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In a city that dates from 2 A.D., the most popular visitor attraction is a Ferris wheel built in 1999. But what a wheel. Planted next to the Thames, London Eye stands 443 feet tall, measures 394 feet in diameter and serves up panoramic views of London and its environs during a 30-minute ride. The 32 enclosed capsules, symbolizing London’s 32 boroughs, each hold 25 passengers who can stand by the windows, walk around to catch the views or grab a seat. Digitally lighted to change color on cue, the world’s largest cantilevered Ferris wheel rotates so slowly it doesn’t stop as passengers get on and off.
With 1,000 years of history housed within its iconic white brick walls, the Tower of London is a celebrated castle that doubles as a walk-in time capsule. Built as a fortress by William the Conquerer, it was a royal residence (Henry VIII was the final occupant), menagerie (the lions and other wild beasts were sent to London Zoo in 1832), prison (Ann Boleyn and Sir Thomas More were inmates) and is still home to the Crown Jewels (Queen Elizabeth keeps ceremonial pieces here, like the glittering Imperial State Crown). It’s easy to spend hours, but if you have only one, visit the Crown Jewels, the Royal Armories in the White Tower William the Conquerer built and the sumptuously appointed Medieval Palace.
As befits a Constitutional Monarchy, Britain’s Houses of Parliament, the nation’s highest legislature, meet in a palace — the Palace of Westminster, Charles Barry’s Perpendicular Gothic masterstroke from 1853. A guided or audio tour brings to life the history and detail of this splendid building and its complex workings. Among the highlights: the House of Commons and House of Lords, where issues are debated; historic Westminster Hall, the only surviving portion of the site’s original 11th Century palace; the gilded Queen’s Robing Room, where Her Majesty dons robe and crown before addressing the House of Lords; the magnificent Central Lobby (marble statues, chandeliers, stained glass windows), and more.
Dippy, a skeletal replica of a ferocious Diplodocus, greets visitors entering the Natural History Museum, a preview of the dinosaurs, whales and other monumental mammals on view in this superb assemblage. With a staggering 80 million items spanning a billion years, the collection encompasses botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology and zoology. Historic in all the right places, it includes specimens collected by Charles Darwin. But its futuristic 2009 addition — the egg-shaped Cocoon gallery inside a colossal glass box — bursts with life, namely 17 million insects, from butterflies and beetles to outsize tarantulas, and plant specimens. Equally breathtaking is the museum’s soaring 1881 Alfred Waterhouse building, a Romanesque Palazzo with staircases, archways and vast open spaces designed to inspire.
The iconic House of Parliament Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster comes to mind at the mention of Big Ben. But the moniker originally referred only to the tower’s main bell, the 13.5-ton Great Bell named for either Sir Benjamin Hall, a Victorian-era government commissioner, or Ben Caunt, a heavyweight boxing champion. An enduring emblem of London, the chiming four-sided clock from 1859, the world’s second largest, is known for the accuracy of its mechanical movement. And Big Ben itself is rightly celebrated for its authoritative tone. Alas, unless you're a U.K. resident, you can't enter Elizabeth Tower and climb the 334 stone spiral steps leading to the clock mechanism and bell. Console yourself with a tour of the Parliamentary palace, hardly chump change.
Like 40,000 people a day, you can walk, bike or drive across Tower Bridge, the iconic Victorian drawbridge suspended between twin Gothic towers. But thanks to the Tower Bridge Exhibition, you can also ascend to the top of the bridge’s north tower and stroll to the south tower across the elevated walkway, pausing to gaze out at London and down at the water and traffic below, visible through a spectacular glass floor. The Engine Room awaits at the bottom of the south tower, where the enormous hydraulic machines that lift the drawbridge do their work.
William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, John Everett Millais and David Hockney are a sampling of the artists with instantly recognizable works on view at Tate Britain, the branch of the Tate housing the nation’s collection of British art from 1500 to the present. (Tate Modern, also in London, specializes in international modern art.) The collection runs deep, but its centerpiece is the enormous assemblage of works by favorite son J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), displayed in the Clore Gallery, James Stirling’s celebrated Postmodern addition to the original 1897 building. Among the iconic Turners you’ll see are Norham Castle, Sunrise, Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth and a youthful self-portrait from 1799.
Everything about the Victoria and Albert Museum is big. The world’s largest museum of decorative arts, it covers 12.5 acres, boasts nearly 150 galleries and holds 4.5 million objects, including superstars like the Raphael Cartoons, full-scale Renaissance designs for Sistine Chapel tapestries that merit their own gallery. Architecture, ceramics, drawings, fashion, glass, jewelry, photography and sculpture are a few V&A specialties from periods ranging from medieval to modern. Adding to the experience is the atmospheric brick building whose Victorian DNA sits just below the surface. A year after it opened in 1857, the addition of gaslights facilitated night-time hours to attract working class visitors. And on Friday nights, select galleries and the cafe are open late, often hosting talks and special events.
Tucked beneath the streets of Westminster, the Churchill War Rooms is two museums rolled into one. The Churchill Museum traces the life and times of Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister (see his polka dot bow ties, hobby paintings and an Enigma Machine). But the main event is the amazing warren of underground bunkers, protected from bombs by an extra layer of concrete overhead, where Churchill and his Cabinet commandeered World War II, from 1939 to 1945. No luxury here. Largely untouched since the day the war ended, the tight quarters reveal papers piled on battered wood desks, monastic metal beds and pin-pricked maps marking British troop movements.
Connections to the monarchy and its history are almost everywhere you look at St. James’s Park, the oldest of London’s eight Royal Parks. Bordering the park is The Mall, the grand processional route used for coronations and state visits. The Horse Guards Parade, with its sweeping grounds, is the official entry to the park and Buckingham Palace. And the pelicans on Duck Island, a nature reserve in St. James’s Lake, are descended from birds presented in 1664 by the Russian Ambassador. An urban retreat, the park’s vast greens are punctuated by a band stand, deck chairs, a children’s playground and an enormous marble memorial to Queen Victoria.
With its instantly recognizable dome and twin spires, St. Paul’s Cathedral sits on the highest point in the City of London, the square mile where London began. History embraces nearly every inch of Christopher Wren’s late 17th-century English baroque masterpiece, from the 7,189-pipe Grand Organ to the canopied High Altar, built in 1958 to replace a Victorian marble altar destroyed by bombs during World War II. Shaped like a cross, the floor plan offers breathtaking objects and views — monuments to Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, sculpture by Henry Moore, a chapel to commemorate the 28,000 Americans stationed in Britain during WWII and a feast of paintings, high ceilings and gilding. Among the world-watching events held within its walls were the funerals of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher and the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.
Created in 1526 by Henry VIII as a place to hunt, Hyde Park is a civilized tree-lined park that still has a wild side. Consider the Serpentine, a large lake that’s a magnet for exotic wildlife like great crested grebes, black swans and Egyptian geese. Monuments and statues dot the largest of the Royal Parks: Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fountain, the Holocaust Memorial, the light-hearted Joy of Life Fountain. Speaker’s Corner, a spot were anyone can deliver a speech, draws a crowd. But as in Henry’s time, recreation rules this vast urban retreat; look for swimming, boating, bike riding, horseback riding, soccer and plenty of paths for a run or a mood-lifting walk.
Don’t expect a garden. Covent Garden is a bustling collection of cafes, pubs and small shops near the West End theater district. It also refers to the august Royal Opera House, home to the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet, which stands nearby. A thriving fruit and vegetable market since 1654, the market left for larger digs in 1980, and its iconic hangar with a curved glass-roof became a shopping center. Historic St. Paul’s Church, a 1633 Inigo Jones creation known as the actor’s church, stands on Covent Garden’s storied Piazza, not far from the historic Theatre Royal Drury Lane, still staging new shows. A crafts market and street entertainers keep things lively.
Opened in 1997, Shakespeare's Globe celebrates England’s greatest poet and playwright with a faithfully reconstructed theatre of the oak-and-thatch Elizabethan playhouse for which the Bard of Avon wrote. Built not far from the original 1599 Globe, where such plays as Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth were first performed, the three-story amphitheatre seats 3,000 and presents live productions of works by Shakespeare and others, including new plays. Tour the theatre and go behind the scenes, then visit the exhibition located under the classic “wooden O” stage, designed to bring alive the life and times of William Shakespeare.
The British Museum does nothing less than present the story of human cultural achievement from its beginnings to the present. Here’s where to see the Rosetta Stone, many Parthenon sculptures and Lindow Man’s well-preserved remains (he died 2,000 years ago), along with a fraction of the collection’s eight million treasures. Big from the beginning, the museum opened in 1759, housing the 71,000-piece collection of books, antiquities and natural specimens left by Sir Hans Sloane, a physician and naturalist. You still enter through the iconic 1823 be-columned Greek Revival building, but don’t miss the spectacular Great Court from 2000—Sir Norman Foster’s two-acre addition, embracing the Reading Room and much more under a magnificent glass roof.
Conceived in 1812 by architect John Nash as a large public courtyard, Trafalgar Square is a vibrant public square that sprawls, embracing monuments, history and mega institutions including the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. On the must-see list: Nelson’s Column guarded by four bronze lion sculptures, fountains flanked by mermaids, tritons and dolphins, and statues of two generals and King George IV on plinths. A fourth plinth, reserved for new art, puts a contemporary spin on a historic site and inevitably houses a work that is provocative and witty.
Frans Hals's Laughing Cavalier is an excellent reason to visit the Wallace Collection, a spectacular assemblage of fine and decorative arts from the 15th to 19th centuries. The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard is another. Accumulated by one family over five generations, 18th Century French paintings, porcelains, furniture and gold boxes form the collection’s breathtaking core, orbited by superb Old Master paintings, European sculpture, ceramics and furniture, and arms and armor. Works by Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Poussin, Canaletto and Gainsborough look utterly at home in Hertford House, the historic townhouse of the Fifth Marquess of Hertford and his descendants, inveterate and savvy collectors.
Ever wonder what happened to the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron? It’s at the Museum of London, along with more than 2 million objects associated with the city, from a 2,000-year-old Roman bikini (in leather) to the Lord Mayor of London’s gilded carriage. Tracing 450,000 years of urban history, chronologically arranged galleries reveal the city’s deep roots: pre-London, Roman London, medieval London, plague-ravaged London, Georgian London, Victorian London, wartime London, world-city London — whew! The history is palpable: visible from the galleries are fragments of London Wall, built by the Romans in the 2nd Century to guard the city of Londinium.
Before selfies there were portraits. The world’s largest collection resides in the National Portrait Gallery, created in 1856 to house portraits of historically significant British people. While self-portraits by artists William Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynolds meld artistry and content, many works are of interest mainly for provenance, such as the painting of sisters Charlotte, Anne and Emily Brontë by brother Branwell. As expected, royals rule in sheer numbers, led by Queen Elizabeth II (909 portraits), Queen Victoria (520) and King Henry VIII (94—in pre-photography days). Also getting their due are rock royalty (John Lennon with 59 portraits), fashion royalty (Twiggy with 30) and sports royalty (David Beckham with five).
Twenty-first-century observation towers are unlike anything that came before, as demonstrated by The View From the Shard, a futuristic outlook atop Western Europe’s tallest building. The elevators ascend and descend like rockets. Through videos and mirrors you push through iconic rooftops (virtually) on the ride up and watch the sky recede on the way down. From the 69th floor, towering windows reveal 360-degree views extending for 40 miles on a proverbial clear day. A partial outdoor gallery on floor 72 affords open-air viewing and a look at the building’s pinnacle.
Dating from the 13th Century, Borough Market is an open-air collection of over 100 food stalls in South London. Under glass-roofed Victorian-era hangars, a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, fresh breads, fish, game and rare-breed meats awaits, along with preserves, oils and teas from British and international vendors. The place bustles with chefs, restaurateurs, amateur cooks, demonstration kitchens, hawkers and food lovers eager for a taste of the market’s lively theatrics as well as super-fresh apples, asparagus and apricot jam.
With over 100 historic aircraft from a World War I Sopwith Camel to an up-to-the-moment Eurofighter Typhoon, the Royal Air Force Museum imparts the story of aviation and Britain’s Royal Air Force. In a vast hangar-filled space that’s like Heathrow with history, planes, helicopters and attendant artifacts, such as the audio of Winston Churchill’s Battle of Britain speech, educate, inform and entertain. As historic as the contents are the trappings: the splendid World War I exhibition, replete with handsomely restored aircraft and such memorabilia as a Royal Flying Corps dog jacket, is housed in the UK’s oldest aircraft factory, built in 1917.
Dedicated by Queen Elizabeth in 2012, the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park remembers the 55,573 men, many in their late teens, who lost their lives during World War II, flying nighttime bombing missions over occupied Europe. The memorial’s centerpiece is a monumental bronze statue of seven airmen, housed in a white Neoclassical shrine supported by Doric columns and sheltered from the elements by a roof. The bronze wreath at the front was designed by a Bomber Command veteran living in Australia.
A royal residence since the 17th Century rule of William and Mary and a public museum since 1899, Kensington Palace, like Buckingham Palace, is a deftly orchestrated mash-up of past and present. Among the royals who currently call this stately brick compound home are the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (with Prince George and Princess Charlotte), Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Kent. Visitors are treated to a panoply of richly decorated public spaces, among them: the magnificent King’s Staircase (William Kent’s paintings from 1724 depict lively 18th Century court life) and the Queen’s Dining Room, a handsome wood-paneled enclosure where William and Mary liked to sup quietly on fish and beer. The long life of Victoria, who became queen at age 18, unfurls in the rooms she occupied, embellished with pages from her diaries, her favorite sculptures and her wedding dress. And “Fashion Rules,” a can’t-miss exhibition for style lovers, displays 21 eye-catching couture gowns worn by Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana.
Designed in 1670 as the focal point of a genteel residential area, Leicester Square morphed into an entertainment hub in the 19th Century and reigns today as London’s cinema capital, home to enormous state-of-the-art movie palaces known for hosting film premieres, including the Odeon Leicester Square, Odeon West End and Leicester Square theaters. The square itself looks good: a dramatic refurbishment prior to the 2012 London Olympics paved nearly three acres in granite and cleaned up Giovanni Fontana’s famous 1874 statue of William Shakespeare flanked by dolphins. The TKTS booth at the Clocktower sells discounted tickets to mainstream plays and musicals presented in the nearby West End Theater District, London's version of New York's Broadway.
Arguably, the most exquisite room in all of London not housed in a palace, the Painted Hall is a tremendous Baroque space whose walls, ceiling and 90-foot-high vestibule dome are covered in a magnificent collection of large-scale frescoes and murals dating from 1708. Located within the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich—itself an architectural masterpiece, designed by the great Sir Christopher Wren—the room was painted by Sir James Thornhill, the most esteemed English painter of his day, and took him 19 years to complete. A wonderful combination of artistic decoration and architectural design, the Painted Hall is worth a visit under any circumstance—but now, while it’s undergoing an extensive restoration through 2018, the public will have a unique opportunity to participate in its conservation project in a variety of hands-on ways. How cool is that?
Directly north of Paddington where the Grand Union Canal meets the Regent’s Canal is a narrow waterway dotted with quaint houseboats, and if you squint just right, it can look like you’ve been transported to Italy’s Floating City—or at least, far from the hubbub of London central. Tranquil and picturesque, the area is known for its collection of charming waterside cafés and pubs, terraced summer homes and tree-lined paths that follow the winding canal downstream to Regent’s Park and Camden Town. Several scenic boat tours are offered—even by gondola! Or pop into the London Canal Museum and learn about the history of Little Venice and the industries it previously served.
Occupying a spectacular hillside on the outskirts of North London, this vast 1839 cemetery was one of the city’s most fashionable burial grounds during the mid- to late-1800s, known for its elaborate tombs and ornate gravesites. Today, through the patina of time and benign neglect, coupled with overgrown foliage, it’s still possible to appreciate much of the lavish funerary architecture, most in Victorian Gothic, with some displaying Egyptian-influenced artistry and obelisks dating to the same era. Buried here are such noteworthies as the novelist George Eliot, Britiish actor Sir Ralph Richardson and the parents of Charles Dickens, but the most famous resident is Karl Marx, the revolutionary socialist, whose grave still attracts the greatest number of visitors. In terms of notoriety, the cemetery can claim the Highgate Vampire, sightings of whom date back to the 1960s.
In what could be called the oddest couple’s museum ever, there’s a pair of adjacent townhouses in Mayfair whose serendipitous history has created one of the more fascinating showcases for the music world. The house at 25 Brook Street is where Handel lived from 1723 until his death in 1759, and until recently was the Handel House Museum, devoted to the German-born composer’s life in London. Open to the public are the quarters where Handel wrote “The Messiah” and “Music for the Royal Fireworks” as well as his recital room. An upper flat next door at number 23 was home to the American rock legend Jimi Hendrix in the late-1960s and has been transformed to reflect his time there, complete with personal artifacts and his guitars. In addition to tours, the museum provides frequent concerts, lectures and talks in tribute to both musical greats.