Don’t Leave London Without Seeing These 15 Things
Once you have visited London, YOU WILL BE BACK. Over 17 million visitors come each year to see the heart of the United Kingdom. With the great exchange rate, there couldn’t be a better time to visit the Royal City. Planning ahead which attractions are a MUST for your group will ensure a memorable time with less frustration spent standing in lines (or queues as they are called in Britain). Here are my favorite places NOT TO BE MISSED.
BIG BEN is the term identified with a clock and tower which chimes throughout London every fifteen minutes. Big Ben is actually the name of the bell while the tower itself has recently been named Queen Elizabeth II Tower to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. This historic clock tower was built in the Gothic style in 1845 and has become the symbol of London throughout the world. When a visitor to London visits the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Abbey, stand quietly for a moment to listen to the old bell reminding us all that THIS IS LONDON. Take the Tube to the Westminster Tube Station where Big Ben will greet you the minute you surface from the train; everyone will be busy taking pictures of this massive tower. And NOW YOU KNOW that Big Ben is the bell’s name.
HYDE PARK is the largest park in London; it covers the area from Park Lane on the east end to Kensington Palace on the west end. This very beautiful central London park contains formal gardens, a boating lake, and large spaces of lawn, filled with daffodils in the early spring. In the early morning, those who walk or run find Hyde Park the ideal location for their early activity. Later in the day, horses will be spotted on the famous horse path called Rotten Row, or individuals who are learning to ride horses will be seen exercising their horses while understanding the skills needed for this equestrian sport. The large “green” spaces in the middle of one of the largest cities on earth give reprieve to a sometimes hectic city. The Italian Gardens close to Kensington Palace is one of the most beautiful flower gardens in London and is often thought of as Kensington Palace’s garden. All the summer flowers are brilliant in the warmer months, and the fountains and pond are perfect for the photographers in the city. The gothic Memorial to Prince Albert is splendid and will dazzle a photographer’s eye, while the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk will bring those who wish to pay respect to one of the most famous past Royal inhabitants of this great park. My wife Stephanie walks from Mayfair to Kensington Palace and back every morning and always exclaims THAT IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PARK I HAVE EVER SEEN: flowers, squirrels, horses, trees, lawns, birds, lakes, and PEACE. In many ways, this park and its many planted gardens are a piece of heaven. What about an afternoon picnic under an ancient sprawling oak tree? PERFECT
THE WAR ROOMS are of immense interest to London visitors. Buried deep below a building in Whitehall, near to Parliament, is the location which the British built a secure bunker for the beloved Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The bunker is encased in layers of concrete and outfitted with all the communication equipment needed to connect Churchill to his generals during World War II. The MAP ROOM is still in place where troop movements were monitored, Churchill’s bedroom is exactly as he left it, and all the desks and phones remain. When the war was over in 1945, the bunker was closed off and left exactly as it was. In recent years, Prince Phillip headed a project to open the bunker so London visitors could see the central nerve command of one of the most destructive wars ever. Churchill communicated from here with Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces whose headquarters were in Grosvenor Square in Mayfair. The history of World War II is fascinating; to stand in the bunker where Churchill received news and gave commands has to be one of the most significant experiences in modern London. I love the Bunker gift shop where Vera Lynn recordings can be purchased, and the Speeches given by Churchill are still available. The Winston Churchill War Rooms are almost a shrine to one of the greatest men of the 20th century. Bravo.
St Paul’s Cathedral in the very heart of London has been the scene of great events since it was built during the first 10 years of the 19th century, during the reign of Queen Anne. The cathedral replaced a previous building which was destroyed during the Great Fire of London and became the jewel of London’s skyline. St Paul’s is a “cathedral” because there is a sitting bishop, whereas Westminster Abbey has a senior Abbot. Sir Christopher Wren, the architect, lived across the Thames and carefully monitored the construction of his great masterpiece. His design for the dome was inspired by Michelangelo’s “ St Peter’s design of dome within a dome” and offers a whispering Gallery and stairway to the lantern atop the majestic dome for an incredible view of all London. Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece with its magnificent dome will be found in such famous photographs of London when German bombers destroyed much of East London, yet St Paul’s survived. Churchill put a fire watch on the building in case it was hit during the war, making this building the symbol of England's endurance and determination. Churchill's State Funeral was held in this building; Prince Charles and Diana Spencer chose this location for their glorious wedding. Both Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington are buried here. There are services in the building on Sundays and special concerts and events during the week, so be sure you check St Paul’s website before you schedule your visit. Like Westminster Abbey, this is a sacred place where people come to pray and participate in religious ceremonies, but it also serves as the national cathedral where people come to enjoy history, architecture, art, music, and tombs. Before you enter the massive stairs in front of the building, stop at the bottom and read the plaque which commemorates Queen Victoria’s celebration of her Diamond Jubilee. She was too weak to walk up the stairs, so the great celebration was held on the front stairs with the glorious building as a backdrop. Be sure to look up and see the moving “Conversion of St Paul” which is carved into the stone in splendid and flamboyant Baroque style. In front of the building, Queen Anne stands proudly and watches over the beautiful landmark which carries her name. This is a must-see part of every visitor’s itinerary to London. If the organ is playing, you will feel as close to heaven as you may possibly get in this life!
Covent Garden seems to be the place where everyone loves to gather these days. This very popular venue offers excellent restaurants, shops, Monday’s antique market, bakeries, music, jewelry, and lots of socializing. The dealers in the Apple Market change daily. The Apple Store is one of the most popular destinations in this area of London. The Royal Opera House is one of the most famous opera houses in Europe; advance tickets as well as some tickets for the day’s performance can be obtained. London Transportation Museum is very exciting and is located at the southeast end of Covent Garden Square. St. Paul’s Church, also known as the Actor's Church, on the Piazza was Inigo Jones’s first Palladian church in Britain. I like to go inside and read all the plaques to British actors whose cremains are found here including the great Ellen Terry whose performances of Shakespeare’s plays became legendary. If you are looking for history, wander down from the center to Maiden Lane and have dinner at the oldest restaurant in London — Rules Restaurant. Covent Garden will offer activities to fill one of your days in London. And you won’t be disappointed!
The British Museum offers an enormous experience for its visitors. The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are the treasure houses containing the national treasures from thousands of past centuries. Visitors come to this great museum to see the Elgin Marbles, once on the Acropolis of Athens; the Rosetta Stone which opened the writings of the Ancients; the magnificent Egyptian artifacts which dazzle the museum visitors. This museum is endless and should be studied long before a trip to London. I took my children to the British Museum because I believed that as they progressed through their educational experiences, they would run into the treasures they had actually seen in the British Museum. I have found that visitors can consume only a half day in the museum until they are tired and say I HAVE HAD IT. So, select the parts of the museum which might interest your family most. I would suggest THE ELGIN MARBLES, THE EGYPTIAN EXHIBITION, and the document room where letters written by members of the Beatles rock group from Liverpool; many other documents can be found. If you have time, at least visit THE READING ROOM where some of the greatest authors and philosophers have studied and searched. Karl Marx researched for many hours for his various publications. Visually, the British Museum is splendid. I can sit in the inner court of the museum and marvel at the great work of British architects. What a great experience. Take the Central or Piccadilly Line to Holborn — the museum is a short distance from the Tube Station. Perfect!
Trafalgar Square is the absolute center of London. The large space is filled with fountains, the Nelson Column, equestrian monuments to England’s heroes; it is lined with iconic buildings like the National Gallery, Canada House, South Africa House, and St Martin-in-the-Fields. When the Royal Family lived in St James’s Palace prior to King George III’s moving to Buckingham Palace in the 1760’s, Trafalgar Square housed the Royal Stables and Mews which were eventually moved to the back of Buckingham Palace when the King took up residence in his new home, leaving St James’s Palace as his official residence, but not his actual residence. Because the space was no longer used by the King, the old stables were torn down leaving this large square for the public, eventually becoming Trafalgar Square. Nelson’s defeat of Napoleon's navy off the coast of Spain at Trafalgar gave cause to celebrate and remember the event by naming the square TRAFALGAR SQUARE. The world gathers here during the days, taking photographs and meeting friends. It is always busy and very filled with photographers who seek their finest images from the steps of the National Gallery to Big Ben. Check out St Martin’s concerts which take place in Gibbs’s 18th century church, the model for the American 18th century churches all over North America. Stephanie and I cross Trafalgar Square as often as three times a day while we are in London and never tire of this monumental square which is the center of this magnificent city.
Buckingham Palace is the first thing that comes to mind when a London visitor begins to plan a trip to London. Buckingham Palace is the London residence of the Queen, and has been a royal residence since King George III bought the property from the Duke of Buckingham in the 18th century. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were the first members of the British Royal Family to make it their home. Great events are celebrated in the palace such as State receptions, concerts, public viewings, knighting, ambassador presentations, weddings, royal birthday celebrations, garden parties, etc. London visitors can be a part of palace life by visiting THE QUEEN’S GALLERY, THE ROYAL MEWS, THE SUMMER OPENING OF BUCKINGHAM PALACE. The Queen rotates her massive art collection and displays them in the Queen’s Gallery; exhibitions change twice a year. The State Rooms in the palace are open to the public during the summer during the months of August and September when the Queen is in residence at Balmoral in Scotland. This is a unique experience, if a visitor is in London during that period, this visit should not be missed. The Royal Mews is open all year; although, most of the horses are in the country having days off during the summer months. However, the magnificent collection of Royal carriages are on display. Of course the great attraction is the Queen’s “Gold Coach” that is used by the sovereign during the Coronation festivities. Possibly the biggest attraction to Buckingham Palace is the CHANGING OF THE GUARD ceremony in front of the Palace where horses, bands, uniforms create the most magnificent pageantry. Be sure to check before you go to the Palace because during the winter months the Guard Change takes place on an irregular basis. During the spring, summer, and fall, the Changing the Guards is scheduled between 10:00 and 10:30 every morning. I like to return to the palace in the evening to enjoy the architectural details, the magnificent memorial to Queen Victoria, and the splendid Commonwealth Gates which were created as part of the memorial to Queen Victoria. Buckingham Palace and the Mall leading up to Trafalgar Square is definite ROYAL LONDON and should not be missed. I get very emotional every time I watch the Changing of the Guard; it is just that kind of special experience.
Every Saturday, thousands of people from around the world gather on Portobello Road in Notting Hill to search for a treasure or a souvenir. In the Market, visitors will find fine porcelain, military collectibles, jewelry, vintage purses and clothes, fine furs, silver, boxes and leather trunks. I have been to Portobello Road every Saturday morning every time I have been to London, and I have enjoyed knowing the dealers — many have become friends. The Kashden family have been in the market for three generations offering fine pewter, documents, and now furs and fine vintage purses. Michael and Richard are the old time dealers who spend the weeks being sleuths and the weekends being dealers. They are the color of this amazing antique market. The lace dealer at the head of the road is one of the finest sources in Britain for examples of European lace. The silver dealer offers 250 pieces of English silver teapots, vases, creamers, muffin dishes at any one time. He always has a box which says 5 POUNDS where frugal visitors have a lot of fun. Inside the arcades, some of the finest antiques are sold, traded, and purchased. There is always a very active atmosphere where visitors are after the purchase of a lifetime. I know Portobello Market very well, and I love it every Saturday morning. Recently, the market has been open on Fridays. I have been once, but it is very different from the Saturday morning event.
The London Eye has become a part of London’s imposing skyline, attracting people from all over the world who want to see London from above. When I am in London and host guests, I take them on the LONDON EYE to give them an impressive view and to orient them to the layout of this very large city. To reach the LONDON EYE, cross over the Golden Jubilee Footbridge / Hungerford Bridge, and the ticket windows are close by. The wheel is made up of gondolas which allow visitors to see London in all directions; there are usually 20-25 riders in each gondola, or as they say at the London Eye “CAPSULE." By early morning, there are long lines waiting for their LONDON EYE experience, so I urge those planning on visiting this site to be at the ticket window as soon as possible in the morning. Tickets can be purchased online which saves a visitor the agony of the long wait. The London Eye is a photographer’s paradise especially in late evening with a London sunset up the Thames can be spectacular. NO LINES WITH ONLINE PURCHASED TICKETS. Certainly the best aspect of visiting the Eye is seeing London from above; the skyline is stunning snuggling the Thames River. Fabulous experience.
The Tower of London is an absolutely must-see part of every itinerary. It has been a royal palace, a prison, a zoo, a museum, a site of execution, and a jewel house. Because of such a history over a thousand years, the stories are almost unending. Let me suggest, in the strongest terms, to take the tour with the Beef Eaters who gather groups at the entrance and walk you through the Tower, telling you stories with all their gruesome detail. You will roar with laughter, you will stand amazed at the beautiful architecture, you will see jewels—the Crown Jewels—that will dazzle your eyes. To reach the Tower of London which is on the far east side of central London take either District or Central Tube Line to Tower Hill Station, cross under the busy highway, and go directly to the entrance IF YOU HAVE BOOKED YOUR TICKETS ONLINE BEFORE. If you haven’t, you will have a very, very long wait, standing in a very long line. By all means, purchase your tickets before you visit the Tower, or much of your visit will be spent in a line where visitors who have not planned well are agonizing over the long wait. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. I have just checked several sites online and have found numerous sources for your perusal before visiting the Tower. One outstanding site gives fabulous detail about the Crown Jewels which will forever be in your memory. Other sites tell the history of the Norman conquest of Britain and the building of the fortified castles all up and down the Thames to protect their conquest. The two important remaining Norman castles are THE TOWER OF LONDON and WINDSOR CASTLE. When I am with visitors, I sense when they have reached their limit and quickly jump on a Thames River Cruise which leaves from the docks near the Tower. By combining the two experiences, visitors have a fabulous day. There are numerous snack and sandwich stands all around the Tower and even on the boat, so don’t worry about getting a good lunch. Let me emphasize that booking your visit to the TOWER OF LONDON before your visit will enhance a visit to one of the most interesting sites anywhere in Europe: THE TOWER OF LONDON. Really, really exciting. You might also look into the CEREMONY OF THE KEYS where visitors are allowed to join the night guards as they close the Tower of London; it is a medieval ceremony and very engaging. HAVE FUN!
Of all the sites in London you must visit, WESTMINSTER ABBEY is one of the top five. For me, it is visual history, and I become immersed in its beauty and grandeur. The Abbey pre-dates the Norman Invasion of 1066 and houses the tomb of St Edward the Confessor which was a destination of many pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. The floors are filled with markers of Britain’s greater heroes who were the glory of its past. There is the poet’s corner where burials and memorials delight the literary visitor. I make my pilgrimage to the spot designated for Thomas Hardy whose ashes were buried here, but his heart was buried in his beloved Dorset, the setting of his power novels: THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE, JUDE THE OBSCURE, TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. The great British musicians are buried together as are the famous scientists. Shakespeare has a monument, but is buried in Stratford. The great politicians who affected Britain’s long history draw great attention; however, Winston Churchill has a memorial plaque but is buried at Blenheim. As one walks in the West Door, a visitor will immediately view the memorial to Britain’s TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR, known only to God. Chills will go up your back. For generations, the Kings and Queens of England were buried here. Around the High Altar, some of the great royalty of the Middle Ages are laid to rest with their burial gothic canopies still in place. If you are fortunate to visit when the organist is playing, the entire abbey will echo with the most magnificent sounds which you will never forget. Free organ recitals are played most Sunday evenings. Let me make a suggestion: go for services on Sunday morning about 10:00; check the Abbey’s website for exact time for first services and morning song. There are only a few visitors in attendance and you will sit in the stalls, listen to the most beautiful music, hear the choir boys, and hear a sermon spoken in the most perfect and beautiful English. These are two separate experiences because on Sunday, there are no tours; the abbey is reserved for services. For tours the other days, BOOK YOUR TICKETS ONLINE and you will go directly into the Abbey, and again avoid the long lines of visitors during the week who eagerly seek tickets. This experience is sublime if planned well. It is the Queen’s church; and as such, the Sovereign is crowned in Westminster Abbey. It is all wonderful.
Piccadilly Circus is one of London’s historic gathering places with the icon statue of Eros at its center. Crowds gather here all day, but during the evening theater groups, tourists, young people from all over the world connect in this very exciting site. For photographers, it is paradise. The Victorian era Criterion Theatre was the first London theater to be lighted by electricity. All around this active square, souvenir shops and small restaurants are packed with energetic London visitors who enjoy every minute of their London experience. Piccadilly Circus is an exciting spot which offers me several options: Regent Street and all the wonderful shops, Shaftesbury Avenue with many West End Theaters, Leicester Square for cinema and Haymarket for Her Majesty’s Theatre (PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) and Theatre Royal, a legend since Regency England. When I am in London, I find the three exciting evening gathering squares — Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Square, and Leicester Square — perfect for my favorite evening entertainment: PEOPLE WATCHING. Stephanie and I have great fun just watching the world go by where individuality and “being different” brings a smile to our faces, scenes for my camera, and memories unending. It is great fun for people of all ages.
TOWER BRIDGE means LONDON to the world. Built in the Gothic style, it was built between 1886 and 1894 and designed to be harmonious and linked to the Tower of London. Often this very prominent drawbridge is mistakenly called London Bridge which is a very different bridge over the Thames further up the river. Visiting Tower Bridge is part of a visit to the Tower of London where history, architecture, photography, restaurants, and technology offer diverse experiences and amazing photo opportunities. Tower bridge has two Gothic towers which are linked by high-level footbridges, encased in steel latticework. From these exciting footbridges, the views of London and the River Thames below are memorable. Don’t miss the TOWER BRIDGE EXPERIENCE displayed along the footbridges. It is exciting to see how the hydraulic pumps, replaced by electricity since the 1970’s, once opened the drawbridge for ships to travel further up the Thames into London. I remember years ago when the drawbridge went up to allow the Royal Yacht Britannia to sail further up the Thames carrying Elizabeth the Queen Mother for her 90th birthday. The Britannia and the Tower Bridge with incredible fireworks made an unforgettable impression on me, one I will never forget. The history of the Tower of London with its fabulous Jewel House as well as the Tower Bridge offer interest, excitement, and curiosity for visitors of all ages. Be sure to take your camera because this is where group pictures and souvenir memories are created. For many people, this site is what they remember most about London. You will have a great deal of fun here.
The first activity for Stephanie and me when we first arrive in London is a ride on the Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour — if it is a dry and sunny day. We know London very well, but being on the top of the bus as we fly through all of London, seeing all the sites and hearing all the sounds, helps us adapt very quickly to the city we love so much. I buy a ticket at the Green Park Tube Station next to the Ritz in Mayfair and take a complete ride with my camera in hand taking wonderful photographs above car level. It is fantastic seeing monuments from the top of a bus where there is no traffic to clutter my view. My camera thrives while riding with me on the top of a bus. The best parts of the ride are the views of St Paul’s Cathedral and riding over London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Taking photographs up and down the River Thames is a very exciting moment. The second day, we have the option of riding the Hop On Hop Off Bus again on the same ticket, hopping off at a monument we want to visit and then hopping back on the bus taking us to the next site on our itinerary. This experience has improved significantly over the years, and some of the guides on the buses are professional Blue Badge Guides. I have taken the names of several outstanding guides and have used them for tours for our clients staying in London Connection vacation apartments. I have found that as soon as I arrive at my accommodation, I want to spend the rest of the day sleeping so I delay my snoozing by coming alive again on the top of tour bus with lots of sunshine and fresh air, soaking in London from above street level. It is a great experience, and everyone is always enjoying the ride. The cost is about $35 U.S. for the 24-hour use of the ticket, allowing one to use the ticket on two different days. This has become a very popular experience, especially with photographers and inexperienced yet eager visitors to London. I fit into the “older visitors” category, and I still enjoy THE RIDE — just like all the youngsters.
After reading through these Top 15 attractions, you probably can’t wait to book your trip. Line up your accommodations and your flights; that is the first step. If you are staying for a week, choose at least your TOP FIVE places to visit to ensure you don’t miss them. Pack your camera, your comfortable walking shoes, and your rain jacket and enjoy the LONDON THAT I LOVE.