Everyone comes to London with preconceptions shaped by a multitude of books, movies, TV shows and songs. Whatever yours are, prepare to have them exploded by this endlessly fascinating, amorphous city. You could spend a lifetime exploring it and still find that the slippery thing’s gone and changed on you. One thing though is constant: that great serpent of a river enfolding the city in its sinuous loops, linking London both to the green heart of England and the world. From Roman times people from around the globe have come to London, put down roots, and complained about the weather. This is one of the world’s most multicultural cities – any given street yields a rich harvest of languages, and those narrow streets are also steeped in fascinating history, magnificent art, imposing architecture, and popular culture. When you add an endless reserve of cool to this mix, it’s hard not to conclude that London is one of the world’s great cities, if not the greatest.
POINTS OF INTEREST
WESTMINSTER & ST JAMES’S
Purposefully positioned outside the old City (London’s fiercely independent burghers preferred to keep the monarch and parliament at arm’s length), Westminster has been the center of the nation’s political power for nearly a millennium. The area’s many landmarks combine to form an awesome display of authority, pomp, and gravitas. St James’s is an aristocratic enclave of palaces, famous hotels, historic shops, and elegant edifices, with some 150 historically noteworthy buildings.
THE TOWER OF LONDON
The Tower of London has a 1000-year-old history and foundations that date back to Roman times. Over the centuries it’s been a royal residence, treasury, mint, prison, and arsenal. Today it’s home to the spectacular Crown Jewels, as well as red-coated Beefeaters and ravens attributed with mythical power.
Although not actually in London, Windsor Castle is near enough to visit on a day-trip. This is the largest and oldest occupied fortress in the world, an astounding edifice of defensive walls, towers, and battlements, used for state occasions and as the Queen’s weekend retreat.
HAMPTON COURT PALACE
Hampton Court Palace is England’s largest and grandest Tudor structure, used by King Henry VIII as a riverside hideaway. After admiring the grand interior, you can relax in the extensive gardens, but don’t get lost in the 300-year-old maze.
Buckingham Palace has been the monarch’s London residence since 1837, and the current Queen divides her time between here, Windsor Castle, and Balmoral in Scotland. If she’s at home, the ‘royal standard’ flag flies on the roof. If she’s out, you can take a tour to see inside. Either way, don’t miss the famous Changing of the Guard.
In many ways Trafalgar Square is the center of London, where rallies and marches take place, tens of thousands of revelers usher in the New Year and locals congregate for anything from communal open-air cinema and Christmas celebrations to various political protests. It is dominated by the 170ft-high Nelson’s Column and ringed by many splendid buildings, including the National Gallery and St Martin-in-the-Fields. The Nazis once planned to shift Nelson’s Column to Berlin in the wake of a successful invasion.
Standing more than 440ft high in a fairly flat city, the London Eye affords views 25 miles in every direction, weather permitting. Interactive tablets provide great information (in six languages) about landmarks as they appear in the skyline. Each rotation – or ‘flight’ – takes a gracefully slow 30 minutes. At peak times (July, August, and school holidays) it may seem like you’ll spend more time in the queue than in the capsule.
CHELSEA & KENSINGTON
Known as the royal borough, Chelsea and Kensington lay claim to the highest income earners in the UK. Kensington High St has a lively mix of chains and boutiques, while even the charity shops along King’s Rd resemble fashion outlets. Some of London’s most beautiful and fascinating museums, clustered together in South Kensington, are must-sees come rain or shine.
Hyde Park is central London’s largest open space, expropriated from the Church in 1536 by Henry VIII and turned into a hunting ground and later a venue for duels, executions, and horse racing. The 1851 Great Exhibition was held here, and during WWII the park became an enormous potato field. These days, there’s boating on the Serpentine, summer concerts (Bruce Springsteen, Florence + The Machine, Patti Smith), film nights, and other warm-weather events.
Built in 1605, the palace became the favorite royal residence under William and Mary of Orange in 1689 and remained so until George III became king and relocated to Buckingham Palace. Today, it is still a royal residence, with the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. A large part of the palace is open to the public, however, including the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments.