I’ve been to London a total of 4 times in my life. Call me a bonafide anglophile. I am obsessed with all things British and am immediately attracted to British people, literature, and culture. London is one of my absolute favorite cities in the world. You simply cannot see and do all that London has to offer in one visit, so lets start with the fact that you should plan to make multiple visits there 🙂 Were it not for how expensive it was to live there I would pick up and move there in a heartbeat. So why is London the best, you ask?
1. The history
London is teeming with history at every corner. As a history teacher, this rich history speaks to me. It was originally called Londinium when it was founded by the Romans, and you can see the difference between the more ancient city of Westminster and the newer City of London…separated by…you guessed it…the Westminster bridge.
To one side you will see famous Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, where Anne Boleyn awaited her execution. The Tower of London dates back to the 11th century and is located along the river Thames. It was used as a fortress during the days of William the conqueror, a royal residence during the time of Richard the II, as well as an armory and prison for political prisoners of the King during the time of Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn, the unfortunate second wife of Henry’s who failed to produce a male heir, was imprisoned and executed here in 1536. The lesser known, Lady Jane Grey, or the 9 day queen, was also imprisoned and executed here by Mary I, after being accused of attempting to steal Mary’s right to the throne. This was during the disputes between the Protestants and Catholics in England. Mary’s brother Edward VI was a Protestant and had died, leaving the country in religious turmoil, as his very Catholic sister Mary was by hereditary right next in line to the throne. Today, the tower is a living museum and houses many of the royal family jewels, such as the coronation crown and scepter. The ravens that inhabit the tower are an eery reminder of its bloody past. Legend has it that if the ravens leave the tower, it will signal the end of the monarchy in England.
Check out more on the ravens of the Tower of London.
The ornate design of Tower Bridge has come to represent England and its great history. It was built in the late 1800s, so by comparison it isn’t all that old, but impressive non the less.
Of course you’ll find no greater representation of England’s history in London than Westminster Abby and the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament (the House of Commons and the House of Lords) meet.
Big Ben is a relatively new addition to the Palace of Westminster building. It was renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee in 2012 but most still just refer to it as Big Ben. Weather in London is historically rainy and terrible, particularly at Christmas, but if you’re visiting London around the holidays its great fun to see the New Years fireworks from Westminster Bridge which are set off with Big Ben and the London Eye in the background!
Check out BBCs coverage of New Years just this last January.
Westminster Abby is a testament to Gothic architecture. It holds much history, as many important Brits are interred inside, from royals like Elizabeth I, to writers such as Lord Alfred Tennyson. Like St Pauls, it began as part of the Catholic Church, but today it is part of the church of England, subject to the Queen (who is head of the Church of England, technically), so it’s really neither a cathedral nor an abbey any longer. It’s a must see, and I recommend attending a choral Evensong service, usually about 5 in the evening. This is a time for the choir to practice but is also a formal service in the case of Westminster. I found Evensong at St. Pauls to be much more relaxed. It is absolutely beautiful to listen to the singing, no matter if you are religious or not. Many royal weddings have occurred at Westminster, the last of which was the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Just watching her walk down the aisle, you get a sense of the magnitude of this place. She begins at the west door, at the tomb of the unknown soldier and memorial to Churchill. Led by the Arch Bishop of Canterbury she makes her way through the nave, through the choir, to the sanctuary…and this is only a small part of the actually abbey.
The Palace of Westminster is a must see. The tour inside is top notch, as you get to see the chambers, where the MP’s (Members of Parliament) all debate. If you’re interested in British politics and seeing how it works, this is the place for you. What many don’t know, is that this actually use to be a royal palace up until the 16th century.
St. Paul’s is also worth a mention here. This was also originally a Catholic cathedral, dating back to the 12th century, but today is part of the Anglican Church of England. Evensong services here are also quite nice, and the crypt will take you back in time. Of course, don’t forget to, as Mary Poppins says, “feed the birds”! St. Pauls is probably most famous for surviving the bombings of the German blitz during WWII and for hosting the not so fairy tale wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer (Prince William and Harry’s mum).
2. Oh, the museums galore!
There are no shortage of museums to visit in London. The first to mention is perhaps the British Museum, which houses a large collection of artifacts from Europe, Asia, African and America, including the treasured Rosetta Stone. It’s truly overwhelming! I don’t recommend trying to see it in one day, because you will spend all your time there, but rather prioritize what you want to see there. For art lovers there is of course the Tate Modern, and the Victoria and Albert. The National Portrait Gallery is also a nice addition to any itinerary. You could literally plan an entire museum trip to London, but I don’t necessarily recommend that, as there is so much more to see!
3. The Royals
I am bit of a royal nut, I’ll admit it. I woke up extra early on April 29, 2011 to watch William and Kate’s wedding. I find the queen fascinating…60 years of service. If you love the queen as I do, take a look at the recent BBC1 biography, the Queen at 90. Two must sees are Buckingham Palace and the Mall. The Mall is a beautiful road that leads from Trafalgar Square to the royal Buckingham Palace.
Buckingham Palace is where the Queen will usually conduct most official business, such as meeting with the Prime Minister or investitures. It also serves as one of her four main residences. When the royal standard flag flies above the palace it means the “queen’s at home”. If the Union Jack flies it means she is elsewhere. Windsor Castle, just outside London, usually serves as a weekend retreat. Sandringham House in Norfolk has long been in the Windsor family and is usually where the royal family spends Christmas holidays. Lastly, Balmoral Castle in Scotland, a favorite of the Queen’s, is normally used by the royals in the summer.
4. Sights and Sounds of London
I highly recommend the hop-on, hop-off bus tour around London, especially if you only have a short amount of time. It will take you to all the important points. Trafalgar Square is near the the National Gallery art museum, and here you will also find a monument to the Battle of Trafalgar. The signature lion statues are a favorite amongst Brits.
The requisite photo in the signature red phone booth is always fun.
A spin on the London Eye is a must, but I recommend doing it at night. The view is incredible!
Picadilly Circus is a festive, and fun area for eating, shopping and theater! I had the opportunity to see Lion in Winter in 2011, and it just happened that Joanna Lumley was staring as Eleanor of Aquitaine…you know her from Absolutely Fabulous, the hilariously funny British comedy. If you don’t, you should!
For Shakespeare lovers, of course, the Globe Theater!
Taking tea at Harrods or, my personal favorite, Fortnum and Masons, which is the queens grocer is a nice midday respite from sightseeing. Afternoon tea is of course very traditional.
5. The Pomp and Ceremony
Nobody does pomp and ceremony like the Brits. Say what you will about our American 4th of July, but there is nobody that shows patriotism or nationalism quite like the Brits. They do it well and they do it often. If you happen to be in London in mid June, you might be able to witness the “trooping of the colours”. This always occurs on the reigning monarchs birthday and is an opportunity for the monarch to review the troops. The royal family also makes their coveted appearance out on the balcony. Events such as these happen relatively frequently throughout the year.
This doesn’t really even begin to scratch the surface of what makes London my favorite city, but if this wasn’t enough to wet your appetite, there are so may day trips from London, such as Bath, Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon (home of William Shakespeare). Bath is a second runner up to my favorite cities in England.
So lets raise a pint, or a cuppa, whatever your pleasure…toast the queen and the fabulous city of London!
Buen viajes, gnomies! Or in this case, cheers mate!
Ever been to London? Please comment and let the gnome know what you think of this fabulous city!