Museum stories
Virtual visit: London landmarks

If you’re hankering for a holiday or musing over a mini-break, the Museum’s collection of prints and drawings might be able to help. Explore some of London’s landmarks from the comfort of your own home, and enjoy a spot of virtual sightseeing with us.

We’re starting our virtual tour around some of London’s famous sights from the most obvious place – the Museum, right in the heart of Bloomsbury.

1. British Museum

This drawing from the early 1850s shows the then-new Museum building, and visitors making their way in to see the displays, which then included the national library, and the nation’s natural history collections.

We can’t wait to welcome visitors again, but in the meantime, you can find all the ways to explore the Museum from home in this blog. But before we get side-tracked, let’s go down the road to our second destination.

A view of the main entrance of the Museum – there is a sculpture to either side of the forecourt, with groups of figures in the foreground.
Frederick Mackenzie (1787–1854), View of the British Museum. Watercolour touched with white and graphite, squared for transfer, over a lithograph, 1850–1852.
2. Trafalgar Square

We’ve now arrived at one of the many famous London squares – Trafalgar Square, right in the centre of town.

This print shows the then-new National Gallery after it opened in 1838. It was thought positioning the free Gallery in Trafalgar Square would mean that everyone in the capital could get there easily to see the fabulous paintings on display. There are lots of sculptures in the square too – don’t forget to check out what’s on the Fourth Plinth when you visit. It’s currently a sculpture by Michael Rakowtiz inspired by one of the monumental lamassu that once guarded the city of Nineveh in ancient Assyria.

A view of the National Gallery showing the front of the gallery from Trafalgar Square. St Martin's in the Fields is on the right, and elegantly dressed figures walk in foreground.
William Wallis (1796–1830 fl.), The New National Gallery. Steel engraving, c. 1830.
3. London Zoo

Head north and take a stroll through the beautiful Regent’s Park to find London Zoo, which first opened to the public in 1828.

You can still expect to see giraffes here, like in the print below from 1837, but elephants no longer live in the park.

This colour aquatint and etching is more focused on the fashionably dressed visitors than the animals, but if you look closely you might spot a peacock that’s the same size as what looks like a zebra!

A group of men, women and children with parasols and toys displaying summer fashions in Regent's Park, with figures looking at elephants, giraffes and deer around their enclosures in the background.
Colour aquatint and etching, 1837. Published by Benjamin Read.
4. Buckingham Palace

The next stop is the royal residence of Buckingham Palace, shown here in an 1852 lithograph.

Buckingham Palace has been the home of the monarch since Queen Victoria moved there in 1837, and has an astonishing 775 rooms. The frontage, shown in this lithograph print, measures 108 metres long!

If you have time, stick around to see the Changing the Guard ceremony before we visit our next landmark.

View of Buckingham Palace from the Mall, showing the new east front designed by Blore and built by Cubitt in 1847. There are marching guards in front of palace to right, and other figures in foreground to left.
Edmund Walker (1850–1856 fl.), Buckingham Palace. Lithograph printed in black, ochre and grey, 1852.
5. ‘Big Ben’

As we wander down Birdcage Walk, you’ll see the Palace of Westminster – the home of the British government which encompasses both Houses of Parliament, as well as other buildings dating back hundreds of years.

Big Ben is the name commonly used to describe the clocktower, shown here in an 1858 print with scaffolding around the top just like today. But the title was initially given to the Great Bell inside the tower, which was first struck on 7 September 1859. Each year, the minute hands of the clock face travel a huge 190km, and each weighs over 100kg.

View from the river of the new Houses of Parliament as designed by Charles Barry:  Westminster Bridge is on the left, and a few of the arches have with wooden frames below them. The clock tower still unfinished, with scaffolding around the top.
Vacher & Son (1834–fl.), New Palace of Westminster. Lithograph printed with beige tone plate, 1858.
6. Covent Garden

For some retail therapy or light refreshments, the next stop on our virtual visit is Covent Garden – the home of London’s most famous market.

Originally a scattering of stalls in a smart residential area, the market grew, attracting more and more stalls and wooden shelters – shown in this 1825 watercolour by George Scharf – until in 1828 Charles Fowler designed the new market, which still stands today.

When the market was first formalised by the 5th Earl of Bedford, only fruit, flowers, roots and herbs could be sold. Now you can find independent traders alongside designer brands and coffee shops.

A view of Old Covent Garden from beneath the tiled roof of a stall. The stall is stacked with baskets of fruit – there is a man with a pair of scales, a woman nursing a baby, and another kneeling over a stove. In the background there are further timber-framed stalls and crowds of people.
George Scharf (1788–1860), Old Covent Garden Market. Watercolour, 1825.
7. St Paul’s Cathedral

Soaring above London’s skyline to the east is the iconic dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The building we recognise today was redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1708.

The Cathedral has long been the home of state funerals and royal jubilees, and as you wander down the Nave, remember to gaze up to the great dome measuring 111 metres high. It was also the tallest building in London until 1967!

If you climb the 257 steps from the Cathedral floor you will find the Whispering Gallery, which gets its name from a charming quirk in its construction – a message whispered against the walls of the gallery will be perfectly audible on the opposite side of the dome. This view of the famous landmark was made in 1848.

A view of St Paul's Cathedral from the front, showing the dome rising at the back of the view. Small figures walk in the streets surrounding the cathedral.
After Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793–1864), View of St Paul’s Cathedral. Steel engraving, 1848.
8. The Tower of London

As we head east along the River Thames, we arrive at an imposing sight – the Tower of London, which has loomed over this part of the city for over 1,000 years. Throughout its history it has been used as a fortress, a palace and a prison – nowadays it’s famous for holding the Crown Jewels, for its well-dressed Yeoman Warders and its seven ravens. Legend has it that if the ravens leave the Tower, both it and the kingdom will fall.

This sunny watercolour shows the north west side of the White Tower in 1784.

A view of the north west front of the White Tower of the Tower of London, seen from the Great Court. Three trees stand to the right in the foreground.
Francis Grose (c. 1731–1791), White Tower of Tower of London. Watercolour, 1784.
9. Tower Bridge

Spin round from the Tower, and you’ll set eyes on the majestic Tower Bridge – a landmark on the Thames for over 125 years. When the bridge was first built, the river was still a working thoroughfare for a huge variety of water traffic, so having a crossing that wouldn’t disrupt the flow of boats was a priority. Hence the sophisticated design for movable roadways, originally powered by steam.

In this view from 1920, we’ve crossed over the bridge (just in time to see the road section being raised!), and you can see the Tower of London in the background.

A view of Tower Bridge with gates open for a cargo steamship to pass, from right to left. There are moored boats in foreground to the left, and the Tower and other buildings are seen on the opposite bank.
Alexander Joseph Finberg (1866–1939), Tower Bridge, The Outward Bound. Etching with some surface tone, 1920.

After all that sightseeing we’re knackered! It’s definitely time to stop for a cup of tea.

We hope you enjoyed this tour around some London landmarks – where would you like to go next time? Let us know by tweeting @britishmuseum.