With so much to see and do in London, it can be difficult to know where to start – especially if you’re a first-time visitor to the city.
If you’re having trouble deciding which places to include on your itinerary, one way to pare down the list of must-sees is to focus on World Heritage Sites. These are places that have been listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as being of special cultural or physical significance.
Around the world, there are more than 1,000 sites that have been listed – and Italy is home to the highest number of World Heritage Sites (more than 50). There are currently 29 in the UK and London is home to four.
1. Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey including Saint Margaret’s Church
Sitting on the north shore of the River Thames, the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt in 1840 on the site of important medieval remains. The current structure is a stunning example of neo-Gothic architecture and it forms an iconic part of the London skyline. It’s also central to the British government, as it contains the Houses of Parliament. The UNESCO World Heritage Site also comprises the small medieval Church of Saint Margaret and Westminster Abbey, both of which are adjacent to the Palace of Westminster.
Westminster Abbey is where monarchs are crowned – it’s also where they are often married and buried. In 1947, Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were married at the abbey and in 2011, Prince William and Catherine Middleton tied the knot there as well. The last monarch to be buried at Westminster Abbey was George II in 1760. It’s also the location of the grave of the Unknown Warrior and the burial site of notable figures including Geoffery Chaucer, Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Johnson, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Laurence Olivier.
Saint Margaret’s Church is the parish church of the Palace of Westminster. It was built in the simple, yet elegant, perpendicular style and its beautiful interior features glittering chandeliers, colourful stained glass and arched columns.
2. Tower of London
The Tower of London is one of the world’s most famous buildings – and it has a remarkable history that spans some 900 years. It has served a variety of purposes during that time, having been a royal palace, prison, place of execution, arsenal, jewel house and even a zoo – not to mention a popular tourist destination today.
While it might sound like the Tower of London is a single building, it’s actually a complex comprising several structures. At the centre is the White Tower, which is what the site is named after. It was built by William the Conqueror in 1078.
During your visit, consider taking a Yeoman Warder guided tour. Also known as Beefeaters, the Yeoman Warders are the ceremonial guards of the Tower of London. The tours leave from the main entrance every half hour and give visitors insight into the history and events that occurred at the Tower.
3. Maritime Greenwich
Located in south-east London, the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises a number of different attractions and will provide a memorable day out.
Start with the Royal Observatory. Situated at the top of a hill and surrounded by the picturesque Greenwich Park, the Royal Observatory has played a major role in the history of astronomy and navigation. There’s a museum, which tells about the history of the observatory and includes displays about telescopes and astronomy, and visitors can also get their picture taken while straddling the Prime Meridian.
Next, enjoy a walk through the park and head to the National Maritime Museum, where you can learn about Britain’s maritime history – collections include everything from maps and charts, through to boats, art, clothing and memorabilia.
Only a short walk from the Maritime Museum is Queen’s House. Built by architect Inigo Jones, this 17th century building was the first in the Palladian style in Britain and served as inspiration for classical houses and villas all over the country. There’s also The Painted Hall and the chapel at the Old Royal Naval College – two beautiful spaces that you won’t want to miss.
Finally, be sure to go see the Cutty Sark. This is a British clipper ship that was built on the Clyde in 1869. It was one of the last tea clippers to be built and was said to be one of the fastest too. Following a fire during refurbishment work in 2007, the ship was extensively re-built and a museum has been constructed around the base of the vessel.
4. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Also known as Kew Gardens, this historic landscaped garden features elements that illustrate significant periods of the art of gardening, spanning the 18th to 20th centuries. In addition, the gardens are home to a vast botanical collection – ever since the creation of the gardens in 1759, they have made a significant contribution to the study of plant diversity and economic botany.
Top attractions include the Kew glasshouses – the Palm House is one of the largest surviving Victorian glasshouses in the world, while the Princess of Wales Conservatory comprises ten different climatic zones including a cacti section, an orchid section and an area for carnivorous plants. There are also sculptures and galleries dotted around the area, as well as a treetop walkway, Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, a pagoda and various kid-friendly activities.