I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: London is one of the most iconic destinations in the world. Can you think of a place with more well-known iconic buildings and places to visit? Maybe it’s due to colonization and imperialism or maybe it’s due to pop culture, but no matter the reason, everyone can picture a part of London in their mind’s eye.
Below you’ll find a list of the various landmarks in London you know, love, and maybe want to visit one day. I’ve organized them into several different categories, including most iconic, most popular, modern, and most photographed – that last one will probably surprise you!
Whether you’re planning an upcoming London itinerary and don’t want to miss anything, or just want to know more about London, this list of landmarks in London covers all the bases from the origin of the city to the modern-day – and basically everything in between.
The Three Most Iconic London Landmarks
I know, what isn’t iconic in London? While I’m aware it’s difficult to narrow it down, these are the three landmarks in London that have evolved to constitute the images you inevitably associate with the city.
Big Ben (Houses of Parliament)
There are a few doubts surrounding why they call it Big Ben, but there are no doubts about it being one of the most iconic landmarks in London. Big Ben is the Great Bell living inside the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster. Although its popularity has grown to such magnitude that locals and travelers use Big Ben’s nickname to refer to the whole building.
The clock is a magnificent example of Gothic architecture. It’s more than just a pretty face. Big Ben is also a feat of engineering as workers can alter the clock speed with a penny. Fascinating, right?
First of all, Tower Bridge is not London Bridge – it’s still a mystery why people seem to confuse them. Spanning over the Thames, Tower Bridge is another engineering marvel and one of the most recognized structures in London. The bridge dates back to 1894 and has been opening up since then to let the ships coming upstream into the city – if you didn’t know, Victorian London was the world’s biggest and most important shipping port.
So, yeah, thousands of boats of all shapes and sizes access the city. Although there aren’t as many vessels on the Thames these days, this bascule bridge still opens around 800 times a year.
On a side note, ironically, London Bridge is a fantastic location to snap Instagram pics of Tower Bridge.
The Tower of London
Sitting right by Tower Bridge, the Tower of London has more than a thousand years of history behind it, making it London’s oldest intact building. William the Conqueror built the vast Medieval castle. Its rooms have served the most varied throughout the centuries, from a fortress of domination to a royal menagerie (zoo) to an infamous prison.
Today, the Tower of London has a less eccentric and frightening function. It protects the Crown Jewels. Some protocolar ceremonies are still taking place, like the Ceremony of the Keys, the ritual of locking up the tower at night, which visitors can attend. During your visit, you can also see the oldest landmark in London, the White Tower within the Tower of London. This central tower was the first one William the Conqueror built in 1066 and eventually gave the entire fortress its name.
Other Recognizable Landmarks in London
Architecturally speaking, London is vastly diverse. Throughout the centuries, the city has erected buildings that have evolved to become some of the most recognizable landmarks in London, like the ones below.
Buckingham Palace is the official London residence of Queen Elizabeth. The regal building has become one of the most famous landmarks in London as it is a window to explore the monarchy’s history and lifestyle. The Palace also has a long history. George III first bought it for his wife, Queen Charlotte, in 1761. Then, George IV started reconstructing it in 1820 and transformed it into a Palace in 1826.
Luckily, one doesn’t have to be a prime minister or royal to visit Buckingham Palace. The only requirement is to visit during summer if you want to explore the interiors. If not, you’re welcome to explore the grounds any time of the year. Visitors can also witness the Change of Guards ceremony, where a new shift replaces the royal guards protecting Buckingham Palace.
While not the busiest, Piccadilly Circus is one of the most famous road intersections in the world. There are numerous reasons why Piccadilly Circus is iconic: the flashing billboard signs, the Eros statue in the middle, the surrounding architecture, and the images of double-decker buses passing against the signs. A picture-perfect location.
Set right in the heart of London, Piccadilly Circus is all about the essence where everything is happening. Piccadilly is as beautiful as it is vibrant. It is that combination that has made the intersection become an icon.
St. Pancras Hotel
Designed by George Gilbert Scott, St. Pancras Hotel is an iconic landmark even from a distance. This orange building makes an impression to last. Architecturally speaking, St. Pancras Hotel is a piece of art, with its curving redbrick façade, Gothic Revival metalwork, crowning pinnacles, and spires. Allegedly, the architect came up with the design during a three-week seaside holiday and filled fifty sketchbooks with ideas for ornamentation.
This Gothic treasure has enchanted the hearts of numerous Londoners, including that of Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate who unflaggingly fought to save the hotel from demolition in the 1960s. Today, the St. Pancras Hotel forms the frontispiece of St. Pancras railway station, and anyone taking the Eurostar train to Paris or Brussels can walk through its archways.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, is a masterful example of English Baroque architecture. Its structure has wowed locals and tourists alike since 1711, mainly for the stunning dome – which has long dominated London’s famous skyline. St. Paul’s Cathedral was London’s tallest building for 300 years, and it has hosted major cultural and religious events: Prince Charles’ and Diana Spencer’s marriage and Winston Churchill’s funeral.
Besides being an architectural marvel, St. Paul’s Cathedral also marks a crucial historical moment. It was the first Cathedral built after the English Reformation in the 16th Century when Henry VIII removed the Church of England from the Pope’s jurisdiction, and the Crown took control of the life of the church.
The Monument to the Great Fire of London
Another of Sir Christopher Wren’s creations, The Monument, is a fluted Doric column commentating the Great Fire of London. The prolific architect built The Monument between 1671 and 1677.
It stands on the east side of Fish Street Hill and extends to Pudding Lane, where historians believe the great fire originated. Today, The Monument is one of London’s vantage points, offering panoramic views. Visitors can pay a fee and climb up its vertiginous staircase of 311 steps to the top. A bit demanding, I know, but worth it.
Named after the Battle of Trafalgar, Trafalgar Square is the gateway between London’s main shopping district and the West End. Like Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square is famous for a combination of factors: it houses the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, four bronze lion statues, and the iconic Nelson’s Column.
However, one should not make the mistake of considering it a mere fancy open space. Trafalgar Square has constituted a meeting point for social movements and protests throughout the years.
Visitors in love with British Royals will certainly recognize Westminster Abbey, the magnificent church where William and Kate celebrated their union. The Abbey has over 1000 years of heritage and is England’s coronation church and the final resting place of eminent British figures, from monarchs to scientists.
The building is another fine example of sharp Gothic architecture, featuring eight different structures: the nave, the cloisters, the Pyx chamber, the Jerusalem chambers, the North transept, Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, the Poets’ corner, and the Western towers.
Red Telephone Boxes
The London Underground Symbol
It’s hard to find a spot in the city where you can’t see it. The London Underground Symbol is ubiquitous. It brands every single bus, subway, and station in London. Known as The Roundel, the London Underground Symbol evolved from simple signage to tell passengers where to get off the train to an indisputable landmark that represents London in the world.
Despite its apparent simplicity, The Roundel is unique in its scope as an icon, functioning on three levels to different audiences. To Londoners, it represents multimodal transport. To the British, it represents London as a city, and globally, it represents not only London but also the UK and British culture.
Modern London Landmarks
London’s cityscape is in constant evolution. Day after day, prolific architects design new buildings that redraw the urban landscape. Below you’ll find modern London landmarks whose design and originality made them new icons in the city.
Located in Southwark, City Hall is the masterpiece of Norman Foster, an English architect, and designer famous for his holistic take on form, function, and sustainability. The building wrecks all conventional design laws with its bulbous shape, which intends to reduce its surface area and improve energy efficiency.
The architect also made the conscious decision of making the building out of glass to represent the transparency of democracy. Visitors find the building’s most impressive feature in the interior, the fantastic helical staircase.
Something about the Gherkin’s curved shape makes it so pleasing to the eye. The gorgeous building made its formal appearance in London’s landscape in 2004, and its structure boasts an impressive Neo-futuristic and structural expressionism style. Also designed by Norman Foster, the Gherkin not only has beauty it also has brains.
A smart building, it adjusts to London’s ever-changing weather. If the sun is shining, the Gherkin cools itself down by adjusting the blinds, and it also employs natural light and air circulation to stabilize the climate of the building. Today, it dots the London skyline with its peculiar shape and offers top-floor panoramic views from its restaurant and cocktail bar.
The London Eye
Built for the Millennium celebrations, the London Eye is one of the indisputable landmarks in London. The giant wheel opened in 1999, transforming the South Bank and London’s skyline forever.
Designed by husband-and-wife team Julia Barfield and David Marks, the Eye’s was going to be a temporary attraction with a five-year lease. As we can see, it never left. Today, the London Eye has become an emblem of the capital city and is one of the most popular paid tourist attractions in the UK, with over three million visitors annually.
The Shard is possibly the most prominent modern day landmark in London. Back in the day, the Shard was a record-breaking tower that jutted out of the ground at 1,016 feet high. Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the 73-story glass skyscraper was and is the tallest building in the United Kingdom and the seventh-tallest building in Europe.
Everything about the Shard is colossal; just look at the numbers. The building uses 11,000 exterior glass panels and has a massive concrete core that supports luxury apartments, a hotel, and close to 600,000 square feet of office space.
The Skygarden is London’s highest public garden, spanning the three final floors of one of London’s newest skyscrapers. The venue is de-light-ful. Designed by Landscape studio Gillespies, the Skygarden is a vibrant social space supposed to look “as if you’re coming across a mountain slope.”
No matter where you look, every nook of the place is bursting with lush greenery. There are fig trees and ferns. A stunning display of cycads on the top terrace. There are also colorful plant species, including African Lily, Red Hot Poker, and Bird of Paradise, and fragrant herbs such as French Lavender and Rosemary. Needless to say, Skygarden has privileged 360-degree views of the city’s iconic skyline.
The Walkie Talkie
Looking at this list, we could say there’s a tendency for London buildings to have a rather odd shape. The Walkie Talkie is no exception to the rule. Designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, the Walkie Talkie is a 38-story building whose structure resembles a two-way radio handset.
The Walkie Talkie and the Skygarden share a connection from an architectonic and conceptual perspective. The building houses the venue on the top three floors and Viñoly initially conceived and designed the Walkie Talkie with the garden in mind. In fact, the Skygarden is one of the reasons the building’s structure swells outwards at the top.
The Most Photographed Landmark in London
Maybe it won’t have the same effect on you, but I was pretty surprised to learn the British Museum is the most photographed landmark in London. In an article in Business Insider, the British Museum earned the first spot as London’s most visited attraction, with 6,820,686 visitors in 2015, and as the city’s most photographed landmark.
Founded in 1753, the museum is part of history itself, being the world’s oldest national public museum. It also was the first national museum to cover all fields of human knowledge, housing a collection of 8 million objects from every corner of the world.
Now you know all about the different landmarks in London; have any questions about them? Let me know in the comments, or join my London Travel Tips Facebook community.