Every spot in the world has truly iconic places and events that you can't miss on a visit without doing a disservice to yourself — and anyone trying to live vicariously through you. "Did you visit the Louvre?" they'll ask if you've been in Paris. "What was the Taj Mahal like?" they'll wonder aloud after you trip to India. To save any potential embarrassment, here is a list of the top 10 must-see and -do spots on a trip to London.
1. Globe Theatre
Though it's not the original (the original and a copy of it were both destroyed in the 1600s), the new Globe is located less than a kilometer from the site where Shakespeare's plays, including "Romeo and Juliet," were first shown.
2. High-street shopping (and riding the tube!)
Maybe not something you would have had on a must-do list a few decades ago, but if you forego a shopping expedition in a high street area ("high street" is a general British term for a shopping district), you risk missing out on a large part of living the London life. Style icons and fashion mavens are always combining high-street looks with either designer (for the wealthy) or vintage and homemade (for the less wealthy) clothes. Try the Oxford Street or Covent Garden areas, for starters. As an added bonus, you can take the Tube (London's Underground metro system) to get there and cross an additional must-do off the list!
3. Ride a double decker bus
Most major cities have them by now, so everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous "hop on, hop off" tourist vehicle. But those aren't quite the same as a proper British double decker. These two-level transports have been an identifying feature of life in London for decades and feature prominently in many films and books. Why not hitch a ride with one and feel the thrill of public transport the way it was meant to be?
4. Catch a show
Some of the world's most beloved and famed actors hail from London stages. Much like Broadway in New York, London theatre is a breeding ground for talent. But where Broadway specializes in big, over-the-top musicals, London's theatre scene produces powerful, emotional, tour de force-style performances of both new and classic plays. There is no place in the world with a better reputation for live theatre than London. Check out the London Theatre Guide to see what's playing.
5. Tate Britain and Tate Modern
London's Tate Britain houses collections both contemporary and classic. As the national gallery of British art from 1500 to today, its depth cannot be overstated. Spanning centuries and styles, this museum is a history lesson in beauty.
The reign of the mods mid-20th century helped establish London as a hub for new and radical thoughts on art, culture and design. The Tate Modern is a natural extension of that. With innovative exhibits and a carefully curated collection, the Tate Modern has won international acclaim.
Trying to find a grandparent who has visited London but hasn't stopped in at Harrods is like trying to find a unicorn. The iconic British store resonates with the older set precisely because it is a classic. A nod to British tailoring and lifestyles, Harrods represents an era of British refinement as well as British traditionalism that is beginning to fade but retains much of its glory.
7. Football and a pub dinner
As long as you pick a game that isn't likely to dissolve into a major riot, going to a footy match can be an incredible thing to do on a visit to the UK. Raucous, loud, fun and full of spirit, football is at the heart of many a Londoner's life. If you can find a cricket match to visit, they're also well worth it for the history and the oddity — after all, they break for tea during the matches — but a footy match is a sure-fire way to get at the heart of being a Brit. Be sure to grab a pint and a steak and kidney pie (or bangers and mash) pre- or post-game at the local pub to get the full sports fan effect. Visit the British Premier League website to find a calendar of events.
8. Big Ben and Westminster Abbey
Few landmarks are as identifiable as Big Ben and few inspire as many fairytale dreams as Westminster Abbey.
Big Ben, in what is officially known as Elizabeth Tower as of September 12 of this year, sits above the Palace of Westminster (another worthy stop on a London day). Used in films time and again to establish location, this stunning clock and bell tower is just over 150 years old and is a must-see when traveling to London.
Westminster Abbey is a spectacular structure. Located just west of the Palace of Westminster, it is the site of royal coronations and weddings. It would be hard to imagine a royal fairytale without this impressive gothic building featuring largely, and you'd be a sure disappointment to a young niece if you neglected this dream location for future princesses!
9. High Tea
The quintessentially British affair of sitting down to a tea, finger sandwiches and all, is a nod to a refined and genteel history. This year, The Athenaeum Hotel took highest honours in the "Top London Afternoon Tea" awards given by The Tea Guild, though there are countless locations where one can enjoy afternoon tea.
10. Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard
Perhaps some view this as trite or cheesy or too touristy, but there's something about visiting the UK and seeing the royal palace in all its stature. As the Queen's residence, it has an air of something — perhaps "royalty" is the word, though even that seems to fall short of the mark — that makes you feel that, yes, this is life in London. Even though most Londoners would pass by it on any given day without giving it a second thought, you can't help but feel British when witnessing the changing of the guard in front of the palace of the Queen!
By Leigh Bryant
Top: The Egyptian Room at Harrods department store is one of London's wonders. (Photo by I, Targeman via Wikimedia Commons)
Middle: Red double-decker buses take tourists on classic hop-on, hop-off tours of London. (Photo by BitBoy via Wikimedia Commons)
Lower: Westminster Abbey is the site of many special occasions, including royal weddings. (Photo by Gordon Joly via Wikimedia Commons)