As you’d expect from the UK’s capital and cultural powerhouse, London tours are show stopping. From classic hop-on, hop-off bus tours to behind-the-scenes action, here are our pick of the bunch.
1. London bus tours
We’ve all seen them: sunburnt, map-toting tourists on the top deck, breezing past the sights on a hop-on, hop-off bus. Become one of them (well, without the sunburn, perhaps) and pass the city’s top attractions in the open-air, with all the facts at your fingertips, can be a whole lot of fun.
Standard sightseeing tours are run by several rival bus companies in London. Their open-top double-deckers set off every 30mins from Victoria station, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and other tourist hotspots. You can hop on and off several different routes as often as you like with The Original Tour.
A much cheaper option is to hop on a modern London double-decker - the #11 bus from Victoria station, for example, will take you past Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, up Whitehall, round Trafalgar Square, along the Strand and on to St Paul’s. Alternatively, you can take an old double-decker Routemaster, with open rear platform and roving conductor, on a “heritage” route; #15 from Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill.
Best for: Tired legs
Price: £1.50 (standard bus fare) to £34 (24hr ticket, Original Tour).
2. Houses of Parliament
Perhaps London’s best-known monument is the Houses of Parliament, thanks to its instantly recognizable clock tower, the famous Big Ben. Throughout the year there are guided House of Parliament tours in which visitors get to walk through the two chambers, see some of the state rooms and admire Westminster Hall. And the fun isn’t just reserved for visitors - UK residents are entitled to a free tour.
Best for: Learning about law-making
3. Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery enjoys the dubious honour of being London’s best-known graveyard. The most famous resident of the East Cemetery is Karl Marx. Erected by the Communist movement in 1954, his ornate bronze bust is a far cry from the unfussy memorial he had requested. Close by is the grave of author George Eliot. On the other side, the overgrown West Cemetery, with its imposing Egyptian Avenue and terraced catacombs, is the ultimate spooky graveyard. Visitors can only enter by way of a Highgate Cemetery guided tour.
Best for: Spooks and shivers
4. Behind the scenes at the National Theatre
Depending on who you ask, the National Theatre is either a Brutalist masterpiece or a bit like a multi-storey car park. Whatever you think of the building, its three auditoriums host some of the city’s most esteemed productions. It can be visited on the excellent National Theatre backstage tours, which shine the spotlight on preparations for upcoming shows, including set building and prop making.
Best for: Behind-the-scenes secrets
5. Walking tours
Want to explore the Big Smoke on your own two feet? No problem. There are a whole host of high-calibre walking tours on offer, mixing solid historical facts with juicy anecdotes in the company of a local specialist. Walks on offer range from a literary pub crawl in Bloomsbury to a roam around the East End. If you want to plan - or book - walks in advance, contact the most reliable company, Original London Walks.
Searching for London holidays and the perfect hotel? Many accommodations can book walking tours in advance on your behalf.
Best for: Al-fresco trivia
Price: Approx. £10
6. British Museum
The collections of the British Museum are among the greatest in the world. But let’s face it: with seventy thousand exhibitions, you’d be forgiven for not knowing where to start. Join any of the museum’s wonderful tours and let someone else do the hard work for you: the British Museum Eye-opener tours, which concentrate on just one or two rooms, are particularly good.
Best for: Archaeological treasures
Price: Eye-opener tours: free; Around the world in 90 minutes: £14; LGBTQ tour: free
7. Hampton Court
King of the UK’s royal palaces, London tours don’t get better than this. A wonderfully imposing, sprawling red-brick ensemble on the banks of the Thames, Hampton Court was built in 1516. It was constructed by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, only to be snatched by Henry himself after Wolsey fell from favour. Fantastic Hampton Court guided tours, featuring historical scenes, take place throughout the State Apartments in summer; all are led by period-costumed historians, who do a fine job of bringing the past to life.
Best for: Royal fans
Price: Free; private tailored tours start from £132.
8. John Soanes Museum
The chief architect of the Bank of England, John Soane designed his house not only as a home and office but also as a place to stash his large collection of art and antiquities. Arranged much as it was in his lifetime, the ingeniously planned house has an informal treasure-hunt atmosphere, and intriguing spatial tricks, created with Soane’s trademark domes, mirrors and skylights. The star exhibits include the alabaster Egyptian sarcophagus of Set I rejected by the British Museum. Soane’s private apartments, which include a display of his architectural models, can only be visited on a free tour or John Soanes Museum highlights tour
Best for: Charming oddities
Price: Free or £15 (highlights tour)
9. Mail Rail
For something entirely different, make for the Postal Museum and Mail Rail. Faced with rising city congestion and an increased demand for speedy postal delivery, in the early 1900s Royal Mail came up with an ingenious solution: the Mail Rail. Some 6.5 miles of narrow tunnels were constructed to run east–west under the centre of London for mini-trains to transport the city’s post. It opened in 1927 and operated until 2003. Now, a mile-long stretch has been developed as a tourist attraction - tiny electric trains whizz you along the tunnels for 20 minutes, as a former rail engineer provides the audio tour - look out for the train ‘graveyard’ below.
Best for: A tour like no other
10. Tower of London
Despite all the hype, the Tower of London remains one of the city’s most remarkable buildings, site of some of the goriest events in the nation’s history. Today, it still serves as a safe-deposit box for the crown jewels. The free, lively tours given by the Tower’s Beefeaters (officially known as the Yeoman Warders) are useful for getting your bearings. Names of landmarks like Traitors’ Gate and the Bloody Tower provide clues to their grisly past.