One of the oldest cities in Europe, London has existed for over two millennia. Founded by the Romans, later repeatedly attacked by Vikings, and nearly destroyed during “The Great Fire” of 1666, London is so steeped in stuffy history and it officially contains four World Heritage Sites.
A diverse and international city, yet remaining distinctly British, any visit to London is always packed with fresh encounters. You can savor the diversity of almost any cuisine you can think of while watching the people on the street. With so much to do, you can also take time to relax on a park bench as you enjoy the view of people roaming the green lawns of Hyde Park or one of the many other parks in the city.
Buckingham Palace is the official London residence of H.M. Queen Elizabeth. The lavishly furnished State Rooms of the Palace are open to the public from late July to September. I suggest you get tickets way ahead of time, as they usually sell out way before hand. These grand rooms are adorned with pieces from the Royal Collection including pieces painted by major European artists including Rembrandt.
The Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace takes place, weather permitting, at 11:30 am on every other day during the autumn, winter, and spring, and every day during the summer months. Everyone should see this, it is interesting. We recommend you arrive 15 to 30 minutes early.
Across from the palace is beautiful St. James’s Park, a large and popular park with a lake in the middle and with flowering gardens in the warm months. At the opposite end is Horse Guards Parade where mounted military ceremonies are held. It was once the official entrance leading to Buckingham Palace, but today you can still see the mounted sentries from the Queen’s Household Cavalry.
One of the most popular attractions in central London is the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel that stands overlooking the River Thames. The Eye provides great views of the city as there are few skyscrapers in London. With 32 oval-shaped capsules that hold 25 passengers each, with lots of room to walk around inside, you can see the city from a lot of angles. One journey takes about 30 minutes.
As one of the most recognizable features of London, Big Ben is actually not the name of a tower but the name of the largest of the five bells inside the east tower, or clock tower, at the Palace of Westminster, also known as Parliament. Designed in Gothic Revival style and standing about 16 storeys tall, the beautiful structure can be seen from many areas around the city including the London Eye. The east tower is now known as Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee on the throne.
The Palace of Westminster has been the location of several interesting treason trials. Fore in these hallowed halls, Braveheart was sentenced to death in 1305 and after Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament, met the same fate in 1606. Guy Fawkes Day is unofficially celebrated today.
In the heart of London is Westminster Abbey, one of the oldest and most important examples of Gothic architecture in Britain. The Abbey has paintings, historic artifacts, and beautifully stained glass. Some of the most recognized people in the country have been buried here. At least 16 royal weddings have been held at the Abbey, including the most recent of Prince William and Lady Catherine Middleton. It is the traditional location for coronations.
Organ recitals can be heard every Sunday afternoon. The Abby also has a museum which includes a collection of royal funeral effigies, medieval glass, and Mary II’s coronation chair. A true part of British history, Westminster Abbey is an exceptional building.
Overlooking the River Thames is the Tower of London which was built in the 11th century, it was until the Tudor period, it was a royal residence. Part of it was also used as a royal prison. One of the most famous and disturbing events to occur in the Tower was the unlawful imprisonment of the 12-year-old Prince Edward, rightful heir to the throne of England and his younger brother, Richard, in 1483. They are believed murdered by the opportunist, future King Richard III. Thus, the Tower of London has a prominent part in English history and recognized today as a World Heritage Site.
The Tower is comprised of several buildings set within a moat and defensive walls. The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror, the famed Norman invader, in 1078 and used by him to deter other potential invaders and counter-usurpers. But Londoners of the day saw it as a symbol of Norman foreign oppression and it was bitterly resented by the Anglo-Saxon majority.
Today the main hall holds a five hundred year timeline of royal armor including that of Henry VIII, which was made extra-large. The Royal Palace has a re-creation of King Edward I’s bedchamber as it would have looked during his life.
One of the most interesting sections in the Tower of London is the vault containing the exquisite Crown Jewels. The Royal Collection includes the regalia and vestments worn by the sovereign during important state ceremonies as the collection has great cultural and patriotic significance. Some of the more fascinating pieces you can see include the Imperial State Crown, St. Edward’s Crown, the Sceptre with the Cross, the Sovereign’s Orb, and any other pieces covered with gold, diamonds, and other precious and semi-precious stones. If you are into such things, it is breathtaking.
Piccadilly Circus, an ancient road junction in the West End of London dating from Roman times, has a similar feel to it as Times Square in New York City. Located close to major shopping and theatres it is a bustling place with crowds of tourists and locals of all ages, huge illuminated screens of advertisement, and the classic red double-decker buses pass through. Directly below this “circus” or intersection is the ‘Underground’ Piccadilly Circus Tube station, London’s subway that makes for easy access.
Enjoying a show in the West End of London is well worth it. From musicals to theatre, the incredible costumes, singing, dancing, and stage sets are likely to at least keep your interest, and you might even become openly enthralled while watching one of these productions. If you haven’t booked a ticket in advance, head to Leicester Square where you can find a ticket booth selling tickets for that night’s performances. It is a great way to get a very reasonable price for a seat at one of these amazing shows.
A visit to the largest square in London, Trafalgar Square, which has been a meeting point since the Dark Ages, you can often find impromptu performances, meet interesting people and assorted backpackers, and observe other activities going on in the square with Nelson’s Column, throngs of pigeons, and the famous stone lions.
Above all, London is a people town, a place where you can meet others of like mind. It is stimulating, adventurous, and a very sociable place to be. There is never a bad time to visit London; and any visit to this fascinating city will leave you craving more.