If you are visiting London for the first time, you will find that it is a massive, sprawling city. No visitor can cover it all in one visit, so make a list of your five or ten must-not-miss sights. If you are planning your visit during the 2012 Olympics, there are even more reasons to plan ahead of the crowds.
Even after 24 years living in London, I certainly did not manage to see it all! Pace yourself and plan for any kind of weather. Pack a jumper, a brolly and a mac (that’s a sweater, an umbrella and a raincoat) for it can be damp and rarely hits 80 degrees. Luckily, it rarely snows, either so anytime of year will suit.
A London Thought for Today
“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” – Samuel Johnson
In 1777, America had newly severed its ties to the British Empire and the English author Samuel Johnson famously discussed London life with his friend, James Boswell, the capital was a city of under one million inhabitants. London is now home to over eight million and widely considered to host more international visitors than any city in the world. How things have changed!
Still, it is in the historic roots of this great city that we must explore several of the “do not miss” sights on the list for any visitor’s first time in London. Taxis are quite expensive so get a map and enjoy walking, use the buses and the tube (London Underground) and remember to look right-left-right when crossing the road!
Westminster (Nearest Tubes: Westminster or St James’s Park)
This is home to the Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament and to Big Ben, sited just alongside. Westminster Abbey, dating from the year 960 is right across the street. There will likely be a queue (line) of visitors to gain access to the Abbey just to the right of its great doors, snaking along the path in front of St Margaret’s Church, as the Abbey sees over one million visitors every year. There is an admission fee. Westminster Abbey has an active congregation so there are no Sunday tours. In 2011, the Abbey held Prince William’s wedding and is also celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. The Abbey is a pageant of British history, site of coronations, state funerals, royal weddings and the tombs of Edward the Confessor (1066) and most Kings and Queens of England through George II. Also buried here are Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, the Unknown Warrior and many famous literary greats in Poet’s Corner. There is an ancient coronation throne among the many artifacts on view. The best tours are verger-led, last 90 minutes, or you may choose the self-guided audio tour. Westminster Bridge, built in 1750, crosses the Thames here, affording fabulous views up and down the river, so cross the busy intersection carefully and step onto Westminster Bridge along the pedestrian walkway for a great photo opportunity. If your stay is a longer one, you may be able to make time for a day trip to Greenwich, home of the Prime Meridian from where the time zones of the world are measured. The river boat boards here, just down the steps by the bridge on your left as you face the Thames.
Buckingham Palace (Nearest Tubes: Green Park or Victoria Station)
Most visitors do not want to miss Buckingham Palace and the Changing the Guard spectacle which takes place at 11:30 a.m. Plan ahead, as crowds will thicken an hour prior, with the music beginning and guards arriving by 11:15 a.m. in advance of the 30-40 minute changeover which features jaunty marches, traditional and even popular tunes. Check the Official Website of the British Monarchy for the Changing the Guard schedule taking place daily in May, June and July and every other day throughout the year, even-numbered days in September and October and odd-numbered days in November and December, for example. Should it be a Sunday, it takes place at 10:00 a.m. You can know if the Queen is in residence by counting the sentries: four sentries on duty at the front of the palace if she is in residence and two if she is away. Tours of the State Rooms and the palace gardens take place from late July to early October only and tickets should be purchased in advance on the official website. The Duchess of Cambridge’s lovely wedding dress is the newest addition to the Buckingham Palace tour. Note that 2012 is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating fifty years on the throne, so tickets to see The State Rooms will be more in demand than ever.
Hyde Park (Nearest Tubes: Hyde Park, Knightsbridge or South Kensington)
Londoners know that when the weather is fine, it’s time to grab the opportunity for outdoor pursuits and often head for the parks. London is a very green city, filled with many parks, garden squares and several dozen communal gardens just for the residents. The largest and most central public space is Hyde Park which includes its westernmost half, known as Kensington Gardens, home to Kensington Palace, once the residence of Princess Diana and Princess Margaret. At the middle of the 625 acres is the Serpentine, a large and picturesque lake with swans and cormorants where an outing in a rental boat with oars can be enjoyed in good weather. Discover the Italian Gardens, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, the Peter Pan Statue, the children’s playground, the contemporary Serpentine Gallery and a lakeside cafe, known as the Lido. My favorite spot for enjoying a proper English tea, scones and cakes is the 18th century pavilion known as Kensington Gardens’ Orangery. Just across the street from Hyde Park’s south side is Royal Albert Hall, the famous concert venue and a ten minute walk will take you to the Victoria & Albert Museum. A bonus: most London museums have free admission.
Covent Garden (Nearest Tubes: Covent Garden or Leicester Square)
London has dozens of outdoor markets where locals mix with visitors to browse and to shop as they have done since the 17th century. There are markets taking place in different locations throughout the city on different days of the week, featuring everything from vintage clothing to antiques to flowers to food of all nations. Many visitors make the mistake of heading for a famous market on a day when it is closed, to find nothing there at all, as the vendors have set up elsewhere that day. Check out the list, the days and the specialities at Portobello Road, Brick Lane, Camden Passage, Spitalfields, Borough Market or Columbia Road Flower Market. Covent Garden is an exception, as there are vendors and shops open everyday along the neo-Gothic arcades, many street performers, the London Transport Museum, the Royal Opera House, 60 pubs and bars, 13 theatres. Pause and have a pint! Make sure you choose a picturesque British pub to order your pint on draught, adding another tick to your list of London experiences. When the weather allows, there will be crowds gathered around the pavement (sidewalk) outside the pubs. Covent Garden was once home to a fruit, vegetables and a flower market, but these have now moved to other locations, so there is mainly retail shopping in the cobblestone piazza. Covent Garden is definitely missing the local neighborhood touch, but, being so near to the West End, this is the perfect stop for visitors before heading for dinner and a West End show.
West End Theatres
Hosting over 15 million visitors a year, the 40-some theatres of London, known popularly as the West End although some of them are located elsewhere, are a very popular visitor attraction. Many theatres are elegant Victorian or Edwardian structures, so appreciating these grand interiors is part of the delight. One finds many ticket sale locations all over London, or go online, or see the hotel concierge. Theatre-going can be expensive, so it is useful to know that tkts is an official half-price ticket booth in the middle of Leicester Square, run by the Society of London Theatre, which opens everyday at 10:00 a.m. (11:00 a.m. on Sundays). One more tip: visitors might wish to consider choosing a musical over a drama for maximum enjoyment, as it is rather difficult to appreciate the actors’ British accents, the vocabulary and the local context of some of the shows. There are currently plenty of family-oriented musical productions, including Billy Elliot, Jersey Boys, Thriller Live, The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, Shrek – The Musical, South Pacific, The Wizard of Oz and, of course, long-running hits The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. (The last theatre I enjoyed in London was “Yes, Prime Minister” at the Apollo which was hilarious, but I am quite certain that the humor would have gone right past me had it not been for spending half-a-lifetime immersed in local current affairs.) Many shows have matinee performances on Saturdays and some weekdays at 2:30 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. Shows run two and a half to three hours with a brief interval (that’s an intermission) for which drinks can be ordered on arrival in advance. Ice cream is usually sold in the aisles during interval and the ladies’ loo is small with long queues. Programs are not free of charge in the U.K.
A Final London Thought
I imagine you will love your visit to one of the world’s great city destinations. Remember, British Pound Sterling is the local currency; no Euros in the United Kingdom. If you are lucky enough to be heading for the 2012 London Olympics, there are venues and stadiums located throughout London, so do plan your route using this handy (convenient) London Transport Map.