London has so many of the world’s most recognizable tourist landmarks that it was simply impossible for me to narrow down to my typical top five. Many of these are world-famous sights that scream “photo op” while others require the better part of a day to fully explore. Here are fifteen sights we loved in London.
#1: Big Ben and Houses of Parliament
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are probably London’s most recognizable landmarks. Big Ben was the #1 must-see on our seven year old son’s list. We took the Underground to the Westminster Station on our first day in the city so that his very first view of central London upon emerging from the Tube would be Big Ben. It was definitely a surreal experience that left him completely in awe. He asked to re-visit Big Ben on our final day in London, and it remains his favorite London landmark.
We have always enjoyed hearing Big Ben’s chimes regularly during our visits to London. Renovation work began on the clock tower in 2017, and the bells will be silent until the early 2020s except for special occasions like New Years Eve and Remembrance Sunday.
The House of Commons and House of Lords meet at the Houses of Parliament, which is also known as the Palace of Westminster. The current Gothic Revival structure was designed by Charles Barry after the prior building complex was destroyed by fire in 1834.
- Kid Facts: Big Ben is actually the name of the bell and not the clock tower itself. “Big Ben” honors Benjamin Hall, who was the commissioner of works when the tower was completed. The clock tower was officially designated as the Elizabeth Tower to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. However, I’m pretty sure that even the Queen will have trouble getting people to refer to the clock tower as anything other than Big Ben.
#2: Tower of London
The Tower of London is a historic castle with an infamously bloody past. If the Beefeater tour guides, inner battlements and White Tower are not enough of a draw, the Crown Jewels and Royal Armouries collection are housed here. This may be our favorite place ever for hands on history. Check out our Spotlight for a comprehensive overview of our day visiting the Tower.
- Kid Facts: Two of King Henry VIII’s wives were executed on Tower Green. Also, based on a superstition from over 500 years ago that the British empire would fall if ravens ever left the Tower of London, seven ravens are kept on site at all times.
#3: Tower Bridge
The Tower Bridge was built in the late 19th century and specifically designed to be raised when necessary to allow ships to pass. Most visitors aim to take photos of this iconic bridge, but make sure to check the lift schedule if you want to see the Bridge in action.
- Kid Facts: Tower Bridge is such an iconic image of London that it is often confused with London Bridge, which is famous because of the song and not its image. London Bridge has actually been replaced several times – the current London Bridge was completed in 1973.
#4: London Eye
The London Eye opened in 2000 as the world’s tallest Ferris wheel to commemorate the millennium. Passengers ride in one of 32 egg-shaped capsules that hold up to 25 people each, and the wheel turns so slowly that a single revolution takes about 30 minutes. The London Eye offers riders an amazing view of the River Thames, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
It has been known as the Coca-Cola London Eye since 2015 when Coke paid an undisclosed sum for naming rights. My husband and I rode in the London Eye in 2005 but have not yet taken the kids due to long lines and so many other attractions.
- Kid Facts: While three taller Ferris wheels have now surpassed the London Eye, it remains the tallest in Europe and the world’s tallest cantilevered Ferris wheel.
#5: Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square is a large public space with Nelson’s Column at its center. Nelson’s Column was constructed in the mid-19th century to honor Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar.
The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery flank Trafalgar Square, and there is a view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament down Whitehall Street. Trafalgar Square used to be overrun with pigeons fed by tourists. However, in recent years, feeding was banned, and birds of prey were used to further discourage pigeons. Honestly, it’s much more pleasant to visit Trafalgar Square without the nuisance of pigeons. Our kids particularly enjoyed the street performers (aka buskers) and had a grand time posing with each of the four metal lions at the base of Nelson’s column. The nearest Underground Station is Charing Cross, which is what this area was called before Trafalgar Square.
- Kid Facts: This area has been a landmark since the 13th century. Original plans for redevelopment were designed by John Nash in the 19th century but redesigned by Charles Barry after Nash’s death in 1830.
#6: St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral was designed by Christopher Wren and constructed at the turn of the 18th century. The Cathedral has one of the world’s largest and most famous church domes that is modeled after the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The English Baroque Cathedral is open at certain times of the day for sightseeing only and others for worship. We really enjoyed Evensong. Check the online schedule if you would like to attend a service. Note photography is not permitted inside the Cathedral.
- Kid Facts: Prince Charles married Princess Diana at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1981.
#7: Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace is Queen Elizabeth II’s official London residence. During our last visit, we watched the Changing of the Guard, which occurs daily from April to July and alternating days in March and August at 11:30 a.m. The Palace Guards dressed in scarlet tunics and black fury hats perform a musical military ceremony as they parade from Wellington Barracks to Buckingham Palace. It’s necessary to arrive early to stake out a good spot to watch the 30-minute show.
Completely coincidentally, my sister and her family also scheduled a trip to the UK that overlapped ours. We were able to meet them at the Changing of the Guard. It was a pretty amazing experience for the six cousins to spend a day exploring London together.
- Kid Facts: If Queen Elizabeth II is at home in Buckingham Palace, the Royal Standard flag flies on the roof.
#8: Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey has been the site of all of England’s royal coronations since William the Conqueror back in 1066. It is also the setting for royal weddings and funerals. The current Gothic structure was completed in the 16th century. The Abbey is open for worship and tours.
- Kid Facts: Princess Diana’s 1997 funeral took place in Westminster Abbey, loosely based on plans prepared in case of the Queen Mother’s death. Prince William and Catherine Middleton were married here in 2011.
#9: Piccadilly Circus
Piccadilly Circus is a traffic junction that has featured illuminated advertisements since 1908 – just a few years after Times Square debuted electronic signage. While Times Square definitely dwarfs Piccadilly, this is still my favorite street corner in London. After a major renovation in 2017, Piccadilly Circus now features a single 4K LED digital screen.
- Kid Facts: Circus means circle, and the name remained after the intersection lost its circular shape in the late 19th century when Shaftesbury Avenue was constructed.
#10: Marble Arch
This triumphal arch was designed by John Nash as a state entrance to Buckingham Palace but moved to its current location on a large traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street, Park Lane and Edgware Road in the 1960s.
- Kid Facts: When the Marble Arch served as Buckingham Castle’s main entrance, only senior members of the Royal Family and members of the Royal Horse Artillery and King’s Troop could pass through. Now, it is open to everyone, and “commoners” regularly pass through.
#11: Covent Garden
Covent Garden was the first planned square in London and was modeled on a Tuscan piazza. The Central Market was originally a fruit and vegetable market but has now been redeveloped into shops, cafes, stalls and restaurants.
Outside on the cobbled street, we saw a performance by contortionist Kenneth Greenaway who is popularly known as Yogi Laser. We also watched part of Laser’s mesmerizing performance next to the River Thames earlier in the trip.
- Kid Facts: My boys really enjoy reading Guinness World Record Books and discovered after our trip that Yogi Laser holds the Guinness World Record for fastest time to fit body into a 20″ by 17.5″ box.
#12: 10 Downing Street
10 Downing Street is the Prime Minister’s official residence. This Georgian townhouse is conveniently located right off of Whitehall Street on the walk from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament. The main entry is right off the street, so even when just passing by, you often can catch comings and goings of both presumably important people and lucky visitors. The actual entrance is cordoned off with a large iron gate.
- Kid Facts: The front door has no keyhole and cannot be opened from the outside.
#13: Millennium Bridge
The Millennium Bridge is a steel suspension bridge for pedestrian use to cross the River Thames. The Bridge opened in 2000 to commemorate the millennium.
- Kid Facts: The Millennium Bridge was closed on its opening day and remained closed for two years to make modifications to eliminate its unexpected sway.
#14: Portobello Road Market
My husband, daughter and I met friends for a Saturday afternoon of window shopping at the Portobello Road Market while the boys spent the day with their grandparents. There are five main sections selling second-hand goods, clothing, household goods, produce and antiques. Saturday is the only day that all sections are open. We passed hundreds of stalls and shops selling wares of all sorts on our relaxing afternoon. Despite the crowds, we had no issues with our stroller, which is commonly called a pushchair in England.
- Kid Facts: Much of the filming of the 1999 movie Notting Hill starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant took place on Portobello Road.
Hamleys is the world’s oldest and largest toy store in the world. If my boys were ordering this list, Hamleys might be at the top. They visited the Regent Street store with their grandparents, who gave them each a budget to find the perfect toy souvenir. It took them a few hours to make their selections as they explored every square inch of store’s seven floors.
- Kid Facts: William Hamley opened a toy shop called “Noah’s Ark” in 1760.
London has so much to offer family travelers! Make sure to check out our posts on London, including Our First Family Trip Abroad, Five Fun Family Museums, Five Fun Family Parks (coming soon) and London Itineraries (coming soon).
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