Things to Do in London
Since it was officially opened on New Year's Eve 1999 (as part of the millennial celebrations), the London Eye has become one of London's most popular attractions. It has 32 sealed 'pod' capsules, fitting a total of 800 people, revolving on a huge Ferris wheel. One go-around takes half an hour with the wheel rotating at only twice the speed of a tortoise sprinting, so you can step on and off without the wheel needing to stop!
The London Eye is the fourth-tallest structure in London, so the far-reaching views over London are spectacular. On a clear day you can see as far as Windsor Castle. And the slow speed of the rotation means there's plenty of time to see everything and take lots of photos.
The Thames is the longest river in England, the second longest in the United Kingdom. It flows from the west in the Cotswolds, passing through Oxford and London, ending at the sea at Southend-on-Sea in Essex. As far up as Teddington on the western edge of London, the river is tidal. Once the lifeline of London trade and communication, it's still busy with boats: sightseeing boats and houseboats mainly.
Once the only way across the river was to ford it, then London Bridge was built by the Romans. Nowadays many bridges criss-cross the river, the pedestrian Millennium Bridge, Tower Bridge and Albert Bridge are among the prettiest.
The Thames is home to many species of fish and birds - particularly white swans which are to this day all still owned by the Queen. The river is also used by rowers and yachtsman but not swimmers - the water is not the cleanest.
Westminster Palace, home to the British Houses of Parliament, is right on the river Thames. A magnificent Neo-Gothic building dating from 1840, it's most recognizable from the clock tower at one end known as Big Ben. (In fact, Big Ben is actually the bell inside the tower.)
Parliament is made up of two houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords and both have their meeting chambers inside here. It is possible to sit and watch from the Visitors' Gallery if you like seeing grown men taunting each other with bad jokes. Once a year, the Queen puts on her crown, sits on her Throne in the House of Lords and officially opens Parliament.
Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic sights in London. It was opened in 1894, designed to echo the nearby Tower of London although the two have no association except proximity. The bridge is a bascule bridge which means the span lifts to allow ships and yachts through headed for the Pool of London, the port area just upstream of Tower Bridge. River traffic takes priority over road traffic and cars have to wait when a boat wants to come through.
The bridge has two high towers suspended by wires from the land and linked by a high-level walkway between. This was designed for pedestrians to be able to cross the river even when the bridge was open and you can still walk across it today. A common confusion is that Tower Bridge is actually called London Bridge but in fact that is the next one upstream, a much plainer bridge.
More Things to Do in London
Dating from the 1820s and named after Admiral Nelson's last great victory, Trafalgar Square is a hub of London life. With the National Gallery on one side, beautiful church St Martin in the Fields just across the road and the famous Nelson's Column with its guarding lions, it's London's grandest square. It's here that London celebrates moments such as Chinese New Year and winning the Olympics, as well as having a huge Christmas tree each year. It's also here that Londoners show their displeasure about things such as wars and curbs on freedom on speech.
Trafalgar Square is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world pass by. There's a common belief that if you sit here for half an hour you will see someone you know, because the whole world passes through Trafalgar Square at some point.
London Bridge is the oldest bridge over the River Thames. While the current incarnation of the bridge dates from the 1970s, there has been a bridge in this place since around 50 AD, when the Romans drove some wooden piles into the river's mud. Since then there has always been a bridge here, and for a long time it was the only one. (Nowadays there are many bridges crisscrossing the Thames.)
Sadly, London Bridge is not one of the prettiest of the Thames bridges, although its name might be the most famous. Expecting the name to conjure up something special, people often mistakenly call Tower Bridge London Bridge. This leads to the story that an American bought London Bridge in 1968, thinking he'd bought Tower Bridge: what he did buy now spans a lake in Arizona.
The brainchild of the Sellar Group, The Shard now holds the record for the tallest building in the E.U., with the vertical structure measuring an impressive 1,016 feet high. It’s a project some 12 years in the making, employing the skills of architectural visionary Renzo Piano (best known for creating the Pompidou centre in Paris), who not only designed the structure to appear like a gigantic ‘shard of glass’ piercing the skyline, but carefully constructed the angled glass panes to reflect and refract light, creating a prism-like exterior that changes color with the skies.
The futuristic skyscraper takes the place of the Southwark Towers, overtaking it’s predecessor with 72 floors to its 24, and as one of few tall buildings conceived in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, is designed with stability, durability and shock-absorption in mind.
Theatrically inclined visitors to London will delight in the relatively recently reconstructed replica of the Globe Theatre, with which the Bard was famously associated. Guided tours of the facility offer an unparalleled glimpse into the theatrical craft, culture and community that thrived during Shakespeare's day (and in response to the author's mighty quill).
Originally constructed in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company (the so-called Lord Chamberlain's Men), the structure was decimated by a fire 14 years later. A second structure was promptly erected, only to be closed in 1642, a mere 26 years after its founder's death.
A faithful replica of the structure (dubbed “Shakespeare's Globe”) was opened to the public in 1997, just 750 feet from the site of its predecessors. It offers the world's largest exhibition dedicated to the greatest scribbler in the English language, complete with actors, recordings and interactive displays.
Visitors can explore the ship’s nine decks where the restored living and working quarters (including a sick bay and a dental surgery) and a series of interactive exhibits provide a full sensory experience of life on board during World War II. Climb the ladders between decks; walk in the footsteps of the ship’s 950-strong crew, discover the inner workings of the engine room and visit the interactive Operation room.
Few London addresses are as famous as 10 Downing Street, a Grade I listed Georgian townhouse and the official residence and office of the British Prime Minister since 1735. Centuries of government meetings, important decisions and more than a few scandals have taken place behind the property’s iconic black door (which can be opened only from the inside and even the Prime Minister is not given a key) and former residents have included everyone from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair.
For security reasons, access to Downing Street is limited to government officials only and visitors can do little more than peek through the police patrolled iron gates, but it’s still a popular inclusion on visitor’s itineraries, and there’s always the chance of spotting the Prime Minister himself. Those wanting to get a closer look can follow the video tour on the Downing Street website or, if you’re lucky, join one of the Open House London tours.
At the heart of London’s Westminster district, the aptly named Parliament Square is a pocket of greenery at the epicenter of some of the capital’s most significant buildings and makes a popular photo opportunity for tourists, as well as being the site of many public protests and demonstrations. Notable buildings include the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben to the east, Westminster Abbey to the south, the Supreme Court to the west and Her Majesty's Treasury and the Churchill War Rooms to the north.
Parliament Square is also home to a prominent collection of statues of legendary statesmen, both from the UK and overseas, and including Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Cromwell and Richard I, 'The Lionheart, as well as the most recent addition, Gandhi.
Set between the grounds of St James’s Palace and the iconic abode to the Queen of England, Buckingham Palace; few picnic spots are as breathtakingly regal as St James’s Park, a 58-acre (23-hectare) stretch, located a short stroll from many of central London’s key tourist attractions.
As well as offering a pocket of greenery amidst the urban sprawl of Central London, the Park’s proximity to Buckingham Palace makes it a popular spot to watch the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony, where the uniformed palace guards change over in an elaborate march and band performance. In addition, the park’s Horse Guards Parade hosts the annual Trooping the Colour military parade to mark the Queen's official birthday, along with the Beating Retreat, a floodlit spectacular featuring marching bands from the Cavalry and Foot Guard regiments, held each June.
You think you know what food markets are all about? Borough Market will change your mind, as this is a place of food dreams. On Thursday, Friday and especially Saturday, you’ll find both the locals doing their weekly shopping and people who have caught the train in from all over London just to buy the specialties on offer here.
Borough Market has things you won’t find anywhere else. Prepared food, meats, fish, chocolates, fruits, vegetables – all sold by people who love food and can tell you exactly what you’re buying, how it was grown or made. Foodie paradise.
There has been a market in this London Bridge area since the 11th century; it’s been on this site since the 13th century and in St Mary’s Churchyard triangle since the 18th. In the last decade, Borough Market has really won its reputation as London’s best local produce market as some of England’s most innovative and quality growers and food-makers have set up stalls.
At the heart of London’s historic Docklands, the waterfront district of Canary Wharf has transformed itself into a financial powerhouse in recent years, becoming, along with the City of London nearby, one of the capital’s most important business centers. The modern district is now home to the world or European headquarters of some of the biggest names in banking and media, and it certainly looks the part, with its gleaming skyscrapers and glass-fronted high-rises, including the 235-meter-tall One Canada Square, the tallest building in the UK until the arrival of The Shard.
It’s not all about work in Canary Wharf though – the revitalized docks now serve as an urban playground for the city’s most affluent residents, with a suitably elegant selection of bars and restaurants, and a thriving shopping district. Additional highlights include the unique Traffic Light Tree, an installation artwork by Pierre Vivant; the Centaur.
The British Museum is one of the largest museums in the world, comparable only to the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York. Established around 1750, the British Museum originated with Sir Hans Sloane's 'Cabinet of Curiosities' which he donated to the nation. It's now London's most visited attraction with over seven million objects and a wealth of world history - from Egyptian mummies to Roman sculptures, the Greek Parthenon marbles and the Persian Oxus Treasure (thanks to the British Empire's history of conquering distant countries - there is ongoing controversy about whether some of these treasures should now be returned to where they came from).
But this is no dull, dusty cupboard of old bits and pieces. The British Museum has a wide-ranging program of talks, films, family events, activities for kids, cafes and an excellent shop. The museum is housed in an imposing Greek Revival building dating from the 1850s.
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