The Most-Visited Attractions in London

Year after year in survey after survey, London lands at or near the top of favorite European cities to visit, sometimes sharing honors with Paris and Rome. Among the advantages the British capital has over its French and Italian counterparts, especially with first time transatlantic travelers, is a shorter flight time and, beyond some delightful differences in some word meanings, no language barrier. 

And, of course, there is also no shortage of well-known, popular attractions, from Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London and iconic museums and theaters to Piccadilly Circus, the Coca-Cola London Eye and shopping at Harrods and Carnaby Street.

The total number of visitors to attractions in London is nearing the entire population of the UK, according to newly released data from London & Partners. In 2018, the city’s visitor attractions welcomed 67,640,804 people, and all of the top 10 visitor attractions were in London. The 2018 visitor numbers also represented a 3.37 percent increase over the previous year. 

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The most-visited attraction in the UK in 2018 was London’s Tate Modern art museum, with 5,868,562 visits. Officials attributed the strong results to the 2016 Switch House extension, as well as the popular “Picasso 1932 — Love, Fame, Tragedy” exhibition. Despite a slight (1.3 percent) decrease, The British Museum still racked up 5,828,552, good for a second-place finish, while The National Gallery remained in third place despite posting a 9 percent increase to a total of 5,735,831 visits after hosting Monet & Architecture, the first exhibition devoted to Impressionist movement founder Claude Monet’s relationship with architecture.  

Current Tate Modern exhibits include “Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33,” through July 14; selected works of Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova, June 6 to September 8; “Olafur Eliasson: In real Life,” July 11 to January 5; and a retrospective of video pioneer Nam June Paik, October 17 to February 9.

Among current and upcoming highlights at The British Museum in Bloomsbury are “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” running through July 21; “Rembrandt: Thinking on Paper,” a collection of rarely seen prints and drawings, through August 4; and the largest exhibition of the visual narrative art form manga outside of Japan, May 23 to August 26. 

Photo © National Gallery, London

In addition to a Paul Gaugin exhibition, The National Gallery is the current home of such masterpieces as Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars,” van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait,” da Vinci’s “The Virgin of the Rocks,” Raphael’s “The Madonna of the Pinks,” van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” and Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne,” among many others.

Rounding out the top 10 most visited attractions, in descending order, are the Natural History Museum, Southbank Centre, Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum, Somerset House, Tower of London and Royal Museums Greenwich. A little farther down the list, Royal Albert Hall, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Royal Academy of Arts and National Portrait Gallery all made the top 20.

According to London & Partners’ “London’s Cultural Tourists” report, the city’s cultural experience was the main driver for leisure visits. Culture attracted more than double the proportion of leisure visitors to the city than any other driver. London’s considerable offering of museums, galleries, exhibitions and attractions represented a significant draw for two out of five (39 percent) of all leisure visitors surveyed. This is more than double than that of the second most popular driver, London’s architecture and iconic landmarks, which were attractive to nearly a fifth of leisure visitors. Live events were cited by about one in six travelers. 

The London Theater Scene

Live events include the productions at London’s fabled West End theaters. Current shows include everything from imported Broadway smashes (such as “Come From Away,” “Wicked” and “9 to 5”) to Broadway hits that originated in London (“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” to name a few) to classic plays by Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and Britain’s most iconic playwrights, Noel Coward and William Shakespeare. Here are also new dramatic works such as Stefano Massini’s “The Lehman Trilogy,” Kenneth Longeran’s “The Starry Messenger” (starring Matthew Broderick), David Mamet’s “Bitter Wheat” (with John Malkovich) and Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat.” For a complete listing, visit www.londontheatre.co.uk.

Tea and See

Tea is also an integral part of British culture. Among the many delightful options for tea time in London are two that combine the iconic British afternoon fete with sightseeing.

On City Cruises’ afternoon tea cruise, guests are served a selection of finger sandwiches, fluffy scones with clotted cream and jam, as well as delicious cakes accompanied by unlimited tea, of course, and coffee. The onboard bar serves a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Cruises depart from Tower Pier daily (except Tuesdays) at 3:15 and sail from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

On land, visitors can treat themselves to a sightseeing tour combined with a French-inspired afternoon tea on the upper floor of a double-decker bus with Bustronome. They can check out top landmarks through the glass roof of the bus and learn more while listening to an interactive guide, available in nine languages. Guest have a choice of savory and sweet menus; both come with two scones, one plain and  one with raisins. Buses board at Victoria Embankment.

To learn more about travel to London, sign up for our London Focus course here

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