Big Ben: Whenever I see this iconic building, I can't help but think of Peter Pan. Especially at night, this is truly one of the most spectacular sights. It's the true icon of "Britishness" to me and makes me want to rewatch Peter Pan and Mary Poppins. Seeing Big Ben from the outside was enough for me. It's not open to the public, but if you're a British citizen, you can write for special permission to enter.
Palace of Westminster: There are student prices for a lot of educational opportunities in England and this is one of them, so don't forget your ID card! The tour includes a headset audio guide which walks you through the parliament building and explains the importance of each room. I knew very little about British politics, so I appreciate learning about them at my own pace. Note: You purchase your tour tickets across the street from the Palace. They don't make this very clear, but check the website for more information and buy in advance.
Westminster Abbey: Because ticket prices are so high, I chose to do the Palace of Westminster over the Abbey. I still got great views from outside. The Westminster area is very photogenic so be sure to have your camera!
London Eye: I mean, you really can't miss this if you make the trip there. Yes, it's SO touristy, but SO worth. Be ready to have the most incredible view of the entire city. You can see Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Westminster, and everything in between. I gone up three times and each time had the same amount of magic. Purchase your tickets in the office across from the Eye or visit the website. I didn't have to wait very long, but there are months busier than others. Note: There are other experiences hosted by the same company, including the London Dungeon, Madame Tussauds, and Shrek's Adventure. There's SO many better things to do in London and places to spend your money. It's not worth it and so unoriginal!
Buckingham Palace & Hyde Park: Though these are two totally different places, they're relatively close and I walked directly from the Palace to the Park. Both of these sights are beautiful and totally worth visiting. I didn't see the changing of the guard, but if you're interested, here are the dates and times. Get ready for a packed crowed of people holding obnoxious selfie sticks. If the weather is nice, pack a picnic for a lunch at Hyde Park or rent bicycles and go for a ride. If the trees are full bloom, you're in luck.
Kensington Gardens: If you have some time to spare, consider going for a walk through Kensington Gardens. It's always filled with people working out and families enjoying a day off during the weekends. It truly is so magical and I was glad to see the infamous Peter Pan statue as well.
Abbey Road: Don't get your hopes up, because it really is just a road. I always dreamed of strutting across that street and getting the perfect photo snapped. I finally made that happen during the trip for my 21st birthday. A Spanish woman came up to Brianna and said, "Wait, this is it?!" So, definitely don't expect much. You will still have to dart from traffic.
Columbia Road Flower Market: This is a hidden gem of East London. I only found out about it because my friend from High School was living in East London at the time. We had the best time buying bouquets of flowers and browsing through little shops.
Tower Bridge: Apart from Big Ben, this is my favorite London sight. There's just something so regal about the bridge and I love the blue color. For my 21st birthday, Brianna and I spent so much time taking pictures and taking in the view. It's really a spectacular spot. I always recommend working your way East to West through London and starting at Tower Bridge.
Shakespeare's Globe: If you're going to visit Tower Bridge, just a short walk away is the Globe Theatre along the River Thames. As an English major I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit and get a tour of the infamous Theatre where so many of the plays I'd read were performed. If you do your research you might be lucky enough to see a play, but if you're last minute, a tour of the theatre is still pretty amazing.
When Brianna and I visited for my 21st birthday, there were two poets set up outside of the Globe with signs that said: "Poetry: Pay what you like." They were the sweetest middle-aged men with type writers and hats. You told them the desired them of your poem and they'd write it for you on the spot. It was such a unique idea that I could pass it up. The poem he wrote for me ended up being one of the most cherished souvenirs from my entire semester abroad.
Platform 9 3/4: Harry Potter fan? Then you won't miss this tourist attraction. Located in Kings Cross Station, you'll probably end up waiting 30+ minutes to get your photo snapped in the place Harry Potter entered the mysterious platform to Hogwarts. No reservations needed, but you'll end up walking through the magical gift shop afterwards. You can take your own photos, but professional photos are also available for purchase.
Spitalfields Market: My school found housing for our program in this area and it was one of the best places to live in London. Our apartment building was across the street from Spitalfields Market which had vendors selling handmade items as well as delicious restaurants. The Liverpool Street station was right across the street as well so we could get anywhere in the city via the tube (subway). If you're ever looking for a trendy and less touristy place to stay in London, I highly recommend this neighborhood.
- The Ivy Tower Bridge: This was where we had my 21st birthday breakfast and it certainly didn't disappoint. I had the most delicious buttermilk pancakes, fresh squeezed OJ, granola and milk, and coffee. Not to mention, the views of Tower Bridge are spectacular. Make a reservation in advance to ensure a great spot!
- Bronte: Andrew and I found this restaurant back in 2016 during my first semester abroad. It's hard to describe, but it certainly has a groovy vibe. I always go back every visit to London and it's located right off of Trafalgar Square. Reserve a table here.
- Berners Tavern: This is where I had my 21st birthday dinner. While the food wasn't absolutely spectacular, I was incredibly impressed with the vibe and decor of the restaurant. The walls were lined with beautiful portraits and paintings. It was truly a decadent experience. Reserve a table here.
- Orient London: I have to thank my original travel buddy, Mary Westermann and her Dad, for showing me this delicious restaurant in London's China Town. It's not far from Piccadilly Circus and has the best duck I've ever had! Reserve a table here.
- Simpsons in the Strand: This restaurant was established in 1828 and is a favorite in Andrew's family. His grandfather frequented Simpsons and of course I made sure we ate here for Andrew's 21st birthday in 2016. They have the highest quality of meat and provide a truly upscale dining experience. Reserve a table here.
- The Cereal Killer Cafe: If you love cereal like me, you have to visit this one-of-a-kind spot. They have every cereal imaginable and really make it a fun experience for everyone.
- Sketch: I wanted to go to this iconic restaurant for so many years and I just decided it was going to happen on my 21st birthday. What better occasion, right? I booked many weeks in advance for a spot at Glade, one of the two rooms in Sketch. Glade is known for its Alice in Wonderland theme, while the Gallery Room is the bright pink room for tea. Either experience is amazing and truly one-of-a-kind. The waitresses all wear the prettiest dresses and are so friendly. The bathroom just might be the best part of the whole experience. Each toilet is an egg shape and the ceiling is super colorful. The only way to understand how unique it is, is by seeing pictures or going for yourself! I highly recommend making a reservation because I don't know where else you'll get such a unique experience! Reserve here.
- Daisy Green: I found this beautiful and funky café on Instagram and am so happy I went to it! It's actually Aussie owned and operated with the most deliciously healthy menu.
- Flat White: Located in SoHo, this café offers the perfect break from the bustling city life.
- Grind: There are several locations throughout London and all of them are equally beautiful. It's trendy, modern, and so Instagrammable. Make a reservation here.
- Sky Garden: Not only do they have delicious cocktails, but they're also open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! It's the ultimate experience. You have perfect views of London, including famous landmarks like the Gherkin and Tower Bridge. Brianna and I went up for breakfast one morning and had the most relaxing time looking out to the city. I've also been there at night time for drinks and it's so much fun. It's really a garden in the sky! There are several dining options: more formal and less formal. Be sure to make reservations beforehand to ensure a table or just pop in later in the evening for a drink.
If you're between 16-25 years old, be sure to apply for a UK Rail card. You'll save a percentage of your ticket cost every time you train within the UK. You have to apply for this card before your trip and it will be mailed to you.
The tube is 100% the best way to see the city. Taxis are so unbelievably expensive and not ideal with the crazy city traffic. It's easy to understand the tube and there's even an app! Be sure to pick up an Oyster Card when you visit a tube stop and load up some money so you can easily tap in and out.