After traveling all around the USA during the 70s and 80s, our first trip to Europe in the early fall of 1994 started in London, England. In subsequent visits, I’ve come to appreciate London’s cultural treasures more and more. London is the capital and most populous city of England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the curvy River Thames in the south east of the island of Great Britain, it has been a major settlement for two thousand years. This is now a modern 21st-century city but with history stretching back to Roman times.
At its centre, right by the river, stand the imposing Houses of Parliament, the iconic ‘Big Ben’ clock tower and Westminster Abbey, site of British monarch coronations. Across the Thames River, sits the (now Coca Cola sponsored) London Eye, a giant Ferris observation wheel that provides panoramic views of the South Bank cultural complex, and the entire city. It slowly makes one whole revolution, never stopping, but going slow enough for passengers to get on and get off.
London has numerous museums and art galleries, many are free, including the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Art Gallery, the Science Museum, Tate Modern Art Museum, the Museum of London, the National Portrait Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum and at least a dozen others. We visited most of these I’ve listed here and they are outstanding.
The British Museum is the most popular visited attraction in all of the United Kingdom. The museum features ancient statues and artwork from many ancient civilizations including Greek, Roman and Egyptian. It also houses the Rosetta Stone, a large Granodiorite rock, which with it’s 3 ancient texts, provided the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The imposing exterior entrance is a Greek Revival facade with 44 ionic columns 45 feet high. Once inside, The Reading Room and Great Court glass roof added in 2005 provide a most impressive start to the museum. If paintings and sculptures, are more of interest, you’ll love the fabulous National Art Gallery, right in Trafalgar Square. For more modern art tastes there’s the Tate Modern, which has been recently enlarged and sits facing the Thames River. If you’re interested in the fascinating history of the city, don’t miss the Museum of London, you won’t be disappointed.
One can tour both of these palaces, or just view them from the outside. Kensington Palace is surrounded by Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park which make for a fine relaxing walk.
Another popular stop is where the royals of yesteryear lived, and many died… The Tower of London. It’s a moat and double walled fortified castle next to the river’s north bank by the most iconic Tower Bridge. Started in the 11th Century, the Tower of London consists of a complex of buildings inside the walls. The biggest building is the White Tower that gives it its name; and the Inner Ward, where the crown jewels of England are kept. There’s the Armory and Museum where you can see Henry VIII’s many armors for him and his horse as well.
Beginning with the Tutors, the Tower became less residence and associated more with a prison by the 16th Century. The Tower of London is one of four World Heritage sites in London which also includes Kew Gardens which encompasses Westminster Abbey and Palace and St. Margaret’s Church and the historic Greenwich and the Royal Observatory.
Westminster Abbey is an impressive Gothic church and the traditional place for all coronations, numerous royal weddings and burial sites of English monarchs. The Westminster area is the central city center, and its a must for all visitors.
Some of the other attractions include the Piccadilly Circus area, the huge St. Paul’s Cathedral and Trafalgar Square, a gathering area that features fountains, some enormous lion sculptures, Nelson’s Column and includes the National Art Gallery.
There’s also the newer Shard skyscraper with an observation area, and the aforementioned Tower Bridge. Many mistakingly think the bridge is the popular song’s namesake, London Bridge. The beautiful Tower Bridge consists of two towers with two upper level crossing walkways and a street level with the rising bridge section to let ships pass underneath. Construction of the bridge started in 1886, with several renovations over the years, a mayor one finished in 2010, and the last one in 2016. You can tour the Tower Bridge Exhibition inside the towers for a historical view and why it was so important to the city.
If you’re into live shows and theater, there’s the West End theater district. It is London’s Broadway, where you’ll find a slew of live shows. With both plays and musicals playing continuously. There are almost 20 theaters in the West End area and hundreds outside the area throughout London.
One of those outside the West End is the iconic Globe Theater. It is an oak-and-thatch replica of the original Elizabethan one showing Shakespeare plays in open air. The theater also sits by the Thames River, near both the Tate Modern and the actual site of the original Globe Theater.