacular and unique art gallery. Modern masterpieces, temporary exhibitions, and massive installations make this gallery a must-visit for the modern art lover.
The Royal Family’s London residence always draws huge crowds of tourists, even though very little of the palace is open to public view. The daily Changing of the Guard ceremony is one of the great symbols of British pomp and circumstance. You can get the same experience and avoid the crowds by visiting any of the city’s other royal palaces, such as St James Palace and Windsor Castle.
The London Eye, a 135-metre ferris wheel was the largest in the world when it opened in 1999. (It has since been surpassed by larger wheels in Singapore and Nanchang.) When the weather is good, The Eye offers excellent views of the city, making it one of London’s top tourist draws. It's a fabulous 30-minute panoramic photo op. Arrive early to avoid heavy lines.
London is one of the world’s great theatre cities, and taking in a show can be surprisingly affordable. The Globe Theatre is a recreation of the original Globe, where Shakespeare’s plays first ran. Today, you can watch Shakespeare's plays the way they were originally staged with minimal sets, natural light, and cheap standing-room tickets for commoners.
For a more modern experience, London’s West End has one of the greatest concentrations of theatres in the world, and Leicester Square’s half-price ticket booth TKTS is a great place to find day-of discounts. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre are nearly universally praised for their productions. Lavish, Broadway-style musicals are also plentiful.
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London is the most famous of this chain of waxworks. Giddy patrons can have their pictures taken with lifelike wax replicas of the stars. Artists, actors, athletes, the royal family, and even Marvel Comics superheroes and other stars of recent films are all part of the display. Book tickets online in advance to avoid long queues.
Britain’s largest department store – more than 1,000,000 square feet of space – is renowned for its fabulous Victorian architecture and the Egyptian-themed décor in its high-end clothing department. The seasonal Christmas displays are world-famous, as is the store’s Food Hall. For a real English experience, take in high tea.
Shopping is generally very expensive in Britain, but for quality, the bespoke tailored suits on Savile Row in Kensington can’t be beat.
London is internationally regarded as one of the great gay cities, and no trip there is complete without visiting the huge gay villages in the Soho and Vauxhall neighbourhoods. Gay bars and clubs can be found all over the city, but these neighbourhoods have the highest concentrations of gay life. Bustling cafes, pubs, bars, clubs, and members-only establishments are all there to serve whatever nightlife entertainment you crave.
The world-famous arts center on the South Bank of the Thames, created in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, with art and activities inside and out. See music, dance, art, performances, festivals and spoken word events throughout the year; many of them free, plus many restaurants, cafes and shops.
With four resident orchestras, 14 Artists in Residence and over 100 artistic organisations on the 21-acre site in London’s vibrant cultural quarter, the center includes the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, the Hayward Gallery, and the Saison Poetry Library.
Ongoing events include classical, world music, rock, pop, jazz, dance, literature and the visual arts.
Festivals include the London Wonderground with the best of cabaret, circus, sideshow and music; the Udderbelly Festival with London’s most shocking variety, as the nation’s naughtiest comics perform alongside burlesque beauties and freakish variety acts; the London Literature Festival; the Chocolate Festival; plus neighborhood and various other food festivals. Also see BFI (British Film Institute) festivals here, including gay film screenings. See the website for the full year-round schedule of events - there's always something on....
The world's largest library has 150 million items in all known languages, from around the world, in many formats, print and digital: books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, and drawings. The collection of around 14 million books includes: a Leonardo da Vinci notebook; two Gutenberg Bibles; two 1215 copies of Magna Carta; an original manuscript of Beowulf; and the Diamond Sutra, the world's earliest dated printed book, printed in 868.
Open to everyone with "a genuine need to use its collections," the Library allows researchers to apply for a Reader Pass, with proof of signature and permanent address. For the majority of catalogue entries consult "Explore the British Library," the Library's main catalogue.
Many books and manuscripts are on general public display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, seven days a week at no charge. Exhibits include Beowulf, a Gutenberg Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Captain Cook's journal, Jane Austen's History of England, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and a room devoted to Magna Carta. Frequent thematic exhibitions have included: maps, sacred texts and the history of the English language.
The British Library Newspapers section, based in Colindale, North London, has an almost complete collection of British and Irish newspaper issues published since 1840. In addition the Thomason Tracts contain 7,200 17th century newspapers. Online access is provided for up to 4 million fully searchable pages - with 8,000 new pages being added each day every day.
The Sound Archive, with over a million discs and 185,000 tapes, has a collection of worldwide recorded sound, including: music, drama, literature, oral history and wildlife sounds - spanning more than 100 years. It includes the BBC Sound Archive of broadcasts since the 1930's. Their online gallery includes 30,000 items.
Britain’s Museums boast dazzling collections from around the world. Most of them, including the enormous British Museum, are free to enter. The British Museum has a spectacular collection of antiquities, including mummies and other Egyptian treasures. It's home to the Parthenon marbles, which were looted in the 19th Century, precipitating a major diplomatic squabble between the UK and Greece. The museum's African collection is among world’s largest, with more than 200,000 pieces.
The Victoria and Albert Museum hosts a vast collection of global art and design, incorporating everything from Asian antiquities to a reconstruction of Kylie Minogue’s dressing room. Some of the best galleries explore the histories of fashion, jewellery, and performance in intimate and interactive detail. For a peek into London’s cultural history, don’t miss the extensive British Galleries. As at most London museums, entrance is free.
The Shard London Bridge building at 310 meters (1,017ft), the tallest building in the European Union, opened in 2013. The observation deck on the 72nd floor is the highest public area in London, with by far the best views of the city. The View is open 9am to 10pm daily, with the last ticket slot available at 8:30pm, and last entry at 9pm. Closed Christmas Day. Tickets are best booked in advance online or by phone at 44 0844 499 7111. The website offers examples of the panoramic vistas.
The nearly 1,000-year-old Tower of London was originally a defensive fortress, but evolved over the years into a prison and armory and now into a major historical attraction. The highlight of the Tower is the display of the crown jewels, including more than 23,000 gems. Queues can be quite long, so you should book tickets in advance.