You can’t take 100 steps in London without coming face to face with something you’d like to spend your time on. I compiled a list of the things we did during this season that we were so regularly in London.
There was nothing I didn’t enjoy. Am I so weird? I don’t think so. There’s just so much that’s fun and interesting to do. Let your interests be your guide! If you are physically able, do get to know your neighborhood by walking around as much as you can. So many beautiful buildings and sights that you’ll recognize from movies, books, music videos, and it’s a great way to see the restaurants and pubs that might interest you for later. Sometimes that quality of digging deep where you are is better than charging all around over town to get in the top destinations.
On several of our visits we used a guide called Rick Steves’ Pocket London. We found it to be a great jumping off point for setting an agenda for our touring days and moments, but then were more casual about following the walks in the book as we saw more of what there was to see on the ground.
In the list below, I don’t include some the typical things a tourist often does–changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey. We took in all of the above during our trip over Christmas to London in 2012. We also took a day tour out of the city to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath. I didn’t exclude these because they aren’t fun and worthwhile–quite the opposite! (My kids especially surprised me by loving Westminster Abbey, especially Poets corner.) We just didn’t do any of those things during this year of many short visits.
Not only a museum devoted to his literary career but one of the homes he lived in while he wrote many novels, including Oliver Twist, lovingly restored and a great example of 19th century living. Much information about his life and his contemporaries. Tour the house and be sure to get the digital guide. (That is good advice no matter where you tour in London. A live or digital guide almost always adds to the experience.)
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre isn’t far from the Tate Modern and the London Eye. The theatre is a reproduction of the original Globe open-air theatre with care taken to reproduce the original experience (where possible) with modern conveniences (where prudent). We took the tour with a live tour guide and also spent time in the museum. The tour was excellent and would be enjoyable, I would argue, even for someone who didn’t take two semesters of Shakespeare in college as I did. (The museum may require an actual love of or interest in Shakespeare, history, or theater.) We did not get to attend a play while we were visiting, but the groundling experience sounds awesome at £5. Assuming you can stand for an entire Shakespeare play.
By now, your favorite team should really be Arsenal, but if not, do tour the grounds of your favorite team or of Wembley Stadium, home of amazing footballing, sporting and entertainment history. I’ve completed many tours, even for teams and sports I could care less about, and always find them to be interesting and entertaining. But, as you know, I love Arsenal and The Emirates, so touring was like being at Disneyland as a 5-year old. Feast your eyes on the glorious grass, locker rooms, Director’s box. Experience what it’s like to come through the tunnel onto the field. Imagine yourself in the hot tub with Olivier Giroud. We did the audio tour, but it’s possible to do a live tour with an Arsenal legend.
If you complete the Emirates Stadium tour, the Arsenal museum is included, or you can go to the museum instead. The museum requires a love of Arsenal or at least of football; very worthwhile if you have that in your soul. History, artifacts, video–it tells a compelling and fascinating story about the club we love. It has a patch of grass from Highbury, my friends!
Monument to the Great Fire of London 1666
Speaking as a Chicagoan, your city isn’t a city unless it’s had a great fire. The Monument to the Great Fire in London enables you to walk up many, many, many stairs and see an amazing view of London. If you frequent as many pubs as I do in London, getting a little –well, quite a lot–of exercise isn’t a bad thing. And the views are an amazing payback. The entrance fee is £4, cash, the only attraction we visited that caused us to pull out actual currency.
We only had a few hours to visit Camden, but you can probably spend as much time as you like. It reminded me of what I imagine Mardi Gras to be, with no parade. Trinkets, tattoos, piercings, brightly-colored mohawks. I refer not only to the shops and services available, but also to the people thronging the streets. Make sure you walk along the canal and have a look at the amazing houseboats, belongings strapped to the roofs–bicycles, strollers, sculptures, Christmas trees. The houses along the canal are opulent but also nicely off-center, with palm trees, tree houses. A pirate castle and a pagoda restaurant perched on a pier.
My son enjoyed this so much on our first visit to London that he insisted on going back. It is an amazing view and a fun experience. Book in advance so you don’t have to stand in line. We did it during the day the first time, and at night the second time. Loved it both times!
Site of the 2012 Summer Olympics and a lovely place to walk. As with all the places we went in London, we got to the park via the Tube. The park holds the aquatic park, stadium, and velodrome.
The British Library holds historical treasures, such as original scores of classical composers like Hayden, Beethoven, Mozart, and handwritten manuscripts from authors like Jane Austen and inventors and scientists, such as Leonardo da Vinci. It holds ancient sacred books, the Magna Carte, handwritten lyrics from the Beatles, letters from historical figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots. These documents and books are all displayed in the John Ritblat Gallery, kept dark to preserve them. Amazing treasures, well worth the visit.
It’s fun even to stand outside and take pictures, but you can also tour the inside of one of the tea trade’s sailing ships. The tea trade moved to motorized ships not so long after the Cutty Sark was commissioned, so while it is famous for its tea runs, it carried a great many other types of cargo. Very interesting exhibits and reproductions of life on board. My favorite part was the collection of figureheads that grace the front of ships.
The views of London are worthwhile in and of themselves, but we enjoyed the Royal Observatory and the Time galleries, as well as standing on and over the Prime Meridien. The story of how Longitude was solved is fascinating and as well-done an exhibit as any I have ever seen.
We spent most of our time in the special Pepys exhibit, but the museum itself seemed fascinating. I just don’t think that much about sea travel but it’s how England conquered so much of the world, and it spawned many scientific advances. People wonder, they travel, they figure things out, they wonder some more. Much, much to see and do. Pick the exhibits that interest you and invest accordingly.
Quite grim, but very interesting, the tour covers the famous murders that took place in London in 1888.
The women who were murdered were all prostitutes, all facing a series of daily challenges that put them in harm’s way of the first known serial killer, or at least the first person to whom that term was applied. The tour goes to the murder sites themselves, as well as to locations that were frequented by the women.
Many of murder sites no longer exist, certainly not in the form they were in, but the touring companies (and believe me, there are many) do a good job trying to evoke the feeling of the times and the locations.
We took the Grand Tour, and it was spectacular. The Albert Hall has a fascinating history and is a glorious space. Is it hyperbole to say you can hear the very lifeblood of English culture flowing through it? Yeah, maybe. Although we did not do so, it appears to be a spectacular place to take in a concert.
Hyde Park is enormous, really great place to walk, see Kensington Palace, the Orangery, get a look at the Royal Albert Hall and see Queen Victoria’s tribute (besides the Royal Albert!) to her husband.
Evensong or Vespers at Westminster Cathedral
If you love beautiful music, even if you aren’t so sure about sacred music, I highly recommend attending either Evensong or Vespers at Westminster Cathedral, 10 minutes down the street from Westminster Abbey.
The day we were able to attend, the service for that day was Vespers.
The Office of Vespers, the traditional Evening Prayer of the Church, offers to God our praise for the day that is ending, and in the words of the Canticle of Mary, ‘glorifies the Lord’ for His goodness to us.
The Vespers service we attended was focused on the Virgin Mary. It was lovely, absolutely soaring, gorgeous, vocal music sung in Latin by the boys’ and men’s choirs. The program had both the Latin words that were sung and English translations so you could follow along. The service took about 45 minutes.
It’s so fun to visit the market; the food is so pretty and colorful, and so varied. Cheeses, bakery goods, fish, vegetables, goats’ milk ice cream, giant vats of yummy goodness bubbling. It’s a great place for breakfast, lunch, or a late-afternoon snack.
We visited this museum while taking a walk through the Docklands from the South Quay station over to the Museum of London Docklands and ending at the West India Quay. The museum not only reflects a history of the Docklands and the shipping industry, but also very much a history of London.
Don’t skip the walk. So many beautiful things to see, including the Jubilee Gardens.
London is terrific; you can’t go wrong wherever you wander and whatever you decide to do.