To take a gargantuan city like London and attempt to whittle it down to a page of text is a laughable enterprise. Then again, anyone who has seen protagonists like Schwarzenegger and Stallone in bad 80's action movies will know that anything is possible, including dodging a rain of bullets and incapacitating hordes of bad guys with just an Army knife and a sneer. Well, we've got our trusty Army knife (i.e. aging laptop) and a sneer you couldn't wipe away with an anvil. Here's hoping that's enough.
Home to the British monarchy and the seat of Western culture as we know it today, London as a romantic image has pervaded the cultural consciousness of those who have never been and often persists for those who have. If you're a fan of aesthetic wonders, royal history, and the highest standard in museums and art collections, then London is for you. Still, the city, as large as it is, is better managed when broken down by districts. The most central and (arguably) most important are as follows.
The main tourist swarm is centered around the city of Westminster. This ancient part of the city, based on the north bank of the Thames River, is home to three of the most photographed structures in England. Buckingham Palace is the residence of the Queen and is the site of the world-famous “changing of the guard.” There are also a number of rooms to view for a fee in this sprawling estate. The Palace of Westminster seats the British Parliament and serves as one of the most visually arresting sights you'll lay eyes upon while in England. The iconic clock tower, “Big Ben,” can also be climbed for a fee; keep your day open, though, because lines can get especially long on the weekend. Finally, the home to royal coronations and weddings, there is Westminster Abbey. This structure is worth a walk around from the outside, unless you're willing to pay the entry charge to get in. Other cultural institutions in Westminster include the Tate Britain, which has an extensive collection of art from the last five hundred years, while the Henry VII's Ladys Chapel (next door to the famous abbey) is a wonder of breathtaking medieval architecture.
Across the Thames to the south is the aptly named South Bank. There are a high number of museums, galleries, and contemporary performance spaces in the area, but the central fixture is the London Eye. This observation wheel is one of the most-visited attractions in the city and provides superlative views. We suggest buying tickets online to avoid the potentially (very) long lines. The Southbank Centre is an intriguing cultural center, with large spaces for modern art and performance, including the excellent Hayward Gallery. The National Theatre and a recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre are also great options in which to enjoy performances. Lastly, Tate Modern, housed in a former power station, is a vast gallery of modern art that is free to peruse and worth a good half a day of an itinerary; make it happen.
The West End is big with both visitors and locals for its squares and booming theater district. Trafalgar Square is the main landmark, known for the bronze lions of Nelson's Column, as well as the National Gallery, which faces the square. This gallery is yet another stellar collection of art, although there is more of a focus on Western pieces from as far back as the 13th century. Leicester Square is abrasively popular and surrounded by expensive cinemas; your best reason for going here would be to book cheap tickets to the many theater productions in the district at the TKTS booth. Lastly, you'll find a vibrant Chinatown neighborhood very near Piccadilly Circus (the mecca of electronic advertisement in England), which is worth visiting for interesting touches like the pagoda-style phone booths.
Not to be forgotten is the original square mile that is London city, and although its cache of old buildings is far smaller than you may think due to World War II bombings, authentic structures like the St. Paul's Cathedral still draw many visitors. Also of interest, located at the edge of the district is both the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. The tower itself is a fortress nearly a thousand years old, while the bridge is yet another aesthetic wonder that opens a handful of times a day to let ships pass through.
Also, visit Greenwich for more quality museums (the National Maritime Museum and Greenwich Observatory among them), Camden for the amazing British Library, Notting Hill for its world-renowned carnival, Covent Garden for a high concentration of theater productions, and Bloomsbury for its Georgian grandeur (Bedford Square) and acclaimed British Museum. And we haven't even mentioned London's uber-famous football teams, which include Fulham, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur. A live match is a must!
As you can see, we will not be conquering all of London in this short space. Maybe Stallone would have, despite being hampered by multiple gunshot wounds received just before the archetypical showdown. Or maybe London would be too much for even him. Either way, the city is a treasure to be taken on by any traveler, even if you aren't an action movie hero.