With historical sites and unexpected surprises at every turn, London is a timeless city offering an exciting mix of old and new
London is among the most popular cities in the world for tourists. Every year, the capital city of United Kingdom is visited by more than 30 million tourists, so you can expect most places to be crowded especially during peak season. The list of must-dos and must-sees in the ancient city is almost endless. However, with some planning you can tick off the more interesting ones leaving the rest for later when you have spare time.
WHAT TO SEE
Top on the list is the Tower of London, a historic castle along the banks of the River Thames. The castle was used as an armoury, a treasury, a prison, the home of the Royal Mint, a public record office, and the home of the Crown Jewels of England. It is also said to be haunted. You can easily spend a few hours exploring the castle grounds before heading off to another nearby landmark, the Tower Bridge which crosses the River Thames. There is an entrance fee to the bridge and a glass walkway was recently built for tourists to get a more memorable experience. It is best to visit the Tower of London first and then make your way to Tower Bridge at dusk for a more fascinating view when the lights are switched on.
St Paul’s Cathedral, an Anglican church that has played an important role in England’s history, is worth a visit for its impressive interior and the famous dome which can be climbed if you’re fit enough to tackle 528 steps. Another famous church is Westminster Abbey, known as the traditional place of coronation and burial for the British monarchy. A lesser-known Anglican church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, located near Trafalgar Square is often missed. If you’re around the area, remember to go in to explore the beautiful interior and surroundings which is built in a Neoclassical style.
Buckingham Palace, the official residence of the Queen of England, may be touristy but it’s worth a visit if you are in London for the first time. If you visit around 11am, you may be lucky enough to catch the Changing of the Guards, an interesting ceremony which shows off British pageantry at its finest.
Whether you are a history buff or not, you should not miss the opportunity to visit The British Museum. Established over 260 years ago, it is one of the world’s most famous museums with a comprehensive collection of artefacts from different periods in history. When you are done with world history, The National Gallery offers you a chance to see up-close 2,300 paintings including famous ones by Monet, Rembrandt and Van Gogh.
Piccadilly Circus is similar to New York’s Times Square with its colourful neon signs and video displays. It is also the site of the statue of Eros, a winged archer poised with a bow. From Piccadilly, it is a short walk to Chinatown, Soho’s theatre district, Oxford Street’s shopping area and Leicester Square. It is customary to watch a play or musical at London’s West End Theatre District. Some musicals like Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera have been playing for decades.
For shopping, head to Covent Garden. Established more than 300 years ago as a food market, it is now a fashionable shopping and entertainment district. The main building, built like a huge glasshouse, is a shopping mall while the surrounding streets are filled with pubs, bars and restaurants. Covent Garden is an ideal place for people-watching and you are very likely to stumble upon street performances while exploring the surrounding streets.
The almost 200-year-old Harrods is not just a big department store but also a London attraction that you should visit, even if you have nothing to buy. Covering more than 1 million square feet of space, it is the largest in Europe and is even more beautiful when decked out for the festive season.
Other interesting places to shop are Portobello Road Market and Camden Market. Portobello is famous for antiques and collectibles while Camden is well-known for clothes, jewellery, music memorabilia and collectibles.
A great way to conclude your London trip would be to go on an evening River Thames boat cruise where you can catch great views of London’s riverside landmarks while watching the sun set. Most cruises include dinner on-board with live music. Lunch and afternoon cruises are also available.
If you prefer to see the city from high up, head to London Eye (www.londoneye.com), an observation wheel launched almost 20 years ago. From the top, you can get a dramatic view of London’s skyline and it gets even more interesting towards the evening. Do check their website before going as it closes at different times every day.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit London is between March and May when the weather is mild and there are less tourists. Peak season is between late spring to summer, from May to September. December is also a peak month when tourists visit to soak in the festive air. Airfare and accommodation will naturally be more expensive during peak season. London weather is known to be erratic and it may suddenly turn misty or rain at any time.
WHERE TO STAY
The British capital has plenty of hotels to suit all budgets. Among luxury hotels, the most famous ones are the storied Rosewood London (www.rosewoodhotels.com), the stylish ME London (www.melondonhotel.com) and elegant Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (www.mandarinoriental.com).
At the medium range are boutique hotels like the floating Good Hotel London (www.goodhotellondon.com) located on a dock, The 13-bedrom Georgian-style Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell (www.thezettertownhouse.com) and the eclectic Artist Residence London (www.artistresidence.co.uk). The best deals are the traditional B&Bs (bed and breakfast), not to be confused with AirBnB, with some of the popular ones like the trendy Forty Winks (www.40winks.org), the leafy Garden B&B (www.thegardenbedandbreakfast.com) and the historical At Home Inn Chelsea (www.athomeinnchelsea.com).
GETTING THERE & AROUND
London is the most connected city in Europe and there are direct flights into the city from almost every corner of the world. Taxis are expensive but fortunately, the city is so well-planned that you are never more than a few minutes’ walk from the nearest underground train station (locals call it the “tube”). Buy a pre-paid “Oyster” card for better deals on trains and buses.
An interesting way to tour the city is by taking one of the hop-on sightseeing bus tours. The open-top buses not only offer you a good view of the old architecture and buildings around the city, you can hop off at any point to explore and then hop right back on the next bus to continue your journey.
Londoners are mindful of their manners so do remember to say “please”, “thank you” and “may I…” even when buying tickets. When taking the escalators, stand on the right to allow other commuters to walk past you. Tipping is often included in your bill so do take a closer look at your bill first before you offer tips.
While it rains often in the city, it is usually a slight drizzle and a good water resistant jacket or jumper with a hood may be more practical than carrying an umbrella which you may forget and leave behind somewhere.
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