London is the ultimate cosmopolitan capital. Its centuries of history, massive political power, and far-reaching culture often make it a prime destination for first-time travelers. It’s easy to pack a whirlwind itinerary of double decker bus tours, snap a few selfies with Big Ben and the Trafalgar Square lions, and call it a holiday. London is so chock full of things to do, you could spend years here and never see it all. But that’s just why you should make an effort to go beyond the top bucket list attractions of the city and see more.
Say cheerio to the heaviest crowds, save a few quid, and enjoy modern sights instead of suffering through ‘must-sees’ that don’t really interest you. Below, you’ll find your guide to bucket list London and the less iconic sights you should add to your itinerary.
The throng of tourists in London’s central Piccadilly Circus is perhaps second only to Times Square in New York. Its massive video billboards and rows of crowded souvenir stands form a gateway between the posh shopping on Regent Street and the iconic facades of Pall Mall. Its close proximity to hotspots like Trafalgar Square and Soho make it unlikely you’ll visit London without at least passing through, but is it really a destination in its own right?
Where to go instead: Kynance Mews
There’s absolutely nothing charming about the neon bustle of Piccadilly Circus, but there are quaint corners of city life in London. Whenever you see a street sign that reads “Mews,” it indicates an alley that used to connect to stables and carriage houses in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Kynance Mews in South Kensington are one such street and you’ve probably seen them pop up in your Instagram feed once or twice. Admire the quiet gardens of this residential area before seeking out a cozy neighborhood pub. Picca-what now?
Often misidentified as London Bridge, the Tower Bridge is one of the greatest symbols of the British capital. Painted red, white, and blue in the ’70s to celebrate the Queen’s 25th year of rule, it’s said to be good luck to see the Tower Bridge open. Spanning the Thames from the Tower of London to Southwark, the bridge is free to cross on foot.
Crossing the Tower Bridge or camping out to try and catch a glimpse of it opening are both fairly iconic free attractions in London, and if you haven’t been, you can easily spend half a day in the Tower of London. But it’s worth your while to go past that.
Where to go instead: Square Mile
If you’re itching to get past the surface of the City, slate those more popular stops for the morning and spend the afternoon exploring London’s Square Mile. A few points of interest worth your attention are the real London Bridge, the Monument to the Great Fire of London, Leadenhall Markets (which you may recognize from the Harry Potter films), and loads of modern architecture like the Gherkin, Sky Garden, and the Lloyd’s building. If a self-guided walking tour doesn’t appeal, Fun London Tours operates a ‘Liar Liar’ tour of the Square Mile, in which guides tell guests three stories about a site and you figure out which one is false.
It’s hard to believe just how many free museums there are in London, and yes, the British Museum is indeed one of them. With a collection as massive and famous as this, many non-museum-goers feel like they have to visit. It’s true, treasures like the Rosetta Stone and the mummy of Cleopatra of Thebes can be captivating to the typical tourist. But if you’re not a history buff, the dozens of galleries spanning the art and ancient artifacts of at least three continents can be daunting. Exhibits and displays are often quite traditional, and you could just as easily spend an hour here as you could a full day. If you’re not much of a museum-goer, instead of dragging yourself through every hall of the British Museum, why not give yourself a taste of all the city’s museums?
Where to go instead: Natural History Museum
Whether you’re traveling with kids or simply catering to your inner child, set aside a good chunk of time to get lost in the Natural History Museum. Each exhibit from earthquakes to the beloved dinosaurs is filled with bright colors, well-presented information, and hands-on displays. This ain’t your mama’s museum. Visit during the holidays to squeeze in a few laps on its outdoor ice rink. The Victoria & Albert Museum and the Science Museum next door are also worth a peek.
Who didn’t muddle their way through at least half a dozen Shakespearean plays during school? For many of us, the Bard’s poetry is our first taste of British culture, and his stage at the Globe has gone down as the stuff of legend. The 16th century original burned down fairly shortly after its opening, but in 1997, a replica opened to pay homage to Shakespeare’s legacy. Guided tours are offered daily and performances are staged every season. With standing Yard tickets priced at just 5 pounds a head, it won’t even break the bank to see a show at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s a must-do for literary types to be sure. But if you snored your way through Romeo & Juliet as a kid, what makes you think you’ll have a better time standing in the open air among the crowd?
Where to go instead: Soho Theatre
London theatre is so much more than Shakespeare. Once you’ve paid your respects to the Bard, consider seeking out London’s next big thing. Soho Theatre is in the heart of one of the world’s great arts and entertainment districts. Opened in 2000, it’s a modern haven for writers, actors, comedians, and other creatives. Even if you don’t score tickets to a show, you can belly up to the sleek bar downstairs for a drink among the city’s brightest minds. London is as much a 21st century city as it was an Elizabethan one.
Since its opening in 2000, the London Eye ferris wheel has been as much a symbol of the city as Big Ben, located just across the Thames. Ushering London into the new millennium, the Eye’s main – indeed, only – attraction is its panoramic capsules. Fork over 22 pounds to sit in a clear bubble and ride the 30-minute rotation. Wait, what? How did anybody decide that was a worthwhile deal? Sure, weather cooperating, the view is great, but this is one of the biggest cities in the world. Is there really not a single other viewpoint in town?
Where to go instead: The Shard
Why have a great view when you can have a great view and a cocktail? Admission to the highest observation deck at the Shard isn’t any less expensive than the pricey London Eye, but you can still get excellent views from the AquaShard bar on floor 31. There’s no cover charge and you can enjoy wine by the glass at as little as 8 pounds. Other great viewpoints that won’t break the bank include St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Great Fire Monument, and the Sky Garden, a rooftop bar where you can score a photo op of the Shard on London’s skyline.
No matter how popular, London attractions usually cost money. See exactly how much in my London budget breakdown.
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