London’s full of treasures that we all too often shun, dismissing them as tourist attractions. So we’ve rounded up a list of our favourite attractions that every Londoner should visit. Note that we’ve excluded museums and galleries, which are nearly all worth a visit or three. They’ll probably find their way into their own top 10 sooner or later.
10. London Zoo
Because it’s not just cuteness in cages. Did you know we have the oldest scientific zoo in the world? The mega-menagerie opened in 1828 as a place where learned gentlemen might become yet more learned in the handicrafts of Mother Nature. The zoo continues as a research organisation to this day, and even supports a molecular biology team. As a visiting local, you won’t want to get caught in the tourist queues. So take a boat from Camden Lock and get in through the little-known canal entrance for just £2 more than regular entry.
9. Royal Observatory, Greenwich
It’s a bit of a climb for the out-of-shape, but a trek up the hill in Greenwich Park will repay the effort. Once you’ve got over the impressive view, the Observatory site has plenty to recommend it. The largest refracting telescope in the UK, the Greenwich meridian, London’s only planetarium and Harrison’s marine chronometers are all justifiably famous, but how many people know that you can touch a chunk of rock that’s possibly older than the Earth? A regular events programme keeps locals and tourists starry-eyed.
8. St James’s Park
They’ve got pelicans! And not just any old pelicans. Pelicans that eat pigeons. St James’ Park is one of the best places in central London if you like your avians wet, with a whole lake-full of grebes, cormorants, coots and their squawking friends. With its Horseguards backdrop, the lake bridge is a favoured photo spot, and it is impossible to cross without spoiling someone’s shot. While this is undoubtedly the most touristy of the inner parks, the south-west corner offers secluded spots for a pleasant picnic.
7. Shakespeare’s Globe
The newest attraction on our list is also one of the oldest, dating back to 1599. The original theatre conflagrated itself out of existence in 1613 and its replacement was pulled down by the Puritan henchfolk of Cromwell a few decades later. The Bankside landmark was resurrected in 1997 after a quarter-century of campaigning by Sam Wanamaker (who sadly died before its completion). Today, it’s that rare thing: a venue that attracts tourists and Londoners in equal measure, thanks to a winning combo of historical authenticity and a generally laudable production programme.
6. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
The Cheese on Fleet Street must rank as one of London’s most touristy pubs, and it’s not hard to see why. The entrance to this 345-year-old inn is down a dingy alley straight out of Dickens. The interior, meanwhile, is a tangled mess of wood-panelled spaces, crooked corridors and dimly-lit basements. No one’s entirely sure how many rooms – or even floors – there are to this place, which is why it appeals to Londoners as well as visitors. You’ll need at least 10 visits to properly orient yourself, and you’ll enjoy every one of them. (Unless you hate Sam Smiths beer.)
5. Kew Gardens
Or the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as they’d like us to call them. The £13.50 adult ticket might seem a little pricey for a glorified park with too much noise pollution from Heathrow arrivals, but there’s much more to Kew than gawping at plants. The pagoda, treetop walk and various conservatories are well documented. Less so is the delightful Queen Charlotte’s cottage at the south-western extremity, where you can picnic in peace, troubled only by the approach of a golden pheasant or two. Kew Palace, former home of George III, is also worth a visit, though that incurs an additional entrance fee. The Gardens also conduct important scientific research, so your pennies are well spent.
4. Buckingham Palace
A trip to Buckingham Palace is the ultimate tourist mainstay. Even the BFG paid a visit. During the summer months, the palace opens its doors to anyone craving a snoop, and we’ve been on a couple of occasions. It’s easy to spot the few Brits who take the tour – we’re the ones trying to suppress that involuntary smirk triggered by any annunciation from the Prince of Wales (who here provides an audio introduction to his once and future home). Only the most frenzied republican could remain undazzled by the opulent interiors, the Old Master paintings and Her Majesty’s secret dinner service.
3. HMS Belfast
Probably the only warship in the UK to share a birthday with Rudolf Nureyev (17 March 1938), the Belfast is a popular floating museum that gives you a cadet’s-eye view of a WWII Cruiser. The ship is pincered by competing attractions such as Tower Bridge and the London Dungeon. Yet it outguns them, both metaphorically and physically, with the depth of its displays and hands-on attitude. In particular, visitors are welcome to clamber around the pipes and ladders of the engine rooms with a refreshingly relaxed approach to health and safety. NB. You don’t want to do this in a skirt.
2. St Paul’s Cathedral
Never been? What? Shame on you. St Paul’s might be yet another tourist cliché, but it’s the spiritual heart of our city. It somehow feels more ‘human’ than the Abbey, despite the recent Royal snub. Wren’s masterpiece offers a crypt full of celebrities (Wren, Nelson and Wellington, for example), that famous whispering gallery and one of the best views of London from its lofty lantern. Those who object to the £14.50 adult entrance price can attend a religious ceremony for free, or indulge in some posh nosh down in the free bit of the crypt (entrance on the north side of the cathedral).
1. Tower of London
Quite a few of you should be around in 2078 to witness the thousandth anniversary of the White Tower, the nucleus of the Tower of London. Everyone knows the rudiments of its history – stronghold, prison, execution site, royal palace, treasury, menagerie… Today, it’s one of London’s greatest attractions and a World Heritage Site to boot. Don’t be deterred by its notoriously touristy reputation. The Tower oozes history like David Starkey in a Turkish bath, and there’s a full day’s-worth of turrets and cells to explore. Plus, you get to see beefeaters, the Crown Jewels and the ravens. The full adult price is £18.70, but residents of Tower Hamlets can get in for just a pound.
Our selection above is based on personal experience and utter whimsy. Let us know below if you think we’re dead wrong about these, or if you have your own suggestions. Remember, we’re purposely not including museums and galleries.