London, England

Warner Bros. Studio – Harry Potter

Step on to authentic sets, discover the magic behind spellbinding special effects and explore the behind-the-scenes secrets of the Harry Potter film series.

Discover the iconic Hogwarts Great Hall and explore the Forbidden Forest, all before boarding the original Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 ¾ and wandering down Diagon Alley.

Located at the Studios where all eight films were produced, the Studio Tour showcases the British talent, imagination and artistry that went into making the impossible a reality on screen. Visitors will relive the magic through the eyes of the filmmakers who brought the Harry Potter film series to life.

The View from the Shard

The floor-to-ceiling windows allow exceptional views out across the capital, especially on a clear day.

In 2012, Italian architect Renzo Piano transformed London’s skyline with a strange but striking structure that’s now the capital’s tallest tower. Measuring 310 metres, The Shard was built with everything in mind: offices, homes, hotels, bars, restaurants and, of course, the alluring viewing platform. From the highest point the public are allowed access (floors 69-72) you get stunning 360° views of the city. There’s a silent disco on selected Saturday nights and other events, such as gigs and gin tastings throughout the year.

The London Dungeon

The London Dungeon is a walk-through experience that recreates scenes from London’s scary history. Take the medieval lift into the depths of the dungeon and begin your journey. Along the way you’ll have a close shave with Fleet Street barber Sweeney Todd, investigate the mysterious identity of Jack the Ripper and discover the dreadful secrets of the torture chamber. Not for the faint-hearted!

Experience live actors, thrilling rides and exciting special effects during this terrifying 90-minute experience.

Tower Bridge

See inside London’s defining landmark and discover the stories behind the engineering, the people, the architecture and the city that built Tower Bridge.

From the high-level walkways, take in stunning panoramic views and experience the thrill of seeing London life through the glass floor.

Follow in the footsteps of the unsung heroes of Tower Bridge. Uncover their stories and soak in the atmosphere of the working bridge in one of London’s true hidden gems: the magnificent Victorian Engine Rooms.

Old Spitalfields Market

Old Spitalfields Market, located in the heart of Spitalfields, is a premier indoor market and retail attraction for all.

Built in 1876, it is one of the finest surviving Victorian Market Halls in the capital. Nestled in the cobbled streets between Brick Lane and Bishopsgate, Old Spitalfields Market is steeped in history; a market has operated on the site since the 1600s.

Today, visitors will discover an array of themed markets, operating seven days per week, alongside boutique fashion, design and lifestyle stores, distinctive bars, coffee and tea shops and restaurants.

Hampton Court Palace

Discover the magnificence of Henry VIII’s favourite royal residence. Immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of the bustling Base Court and marvel at the breath-taking grandeur of Henry’s State Rooms. Tickle your taste buds in the vast Tudor kitchens, stroll through over 60 acres of enchanting gardens, lose yourself in the famous maze and appreciate the beauty of one of the greatest palaces on earth.

Creep along the Haunted Gallery and discover another palace, the Baroque Palace, full of intrigue and gossip from the Stuart and Georgian era. Audio guides are included in the palace ticket and costumed tours and talks happen daily, as well as an excellent programme of seasonal events.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Step into St Paul’s and enjoy the cathedral’s awe-inspiring interior. Take advantage of a touch-screen multimedia guide or join a guided tour to explore this iconic building, both now included with the sightseeing admission charge.

Venture down to the crypt and discover the tombs and memorials of some of the nation’s greatest heroes such as Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Also visit Oculus, an award winning 270° immersive film experience.

Visitors can try out the acoustic quirks of the Whispering Gallery and continue their climb to the Golden Gallery to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views across London.

Up at The O2

Up at The O2 takes you on an exhilarating 90-minute climb over the roof of the world’s most popular entertainment venue.

Yes, Up at The O2 has great views, but it is so much more than just a view. It is something to do in London that is different to anything. It is an experience. It is a challenge. It is rewarding. And most of all, it is lots of fun.

See a different side of the city, by day, at twilight or at sunset. Clip onto the walkway and go on up. Your guide will be with you every step of the way and tell you about the sights. Are you ready for an unforgettable adventure?

Buckingham Palace

Book your visit to Buckingham Palace for a glimpse inside one of the few working royal palaces remaining in the world today.

During the summer, you can tour the 19 spectacular State Rooms. These magnificent rooms are decorated with some of the greatest treasures from the Royal Collection, including paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck.

Outside of the summer opening, you can still see the iconic exterior of the palace and watch the famous Changing the Guard.

Cutty Sark Greenwich

Built in 1869 to carry tea back from China, Cutty Sark visited nearly every major port in the world and gained fame for its record-breaking passages. Delve into the adventures of this iconic ship and meet the colourful cast of characters on board the ship who tell their story of what life was like on board.

Picture yourself as the ship’s captain, take the helm at the ship’s wheel and marvel at the towering masts and 11 miles of rigging. Learn about the ambitious conservation project and go inside and underneath an authentic piece of history. Find out about the incredible work that has saved Cutty Sark for future generations.

The Cutty Sark cafe also offers a relaxed afternoon tea which requires pre-booking and is a great way to end your experience underneath the ship which once brought tea to Britain.

Cutty Sark is part of Royal Museums Greenwich which includes the Royal Observatory, National Maritime Museum, and the Queen’s House.

Houses of Parliament

Audio and guided tours include the route taken by the Monarch at State Opening of Parliament; from the Robing Room, through the Royal Gallery and into the majestic Lords Chamber.

Tours then move on through Central Lobby, Members Lobby and one of the voting lobbies before entering the Commons Chamber, scene of many lively debates.

Passing through St Stephen’s Hall, tours end in 900-year-old Westminster Hall where Guy Fawkes was tried and where Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama addressed Parliament in more recent years.

Audio tours are available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Brazilian Portuguese and Welsh.

Guided tours are available in English throughout the year and in French, German, Italian and Spanish on selected days in August.

The Postal Museum and Mail Rail

The Postal Museum reveals five centuries of British social and communications history through the eyes of its iconic postal service. Alongside permanent exhibition galleries and a temporary exhibition space, Mail Rail, London’s secret Post Office Underground Railway has opened to the public for the first time in its 100 year history, including a subterranean ride through some of the original tunnels.

ArcelorMittal Orbit and slide

A modern-day London icon, the twisting red sculpture of the ArcelorMittal Orbit gives views of up to 20 miles (32km) across London from its viewing platforms, and includes the Orbit slide for thrill-seekers.

The Slide at the ArcelorMittal Orbit is a hair-raising experience that’s not for the faint-hearted!

Made up of 12 twists and turns, including a tight corkscrew named the bettfeder (meaning “bedspring” in German), it ends in a thrilling 50-metre (164 foot) straight run to the ground.

The Orbit slide is 76 metres (250 ft) high, making it the world’s tallest tunnel slide. At 178 metres (584 ft) in length, it’s also the longest! Whizz down the Orbit slide at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour (24 km per hour), which takes 40 seconds in total.

Arsenal Emirates Stadium

Tour the world-famous Emirates Stadium in Holloway, the most technologically advanced football stadium in Europe, and discover state-of-the-art facilities and stunning features from Arsenal’s Highbury past.

Get a sense of what the Arsenal stars feel like on a match day with a self-guided tour: explore the luxurious changing room with stunning hydrotherapy spa and take a walk down the tunnel into the magnificent stadium bowl before taking Unai Emery’s seat in the dug-out.

Or join a Legend Tour, led by former Arsenal players Charlie George, Nigel Winterburn or Perry Groves. On a fun and engaging behind-the-scenes tour, hear personal anecdotes and secrets from their playing days – everything you’ve always wanted to know. There is plenty of fan fun included in the tour, including a picture with your legendary tour guide, Arsenal merchandise to take home and entry to the Arsenal museum.

Wembley Stadium Tour

Take the unforgettable Wembley Stadium Tour.

Go behind the scenes into England’s changing rooms. Walk in the footsteps of legends, through the players’ tunnel towards the hallowed turf. Stand triumphantly in front of the Royal Box with The Cup.

Until your dream of playing at Wembley comes true, the only way to experience all this and more is to book your Wembley Stadium Tour now.

The Crystal Maze 

Face the ultimate team challenge at The Crystal Maze LIVE Experience London.

Test your physical and mental ability with adrenaline-fueled challenges based on the iconic 1990s TV show, The Crystal Maze. Guided by an eccentric Maze Master, travel through four time zones – Aztec, industrial, futuristic and medieval – and successfully complete tasks to win crystals.

Each crystal buys your team more time in the final challenge – The Crystal Dome. Battle against the strength of the fans to catch as many tokens as you can and discover if you have what it takes to make the wall of fame.

Finish the day at the bar to toast your success or laugh over the lack of it.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Experience today’s working theatre and visit Bankside, the Soho of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare’s Globe is a faithful reconstruction of the open-air playhouse designed in 1599 where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed.

Air Line cable car

Glide above the Thames in the Emirates Air Line cable car and take in aerial views of London’s skyline, as you travel from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks.

Enjoy beautiful views of the Thames, London’s skyline, the Greenwich Peninsula, the Royal Docks and The O2.

View sunset over the river and watch the city come alive after dark with extended night flights after 7pm.

KidZania London

Let your children immerse themselves in exciting real-life activities at KidZania in Westfield London in Shepherd’s Bush.

Kids can explore different careers and essential life skills, including teamwork and independence.

Designed for children aged four to 14, KidZania is an indoor city with immersive play areas that combine learning with fun. Once inside, children explore and independently take part in the activities they choose.

There are many jobs available for kids to discover, from doctors and police officers, to pilots and journalists. Note that some activities have a minimum age restriction of seven years old, such as the Acting Academy, Nintendo Labo and TV Studio. Check before you plan your visit.

London Eye

Enjoy amazing 360-degree views over London from the London Eye, a rotating observation wheel which is 135 metres (443 ft) high. Spot some of the capital’s most iconic landmarks, including Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace.

Within each capsule, interactive guides allow you to explore the capital’s iconic landmarks in several languages.

The gradual rotation in one of the 32 high-tech glass capsules takes approximately 30 minutes and gives you an ever-changing perspective of London. You can skip most of the queues with a fast-track entry ticket.

Madame Tussauds

See famous faces at Madame Tussauds London, a wax museum and star attraction with more than 250 lifelike wax figures on display.

Walk down the red carpet and strike a pose with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kate Winslet, before exploring the sports zone with Usain Bolt and David Beckham.

Enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime audience with the royal family, including the Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, before stepping on stage with music icons, from Madonna to Ed Sheeran!

Next, step up to your favourite Marvel Super Heroes and immerse yourself in the Marvel Super Heroes 4D movie, before meeting heroes and villains from Star Wars movies.

You’ll also get a behind-the-scenes look at how sculptors create the figures, and a fun ride through the history of London in an iconic black cab.

SEA LIFE London Aquarium

Explore the marine world at SEA LIFE London Aquarium on London’s South Bank.

During your visit you’ll stroll underneath the sea in the glass Ocean Tunnel; take a trip to Seahorse Kingdom; spot piranhas and crocodiles in the Rainforest Adventure and test your nerves on the Shark Walk as sharks swim beneath you.

Other creatures you’ll meet include penguins, clownfish, rays, jellyfish and starfish.

Shrek’s Adventure! 

This unique experience, developed by Merlin Entertainments in conjunction with DreamWorks Animation, brings to life the hilarious world of Shrek and friends. The fantastical tour combines 10 laugh-out-loud live shows and classic sets from the Shrek films with captivating storytelling, an amazing 4D ride, dramatic special effects and extraordinary DreamWorks animation.

You’ll meet all your favourite Shrek characters as you quest around DreamWorks Tours: Shrek’s Adventure! London, as well as encountering a magic mirror maze, smelly swamp, powerful spells and a cheeky DreamWorks Game Show. Will you be able to save Pinocchio, beat Lord Farquaad’s spiteful Magic Mirror and make it safely home?

Mansion House

The official residence of the Lord Mayor of London, built in the 18thC in Palladian style. Superb reception rooms and banqueting hall. Large gold and silver vaults. ‘In-house’ guides only permitted to conduct tours around the house. Only groups admitted, no individuals.

Barbican Art Gallery

Part of the Barbican Centre for arts and conferences, and one of two galleries at the Barbican. The gallery has a changing programme of major photography, fine art and design exhibitions. Admission charges for exhibitions vary; get in touch via phone to check prices before arrival.

British Library

The British Library is the UK’s national library. It’s home to over 170 million collection items covering every age of written civilisation, from Magna Carta, to Jane Austen’s notebooks, to lyrics handwritten by the Beatles. The Library is currently closed, but we’re always open online with digital events, collections and exhibitions that you can explore wherever you are.

The Library also hosts a lively, ever-changing programme of talks, courses, Lates and family events inspired by both its exhibitions and diverse collection. Top off your visit by stopping for a bite to eat in one of the cafes or the restaurant. And pick up the perfect keepsake at the Shop, stocked with gifts for the curious and literary minded.

Grant Museum of Zoology

Step inside this grand Edwardian building and you’ll find rare and extinct dodo specimens, one of only seven quagga skeletons in the world, and the famous glass jar of moles.

Established in 1827 as part of UCL, today the museum is still a space for exploring the animal kingdom and making ground-breaking new discoveries.

Drop-in and enjoy a free exhibition inspired by the specimens on display, new work by contemporary artists and university researchers, or get your hands on a specimen at one of the museum’s interactive events.

Hayward Gallery

Hayward Gallery, part of Southbank Centre on the South Bank of the Thames, has a long history of presenting work by the world’s most adventurous and innovative artists.

In addition to putting on major exhibitions and commissioning new artworks in the gallery, the Hayward also organises projects, installations and talks inside and outside other venues across Southbank Centre.

It is the only gallery in the world created in the Brutalist style of architecture – a striking concrete form that Londoners either love or hate.

Hayward Gallery has hosted striking exhibitions by Antony Gormley, Dan Flavin, Roy Lichtenstein, Tracey Emin as well as surveys of the Arts Council Collection.

National Army Museum

The National Army Museum has five state-of-the-art gallery spaces taking you on an interactive journey exploring the army’s character and impact from the British Civil War right up to the modern day. The galleries explore what is like to be a Soldier, the origins of the Army, how Battle tactics and technology has changed over time, how the Army influences Society and the impact the army has had around the world.

Queen’s House Greenwich

A visit to the Queen’s House is a must as part of any day out in Greenwich. Admire the classical design of the House – one of the most important buildings in English architecture. Step through the doors and find yourself in the impressive Great Hall. This perfectly proportioned cube has a striking marble floor, with a black-and-white geometric design originally laid in 1635.

See the spectacular new art commission by Turner Prize-winning artist Richard Wright. See the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I.

Take a selfie with the iconic, elegant Tulip Stairs, the first geometric self-supporting spiral stairs in Britain.

Pre-book a guided tour which will take you back in time to learn about the history of the House and Greenwich through the artwork on show.

The Queen’s House is part of Royal Museums Greenwich which includes the Royal Observatory, Cutty Sark, and the National Maritime Museum.

Royal Academy of Arts

The Royal Academy of Arts, founded in 1768, is the oldest fine arts institution in Britain. Situated in the heart of London’s West End on Piccadilly, it is universally renowned for hosting some of the capital’s finest temporary and touring exhibitions. Its annual Summer Exhibition, running since the institution first opened, displays select work from up and coming artists and by academicians.

London Zoo

Gaze at some of the world’s most incredible creatures at the permanent Land of the Lions exhibit in ZSL London Zoo.

Marvel at a pride of endangered Asiatic lions through the special windowless view of the big cat’s enclosure, as you enter through a crumbling ruin, the Lion’s Temple, designed to transport you back to the big cat’s homes in Sasan Gir, India.

Explore the replica Sasan Gir Train Station and discover a troop of lively Hanuman langur monkeys.

Experience a true thrill ride with live-action adventure as visitors help rangers deal with a “lion emergency” in the Gir Forest, and take part in a mock chase on a pedal bike with an Asiatic Lion.

Walkie Talkie Sky Garden

This unique building at 20 Fenchurch Street is more commonly known by its nickname “The Walkie Talkie” due to its unique shape, which resembles a walkie-talkie.

Rising majestically from its base in the City of London, 20 Fenchurch Street is a unique office block that hosts the Sky Garden restaurants and bars over its top floors.

Opened in 2014, the 34-floor building was designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly and cost more than £200 million to build.

You can visit Sky Garden, which is located across the top three floors of 20 Fenchurch Street. Here, you’ll find a stunning public garden complete with tropical plants, as well as observation decks, an open-air terrace, plus restaurants and bars.

To access Sky Garden, you must either book a table at one of its restaurants and bars or book a free ticket in advance of your visit. There are tickets available for the Walkie Talkie each day – these are released every Monday for the week commencing the following Monday.

Abbey Road

In April 1969, The Beatles came to Abbey Road recording studios to make their final album. The studio and famous zebra crossing have since become Grade II listed, and are still regarded as British music icons to this day.

The Abbey Road zebra crossing is famous worldwide as the spot captured on The Beatles Abbey Road album cover. The cover, which shows an image of each of The Beatles crossing Abbey Road, has become one of the most famous album sleeves of all time.

Replicate the “Fab Four’s” Abbey Road cover picture by grabbing three friends and walking on The Beatles crossing on Abbey Road – but remember the road is in constant use by road users.

Battersea Power Station

Discover a bustling foodie hub at the iconic Battersea Power Station.

A Grade II-listed architectural masterpiece, the power station operated until 1983. The Battersea Power Station chimneys – with their iconic silhouette – featured on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals, as well as in the Beatles’ film Help!, in some episodes of Doctor Who, and in many international movies.

Pick your favourite Battersea Power Station restaurant from a wide choice of inviting destinations, including ramen from Tonkotsu; Francesco Mazzei’s Italian restaurant, Fiume; Wright Brothers’ seafood bar; and sleek Indian restaurant, Cinnamon Kitchen.

London’s Big Ben

The Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower, commonly called Big Ben, are among London’s most iconic landmarks and must-see London attractions. Technically, Big Ben is the name given to the massive bell inside the clock tower, which weighs more than 13 tons (13,760 kg).

The clock tower looks spectacular at night when the four clock faces are illuminated.

Westminster Abbey

Like the Pantheon Crypt in Paris, where you can see the tombs and memorials to great figures from history, Westminster Abbey is a popular attraction to peruse the graves, tablets, busts and stone dedications. In fact, seventeen monarchs are buried here, along with dukes, countesses and history’s ‘celebs’ (Darwin, Dickens, Hardy, etc). Founded by Benedictine monks in 960 AD, there have also been 16 royal weddings here and every single British coronation has taken place within the Abbey’s walls since 1066.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Iconic though St Paul’s may be, the Cathedral as we know it today is in fact version six, at least. Mark five was razed to the ground by the Great Fire of London in 1666, mark three was also destroyed by fire in 1087 and mark four fell to ruins under Henry VIII’s leadership. Thankfully Sir Christopher Wren’s design, which was completed in 1708, survived 12 monarchs and two world wars. If you’ve paid for main admission you’ll be treated to an introductory talk before being taken on a 90 minute tour.

Afternoon Tea at the Ritz

An occasion to enjoy delicate finger sandwiches, dainty cakes and the tinkling of shiny silver teapots in the gold and white splendour of the Ritz Hotel’s Palm Court. It’s so popular that you can book sittings from 11.30am-7.30pm – not strictly afternoon, but all accompanied by the delicate sounds of a pianist, harpist or string quartet.

Kensington Palace

Where William & Kate hang their hats.

This abode and tourist attraction has a chic style: it played host to the most fashionable salons in Georgian times, was home to Queen Victoria in her youth, then to sassy Princess Margaret and then to classy Princess Diana. Now the main palace is a pretty visitor magnet with tranquil gardens to wander.

To be dazzled by the outfits in the ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’ exhibition.

Churchill War Rooms

A secret, secure bunker, tucked behind Downing Street and Parliament Square, where Churchill and his cabinet could monitor how World War II was going, receive intelligence and give orders. It’s the little details that give the biggest impression, from a daily-updated weather noticeboard to the scratch marks on Churchill’s chair (caused by his ring on a stressed day).

For history lovers to see the rooms just as they were left after 1945.

National Gallery

A huge art museum right on Trafalgar Square that’s free to enter. Perfect, whether you’ve got ten minutes in your lunch-break to check out Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ or time to wander the entire, glorious collection of Western European paintings from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Check out the Friday Lates for after-hours access to exhibitions, creative workshops and life drawing sessions.

National Portrait Gallery

Portraits don’t have to be stuffy. The National Portrait Gallery has everything from oil paintings of stiff-backed royals to photos of soccer stars and gloriously unflattering political caricatures. The portraits of musicians, scientists, artists, philanthropists and celebrities are arranged in chronological order from the top to the bottom of the building.

At the top of the escalator up from the main foyer are the earliest works, portraits of Tudor and Stuart royals and notables. On the same floor, the eighteenth-century collection features Georgian writers and artists, with one room devoted to the influential Kit-Cat Club of Whig (leftish) intellectuals, Congreve and Dryden among them. More famous names here include Wren and Swift.

The Duveen Extension contains Regency greats, military men such as Wellington and Nelson, as well as Byron, Wordsworth and other Romantics. The first floor is devoted to the Victorians (Dickens, Brunel, Darwin) and, in the Duveen Extension, the twentieth century. And if you’ve ever wanted to see a blurry painting of Ed Sheeran, and God knows we all have, the NPG is the place to be.

But when you’re done wondering how someone could possibly get hold of that much ginger paint, enjoy the rest of the collection, it’s all better than that one painting, promise.

Thames RIB Experience

Forget the river buses. If you want some excitement on the Thames – the kind that 007 himself would encourage – step aboard the RIB. This ‘rigid inflatable boat’ will have you hurtling up and down the river in no time with 740 horse power behind you and ‘V8’ twin turbo thrust. No, we don’t know what that means either, but we do know that the RIB can do speeds of up to 30 knots (roughly 35 mph). It’s a pure adrenaline experience.

Journeys range from 20-minute blasts to a full 75 minutes. The former either takes you from Tower Milenium Pier past The Shard, Tower of London and HMS Belfast or from The O2 Arena past the Thames Flood Barrier and Greenwich. The longest trip includes the lot. It truly is the quickest, most thrilling way to travel the Thames.

Life jackets and waterproof clothing is provided, and all ages are welcome, but there is have a minimum weight requirement of three stones (15kg).

National Theatre

Arguably the greatest theatre in the world, the Royal National Theatre is also one of London’s most recognisable landmarks and perhaps this country’s foremost example of brutalist architecture. It boasts three auditoriums – the epic, ampitheatre-style Olivier, the substantial end-on space Lyttelton and the Dorfman, a smaller venue for edgier work.

It’s got a firm foothold on the West End, thanks to transferring shows like ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’. In summer, it spills out onto Southbank with its River Stage line-up of outdoor events. And its NT Live programme beams its greatest hits to cinemas across the globe.

NT Live is just one of the initiatives to issue forth from the golden reign of former artistic director Nicholas Hytner, which saw a canny mix of modernised classics, popular new writing, and a splash of hip experimental work fill out the houses night after night. These days, Hytner’s successor Rufus Norris calls the shots, with a programme that’s stuck with many Hytner fundamentals but offered an edgier, more international spin, with a run of ambitious, experimental and often divisive works.

Royal Albert Hall

Built as a memorial to Queen Victoria’s husband in 1871, the Royal Albert Hall’s vast rotunda was once described by the monarch as looking like ‘the British constitution’. It has been the venue for the (now BBC) Proms since 1941, despite acoustics that do orchestras few favours.

The Royal Albert Hall’s splendid exterior is matched by the regal red-and-gold interior which is crowned by a domed stained-glass skylight. Occasional classical concerts are held throughout the year – look out for recitals on the Willis pipe organ. Other key events in its calendar include pop and comedy gigs (including the annual Teenage Cancer Trust shows), and circus extravaganzas from the likes of Cirque du Soleil.

Secret History Tours

Tower of London

Experience London’s multifarious history, from the flamboyant to the frightful, with a nosey around this eleventh-century fortress

While it sits low in the London skyline, the Tower of London remains one of the capital’s best and most well known historical attractions. Plus it’s situated next to the iconic Tower Bridge, so you’d be hard pushed to miss this medieval spectacle.

Exhaustively huge throngs of people visit daily, but don’t let that put you off, because if you can handle them then you can delight at the sight of the crown of Queen Victoria or the prodigious codpiece of King Henry VIII (whatever floats your boat more).

This towering fortress goes back over 900 years, which covers a hell of a lot of torture, prisoners, weapons and exotic animals. No you haven’t misread that last bit: up until the closure of the menagerie in 1830 many beasts were kept at the Tower, including King John’s lions and Henry III’s three leopards, a polar bear and an African elephant.

Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House is secure in its status as one of the world’s great opera houses, pulling in crowds and plaudits while, a few streets away, the London Coliseum’s footing is a bit less secure. It’s benefited from a massively ambitious 1999 refurb, which extended and opened out its premises to include the restored Floral Hall (an elegant Victorian iron and glass structure) and a new studio space, the Linbury. Subsequent updates have turned the front of house areas around its massive auditorium into gleaming white, luxurious restaurants and bars where opera buffs and balletomanes alike can scoff a cucumber sandwich or two.

There’s been a theatre on the ROH’s current site since 1728, when audiences flocked to Covent Garden to hear new works by Handel. The current Royal Opera House is its third incarnation; it opened in 1858, with an imposing NeoClassical facade that mimicked the design of its predecessors. Its horseshoe-shaped, 2,256-seater auditorium is one of the West End’s largest, and offers a traditional, imposing setting for both operas and ballet spectacles (although the sightlines from the cheap gallery seats might leave you admiring the dance’s legs and not much more).

Kew Gardens

There’s an impressive 250 years (and counting) of history in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, but they’re also paving the way for the future with not one, but two national bases for research into botanical studies. While you’re strolling through the Victorian Palm House or seeking out the luscious flora (including the giant, stinking Titan Arum in the Princess of Wales Conservatory), scientists are working away in offices and laboratories behind the scenes.

Nowadays the Gardens stand at a whopping 300 acres, but they started out a little more humbly in the back yard of what was once the royal palace – favoured most by George III. There’s loads to see here, whether you like green stuff or not. The grand Victorian glasshouses remain a favourite with visitors, one of which (Temperate House) holds the record for the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse. Plus it’s just about to reopen (at the beginning of May 2018) following a five year makeover. And if you want to explore elsewhere? Why not take a trip to the Tree Top Walkway? At 18 metres high, this trek through the leaves offers fab views of the grounds.

Somerset House

The original Somerset House was a Tudor palace commissioned by the Duke of Somerset. In 1775 it was demolished to make way for an entirely new building, effectively the first purpose-built office block in the world.

Today it houses a formidable art gallery (the wonderful Courtauld), a beautiful fountain court, a terraced café and a classy restaurant. Having replaced the Hermitage Rooms and Gilbert Collection on the river side of the building in April 2008, the new Embankment Galleries explore connections between art, architecture and design with a series of temporary exhibitions; downstairs a ceremonial Thames barge illustrates the venue’s history.

In summer, children never tire of running through the choreographed fountains. Family workshops take place at weekends and holidays, and in recent years Somerset House has hosted an outdoor film screen in summer and a wonderfully atmospheric ice-rink in winter.

Tate Modern

The Tate Modern is one of London – and the world’s – most iconic art galleries. As well as having an international collection of modern and contemporary artworks that few can beat, it’s a historic piece of architecture worth visiting in its own right.

It’s hard to imagine how empty London’s modern art scene must have been before this place opened, but we’re sure glad it did. Tate Modern is one of four Tate venues in the UK, and it welcomes a stonking 5 million visitors through its doors each year.

HMS Belfast

Europe’s largest cruiser from WWII, HMS Belfast is now a floating naval museum, a landmark on the Thames near Tower Bridge, with its nine huge decks, including gun turrets, punishment rooms and an operating theatre. ‘HMS Belfast in War and Peace’ tells the story of the HMS Belfast from her inception in the mid-1930s to the decision to save her for the nation in 1971.

Original artefacts, documents, plans and drawings (as well as contemporary paintings, photographs, models and audio-visual displays) give a detailed account of the life and times of the warship and the men who served in her.

Under the care of the Imperial War Museum, HMS Belfast offers an immersive experience of what life would have been like for members of the 950-strong crew. As one of the most significant battleships to survive the second world war, you’ll learn all about the ships history, from Arctic convoys to D-Day, its role in the Cold War and beyond.

The HMS Belfast also makes an unlikely playground for children, who tear around its cramped complex with ease.

London Transport Museum

From the entertaining entrance, where audiovisual recordings of transport systems in New York, Tokyo, Paris, Shanghai and New Delhi, as well as London, are shown on screens, you are whisked by lift to the second floor – and back to 1800.

The capital’s first licensed public transport was the sedan chair, an example of which is on show, but the gorgeous horse-drawn omnibus, from 1805, its painted, flower-bordered designs announcing still-familiar routes, is a bigger draw. Progress leads you ever onwards, to the building of our first passenger railway – from London Bridge to Greenwich in 1833.

A family play zone for children aged 0-7, All Aboard, features a fleet of mini vehicles to climb into and play on. Kids can repair a little tube train, sail the ‘Thames Nipper’, play in the lost property office and try musical instruments on busking spots.

The Baby DLR features an interactive wall and building blocks to keep infants entertained. Visitors of all ages get the chance to sit in the driver’s cab of a red bus and guide a Northern Line simulator through tunnels and up to platforms, so big kids will have plenty of fun, too.

Royal Observatory

Overlooking the rest of the Royal Museums from the peak of the park, the northern section of this attraction of two halves looks at Greenwich’s horoligical connection.

The Astronomy Centre on the south site contains the free-entry Weller Astronomy Galleries, where visitors can marvel at a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite before popping into a star show at the Peter Harrison Planetarium. For those with a keen interest in space will appreciate the 120-seater planetarium’s architecture, which cleverly reflects its astrological position: the semi-submerged cone tilts at 51.5 degrees, the latitude of Greenwich, pointing to the north star, and its reflective disc is aligned with the celestial equator.

British Museum

When the British Museum was opened in 1759 it was the first national museum to be open to the public anywhere in the world. It was free to visit (and still is) so that any ‘studious and curious persons’ could pass through its doors and look upon the strange objects collected from all over the globe.

As soon as you walk into the magnificent glass-roofed Great Court you can hear the buzz of students, tourists and Londoners who have just popped in for lunch among the treasures. The British Museum is a working organisation carrying out research and conservation and that’s reflected in the breadth of the collection and the way in which it’s displayed.

The galleries are divided by location and periods in history – Ancient Iran, Greece, China from 5000BC onwards, Roman Britain and so on – and if you’re overwhelmed by the choice, follow one of the free 20-minute spotlight tours led by the guides every Friday, or check one of the free exhibitions dedicated to a specific theme or works of art. There are daily free activities for kids, too, including crafts, activity trails and digital workshops.

Hyde Park

At 1.5 miles long and about a mile wide, Hyde Park is one of the largest of London’s Royal Parks. The land was appropriated in 1536 from the monks of Westminster Abbey by Henry VIII for hunting deer and, despite opening to the public in the early 1600s, was only frequented by the upper echelons of society. London’s oldest boating lake, The Serpentine, is at the bottom of Hyde Park. It’s not especially beautiful but is home to ducks, coots, swans and tufty-headed grebes, and is also of great historic interest.

It was a hotspot for mass demonstrations in the nineteenth century and remains so today. The legalisation of public assembly in the park led to the establishment of Speakers’ Corner in 1872 (close to Marble Arch tube), where political and religious ranters – sane and otherwise – still have the floor. The park perimeter is popular with skaters, as well as with bike riders and horse riders.

If you’re exploring on foot and the vast expanses defeat you, look out for the Liberty Drives (May-Oct). Driven by volunteers (there’s no fare, but offer a donation if you can), these electric buggies pick up groups of sightseers and ferry them around. The Joy of Life fountain, next to Aldford Street North Gate, alongside Park Lane, is a popular spot for splashing around in when the weather heats up.

Highgate Cemetery

A day out a cemetery may not seem like everyone’s cup of tea, but for Highgate Cemetery, you might want to make an exception. Following an 1832 Act that encouraged the building of private cemeteries outside of the City of London, seven major cemeteries were built – including Highgate, in 1839.

You can go and witness Highgate Cemetery in all its crumbling glory. Several of its catacombs are Grade II-listed (English Heritage has even pronounced the site as a whole Grade I-listed), and there’s a number of famous remains within the cemetery’s grounds, including poet Christina Rossetti and architect Sir Lawrence Weaver.

The East Cemetery is where visitors may roam freely (once they’ve paid the admission fee), and try to find Karl Marx’s grave hidden away. The West Cemetery is only accessible by guided tour, which must be booked in advance.

Museum of London

The history of London, from prehistoric times to the present is told in the Museum of London through reconstructed interiors and street scenes, alongside displays of original artefacts found during the museum’s archaeological digs.

Check the website before your visit as a packed programme of temporary exhibitions, talks, walks and children’s events is central to the life of the Museum of London.

Natural History Museum

Both a research institution and a fabulous museum, the Natural History Museum opened in Alfred Waterhouse’s purpose-built Romanesque cathedral of nature on the Cromwell Road in 1881. Joined by the splendid Darwin Centre extension in 2009, the original building still looks quite magnificent. The pale blue and terracotta façade just about prepares you for the natural wonders within.

Since 1905, London’s most beloved dinosaur, Dippy the Diplodocus, reigned in the Hintze Hall. The 26-metre-long plaster-cast replica of a Diplodocus skeleton embarked on a nationwide tour in 2017, beginning on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast (where it’s currently in residence) and finishing in Norwich in late 2020. While Dippy’s off on holiday, a diving Blue Whale skeleton has taken up his spot.

Regent’s Park

Regent’s Park is one of London’s most popular open spaces, covering 410 acres in north-west London. Originally a hunting ground for Henry VIII, it remained a royals-only retreat long after it was formally designed by John Nash in 1811; only in 1845 did it open to the public as a spectacular shared space.

Attractions run from the animal odours and noises of London Zoo to the enchanting Open Air Theatre. Various food and music festivals pitch up here over the summer and rowing boat hire, bandstands, beautiful rose gardens (with some 30,000 roses and 400 varieties), tennis courts, ice-cream stands and eateries (including the delightful Garden Café) complete the picture.

Regent’s Park has several playgrounds, but the most interesting is at Hanover Gate where, in 2010, a timber treehouse area for older kids was built within a large sandpit next to the boating lake and existing playground.

St James’ Park

St James’s Park was founded as a deer park for the royal occupants of St James’s Palace, and remodelled by John Nash on the orders of George IV.

The central lake is home to numerous species of wildfowl, including pelicans that have been kept here since the 17th century, when the Russian ambassador donated several of the bag-jawed birds to Charles II.

The pelicans are fed between 2.30pm and 3pm daily, though they have been known to supplement their diet at other times of the day with the occasional pigeon. The bridge over the lake offers very snappable views of Buckingham Palace (head that way and you’ll see Green Park, the beginning of a relaxing stroll that will take you under trees as far as Hyde Park Corner).

Along the north side of the park, the Mall connects Buckingham Palace with Trafalgar Square. It looks like a classic processional route, but the Mall was actually laid out as a pitch for Charles II to play ‘paille-maille’ (an early version of croquet imported from France) after the pitch at Pall Mall became too crowded. On the south side of the St James’s Park, Wellington Barracks contains the Guards Museum; to the east, Horse Guards contains the Household Cavalry Museum.

Science Museum

The Science Museum features seven floors of educational and entertaining exhibits, including the Apollo 10 command module and a flight simulator. The Wellcome Wing showcases developments in contemporary science, medicine and technology.

The Medical History Gallery in the museum’s attic contains a substantial collection of medical history treasures. Pattern Pod introduces under-eights to the importance of patterns in contemporary science and Launch Pad is a popular hands-on gallery where children can explore basic scientific principles.

Exhibits in the Exploring Space galleries include the three-metre-high, 600kg Spacelab 2 X-ray telescope that was flown on British space missions and full-scale models of the Huygens Titan probe and Beagle 2 Mars Lander. The Clockmakers’ Collection, previously held at the Guildhall, is the oldest display of clocks and watches in the world, with most of the 1250 exhibits dating from between 1600 and 1850.

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square – with its gargantuan, 52-metre-high Nelson’s Column – is one of London’s most iconic public spaces and perhaps the most ostentatious reminder of the nation’s former imperial might, commemorating Britain’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars. It was once notorious for its large pigeon population, but like Louis XIV, they’ve now been seen off.

Victoria & Albert Museum

It comes to something when a museum can lay claim to having been opened as Queen Victoria’s last public engagement. In 1899, the current premises of the V&A enjoyed that privilege. It has gone on to become one of the world’s – let alone London’s – most magnificent museums.

There are some 150 grand galleries over seven floors. They contain countless pieces of furniture, ceramics, sculpture, paintings, posters, jewellery, metalwork, glass, textiles and dress, spanning several centuries. You could run through the highlights for the rest of this guide, but key artefacts include the seven Raphael Cartoons, painted in 1515 as tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel; the finest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy; the Ardabil carpet, the world’s oldest and arguably most splendid floor covering, in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art; and the Luck of Edenhall, a 13th-century glass beaker from Syria.

Southbank Centre

Located by the river Thames, the centre offers sweeping views of the capital from the London Eye to St Paul’s Cathedral. Southbank Centre is a unique metropolitan arts centre, with acres of creative space and an extraordinary history. Includes the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery. Some exhibitions require tickets.

Royal Museums Greenwich

Royal Museums Greenwich boasts a magnificent collection of four world-class attractions in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can enjoy free entry to the Queen’s House and its stunning displays of artwork, as well as the National Maritime Museum, where you’ll discover Britain’s fascinating seafaring history.