Whether you’re heading to London for the Olympic games or just passing through, there is so much to see and do in this incredible city that planning a few days can be an overwhelming experience. Like any big city, London offers something for every traveler; the museum lover, the artist, the sports fanatic, the history buff, the political geek etc. so before you take-off, it’s important to think about what kind of traveler you want to be! That will help you narrow down your choice of things to do and see, but of course you can always shake things up once you touchdown. Having lived in the city multiple times while job searching and studying abroad, I acquired a taste for the best (and the worst) of things to see and do in London. Delivered in a four part series, each blog will focus on a different part of the London experience. To kick things off, here are my favourite things to see in England’s Bustling Capital city:
Oops – wait a second, you nearly forgot your map!
A map of the London Underground (the Tube) is vital for any visitor looking to explore London, all year round. The underground website also offers a journey planner so you can plug in exactly where you want to end up, when. So, pick your starting point, hold on tight, and away we go:
Things to See
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
Big Ben is a London icon, reigning over the houses of parliament and standing guard over the river Thames. Big Ben itself is the big bell inside the clock tower and weighs more than 13 tons! Chances are good that throughout your visit, you’ll catch a glimpse of the clock tower but keep an ear open on the hour to hear the monster inside.
Just past Big Ben, on the shores of the Thames, you’ll find the Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, where visitors are welcome to witness new laws being made and participate in relevant debates and discussion. The Houses of Parliament do offer guided tours, but depending on the time you have to spend in London, you may choose to gawk at the Palace from the environs, breathing in the Gothic-style architecture used by Charles Barry during reconstruction following the Great Fire of 1834 (not to be confused with the Great Fire of London that destroyed much of London in 1666). The power inside is tangible, trust me.
Top Tip: For a romantic setting and an atmosphere that perfectly blends time travel and modern skylines, stroll onto the bridge crossing over the Thames and sneak a peek at the Houses of Parliament by night. Thinking back over London’s political history and seeing the evolution of the city’s financial role is a great way to experience the old and the new, in one glance.
Westminster Abbey is one of those places you look at and say “do I go in? do I not go in?”. Just Go in. Most recently famed for being the church wherein Prince Wilhelm and Kate Middleton tied the knot, the church that began being built in 1245, is the resting place of people like Sir Isaac Newton, and witnessed the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. When visiting the Abbey, be sure to make a stop in Poets’ Corner, an area of the church dedicated to graves of writers and poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Charles Dickens as well as memorials to others such as John Milton, Jane Austen and Alexander Pope among many, many others.
While Tower Bridge itself may not be as old as other buildings in the vicinity, there is something so grandiose about the towers that I can’t not include it on my list of favourite things to see and do in London. The Bridge, constructed in 1884, served the purpose of easing traffic resulting from the gradual overpopulation of east London. While bridges had been built to the west of London Bridge (for many years the sole crossing over the Thames), none had been built to serve citizens in the east.Today, Tower Bridge serves as a lookout point, a venue as a host for rotating exhibitions that change with the seasons.
History buffs will want to take a tour of Tower of London located nearby Tower Bridge. With work starting on the White Tower as early as 1080, the fortress is ripe with stories of betrayal, imprisonment, escape and executions, including the beheading of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, in 1536.
St.Paul’s Cathedral is simply a masterpiece. Rebuilt between 1675 and 1710 following the collapse of the original church during the Great Fire of London, St.Paul’s Cathedral is a product of famed English architect, Sir Christopher Wren. The cathedral was the first to be built following the English Reformation and since has witnessed everything from the recent jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II to the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Climbing the stairs to the top of St.Paul’s is like reliving history through the eyes of the kings and queens of England. Wave down at your adoring public and enjoy the view.
Take a stroll through St. James park or head down the Mall (street) and follow in the footsteps of parades, marches, and conveys that make their way through the greens only to end up facing the gates of Buckingham Palace. The Mall itself is phenomenal, continually decorated in celebration of something (anything) British with flags waving and crowds lining the pavement. As the road seemingly comes to an end and Buckingham enters your sight, you are surrounded by monuments dedicated to countries that participated in the war (including Canada) and former colonies whose men and women fought many wars along British troops.
The Palace itself is full of splendor. With gold lining the gate and an impressive fountain (equipped and surrounded by impressive statues) welcoming onlookers, it’s hard not to feel like a national dignitary or member of the Royal Family. Despite my best efforts, I never quite managed to attract a wave from William, or Harry for that matter, but I’m sure it’s because they weren’t in residence at the time. While Buckingham Palace served for years as the official residence for the Royal family, today it is primarily an administrative building and serves as the venue for major Royal events such as Royal Christenings, banquets, celebrations and state visits.
Top Tip! Don’t miss out on the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. It may not be #1 on your hit parade but if you can time your visit accordingly, why miss out? Find out more about timing here..
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “London Calling” featuring Things to Do in this incredible city…