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London: An Insider's Guide

By Cheryl Pendry, PassPorter Feature Columnist and Message Board Guide

Log on to most Internet travel sites and London is one of the cities that often jump off the front page at you with hotels galore on offer. With a history dating back nearly 2,000 years to the Roman era, there is something for every type of visitor to the UK's capital city. Like all of the world's greatest cities, London is full of landmarks that are recognized across the globe. Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament and the River Thames are just some of the world famous names that London boasts.

The city became the capital of England in 1016 and has held that position ever since. The city's long and diverse history is no doubt one of the many reasons why it attracts so many visitors every year. In 2004, 120 million people flew in and out of London's airports. Obviously not all of them were exploring the capital city, but I'm sure many of them made certain it was somewhere in their plans.

The city became the capital of England in 1016 and has held that position ever since. The city's long and diverse history is no doubt one of the many reasons why it attracts so many visitors every year. In 2004, 120 million people flew in and out of London's airports. Obviously not all of them were exploring the capital city, but I'm sure many of them made certain it was somewhere in their plans.

But where to start with those plans? Surely it's a case of too much to see and too little time? The first thing to work out is how long you can spend in London. Three days is an absolute minimum, although five days or more will mean a lot less rushing around. And what should be the priority sights you head for first?

Most visitors want to see London's Royal links -- and that means the city's historic Royal palaces. Perhaps the most famous of them all is Buckingham Palace, the Queen's official residence in London. Although parts of the palace are open all year round, such as the Queen's Gallery, the part that most visitors want to see are the State Rooms and those are only open to visitors for a couple of months each year, usually in August and September, so if your itinerary is likely to include this, then it's worth keeping that in mind.

At other times of the year though, you can see the colorful and dramatic Changing of the Guard. Held daily between April and July outside Buckingham Palace and on alternate days at other times of the year, it's an amazing sight to see the soldiers in their bright red uniforms, complete with 665 gram hats called bearskins. (Editor's Note: That's over a pound and a half - ouch!) The hats are heavy and they are hot and yet the guards still wear them throughout the summer months, earning my admiration!

Other places to catch the Changing of the Guard ceremony are at Horse Guards Parade (again at Buckingham Palace) every morning at 11.00 (10.00 on Sundays) and at the Tower of London every day at 11.30 am on Tower Green.

Now the Tower of London has to be one of my favorite Royal palaces in London. The Tower dates back to the 11th century and is today home to the amazing collection of Crown Jewels. In the last couple of years, we've been to see them on a number of occasions and every time I'm dazzled by the beautiful jewels in the collection.

The Tower is also home to centuries of history, as you'd expect. Other sights worth seeing are Traitors' Gate, named because that's the route by which traitors were taken in days of old; the Tower's Beefeaters, in their lovely black and red costumes with the Queen's symbol, ER, on them; and the White Tower, home to a fascinating display of guns, swords and armor

It's easy to spend a couple of hours here -- and some superb views can also be found of the nearby Tower Bridge on the short walk down to the River Thames. For the more adventurous, it's possible to tour Tower Bridge -- and the views are well worth the trip.

One of my favorite ways of seeing London is by taking a boat ride down the Thames. There are numerous companies operating large sightseeing vessels, many with excellent commentary -- I've certainly learnt a lot about London's history by taking these trips. The best route in my book is between Tower Bridge and Westminster. There are so many great sights to see -- and there's no better one than the beauty of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (not the name of the clock tower that can be seen across London, but the name of the bell inside). There's no more traditional London sound than that of Big Ben ringing out the hour. It's well worth trying to time it so that you're nearby at the top of the hour to hear the chimes first hand.

The Houses of Parliament are well worth touring -- the architecture inside is just as superb as the exterior and one added bonus is that you never know who you'll see. On one of my visits, I saw Britain's first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, just walking through one of the corridors! If you're a British resident, you can tour Parliament while it's in session on certain days of the week, but if you're an overseas visitor, then your only option is the summer opening. The openings are similar to those of Buckingham Palace, this year they run from 2 August -- 5 October.<

If you're not in London during those times (and even if you are), then you can get a bird's eye view of Parliament and a number of other London landmarks from the London Eye, situated just across the River Thames. Originally built to commemorate the new Millennium, it was designed to be a temporary attraction, but has proved so popular that any idea of removing it now seems to have disappeared completely. With long operating hours, especially during the summer months, daytime and evening visits are possible and, having experienced both, you get a completely different perspective of the city depending on whether it's light or dark. Even the weather can't stop the enjoyment of the London Eye. On our most recent visit, we were treated to snow as the wheel rotated -- and to watch it sweeping in was a sight to behold!

London's two most famous religious sites are probably those that have been the scene of Royal weddings gone by. Westminster Abbey has seen the coronation of nearly every King and Queen of the land over the past 1,000 years and was the setting for a series of Royal weddings and funerals. Built over a number of centuries, this is well worth an hour or two of anyone's time.

Perhaps best known for the Royal wedding in 1981 of Prince Charles and the then Lady Diana Spencer is St. Paul's Cathedral and there's no better time to visit the Cathedral than now. The £40 million program of restoration work has just finished its latest stage, with the interior of St. Paul's now free of scaffolding for the first time in many months. The work still continues ahead of the Cathedral's 300th anniversary in 2008, but despite this, the architecture and the views over London from the top of the Dome are first class. Be warned though -- the climb is not for the faint of heart. Its 530 steps from the ground to get up there!

There's so much more to London than just history, Royalty, rivers and spectacular views, as we'll explore in the second part of this article, when we visit some of London's myriad of museums and go on a shopping tour of some of the world's most famous name stores.

About the Author: Cheryl and husband Mark live in England and love to travel, particularly to America.

This article originally appeared in our August 5, 2005 newsletter -- subscribe to our popular newsletter today for free!

Related Articles:

  • London: Museums, Parks, Restaurants, and Shops
  • Kent, England
  • Rome

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    Updated 02/20/07 

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