From the monumental cathedral destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 to the street where epidemiologist John Snow fought a vicious cholera outbreak to the square where WW2 American soldiers mingled with “Piccadilly Commandos,” walk through 21 of the most iconic sites of the fascinating open-air museum called London.
1. Buckingham Palace:
Many of us think of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s former residence as the administrative headquarters where she welcomed prime ministers since Churchill. It’s also in our collective memories as the British people’s gathering place during celebration or mourning. It became the official residence of the British monarch in 1837 when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.
2. Elizabeth Tower:
“Let’s go to London to see the Elizabeth Tower,” said no one ever. However, that’s the official name since 2012, when what was initially known as Clock Tower (Big Ben was always the Great Bell) was renamed to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
3. St Paul’s Cathedral:
Its dome has dominated the city’s skyline for over three centuries. Its original site was dedicated to Paul the Apostle in AD 604, and it became the Gothic Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral during Medieval London. Destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, the structure was restored, and it has since held the funerals of Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, peace services to mark the end of WW1 and WW2, and the wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles.
4. The Albert Memorial:
Walk anywhere in London, and you’ll have a good idea of the Victorian influence and the fairytale love story between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who died in 1861 at just 42. Immortalized by places like the Victoria and Albert Museum, this legacy is more vivid in The Albert Memorial, located north of the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington Gardens—near where another famous royal couple, Prince William and Princess Kate, live.
5. Green Park:
Formerly the exclusive playground of the Royal Family, the Royal Parks, which include Hyde, Regent’s, St. James’s, and Green Park, became public with the introduction of the Crown Lands Act of 1851. Green Park stands out for having no lakes or buildings and fewer flowers. Historic gossip claims it’s because Queen Consort Catherine of Braganza caught Charles II picking flowers in the park for someone else.
6. British Museum:
Famous for holding the
Elgin Parthenon Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, which have been the subject of repatriation claims, the British Museum was established in 1753 based on the collections of Anglo-Irish physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. He transferred his collection to King George II, who 1753 established the museum freely open to the public.
7. Carnaby Street:
Close to Oxford and Regent Streets, Carnaby Street dates from the 1600s. It became famous in the 1850s for being where physician John Snow first applied epidemiological principles after a vicious cholera outbreak. In the 1930s, it became a multicultural jazz hub. In the 1960s, it resurfaced as a hippy music and fashion district. The Marquee Club, where The Who and The Rolling Stones performed, is one of its most iconic establishments.
8. Primrose Hill:
It is located north of Regent’s Park and has one of the best views of the Central London skyline. Its name dates from the 15th century, attributed to Archibald Primrose, who oversaw the expansion of The London Underground. In 1678, it was the scene of the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey which caused an anti-Catholic uproar that led to the hanging of three Catholic laborers at the top of the hill.
From farmland and aristocratic playground to sex district and gentrified entertainment mecca, this popular area is now the headquarters of leading film companies and London’s LGBTQ+ neighborhood. Unlike New York City—whose SoHo is an acronym for “South of Houston (Street)”—the name “Soho” was first referenced in the 17th century and possibly derived from a hunting or war rallying call.
10. Somerset House:
You may recognize it from “James Bond” and “Sherlock Holmes” films. Somerset House oversees the River Thames from the south side of the Strand thoroughfare. Its site originally belonged to the Duke of Somerset, who was overthrown and executed before he even had the chance to inaugurate the building. The Crown then possessed the structure and used it as a residence for Queen Elizabeth I. In 1604, the site hosted negotiations for the Treaty of London, which concluded the Anglo-Spanish War.
11. Museum of Natural History:
The Museum of Natural History houses life and earth science specimens, including some collected by Charles Darwin. “The Cathedral of Nature” is a spinoff of the British Museum. The building itself is as spectacular as the collections it holds. The permanent exhibition includes dinosaur skeletons, such as the blue whale hanging from the ceiling.
12. St. James’ Park:
In 1532, Henry VIII purchased from Eton College what was then a swamp. In 1603, James I drained and landscaped it. Later, Charles II redesigned it in the classic French style. Subsequent monarchs kept transforming it, including adding Marble Arch and the Mall to its perimeter. It’s a dwelling place for joggers and tourists taking a break before or after visiting the adjacent Buckingham Palace.
13. London Eye:
Also known as Millennium Wheel, The Eye is the UK’s most popular paid tourist attraction, with over 3 million visitors annually and 30 million riders as of 2008. Often compared to Paris’ Eiffel Tower, both were temporary attractions that became permanent and transformed the cities’ landscape by becoming synonymous with it.
14. 10 Downing Street:
It’s the official residence and executive office of the Prime Minister and the First Lord of the Treasury and—along with the adjoining Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall—the headquarters of the Government of the United Kingdom. Over three centuries old, it contains over 100 rooms, including the prime minister’s private residence on the third floor, a kitchen in the basement, and numerous offices, conference, sitting, and dining rooms. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dubbed it in 1985 “one of the most precious jewels in the national heritage.”
15. Covent Garden:
The famous district associated with the former fruit-and-vegetable market and the Covent Garden Opera House has a rich history: fields until the 9th century when the Abbot of Westminster Abbey appropriated it as arable land. By the 1550s, King Edward VI granted it to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, who started its urbanization. In the 1650s, a small open-air fruit-and-vegetable market had developed—followed by a period when numerous taverns and brothels proliferated.
16. Kensington Palace:
Aside from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Kensington Palace is also the official residence of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Its extensive history goes from joint monarchs William and Mary, who used it for health reasons, to Queen Anne, to The Blitz of 1940—when the palace was severely damaged. The late Price Phillip used it as a residence leading up to his wedding to Queen Elizabeth II.
17. Leicester Square:
Historically known as an entertainment district—theaters sprung in the 19th century, which then became cinemas in the 20th—Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) Square started, like many other iconic sites in London, as fields and then the property of the Abbot and Convent of Westminster Abbey, and subsequently the Crown. In more recent times, it served as a venue for punk rock bands like the Sex Pistols.
18. Regent’s Street:
A major shopping street named after George the Prince Regent (later George IV) runs north to Piccadilly Circus. Then it turns left to head north again to meet Oxford Street at Oxford Circus. It was one of the first planned developments in London after the Great Fire. It is also a location on the British version of Monopoly, as a group of three green squares with Oxford Street and Bond Street.
19. Trafalgar Square:
The public square was established in the 19th century to commemorate Admiral Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, the British naval victory in the Napoleonic Wars over France and Spain in 1805. The site of political demonstrations, including Bloody Sunday, the square is also a popular place of celebration for the holidays (since 1947, Norway has donated an iconic Christmas tree).
20. Piccadilly Circus:
“London’s Times Square,” because of its neon signs and the fact that it is a central tourist hub and traffic intersection, was established in 1819—almost a century before the Crossroads of the World. During WW2, it became a playground for American soldiers stationed in England and the many sex workers who frequented the area (dubbed “Piccadilly Commandos” by the intelligence agencies).
21. Tower Bridge:
Another relatively newer London icon, Tower Bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge), was built between 1886 and 1894 across the River Thames close to the Tower of London to give better access to the city’s East End. Inaugurated by Edward and Alexandra, Princesses of Wales, it became a strategic target during WW2, eventually hit, damaged, and temporarily put out of commission.