The Thames is the longest river in England, the second longest in the United Kingdom. It flows from the west in the Cotswolds, passing through Oxford and London, ending at the sea at Southend-on-Sea in Essex. As far up as Teddington on the western edge of London, the river is tidal. Once the lifeline of London trade and communication, it's still busy with boats: sightseeing boats and houseboats mainly.
Once the only way across the river was to ford it, then London Bridge was built by the Romans. Nowadays many bridges criss-cross the river, the pedestrian Millennium Bridge, Tower Bridge and Albert Bridge are among the prettiest.
The Thames is home to many species of fish and birds - particularly white swans which are to this day all still owned by the Queen. The river is also used by rowers and yachtsman but not swimmers - the water is not the cleanest.
Westminster Palace, home to the British Houses of Parliament, is right on the river Thames. A magnificent Neo-Gothic building dating from 1840, it's most recognizable from the clock tower at one end known as Big Ben. (In fact, Big Ben is actually the bell inside the tower.)
Parliament is made up of two houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords and both have their meeting chambers inside here. It is possible to sit and watch from the Visitors' Gallery if you like seeing grown men taunting each other with bad jokes. Once a year, the Queen puts on her crown, sits on her Throne in the House of Lords and officially opens Parliament.
Since it was officially opened on New Year's Eve 1999 (as part of the millennial celebrations), the London Eye has become one of London's most popular attractions. It has 32 sealed 'pod' capsules, fitting a total of 800 people, revolving on a huge Ferris wheel. One go-around takes half an hour with the wheel rotating at only twice the speed of a tortoise sprinting, so you can step on and off without the wheel needing to stop!
The London Eye is the fourth-tallest structure in London, so the far-reaching views over London are spectacular. On a clear day you can see as far as Windsor Castle. And the slow speed of the rotation means there's plenty of time to see everything and take lots of photos.
Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic sights in London. It was opened in 1894, designed to echo the nearby Tower of London although the two have no association except proximity. The bridge is a bascule bridge which means the span lifts to allow ships and yachts through headed for the Pool of London, the port area just upstream of Tower Bridge. River traffic takes priority over road traffic and cars have to wait when a boat wants to come through.
The bridge has two high towers suspended by wires from the land and linked by a high-level walkway between. This was designed for pedestrians to be able to cross the river even when the bridge was open and you can still walk across it today. A common confusion is that Tower Bridge is actually called London Bridge but in fact that is the next one upstream, a much plainer bridge.
Dating from the 1820s and named after Admiral Nelson's last great victory, Trafalgar Square is a hub of London life. With the National Gallery on one side, beautiful church St Martin in the Fields just across the road and the famous Nelson's Column with its guarding lions, it's London's grandest square. It's here that London celebrates moments such as Chinese New Year and winning the Olympics, as well as having a huge Christmas tree each year. It's also here that Londoners show their displeasure about things such as wars and curbs on freedom on speech.
Trafalgar Square is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world pass by. There's a common belief that if you sit here for half an hour you will see someone you know, because the whole world passes through Trafalgar Square at some point.
Theatrically inclined visitors to London will delight in the relatively recently reconstructed replica of the Globe Theatre, with which the Bard was famously associated. Guided tours of the facility offer an unparalleled glimpse into the theatrical craft, culture and community that thrived during Shakespeare's day (and in response to the author's mighty quill).
Originally constructed in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company (the so-called Lord Chamberlain's Men), the structure was decimated by a fire 14 years later. A second structure was promptly erected, only to be closed in 1642, a mere 26 years after its founder's death.
A faithful replica of the structure (dubbed “Shakespeare's Globe”) was opened to the public in 1997, just 750 feet from the site of its predecessors. It offers the world's largest exhibition dedicated to the greatest scribbler in the English language, complete with actors, recordings and interactive displays.
Set between the grounds of St James’s Palace and the iconic abode to the Queen of England, Buckingham Palace; few picnic spots are as breathtakingly regal as St James’s Park, a 58-acre (23-hectare) stretch, located a short stroll from many of central London’s key tourist attractions.
As well as offering a pocket of greenery amidst the urban sprawl of Central London, the Park’s proximity to Buckingham Palace makes it a popular spot to watch the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony, where the uniformed palace guards change over in an elaborate march and band performance. In addition, the park’s Horse Guards Parade hosts the annual Trooping the Colour military parade to mark the Queen's official birthday, along with the Beating Retreat, a floodlit spectacular featuring marching bands from the Cavalry and Foot Guard regiments, held each June.
At the heart of London’s Westminster district, the aptly named Parliament Square is a pocket of greenery at the epicenter of some of the capital’s most significant buildings and makes a popular photo opportunity for tourists, as well as being the site of many public protests and demonstrations. Notable buildings include the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben to the east, Westminster Abbey to the south, the Supreme Court to the west and Her Majesty's Treasury and the Churchill War Rooms to the north.
Parliament Square is also home to a prominent collection of statues of legendary statesmen, both from the UK and overseas, and including Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Cromwell and Richard I, 'The Lionheart, as well as the most recent addition, Gandhi.
The British Museum is one of the largest museums in the world, comparable only to the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York. Established around 1750, the British Museum originated with Sir Hans Sloane's 'Cabinet of Curiosities' which he donated to the nation. It's now London's most visited attraction with over seven million objects and a wealth of world history - from Egyptian mummies to Roman sculptures, the Greek Parthenon marbles and the Persian Oxus Treasure (thanks to the British Empire's history of conquering distant countries - there is ongoing controversy about whether some of these treasures should now be returned to where they came from).
But this is no dull, dusty cupboard of old bits and pieces. The British Museum has a wide-ranging program of talks, films, family events, activities for kids, cafes and an excellent shop. The museum is housed in an imposing Greek Revival building dating from the 1850s.
Visitors can explore the ship’s nine decks where the restored living and working quarters (including a sick bay and a dental surgery) and a series of interactive exhibits provide a full sensory experience of life on board during World War II. Climb the ladders between decks; walk in the footsteps of the ship’s 950-strong crew, discover the inner workings of the engine room and visit the interactive Operation room.
The Tate Modern is one of London's best and most-loved art galleries. Located in an old power station on the south bank of the Thames, the huge turbine hall makes an imposing entrance and wonderful art space for innovative and playful artworks - kids especially love it. The other gallery spaces show a range of the world's most significant modern art in changing exhibitions around various themes.
Tate Modern has an excellent shop and its cafe, overlooking the Thames River and St Paul's Cathedral, is a great place to rest your feet and mind with one of the best views in London. The Tate Modern is one of four museums: Tate Britain (just down the river), Tate St Ives (Cornwall) and Tate Liverpool. Tate Modern and Tate Britain are connected by riverboat so it's easy to move from the modern art at the Tate Modern to the British art of the Tate Britain.
At the heart of London’s historic Docklands, the waterfront district of Canary Wharf has transformed itself into a financial powerhouse in recent years, becoming, along with the City of London nearby, one of the capital’s most important business centers. The modern district is now home to the world or European headquarters of some of the biggest names in banking and media, and it certainly looks the part, with its gleaming skyscrapers and glass-fronted high-rises, including the 235-meter-tall One Canada Square, the tallest building in the UK until the arrival of The Shard.
It’s not all about work in Canary Wharf though – the revitalized docks now serve as an urban playground for the city’s most affluent residents, with a suitably elegant selection of bars and restaurants, and a thriving shopping district. Additional highlights include the unique Traffic Light Tree, an installation artwork by Pierre Vivant; the Centaur.
A striking example of Palladian architecture with its imposing Corinthian columns and regal façade, the Mansion House makes a fitting residence for the Lord Mayor of London. The official residence and head office of the Lord Mayor since 1752, the house remains an important political center, hosting numerous civic meetings, fundraising events, receptions and dinners throughout the year.
The Mansion House is open to the public for guided tours (weekly or by appointment), allowing visitors to admire the opulent drawing rooms, peek into the Old Ballroom and marvel over the Egyptian Hall, actually designed in a classical Roman style. Highlights of a visit include the 18th-century Hallkeeper's Chair; the glittering crystal chandeliers in the Salon; and the Harold Samuel art collection, which features notable paintings and sculptures by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists.
On any trip to London, it's important to celebrity spot. Especially if Robert Pattinson or The Queen are in town. But if they prove to be camera-shy you'll find them more co-operative at Madame Tussauds, in fact, I bet they'll hang out with you for hours. But don't expect deep conversation. Because, of course, Madame Tussauds is a long-established and now worldwide waxworks collection.
Madame Tussaud was a Frenchwoman who made wax death masks during the French Revolution. She brought this travelling exhibition to London and it proved so popular - these heroes and villains were the celebrities of their time -that it's been a permanent fixture at the Baker Street site since 1884. These days you can wander freely among many contemporary heroes of stage, screen, music, sports, politics etc. Their clothing is often bought at celebrity auctions increasing the realism, their hair and makeup is restyled regularly, and each figures costs $125,000 to make!
Covent Garden is an area of London centered on a popular covered market in the heart of London. Once a monks' convent garden in the 13th century, it quickly developed into a fruit and vegetable market for the city, was redeveloped in 1630 by the Earl of Bedford to be ringed by fashionable residences modeled on Italian piazzas, then became a center for theater and opera. Today the covered market building is a home to shops selling gourmet and specialist foods and souvenirs. The Royal Opera House remains located in Covent Garden, and the piazza area is long famous for its street performers.
Within the wider area known as Covent Garden are many more theaters and a wonderful tangle of narrow streets full of some of London's best shops. Floral Street, Long Acre, Shorts Gardens, Neal Street and Mercer Street have some of London's best and most diverse shopping, leading towards the area Seven Dials, where seven streets converge.
A cultural melting pot by day with glittering riverside views at night, London’s South Bank is one of the city’s most vibrant destinations. Best known for its proximity to so many of London’s prime attractions, South Bank is opposite the Houses of Parliament, a mere stroll from Covent Garden and the Tate Modern and home to the London Eye, the Imperial War museum and the renowned Royal Festival Hall. Despite the tourist hoards, this stretch along the Thames waterfront (an area running from Lambeth to Blackfriars bridges) maintains its laid-back London cool and makes for an idyllic stroll through the heart of the city. And with everything from music concerts to art galleries crammed into the area, the only problem is deciding where to go first.
Greenwich is a quaint village area of London just downriver from central London. It is most famous for its maritime history and as home to the Royal Observatory. Located at zero degrees of longitude, all the world's time zones begin here with Greenwich Mean Time. Greenwich was also once a fashionable 17th century retreat from London and there is much grand architecture to be seen including the magnificent Observatory, the Queen's House and the National Maritime Museum.
A 15th-century royal palace, at one time home to Henry VIII and birthplace of Elizabeth I, it was rebuilt in the 18th century and is now the Old Royal Naval College. Don't miss the Painted Hall which took 19 years to complete.