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We love London! Obviously as it is our home, we are a little biased, but with so many attractions and heritage to discover in the City of London, we wanted to share our London lowdown. Affectionately called the ‘Square Mile’ (based on the small area it covers – exactly one square mile), there is so much to do here in the historic heart of London.
From the little known free rooftop view of St Paul’s Cathedral to the finest old inns and pubs (sit where Dickens or Twain once enjoyed a flagon of ale), here is our guide to the best activities and curiosities the City of London has to offer – we’ve tried to go the extra (Square) mile for you:
Square Mile London
One of London’s most historic markets (originally built in the 14th century), it is also one of the cities most beautiful places to visit – the interiors are stunning and beautifully painted. Walk along the cobbled streets and lanes in Leadenhall Market, browse the stalls or simply grab a drink at one of the historic pubs here and marvel at the architecture and imagine what has happened here over the last several hundred years. Read more in our Leadenhall Market guide >
Beautifully brutalist or a concrete carbuncle? The jury is still out but there is no denying wandering around the Barbican estate is a weird and wonderful experience. An experimentation in inner city living after the Second World War which now feels kind of sci-fi in nature, this is a grade II listed residential estate and home to over 2000 Londoners.
The estate also houses the Barbican Centre, a performing arts and theatre complex. Try to visit when the Barbican Conservatory is open – the second biggest conservatory in London is like something from the Amazon rainforest and is free admission.
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Tower of London
The secure location of the Crown Jewels and over the years, home to the Royal Mint, the Royal Armouries and the site of Henry VI’s murder, the Tower of London is perhaps the capital’s best known and most iconic attraction, dating back to the 11th century.
Whilst the admission fees are indeed very regal (almost £30pp as at June 2020), this is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, with regular guided tours and a chance to witness the Queen’s Beefeaters (sounds risque) up-close.
Legend has it that if the famous ravens were to all fly away, the Tower of London will collapse so try not to make any sudden movements whilst in the grounds, or you may have your head chopped off (possibly).
Dating back to the 1890s, this jewel of the Thames and London’s most recognised bridge is still free to cross over (although there is also a Tower Bridge Experience – admission fees apply – which take you inside, including the motor house).
If you have time, we’d recommend trying to view it from all angles, so walk across it, then jump on a traditional red Double Decker bus (top floor) over it before seeing it from beneath on the river, via one of the Thames Clippers.
London’s highest public garden sits atop this ‘Walkie Talkie’ building – coined by locals due to its novel exterior. The gardens are free to visit but you have to book way in advance – seriously, it is easier to get an audience with the Queen than get a free admission ticket (don’t even think about turning up without a ticket or reservation). At the top, enjoy stunning views of London and lush tropical foliage plus the Skypod bar and cafe.
Tip – if you missed out on tickets you can guarantee admission by making a booking for their Fenchurch Restaurant or City Garden Bar. Read more about Sky Garden in our Sky Garden guide >
St Paul’s Cathedral
The most glorious building in the whole of London with its iconic dome and Golden Gallery, St Paul’s Cathedral was designed by Sir Christoper Wren and built over a 35 year period, fully opening in 1710. Over the years, it has presided over Royal Weddings, landmark events and state funerals such as those of Churchill and Thatcher.
The admission fee is £20 per person (or a little cheaper if you book advance online, as at June 2020) – if you are on a tight budget, the best free views of St Paul’s can be found by going to the nearby One New Change shopping centre, and getting the lift to Madison rooftop bar on the top floor, to enjoy the viewing platform there (don’t be put off by the security guards – they are just there to manage the bar patrons).
Historic Pubs in Square Mile London
When ‘Inn’ London, take some time to have a pint in some of the country’s oldest and best preserved public houses. Some of our favourite drinking spots in the Square Mile include:
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Definitely one of London’s most historic and quirky pubs (say hello to Polly the foulmouthed parrot, mounted behind the bar!). Half the fun is exploring the dimly lit, dark and damp interiors (there is a bar in the cellar and one as you enter). Rebuilt in 1666 after the Great Fire of London, the pub has welcomed such luminaries as Mark Twain and Dickens.
The Old Bell
Located on Fleet Street just a short walk (or stumble) from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, The Old Bell is a snug, charming pub dating back from the 17th century that was supposedly designed by Sir Christopher Wren for use by his stone masons (hmmm). We like it as it has a beautiful stained glass frontage and have fond memories – the bar manager gave everyone a free beer when Prince William and Kate’s first child was announced!
Jamaica Wine House
This pub is a little hidden away – head down St Michael’s Alley (near Leadenhall Market) to discover this old inn, known locally as the Jam Pot. A Grade II listed building, London’s first ever coffee house opened here in 1652 and Samuel Pepys was known to be a regular in 1660.
The Lamb Tavern
Situated in Leadenhall Market, the Lamb Tavern originally dates back to 1780 (although the current building dates back to 1881). Very popular with business types after work, use this as an excuse to also explore Leadenhall after dark.
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Fleet Street, Square Mile London
Breaking news – Fleet Street used to be the heart of the UK’s printing and press scene from the 16th century. Established as a thoroughfare around the same time as the London Wall in 200AD, this stretch of London has so much history (some of it quite notorious and seedy) that it is well worth exploring.
From Geoffrey Chaucer’s brawls to Sweeney Todd’s ‘meaty’ pies (alas fictional), if only the buildings could talk. Dr Samuel Johnson’s House can also be found in the backstreets, now a Grade I listed building and open to the public.
Lincoln Inn Fields and Sir John Soane Museum
Popular with picnickers and joggers, leafy Lincoln Inn Fields is the largest public square in London. Designed by Inigo Jones and conceived in the 1630s – as well as a verdant park to explore, the outer square is home to several significant heritage buildings.
The Sir John Soane Museum is an eclectic collection of objects, models and painting, whilst the Hunterian Museum is a slightly macabre but fascinating collection of surgical instruments and surgery (go on an empty stomach).
Dating back to the 1880s, Postman’s Park (named as it was the former site of the Post Office HQ) is a glorious, garden retreat in the heart of London. It is home to George Frederic Watt’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, a series of plaques and tablets honouring members of the public who tragically lost their lives trying to save others.
A poignant and haunting tribute, this is generally quite a quiet spot, popular with city workers on their lunch break (it also features as a key location for the movie Closer, starring Jude Law and Natalie Portman).
The Museum of London
The best free museum in London’s square mile, the Museum of London has a curious combination of permanent galleries depicting London’s interesting history, through to temporary exhibitions on all manner of subjects (they change regularly but we’ve seen everything from Paddington 2 props to The Clash exhibits).
We are also rather enamoured by the former Selfridges department store lift from the 1920s, made entirely of bronze. If you are fascinated by London’s history, you could easily spend a whole day here. There is also a second Museum of London Docklands site near Canary Wharf, that details London’s maritime history.
Although not always open to the public (generally closed when they are setting up a commercial or private hire event), this grand, gothic town hall building from the 15th century is so striking that is worth a visit to view the exterior (and fingers crossed you’ll be able to have a look inside, via the West Wing Reception, located in the newer building next to the church).
St. Dunstans in the East Church Garden and Ruins
A little pocket of peace in London’s Square Mile, St Dunstans in the East is a spiritual solace away from the usual hustle and bustle of the city centre. Whilst busy at lunch with city workers, pick your time right and this is a magical spot.
Originally built in the 12th century and having been damaged by both the Great Fire of London and the Second World War, the remains have now been designated a Grade I listed building. Read our guide to visiting St St Dunstans in the East Church Gardens and Ruins >
The Gherkin, Square Mile London
30 St Mary Axe (better known as The Gherkin due to its rather interesting shape) is primarily an office block which also houses bars and restaurants at the top, which are open to the public.
Featured in such movies as ‘Wimbledon, Basic Instinct 2 (eek!) and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, we visited recently to have brunch at the Gherkin in the Seachey’s Helix Restaurant, which features awesome 360 degree views of London (and quite lacklustre service!) . Read our Gherkin brunch review here >
Bank of England / Threadneedle Street
The Bank of England is over 300 years old and acts as the UK’s central bank (for the Government) and can be found on Threadneedle Street. Whilst you are unable to visit the bank itself, the building is also home to the Bank of England Museum, which is free admission. It is more aimed towards children but you can see and hold a gold bar, which is pretty cool!
The Monument to the Great Fire of London (which started in nearby Pudding Lane) was finished in 1677, to commemorate the rebuilding of the city. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, visitors can still climb the 311 steps to the top (admission is £4.50) to see views of London and the Thames.
Built around 200AD, the original London Wall was around 4km / 2.5 miles long and built to fortify the city (the exact reasons for its presence remain a mystery).
Over the years, the London Wall has decreased in size due to the Great Fire, WWII bombing and general development, although several sections can still be seen and visited, particularly close to the Tower of London and the Museum of London.
Check out our other London blog posts
- The 10 best markets in London to visit
- South Bank walk – one of the best walks around London (with map)
- Top things to do in Greenwich
- 10 best stadium sports tours & museums
- Things to do in East London – travel guide
- The Churchill Arms – the most colourful pub in London
- A guide to Victoria Park Village and park
- Borough Market guide – London’s most famous food market
- Things to do in London Bridge