10 Best Attractions for the Savvy London Visitor
By Arianna Reiche
London Local Expert
Not all of London is shopping, eating, and dancing the night away (even though we're happy to point you in that direction). Sometimes you need a day to simply take in all the sensory wonders that the capital has to offer. Maybe what you need is an opportunity to creep around in some Tudor vaults or to take in the horizon from 1,000 feet up. But London's city motto may as well be "So much to see, so little time", and every visitor is going to have very different vacation goals in mind. Are you a modern art hound? A history buff? A symphonic aficionado with fancy-pants leanings? Keeping the breadth and diversity of London's amusements in mind, we've narrowed down the city's top ten attractions which just about run the gamut of what London's got going on. Some are cheap and some are luxurious, some central and some far and away, but they all ooze London's flavor or culture, tradition, and boundary-pushing. So strap on your walking shoes and load your pockets with those heavy pound coins, have your tea and grab your brolly -- our top ten choices for London attractions mean that you might just need to be ready for anything.
The Science Museum is often overshadowed by its neighbors: the behemoth Natural History Museum and the V&A, to be specific. But inside its doors is one of the most dynamic and cutting-edge series of exhibitions in London. Sure there are the kid-friendly staples: halls dedicated to space exploration and the 3D IMAX wonder-domes. But recently the museum has been reaching for a wider audience, putting on exhibitions like "Churchill's Scientists", a gallery of science photography's influence on contemporary art, and Science Museum's Lates, a free adult-only night that takes place on the last Wednesday of every month. Each night covers themes like sex, crime, and wearable tech. (20-7942-4000, 87-0870-4868)
Though technically an "antique market", Portobello Road is truly so much more. Sandwiched between Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, Portobello Road could make our 10Best lists for its colour and energy alone -- that it's one of the world's most vibrant local street markets is really just a fabulous perk. Here you can find vintage treasures, tasty food stalls and local designers, and you'll have the distinct pleasure of avoiding the high street shops. Bring cash (stalls don't typically take card) and your appetite and escape the crowds down in Kensington afterwards to catch your breath and take stock of your haul. (020 7727 7684)
It's the final resting place of kings and queens, thinkers and visionaries. Since 1090 AD, Westminster Abbey has been welcoming visitors to bask in its grandeur and take selfies by Isaac Newton's headstone. It's got a hefty name, and sometimes the Abbey gets a bad name -- relegated to overwrought tourist megazones. And while common sense should be every savvy tourist's guide (so maybe don't stop by in the sweltering heat of an August Saturday) Westminster Abbey should never, ever be underestimated or under-appreciated. It's one of those landmarks which you can't help but be moved by, and which gets more wondrous with every visit. (20-7222-5152)
The Shard might be London's most controversial, complex, and -- oh yes -- BIG piece of modern architecture, but love it or hate it, very few skyscrapers would claim to be "a vertical city". We've got to say, that kind of gumption alone makes the semi-pyramid tower worth the visit. Though it will set you back as much as £29.95, the view from the top are unlike anything else you'll find in Europe, offering a forty-mile vision radius. If you can splash out, book at the sleek Oblix restaurant, or even book a night in the sky-high Shangri-La Hotel. (All suites come with binoculars) (+44(0)84 4499 7111)
Between the Courtald Gallery, the Tudor vaults, the vast, bustling Edmond J. Safra Square, London Fashion Week, and buzzed-up new restaurant Spring, you realize: Somerset House might very well contain all of London's very best bits. Formerly a place of residence for 17th century nobility, naval housing, and the opulent office space for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Somerset House's stratigraphy of city evolution is hidden behind every corner and through every secret passageway. Book a historical tour or go for a wander, have lunch at Tom's (celebrity chef Tom Aiken's highbrow restaurant) or get summertime cocktail on the back terrace. Somerset House is a cultural experience unlike any else,and you'll need to put aside a chunk of your holiday to experience all it has to offer. (020 7845 4600)
Victoria & Albert Museum
What is there to say about the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world's largest museum of design and decorative arts, which hasn't already been said by historians, artists, and the public since its opening in 1852? It's a breathtaking triumph of curation and culture, and with free Friday Lates (bringing in DJs and bartenders for late-night entertainment on the last Friday of each month) it has kept far away from the ever-present danger of gallery-stuffiness. In 2015 the V&A housed 'Disobedient Objects', a gut-wrenching display of the shed objects and artifacts of protest movements in the last century. The V&A has come a long was since its eponymously Victorian past, and free entry to its permanent collections makes it truly unmissable. (20-7942-2000)
Most tourists wouldn't think that one of London's most vibrant art locales might be down a grimy alleyway round the corner from Waterloo station. But Leake Street does indeed offer up a mesmerising selection of just that -- the most exciting street artists and underground performance artists. Part tunnel-shaped canvas, part theatre space, and part actual commuter footpath, Leake Street (also known as "Banksy Alley") has been twice home to the Cans Festival, where the most high-profile graffiti artists across the globe meet to display their skill. It's a must-visit for anyone keen on getting beneath the city's surface -- literally. (020 7926 1000)
The Hayward Gallery
The Hayward Gallery might not be as high profile as the neighbouring Tate Modern or the monumental Victoria & Albert Museum, but within its concrete walls are some of the most adventurous and challenging pieces of modern art you'll find in any metropolis. Part of the newly-ish developed, Escher-esque Southbank Centre (placed somehow on top of, next to, and behind the British Film Institute), the Hayward has spent the last five years curating exhibitions by some of Britain's most thrilling enfant terribles: Tracy Emin, David Shrigley, and Anthony Gormley have all represented their home team, so to speak, on the Hayward's international arts landscape, while Andy Warhol, Ernesto Neto, and Brigitte Kowanz have all wowwed in their own mediums. The Hayward Gallery is truly the youngest sibling in London's family of dazzling galleries -- the one who's able to get away with anything. (020 7960 4200)
Royal Albert Hall
When Queen Victoria funnelled the Crown's wealth and ingenuity into monuments to her beloved Albert -- giving us charmingly mesmerizing Albertopolis -- the Royal Albert Hall was chosen to be the concert hall which would change the musical landscape of Britain. It's truly one of the world's greatest performance spaces, with all 225 meters of it situated in one of the most enchanting nooks in London. Now in its 144th year, and having finished a £20 million renovation between 1996 and 2004, it plays host to live performances of classical masters like Tchaikovsky and Handel, as well as Alice Cooper, Lady Gaga, and of course the legendary Proms. (020 7589 8212)
Just north of where most travel guides would tell you to go sit the quiet, lush neighbourhoods of Muswell Hill, Crouch End, and Wood Green. And at their axis is historic exhibition venue and stunning architectural behemoth Alexandra Palace, more commonly known as "Ally Pally" to locals. It's the perfect spot for a sunny day in the gardens or a pop-up space-rave. The grounds are dripping in history: Originally named "Palace of the People", the venue came to embody the best and most illustrious of Victorian architectural vision, and in 1935 came to house the newly established BBC Television Service. Now it invites the public to take in the greenery and explore what's on show. (020 8365 2121)
About Arianna Reiche
Arianna Reiche is a London-based writer and publisher. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied at the University of Edinburgh before working with Vice, New Scientist, McSweeney's, and Gawker Media. She first fell in love with London running errands during London Fashion Week in 2009, careening through the streets in an microscopic G-Wiz stylemobile.
Read more about Arianna Reiche here.