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London: Museums and Stores

By Cheryl Pendry, PassPorter Feature Columnist and Message Board Guide

Historic buildings, Royal palaces and river trips aside, there are plenty of other ways to spend your time in London. As you'd expect from one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, there's a museum for just about every taste.

Victoria and Albert Museum celebrates the decorative arts, with displays including furniture, photographs and ceramics, and is housed in a beautiful building in South Kensington, dating from 1862. In fact, South Kensington is really London's museum alley, with the Science Museum just across the road in the appropriately named Exhibition Road. That's also home to the National History Museum which is housed in another breathtaking building. Once inside, there's something for everyone, but the displays you are guaranteed to remember for many years are the dinosaur skeletons and the life size model of the blue whale. The second you see it, it's immediately clear that it's the world's largest creature ever.  Both these museums are free to visit, an unusual situation in London, where most attractions charge admission

Art Galleries -- If you are an art lover, there are plenty of galleries to pick from in London. The Tate is the home of British and international modern art, but if you're more traditional, then the National Gallery, with its collection of paintings from across Europe and the National Portrait Gallery, which contains portraits of famous British men and women, may be more to your taste.

Madame Tussauds -- Something bound to appeal to the younger audience, which concentrates on celebrities as well as historical figures, is Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. The collection is constantly changing to reflect today's celebrities, but the British Royal family, top film stars and politicians from around the world remain amongst the newer additions. The Chamber of Horrors is a favorite for many, but if it's not your idea of fun, then don't worry -- there is a chicken route which avoids this section! Linked to Madame Tussaud's is the London Planetarium, which offers a fascinating journey to the stars. And trust me; if the Chamber isn't your idea of fun, then you'd do well to avoid the London Dungeon. It's an experience definitely only for those with strong hearts and stomachs! 

Parks -- If your idea of fun is as simple as a stroll in the park, then you won't be disappointed by London's parks. Despite the fact that London is home to more than seven million people and is one of Europe's most densely populated cities, there are still surprisingly large stretches of parkland all over the capital, many of them Royal parks, steeped in history. 

St. James Park, set right in the center of London, near to Buckingham Palace, Westminster and 10 Downing Street, is a lovely place to walk through and perhaps stop to enjoy a sandwich if the weather will allow, before continuing on your way. 

Kensington Gardens contains Kensington Palace, the home of the former Princess of Wales.  Featuring the Royal ceremonial dress collection, this impressive array of gowns and dresses includes a selection of outfits wore by Diana, Princess of Wales. 

But perhaps my favorite park in London is right next door to Kensington Gardens. Covering 350 acres, Hyde Park is home to many events throughout the year -- most recently the Live 8 concert was held here. Perhaps now best known for the Diana Memorial Fountain, the park offers a pleasant walk between two of London's finest shopping areas. Starting at Kensington, you can visit some of the capital's most exclusive stores, including Harrod's. Billing itself as the world's most famous department store, if you only visit one shop in London, then it should be this one. The attraction is not just for shopping, but also for the beautiful architecture inside. My jaw dropped when I first saw the food halls and the Egyptian escalator. 

At the other end of the pleasant walk through Hyde Park is the beautiful Marble Arch, which marks the start of London's famous Oxford Street. This one and a half mile long road contains most of the UK's finest shop names and some superb department stores. In particular, Selfridge's, which will celebrate its centenary in 2007, is well worth a look. With its imposing pillars at the front of the building, it's a well known landmark. 

We prefer to head down Oxford Street as far as Oxford Circus and then turn into Regent Street, for located along this street is what can be described as the answer to every parent's prayer. However, things could quickly turn sour when your children refuse to leave Hamley's toy store. There really is something for every youngster -- and many adults too and you may be wise to allow yourself more time in here than you think you need. That's always our experience every time we go in here! 

At the end of Regent Street is another part of London that is well worth seeing -- Piccadilly Circus. Perhaps the best way to describe this area is that it's London's very own Times Square. Buzzing with life at all times of the day and night (and not just because of the traffic flying past), it's home to a range of restaurants and cinemas. 

Not far away are two more famous London landmarks -- firstly, Trafalgar Square, with Nelson's column and the four giant lion sculptures at its base, and Covent Garden is just a short tube (subway) ride away. Full of street entertainers, unusual shops and restaurants, this indoor market, which once used to serve fruit and vegetables, is the centerpiece of the area. It's a great place to spend an evening -- and there is certainly no end of possibilities for your evening plans in the city. 

Restaurants -- With more than 6,000 restaurants, covering every cuisine imaginable, you'll never go hungry in London. Many visitors are more interested in sampling a slice of traditional British life at a London pub -- and there are almost 4,000 to pick from. If this is something you'd like to try during your visit, then a good place to start your research is which offers a wealth of information on good places to sup your pint. 

West End Shows -- One other London tradition not to be missed during any stay in the Capital is a West End show. Just like on Broadway, tickets can be purchased months in advance or on the same day, sometimes at greatly reduced rates. The TKTS ticket booth in Leicester Square offers last minute bargains and used to be a regular haunt of mine in my student days. Some of the most popular musicals currently showing are Chicago, Mamma Mia, featuring a range of ABBA songs, Disney's Lion King, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, both based on the popular films. 

There's so much to enjoy in London that it's been hard even fitting the details into two articles. Perhaps the best way to understand how vibrant this capital city is is to start planning your visit. From most tourists I've spoken to, one thing is clear. One visit is never enough!

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: Insider's Guide
  • Kent, England
  • Rome

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    Updated 02/20/07 

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