Updated December 5, 2023
London is a beautiful, bustling city. Full of museums, world-class shopping, and amazing West End shows, it’s a bucket list destination for many people.
Whether you’ve been to London many times or are considering your first trip, there are a lot of things that most people don’t know about the city.
Read on to learn my 10 favorite, somewhat hidden, interesting London facts that you (probably) don’t know.
Taxi drivers have to know every street
Literally. Every street.
After years of study (it takes most drivers 3-4 years to complete their training) all black cab drivers have to take a test called the London Knowledge Test, or simply The Knowledge.
In order to pass the test they have to prove that they know all 25,000 streets and numerous landmarks that are located within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross Station.
So the next time you’re in London, don’t call an Uber. Opt for a black cab. You’ll have a better ride, and you’ll never get lost! A cab driver is also the perfect person to ask for local recommendations since they know all of central London like the back of their hand.
The top of Tower Bridge was intended as a public walkway
When the Tower Bridge was built the designers knew that the raising and lowering of the bridge spans would cause problems for the many pedestrians who needed to cross the bridge. So they came up with a solution that not only solved the problem, but also resulted in a beautiful bridge.
They built two towers, with stairs and a walkway connecting them 143 feet above the roadway. That ensured pedestrian traffic wouldn’t need to be impacted when the bridge is raised.
Today you can still climb up and walk across the bridge, but you’ll need to pay admission. You can also look down at the traffic below through the plexiglass floor in the center of the walkway.
The City of London is the smallest city in England
What we think of as London is actually Greater London. The City of London itself is home to only about 10,000 inhabitants, making it the smallest city in the country.
With an area of 1.12 square miles, the boundaries of the city are marked by metal bollards.
Greater London, on the other hand, covers over 600 square miles and is home to approximately 9.5 million people.
The head of the City of London is the Lord Mayor, and within the boundaries of the City of London only the Sovereign has greater authority. The Lord Mayor is also the head of the City of London Corporation, which is the governing body of the city.
The Lord Mayor serves a one-year term, and has distinct and separate responsibilities from the Mayor of London. Some of those responsibilities include hosting heads of states, governments and other foreign dignitaries on behalf of the Sovereign.
Over half of the underground runs overground
The Underground, or the Tube, is London’s main rail system. However, in spite of being known as the Underground, approximately 55% of it runs overground.
But it can’t be called the Overground, because there’s already a rail network called the Overground that is a separate rail system.
The Underground is made up of more traditional, subway style trains that run overground outside of the city center. The Overground, on the other hand, is more of a suburban light-rail network that is useful if you’re looking to avoid the city center.
Most visitors will ride the Underground since it connects the many sites London is famous for.
Big Ben is the name of a bell, not a tower
Big Ben is the largest bell in the Elizabeth Tower. The tower was renamed in 2012 in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Prior to that it was simply known as... The Clock Tower. A really original name, right?
The bell was cast in 1858 by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the same foundry that cast the Liberty Bell.
Big Ben weighs 13.7 tons, and the hammer that strikes it when it rings weighs 440 pounds.
London isn’t the only city in England with double-decker buses
Most buses in England are double-decker. You’ll see them throughout the country, in large and small towns and cities. But the difference is they're not usually red.
The red double decker bus has become a national symbol of London and England. In 1907 one of London’s various transportation companies, the London General Omnibus Company, painted their buses red to stand out from their competitors.
Prior to that time buses were normally painted different colors depending on the routes they served. In 1933 London Transport adopted the red paint for their entire fleet. The same shade of red is also used in the London Underground logo and on Royal Mail boxes.
People live in the Tower of London
The 37 Yeoman Warders and the Chief Warder, also known as the Beefeaters, and their families are the only people permitted to live in the Tower of London.
To become a Yeoman Warder a man or woman needs to have served in the armed forces for 22 years, have reached the rank of warrant officer and to have been awarded the long service and good conduct medals.
The Yeoman Warders pay rent, but it’s only 8.5% of their pensionable salary. That means the average Yeoman Warder will pay less than £3,000 per year for a two bedroom flat in the Tower. Not bad for central London!
Also living in the Tower are a minimum of six resident ravens, taken care of by one of the Yeoman Warders called the Ravenmaster. Wouldn't you love to have that title printed on your business card?
During the reign of King Charles II, when ravens were still native to London, it was said that if the ravens ever left the Tower of London, England would fall.
The tradition remains to this day. The tower normally houses 7 ravens to ensure there is a spare in the event one escapes. The ravens are free to fly, their wings aren’t clipped, but they are kept slightly unbalanced so the ravens are less likely to fly long distances.
They have escaped at times, and several years ago a member of the public found and recaptured one in Greenwich.
London is England’s driest city
While London has a reputation for being wet (this is England after all!) it’s actually the driest city in the country. It gets an average of 23 inches of rain per year.
London receives less rain per year than many other major cities, including New York (47 inches), Rome (32 inches) and Barcelona (25 inches).
The city maintains its reputation for being rainy due to the number of days it rains. You can expect approximately 156 wet days per year in London, compared to 119 in New York, 80 in Rome, and 55 in Barcelona.
When visiting London it’s unusual to experience heavy showers, but you can expect at least a drizzle on a few days while you’re there. Not to worry, the city is just as beautiful in the rain.
The Thames is a tidal river
If you take a walk on the Thames you may be surprised how different the river appears at various times of the day. That’s due to it being a tidal river, fluctuating by approximately 24 feet with each tide.
If you walk along the river at high tide you may wonder why there are so many sets of stone stairs going directly down into the water. Come back at low tide and you’ll see they’re actually made to access the beaches that appear at low tide.
Along with the tidal surge comes something else.
Treasures (or potential treasures) of all types.
Some things washed along the river are modern, but others are from much farther back in London’s 2,500 year history. You may find remnants of Roman roof tiles, Victorian pottery, or Georgian buttons.
Searching for treasure along the river is called mudlarking. If you’re planning to give it a try you’ll need to get a permit, available on the Port Authority of London website.
It’s also best to go with a guide since the tide can come in quickly and be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
You’re free to keep what you find, so it can be a fun way to spend part of a day and end up with a unique souvenir to take home. If you find anything that is considered to be of archeological significance, such as rare whole pottery, gold, silver, or coin hoards, you are required to let the experts at the British Museum know.
If the find is determined to be a "treasure" the British Museum will perform a valuation on it. Depending on the nature and value of the treasure it may become the property of the Crown, or be open to purchase by a museum. In that case you may be entitled to receive a reward for the find.
You can still see the original Roman wall of London
When you exit the Tower Hill tube stop you can see a tall stone wall at the top of the hill. This wall is what remains of the Roman wall that surrounded the ancient settlement of Londinium.
The original walls were approximately two miles long, extending from Blackfriars to Tower Hill. They were built in the 2nd century under order of the Roman Emperor Severus to protect the settlement from the native Britons.
Many of the gates that used to provide access to the city still lend their names to the surrounding neighborhoods. Areas like Bishopsgate, Aldgate, and Ludgate are all named after those ancient gates.
The walls served as the boundaries of the City of London through the Middle Ages and stand as one of the largest construction projects carried out in Roman Britain.
The Bottom Line: Interesting London facts
London is a city with so much to offer. You can spend years there and still uncover new things you didn’t know.
If you're looking for more London travel inspiration and advice, check out our other London travel blog posts.