London is without a doubt one of the most iconic capital cities in the world. It’s also the perfect blend of old and new. At close to 2,000 years old, there is a lot of history (and historic buildings) to explore. Yet London is an ever changing metropolis with an expanding modern city skyline. Not only does that mean you could easily spend your entire time just looking at the famous buildings, seeing the iconic landmarks is one of the best free thing to do in London.
There are many, many buildings worth a look in London, but if you’re a first time visitor and want to focus on the most famous and iconic, I’ve shortened the list to the top 15. These are the ones I list every time a new travel friends asks what to see in London.
At the end, I’ve included a map of famous London buildings which you can use for your sightseeing. All these buildings are within Central London and you can visit them by Tube. The likes of Windsor Castle and Hampton Court are famous English sights but they require a day trip from London.
Want London Day Trip inspiration? Check out – 16 Great Things To Do In Stratford-upon-Avon | 4 Easy Ways to Travel From London to Stratford-Upon-Avon
1. Big Ben
Boing! Is it just me or does Big Ben feel like it’s the ultimate iconic symbol of London? So, I suggest putting it at the top of your list because do you really want to go home without seeing Big Ben in real life? Fun fact – most people don’t realise that Big Ben is actually the name of the gigantic bell that boings inside the clock. The tower that surrounds the bell is, in fact, called the Elizabeth Tower. Funnier fact? Even Big Ben is a nickname, after Sir Benjamin Hall, the man who commissioned the building. The bell’s office name was the Great Bell. Big Ben first chimed in 1859 and has been chiming ever since.
You’ll find Big Ben at the north end of the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) – just look up and follow your line of sight.
Visit Big Ben: Find out more about Big Ben.
Closest Tube Station: Westminster Tube station.
2. The Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)
Located on the north bank of the River Thames, the Houses of Parliament are one of the most iconic sights in London. Officially known as the Palace of Westminster, the building is home to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, two of the main branches of the Parliament of the UK and Northern Ireland. Politics aside, the Palace of Westminster is an impressive building constructed in the Gothic Revival style. As well as the House of Commons and House of Lords Buildings, the palace includes Westminster Hall and Big Ben. How old is the Palace of Westminster? The answer is complicated because the palace was rebuilt following fire damage. Work started on the original building in 1016, parts were demolished in 1834, and the new building was constructed in 1840-1876. The oldest existing part of the palace is Westminster Hall, which was build in 1097.
Tip: the best view is by taking a short walk onto Westminster Bridge so you can see the vast extent of the palace in all its panoramic fullness.
Closest Tube Station: Westminster.
3. Buckingham Palace
While we’re on the subject of the grand palaces of London, let’s talk about Buckingham Palace, which was built in 1703. Royal London is an integral part of the city of London and seeing Bucking Palace is usually high up on most visitor’s sightseeing lists. While it’s possible to take a tour of the palace (details below), most people are content to simply stand at the gates, catch the Changing of the Guard and know that they once stood outside the British King’s home.
Tip: Make sure you get to the palace around 10:30 am to watch the Changing of the Guards, an historic ceremony where the current patrol of King’s Guards is replaced by the new patrol. Of course, it’s all done to a full marching band in true Royal British style.
How to visit Buckingham Palace – Most of the the palace is off limits to the public, but you can still visit the State Rooms, the Queen’s Gallery (seems to be keeping the Queen’s name – ahhh), and the Royal Mews (for a glimpse of the State Coaches and royal horses). Each of the rooms requires separate tickets.
Closest Tube Station: Green Park.
4. Westminster Abbey
If you’ve ever watched scenes from a Royal Family wedding or funeral, chances are, you have see Westminster Abbey. Now it’s time to see this gigantic gothic-style abbey in person. Westminster Abbey is most famous as the place of the elaborate ceremonies within the Royal Family and has been the place of every coronation of every King and Queen since William the Conqueror in 1066. In more recent memory, it’s recognisable as the place of the ceremonies for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, the marriage of William and Kate and the funeral of Princess Diana.
Did you know? The official name of the building is the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster. No wonder it earned a nickname name. Like many historic buildings in London, there was a previous church on the site, from the 7th century. However, work started on the present-day building in 1245.
How to visit Westminster Abbey: you need to pay to go inside. You can book tickets for Westminster Abbey in advance. The Abbey is located close to the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben, if you want to make your sightseeing efficient.
Closest Tube Station: Westminster Tube.
5. St Paul’s Cathedral
I once worked in an office on Ludgate Hill, which was quite a treat since just at the top of the hill sits St Pauls Cathedral. One of the most famous buildings in London, St Pauls is a large Anglican cathedral that features an iconic dome shaped roof, that was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. St Paul’s Cathedral has punctuated London’s skyline for over 300 years – the cathedral was officially completed on 25 December 1711.
Did you know? There has been a cathedral on the site of St Paul’s since 604. No, that’s not a typo. The site has a long history but the old building was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. What you see today was the result of the rebuild after the fire.
How to visit St Paul’s Cathedral: For many, St Paul’s is magnificent enough from the outside. If you want to see the stunning interior and visit the dome, you have to book tickets for St Paul’s. There are over 500 steps to the top of the dome, which will take you into the Whispering Gallery. Keep going and you’ll reach the the Stone Gallery and the Golden Gallery. Don’t miss the crypts where you can see the tombs of the Duke of Wellington, Admiral Lord Nelson and Sir Christopher Wren.
Closest Tube Station: St Paul’s Tube.
6. Tower of London
Whether you’re a history nerd (like me) or not, there’s no denying that one of the most historic buildings in London is the Tower of London. It also happens to be one of the oldest, dating back to 1066. Over the many centuries, the tower has been used as a fortress, a royal residence, The Royal Mint and a prison. Most spectacular for most visitors is the fact that the Tower of London is home to the Crown Jewels, which you can see up close if you visit.
How to visit the Tower of London – you must book tickets for the Tower of London in advance. Don’t miss the tours guided by real Yeoman Warders. The Yeoman are traditionally dressed Tower guards, also known as the Beefeaters.
Closest Tube Station: Tower Hill Tube.
7. Tower Bridge
London is not short of impressive bridges that span the River Thames, but none are quite as famous and jaw-dropping as Tower Bridge. While not strictly a building, this landmark suspension bridge should be on every visitor’s list. Situated next to the Tower of London, Tower Bridge opened in 1894 and is regularly raised to let tall ships pass beneath it.
Did you know? The same architect, Sir Horace Jones, designed both Tower Bridge and Leadenhall Market (see below).
Tip: Don’t confuse Tower Bridge and London Bridge – they are very different. London Bridge is the next bridge over to the west and isn’t nearly as striking.
Go inside Tower Bridge – most people don’t realise that you can pay to go inside Tower Bridge. You can book tickets to access the upper walkway, which is 33 metres above road level. From there you can and look through the glass floor and watch the bridge below You can book tickets online for the Upper Walkway.
Closest Tube Station: Tower Hill Tube.
8. London Eye
Did you know that the London Eye was the world’s tallest ferris wheel at the time that it first opened in 2000? While it may have been pushed off the top spot, it’s remained one of the most famous sights in Britain’s capital city. It’s possible to take a 30-minute spin on the London Eye in one of 32 capsules, giving you some of the best views of the skyline of London. It’s also one of the most romantic things to do in London if you’re visiting with your partner. Located on the south bank of the Thames, make time to linger after your trip on the Eye as there are lots of things to do in London’s Southbank, including visiting the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe.
Book Tickets: You can book London Eye tickets in advance. Buy a few weeks ahead as it’s always busy – The London Eye has around 3 million visitors per year.
Closest Tube Station: Waterloo is closest (5 minute walk). Embankment, Charring Cross and Westminster are also nearby.
9. The Shard
It took me a while to get used to The Shard. Mainly because overnight it increased the price of wine in my favourite bar near London Bridge that suddenly had a view of this iconic building. Nevertheless, I’ve come to love it. It’s hard not to, since it’s Western Europe’s tallest building. It stretches a staggering 309.6 metres (1,016ft) in height and is made up of 11,000 glass panels. And if you’re looking for the best views in London, it’s almost certainly going to be from the public viewing platform, located on levels 69-73, which offers the highest view in the capital.
Closest Tube Station: London Bridge Tube.
10. The Walkie Talkie
The Walkie Talkie is one of the most controversial buildings in London. The official name of the building is actually a plain and simple London street address – 20 Fenchurch Street. However, the building has been nicknamed the Walkie Talkie because it resembles a 1980’s two-way radio handset, i.e. a walkie talkie.
The top-heavy 38-floor building is a commercial property but has a three-floor sky garden on floors 35, 36 and 37. The design was scaled back from original plans due to complaints from Heritage groups who worried about the building’s impact on the skyline. When the Walkie Talkie opened, it won an award for the ‘worst new building’. Personally, I agree. It’s a hideous looking thing, IMO. The building subsequently had issues with solar glare, which was literally melting cars when sunlight reflected off the glass. Screening was erected to reduce the rays. The building is also criticised for creating a street-level wind tunnel.
How to visit the Walkie Talkie – yet another piece of controversy. The Sky Garden was originally pitched as a free public garden, but there are restrictions. You can visit in a 90-minute slot only. After 6 p.m., the garden is exclusively for paying customers at the bars and restaurants. You can find out more about visiting 20 Fenchurch Street.
Closest Tube Station: Tower Hill is the closest Tube. Tower Gate, Aldgate, Bank and Mansion house are also close.
11. The Gherkin
Like the Walkie Talkie, The Gherkin is another nickname. The official name of this famous London landmark is the street address, 30 St Mary Axe. Another relatively recent addition to the London skyline, the Gherkin is a commercial skyscraper, and was opened in 2004. Norman Foster, the man behind the British Museum redesign, was the architect and the building has been much better received than the Walkie Talkie. The twist of the design is partly driven by energy efficiency to push the air upwards. This is my favourite of the newer buildings in London and I’m happy to see it on the skyline.
How to visit The Gherkin – unfortunately you’re only going to be able to see this building from the outside. Still, I’d recommend getting up close as it’s a stunning building.
Closest Tube Station: Fenchurch Street is the nearest Tube with Aldgate, Aldgate East, Monument, Tower Hill and Bank also nearby.
12. Shakespeare’s Globe
First, let’s set your expectations – Shakespeare’s Globe as it stands today is a recreation of the Elizabethan playhouse where William Shakespeare’s plays were performed. The original was demolished in 1644. However, that doesn’t mean you should strike Shakespeare’s Globe off your list. It’s still one of the most famous buildings in London and is absolutely worth a visit. Why? First of all, it’s a very good replica of the original playhouse. Also, it’s pretty close to where the original stood. Situated on Southbank, a short walk from The London Eye, the new Globe Theatre opened in 1997 and is a working theatre which you can visit for a guided tours or to see a Shakespearean play.
Closest Tube Station: Blackfriars Tube.
13. Tate Modern
Not every famous building in London is old and historic. The Tate Modern art gallery was built in two phases between 1947 and 1963 and is no less an iconic landmark in London. Situated on the Southbank, near The Globe and London Eye, the Tate Modern is a fascinating building. Inside, you’ll find masterpieces of art spanning the past 100 years. Outside, it’s clear that the building was once the Bankside Power Station. The design, a low, flat concrete structure with a striking central chimney, was the architectural design of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. That’s the same man who brought us the Battersea Power Station and Waterloo Bridge.
How to visit Tate Modern: for most people, seeing the famous building is enough but I’d encourage you to go inside. The Tate Modern is free for the main exhibition which includes work by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí.
Closest Tube Station: Blackfriars and Southwark Tube stations are closest.
Tip: The Millennium Bridge connects Southbank with Ludgate Hill. Either way you walk it, you’ll get stunning views of St Pauls, The London Eye, The Shard and Tate Modern.
Did you know: there is also a Tate Museum in Liverpool. See: 22 Most Popular Things To Do In Liverpool City Centre
14. The British Museum
One of the most popular museums in London, the British Museum has stood the test of time. Founded in 1753, the British Museum was world-leading as the first national museum to cover all fields of human knowledge – culture, art and human history. Today it has a permanent collection with more than eight million artefacts covering more than two million years of history. But one of the most impressive things about the museum is the building itself, which has been added to and updated over the years.
Situated in beautiful Bloomsbury, the museum exterior is in the Greek Revival style with grand columns. Inside, you’ll find the Great Court at the heart of the building, the largest and most stunning covered public squares in Europe. It includes the Reading Room with its impressive domed roof.
How to visit the British Museum: It’s free to visit the permanent collection at The British Museum, but you should book a free British Museum time slot in advance.
Closest Tube Station: Holborn, Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square and Goodge Street Tube stations are all under 10 minutes walk away.
15. Leadenhall Market
Leadenhall Market has an impressive history and its fame only continues to grow. You might be confused by the fact that a market is on a list of buildings, but Leadenhall Market is a covered market building which dates back to 1321. Originally situated in the heart of old Roman London where it operated as a meat market, the market today is a bustle of cafes, bars, restaurants and boutique retailers, all sparkling under the arcade roof. The market received a facelift in the 1800’s, and that’s the building you can visit today with the Victorian buildings, roof and cobbles carefully preserved.
For Harry Potter Fans – Outside Leadenhall Market was the filming location of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The market was also used in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – 42 Bull’s Head Passage (now an opticians) featured as the Leaky Cauldron.
Tip: Leadenhall Market is a great choice for a rainy day in London.
Closest Tube Station: Fenchurch Street and Canon Street are the nearest Tube stations. Liverpool Street and Moorgate are also nearby.
Map of famous buildings in London
Here is my sightseeing map of the famous buildings in London (in Google Maps).
That’s my guide to the 15 most famous buildings in London. What’s your favourite?