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Best Things To Do in London

AOL PICK from our Editors

Samuel Johnson’s dictum “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life” still holds impeccably true. You’ll never want for things to do in London. The London museums are packed with artifacts, from Egyptian mummies to Lalique glass. Museum galleries are laden with artworks from Rembrandt to Tracey Emin, and any night of the week you’ll find performance spaces and theatres busy—whether it’s opera at Covent Garden Opera House, avant garde theatre-for-one, new-style circus or out-there comedy. You don’t even have to leave London to find a spot of tranquility. The city is remarkable for its measure of lush and manicured green spaces, too.

Victoria & Albert Museum

Neighborhood: South Kensington

This stop makes up one of the best things to do in London if you love fashion, or ceramics, glassware, jewelry, textiles or furniture for these prized items are spread across more than 150 galleries in this High Victorian treasure trove. The fashion collections are a major draw, but so are the 10 new major Medieval and Renaissance galleries that opened in 2009, which include items such as Leonardo di Vinci’s sketchbooks. The building itself is devilishly handsome, centered around a serene courtyard with a paddling pool, which is a charming place to have some tea and cake. When the weather’s unkind, it’s a good excuse to head to the interior cafes housed in the gracious 19th-century refreshment rooms. On the last Friday of the month, the V&A stays up late, with free live acts, DJs and a bar.

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Natural History Museum

Neighborhood: Kensington

A Victorian Battenberg cake of a building, this multi-pastel masterpiece is crowned by carvings of animals. The Life Galleries still feel Victorian, with their array of stuffed animals culminating in a life-size model of a blue whale. More state-of-the-art are the Dinosaur Galleries, with a snarling animatronics model of Tyrannosaurus Rex, and even more so are the brand-new Darwin galleries, which explain evolution via projections of animals and plants. Free after-hours evenings on the last Friday of the month make for a kooky night out. You can hobnob with the dinosaur skeleton in the central hall to the sounds of live jazz or world music.

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Chelsea Physic Garden

Neighborhood: Chelsea

Founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, this walled garden feels like a central London secret, and entering its gates is like stepping into another world. Its sturdy walls protect 3.5 acres of medicinal and rare plants and trees, including over 5,000 plant species. The local microclimate helps the plants flourish, and its natural treasures include Britain’s largest olive tree and a Judas tree. The rental for the land here still only costs £5—the amount was set in 1722.

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Houses of Parliament

Neighborhood: Westminster

Charles Barry’s spiky masterpiece forms a delicately jagged silhouette along this stretch of the Thames, overlooked by the iconic gold face of Big Ben, and lending itself to perfect reflections. You can attend debates at the House of Commons for free, though these can be dry affairs. It may require a one- to two-hour wait outside St. Stephens Gate. If you’re a UK resident, apply for tickets for Prime Minister’s Question Time via your MP or a Lord for a spicier show. The oldest part of the building is Westminster Hall (1099), which you’ll see as you enter to view a debate. Apply in writing, and you can also get a free tour of Big Ben, which is well worth the effort of putting pen to paper.

Next door, Westminster Abbey is a feast of Early English Gothic, having been mostly constructed around the 11th to 13th centuries, and its interior is packed with jewel-like chapels, monuments and magnificent tombs commemorating a who’s who of British greats. Henry VII added a chapel—with circular vaulting so soaring it will make you dizzy—in the 17th century.

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Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

Neighborhood: Richmond

If you died and went to botanical heaven, it would look something like this, with a collection consisting of more than 30,000 different species of plant life. The Royal Botanic Gardens are one of the best London things to do if you like the prospect of manicured gardens spread out over 300 lush acres. Wander from woodlands (carpeted by bluebells in spring) to tropical gardens and along the treetop walkway before visiting the different environments within the glinting Victorian glasshouses: the Palmhouse, the Temperate house and the Alpine house.

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London Eye: Fast Track

Neighborhood: South Bank

This is one of the top things to do in London if a fear of heights doesn't  threaten to bite a piece out of this pleasantly good time. There are surprisingly few places from where you can see London from on high, so what better way is there to get this bird’s-eye view than to revolve above the river in a glass bubble? The wheel is 135 meters high and has 32 large glass pods. It revolves very gently making one rotation per half-hour trip. And the views? These can stretch as far as 40 km on a clear day. The sights over Westminster, the north bank and beyond will leave you speechless.

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British Museum

Neighborhood: Bloomsbury

Norman Foster’s Great Court, a circular indoor courtyard with a soaring, segmented glass roof, ushers you into the British Museum. At its center lies the former British Library reading room, a polished kernel, where Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde and Gandhi have studied. The museum collection consists of over eight million items, some of it controversial booty from the colonial era, most notably the Parthenon sculptures plucked from Athens by Lord Elgin in 1801, which the Greek government would rather like to see returned. Other treasures in this incredible array include the Egyptian collection, Assyrian carvings and the Rosetta stone. Free tours throughout the day plot a route through this Aladdin’s cave and ensure you won’t miss a royal secret in this top London attraction.

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St. Paul's Cathedral

Neighborhood: City Centre

An iconic dome punctuating the city skyline, St. Paul’s Cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1710 after the previous church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. However, there has been a cathedral dedicated to St. Paul here since 604AD (this is its fourth incarnation). You can climb up the dome and test out the Whispering Gallery. Stand on one side, while your companion stands at the other, talk close to the wall, and your words should carry 32 meters to the other side. The interior has hosted many of Britain’s most-notable ceremonies, such as the funerals of Lord Nelson and Sir Winston Churchill, and the marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales, to Lady Diana Spencer.

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Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens

Neighborhood: Kensington

If forced to choose between a visit to any of London’s parks, head to Hyde Park. Perhaps it’s not the most beautiful, but it’s a huge wild green space—a former Royal hunting ground, like many London parks. Here also is the genteel-looking Serpentine Gallery, which belies its mild-mannered appearance with contemporary art exhibitions and has a new architectural pavilion outside every year. You can also swim in the nearby Serpentine Lido on summer days, or go boating on the river. In Kensington Gardens there is the magical Princess Diana Memorial Playground, complete with pirate ship, and the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, laid out like a stream and where crowds of people dabble their toes in the summertime.

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Tate Modern

Neighborhood: South Bank

Whatever exhibition is showing, the Tate Modern is always worth a visit by merit of its riverside position. This graceful former power station sits beside the river, opposite the sinuous Millennium Bridge, which leads over to the gleaming dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. If you’re in luck, the dizzyingly tall Turbine Hall will be housing a specially commissioned installation, each of which is a London event. The Tate Modern's permanent collections carry on where its sister concern, the Tate Britain, leave off, in 1900, and include works by Rothko, Warhol and Picasso. The temporary exhibitions, though a bit hit and miss, can be sensational.

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Science Museum

Neighborhood: Kensington

Wallow in wonder in the absorbing Science Museum, with something for every age group. For toddlers and younger children, there are water and construction games in the basement, as well as regular shows on subjects close to children’s hearts, such as the origin of bubbles. Upstairs are more hands-on exhibits, where you can test out how light travels or different types of energy; there are demonstrations of how rockets work, and you can go on a flight simulator to the moon. On other floors find space rockets, the earliest locomotive—Stephenson’s Rocket—and the Energy Gallery. Culinary tip: skip the uninspiring restaurants/cafes and take a picnic.

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Sir John Soane's Museum

Neighborhood: Lincoln's Inn

Is this London’s loveliest museum? It’s certainly its most curious, and perhaps most quintessentially British. It’s the former home of architect Sir John Soane, who adapted his gracious townhouse to house his collection of art, sculpture and artifacts. It’s an eccentric warren of a place, and the contents include a room full of Hogarth paintings, hung on special foldaway panels, and ancient Egyptian sarcophagi in the basement. On Tuesday evenings, it’s open late, and lit by candlelight, which is an especially atmospheric way to visit.

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