London: Things to do
They say (s)he who is tired of London is tired of life. While a number of cities might be vying these days for that cliché, there’s no denying the enduring appeal and timelessness of the British capital, including its many neighbourhoods, traditions, and attractions both historic and new. Here are our ten top sights, plus some tips for getting the most out of your London vacation.
1. Westminster Abbey
There is no better stop anywhere in London for British history buffs than Westminster Abbey. The home of British coronations, royal weddings, and much, much more, this magnificent 11th century building feels like everything that has shaped the Britain we know today, rolled up in one spectacular Gothic structure. Besides the architecture, pay your respects to Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, David Livingstone, Laurence Olivier, Rudyard Kipling, and enough British royalty to fill this entire page.
2. The Tower of London
A close second behind the Abbey for historical significance, The Tower shows off the grislier side of Britain’s royal history. It’s been the site of imprisonments, executions, the occasional murder, and some truly ghastly jokes told by the Beefeaters who escort the extremely worthwhile free tours. Arrive early to watch the Ceremony of the Keys, take a tour with the Beefeaters for the inside story, and to access the chapel where famous ‘traitors’ such as Anne Boelyn, Catherine Howard, and Thomas More lay buried, and don’t forget to look in on the Crown Jewels.
3. The British Museum
Of the many wonderful free attractions in London, nothing tops the British Museum. It boasts the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside Egypt, along with the Rosetta Stone, and the Parthenon Elgin Marbles among its vast collection. Free ‘eye-opener’ tours run throughout each day, while a 90 minute ‘highlights’ tour can be booked for 12 GBP. By the way, the museum doesn’t display anywhere near its entire collection of 8 million artefacts at any one time, but what’s out on show – about 80,000 pieces – will easily take up half your day.
4. Soho and the West End
Yes, it’s London at its most touristy, but there’s a reason for that. Soho is the centre of the city’s theatre district, where lavish West End musicals and cutting edge plays pack in the punters. It’s also London’s historic entertainment district, full of local pubs, hidden tea rooms, and a good chunk of London’s LGBT culture, past and present. Swing by TKTS on Leicester Square to see what discounted seats are on offer for that night, and take advantage of a local pre-theatre menu to keep dinner on time and on budget.
5. Victoria and Albert Museum
Knightsbridge boasts several free museums worth wandering, but the decorative arts on display at the V&A are in a class of their own. Everything from sculpture, to costuming, to jewellery, to glass, to ironwork and beyond, lovers of pretty things will be in Heaven. You’ll have to pay for entry to guest exhibitions, but these are also world-class, ranging from the history of opera through art, to basking in the artistry of icons like David Bowie, Alexander McQueen, and Pink Floyd.
6. Saint Paul’s Cathedral
While Westminster Abbey enshrines London’s royal history, Saint Paul’s is a vital part of the modern city’s day-to-day spiritual life. Sunday services here are of course free, but to really appreciate this magnificent building, you’ll need a sightseeing ticket, which gives you access to incredible views from the dome galleries, and the crypt, home to the tombs of Nelson, Wellington, and many others.
7. Shakespeare’s Globe
Though it’s not quite Shakespeare’s original, the Globe is still an active theatre, attracting world class performers year round. Take the tour for the inside story, book a ticket for a seat in the stands, or save your pennies by picking up a 5 GBP ‘yard’ ticket if you’re willing to stand for the performance in true Shakespearean style!
8. Greenwich Green and the Royal Observatory
Arguably London’s favourite green getaway, Greenwich takes you out of the city without ever truly leaving. In summer, join hundreds of locals and tourists basking in the sunshine, taking in the view from the lookout point at the top of the Green. You’re also right next to the Royal Observatory and the Meridian, from which the world takes its time.
9. The Tate Modern
London’s art galleries are among the finest in the world, but the Tate Modern, built in a former power station on the south bank of the Thames, has become a popular favourite. It’s no wonder, with Warhol, Picasso, Dali, Rothko, Fontana, and countless others in its collection. The Millennium Bridge, which leads from here across the Thames to the looming dome of Saint Paul’s is a work of modern art in its own right.
10. Hampton Court Palace
If you’re going to take a day trip to one palace in London, make it Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court. Rich with extravagant details, the grounds and gardens deserve just as much attention as the main structure. Lost yourself in the hedge maze, and absolutely do not miss The Magic Garden, particularly if you have children in tow. A seasonal ice rink lets winter visitors skate in the shadow of Henry VIII’s legacy.
BEST LONDON VACATIONS
BUDGET AND CURRENCY
The United Kingdom uses the British Pound, though you’d be forgiven for thinking the entirety of London runs on credit card. Have some cash on hand for local shops and restaurants. When it comes to budget, we’re hardly breaking the news by telling you London is expensive. 15 GBP will get you a meal at the cheaper end of the scale, while a 3-course, mid-range dinner for two will set you back 55 GBP. Most London pubs will pull you a pint for 4-5 GBP. London’s attractions are sharply divided between the free and the shockingly expensive, with very little in between. Visiting the British Museum, Tate Modern, V&A, Natural History Museum, and National Gallery won’t cost you a penny. The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the Churchill War Rooms, St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court, and a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe will each sting you between 16 and 25 GBP. Honestly? Visit them anyway. These are world class attractions central to London’s story that really shouldn’t be missed. With planning, you can save some money with a London Pass or by booking tickets online.
LOCAL LAWS AND ETIQUETTE
Its vast cultural reach has made London one of the world’s most familiar cities, so there aren’t that many quirks to be aware of.
Remember, the UK drives on the left, so be ready to reverse your thinking when it comes to standing/walking on escalators and on busy footpaths. And they do get busy! The largest city (currently) in the European Union wasn’t particularly built with a population of 9 million in mind, so avoid the Tube at rush hour if possible. The oldest underground railway in the world, London’s Underground is locked in a never-ending battle to keep up with its growing population.
If you’re the type to party late, don’t be caught out by London’s nightlife culture. Most of Soho closes down by midnight, and an after work drink is usually more popular than a late night out. Nightclubs carry on later and are usually found outside the London/Soho core.
Contrary to its reputation, London doesn’t actually get all that cold, nor does it suffer under constant rain. Winters average a low of 2’C/35’F, while summers peak at a very pleasant 24’c/75’F (with crowds to match). It’s the damp chill through much of the year that gets some complaining. Dress in practical, lightweight layers like the locals, and you’ll be fine. Rainfall is pretty steady throughout the year, with a shower every 3-4 days. London is rarely affected by its infrequent snow, but this means heavy snow can wreak havoc with trains, airports, and other transport.
You’ll hear every major language in the world, plus a few more spoken on the streets of London, but we have it on good authority that English speakers will do just fine.
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