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London’s Tourist Traps – Crowds, High Prices, Hype and False Heritage

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London is one of the most popular cities for travelers to visit on the planet. It has a special allure that will never go away. Because there are hordes of tourists visiting every year, there are plenty of tourist attractions that have been created simply to extract money from unsuspecting tourists and not provide an enriching cultural experience. They prey on stereotypes and historical inaccuracies. We travel to Britain for its wonderful heritage and we tend to keep our itineraries focused on that – it provides a more enriching experience. Some people really like these types of attractions. That’s why they’re so popular and are able to stay in business. But we prefer more authentic travel experiences when we’ve crossed an ocean. We can see a haunted house or visit an amusement park back home. London is not an amusement park so here is our roundup of places to avoid on your next trip to London.

I should add that this list is entirely our opinion based on 15 years of travel to London. I suspect that it will come off as snobbish but as I said, this is just our opinion. If you enjoy these places, then that is all that matters.

What was your worst tourist trap experience? Let us know in the comments!

Madame Tussauds

This is probably London’s oldest tourist trap. Yet it remains one of the most popular attractions in London. What makes this place so popular? Well, you can stand face to face with exact wax replicas of famous people. Royals. Celebrities. Historical figures. Worst yet, to get in requires an extremely long wait that can last hours. So to visit this place, you must spend time in a long line, pay ridiculous amounts of money in admission (almost $50 per person, $75 if you want ‘fast track’ entry) all to shuffle into a crowded attraction filled with waxworks. And now that they’ve closed the planetarium, that’s one less reason to visit the place. If you want to look at famous people, visit the National Portrait Gallery instead – it’s free and it’s filled with amazing portraits of historical figures past and present.

London Dungeon

Recently relocated to the former London County Hall, the London Dungeon is a macabre and frankly terrifying place to visit. The people who work there put on a horror show – there is no claim to any sort of historical accuracy – it’s entertainment. It’s billed as a tour through 1,000 years of London brutal and filthy history. Instead, you’ll pay West End prices for admission and stand in Tussaud’s style lines waiting to get in. If you want a more authentic look at London’s history, check out the Museum of London, soon to be moving to Old Smithfield Market. The Museum of London provides a fun and fascinating look at London’s history that’s rooted in fact and scholarship but that doesn’t make it boring – there’s plenty to do for kids and they won’t end up with nightmares (which will surely be made worse by jetlag).

The London Bridge Experience

London’s Tourist Traps – Crowds, High Prices, Hype and False Heritage

Like the London Dungeon, The London Bridge Experience is basically a horror show that claims to take you on a 2,000-year journey through London history. It’s another amusement park built into the basements of London Bridge Train Station (which is a more terrifying place to navigate). As with most of these places, your experience will vary based on the quality of the actors working that day. You would probably find a visit to your local renaissance faire more illuminating. For an alternative place to visit, try the Tower Bridge Experience where you can learn about the history of London’s most famous bridge and how it was built. You can also arrange tours of the bowels of the bridge and see how it operates.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Located in Piccadilly Circus (more on that in a moment), this ‘museum’ is a tribute to the weird and wonderful. Most of the artifacts stretch the reality of truth and have no historical basis. I’ve heard many describe the exhibits as tired and showing their age. So while the visit may be entertaining, you won’t really experience anything enlightening. If you want to see cool and weird specimens, consider visiting the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons which features thousands of preserved animals specimens. And none of them will be fake and there probably won’t be a line either (though it’s closing from spring 2017 until 2020 for refurbishment).


London’s Tourist Traps – Crowds, High Prices, Hype and False Heritage

For decades, whenever you imagined a London department store, you imagined Harrods. Once billed as the store where you could buy anything from a thimble to an elephant. Their iconic lit facade makes a classic London photo. But Harrods has changed. After a succession of foreign owners, Harrods, while continuing to bask in its ‘Britishness,’ is just not very British anymore. It’s now a very high priced department store for wealthy foreign shoppers. It used to be a store where the average person could shop and buy something special but not anymore. The only things that are still affordable are the Harrods branded trinkets that seem to take up half the store. If you want a truly British shopping experience, there are still many stores like Locke Hatters or Smith and Sons Umbrellas that provide classic Britishness. Fortnum & Mason is a better stop for a British experience or even John Lewis on Oxford Street (but not Selfridges).

Piccadilly Circus

London’s Tourist Traps – Crowds, High Prices, Hype and False Heritage

It has the charm of a giant billboard on the side of the motorway. Think Times Square on a smaller scale. The Circus itself is a very very busy traffic intersection and very busy with people going to shows in the West End. The Statue in the center is usually mobbed with people and while the spot is very famous, when you’re standing there, you realise it’s just famous for being a billboard. The thrill wears off very quickly. Instead, visit some of the shops nearby such as Hatchards – the UK’s Oldest bookstore.  Or take in a West End show instead which is sure to be a more memorable experience than looking at a Coca-Cola billboard as you get pushed and shoved by an unfriendly crowd while navigating the busy intersection.

Street Performers

Street performers, or buskers as they’re called in Britain, can add color to a trip to a major city but they have become a nuisance in central London. It’s getting really bad in Trafalgar Square, specifically the public square in front of the National Gallery. There are street performers there every day – the Yodas are now the ones people recognise the most. While they can be entertaining, they’re taking away from the stateliness of the National Gallery and the attractions in the surrounding area. Massive crowds form around the performers making it difficult to navigate. Don’t encourage them with your loose change. Street performers are better placed in Covent Garden or Leicester Square where they have permission to operate but even in those places, crowds have become a problem.

What was your worst tourist trap experience? Let us know in the comments!

Author: jonathan

Jonathan is a consummate Anglophile who launched Anglotopia.net in 2007 to channel his passion for Britain. Londontopia is its sister publication dedicated to everything London.

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  1. Spot on on every thing you’ve listed! I was lucky to see Harrods years ago when it still had some of its iconic charm. Now it’s nothing special and really just expensive with snobby salespeople. Piccadilly Circus is just crowded. Too crowded. The last time I was there, a group of street urchins tried to steal my back pack right off my back as I was exiting the tube station. I always hang on to my bag closely, especially in crowded areas and because of that they nearly got caught. They managed to get the zipper open, but got away with nothing when I wrenched it away from them. They got a cop running after them for their troubles. I was surprised when a kind London business man stopped and asked if I was okay.

  2. I love London….lived there ’71 – ’72 and have been back many times. What strikes me is an overall pall of generic decline of uniqueness….but progress is progress I guess. One thing for sure…Harrods ?…..Give me Selfridges any day.

  3. Totally agree with your comment about Madame Tussauds. I went once and never need to go again. Also I love your comment about Picadilly Circus (has the charm of a giant billboard at the side of the motorway!). I really wanted to see this – especially the statue of Eros, after having seen it mentioned in so many books . I hadn’t realised how commercialised Picadilly Circus is these days, so it was a disappointing experience. Poor old Eros was practically lost.

  4. When we were in London we were extremely disappointed in the Jack the Ripper tour, we have now dubbed Jack the Ripp Off tour! Running you through streets and markets, babbling things like where this carpark stands is where victim x lived, where that park bench is is where they found a body… we literally were running through streets hearing next to nothing as it was raining and the guide obviously wanted to end as soon as possible. Maybe if at each spot they had a actor in character telling their story it would have been much better and entertaining. In the end they dumped the bus full of tourists at the sherlock holmes pub, taking off as soon as the last persons foot touched the pavement. There was no available seating and we had no clue where we were and no directions on how to get back to our accomodation. The tour was one big waste of time and money.

    • If you want a real Ripper tour, take the one done by London Walks that’s led by Donald Rumbelow, one of the recognized authorities on the Ripper. The Walk always leaves from the Tower of London tube stop over by the coffee trolley. You can access the Walk’s website at http://www.walks.com to see the schedule. All of the walks done by this company are outstanding and worth your time.

    • Thanks for this information. Which Ripper tour did you take? There’s several. I have been to London about 20 times, and had a Ripper tour on my to-do list for the next visit. Did you go to the Ripper museum, as well?

  5. We just returned from two weeks in London and I’m proud to say we didn’t fall prey to any of these “attractions”. We stayed busy with true historic sites!

  6. I have visited England many times ( always with a stay in London at some point in the trip. My first visit was in 1957 when I was 14 years old.I have been back about another 9 times over the years, always as a tourist.It has certainly changed, as has most everywhere you go in other parts of the world. Progress? I suppose for the citizens there, but in England it kept getting ,more and more Americanized, which to me was a let down ( I am an American ) as I really enjoyed the England I knew of years ago, even though it could be more of a challenge.I always still look forward to my next visit, but was disappointed to find my go to place to stay in London is no more.It was located on Villiers St., which ran down to ward the Embankment next to Charring Cross Station.Cheap, plain but great location for the theater district , Covent Garden etc.Crickey ( spelling?)

  7. Loved Harrods – may not be all that British but the jewelry department was spectacular as was shoe heaven. I found sales staff lovely but maybe I was just lucky that day.

  8. I agree with everything listed here. The real sadness about these wastes-of-money is that the tourists who go there could be spending their time at much more interesting places. There isn’t a life long enough to see all the true wonders of London. Thanks for making some “alternate” suggestions.

  9. I have been to London almost thirty times and either have been to these tourist trips or had not interest. Once is certainly enough. There are so many other wonderful and interesting and educational things to do. And may I suggest things that take you out of the city such as Kew Gardens or Kenwood house, or even a trip out to the Cotswolds for a glimpse of the lovely villages. Or Cambridge. Or Oxford. Or York. Or down to Canterbury. The list could go on and on and on. Public transportation is so good and so easy once you get the hang of it.

  10. We went back to London in May 2015 in between the bank holiday weekends. We were absent almost half a century from when the USAF was providing my paycheck there for three years. It was a fast if not hectic week but we managed to see the Tower of London, cruise the Thames, walk Westminster Bridge, see Big Ben & Westminster Abbey, changing of the Guard, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, Tate Modern Gallery, Millenium Footbridge, the southwalk along the Thames, Churchill War Rooms, St. Pauls Cathedral, British Museum, Imperial War Museum, Regents Canal cruise, London Zoo and a weekend market in Camden. As returnees we knew where we wanted to go and how to get there which really helped. Next trip we hope to add Parliament, visit a long list of museums, several smaller parks and schedule day trips to Cambridge and Bath. We rented a flat near Regents Park from a family here in the US. It is a much better option than a hotel for several reasons. To get there we took the Picadilly Line from Heathrow to enjoy the passing scenery and then a short cab ride from Russell Square. The C2 buses on Albany Street and three nearby tube stops were convenient for our daily travels. Our first full day we rode the three different Big Bus hop-on/off tour routes from morning to night. That proved to be a great mobile sightseeing decision for two nostalgic seniors who can walk just so far in a day. Best fast food options: Pret a Manger (hooray) plus Subways and McDonalds replacing the Wimpy Bars from our earlier lives. Most memorable: Regents Canal cruise. Bummer: Tate Modern. Missed: the skygarden on the “microphone” building. Question: What happened to the wonderful fish & chip shops of old? See you again next year!

      • Dear Frazzle! That’s a fair question. There were a few works we enjoyed in that vast and beautiful gallery. Stunning describes it best! But, many pieces were nothing even approaching art and therefore lost on our sensibilities. I did overhear a couple sitting near us wonder who decided one particular work was art? That said the outdoor level offered marvelous views of London on a sunny spring afternoon and will remain as the best memories of our Tate Modern visit. We would like to experience the more traditional Tate Britain during a return visit planned for 2018.

  11. London is a very special place. It’s unfortunate the attractions listed are what most people equate with London. Time is better spent at places like the chapel at the Naval College in Greenwich or touring the HMS Belfast. My favorite thing is….. London! Just being there, stumbling across a small warm pub, having a solo dinner from the Waitrose deli section (okay, so I’m crazy), listening to people cheer on their favorite football or cricket team…… that’s London, not the pricey attractions. It is at once constant and ever changing. It’s the people, the architecture, even the weather! So encourage any friends who may have plans to travel to England to look at it through their own eyes, not the eyes of a tourist bureau.

  12. Welcome to my country people. It is all that you have said and more. As said previously get outside of the center of London, England is so much more than just London. As with most major cities, most of the people you meet in London will be immigrant workers trying to earn a living.

  13. I agree with you 100%. With sixteen trips I have never been tempted to fall for those tacky places. London is too wonderful to waste time, money and energy. One exception. I used to rent flats in Knightsbridge & Kensington and shopped at Harrods’s food hall. A wonderful place. I agree the store is now not British at all. F&M is a better choice . I visit the Portrait Gallery on most trips. The art collection the Courthauld Institute at Somerset House is great as is the fabulous Wallace Collection at Hertford House. London could keep you busy for decades of visits without being ripped off since most museums are free. I have always wondered what people saw in Piccadilly Circus. Its dirty, crowded and ugly! I rush through there on my way to somewhere else. Sorry to hear that Trafalgar is turning into a busker’s haven. I will still make a bee line for the Crypt Café at St. Martins in the Fields though!

  14. It’s funny reading your article, as a teenager, and a tween living in London most of these were places I loved to visit, often. I still have fond memories of them and don’t regret my visits at all. In fact my viewpoint of them is so different to yours. Saying that, since moving overseas, the appeal of London isn’t the same, and these ‘attractions’ listed above are not on my list of places to take my family. It also seems like London may have changed somewhat since I last lived there, and I am many years older now, so my interests have changed from when I was 20 something

  15. Am returning to London after 14 yrs! I have been in the UK since—just not London. Harrod’s is the only “tourist trap” I’ve visited or wanted to. Walk across the Tower Bridge (great experience!). Walk Mayfair & window shop! Have tea in the green house bldg (can’t think of the name) at Kensington Palace, Fortnam & Mason’s is great for lunch or tea, eat your lunch in Green Park! Get out of town–day trip to the Cotswolds, fast train to York, train to Stratford & Oxford! Maybe have a drink when the orchestra is playing at night at the Savoy— you’ll think you’re in the old classic movies! And be sure to visit Covent Garden & buy some Thornton’s Toffee before you leave! Have a smashing good time!!

  16. My husband and I are flying out in two days for two weeks in England. We aren’t spending much time in London (total of 4 days out of 15) but the only one of these traps that were tentatively on my itinerary was Harrods, simply because I’ve read about it so many times. F&M is on my list as well – lots of our friends want us to bring them some “real English tea” – LOL. I still may pop into Harrods, just because. We plan to visit the Lake District, York/Yorkshire area, Bath, Oxford, the Cotswolds and just a nip over into the South West counties, then 3 nights/days London (staying in Richmond at an Airbnb cottage – much cheaper than London hotels). As Americans on our first trip abroad, we are more excited than we can say.

    • Check out the house of the trembling madness in York and eat lots of those giant yorkshires

  17. We just got back from our lovely week in London, my 2nd time. Out of your list, we only visited Harrods, which is still a must-see at least once for me. It’s so different from U.S. department stores. Even though it’s not the same as it used to be, it’s still amazing inside, just to see the elaborate decor in a each of the food hall rooms and the Egyptian escalators and the memorial to Princess Diana & Doudy Fayed. We also had a lot of fun trying to navigate our way around the enormity of it all, gawking at the exorbitant prices and searching out Harrods souvenirs and food items to take home to friends and family. The only ther thing we saw was Piccadilly Circus. We passed by it while on our way from Regent Street window shopping to our West-End show. All the billboards are covered for refurbishment, so there really wasn’t anything special to see.

  18. Really one of the best and I might add free things not to miss on a trip to London is the ceremony of the keys at the Tower of London. You just need to go on line as quick as you can and get reservations. Amazing British historical authentic and very fun. One of the best things I have ever done in the city. I also think an early morning boat trip down the river to Greenwich is on my list of favs. Surprised you didn’t mention the “eye” as a tourist trap way too expensive and crowded and you get much more for your money with hop on hop off bus tickets and from the top deck amazing pictures. Love the royal mews as well for unique facts about her majesty and the horses.

  19. I agree with Elizabeth about Harrod’s. had a short time to spend there. We didn’t buy anything, but we did browse and were shocked at the prices…must be how the other half lives. Lol! Still, beautiful inside. Stopped at Selfridge’s, too, just to look around. For me, biggest waste of time was the Sherlock Holmes museum. The gift shop was more interesting than the tour. Very tiny rooms, narrow stairs, and a lot of people quickly moving through. Interesting props, but not crazy about the mannequins.

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