15 Buildings in London Everyone Should See
London’s skyline keeps changing, yet it remains instantly recognisable.
It’s hard to believe that the Gherkin has only been a feature of the London skyline for 15 years, the Shard for just five and the Walkie-Talkie for less than three; all three buildings are so well-known and distinctive that they have slotted naturally into the shape of the city. While London has much fewer high-rise buildings than cities like New York, Tokyo or even Paris, this means that those that are planned need to make an impression in order to be built.
Of course, it’s not just modern skyscrapers that are worth seeing in London. Some of the capital city’s most famous sights are hundreds of years old, in some cases built for defense rather than beauty. In this article, in no particular order, we explore London’s architecture over the centuries, from the Norman to the modern.
1. Westminster Abbey (1245)
Most people who visit Westminster Abbey go there to see the graves of famous people such as Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer and British monarchs including Elizabeth I. But it is worth visiting for the sake of the stunning building alone. It was built during the heyday of English Gothic architecture, and the North entrance, with its flying buttress and rose window, is a particularly grand example of that architectural style. The vaulted ceiling is also deservedly famous.
It’s worth seeing the Chapter House, too. This beautiful octagonal building features another stunning and delicate vaulted ceiling. It contains well-preserved medieval tiles and wall paintings, which give a sense of what it would have been like to enter a richly decorated medieval cathedral.
2. St Paul’s Cathedral (1675)
The original church on the site of the current cathedral – also dedicated to St Paul – dates all the way back to 604 AD, when Christianity was only just being introduced to Anglo-Saxons in Britain. The current cathedral was built after its predecessor, which was already in a poor state of repair, was virtually destroyed by the Great Fire of London. This is why St Paul’s is built in English Baroque style, unlike most English cathedrals, which are Gothic.
For over 250 years, St Paul’s was the tallest building in London, and even today, it dominates the skyline. You may have seen the striking photographs of the dome undamaged amid the fires of the Blitz; St Paul’s survival at the time was seen as totemic, and incredible efforts were made in order to keep the building intact. Alongside the richly decorated interior, it’s worth visiting the Whispering Gallery, where the remarkable acoustics mean that a whisper against the wall can be heard if you have your ear to the wall in any other part of the gallery.
3. The Gherkin (2001)
The Gherkin is properly called 30 St Mary Axe, but it gained the nickname even before it was built for its distinctive shape. Because the London skyline has traditionally been quite low-rise, the Gherkin was designed with the aim of not being too imposing, so that people in neighbouring streets could walk by without realising it was there – quite a contrast to the deliberately eye-catching skyscrapers in other cities. While the design was initially controversial all the same, Londoners and visitors alike have become increasingly fond of its cute, understated design.
It’s a notable building in other ways. It uses much less energy than comparable skyscrapers, and it’s apparently very pleasant to work in, structured so that every desk has natural light. 7,429 panes of glass were used in building it. For those who can afford it, there’s a restaurant, bar and private dining on the top three floors, to enjoy the view over London.
4. The Shard (2012)
On the site of the Shard previously was Southwark Towers, a 25-storey building that was something of an eyesore. The Shard was proposed to be the second-tallest freestanding building in the UK, and in a city like London with a tradition of preferring low-rise buildings, it had to be stunning in order to be approved. The aim of the design was to resemble a delicate church spire, but English Heritage criticised the concept, describing it as “a shard of glass through the heart of historic London”. Despite the criticism, the name, and the design, stuck.
Like the Gherkin, the Shard is designed to be as energy-efficient as possible. But unlike the Gherkin, by the time the Shard was built, London had become increasingly used to skyscrapers, and so there was less of a need for it to be inconspicuous. At over 300 metres high, it’s very hard to miss – and offers fantastic views over the city from the top.
5. The Palace of Westminster (1870)
The Palace of Westminster is the proper name for what’s more usually referred to as the Houses of Parliament. Since it was initially built
, the Palace of Westminster has been beset by difficulties – construction overran and took 30 years to complete; costs spiralled; it was bombed repeatedly during the Blitz, taking considerable damage; and even now, in more peaceful times, it requires a full restoration at a cost of at least £3.5 billion, or it is in danger of crumbling into the Thames.
So it may be wise to visit this stunning Gothic Revival building, the defining symbol of British government, before it is covered in scaffolding and while it still survives.
6. The Royal Albert Hall (1871)
The 1870s were a good time for grand building projects in London, a city that was at that point the capital of the British Empire. The Royal Albert Hall was built as a result of a proposal by Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) that the area would benefit from facilities for the enlightenment of the public, including a concert hall. While Albert died before the hall was built, it was then named in his honour.
Among all the aspects of this wonderful building, particularly worth seeing is the mosaic that spans the outside of the building. This is called “The Triumph of Arts and Science”, and shows the different aspects of both art and science.
7. The Tower of London (1066)
If you know your British history, you’ll know that 1066 was the pivotal year in which England’s Anglo-Saxon leadership was swept away by William the Conqueror. The Tower of London is a symbol in stone of Norman might. Its main purpose was as a royal residence, but it was also used as a prison for most of its history, and it’s now home to the Crown Jewels. If you’re interested in history, it’s fascinating to visit a place that has been a significant part of British life for so long; and if you’re not, then it’s still a very impressive castle.
8. The Tate Modern (1947)
The Tate Modern is the art gallery now housed in the building that was once the Bankside Power Station, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the iconic red phone box. Its eye-catching design has led to it being described as an industrial cathedral, and its “spire” – the chimney – was deliberately built to be a little bit shorter than the dome of St Paul’s. Its elegant lines and massive scale make it the perfect location for Britain’s most notable modern art gallery, with huge exhibitions located in the old Turbine Hall.
9. Broadcasting House (1932)
This beautiful, purpose-built Art Deco building has been the home of the BBC for all but the first ten years of the broadcaster’s existence. It flows elegantly into a 2005 expansion – the John Peel Wing – that marries the old with the new, and the studios inside follow the same attractive design scheme. Statues on the exterior reflect the building’s purpose.
Broadcasting House is also home to the memorial sculpture ‘Breathing’, which remembers journalists who have been killed while carrying on their work. This inverted spire-shaped sits on the roof of the building, can be seen from street level, and projects a beam of light into the sky to coincide with the 10pm news every night.
10. Tower Bridge (1894)
Many visitors get Tower Bridge and London Bridge confused when they visit the capital. The current London Bridge, built in 1973, is an unremarkable, functional structure, while Tower Bridge is the attractive Victorian building that features on so many guidebooks, postcards and, of course, the London Olympics opening ceremony.
The bridge consists of two bridge towers connected by a fixed walkway at the top (44m above the river at high tide), with a road spanning the bottom that separates into two sections and can be raised up at an angle to allow shipping to pass through. This happens about a thousand times a year, and although it requires advance notice, river traffic is still given priority over the 40,000 motorists, cyclists and pedestrians crossing the bridge.
11. NCP car park, Welbeck St (1971)
It’s not often that a 1970s car park would make it onto a list of celebrated buildings – but then, most 1970s car parks make people despair of the architecture of that period, while the NCP car park on Welbeck St is not infrequently celebrated. The inside is nothing to write home about, but the exterior is covered with prefabricated concrete diamonds that give this Brutalist building a striking appearance.
Architects and designers have sung its praises, but if you want to see it while it’s still being used for its intended purpose, you’ll have to move soon – the car park has been sold for redevelopment, to be turned into a luxury hotel.
12. Buckingham Palace (1703)
Possibly London’s best-known building, Buckingham Palace is so-called because it was built for the Duke of Buckingham, and bought by the king for his wife in 1761. Only with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 did it become the official London residence of the monarch, and that’s what it’s been known for ever since. The palace has 775 rooms and the largest private garden in London, and the sheer grandeur of this vast neoclassical building alone makes it worth seeing. Watch out for which flag is flying – if it’s the Royal Standard, it means that the Queen is there.
13. The British Museum (1847)
Most people visit the British Museum for the sake of what’s in it, but the building itself is also noteworthy. The museum collection of historical and cultural artefacts and artworks was originally housed in a converted 17th century mansion, but as the museum grew alongside the expansion of the British Empire, a larger home was needed. A grand neoclassical building was designed by Sir Robert Smirke to house the collection, and this has continued to grow as required.
It’s particularly worth admiring the circular Reading Room at the centre of the Great Court, designed by Sydney Smirke (Sir Robert Smirke’s younger brother) and how it’s been integrated with the soaring tessellated glass roof, added in 1997.
14. St Pancras (1868)
St Pancras is a strong contender for the most beautiful railway station in the world, which makes it all the more shocking that it was nearly demolished in the 1960s. It’s another example of Gothic Revival architecture, which was deeply unpopular in that era of modernism and concrete. John Betjeman, who was later Poet Laureate and who was a passionate defender of Victorian architecture, led the campaign to save it. And thank goodness he did, so that it’s still here for travellers to enjoy today. For many, as the Eurostar terminus, it marks their very first sight of London – what a wonderful first impression for the city to give.
15. The Globe (1997)
As far as ancient and medieval buildings go, the British have largely lost the Victorian taste for creating follies, or fake versions of whatever the type of building was that they preferred. One rare and pleasant exception is the Globe, which is a near-perfect replica of the Globe Theatre in which Shakespeare worked in the late 16th and early 17th century. It’s built from oak and thatch, and is just 230m from the site of the original Globe (which could not be used because of historically valuable buildings having been built there in the intervening centuries). But if you want a taste of the London that Shakespeare lived in, visiting the Globe is about as close as you can get to it in the 21st century.
What’s your favourite building in London?