LONDON, ENGLAND: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” that’s what English poet Samuel Johnson said about this city. London, a truly multicultural city, doesn’t really need an introduction. Even if you have never visited this trendy city, I am sure, you have seen it many times in the movies or heard about its history and culture in books or news. And of course England’s Queen and the Royal Family members are always in the spotlight for their affairs and businesses too…over the centuries, they have added much to the London scene for today’s traveler.
Before visiting England, I always had an impression that it’s just another western, English-speaking world. I knew little bit about its past centuries and culture, but as far as the tourism goes, I had very little idea about its landmarks, rich heritage, and powerful history. London can be chaotic, at the same time relaxing, and exciting. You can be taken back to the medieval time when touring Tower of London and can be brought back to your senses when up in the London Eye. London is the heart of whole England or whole Great Britain without any doubt. And I have to go back to London once again to finish visiting many other things that we couldn’t see in this trip.
We used to take train from Luten everyday to come to the center of London during this trip. The Tube or Underground railway and double-decker bus are probably the best way to get around and an Oyster Card is conveniently taken in all transportation in and around London. Once we were in the city, surprisingly, it’s easier to explore the tourist spots on foot. If you really want to spend big money, hire one of the famous Black Cab, though they are not always black.
TIME of TRAVEL: We visited London during the summer of 2012, when the Paralympic was going on. The streets were crowded (well, then usual), and many streets were decorated for the big event. It is always a good idea to carry a light sweater and an umbrella here, you never know when the clouds will gather together to make you all wet.
We took Euro Rail from Brussels downtown all the way to King’s Cross Train Station which goes under the English Channel for a short period of time. From there, took another local train to Luten, where my uncle-in-law and his daughter live.
EATING and SHOPPING: London is considered as one of the leading global cities and therefore, it is a paradise of all sorts of international cuisines. Curry is definitely one of my favorites and after India, this is probably the place where you can find some award winning curry restaurants. If you are looking for true English plates, go for some fish and chips, meat pasties, or scones. I had spicy hot dogs one afternoon near Tower of London and can’t remember what I had the other days.
London is one of the most fashion trendy cities in the world. Though things are a bit pricey here, but I guess it’s worth paying those big prices.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had two full days for London…yes, I know it’s NOTHING really. You will probably need at least a month or even a year to appreciate London. If we had another day, we probably would have gone to the British Museum (it is a shame that we couldn’t visit it during this trip). Founded in 1753, the museum has collection from over two million years of human history and experience iconic objects from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and the Ancient World. Another place that you may want to consider is Kew Gardens where visitors can enjoy world’s one of the most diverse collection of rare and fascinating plants.
Other than the British Museum, London hosts some of the outstanding collection of world-class museums and many of those museums and galleries have no entrance fees. If you are not a museum person, stop by London’s theater district around Leicester Square or Covent Gardens.
1) TOWER of LONDON: Our first day in London actually started with Buckingham Palace’s Change of Royal Guard. But I kept it for later, because we couldn’t really visit the palace until the next day. So we walked towards Tower of London from there and spent about half a day inside the complex.
The Tower of London is the city’s original royal fortress by the Thames. This 900 years old royal residence was also a military stronghold in the Middle Ages. The rooms here were built and used by King Henry III (1216-1272) and King Edward I (1272-1307).
This is a perfect place to discover what life was like in the luxurious Medieval Palace and explore the stories of Henry III and Edward I. The historic White Tower exhibition celebrates the 500th anniversary of Henry III with displayed artifacts over 3 floors. Some of the world’s rarest arms and armors here have been selected from the treasures of the Royal Armories. Also enjoy the surprising serenity of the Chapel of St. John…a unique survival of an 11th century fortress chapel.
Beside of being one of the historic royal palaces, Tower of London is a powerful fortress that protects the Crown Jewels. 23,578 gems make up the Crown Jewels, including the dazzling Imperial State Crown which alone has 2858 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 5 rubies. The astonishing collection of priceless Coronation Regalia has been an unmissable highlight of any visit since the 17th century, with only one attempt to steal them.
It is also considered as one of the most haunted grounds in the world. Visit the infamous Bloody Tower from the 1220s where two little princes were murdered mysteriously. The Tower also held many famous prisoners and the Prisoner’s exhibition can be seen in the Beauchamp Tower with some extraordinary graffiti done by the prisoners. You can see some medieval instruments of torture in the Lower Wakefield Tower. Get a wonderful view of Tower Bridge and whole London while walking over the old stone walls of this complex. You can see some great live costumed enactments on the South Lawn. The famous Bell Tower is from 1190 A.D.
Tower of London is a UNESCO World Heritage site. During our visit the fee was £21 per adult and £11 for 5 – 17 years of children. Five different audio tours are available to go along with your journey in Tower of London. You would probably need few hours to see the towers (visitors can enter most of the towers but not all) and museums inside this historic place…be ready to walk a lot.
2) TOWER BRIDGE: Tower Bridge is London’s one of the favorite landmarks and probably the most photographed bridge in the world. We didn’t really go inside the Tower Bridge, only enjoyed the view from Tower of London and once drove underneath it by car. But I do want to share some points about this bridge.
Tower Bridge is recognized for its Gothic grandeur. It was built at the end of 19th century and was opened in 1894. Now the tourists can take a lift up to the Bridge’s high-level walkways (42 meters above the River Thames) to enjoy a spectacular panoramic view of both East and West London.
Tower Bridge Exhibition is a self-guided tour and lasts about 1 ½ hours. You can also visit the engine rooms along with the exhibition. Admission price is £8 per adult and £3.40 per child.
3) MONUMENT to The GREAT FIRE of LONDON: We stumbled upon this monument while walking towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was built to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666 which burned for three days consuming more than 13,000 houses and devastating 436 acres of the city. The monument is 202 ft. in height. The balcony of this monument can be reached by a spiral stairway (with admission fee) of 311 steps for a panoramic views of the city.
4) LONDON BRIDGE: Another stop before St. Paul’s Cathedral was the London Bridge. This is a rather recent addition to the city which was built in 1967.
5) ST. PAUL’S CATHEDRAL: Built after the Great Fire of London in 1666, St. Paul’s Cathedral is Sir Christopher Wren’s greatest accomplishment. The great dome of cathedral is a majestic part of the city. This is a majestic architecture inside and out and a must-see here.
The Churchyard and garden of St. Paul was first laid out as open space in 1878 combining the ancient burial grounds of the cathedral. We didn’t pay any fee to enter the cathedral, but no photography is allowed inside.
6) MILINIUM BRIDGE: Another photogenic bridge of London is the Millennium Bridge on River Thames. From St. Paul Cathedral, it’s only a few minutes of walking. Once we crossed the bridge we were on the other side of Thames…the drama/theater district of London.
7) GLOBE THEATER and SHAKESPEARE: After crossing the Millennium Bridge, on the other side of Thames River the famous Globe Theater in the center of what was once London’s most notorious entertainment district.
The Globe Theater is a reconstruction of the open-air playhouse from 1599 A.D. where Shakespeare worked and for which he wrote many of his greatest plays. It was burned to the ground in less than 2 hours in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, but the theater was quickly rebuilt. The annual theater season runs from April to October and productions include work by Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and many modern writers. If you have time check out their matinee performances.
Although we couldn’t take a tour, the Globe Exhibition is the world’s largest and most comprehensive exhibition devoted to Shakespeare. The exhibition is house beneath the Globe Theater. The exhibition uses modern technology and traditional crafts to bring Shakespeare’s world to life. You can listen to recordings from some of the most famous Shakespearean performances, can feel the fabrics and marvels, enjoy live demonstrations and costume dressings. An audio guide is included with the admissions. The exhibition is usually open until 5pm everyday.
8) LONDON EYE: London Eye is the world’s third largest observation wheel, situated on the South Bank of the River Thames offering magnificent view over London and its landmarks. The Parliament and Big Ben are within walking distance from here. Other than this, there are many other things to do and see in this park. You can spend a day just visiting its surroundings and doing people watch.
Be ready to stand in the line for a while, maybe more than an hour, but believe me it’s worth it.
9) PARLIAMENT SQUARE: The next day we started our day with this square. Whole London is busy and crowded and Parliament Square is no exception. An outdoor exhibition of some kind was going on during our visit. Many important landmarks surround this square, including the Parliament, Big Ben, and other official buildings. I am sure you can take tour inside the Parliament but we were there after office hours, so just admired the long building from outside.
10) BIG BEN: Another iconic landmark of London is Big Ben. We just saw it from outside, though like Parliament, I am sure you can go inside Big Ben and take a tour.
11) BUCKINGHAM PALACE and CHANGING of ROYAL GUARDS: We came to the palace walking thru Hyde Park, adjacent to Kensington Garden, which is a quiet and serene green park amidst of chaotic London. It was time for Changing the Guard ceremony and looked like whole London gathered around the palace to see this event. The ceremony takes place at 11:30am at alternate days, weather permitting. I don’t think this palace needs any introduction. But I will give it to you anyways.
Buckingham Palace is the office and the official London residence of Her Majesty The Queen, as well as the administrative headquarters of the Royal Household. It is one of the few working royal palaces remaining in the world today.
The State Rooms of Buckingham Palace are lavishly furnished with some of the greatest treasures from the Royal Collection – paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, and many others, exquisite examples of porcelain and some of the finest English and French furniture.
The Royal Mews is the home to the royal collection of historic coaches and carriages. One of the finest working stables and a living part of Britain’s heritage, the Royal Mews is responsible for all road travel arrangements for The Queen and members of the Royal Family. Take a closer look at the most dazzling coach on display the Gold State Coach, which has been used in every coronation since 1821 and in 2002 played a central role in Her Majesty The Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.
During our visit, there was a special exhibition going on called, “Diamond: A Jubilee Celebration”. It was in the State Rooms area showing many ways in which diamonds have been used by British monarchs over the last 200 years.
Situated on Buckingham Palace Road, Buckingham Palace’s State Rooms, Queen’s Gallery, and The Royal Mew are accessible to publics usually in summer from June to October when the Palace is not being used in its official capacity. At that time it’s usually open everyday from 10am to 6pm. It will be the best idea to book your ticket ahead of time either online, by phone, or from their office. We tried to go there on our very first day, but everything was sold out. Pick up a free audio-tour to get the most of this place. You can upgrade your ticket and include a highlights tour of the famous Buckingham Palace Garden. The whole tour took us about 3 ½ to 4 hours.
12) WESTMINSTER ABBEY: This Abbey, with its grand exterior and magnificent interior, is an essential part of any trip to London and is central to the life of the British London. The mix of rich history and a tradition of worship creates this unique place a must-see. Founded over a thousand years ago as a Benedictine monastery, and rebuilt by Edward the Confessor in 1065, the building we see today was begun by Henry III in the Gothic style in 1245 A.D. Since originally, the Abbey was built as a monastery, there are some beautiful green spaces within the precincts to relax. It is a working church and an architecture masterpiece.
The Abbey has been the setting for Coronations since William the Conqueror in 1066 and is home to the Coronation Chair. It has witnessed countless royal and state occasions including Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953, wedding ceremony of Prince William and Princess Kate, and many other coronations, royal weddings, and funerals. This is also the final resting place for monarchs including Edward I, Henry III, Henry V, and Henry VII. In one of the chapels contains the bodies of Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary I (‘Bloody Mary’), and the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots. In the Poets’ Corner of this Abbey stands Chaucer’s tomb surrounded by memorials to William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Jane Austen, and many others. Great scientists, musicians, and politicians are also remembered in the Abbey, like Newton, Darwin, and Winston Churchill. Kings, queens, statesmen, soldiers, poets, priests, heroes, and villains – they all make up the rich historical tapestry of Abbey’s heritage.
Westminster Abbey is located in the heart of London, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Admission fees apply, but the day we visited, we didn’t pay anything. Taking photos or filming are not allowed inside the Abbey. Tours and audio-guides are available in different languages.
13) TRAFALGAR SQUARE: This is the home of Nelson’s Column and the lions. With its pedestrian zone, you can say this it the “center” of London. We stayed here only for half an hour or so and left without really going around the square and exploring each corner.
14) PICCADILLY CIRCUS: From Trafalgar Square, we walked to the Piccadilly Circus. This is one of the busiest spots of London. The statue of Eros stands in the middle of the square. Many stores and cafes are lined up on all sides of the square. The square is crowded with both locals and tourists.