London is more than 2000 years old, and has been a vibrant, active city for its entire history. Today, it’s the home of over seven million people, with several million more living near its outskirts, and has relatively easy access to the Continent via the Chunnel, the tunnel from France to England. Although England itself makes for an exciting and interesting travel experience, just going to London can fill months of travel time, and still not exhaust your interest.
Just people-watching in London can keep you occupied for days. London is no longer only British; instead, it’s one of the most vibrantly multicultural cities in the world. The area north of Hyde Park is largely owned by Arabs now, and outlying suburbs are homes to entire neighborhoods of people of Indian and Pakistani descent. You can go to many neighborhoods in the city and not hear a word of English.
Of course, sometimes you might not recognize English as English. There are twenty or more distinct dialects just in London, some more mainstream than others. About half the English dialects in Britain have their roots in London, a 600-square-mile patch of land. It’s an amazing city filled with textures and cultures you didn’t even know existed. Most of the tourist section of London can be found between the Tower of London and Hyde park, a three-mile walk.
London has countless museums, large and small, old and new, classy and kitschy. Museums with free admission include the British Museum, the British Library, National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Tate Gallery. After a certain time in the afternoon until closing (call to get exact times), the Imperial War Museum, the Museum of London, the Natural History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museums are also free.
In the Victoria and Albert, you can find excellent collections like the Medieval Treasury art gallery; the Dress Gallery, 400 years of English dress; and many famous works of art including reliefs by Donatello. In the National Gallery, you can find art by grand masters ranging from Da Vinci to Rubens, Botticelli to Monet and other French impressionists. If you’re interested in more peculiar exhibits, the famous Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks contains wax representations of people throughout history, and more modern works. It’s an incredible and historic museum.
London is crammed with architecture from most stages in its history, some of it historic, much of it remarkable in design and beauty. For starters, the Tower of London covers several hundred years of architectural history, as well as a millennium of British history. Here, Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn lost their heads; here, the Princes in the Tower vanished. The oldest part is the White Tower, built by William the Conquerer in 1077; the rest has been built around it.
More recently, St. Paul’s Cathedral is only a few hundred years old; it’s a symbol of British pride since World War II, when every German air raid on London failed to blow it up. In the crypt, you’ll find famous graves like Lord Nelson, or the quietly anonymous dead. London Bridge, where once shopkeepers held business, is an architectural marvel; for a special look at it, try a boat trip up the Thames.
For less-authentic but still delightful fun, try attending a performance at Shakespeare’s New Globe Theater, an exact reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe, which was destroyed long ago; you can experience theatre not as it’s done today, but as it was acted in Shakespeare’s time, roaming the lower gallery and even interacting with the actors. Or you can visit the Royal Shakespeare Company, a not to be missed Shakespearean company.
Walking Tours and Getting Around Time
There are dozens of walking tours available; visit the Tourist Information Centers off Piccadilly Circus or in Heathrow Airport. Good walking tours will take you to sights like Westminster Bridge, the Jubilee Promenade, and then across the bridge to stand beneath the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. For a perfect view and to take great pictures, walk to about the halfway point on the bridge. Nearby is Westminster Abbey, overlooking the great statue of Churchill, pigeon-free because he’s electrified. Trafalgar Square is the heart of British government; you’ll see the Queen’s Life Guard nearby. And there are dozens of places to eat in the area.
Getting around London isn’t difficult. Driving is not a great idea; you’ll wind up sitting in traffic most of the time, and parking is horribly expensive. Instead, use the buses, the Tube (London’s subway), or taxis to get from place to place. Or just walk; if you walk, you won’t pass up the really interesting spots. You can get maps of bus and Tube routes at a TI or Tube station; you should also be able to find them at the Tourist Information Centers. If you ride the bus, get on, and the conductor will sell you a ticket. Or you can purchase a transit pass – ask at the Tourist Information Center. To ride the Tube, purchase tickets at the coin operated machines, not the booths; this way, you’ll avoid lines. Tickets are valid only on the day of purchase, so don’t pre-purchase tickets.
Everywhere you can find neat little shops. For the best, try Harrods of London and Harvey Nichols. For a shopping neighborhood, try the Oxford Circus/Regent Street/Piccadilly Circus shopping walk. If you see a royal seal on a shop, stop in; this denotes it as a favorite of someone in the Royal Family. Sotheby’s Auctions are also great, though they can get expensive quickly; call them for schedules. London is also famous for great street markets, which are like huge flea markets; for a schedule and locations, speak to your handy Tourist Information Center.
This is nothing more than a taste of what London has available to visitors. There are thousands of things to do and see.