Wednesday, August 14, 2013

London's Top Ten

1. Buckingham Palace

Samuel Johnson famously said "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." I have come to the conclusion that London is my favorite city to visit. And so, recently when a friend said she was going to London this summer for the first time and asked my advice on what she should see, I was excited to talk about London. I put together a list of the most famous and obvious sights, but with a disclaimer that seeing them all would be too exhausting. I suggested that she not attempt to do it all, but instead combine a few of them with some of the smaller gems that London has to offer. And London has plenty of small and historic treasures. I decided to start with the top ten big sights and came up with the following list:

 British Museum, Westminster Abbey, National Gallery, St. Paul's Cathedral, Tower of London, Buckingham Palace,  London Eye, Tate Museums, Natural History Museum, and Victoria and Albert Museum.

The smaller ones would take some thinking. I wanted to be sure I gave her some good advice. And so I made a list of my favorite things to do in London, both big and small. Some of them I have already seen and others I have read about and plan to see on my next trip. And, of course, any list like this is bound to be personal. Mine includes places that would conjure up my favorite writers, artists, politicians, and monarchs. There is so much history in London; if you look hard enough, you will find it everywhere. The city is one thousand years old and there is something thrilling about walking in the footsteps of so many giants of history. I tried to include places that would cover some of them. I couldn't keep it to ten, since it includes both the big sights and the small. So here goes, my personal top fifteen things to do in London (not in any particular order). I would love to know what you would choose!


1.  Buckingham Palace (pictured above)

I am starting with a big one. First occupied by Queen Victoria, Buckingham Palace is home to the present Queen. For eight weeks each year during August and September, the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace are open to the public. Visitors are able to see nineteen state rooms, which are so interesting, as well as a special exhibition. I was there two years ago when the special exhibition was the wedding gown worn by Princess Catherine, as well as other royal wedding memorabilia on display. It was thrilling to see. When you leave the palace, you walk out into the Palace garden which is beautiful; you can take a leisurely stroll through it and see the famous lake. If you are in London during August and September, be sure to take this tour. The Queen's Gallery with its art collection alone is worth the price of the ticket.     

  2. The Tower of London

Another big one. No matter how touristy it might sound, a visit to the Tower of London is worth it. Thinking about how much history happened here is awe-inspiring. The tour guides are fantastic and  will regale you with some of the most fascinating stories of British history. Anne Boleyn, Mary, Queen of Scots and Thomas More were all imprisoned and executed here. Although we already know their stories, there are always new details to learn about and this is the spot where it all took place. It is just so much fun! And, in my opinion, the Tower Bridge is the prettiest bridge in London.

3. The Royal Academy of Arts

The last time I was in London, I stayed in the St. James area and accidentally discovered this gem. A walk on nearby Piccadilly took me past the Royal Academy of Arts and I decided to go in to see the Degas exhibition. It was absolutely stunning. The building is one of the few surviving 17th-century mansions in the Piccadilly area. This prestigious fine arts institute has a magnificent permanent art collection, as well as excellent exhibitions such as the one I saw of Degas. Truly one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen!

4. The Victoria and Albert Museum
(Photo source unknown)

Ever since I read Lytton Strachey's Biography of Queen Victoria, I have been fascinated by her. Strachey stripped away the monarch's mystique and made Queen Victoria seem like a real person. The story of her  romance with Prince Albert is my favorite part. She was truly in love with him. And this museum, which was named for both the Queen and her beloved Prince Albert, is a gem. It is a museum of decorative arts with a wonderful permanent collection and one of the best museum gift shops.

5. The Courtauld Gallery which is located in Somerset House
Photo via here

The Courtauld Institute of Art is one of the world's most prestigious places to study the history of art. It is a college of the University of London. Within its walls is a true treasure for anyone who loves French modern art -- the Courtauld Gallery. The Courtauld is one of the best small museums in the world with a remarkable art collection, including some of the masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. There are famous paintings by Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Manet. Manet's painting "Bar at the Folies-Bergere" is there and it took my breath away the first time I saw it in person. 

I love small museums because they are so much easier to deal with. You can find what you are looking for and you can take more time to linger and learn. And if you cannot find something, but know that it is part of the Courtauld's collection, you can make an appointment with a curator and go behind the scenes to see it.  I did that when I was there last. I was searching for some designs for textiles and rugs created by the Bloomsbury artists. I was told that the works were not currently being displayed, but I could come back later to see them. When I arrived for my appointment the next day, I was taken to the display room of the storage facility where a Bloomsbury scholar brought out about twenty works for me to see. She was extremely knowledgeable about Bloomsbury art and we chatted for about an hour. This experience was a highlight of my last trip to London.

6. The National Portrait Gallery
Photo via here

This is one of the best places to visit in London. It is a wonderful gallery that features portraits of some of the most well-known British figures from the past and present. Everywhere you look are the faces of people you have read about. History comes to life here. There are paintings from the Tudor times to the present day -- Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, to name a few. But my favorite is this portrait of the Bronte sisters. Painted by their brother Branwell Bronte, it was found folded up in a drawer in 1914. Branwell erased his own image from the group. There is something so poignant about this painting with its creases and ghostly image in the background, especially when you think about the Brontes' tragic and short lives on the desolate moors.

7. The Churchill War Rooms
Photo via here

I have a thing for Winston Churchill. By last count, there are at least twenty books on him in my library. He made so many memorable pronouncements. One of my favorites: "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." During World War II, he and his cabinet ministers met in these secret war rooms located beneath the Government Treasury Chambers. You can visit them today and you will find that they look exactly as they did during those tumultuous war years. Amazing to think that you can stand in the very rooms where Churchill and others plotted the course of World War II.

8. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

This is a recreation of the actual Old Globe theatre in which Shakespeare's plays were performed 500 years ago. It is a breathtaking experience to see one of his plays here. It is an open air space and the seats are benches, just like they were in Shakespeare's time. I saw a fabulous production of Much Ado About Nothing in this theatre a couple of years ago.

9. The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie
Photo via here

And speaking of plays, I have always wanted to see this one and plan to do it next time I visit London. The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie opened in 1952 and is the longest running play in modern history. After being a fan of her books for so many years, I am looking forward to finally seeing this play. Here is an excellent article about it.

10.  St. Martin in the Fields Church
Photo via here

Located in Trafalgar Square, this is one of the most special and intimate spaces to hear a concert in London. There has been a church on this site since the 13th-century, and the present building was designed by James Gibbs in 1726. It has been the location for music events for 250 years. Hearing some Bach or Mozart by candlelight in this exquisite church is a delightful experience. 

11.  Dennis Severs' House Museum
Photo via here

This is not to be missed. This house  museum is one of the best example of London's little known treasures. It is a painstakingly detailed re-creation of an 18th-century house belonging to a silk weaver and his family in Spitalfields. The house evokes the sense of how it might have looked as it evolved over the centuries. Dennis Severs is the American expat who created this wonderful place. There is such an immediacy to the way the rooms are decorated that you have the sense the inhabitants just stepped out for a moment. If you want to understand everyday life in London in the 18th-century, this is the place to visit.

12.   Hatchards Bookstore

Hatchards is the oldest surviving bookstore in London. Its customers have included some of Britain's most famous figures: Benjamin Disraeli, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, and Lord Byron, to name just a few. It has every book you can imagine and often ones that have not come out yet in the U.S. If you love bookstores, you will spend many happy hours browsing among the stacks. Notice how the books you have purchased in the U.S. have a different cover in the U.K. You may be tempted to buy the British edition of a book you already own because the dust jackets are so attractive. 

13. Tea at the Connaught Hotel

You must have a proper afternoon tea while in London. The Connaught Hotel has one of the best.

14. The Charles Dickens Museum
Photo via here

In December of 2012, the Charles Dickens museum at 48 Doughty Street, his only surviving London home, reopened after a three year, $5-million refurbishment and restoration. It was the home of Charles Dickens from 1837-1839 and the site where he wrote Nicholas Nickelby and Oliver Twist. It contains many personal items from Dickens' life, including a set of bars from the Marshalsea prison where his father was imprisoned for his debts. I visited the original museum years ago and now can't wait to see the newly restored home of one of the giants of English literature.

15.  Rules Restaurant
Photo via here

It might seem strange to put a restaurant on the list. But it is the oldest restaurant in London, having opened in 1798. This place just exudes atmosphere. Here are some of the people who ate at Rules:  Charles Dickens, Edward VII, his mistress Lillie Langtry, Graham Greene, and the Poet John Betjeman. The walls are covered with images of old England. The atmosphere is Victorian with dark wood panelling and the traditional English food is very good. Do you remember the episode on "Downton Abbey" when Lady Edith and her publisher met for lunch? They met at Rules. It really is an amazing place and so very English. Anglophiles will be in heaven. was a challenge to narrow it down to fifteen choices! There are so many things I could add. What would be on your London's Top Ten (or fifteen) list? I am planning a trip to London in the fall and would love to hear your suggestions!

Unless otherwise noted, photos by Sunday Taylor


  1. Sunday, I have only had the opportunity to visit London one time, many years ago. I think your list is magnificent. London is an amazing city. Just breathing the air you get a sense of its age and history. I would love to return one day. I am disappointed I missed the bookstore! Hugs, Bonnie

  2. It seems a shame to waste a choice on The Mousetrap which, sorry, is only aimed at the American tourist market - in a city where there's any amount of theatre/opera/ballet/music that's much more exciting.
    I'd also be very tempted to replace Dickens' House with Carlyle's House, which is so much more evocative of the time. I admit the appeal of Dickens' personal items, but the restoration and presentation there had me fuming. (It's five minutes walk from ChelseaPhysic Garden which is a lovely place to have lunch on a sunny day.)
    Don't forget Treasures of the British Library - free to get in - and see Jane Austen's desk and spectacles. And much more.
    Spitalfields is a wonderful area just for strolling and looking but don't forget to take in the amazing East London graffiti.
    I've never been on the Buckingham Palace tour but as you only see the staterooms I'd recommend the Clarence House tour instead - much more personal and you get to visit P Charles's drawing room etc And then run around the corner to the Queen's gallery where the current exhibition is stunning.

    1. All great additional suggestions, but I loved seeing The Mousetrap, but I am an American tourist and don't pretend otherwise. I'm guessing you're from the UK. There are so many iconic places in Los Angeles that I think are touristy, but that people visiting insist on seeing and are thrilled.

  3. I love London so much, I think my favorite city to visit as well. It's very underrated in my opinion, and I'm so glad that you've written this post. There's nowhere that I feel more happily civilized. And on a superficial note, since you've covered the cultural ones, I think the shopping is amazing - for me, much better than in Paris. And the food has become quite amazing as well. My favorite French bistro is in London!

  4. I love St Paul's, could spend days in the British Museum and the National Gallery, and adore the concerts (especially the free - or by donation - lunch hour ones) at St Martin in the Fields. But for me, any trip to London also has to include time spent wandering through the city's parks and beautiful neighbourhoods, visits to used bookstores, and a quick pop into Fortnum and Mason to admire all the things there that I'm never likely to buy (though I was once sent a hamper and it was marvellous). I was in London only a month ago but now you have me wishing I was back!

  5. Thank you for the wonderful list! When we were there last we tried to go to the Churchill War rooms but the que was prohibitive. So that is still on my to do list. We ended up at the Tate to see their Turner collection, which was well worth a look see.

  6. What a wonderful list! I think I will keep a copy in my list of things to do and places to go. Always wonderful to have an idea of what to do when traveling and trying to see and do it all. Thanks!

  7. Mary,sorry to disagree,but the Mousetrap is an iconic part of our British theatre life.I first saw it with my G/parents when it opened with Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim his wife,have seen it twice since.Tourists enjoy it because it is typical Aggie Christie.

    I enjoyed your choices of London,think we British tend to forget what a glorious city it is,I certainly did when I lived there,prefer it to Paris.There are so many hidden interesting
    places to visit.Thank you for reminding me of
    my favourite city,I have American friends who
    rave about it,and even considering buying a flat
    would save on their hotel bills!

  8. Inspired choices. I'm planning a visit to Doughty Street but I must admit that my object is not Charles Dickens but E M Delafield who rented a house there in the 1930s. Wonderfully described in The Provincial Lady Goes Further!

    1. Do you know which number? I have vague recollection of reading somewhere that it's next door to Vera Brittain/Winifred Holtby but I don't know which side - and I could be entirely wrong.

  9. Love your list. I'm returning to London this October taking with me my niece for her 16th birthday so I will double check your top 15 to make sure I'm not missing anything. If you haven't been to the Sir John Soane Museum, you are in for a treat. Consider adding it to your list for your next visit, Sunday!

  10. The Wallace Collection is as important as the Frick...I hope you go one day!

  11. Thanks to everyone for your suggestions. You have given me many additional ideas for my next trip!

  12. Sunday I love your list! I have been to many but there are a few here that I missed! Speaking of Churchill, did you watch the documentary on Churchill on PBS. I watched last night and it was excellent!

  13. thank you very much for the tips! i am going to London in November :)

  14. Miriam and I were JUST talking about our next London visit and our must-do itinerary. You've nailed so many of our favorites! I love the Globe Theater and Hatchards ideas. Adding them to our list RIGHT now!