Destination Friday: London, part 1

January 4, 2008 at 10:28 am 2 comments

If I absolutely had to live in a big city/foreign country, London is where I would choose.  It was the first place I visited in my first trip abroad (junior year of high school, spring break 1996, 2 days), where I “studied abroad” (junior year of undergrad, winter term 2000, 5? weeks), and the second place in Europe I wanted to visit with my husband (spring break 2005, 1 week).  Why is London my favorite above New York, Paris, Rome, etc.?  (1) They speak English; (2) the West End can only be rivaled by Broadway; (3) the history is fascinating; (4) the sheer number of museums is impressive; (5) the architecture; and, last but not least, (6) the people.  I have so much to share about London that I can’t limit myself to one post.  I’m not even sure if I can cover all my favorites in 2, so just bear with me!

Where to Stay
When I visited in 2005, we stayed at the Holiday Inn London Kensington Forum.  The price was right (read: not very expensive), the place was clean, and the location wasn’t bad.   You pretty much have to take the Tube to get to any of the major sites from there (unless you’re willing to walk 30 mins or more), but it’s in a nice neighborhood and still very much in the thick of things (very close to the Gloucester Street station, which has 3 lines).  There are pubs, restaurants, and grocery stores very close by.  There’s a Starbucks in the lobby for the SBX obsessed.  I’d definitely stay here again.

London Visits seems to offer some good suggestions about where to stay.  I’d also check the TripAdvisor reviews.  And I’ll probably have some additional specific suggestions next time I post about London.

What to Do: The Must-Sees
Since I think the must-see sites of London would take at least a week of hard core touring, I’ll limit this first post to what I’d see if it were my first time in London and I only had a day. 

Westminster Abbey:  I see dead people!  Famous dead people!  Well, their graves anyway.  Westminster is not just a (gorgeous, striking, huge) place of worship; it’s also a cemetary of the royal and famous.  Obviously there are many English monarchs and their consorts, and you’ll also find other famous figures such as Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Rudyard Kipling, Laurence Olivier, and Alfred Tennyson.  Try to catch a choral matins or evensong if at all possible; the boys choir is amazing.  Also, if you’ve visited a looong time ago, be warned – it’s no longer free!  Entry is £10 for adults.

Parliament:  I don’t care if you’re not that into politics or don’t fully appreciate the British system of government; you should still see this.  Everyone wants to see Parliament (and Big Ben) from the exterior – it’s an awesome sight.  You should also take the time to see both the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  It’s fun to see the differences in decor and at least somewhat amusing to watch the MPs (Members of Parliament) and Lords debate and vote.

Buckingham Palace:  Everyone thinks of BP (the royal residence, not the gas station!) when they think of London.  You’d best try to catch a changing of the guards, or your friends will endlessly make fun of you.  Be warned – it’s a mad house!  When we went in 2005, I got a great tip from the TripAdvisor forum to head over to the Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk to watch the inspection before the changing.  This was amazing!  We heard the band do a few very lively numbers, like the Star Wars theme and “Copacabana,” and we got to see the guards very close up.  I got some amazing pictures of them (I need to post those at some point).  Then we followed them part of the way to BP.  We were astounded by the number of people there!  I’d recommend getting to the barracks a little more than half an hour before the changing is scheduled to happen.  Also, if you visit during the right time of year (July 31-September 29), you can go into BP itself to see the State Rooms (note: for the first time ever, the State Rooms will be open for limited private tours in March and April).

Tower of London:  This is the place where England’s most famous criminals (and “criminals”) were stashed and sometimes killed.  You can see the chopping block where Anne Boleyn was beheaded (unfortunately(?) you can no longer get a picture with your head on the block; it’s roped off) and visit the crown jewels (totally worth the long line).  Plan to be patient – there will be crowds – and make sure to take a tour with a Beefeater and snap a pic of a raven.

British Museum:  Could you really stand to look at yourself in the mirror and say that you visited London but didn’t make it to see the Rosetta Stone?  As much as I prefer Impressionist paintings to Grecian urns, a visit to the British Museum is a must.  In addition to the Rosetta Stone, the other must-not-miss “item” is the Parthenon facade.  That’s right – a British ambassador removed the sculptures fromt he Parthenon in Athens, Greece in the early 1800s.  Greece has repeatedly requested their return, but the museum has always refused.  It’s an interesting controversy without a clear and obvious answer (the polution in Athens would likely destroy the statues, so they should be kept inside a museum anyway).

Theatre: In my opinion, no trip to London is complete without at least one visit to the theatre.  There are two major options: Shakespeare’s Globe or the West End.  The Globe is steeped in history but has a limited season and offerings.  The West End rivals Broadway, offering everything from Avenue Q to Wicked.  You might consider seeing Blood Brothers, a British musical rarely seen in the US.  You should also check out what celebs are on the West End.  When we were there, we saw Kim Cattrall, Patrick Stewart, and Joshua Jackson.  Interestingly, meeting Kim at the stage door was wonderful and easy.  Meeting Patrick and Josh was a nightmare.

More to come next week!


Images: Westminster Abbey from Wiki, Parliament from the Testas, Tower of London from BBC.


Entry filed under: CenturyClub, Destinations, Europe, UK.

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