London was the first city we visited during our 3-month European trip. Here’s a summary of what we did across the 7 days we spent in this amazing city:
There are dozens of world-famous landmarks and sites in London. Here are a few:
Big Ben and Houses of Parliament
The building now called Houses of Parliament was formerly known as the Palace of Westminster, and over the centuries it was a royal residence as well as the site of a marketplace and courts of law. Originally built in the eleventh century, much of it was destroyed in the 1800’s by fire, and most of what we see today, including the iconic clock tower Big Ben, was built in the 1800’s.
This amazing Gothic church is in the same general location as Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It was one of our favorite places to see, not only because of the awe-inspiring immensity of the architecture but also because of the history contained within. It’s been the site of every royal coronation since 1066 as well as the location for 16 royal weddings, including, of course, those of Charles & Diana and William & Kate. According to the Abbey’s website, over 3000 people are buried or memorialized here. We saw the tombs of numerous kings and queens, as well as many important historical figures, including Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Famous poets, writers, and artists are buried in an area of the Abbey known as Poet’s Corner. Some that you may have heard of include Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling, and Laurence Olivier. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside of the church (or in any other royal property we visited), so I encourage you to search for images on Google. It’s stunning.
Tower of London
This castle and fortress, founded in 1066, is one of the most well-known landmarks in London. It was originally a royal residence but more famously functioned as a prison for hundreds of years, up until 1952. Some of England’s most well-known prisoners were held here, including Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was eventually beheaded, Lady Jane Grey, who was also beheaded, and Elizabeth I before she became queen. Other famous prisoners include William Wallace (think Braveheart), Guy Fawkes (see the movie V), the poet Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. The Tower was also housed a royal menagerie for hundreds of years until it was closed in 1831, and at various times one might have seen lions, bears, or tigers onsite. Now the Tower is open to the public for tours, but it also houses the Crown Jewels of England, which we saw but could not take pictures of, so you’re going to have to trust me when I say that those were some magnificent jewels, including the largest top-quality cut diamond in the world. See for yourself!
47% of London is comprised of parks and green space. We intentionally visited several of these, such as Hyde Park, but more often than not stumbled into a green area or garden accidentally.
Memorials and Statues
All over the city you will find memorials to important figures or events in British History, and here are two of the most famous ones:
One of the most iconic squares in Europe, Trafalgar Square commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, a naval victory over France in the Napoleonic Wars. Trafalgar Square has multiple monuments and commemorative statues, including Lord Nelson’s Column (Lord Nelson being the victor in the Battle of Trafalgar), which is guarded by 4 lions.
Wellington Arch, located near Hyde Park, is dedicated to the Duke of Wellington, who won the Battle of Waterloo with the aid of the Prussians and in the process ended Napoleon’s mission of conquering Europe. Inside the arch is a museum discussing the Battle of Waterloo and the downfall of Napoleon, and you can climb to the third floor to get a look at the neighborhood beyond, including the barb-wired walls enclosing the Buckingham royal gardens.
Palaces and royal residences
There are multiple palaces and royal residences in and around London, and we saw a few of them:
Buckingham Palace is the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II. We didn’t have time for a tour and therefore only viewed it from outside the gates, but it is open to the public for tours certain times of the year. You can also witness the changing of the guard ceremony, which occurs once a day.
Kensington Palace and gardens
This is where Queen Victoria grew up and where Princess Diana lived for part of her tenure as Princess of Wales. We took an official tour of the palace and had a view of Queen Victoria’s very unhappy childhood. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so check it out on their website. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had quite a love story, and the Queen was obsessively devoted to her Prince, who died at the age of 42. There are numerous landmarks and buildings that are dedicated to him.
William the Conqueror began building this castle in 1070, and it took 16 years to complete. It was home to many royals over the centuries, and it is now the place where Her Majesty spends most of Her private weekends. It is not within the city of London, but rather just outside of town in the scenic village of Windsor. We spent a day here and loved it so much that we’re going to devote a separate post to it.
This grand home in the middle of London, also known as Number One London, is not technically a palace; in fact, it’s described as a “townhouse,” but the aristocracy of England obviously have a different definition of what a townhouse is! It was built in the 1770’s and was the home of the first Duke of Wellington, victor of the Battle of Waterloo. Even though the current Duke of Wellington still uses a portion of the home, the state rooms have been preserved as a museum. As victor over Napoleon, he was presented with many gifts from leaders from around Europe, and he was also an avid art collector. The museum exhibits his excellent art collection as well as his opulent lifestyle at Number One London.
There are 34 bridges that cross the River Thames. Here are two of the most famous ones.
The London Bridge
London Bridge is one of the most well-known bridges in the world. It’s surprisingly plain, and most people confuse it for the Tower Bridge (see pictures of both below). It has a long, storied history. The first London Bridge was built around 80 AD, and the present-day bridge opened in 1973; in between, the bridge needed rebuilding multiple times due to destruction or dilapidation. Some interesting facts: for a long time, it was densely lined with homes and shops and was therefore a constant fire risk. And during medieval times, the heads of traitors were impaled on spikes and displayed at the southern entrance of the bridge to warn all who came near that bad behavior would not be tolerated. One of the London Bridges (the version built in 1831), was dismantled in 1970 and sold to a resident of Lake Havasu City, where it was rebuilt. That bridge currently spans a canal near Lake Havasu, so there really is a London Bridge in Arizona.
The Tower Bridge
Built in the late 19th century, the Tower Bridge is one of the most beautiful and iconic bridges on the River Thames. We took a tour called The Tower Bridge Experience, where we could go up into the towers, between which is a suspended walkway. A portion of the walkway had a glass bottom, so we were able to see the traffic as it crisscrossed the bridge below.
As we mentioned in our previous post, London has over 400 museums. A lot of the museums ask for a nominal donation but are otherwise free. This includes world-class institutes such as the British Museum, Museum of London, Tate Modern, National Gallery, Natural History History Museum, and National Maritime Museum.
We went to the following museums during our stay, and they were all spectacular, so posts will follow on each of them:
The British Museum
The Foucault Art Gallery
The Tate Modern
London has a renowned theatre district and endless other options for entertainment, and I wish we would have had time to attend more performances, but we did go to two:
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
We toured Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and attended a performance of Richard II. The play was performed by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre (the indoor theatre of the Globe; there’s an outdoor theatre as well). Mind you, this is not the original Globe Theatre; that one was closed by the Puritans in 1642 and demolished sometime shortly thereafter, and no significant evidence of its existence can now be found. American actor Sam Wanamaker, who spent much of his life in Britain, was dismayed by this fact and decided he wanted to rebuild the Globe. He spent over 20 years securing funding and approval for the project. He wanted the building to be authentic, and so the planners completed in-depth research and built the new Globe as historically accurate as possible, including use of the same kind of wood that would have been used in Shakespeare’s time. The theatre opened in 1997. The story behind the theater is worth a read if you’re a Shakespeare fan.
Royal albert hall
We attended a performance of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall, a palatial concert hall named in memory of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s deceased husband. The performance was one in a large series of events called the BBC PROMS, a summer-long series of performances that include standing areas to make the event affordable for all. The performance we saw, of compositions by Pierre Boulez, Ravel, & Stravinsky, was wonderful.
Walking the neighborhoods
Finally, we balanced our frenetic sightseeing with rambling, unstructured walks, thus making our time in London more relaxed and enjoyable. We never tired of strolling through the different neighborhoods, window shopping in the high-end shopping districts, people watching, and exploring the parks and gardens. There are dozens of neighborhoods (or boroughs) in London, and each one has a slightly different feel. It was a relief to periodically get away from the noise and crowds of the busier and more touristy areas and fun to see how the locals live, and the parade of beautiful buildings was endless.
As you can see, our days were jam-packed, and there was so much we didn’t get to. We hope to return to London again to explore more of this great city.