London – Part 1: Sightseeing
I figured it was time to add a bit of the wanderlust element to the blog, so today I’m kicking off a series of posts about our London trip in 2016. As a bit of background, this trip was a celebratory “I’m cancer-free!” trip to tour London and then visit some of my family in Portsmouth (to read about my cancer story, click here). In today’s segment, I’m going to tell you what we did and saw, along with other things we didn’t do this time around but are worth your consideration if you decide to go yourself.
We were only in London for a little over three days, when you take into account travel days. We wanted to make sure we made the most of it. This was my second time visiting London, the first time being a trip with my mom when I was back in high school. At that time, I was 16 years old, a newly-minted driver, and when I saw the different road markings, the kamikaze drivers, and took into account driving on the left, well, let’s just say I was REALLY glad I wasn’t the one driving. We left that up to my cousin, whose family we were visiting. The fact was, at that time, we were on my mom’s itinerary, seeing the things she wanted, and I was just along for the ride. It is a long-standing joke between us that she didn’t let me dart into Hard Rock to buy one of their Classic Tshirts for my collection when we were literally walking right by it.
Anyhow, this time it was different. I went with my husband, who had never been to London, other than running to make a connecting flight at Heathrow years prior, and having never been, he left the planning completely up to me. I tried to plan a mix of things I thought he should see–iconic tourist stops, as well as places I thought might interest each of us specifically.
So here is a run down of things we saw and did while we were there, as well as things we didn’t get to but are worth a look if you’re able to visit. I have broken it down into the popular / iconic sites, other lesser known places of interest, and architecture – because it has always fascinated me. So let’s go!
Popular Things to See and Do
First up, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard, and some shops and phone booths along the way, because why not? To be honest, I remembered the changing of the guard from my previous trip, and I was ambivalent about it, as was my husband, but the timing worked out that we saw it anyway. Be warned, it gets SUPER crowded. It happens at 11:30 am each day (summer), so if you’re on the fence about it, and really dislike crowds…skip it, you can go see Buckingham Palace at a different time of day. But that’s just me.
Near Buckingham Palace is Green Park, aptly named in my opinion, due to the many green lawns and trees. It was a lovely scenic walk along one of the paths toward Hard Rock Cafe (I finally made it! Been there, did that, bought the T-shirt haha), and it is a popular choice among runners.
The Tower of London and Nearby Tower Bridge
Home to the Crown Jewels, The White Tower, The Bloody Tower, and the Yeoman Warders known as Beefeaters, the Tower has a dark history as a place of torment and execution. Fans of The White Queen will be interested to see The Bloody Tower, where the two sons and heirs of Edward IV were presumed to be murdered by their uncle Richard III in his effort to seize control of the throne after his brother’s death. Historians will appreciate the White Tower, the oldest surviving building inside the Tower of London, built by William I and completed in 1079. I strongly recommend taking one of the Beefeater tours. They bring the history of the Tower to life and have a lot of information to share that may not be in any of your guidebooks. Plus, did you know that they are retired military? So if you meet one, be sure to thank them for their service!
Tower Bridge, the most iconic bridge in London, is a short walk from the Tower of London and houses its own Tower Bridge Exhibition if you are interested. We opted not to visit the museum, but observing the bridge in action is really phenomenal when you consider the fact that it was built in 1894.
Thames River Cruise
If you have time, a river cruise is an awesome way to see the sights from the river that runs right through the heart of London, the Thames. With docks near many of the biggest tourist attractions in the city, you can hop on and off wherever you need with a 24 hour day pass. We took the boat from The Tower Bridge dock to Greenwich, then back up to Westminster. The boats are all-weather and have guides giving a history of the water and those who made their living on it throughout the years, by both respectable and dis-respectable means.
The Prospect of Whitby is said to be the site of the oldest riverside tavern dating back to around 1520. There is a replica gallows and noose that hangs from the Thames-side window to commemorate the tavern being the favored location for “Hanging” Judge Jeffrey to carry out sentencing on convicted pirates. This is one of the fun facts I learned from the guide on the river cruise we took.
Home to the Cutty Sark, the Queen’s House, the Old Royal Naval College and many quaint shops, Greenwich is known best for the Royal Observatory. We didn’t allow ourselves much time while in Greenwich, so while the Cutty Sark might have been interesting to walk through, we were on a mission to get to the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian, or 0 degrees longitude, where the eastern hemisphere meets the western hemisphere and is the origin for GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). My husband and I patiently waited our turn to straddle the Prime Meridian, and thus we were in two places at once!
When the Royal Observatory was a working observatory, the appointed Astronomer Royal lived in a house on-site called Flamsteed House, named after the first Astronomer Royal and designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The red ball on a spire on top of the house would drop at 1 pm each day in order for the sailors on the Thames to set their watch to. It’s where the expression “on the ball” comes from. My husband, who has always enjoyed astronomy, really enjoyed the historical astronomical and navigational tools on display in the Observatory buildings.
The View From The Shard
London is home to some pretty spectacular architecture, not just historic Wren churches or monuments, but modern architecture as well. Topping the list here is The Shard. You guys…it. was. so. COOL. Even the bathroom had a view to die for. I can’t get over my husband’s hilarious comment on the bathroom being “a poo with a view.” It hadn’t been open long when we got to visit The Shard. We opted for it over the London Eye and I’m not sorry. It’s new and popular, so it’s not cheap, but if you purchase your tickets ahead of time online, you can save some money.
The London Eye
The London Eye is an enormous Ferris Wheel you can ascend in for panoramic views of the city. Until the opening of The Shard, it provided the highest vantage point, but we only needed to do one bird’s eye experience in our opinion, so we opted to pass on this and go for the taller View From The Shard instead.
Westminster Abbey, the famous gothic cathedral where kings and queens have been crowned since William The Conqueror in 1066, where royal weddings have taken place as well as funerals, and the resting place of various prime ministers, poets, scientists, military leaders, with all its pomp and history made for a pretty interesting tour, where we once again opted for the audio tour to make sure we didn’t miss anything.
Big Ben / Houses of Parliament
This is one of those iconic things that we wanted to be able to see, to say ‘hey, we’ve been there’ but it wasn’t necessarily something that interested us enough to take a tour of the building. But honestly, you HAVE to go see it at the very least, because nothing says London like Big Ben. It was hard to get very good photos at the time because we were shooting into the sun, but I think they still turned out okay. I just love the iconic shot of the Elizabeth Tower (the name of the actual tower that houses Big Ben) to the right.
West End Theatre District
London is well-known for its shows and productions, so while there, we wanted to see one. We chose Les Miserables at The Queen’s Theatre because it was a show we had never seen before, and it was amazing. My husband and I both are huge fans of the theater, and we were blown away by the performance and by the opulence of The Queen’s Theatre itself, with its beautiful ceiling and chandelier. We purchased our tickets online ahead of time and printed them to take with us.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Sadly, this is one major tourist attraction that we didn’t get to. As another of Sir Christopher Wren’s designs, I’m sure that it is beautiful inside and there is plenty of history around it, but for us, seeing the iconic dome in the distance had to suffice for us.
While technically not in London, we did book a morning tour of Stonehenge, since it was only a short bus ride out to it. There are loads of signs describing various research and history regarding the stones, the audio tour does lend some additional information and can be purchased as part of a package deal. You’re able to take your time walking around the stones on a gravel path, giving you 360-degree view of the stand of stones. I seem to remember there being some kind of small food stand or maybe I’m thinking of snacks in the gift shop, but as you would expect, they are expensive. Luckily we brought bottled water and snacks along with us that we had purchased previously at the grocery store near our flat. Is this site a must-see? I think so, but there are plenty that would disagree with me since we don’t know much of anything for certain about the stones, which are, after all, just a bunch of rocks. But as any good Outlander fan would know, there could be magic in the stones!
The picture to the right was a field of poppy flowers that rests adjacent to Stonehenge. I thought they were beautiful, and I was kind of reminded of that scene from the Wizard of Oz. Poppies have a symbolic significance to the people of Britain as a way to honor and remember those who fought and died during The Great War and subsequent conflicts. Use of the Remembrance Poppy was inspired by the WWI poem “In Flanders Fields,” which refers to poppies being the first flowers to grow out of the turned earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders, Belgium.
The Road Less Traveled
When I’m traveling, I like to see some of the lesser-known areas. In some small way, it makes this new place feel like I have a little place in it. Weird, I know. Also, I’m a big history geek, so there are things we saw that interested me, but may not be of interest to many others. This is where you’ll find some of those sorts of things.
Kensington Palace Gardens
There are so many parks and gardens you can meander through, and I highly recommend it. Grab some coffee or tea and take a casual stroll through any of them, like we did when we chose Kensington Palace Gardens. We didn’t get to see any royalty, but we did get a chance to see this famous bronze sculpture of Peter Pan in the gardens.
Trafalgar Square and The Smallest Police Station
Dating back to the 1920s, this police station was built into a hollowed-out lamp post and was not much bigger than a phone booth. It was used in the 1920s to keep an eye on trouble brewing in Trafalgar Square. It was only big enough to hold two prisoners, but usually just a single policeman. If trouble was starting, the police officer could use the phone installed inside to call Scotland Yard. Supposedly the light on top would flash if the phone were in use, signaling to nearby patrol officers that there was trouble. Now, reportedly, it is used as a broom closet for Westminster Council cleaners.
This odd little curiosity is one that we weren’t able to see, sadly. But it is said to be the last example of small perches that dotted the shore of the Thames by London Bridge, where ferrymen would sit to wait for passengers. The seat is so small, it could easily be missed, but if you’re interested, you can learn more about it here.
The Old Operating Theatre
I have an almost macabre sense of curiosity when it comes to medical history. I find it garish and horrendous but infinitely interesting. Despite what you might think from the name of this building, this is not a stage or movie theater but is in fact all that remains of the operating room at a women’s hospital. Rows of seats horseshoe around the wooden operating table where surgeons would operate observed by others before the days of anesthesia or antiseptics. You can also tour the herb garret to see a collection of pathological specimens and various surgical instruments used at the time labeled with their intended purpose. Some were so barbaric that my husband and I were both cringing.
Ceno-wha??? The Cenotaph is a memorial erected in 1920 to commemorate those who fought and died in The Great War (aka World War I) and later to commemorate all British Commonwealth dead for WWII and subsequent British military dead. The road around it was all under construction at the time we visited, so my pictures weren’t very good, but you can still get the idea.
Churchill’s War Rooms
If you enjoy learning about WWII history, I really recommend Churchill’s War Rooms. The rooms are set up as they were during the war and it feels as if you are stepping back in time when you enter, almost as if the people walked away and left everything where it laid. This was not something my husband was interested in particularly, he’s not much into war history, but I was able to visit this many years ago on a previous trip to England with my mother and it has always stuck with me. If you get the chance, it is worth seeing.
Florence Nightingale Museum
As I mentioned previously, I enjoy reading and learning about medical history, so it was no surprise that when I read there was a museum dedicated to the famous Florence Nightingale, I had to go. She was the subject of the legend “The Lady With The Lamp,” seen with a lamp like the one below glowing as she made her nightly rounds during the Crimean War.
The museum chronicles her life and career from nursing wounded soldiers in the Crimean War to opening the first school of nursing at the old St. Thomas’ Hospital in 1860, as well as her pioneering efforts and contribution to healthcare until her death in 1910 at 90 years of age. Her life is reconstructed using original documents and personal memorabilia displayed throughout the exhibit.
Standing at 202 feet tall, this column was designed by Sir Christopher Wren to commemorate the Great Fire of London that burned in 1666 and devastated most of the walled city of London left from Roman times. The Monument stands 202 feet (the same as its height) west of the fire’s origin, a bakehouse on Pudding Lane. Reliefs around the base of the column depict Charles II restoring the city. The fire destroyed over 13,000 homes, almost 90 churches, and the original St. Paul’s Cathedral and most city government buildings.
St. Dunstan’s In the East
Once a gothic-style parish church, St. Dunstan’s Church was partially destroyed in the Great Fire of London, then patched up before being completely destroyed during WWII in the Blitz. The ruins remain and have been converted into a gem of a garden that is a serene oasis in the middle of a bustling city. We enjoyed sitting on one of the benches, listening to the birds and the trickle of the water in the fountain.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry
This was something else we didn’t have time for, but I thought it was kind of cool all the same. You might recognize the name of this company as the same company that gave us Big Ben. Did you know that it also gave us the Liberty Bell?
In addition to the iconic buildings and architecture around London are some amazing examples of modern architecture. I find the mixture of old and new in the architecture of London to be something to be admired. Here, they don’t tear something down because it is old. The architects of the following buildings aspire to think outside the box to create modern aesthetics that are as interesting as the historic examples that identify the city.
The Gherkin, at 30 St Mary Axe, is the iconic egg-shaped building located in the financial district of London. I personally loved the juxtaposition of the modern architecture of The Gherkin next to St. Helen’s Church at Bishopgate, which dates back to the 13th century.
Even if you choose not to see the View From The Shard (above, far right), it is still a feat of engineering that is worth looking at. The Shard can be found at 32 London Bridge Street and stands at 1016 feet high, the tallest building in the United Kingdom and in the European Union.
The unusual bulbous shape of City Hall (above, far left) is another feat of engineering to behold. This is the headquarters of the Greater London Authority, including the Mayor of London and the London Assembly, located on the south shore of the Thames in Southwark near Tower Bridge.
I’m not sure what prompted the particular design of the commercial skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, but it was aptly nicknamed the Walkie Talkie Building due to its distinctive shape.
Well, believe it or not, there were a few other things we did along the way that I didn’t show here, like visiting the m&m store, or heading to Burlington Arcade to see some of the high-end shops and get a picture with one of the Burlington Arcade Beadles (see Part 3: Shopping), or seeing the historic Old Vic Theatre to name a few. There are tons of fun things to do while there, some of which you might not know of unless you search them out.
Up next, I’m going to give you a quick glance at some of the restaurants we went to in Part 2: Food. Be sure to subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss it!
See the other posts in this series.
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