16 Things to Do in London for First Timers

16 Things to Do in London for First Timers

Exploring the vibrant city of London for the first time can be a truly remarkable experience, filled with an array of unforgettable sights and activities. From iconic landmarks to hidden gems, this guide on ‘Things to Do in London for First Timers’ is designed to help you discover the best that the city has to offer.

Whether you’re marveling at the historic splendor of Buckingham Palace, taking a leisurely cruise along the Thames, or catching a dazzling show in the West End, London promises a bountiful selection of experiences. Dive into this article to discover the essential activities that every first-time visitor to London should experience, ensuring your trip is well planned and memorable.

16 Things to Do in London for First Timers – A Complete Guide

 

Quick links for a perfect vacation

#1 Explore the Royal History at Buckingham Palace 

Discover the majesty of Buckingham Palace, the venerable and grand residence of the British monarchy. Nestled in the heart of London, the palace is a pinnacle of royal tradition and architectural grandeur. During the summer months, visitors are granted the rare opportunity to explore its opulent state rooms — a collection of 19 lavishly decorated chambers where the royals entertain guests for ceremonial and official events.

Buckingham Palace boasts an impressive array of 775 rooms. This includes not only the state rooms but also 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 bedrooms for staff, 92 offices for royal duties, and 78 bathrooms, each echoing centuries of history and the evolution of British royalty.

A highlight of any visit is witnessing the Changing of the Guard ceremony. This iconic ceremony is a vivid display of British military precision and pageantry, complete with foot guards in traditional bearskin hats and red tunics, all synchronized to the stirring rhythms of a live military band. The ceremony encapsulates the pomp and circumstance famously associated with the UK and offers a glimpse into the ceremonial duties of the Household Division. The Changing of The King’s Guard takes place in front of Buckingham Palace at 10:45 am and lasts for about 45 minutes. It is recommended to come here earlier to secure a spot as it gets very busy.

You might also enjoy this tour Royal London Walking Tour with Royal Mews or Buckingham Palace State Rooms

#2 Take a Stroll through the Historic Westminster

The Palace of Westminster stands as a stunning architectural feat, home to the two houses of the UK Parliament—the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Known also as the Houses of Parliament, its oldest part, Westminster Hall, dates back to 1097 and has witnessed innumerable pivotal events in British history. The building’s striking Gothic revival architecture, designed by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, is immediately recognizable worldwide, especially for the iconic clock tower, Big Ben. This clock tower, officially named Elizabeth Tower, holds the second largest four-faced chiming clock in the world and is often used as a symbol of London and the United Kingdom.

You might also enjoy this tour: Exclusive Houses of Parliament Tour & Skip the Line Westminster Abbey Tour .

Westminster Abbey, a magnificent Gothic church and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is another cornerstone of British heritage located just a stone’s throw away. It has been the coronation church since 1066, hosting the crowning of English and later British monarchs. The Abbey has also been the illustrious venue for 16 royal weddings, including Queen Elizabeth II’s in 1947 and Prince William’s in 2011. Inside, visitors can explore over a thousand years of history, view the resting places of kings, queens, statesmen, poets, and philosophers, and admire some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in the UK.

Together, the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey not only dominate the landscape but also encapsulate centuries of British traditions and the ongoing story of a nation. Visiting Westminster offers a unique glimpse into the ceremonial grandeur and the everyday workings of British political life, making it a quintessential stop for anyone wanting to understand the UK’s past and present.

| Recommended Tour

Experience the best of London’s iconic landmarks in this comprehensive one-day tour. Explore the grandeur of Westminster Abbey, the historical Tower of London with access to the Crown Jewels, and the majestic Buckingham Palace. Cross the picturesque Tower Bridge and enjoy a scenic Thames boat trip, all while accompanied by an expert local guide.

This small-group tour ensures a personalized experience, with all logistics handled for you—leaving you free to immerse in the stories of the city, capture memorable photos, and engage with your knowledgeable guide. Perfect for those looking to experience London’s essential highlights efficiently and with local insight.

Click here to book the London In a Day: Tower of London tour, Westminster Abbey & River Cruise

#3 Visit the Tower of London 

The Tower of London, is one of London’s most imposing historic monuments that has stood guard over the city since the 11th century. Initially constructed by William the Conqueror in 1066 as a symbol of Norman power, the Tower has fulfilled many roles—fortress, royal palace, prison, armory, and treasury, as well as serving as the home of the Royal Mint and the public record office.

Today, the Tower of London is perhaps best known for housing the Crown Jewels, a breathtaking collection of regalia, ceremonial swords, orbs, and crowns that are still used by the King in national ceremonies such as the coronation. These jewels are not only symbols of monarchy but also works of art and history, meticulously crafted and richly adorned with some of the world’s most precious gems.

A visit to the Tower also offers a glimpse into the darker aspects of British history. It has been the scene of many dramatic events, including the imprisonments and executions of figures such as Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. Legends and ghost stories abound, with many visitors keen to uncover tales of the spectral figures said to roam its grounds.

The Ceremony of Keys at the Tower of London

Adding to the historical ambiance are the iconic ceremonies that bookend each day. The Opening Ceremony, known as the Ceremony of the Keys, is held each morning, and involves a traditional unlocking of the gates of the Tower.

| Recommended Tour

Step into the crisp morning air and experience a rare privilege afforded to few—the Opening Ceremony at the Tower of London. As dawn breaks over the ancient stones, join an intimate group of early risers gathered to witness a ritual steeped in history and tradition. The Ceremony of the Keys, performed in the morning, is a captivating event where the Chief Yeoman Warder, clad in an imposing Tudor Watchcoat, is escorted by the guard to unlock the main gates of the Tower.

Participating in this ceremony offers more than just a tour; it’s an immersive experience where you feel a part of the Tower’s ongoing story. Wandering through the empty courtyards and along the silent watchtowers, you luxuriate in the tranquility that comes before the day’s crowds descend.

For a brief moment, the Tower of London belongs only to you and your thoughts, allowing you to connect with history on a personal level in a way that few ever will.

In the evening, the Chief Yeoman Warder, dressed in Tudor Watchcoat, performs the ancient Ceremony of the Keys. He is escorted by the Yeoman Guard to lock the main gates while guardsmen sound a bugle. This ritual, which has been carried out uninterrupted for over 700 years, symbolizes the perpetual security of this historic fortress.

The Tower of London is not just a monument but a living museum, offering countless stories and a deep sense of history that continues to captivate and intrigue visitors from around the world. Whether you’re drawn by the allure of the Crown Jewels or the eerie charm of its legendary hauntings, the Tower promises a deeply enriching experience.

#4 Walk Across Tower Bridge & Along the Thames

Tower Bridge, an iconic symbol of London, captivates visitors with its stunning Victorian Gothic architecture and unique engineering. Completed in 1894, this combined bascule and suspension bridge not only serves as a vital crossing over the Thames but also as a point of interest for its historical and aesthetic significance. At night, the bridge transforms with beautiful lighting that enhances its architectural details and the river’s charm.

At the Tower Bridge Exhibition

For those intrigued by engineering and history, the Tower Bridge Exhibition is a must-visit. Located within the bridge’s twin towers, the exhibition offers a journey into the bridge’s storied past, complete with access to the original steam engines that powered the bridge’s opening. You can also enjoy breathtaking panoramic views from the walkways, a perfect spot for witnessing the bridge’s bascule arms in action or simply taking in the cityscape.

#5 Experience the Views from the London Eye

The London Eye remains an iconic fixture on the South Bank of the Thames, offering breathtaking panoramic views of London’s expansive skyline. Since its grand opening in 2000, it has been celebrated as the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, although it has since been surpassed in height by newer constructions. Today, the London Eye ranks as one of the tallest in Europe but falls behind others globally, such as the High Roller in Las Vegas and the Ain Dubai, which currently holds the title as the world’s tallest Ferris wheel.

Despite these newer giants, the London Eye continues to captivate with its unique 360-degree views of the British capital, providing a memorable 30-minute rotation that offers visitors an unparalleled glimpse of London’s historic sites and modern landmarks (you can also book the Champagne experience which includes priority boarding through a fast track entrance and a chilled glass of Pommery Brut Royal Champagne ). Its central location and the spectacular perspective it offers ensure it remains a must-visit attraction for both first-timers and returning visitors to London.

#6 Wander Through the British Museum

The British Museum stands as a cornerstone of cultural exploration in London, showcasing an impressive collection that spans over two million years of human history. Home to world-renowned treasures like the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian mummies, the Elgin Marbles, and the Sutton Hoo ship burial relics, the museum offers a profound journey through ancient civilizations. With free admission, it attracts more than six million visitors annually, making it one of the most visited cultural institutions in the world. The British Museum provides an unparalleled opportunity to explore vast collections of art and artifacts, making it a must-visit for anyone interested in global history and culture. You might also enjoy booking an Afternoon Tea at the British Museum or the British Museum VIP Private Access – Alone with the Rosetta Stone

#7 Discover the Charm of Covent Garden

The interiors of the Covent Garden Market with Large Bells and ornaments in red and gold suspended from the ceiling

Covent Garden, once the site of a bustling fruit and vegetable market, has transformed into one of London’s most vibrant and popular districts. This lively area is known for its eclectic mix of street performers, boutique shops, and gourmet eateries, offering something for every visitor. As a hub of entertainment and shopping, Covent Garden also features several theatres, including the prestigious Royal Opera House, the home of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. Additionally, the London Transport Museum, nestled in the heart of Covent Garden, offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of London’s transport systems, from horse-drawn carriages to the modern Underground. The unique combination of arts, culture, commerce, and history makes Covent Garden a dynamic destination that captures the essence of London’s diverse character.

#8 Catch a West End Show

London’s West End is a cornerstone of global theatre, comparable in prestige and variety to Broadway in New York. This iconic theatre district boasts over 40 venues, presenting a wide array of performances that cater to all tastes—from timeless classics like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Misérables” to groundbreaking modern musicals such as “Hamilton” and “Wicked.”

The lineup also includes the exuberant “Mamma Mia!” with its catchy ABBA tunes and the visually stunning “Moulin Rouge,” where spectacular choreography and dazzling costumes recreate the extravagant atmosphere of Parisian nightlife.

Additionally, the district offers unique cultural experiences like “The Lion King,” which combines spectacular costumes and innovative puppetry. Whether you’re a seasoned theatre lover or a newcomer, the West End promises a memorable experience that epitomizes the best of London’s rich performing arts scene and is definitely a must do when in London.

Purchasing Tickets and Finding Deals: Tickets for West End shows can be purchased online through official theatre websites, at box offices directly, or via reputable ticketing platforms that offer a range of seating options and prices. For those looking for deals, last-minute tickets can often be found at a discount.

#9 Explore the Markets

Dive into the bustling world of London’s markets, each offering a unique slice of the city’s diverse culture and culinary scene. Camden Market, a renowned destination for those seeking alternative fashion, art, and eclectic food stalls, stands out as a collection of markets rather than a singular entity, providing a vibrant atmosphere that captures the creative spirit of its visitors.

For a more traditional experience, head to Borough Market, one of London’s oldest and most famous food markets. Here, food enthusiasts can indulge in gourmet delights such as artisanal cheeses, freshly baked breads, and an array of other fine foods offered by seasoned vendors. You might be interested in booking this Ultimate London Food Tour: Borough Market & Southwark.

#10 Relax in Hyde Park: London’s Green Oasis

Hyde Park, one of London’s largest and most celebrated parks, spans an impressive 350 acres, offering a peaceful retreat in the heart of the city. This vast green space is perfect for a variety of recreational activities, whether you’re taking a leisurely walk, enjoying a boat ride on the Serpentine Lake, or simply soaking in the sun on a pleasant day. The park is also a hub for outdoor activities including swimming, cycling, and even attending live concerts, providing something for everyone.

Notably, Hyde Park is home to several historical and cultural landmarks, such as Speaker’s Corner, known for its tradition of public speeches and debates, and the touching Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. With its combination of natural beauty and rich historical significance, Hyde Park offers visitors a unique opportunity to unwind and explore one of London’s most iconic green spaces.

#11 Shop at Harrods

Harrods is not just one of the world’s largest and most famous luxury department stores; it’s a symbol of high-end retail at its most extravagant. Occupying a 5-acre site in the heart of London, Harrods boasts over 1 million square feet of selling space spread across 330 departments. The store’s motto, “Omnia Omnibus Ubique,” which translates to “All Things for All People, Everywhere,” perfectly encapsulates the diverse and high-quality offerings available.

From personal shopping services and a dedicated concierge to an array of 28 restaurants serving international cuisines ranging from high tea to tapas and sushi, Harrods caters to every whim.

A visit to Harrods is an experience in itself, highlighted by unique features such as the Egyptian Escalator, an opulently decorated set of escalators with an ancient Egyptian theme, and the annual Christmas window displays that draw visitors from around the world. Whether you come to shop or simply to soak in the luxurious atmosphere, Harrods offers a glimpse into the opulent side of London, making it a must-visit destination for both shopping enthusiasts and curious travelers alike.

#12 Explore Leicester Square: London’s Premiere Playground for Cinema and Celebration

Leicester Square is the beating heart of London’s entertainment district, pulsating with energy and excitement. Located in the West End, it’s best known as the venue for glamorous film premieres and the beloved home of major cinema complexes. This lively square is always buzzing with activity, making it a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. The square itself is surrounded by a variety of entertainment options, from world-class cinemas showcasing the latest blockbusters and indie films to theaters presenting captivating live performances.

Cultural enthusiasts will appreciate the art installations and statues that dot the square, including tributes to famous artists like William Shakespeare, Mr Bean, Harry Potter among others. During the holiday season, Leicester Square transforms into a festive paradise with a traditional Christmas market and a classic Spiegeltent hosting a variety of shows.

#13 Live The Harry Potter Experience

If you are a Harry Potter fan then I must recommend this Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter & London Walking Tour – which I recently took with Walks ( I have tried many of their tours in different cities ) and absolutely loved the experience.  The tour starts with an introduction to Leicester Square and other prominent landmarks (Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Bridge, Palace Theatre, Kings Cross Station) followed by a 4 hour visit to the Warner Bros Studios which is an hour outside of London.

It felt like stepping through a portal directly into the heart of the wizarding world. This extraordinary experience not only unveils the magic behind the curtains but also allows fans to walk the very ground that brought the beloved Harry Potter series to life. Here’s a glimpse of what enchantments await fans:

Iconic Sets: You can wander through the Great Hall of Hogwarts, stroll down Diagon Alley, and explore the depths of the Forbidden Forest. Each set is preserved meticulously, offering an immersive experience that captures the essence of the films.

Props and Costumes: The tour showcases thousands of authentic props and costumes used in the Harry Potter films. From Harry’s Nimbus 2000 to the intricate horcruxes, each piece tells a story of cinematic history.

Special Effects and Animatronics: Discover the technical wizardry involved in creating the films’ magical effects. The tour reveals how creatures like Aragog and the Basilisk were brought to life through animatronics and CGI.

Green Screen Experiences: Ever wondered what it’s like to ride a broomstick? You can experience the green screen technology used in the flying scenes, complete with a photo opportunity to capture them soaring over London or playing Quidditch.

Butterbeer: A visit wouldn’t be complete without tasting the wizarding world’s favorite drink. The tour offers a chance to sample the famous Butterbeer and even take home a souvenir tankard.

Gringotts Wizarding Bank: One of the newer additions to the tour is the Gringotts Bank set, where visitors can walk through the grand banking hall and even see the Lestrange vault. Even if you aren’t a Harry Potter fan (I have to confess I haven’t read the books nor seen the films), I am sure that you will love the experience.

#14 Enjoy an Afternoon Tea at The Ritz

Indulge in the timeless tradition of afternoon tea at The Ritz, one of London’s most iconic hotels. Known for its opulent settings and impeccable service, The Ritz offers a luxurious afternoon tea experience in the elegant surroundings of The Palm Court. The experience includes a selection of finely cut sandwiches, freshly baked scones with clotted cream and preserves, and a mouthwatering range of pastries and teacakes. All these are served alongside a choice of several loose-leaf teas from around the world.

The atmosphere is enhanced by the gentle music of a pianist or a classical harpist, making it a perfect setting for a special occasion or a leisurely afternoon. Smart attire adds to the sense of occasion, adhering to The Ritz’s dress code and upholding a high standard of elegance. For more details visit the official website.

If you would like to experience a less formal afternoon tea, here are a few different options: London: Classic Afternoon Tea Bus Tour, or Afternoon Tea River Cruise on the Thames

#15 Take a Photo at the Trafalgar Square: A Historic Heart of London

Trafalgar Square is not just the geographical center of London but also a symbolic epicenter of cultural and historical significance. This bustling square is renowned for its lively atmosphere and iconic landmarks, including Nelson’s Column, which towers at nearly 170 feet tall and is guarded by four lion statues at its base. The square was named to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar, a key victory during the Napoleonic Wars, and it continues to be a focal point for political gatherings and community celebrations. Flanked by impressive architectural marvels like the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square also hosts various events and performances throughout the year. Its spacious steps and central location make it a popular spot for tourists and locals alike to meet, relax, and soak in the rich history and vibrant energy of London.

#16 Join a Historic London Pubs Tour

Spending an afternoon delving into London’s storied ale history is a must for any visitor and definitely one of the top things to do in London. The city’s pub landscape, once boasting over 100,000 establishments in the early 20th century and now home to about 45,000. I ventured on the “Tastes, Tales & Traditional Ales” food tour, led by Shadow, a seasoned expert with an academic background in historic pubs, which significantly enhanced our exploration of this time-honored pub culture.

Our excursion kicked off in a 16th-century tavern with ties to Queen Elizabeth I, where we sampled the iconic London Pride ale. Not merely a local favorite, London Pride represents a piece of British heritage, brewed at Fuller’s Griffin Brewery in Chiswick since 1959 and named for the enduring ‘London Pride’ flower that sprouted in London’s post-war rubble. Accompanied by a classic pork pie with mustard and pickled onions, it was the perfect introduction.

We then made our way to a bar designed by Sir Christopher Wren, famed architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the warmth of the historical setting, I savored a glass of sparkling cider and traditional fish and chips.

Continuing down Fleet Street, we reached a pub rebuilt after the devastating Great Fire of 1666. Once frequented by notables such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Samuel Johnson, here I enjoyed a serving of crispy whitebait alongside a velvety, dark stout.

The tour’s final stop was a 17th-century pub where I relished a scotch egg paired with a pint of Portobello ale and participated in England’s cherished pub game. This delightful afternoon was more than a tasting tour; it was a wonderful immersion into the heart of London’s pub history, each stop imbuing a taste of the city’s ale and its storied past.

London has an extensive public transport system including the Underground (Tube), buses, and trains. The Oyster card is a cost-effective option for accessing all modes of public transport. For short distances, consider walking or renting a bike. Uber works well in London however the low speed limit (20mph) and traffic means that sometimes it is much faster to walk.

The currency used in London is the British Pound Sterling (GBP). Credit cards are widely accepted, and ATMs are readily available throughout the city, as well as currency exchange offices.

Yes, if your devices do not have Type G plugs (three rectangular pins). The standard voltage is 230V with a frequency of 50Hz.

Popular areas include Westminster for proximity to major sights, Soho for nightlife, South Kensington for museums, and Covent Garden for shopping and entertainment. I recently stayed at the Westmnister London Curio Collection by Hilton, a four star property with a great breakfast and a very convenient location. If you are looking for something more economical or high-end I recommend checking availability on Booking.com.

London is generally safe for tourists, but like any major city, it’s advisable to stay aware of your surroundings, especially at night, and keep valuables secure as there is a lot of pickpocketing going on in the city. It’s advisable to wear a smaller bag that you can keep in front of your body for added security. Backpacks can be easily opened unless you have special security locks, it happened to my mother, luckily they only pulled out a small pouch with 100GBP and not the main wallet.

London is quite multicultural and liberal; however, it’s polite to stand on the right on escalators, tip around 10-15% in restaurants, and queue orderly when required.

We hope that you found this guide on Things to Do in London for First Timers useful.

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