London's Top Sights

By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw

Here's a sampling of London's great sights:

Westminster Abbey

As the greatest church in the English-speaking world, Westminster Abbey has been the place where England's kings and queens have been crowned and buried since 1066. A thousand years of English history — 3,000 tombs, the remains of 29 kings and queens, and hundreds of memorials — lie within its walls and under its stone slabs. Experience an evensong service — awesome in a nearly empty church. The 30-minute free organ recital on most Sunday evenings is another highlight.

British Library

In the impressive British Library, wander through the manuscripts that have enlightened and brightened our lives for centuries. While the library contains 180 miles of bookshelves in London's deepest basement, one beautiful room filled with state-of-the-art glass display cases shows you the treasures: ancient maps, early Gospels on papyrus, illuminated manuscripts from the early Middle Ages, the Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta, pages from Leonardo's notebooks, and original writing by the titans of English literature, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Dickens and Wordsworth. There's also a wall dedicated to music, with manuscripts from Beethoven to the Beatles. Use the computers to virtually flip through the pages of a few precious books.

Natural History Museum

Across the street from the Victoria and Albert Museum, this mammoth museum is housed in a giant and wonderful Victorian, neo-Romanesque building, constructed in the 1870s specifically to house the huge collection (50 million specimens). Exhibits are wonderfully explained, with lots of creative interactive displays. Pop in, if only for the wild collection of dinosaurs and the roaring T. rex.

Tower of London

The Tower has served as a castle in wartime, a monarch's residence in peace time, and, most notoriously, as the prison and execution site of rebels. You can see the crown jewels, take a witty Beefeater tour, and ponder the executioner's block that dispensed with troublesome heirs to the throne and a couple of Henry VIII's wives.

Ceremony of the Keys

Every night at precisely 21:30, with pageantry-filled ceremony, the Tower of London is locked up (as it has been for the last 700 years). To attend this free 30-minute event, you need to request an invitation by mail.

Tate Modern

This striking museum across the river from St. Paul's opened the new century with art from the old one. Its powerhouse collection of Monet, Matisse, Dalí, Picasso, Warhol, and much more is displayed in a converted power station. Each year, the main hall features a different monumental installation by a prominent artist.

London Eye

This giant Ferris wheel, which towers above London opposite Big Ben, was built by British Airways. It's now run in an extremely commercial way by Merlin Entertainment, which also operates the London Dungeon and Madame Tussauds Waxworks. London's answer to the Eiffel Tower is the world's highest observation wheel. While the experience is memorable, London doesn't have much of a skyline and the price is borderline outrageous. But whether you ride or not, the wheel is a sight to behold.

Designed like a giant bicycle wheel, it's a pan-European undertaking: British steel and Dutch engineering, with Czech, German, French, and Italian mechanical parts. It's also very "green," running extremely efficiently and virtually silently. Twenty-five people ride in each of its 32 air-conditioned capsules for the 30-minute rotation (each capsule has a bench, but most people stand). From the top of this 450-foot-high wheel — the highest public viewpoint in the city — even Big Ben looks small. The London Eye's original five-year lease has been extended to 25 years, and it looks like it will become a permanent fixture on the London skyline.


Gene Openshaw is the co-author of Rick Steves' London.