Today’s Destination Dash features London; a place that, no matter how many times I visit, always has something new (or old) to show me. Close to my heart because of my grandmother’s love for her favorite city, one of the most fun professional writing gigs I’ve ever done was an audio tour script of London. Even my favorite work of fiction is about this grand city! If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s London for a fascinating historically-based journey across several centuries.
London has been inhabited for more than 5000 years and must surely take it’s place among the most influential cities of all time. The Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, the Normans, and all the rest left their marks upon this city to create a place like no other. You could live here for years and STILL not see everything.
My list of must-see and must-do is based on a short visit (or layover) of about a day (8-10 hours) and will give you a short but profound taste of London and her many charms.
Name: London, England
Population: 8.674 million (2015 est.)
- from LGA (NYC, USA), 7 hours 15 minutes (approx)
- from SYD (Australia), 22 hours, 40 minutes (approx)
- from EZE (Argentina), 13 hours, 40 minutes (approx)
Etymology of the name:
Version 1: Plowonida, from the pre-Celtic words that may mean a flowing river (Thames?) which eventually evolved into Londinium, in Roman times.
Version 2: A Celtic place name of Londinion, which may stem from the name of a tribal chief or it may be a variation of the Celtic word lond, which means wild.
Special Note: Londinium made its first written appearance in a chronicle by Tacitus in 117AD. Variations from the Roman age appear as Londinio, Londiniensi and Londiniensium.
Moniker Trivia: The city was renamed Augusta in 368, as evidenced by coins from that time, but that name never took off. A few nicknames of London include:
– The Big Smoke; due to the massive air pollution caused by the Industrial Revolution
– The Square Mile; As of 1870, this was true. Today? Not so much.
– The Wen; kind of a gross nickname, wen means cyst and was coined by William Cobbett, who believed in a rural England and wrote about it in his 1830 essay, Rural Rides.
Tip! Before we get to the list, let me advise that the best way to get around is using public transport, including the London Underground (the Tube). If you are going for a day or for a week, consider getting a Visitor Oyster card to easily move around central London. This is a smart card loaded with credit to use on the Tube, most National Rail lines, buses and the Docklands Light Rail and costs about £3 to buy and can be loaded in increments from £15 to £50.
Okay, onto my list of the top 5 things to do in London (in no particular order):
1. The Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) – Originally built as a royal palace in 1016, the Palace of Westminster was the official residence of kings such as Canute the Great, Edward the Confessor and William I. Henry VIII was the last to live there and in 1547, his son gave the building to Parliament.
Today, the Houses of Commons (about 650 members) and Lords (about 800 members) meet here on official parliamentary business. Sadly, not much of the original architecture is left, but the Victorian Gothic rebuild is impressive in its own right and worth visiting. If you have an hour and a half, take a guided tour for an easy way to learn a lot in a short amount of time. The tour goes through the House of Lords and House of Commons and includes:
- Westminster Hall
- Royal Gallery
- Lords Chamber
- St Stephen’s Hall
- Queen’s Robing Room
- and more (I can’t recall everything I saw!)
The cost is £25.50 for adults and £22 for students. You can even add Afternoon Tea with a view of the Thames onto your ticket. If you want to buy your ticket there, head to the ticket Office located at the front of Portcullis House on Victoria Embankment or you can save a bit and ensure your spot by booking online here. In the memorable words of Clark W. Griswold, “Look, kids! Big Ben and Parliament!”
It is interesting to note that if you are a UK resident, you can climb the tower!! I am so jealous, since I will climb most anything, especially historically significant things. If you want to do this, you’ll have to comply with a few rules:
- You must be older than 11 years.
- You need to be fit enough/able to climb the 334 steps without ANY assistance.
- If you are pregnant or have heart issues, you can’t climb the tower.
- You have to show up wearing sensible shoes or you will be turned away, so leave those cute heels at home.
Recommended time – 2+ hours
2. Tower Bridge – For a taste of Victorian ingenuity, head to the Tower Bridge. Built to answer the need for a river crossing downstream of London Bridge, the Tower Bridge was started in 1886. Since a typical stationary bridge wouldn’t allows masted ships to access the port at the Pool of London, a new style was needed. A combination bascule-suspension designed was chosen with architect Horace Jones starting it and architect George D. Stevenson completing it after Jones’ death in 1886.
The bridge was officially opened in June 1894 by the Prince and Princess of Wales. Running a length of 800 feet, each tower reaches 213 feet high being built on piers. The suspension in the center is 200 feet between the towers and is split into two bascules that can be raised to an angle of 86 degrees. These bascules each weigh over 1,000 tons and can be raised in five minutes. The bridge allows street traffic which runs through each tower and pedestrian traffic which directs walkers around the outside of the towers.
To enjoy this unique piece of mechanical history check out one of the tour options available. You can choose from several tours – a self-guided audio tour, a daytime private guided tour (which I did), or a private evening guided tour (which I wish I had done). The private tour is great since I always have a lot of questions and I really got a kick out of the Victorian Engine Rooms. I think a visit to the Tower Bridge can be that unifying thing to do when you need to please a lot of different tastes like history buffs, kids into trucks and machines, photographers who like a view, and so on.
Recommended time – 1 1/2 hours (for the tour) up to 2 hours
3. Victoria and Albert – The V&A covers more than 12 acres, has 145 galleries and is touted as the world’s leading museum of art and design. I wholeheartedly agree. If that weren’t impressive enough, the permanent collections of the V&A has more than 2 million items representing over 5 millennia of human history. Originally opened by Queen Victoria in June 1857, gas lights made nighttime gallery events possible in 1858. Can you imagine strolling through the galleries with everything bathed in a golden flickering glow and conversations underscored by the hiss of gas lamps? There is not enough space on the Internet to write about all the collections on display, but my favorites have to be:
- the Fashion collection with garments from around the world
- the Textile collection featuring pieces from ancient Egypt
- the Paintings in the Edwin and Susan Davies Galleries that have a huge collection of miniatures (tiny portraits)
- the Medieval collection full of art, tapestries, and more – both religious and secular.
Keep in mind, the collections are spread out between several buildings over six floors, so if you have mobility issues, take that into consideration. If you are short on time, consider taking the hour-long guided introductory tours (10:30, 12:30, 1:30, and 3:30) that covers a few works (5 or 6, if I recall correctly). If you have an afternoon, start with the British gallery for a solid look at British art and design over 500 years. After all, you ARE in London.
When you have had too much of the indoor opulence, head outside to the John Madejski garden. Opened in 2005, this garden has a nice water feature as the center point of the space. If you visit in the summer, you can enjoy a bite to eat at the outdoor cafe in the garden, too! Did I mention, admission is free?
Recommended time – 2 hours or more (more, definitely more!)
4. Hyde Park – As one of eight Royal Parks, Hyde Park draws millions of visitors each year. A green space of 350 acres, the park is more than just a pretty place (and it IS pretty) it has a lot of famous landmarks, including the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain and the related seven-mile long Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk. To take the walk, follow the plaques on the ground and wind your way past the famous buildings and location associated with the Princess. You can go swimming or boating in the Serpentine, relax in the Rose Garden, watch orators at Speaker’s Corner, or just take a bag of nuts and feed the wild squirrels (not if you paid me, squirrels freak me out).
The history of Hyde Park is almost as colorful as the blooms of Spring. Obtained from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536, Henry VIII used the land as a private hunting ground and it remained so for 100 years. Finally, in 1637, Charles I opened the park to the general public. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was held in the park. Another notable event was the first investiture of the Victoria Cross in 1857. For the cinephiles among you, here’s some trivia – Hyde Park was the site of where the world’s first movie (moving picture) was filmed in 1889, by Apsley Gate.
Almost any time of day is perfect for a visit, but I prefer early mornings or just after midday for my Hyde Park experiences. Early morning is perfect for a less-crowded stroll and to enjoy the park’s birds starting their industrious avian days. After 2pm or so, the crowds thin again and ambling from the Diana Memorial Fountain, east to the Rose Garden, and north to the Marble Arch is a great way to walk off a hearty lunch from the Lido. Try the chestnut, mushroom and artichoke Pizzette, it’s quite tasty!
Recommended time – at least 2 hours
5. Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace – For a glimpse of something thoroughly British, touristy, and yet, totally fabulous, make time to watch the Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Lasting under an hour, the ceremony follows the change of guard or “Guard Mounting” as one regiment takes over for another. The Queen’s Guard is made up of soldiers from the Household Division’s Foot Guards, dressed in the spectacular red tunics. Huzzah!
This is a nice respite at the end of a busy morning of walking and sightseeing. Grab a beverage and portable snack and head over to the palace end of the Mall and find a good spot near the Victoria Memorial (a spectacular monument to Queen V).
Recommended time – 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours (including finding a good viewing spot)
If you have more than a day, consider taking a spin on the London Eye, seeing a performance in the West End, stopping by the Tate Modern in Bankside, walking the boards at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, climbing the Dome at St. Paul’s Cathedral, visiting the National Gallery, and touring the Tower of London.
For a somewhat straightforward route, you may want to start on the south side of the Thames, moving west to east from the Imperial War Museum to the Tower Bridge. Then, cross at the Tower Bridge and work your way (leisurely) from east to west taking in the sites (a TON of them) ending at Buckingham Palace. Of course, there are a million ways to approach your visit, so do your research before you go. Your list of sites and scenes will vary based on your personal interests, but hopefully, this will get your travel mojo kicked into high gear!
How did I do? Are my top spots on your list? Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!