When talking about capital cities throughout the world, London ranks right up there among the biggest and the best. Along with being a major business and financial center, London is also renowned for its theater, culture, and cutting-edge fashion. Whether you are going to London for business or pleasure, you should be sure to spend at least a couple of days taking in the sights of this city, which has been the most important hub in all of England for hundreds of years.
There’s no escaping the museums. As you would expect, London has many museums that house exciting collections and priceless treasures from around the world. I am not a big museum person myself; usually when I travel, I prefer to spend time out of doors looking at more natural sights or engaging in fun activities or sports. However, even I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself had I not at least ducked into the British Museum.
The British Museum calls itself a cultural history museum. They have numerous pieces from every continent on the globe, and you are sure to recognize some of their more famous objects even if you are not an expert in art, archaeology, or ancient history. For example, the British Museum is home to the Rosetta Stone, broken slab of rock inscribed with text that is thought to date back to 196 B.C. As you may know, the Rosetta Stone is the object that helped a French linguist “crack the Hieroglyphic code,” which in turn enabled scholars to read ancient Egyptian texts. In other words, the Rosetta Stone is a pretty amazing artifact that you should definitely see if you get a chance.
In addition, to the Rosetta Stone, you’ll be able to see various mummies and other remnants from ancient Egypt, as well as famous objects from other parts of the world, including Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas. Entrance to the museum is always free, so there’s really no reason for you not to go. Expect to spend at least a couple of hours in the museum if you just want to give some of the more famous objects a cursory glance; set aside a much larger block of time if you plan to study some of the exhibits in detail.
Westminster Abbey is one of the most famous religious structures in the whole world. Not only is it renowned for its beautiful and intricate architecture, but it has also played a central role in British — and indeed, world — history. The 32,000 square foot church has been the site of numerous coronations of royal monarchs, and is the final resting place to some 3,300 people.
Although the Abbey, properly called The Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster, is still used as a house of worship, most people today think of it as one of London’s major tourist attractions. As such, the Abbey is open daily, and for a nominal donation, you can walk through and take an unguided tour, spending as much or as little time as you like in each part of the Abbey.
One of the most popular “attractions” within the Abbey are the tombs of some of the most prominent Englishmen from over the last few centuries. If you visit the Abbey, be sure to check out the so-called Poet’s Corner, where you will see the names of such greats as Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling, and others. You will also be able to visit the tombs of great scientists (Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin), politicians (William Pitt, Gladstone), musicians (Handel), actors (Sir Laurence Olivier), as well as regular people, including a farmer whose tombstone clearly indicates that he lived to the age of 152!
Shopping at Harrods
The Harrods department store in Knightsbridge is a must for anyone who enjoys shopping. Consisting of seven full floors of retail bliss, you’ll love browsing through all of the products that line the shelves. Perhaps more than any other department store in the world, the Harrods name conjures up images of luxurious customer service and attention to detail. Harrods has a long history in London, and its stories and legends are a big part of the reason that the store is such a big tourist attraction. Harrods prides itself on being a store that has everything, and towards that end, I recall reading somewhere that someone actually bought a real, live elephant from Harrods back in the 1960s.
At any rate, I recommend checking out Harrods to break up the monotony of sightseeing. You might also want to grab bite to eat at one of the 22 restaurants within the building. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll buy a little something just so you can get one of those famous green Harrods bags to take home with you!
A Night at the Theater
As I said in the opening, London has a world-famous theater scene. Even if you don’t ordinarily spend time at the theater when you are at home, you might want to take in a show in London, just to be able to say that you did! Just like with Broadway shows in New York, it might be next to impossible to get tickets for some of the more popular plays and musicals: in other words, don’t count on being able to walk up to the box office in order to purchase tickets on the same day of the performance. For most shows, you’ll have to book well in advance, so it would help if you are one of those people who like to plan their travel itineraries in detail before leaving.
You might even find that you won’t be able to get tickets through the box office because performances are sold out for months. In a case like that, if you really have your heart set on seeing a particular show, you might have to turn to a ticket broker. Ticket brokers are companies that have access to hard-to-get tickets, which they in turn sell for a premium to their customers. Some U.S.-based ticket brokers might be able to hook you up with tickets to the London theater, but more likely than not, you’ll have to deal with a broker that is based in London. Thankfully, the Internet makes transactions like these a piece of cake. Just make sure you check into the reputation of any ticket broker you’re thinking about using and make sure you do business only with those firms who have solid customer service records.
Boat Ride on the Thames
Taking a boat ride on the Thames is a good idea if you want to relax while still seeing some of the most famous sights in London. There are many companies offering boat tours, so you’re sure to be able to secure a place on one of the crafts without too much of a wait even if you don’t have reservations.
Most tours last for less than an hour, but you can sign up for some longer adventures (that will take you beyond the city of London) or for special packages such as dinner cruises, complete with meals and entertainment.
On a regular sightseeing tour along the Thames, you’ll be able to see such things as Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, the Tower of London, and several other noted buildings. Of course, you might not get a full, unobstructed view of these places, so depending on your level of interest, the boat tour might or might not serve as a substitute for actually visiting the above-named sights. When I went on my boat tour, I found that the boat traveled at a sufficiently slow speed to allow for some very nice photographs of the structures in question, so I didn’t have to bother making special trips to each place.
The Tower of London
The Tower of London is the name given to a series of buildings contained within a single complex. Constructed under the orders of William the Conqueror back in 1078, the Tower has served a variety of different purposes over the centuries. Most people probably think of the Tower as a prison, but it has also been a fortress, observatory, armory, treasury, and even a zoo.
The main attraction at the Tower of London today is the Crown Jewels. Visitors to are carried on a moving walkway (conveyor belt) slowly past several display cases containing the jewels. Even though you don’t have any control over how much time you can spend looking at a particular piece (since you are on the moving walkway), I found that the belt moves slowly enough to allow you to appreciate what you are seeing.
It is also worth spending a bit of time to walk around the grounds, check out the gift store, and pose for a photo with one of the famous “beefeater” guards, properly known as Yeoman Warders.
Madame Tussauds Wax Museum
No visit to London would be complete without a stop at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. This is a fun and interesting place that people of all ages invariably enjoy. Inside the museum, you’ll find very lifelike wax figures of celebrities from around the world. Best of all, cameras are allowed inside the museum, so you’ll be able to have your friends or family members take several photographs of you standing next to the wax figures. Yes, you are allowed to touch the figures as you pose with them, so your pictures will look very natural and it’ll appear that you’re actually with the celebrity, and not just a wax figure!
Madame Tussauds is one of the most popular attractions in all of London, so you can expect rather lengthy wait times of one to two hours to get inside. As an alternative, you can purchase a so-called “fast track” ticket in advance, which will allow you to gain entrance at a specific time. However, if you miss your window, you’ll have to stand in the regular line and wait as long as it takes to get in. There are also special shows and separate attractions inside the museum, which would require additional fees should you want to see them.