“not the vision of London I currently have, which is much more complex”
Ever since I was a little kid, two cities have fascinated me more than any other. New York & London. I just can’t get enough of the former, I’ve seen almost all movies that feature it (& there are lots of them), I’ve played every game which featured it (again, quite a bunch), but I still can’t get enough. I just have to see it, I have to be there. I guess I will, someday.
The thing is that the latter is somewhat more obscure, there aren’t nearly as many sources of entertainment that feature it. Well, we always have books, but most of them present an 18th century London, not a modern one & you can’t really imagine it well enough by reading a book. It’s just hints.
Well, for my extreme joy, I had my first glimpse of it last summer, when I spent like 8 hours around its centre. I was so beat up afterwards, after walking at a fast pace for quite a couple of miles, that I slept like a log. Its huge centre can’t possibly be seen in so few hours, that’s why I just tried to go to as many of the most famous landmarks as I could possibly do. It was absolutely great, I think the weather was just having fun, throwing at us, pitiful human beings, a lot of sun & rain at the same time, really bewildering, but nice altogether. It was full of life, an energy I’d never experienced before, something that I can’t describe without minimizing its extent.
From that day onward, I just dreamt of returning there & seeing more, much more, as much as possible. Last winter I left again, this time with the intention of actually settling there. You can’t imagine what I felt, when I set foot on London’s soil again, when I saw those really cute double-deckers, when I heard that insanely strange accent most Brits have. It was way past midnight and I was extremely tired, not having slept in two days, but I still found the power to get out of the bus in central London & walk around with that trolley of mine, which was very heavy for such a tired man. It didn’t matter, for seeing the New Scotland Yard (where the Metropolitan Police Force resides, an extension of the Scotland Yard, famous enough if you’ve read any British literature) gave me the energy to go on. On my previous visit I had just passed by the Houses of Parliament, I didn’t really enter the City of Westminster (which, together with the City of London, is the most famous of the 32 boroughs of London).
I continued to Victoria Station, one of the oldest, biggest, most crowded & most impressive of central London’s 10 main train terminals. When I got to the Houses of Parliament, I was completely in awe of the picture which unfolded right in front of me, as the Thames presented itself in a show of reflections of all colors from all those impressive buildings on its banks, with the Eye of London, the world known spinning wheel, stealing the show with its blue lights. Contrary to what I’d seen in the middle of a hot summer day, London was very quiet, almost too quiet at 3 o’clock in the morning, in mid-December. Despite the fact that it was pretty cold, my heart was pumping blood too quickly for me to notice the temperature, not that if I did, it would’ve really mattered.
London, area by area
For anyone who wants to travel to London & make sure that the key elements of the city are not overlooked, this could be a very useful guide. It’s also a cultural guide, because I think everyone should know something about one of the most influent cities in the world.
Depending on what airport one gets off an airplane, there are different starting points for tourists. Well, I’m making the assumption that you don’t have a lot of luggage or that someone in your family/group is willing to take it to where you’ll be staying & that you can spend some time in the area where you arrive. London has 8 airports, but 5 of them are used most intensively. It has more air passengers than any other city in the world, so don’t think it odd if you see like 3-4 airplanes above your head every few minutes. The main airport, a huge technical masterpiece, is Heathrow. It’s so huge that you can really get lost in it, despite all the signs showing you where what is. I’d recommend, if you depart from it, to be there in time, just in case. The second one is Gatwick & then there’s Stansted, Luton & the City Airport. Unless you’re a businessman, you won’t arrive at the City Airport, as it only handles small business planes.
Let’s get on with the choices, one better than the other. Each airport is directed towards a hub, not that you can’t get off before the end of the line or order a taxi to take you wherever you want to go. But in case you arrive at Heathrow and decide to use the Tube (the Underground system, known as the Tube for Londoners) or take the usual cab route, both will drop you off near Victoria Railway Station (I’ll mention when it’s either a railway station & a Tube station or just a Tube station). Along with 7 others, Victoria station is one of the famous rail terminals of London (which I’ll mention when the need arrives). Each one is old, huge and impressive, but also very modern. Victoria Station is a very good starting point for tourists, as it’s in the heart of the City of Westminster, only minutes on foot from the Palaces of Parliament or Buckingham Palace (where the queen resides). Also, it’s minutes to Hyde Park, a green heaven among all the buildings surrounding it.
If you arrive at Gatwick, you’ll most probably get to Waterloo Railway Station, just south of the Eye of London (the most famous spinning wheel in the world). You can easily get to the south bank of the Thames, a great place to see central London while enjoying a peaceful traffic-free stroll. If Stansted is your airport, most probably you’ll get to Liverpool Street Railway Station, in the heart of the City, also a great place to start your trip. You’ll marvel at all those strange buildings and skyscrapers standing beside old ones. From here, the obvious choice is seeing the Saint Paul Cathedral then take a short walk on the north banks of the Thames to get to the Tower of London & Tower Bridge.
Last but not the least, from Luton Airport you’ll be dropped off either at Paddington Railway Station (fans of Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia will have no problem identifying it) or Marylebone Railway Station. From here, you’d be mad not to get to the West End, the entertainment centre of London, full of theatres, cinemas, unique shops & what not. Piccadilly Circus will catch your attention, if you can keep your heart rate up after seeing Oxford Street & Regent Street, some of the most exclusivist streets in the world, with shops outrageously posh & expensive.
If I think about it, some may arrive by Euro train from Paris or with a bus company that crossed the Channel. If that is the case, they’ll most likely get off at Charing Cross Railway Station, right near Trafalgar Square, a most impressive square full of charm. As it’s situated between all the other stations I’ve mentioned above, one can get in any direction, it’s all great. That’s it with the introduction to a well planned trip to London, one for those who can’t wait to see the most impressive sights in the first hours spent in London. For full walkthroughs of how a day of your holiday in London might look like, stay tuned.
The Old Centre, the area that we now identify with the City of London, has been there for over 2000 years, ever since the Romans settled there, founding Londinium as a base of operations for conquering the whole of Britain. After 2000 years, the street configuration is almost the same, meaning very narrow streets and alleyways, an impressive web sprawling just over 1 square mile (hence it’s also known as the Square Mile). It has always been London’s financial centre, its core and now it’s even more, being one of the three most important financial centres in the world, along with Wall Street in Manhattan, New York and Shibuya in Tokio.
The entire area is swarming with life and has many unique buildings, both old and new. If you want to see it all, it may take more than a day even if it’s just one square mile. You can start from the centre of it, where the Bank of England is located, a building that at first makes you think you are in Rome, not London. But you can also start in front of St. Paul’s, the huge cathedral, full of tourists all year round, masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren. Miraculously, it withstood the heavy bombings by the Germans in the Second World War almost unscathed. It’s rather amazing that St Paul’s is still standing, since the area all around it was largely flattened by German bombers. Much of the glass in the windows was blown out, but the structure survived virtually intact. There’s a statue commemorating the work done by London fire-fighters during the Blitz.
Either way, you find yourself on Cheapside, a street that really doesn’t live up to its name (that’s the case for the present, because in the past it was exactly what the name implies). Most major multinational companies have offices or even the headquarters here, between Upper Thames Str. & the London Wall Str. (named after the protective wall that used to be there in Roman times).
It doesn’t really matter how you walk through the web of streets, it’s impressive all around but you may also find it lacking world famous buildings, except for the two mentioned above. That is if you don’t know about all the guildhalls that used to be around the area & the fact that every old building is swimming in a controversial history. Not the case with the new buildings or the sky-scrappers, such as 30 St Mary Axe (widely known as the Gerkin, an impressive piece of work, a cone which can be seen from key points around central London), Tower 42, Heron Tower or the nearly finished Pinnacle.
What I would really recommend is a promenade along both banks of the Thames, starting from Saint Paul’s and moving south, downhill, towards the Millennium Bridge, the futuristic pedestrian bridge. Just ahead the Tate Modern Art Museum unfolds, in all its ugliness, I may add. It’s an old power station turned into a museum, so what can you expect from it? But really, it must be the ugliest big building in central London. And they’re proud of it, too!
From this point, the south bank of London gets you through a lot of interesting areas, old houses and factories along the Thames, a superb galley from the 17th century, the Museum of Horror (or something like that, I don’t really remember), even a former prison. Though it’s really not in the City, but in Southwark, it’s the best place for impressive images of the City.
Thinking about it, a good contestant for the ugliest building can also be the 20- storey Saint Guy’s Hospital right next to the Shard, the highest building in Europe (not finished yet). It’s so ugly and completely eclipsed by the grandiose Shard that it really can be seen as such or ignored altogether. The Shard must be the most badass structure in the whole of London, a true masterpiece. I’m looking forward to seeing it finished.
Soon, one gets to the City Hall (also known as the Greater London Authority, where the Mayor of London works. Kind of impressive, somewhat twisted building, but completely eclipsed by Tower Bridge. I can’t describe what I felt when I found myself on it the first time. And the second. And the 10th. A palace, a castle, a bridge, all of the above, it’s really great. The views from it are breath-taking: the whole west London sky rise can’t do anything else but impress you.
But then, you move your eyes towards the Tower of London. Dominated by the huge square White Tower, it was built by the invading Norman king William the Conqueror, who was the victor at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Once the home of kings and queens, the Tower of London included barracks for soldiers and arsenals for weapons and explosives, and was a place of imprisonment and execution for men and women who found themselves on the wrong side of the ruler’s favour. Many of them where taken inside through the entry to the Traitor’s Gate, now the main entrance for tourists. Nowadays it’s a fortress turned into a prison turned into the place where they keep the Crown Jewels. Only the Brits could have come up with something like this.
The Tower has 36 permanent residents, the Beefeaters or Yeoman warders, best known for their red and gold outfits, whose job it is to guard prisoners (not anymore) and the crown jewels. Also, a flock of ravens. It’s said that as long as the ravens remain here, England’s safe from invasion.
The City, the financial centre, is impressive alright, but wait till you see Westminster, a much bigger district and the seat of the Kings & Queens of England for many a century & also the seat of the Parliament. Here, it’s mostly old Victorian and Elizabethan buildings, which inspire greatness, make you think about Paris, keep you wondering what’s around the next corner and before you know it, it’s evening.
Here there’s everything for everyone, while the City is mostly for businessmen. The West End, the entertainment & cultural centre of London, is filled to the rim with theatres, cinemas, concert halls, restaurants, hotels, everything top-notch. If one wants to see some cinema stars or some singers, this is the place to find them. Why is that? Mainly because here you can find one of the most exclusivist shopping streets in the world, Oxford Street. It’s a festival of life, colours, sounds, all around the year, almost 24 hours a day. You may not afford to buy much from around here (try the superstores, you may find something cheaper there, while in the small stores you most certainly won’t), but you must definitely experience it. This can be used as a starting point, at either side. It’s packed with double-deckers non-stop, more than you’ll see in any other place, it has some of the most used tube stations, starting from Tottenham Court Road and all the way through Oxford Circus, Bond Street &Marble Arch. I think that everyone who’s been here remembers these stations, some streets and shops, that is because you can’t help it but notice that it’s just the busiest street in the world (well, in the civilized world, because many capitals of poor countries have streets much more cramped than this one, if you believe it possible).
When you get to Oxford Circus, go south along Regent Street, which used to be what Oxford Street is now. Though it is not the leading shopping street anymore, it’s still a very important one. Here you can find Hamley’s, the world famous toy store. I guarantee that your kids will have a great time there, but I can’t guarantee that you won’t be broke when you finally leave. Enter at your own risk.
Regent Street bends near Piccadilly Circus and on both sides the buildings bend as well, harmoniously, I might add. You may have seen Piccadilly Circus on TV on some occasion or another and it’s even more impressive in real life. Basically, it’s just a cramped junction with buildings full of flashy ads, but it manages to impress even though it’s not particularly full of style. Here you can find a megastore full of music, movies and video games where you can spend a lot of time trying to pick something. Word for the wise, don’t stay, there are far more important places to see than this, only go if you are sure what you want to buy.
From Piccadilly Circus it’s less than five minutes to Trafalgar Square if you go through the Haymarket. That is what I call a square that lives up to its name, a big area where Admiral Nelson thrones on a huge stylish column, guarded by two lions. It was commissioned to commemorate the Trafalgar naval battle, one of the most important naval battles that the British took part in and, of course, won.
To the north lies the National Gallery, a free museum with some thousands of paintings and the National Portrait Gallery, both with no admission fee. You may need a day to see all of it and that if you’re not really into paintings. Some of them are far less impressive than others, in my opinion, but some are masterpieces I can’t even describe.
Going south, on Whitehall Str., you find yourself in front of Admiralty House, the Horse Guards quarters, the Ministry of Defence, a lot of important buildings and, of course,10 Downing Street, where the prime minister of Britain resides. Well, you may catch a glimpse, as the street is closed to public.
Following Whitehall Str., you get to Parliament Square, where the Houses of the Parliament are. Symbol of British power, the Houses of the Parliament are a UNESCO World Heritage Site (I don’t get it why it’s just them when there are literally dozens or even hundreds of buildings in London that deserve this title). From hour to hour you can hear Big Ben, one of the most misidentified sights in all of London- in fact one of the bells is called Big Ben, not the tower. Its sound is more than you may expect from a bell, you have to hear it to believe it, I can’t describe it. And for those who like to go to meetings on world peace, ecology and anything else there is, in Parliament Square you always find something going on about matters such as these.
Before you move on, Westminster Abbey should be a must see, the place where most kings and queens of England were coronated, and where many kings, queens, poets, writers and other famous inhabitants of the UK are buried. It’s also the place where Prince William married Kate, if you want a more recent event. It’s big, beautiful and bold, but still somewhat inferior to St Paul’s. But well worth a visit.
From here, you have two choices, West Westminster with its huge range of museums, Buckingham Palace, Saint James Park and of course, Hyde Park or, to the east, the way that gets you to Covent Garden & Soho, the traditional Bohemian areas of London. First, it’s the east; I’ll talk about the west later on.
Victoria Embankment, Soho, Covent Garden.
Following Thames as it bends northwards then eastwards, the Victoria Embankment Street is a street full of trees, where you can spend some time to chill out on hot summer days (few as they may be) on those exquisite benches, admiring south London, with the London Eye, The National Theatre and the Shard dominating the view. There are a lot of sculptures on the bank of Thames, memorials to soldiers who lost their lives in the two World Wars, even a Sphinx and an Obelisk received as gifts from Egypt.
The other side of the street is an impressive tour de force of Victorian and Elizabethan architectural styles. I don’t know what most of the buildings there are (& I talk only about what I already know), but most appear to be taken out of some fairy tales, especially one of them, with lots and lots of small towers and crenels. And then, it’s the Temple area, a somewhat mystic and secretive place, where the Courts of Justice are. I say this because if one wants to become a Supreme Court Judge, one has to undergo serious training, actually spend years in the Temple area and it is widely known that secret societies are rumoured to have their headquarters there (also in the City, to be precise).
And there it is, the area of Covent Garden and Soho. It has always been the scene for new ideas, brilliant minds, intellectual advancement but also drug use, sex sold on the streets, the place where most homosexuals meet. A lot of writers, singers and important people spent time here, drinking coffee or tea at the many pubs, restaurants and locals around the area, so it’s known to have a reputation for culture. But also, most politicians who wanted to evade the stress of politics ended up here, doing things their wives were never supposed to find about…only that some did find out, as the word spreads fast on the streets of Soho and London as a whole.
Covent Garden is, actually, an open market. It used to be much different, but now it’s mostly made up of boutiques that don’t really resemble the past, but however, make a good impression. The area around the actual market is more impressive, that is because most of the immigrants that came to England in the past centuries stopped here. Therefore, the area is teaming with multiculturalism, but of a much better sort that the one found in east London, for example. Chinatown is worth a walkthrough, but most of the streets are just as worthy.
Upon wandering the narrow streets of Soho, head over to Leicester Square, where 3 of the most known cinemas in the world are located. A lot of Hollywood movies have their premieres here, so if you want a seat, book well in advance. This is even a better place to see stars than Oxford Street is, provided you get a place in front of the crowds.
Moving on, you may want to visit northern Southwark (I know, it sounds creepy). Unless you really don’t like Shakespeare, you’ll love the Globe, a replica of the old Globe where most of Shakespeare’s plays were supposed to be first played. It’s a really nice place to watch a play, really fitting in with old plays.
Next is, of course, the London Eye, a spinning wheel with an aura of awesomeness, albeit a very slow one. The London Eye is a must-do on any visit, with great views over the central area of the city. A single rotation takes about 30 minutes, slow enough that the wheel doesn’t even need to stop as one set of passengers leave a capsule and the next set enters. But of course, that is the point, to see London from above & be able to take photos. Whenever you look at it, hundreds of flashes can be seen from its cabins. It’s a really great way to see experience London from above, especially at night, when the whole city is a symphony of lights. If you come at different times during the year you may even see the Eye in different colours, but any single one of them is great.
The National Theatre is just next door, but it’s not really a must see, as almost any theatre in central London will do just as nice, if not better, if you find something that you really enjoy. Close by, the London Film Museum ought to impress you, just not as much as what can be found in Los Angeles. Guess why.
If you haven’t seen Waterloo Station, you ought to, it’s really impressive and so is the whole area around it. If you really want to experience the miracle of the highest definition movies, the IMAX Theatre in the middle of the roundabout right next to Waterloo Station should provide the best experience. And for those who want to shop in an excellent atmosphere, the Southwark Market, just south of London Bridge tube station, should fit the bill.
West Westminster, Kensington, Chelsea, and Hyde Park.
A good place to start would be Parliament Square. Just right next to it you find yourself entering St. James Park, a small masterpiece. The lake that crosses it from west to the east looks like it’s been there for centuries, so natural and unspoiled. In fact, almost everything in London is heavily modified by man, but in most parks you don’t really notice that. On the lake you can see some of the most beautiful ducks that ever were and a lot of swans. And you if sit on the grass (which is encouraged, unlike in some other countries) squirrels might even come & eat out of your palm.
The dream disappears as you approach the Mall, the street that ends up in front of Buckingham Palace. Impressive as I hear it is on the inside, the outside really can’t compare to other palaces around Europe and is virtually non-existent when compared to Versailles in Paris. All in all, it’s only worth being there when the guard changes.
The Buckingham Palace Gardens are closed to the public and you ought to go through Green Park or turn south to Victoria Station, if you want to see another train station. Either way, you’ll end up in Hyde Park Corner, in Belgravia. From here, Hyde Park is the obvious choice. It’s huge, varied, romantic, and full of character and everyone seems to enjoy it. Around there are many memorials, interesting statues, a big lake (among other smaller ones) where you can even rent a swan-shaped boat. Also, for those who want to pay their respects, the Princess Diana Memorial is an interesting place, with some twisted waterworks. Take some time to get to the west of it, where Kensington Palace and Gardens are located. You can visit the gardens, but the palace is off limits.
Next you should head on to Knightsbridge, where you’ll find the famous Harrods, the world renowned mega shop. You won’t be able to enter unless you have formal clothes, so it might not be a choice for you, but it’s well worth seeing it from the outside (as most buildings in central London are). Close nearby, the National History Museum & the National Science and Technology Museum, free as they are, should have a place in your itinerary.
After some hours, at least, the whole of Kensington & Chelsea is worth some time, just walk in any direction, as everything is impressive, even though there aren’t a lot of famous sights. Unless you’re a football fan and you’ll end up near the Chelsea Stadium.
Bloomsbury, Regents Park, Camden Town
Starting anew, the area just north of Soho is another great place, with many impressive sights. Start in Holborn and go north, eventually reaching the British Museum. Chief among these museums is the British Museum with a huge collection from cultures all over the world, including the Egyptian Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles plundered from Greece. It’s the most visited structure in the whole of the UK, receiving as many as 8 million visits each year. As I’ve already said, dedicate a whole day to it, as it’s big, really big. And really, really great.
The whole area is full of nice restaurants and cafés, as well as many small shops. And, strange enough, full of train stations. St Pancras International, King’s Cross, Euston and if you venture westward, even Marylebone and Paddington. But what steals the show is Regent’s Park, the rival of Hyde Park that even if much smaller, boasts a Zoo. Kids will love it, it’s one of the most well maintained zoos in the world and there’s always something going on for everyone.
When you’ve got enough animals floating through your head, head north, to Camden Town, a place with a well preserved medieval air, a city within a city. It’s a classy area, full of charm and you may fall in love with it. When you think that you’ve had too much beer at the many pubs in the area, head over to Hampstead Heath, preferably on a bus, as it’s a longer walk to get there. Located on a hill, from where you can see north London in all its glory, Hampstead Hill is one of the few remains of the woods which used to be all around London in times long forgotten.
One last area that you may want to see is the new second financial centre of London, in the Canary Warf area. Started 20 years ago on a swamp and one of the poorest areas of London, now it’s a bewildering sight. The opulence is just awe inspiring. Amid the skyscrapers you fell like in a little bit of New York, nothing resembles London. Most of the most important banks have their headquarters here, HSBC even used to have the highest skyscraper in London until some months ago when the Shard took over that title. It’s in Canada Square, where you can find some shopping malls, if you’re interested.
The area is also like a miniature Venice, with a lot of canals. That’s not all that impressive, there are other places like that, but what if I told you that most buildings there are actually floating? The technology used in that area is top notch, that’s for sure.
If you know of any big concert that you’re interested in, go south using the DLR (similar to the tube, just that’s lightweight, has no driver and mostly overground) through the Isle of Dogs (as the area is really called, but most people call it Canary Warf now. While on the DLR you’ll see some great sights of the city, in all direction. And, strange enough, even some fields where sheep pasture, an odd sight if you consider that nearby there are skyscrapers. But the Brits want to shock and impress, that’s their way. Anyway, you’ll reach the O2 in no time, which is the biggest concert hall you may have experienced. You can see it from miles away, in all its glory.
But if you don’t have a ticket or if nothing’s going on, head over to the south-west, to Greenwich, where the GTM starts. Greenwich Park is well worth a visit, even though half of it is just open grass, the other half, close to Thames, is one of the most interesting gardens you’ll get to see in London.
Also, you may want to go northward when you’ve had enough of Canary Warf & see the new developments in Newham, where the 2012 Olympic Games will take place. The whole area is unrecognizable for those who live there, the stadiums, the malls, the stations, everything is huge and polished. And while you’re at it, Victoria Park ought to make a good impression on you.
The rest of London
There are literary hundreds of interesting places in London and the outskirts and I will enumerate some of them. Richmond Park, the biggest in London, is more like a forest. You can even see lots of deer there, running free. You can’t say that it’s not an impressive feature.
Cristal Palace, where the first World Exhibition took place, is there no longer, having been the scene of a fire. But the whole area is a great place to be in, regardless of the sad past. Also, Alexandra Palace and Park had the same problems, but survived the fire. Now, it’s the scene of many festivals and competitions and the hill alone is great, as the whole central London unfolds if you’re at the top of it.
The hills of Barnet are the typical British landscape and you should not miss them if you’ve got some time left. Windsor Castle, just outside the city, is another great place to visit. It’s what I call a real castle, much more impressive than the Tower of London. And nearby you can go to LEGOLAND, where the kids (and not only them) will have a great time.
There are hundreds of churches all around London, most of them impressive enough, but also, apart from the central ones, pretty empty. Not a lot of tourists and not a lot of believers to fill them. You’ll see some of them as you go, only stop if the architecture really impresses you.
Also, you may want to go to Oxford and Cambridge, the towns with the world renowned universities. Most tourists that get to London visit at least one of them since the high speed trains can get them there really fast. You won’t regret it, believe you me.
And that’s it with London. A sprawling metropolis, a place like no other. One simply can’t deny that it’s an impressive city. It really has something for everyone, you just have to try & picture what you would like to see or do & most certainly you’ll find it somewhere in London, more often than not in an expansive list of places which fit your needs & wants. I’ve covered only the most famous places, but in truth, you need at least a year to see it all. Its scale is intimidating; it almost doesn’t seem to end.