12 of the Best Historical Things To Do in London
London is one of the oldest and most visited destinations in the world, and a place every traveler should see at least once in their lifetime.
With a vivid history dating back thousands of years, the city is brimming with historical landmarks and hidden treasures. In this guide, I am going to share some of my favorite historical things to do in London with you.
The London attractions I have chosen include royal palaces and medieval places of worship, as well as unique cultural attractions and spectacular architecture. Each historic London landmark is somewhere I have visited many times and feel sure that you will find it as fascinating as I do.
Table of Contents
Buckingham Palace: the ultimate historical thing to do in London
Buckingham Palace is perhaps the most famous historical site in the UK capital. It has been home to kings and queens since 1837, its longest resident being Queen Elizabeth II who lived here almost her entire life. She gave birth to the current king, Charles III, at Buckingham Palace.
Each year between July and October, the normally inaccessible Buckingham Palace State Rooms are opened to the public. Visitors can step inside and marvel at the grandeur of the magnificent interior. The palace is everything you could imagine a royal residence to be, with red velvet, gold leaf, oil paintings, and antique furniture gracing every inch of this iconic London landmark.
Book your entry to Buckingham Palace State Rooms in advance.
The magic of Buckingham Palace continues with a visit to the Royal Mews. See the famous Gold State Coach used for coronations, the Diamond Jubilee State Coach, and the magnificent royal carriage horses that pull the ceremonial carriages.
Book in advance for entry to Buckingham Palace Royal Mews.
The Queen’s Gallery is another must-see Buckingham Palace attraction. Born out of the bombed ruins of the Queen’s Private Chapel in 1962, it now attracts art lovers to its ever-changing exhibitions featuring some of the world’s most exquisite works of art.
Book in advance for entry to the Queen’s Gallery.
Explore Westminster Abbey inside and out
For over 1,000 years, Westminster Abbey has been the place where kings and queens of the UK have been crowned, married, and laid to rest. It was the venue for the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton in 2011.
While the outside of this historical building is a work of architectural genius, it is the interior that will astound visitors with its size and detail, and of course the number of famous historic names who are entombed inside. The most famous royal is Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and one of the most famous authors is Charles Dickens.
Exploring inside Westminster Abbey is the perfect historical thing to do in London.
Book in advance for skip-the-line-entry and a guided tour of Westminster Abbey.
Marvel at the Houses of Parliament
Positioned close to Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament are the epicenter of Britain’s democracy. The House of Lords and the House of Commons meet in this iconic historical building dating back to the 1800s, to pass laws determining the future of the United Kingdom.
Once inside this former royal residence — officially known as the Palace of Westminster — take in the splendor of the art on display, decorative coverings, and the sheer scale of the interior.
Take a guided tour inside the Houses of Parliament with a historian and find out the secrets of the building and how the original Palace of Westminster — built in the 11th century — was burnt to the ground and replaced by the current one.
During the tour, step inside the ceremonial chambers and see where the king prepares for the state opening of parliament.
Book online to join a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey skip-the-line-combined ticket.
The River Thames flows through the heart of London, creating a delightful way to traverse the city. Hop aboard a Westminster to Tower Bridge River Thames Cruise to your next historic landmark.
Take in the Tower of London
One of the capital’s most recognizable landmarks — and one of London’s most historical things to do — is the Tower of London. Built by William the Conqueror in 1078, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been used for many different purposes over the centuries, including as a royal residence, a prison, and a fortified battlement warding off unwelcome armies arriving in London.
The famous Yeoman Wardens, known as Beefeaters, are a familiar sight in their red coats. They still guard the Tower of London today, as well as acting as tour guides, unlocking the secrets of the castle.
Another sight to take in is the black raven birds who, according to legend, must stay at the Tower of London otherwise a great disaster will befall the city. Fact or fiction, nobody knows as the ravens have never yet left.
Inside the Tower of London, visitors will be dazzled by the collection of Crown Jewels. It features the unique Imperial State Crown worn for coronations and for the State Opening of Parliament, and a scepter containing the largest cut diamond on Earth.
Book in advance for skip-the-line-entry to The Tower of London and the Crown Jewels accompanied by a Beefeater.
Enjoy the tranquility of St Paul’s Cathedral
If Westminster Abbey has whetted your appetite to discover more of London’s historic landmarks, then St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is the next must-see historical sight in London.
Built in 1711 on Ludgate Hill, its iconic dome roof stands prominently on London’s skyline.
Step inside St Paul’s to discover the magnificence of this stunning cathedral and the beautiful paintings and mosaics adorning its walls and ceilings.
Take a guided tour to find out which dignitaries have been laid to rest here and the hidden secrets of the cathedral’s unique history. Finish your visit by listening to the acoustics in the Whispering Gallery before climbing to the top of the dome for unrivaled views across London.
Book in advance for entry to St Paul’s Cathedral and its magnificent dome.
Feel like royalty at Kensington Palace
Nestled in the leafy surrounds of Kensington Gardens, on the edge of Hyde Park, the charming Kensington Palace has been home to members of the British royal family for centuries. From the formidable Queen Victoria to the kind-hearted Diana, Princess of Wales, to current resident Prince William and his family. Despite it being home to two future kings, you can still go inside, and a visit to this landmark is one of London’s best historic things to do.
Step inside the palace and wander through the State Apartments to discover the flamboyant story of this historic royal residence and the secrets it hides.
Book in advance to skip the ticket lines at Kensington Palace or for a Guided Tour of Kensington Palace Gardens followed by Afternoon Tea, the perfect way to round off a visit to this historic royal palace.
See the grand Natural History Museum
Once the workplace of Charles Darwin, the Natural History Museum is a place for the whole family to visit. Built in the 19th century and one of London’s most exquisite buildings, the museum is home to a whole host of dinosaur skeletons along with an additional 80 million objects.
Located in South Kensington, in an area known as Museum Mile, visitors of all ages will be amazed by the grand entrance hall, complete with a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling.
While the Natural History Museum is free to enter, and you can browse its displays at leisure, it is a great idea to book a professional historian guide who will show you the most interesting and important treasures and explain their origins. Book online for a Skip-the-Line Private Tour of the Natural History Museum.
Take to the River Thames on the Westminster to Greenwich River Boat Cruise and enjoy the views of London’s historic monuments from the water. It’s a leisurely way to discover where London’s most famous historical things to do are located within the capital.
Climb aboard the Cutty Sark
Located on the banks of the River Thames in the Borough of Greenwich sits the Cutty Sark tea clipper. With the river as a backdrop, this beautifully restored vessel has many stories to tell of its voyages on the high seas and record-breaking trips around the globe.
Step aboard the Cutty Sark and explore the nooks and crannies of the sailors’ quarters before you hear stories from the captain’s helm on how treacherous the voyages to collect tea from China could be.
Make sure to stand underneath the ship, suspended in mid-air, and marvel at its hull before finding out how it has been preserved so magnificently over the years.
For a special treat why not book a delicious traditional afternoon tea aboard the iconic Cutty Sark?
Wander the Royal Museums in Greenwich
A stone’s throw from the Cutty Sark are the historic Royal Museums in Greenwich. Visit the world-famous Royal Observatory, built in 1675, from where GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) is calculated, and stand astride the prime meridian line, from where every location on earth is measured.
Marvel at the views of London from Greenwich Park and then walk down to the National Maritime Museum, the largest of its kind in the world, to discover the history of seafaring through the ages.
Afterward, head to one of London’s most famous historic places, the Queen’s House. Inside this 17th-century former royal residence, art lovers can view an unrivaled art collection by great masters including Turner, Gainsborough, and Hogarth.
Book in advance for combined entry to the Queen’s House, Royal Observatory, Cutty Sark and National Maritime Museum.
See the Old Royal Naval College and Painted Hall
The Old Royal Naval College is one of London’s most famous historical hidden gems and a must-see on a trip to the city. This was once a royal residence and the birthplace of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.
Step inside this beautiful building and see the recently renovated Painted Hall, London’s answer to the Sistine Chapel. It will take your breath away. Wander through the Sackler Gallery and Nelson’s room, which was dedicated to the famous British naval hero, before taking a stroll through the courtyards of this impressive London landmark.
Book in advance for the Old Royal Naval College Visit and Painted Hall Tour.
Take a historical walking tour and visit the Churchill War Rooms
If time is limited on a trip to the capital, make sure you don’t miss out on London’s most famous historical things to do with a 4-hour historical walking tour of London. You will be taken past some of the famous landmarks listed in this article, as well as many other London attractions — including the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, with its fountains and magnificent bronze lion statues.
The historical walking tour will finish with entry into the Churchill War Rooms.
Head underground to see the secret headquarters from where Winston Churchill ran his World War II campaign.
The future of the UK and Europe was determined by decisions made by political and military leaders deep under the streets of London in what are now known as the Churchill War Rooms, making them one of London’s must-see historical things to do.
Get a different perspective on a hop-on, hop-off historic sightseeing bus
If you want the flexibility to discover the historic sights of London at your own pace, then the Open-Top Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus is what you need. This classic tour will give you an excellent view of London’s most famous historical landmarks, with the option to get off the bus whenever you want to explore an area further.
Top tip: The London Pass is an economical way of experiencing over 80 of London’s most famous historical things to do and can be purchased for 1-10 days, so is great for any length of visit.