English writer Samuel Johnson is quoted as saying “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. This is pretty accurate–there is so much to do in London, it’s almost impossible to be bored! I think part of this is because it’s both the capital city and a cultural center of the UK (as if the USA’s Washington, D.C. and New York City were rolled into one). There are so many famous monuments, museums, castles, churches, and other historical attractions there, and if you go you’ll find you a lot of the sights very familiar because you’ve seen different TV shows/movies filmed there. Basically, if you’d like to visit the UK or Europe, this is an awesome place to start your journey!
This is extremely hard to narrow down, and of course we didn’t visit nearly all that London has to offer, but here are some favorites:
1. Hampton Court Palace
This palace is large and gorgeous, with multiple architectural styles and extensive gardens. It was King Henry VIII’s favorite palace, so you can learn a lot about him there–they even have actors playing him and Anne Boleyn, etc., and you can also buy some pretty strange King Henry VIII souvenirs in the gift shop, like Christmas ornaments of him and all his wives! But anyway, the palace is full of pretty courtyards, lavishly decorated rooms, and chances to learn about history. We also really loved the gardens and finding our way to the center of the maze! It was definitely one of our favorite stops in London.
2. West End Musical
We went to Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre and it was marvelous! If you don’t live in NYC or a city that hosts Broadway shows regularly, it’s a great idea to go see one in London. The Tube escalators are lined with posters of different musicals so it shouldn’t be hard to find one you like! Chinatown is near the theatre district as well, so you can stop in a restaurant for some great Chinese food after the show.
3. Tower of London
This infamous UNESCO World Heritage Site shouldn’t be missed while in London. The Yeoman warders (beefeaters) who live at the Tower and give tours are very friendly and funny, so I’d advice starting off with one of their tours when visiting. You can also see the Crown Jewels here, explore the White Tower (the oldest part, built by William the Conqueror around 1000AD), learn about the raven superstition and the many purposes the Tower has served–royal mint, menagerie, prison, etc., and walk along the ramparts for great views of the iconic Tower Bridge! Of course, you can also learn about the darker sides of the Tower by seeing exhibits like the Princes in the Tower and the Rack, graffiti made by prisoners, the memorial to Anne Boleyn and the others who were beheaded in the tower, or head over to nearby Tower Hill, where most beheadings actually took place. A strange mix of the gruesome and fantastic in history, the Tower of London should definitely be on your short list!
4. National Portrait Gallery & Trafalgar Square and/or the British Museum
Trafalgar Square is a really nice area in London with lots of monuments, fountains, and locals hanging around. Right next to it is the National Portrait Gallery, which has a lot of amazing art–we saw sketches by Da Vinci and paintings by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists–and best of all, it’s free to visit! Alternately, if you enjoy archaeological artifacts as opposed to paintings, head to the amazing British Museum, which is also free! You can see the Rosetta Stone, the Nereid Monument, mummies, and more. And of course, if you have time while in London, try to make it to both!
5. Evensong service at Westminster Abbey
If you want to see Westminster Abbey for free instead of paying the $30 entrance fee and enjoy a wonderful performance that has been going on for a very long time. The choir sings beautifully, the church richly decorated on the inside, and even the sermon was good! I highly recommend it if you’d like to visit the Abbey. Stop in St. Margaret’s Church–right next to Westminster Abbey–afterwards for a nice peaceful visit. Also nearby are Big Ben and the Thames River, so it’s also a good place to snap your picture with London’s best-known landmark!
Probably how gruesome St. Paul’s Cathedral was inside! There were sculptures depicting generals dying in battle everywhere (some of them during the American Revolutionary War, which we weren’t sure how we should feel about). It seemed odd to me, but I guess maybe that’s what happens when you mix religion and patriotism?
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
One of the things we did that was actually a lot of fun was to try to get a Beatlesesque picture at Abbey Road. It’s actually along a pretty busy street, so it was kind of like playing frogger! Some of the drivers will stop/slow down so you can get your picture, but some are NOT happy about it, so try it at your own risk! There were some other tourists doing it when we were there too, but it’s not exactly on the regular tourist London route. We got to walk through a nice, quiet neighborhood on the way which was a change of pace from the rest of our trip.
We took a short day trip outside of London and went to Warwick Castle. I think that standing on top of the ramparts there and seeing the beautiful countryside and quaint city of Warwick, while listening to the epic music wafting up to us, with little British schoolchildren on their field trip everywhere, was one of my favorite parts of the trip!
The Changing of the Guard was not at all what I expected. It was quite crowded around Buckingham Palace, and everything moved very slowly. We did get to see some beefeaters and the band, but after 45 minutes of standing around in the crowd, photographing the royal guard and the palace, we left and it still wasn’t over! I think it might be better to go see Buckingham Palace when the Changing of the Guard isn’t happening and there aren’t nearly as many crowds.
Our good old English breakfast at our hotel on Gower Street was quite good everyday. We had an egg, ham-like bacon and a sausage or tomato everyday, plus toast in a little toast rack, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and really great hot chocolate. It was so tasty!
I bought a couple of scarves when we shopped at Camden Market which I wear all the time, so those are probably my favorite souvenirs!
WHY YOU SHOULD GO
London has a variety of attractions for any visitor–great castles and churches, world-class museums (many of them free), famous landmarks, and cultural attractions like the West End or Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. There’s just so much to do there, and it’s such a famous city. Especially if you are wanting to visit Europe or the UK, consider making London your first stop or your base of exploration!