London is cosmopolitan, but also strikingly English. The changing of the guards at the famous Buckingham Palace is a typical example. This city was once one of the most important cities in the world under the Romans. Today it is a special mix of architecture, art, going out, shopping, and city parks. And typically England. Read my tips to discover this city to its full extend.
Best things to do in London:
Go cycling through the heart of the city
The British never used to be real cycling fans. Nevertheless, more and more cycling routes are developed, including some aimed at tourism. The 24-kilometer trip along the river Thames may well be the most beautiful one. It runs straight through the heart of the city and passes attractions such as the O2 Arena and the Tate Modern … and before you know it, you’re out of the city.
More information: www.sustrans.org.uk/
Follow the footsteps of Jack the Ripper
It’s 1888, the year when Jack the Ripper terrorized the streets of London. He was one of the most feared serial killers in history and scientists are still discussing his real identity.
Strangely enough, the daily Jack the Ripper Tour is still one of the most popular in London. In the company of a guide, you will go to the places in East London where five prostitutes were butchered. After the tour, you will be able to discuss all the theories about his origins and his deeds at the Ten Bells Pub. It is believed to have been the Ripper’s favourite place.
More information: www.jack-the-ripper-walk.co.uk
Get to know Shakespeare on a tour
William Shakespeare is considered the best English poet and playwright ever. He lived from 1564 until 1616 and wrote a total of 38 comedies, tragedies and history plays. He also wrote over 100 sonnets and poems.
Shakespeare’s Globe is an initiative to continue placing his work in the limelight. On a special tour, you will learn everything on his life and his work. You can also attend a performance.
Choose your favourite walk in the city
London is a city you can easily explore on foot. You can find many routes online, focusing on the many monuments, or maybe on the more modern London. Other available walks are those where famous authors like Charles Dickens are the main theme. You will also find ‘green’ walks.
Enjoy shopping at the ‘Christmas capital’
London is sometimes referred to as the ‘Christmas capital’ of Europe. Streets, stores and tourist attractions are colourfully decorated and the city is bustling with people in good spirits. Look at the Christmas shops, you will be amazed by all the accessories for your Christmas tree, your table and such. They start Christmas shopping here as early as the end of November, but be sure to make arrangements as early as possible in terms of booking a flight and a hotel.
Walk by Regent’s Canal and Regent’s Park
From Little Venice to the London Canal Museum, to end up at the former Regent’s Canal Dock. A walk of approximately 12 kilometers, passing several highlights, but also many pubs and restaurants. A great way to cover the city in another way. Don’t forget to visit Regent’s Park on the way.
Peek at the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection
The richness of the ceremonial dress is what is most striking. However, the official royal robes are at least as impressive. The clothing is on display at Kensington Palace as part of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. This unique collection of robes contains dresses from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and the late princess Diana. She had this palace as her residence. The original building dates back from 1605.
Taste different English beers
It is wonderful after a day of shopping or visiting museums. The English pubs are world famous, so hop in, why not? The English beers may not have a lot of foam, but there are so many different varieties you can try. Some may be weaker in taste, but others can be quite strong.
London has thousands of pubs, some very famous. There is The George Inn, in Southwark, which was rebuilt in 1676, but also pubs with names that have quite the ring to them, like The Black Friar. Plenty of choice.
Try ice skating at Somerset House
It is the best spot to go ice skating: Somerset House. Even if there are many more skating rinks you can go to. There is an enjoyable atmosphere among the many people and you can get a warm alcoholic beverage. You don’t have to bring your skates, you can rent them here.
Meet Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street
If you have read the Sherlock Holmes stories, you should really go to 221b Baker Street. There is a small museum in honour of the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Several bookstores in the neighbourhood also have special attention for the famous detective and his side-kick John H. Watson. You can purchase some collector’s items there.
More information: www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk
Drink champagne in The London Eye
The biggest ferris wheel in the world is perfect for people in love. You can even get a glass of champagne, as you slowly rise up above the city. You don’t have to do this with just the two of you, you can even have a party, or get married, with the entire city as your witness.
Shop at Camden Market
If you enjoy alternative clothing, antiques, jewellery, second-hand items and especially knickknacks, you will just love Camden Market. The English themselves like to come here as well. For shopping, hanging out or to see what the tourists are up to. The market is open daily and is at walking distance from the Camden Town tube station.
More information: www.camdenmarket.com
Go on the Diana Memorial Walk
Another original walk in the British capital: the Diana Memorial Walk. A walk of no less than eleven (!) kilometers, past several places that played a part in the life of Lady Di. The route is indicated with ninety silver-coulored plaques on the sidewalk. You can go on this walk individually if you start at Kensington Palace, the former residence of the princess. Here you can purchase the guidebook ‘A Walk for Diana’ at the royal souvenir shop.
Shop at Oxford Street and Carnaby Street
London is a city where you almost can’t stop shopping, like at the world famous Oxford Street and Carnaby Street. Try Covent Garden and Soho one time, or become lost in famous department stores like Harrods.
More information: www.streetsensation.co.uk
Stay behind the scenes at the BBC
The BBC is one of the oldest and most authoritative broadcasting companies in the world. During a tour, you can see how television programs are made, with all the ins and outs. One example is the famous BBC News. You also stand a chance of running into some famous people here.
More information: www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/tours
Visit the London Zoo
Although the giant pandas may have left in the 1990s, the London Zoo still remains one of the most exceptional zoos in the world. It opened its doors on 27 April 1828. At first, keeping animals was predominantly aimed at research, but in 1847 the public was also allowed to see the animals.
Look at art at Bayswater
Young and old artists seek acknowledgement from the public. Bayswater is the place where artists and art-lovers meet every Sunday. You can walk around and check out the many forms of painting. The ‘gallery’ runs from the north side of Kensington Gardens all the way to Hyde Park. This is also one of the most authentic sections of London.
See a match or take a tour at Wembley Stadium
The new Wembley cannot possibly be compared to the old Wembley, but it remains an extraordinary soccer temple. It is also one of the most famous in the world. Rebuilding took from 2000 to 2007 and cost about one billion euros. On a tour, you will be able to smell the grass and live through all the highlights at the museum. However, for true soccer-fans, this will not suffice: they will want to see an actual match.
Visit Madam Tussauds; The Wax Museum
The Wax Museum in London is fun to visit. Walking through the halls, you will see many world-famous stars and members of English high society. But also actors from Bollywood, the Asian film industry. By the way, it is sensible to reserve tickets online (or the old-fashioned way, by phone), to prevent you from having to wait in line.
Rent a boat at the Thames
The river Thames is obviously the most famous, but London has many more waters you can explore by (rented) boat. It’s a very good alternative for the busy road traffic, especially when you have a picnic underway.
Go see hurling; the most dangerous sport in the world
Hurling is considered the most dangerous sport in the world. It is a rough mixture of rugby and hockey and players have a special stick which they are allowed to do almost anything with. Watching this British popular sport is an extraordinary experience, not to mention what it’s like when you take to the field. Sean Tracys is one of the best-known clubs of Great Britain.
Watch a tennis match at Wimbledon
This is the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. The holy grass of Wimbledon is something you just have to smell once. Obviously a visit is most special during the official Championships, which take place in summer. The English like to bet on the various matches. This is where you can prove the extent of your knowledge of the game.
More information: www.wimbledon.com
Stroll at Portobello Market on Notting Hill
The most prominent street market of Portobello Road has been there since 1800 and used to be famous for its antiques for many decades. Today, you will still find some antiques here, but it is mainly a market for fruit, vegetables and bread now. You can also buy clothes, ceramics and posters.
The market is in the idyllic neighbourhood of Notting Hill. Nowadays, this is a place for the rich and famous and also the venue of one of the most successful British films ever. The market is held only on weekends.
See the opera at the Royal Opera House
If you love the opera, you cannot pass up the new Royal Opera House. A monument which reopened its doors to the public in 1999, following a renovation of 214 million pounds.
This is the home of the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House Orchestra. You have two choices. You can take a tour through the building during the day, when you will also have the chance to see a bit of the current performances. But actually, you really should occupy a seat here in the evening.
Stroll at the Botanical Garden of London Kew
The London Kew Gardens are world famous. This botanical garden has flora from all over the world. The English took the fauna back home from their voyages of discovery, even centuries ago. Walking around, not only will you see many plants and trees, you also get a look at some English history. Kew Gardens is on the Eastern outskirts of London.
More information: www.kew.org
Let a homeless person guide you through London
See London from a different perspective. Go on a tour with a homeless person. ‘Unseen Tours: London’s Street Voices’ will show you how they look at this city. You can make it as confrontational as you want to. They will just answer all your questions, including those about how they manage to survive here.
More information: http://sockmobevents.org.uk
The history of London
The Romans are considered the founders of this city, they called it Londinium. According to historic writings, the Romans entered England under emperor Claudius in the year 43 A.D. They built a wooden bridge on the northern banks of the river Thames. The bridge was used a lot and slowly grew to be the centre of the local society.
Under the Romans, this was one of the most important cities in the world.
It did not last long, the local population revolted against Roman rule. The settlement is destroyed in 60 A.D. However, the Romans did not allow themselves to be chased away just like that. Upon their return, they fortified the city with a wall.
For 300 years this was one of the most prominent Roman centres in Europe. The city developed, until the Romans left in 410 A.D. and the city was attacked numerous times. It was often the focal point of raids from the Anglos (a Germanic tribe from the north), the Saxons (a Germanic tribe, presumably from eastern Netherlands and western Germany), the Frisians (that lived along the North Sea coast) and the Jutes (from Jutland).
The Anglos and the Saxons controlled the region for a prolonged period of time. In the 9th and 10th century, London was attacked by the Vikings various times. These attacks were beaten off, until 1066, when the Norsemen led by William the Conqueror managed to successfully capture the city. London was crowned capitol city, serving also as the seat of the government of Henry III in the thirteenth century. He is considered to be the founder of the English monarchy.
The city flourished in the following centuries. Particularly between 1533 and 1603 under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, London went through a golden period. However in 1665, the bubonic plague killed about 100,000 people, which was 15% of the London population at the time. A year later a big fire destroyed a large part of the city. It was rebuilt in a period of 5 years.
Booming trade in the Far East turned London into the most prominent trading center in the world, surpassing even Amsterdam. The growth continued gradually. Under Queen Victoria, in the 19th century, London became the largest city in the world. Until World War II, when the old colonies of England sought their independence.
Nowadays official stats show the city draws a wide variety of visitors, both in age as well as in interests. Fans of architecture praise the typical English structures, especially the Victorian buildings. Art lovers explore the many museums, while the youth is drawn by the nightlife.
However, the groups that are most represented are the couples and families, who consider London a fun city to visit, in particular. A place to take nice walks, to go shopping and go out to eat. They will often visit some attractions as well. This is also the city where nothing is a must, as it is certainly a place you will once return to.
Actually, the only disadvantage of London is its cuisine. Fish and chips and English ale were the most prominent culinary variants for many, many years. However, with the arrival of television star cook Jamie Oliver, the English kitchen suddenly made a name for itself. Oliver’s idea to provide deprived youth an opportunity to run a restaurant in London is an instant hit. It is synonymous for the age old city doing its utmost to tackle the problems of today.
Best time to visit London:
Spring and autumn are the best months. The weather will be mostly dry and the temperatures will be mild. Only in terms of weather, summer is absolutely the best, though it may get a bit too warm then.
In the summer months, London is overrun by tourists. There will be long lines at the major attractions.
How do I get to London?
There are direct flights from major airports all over the world. London has several large airports where flights arrive daily:
- Heathrow is the largest, at 32 km west of the city center, from where you can take the train (Heathrow Express), the bus or a taxi, but the tube (Underground) is the cheapest option.
- Gatwick is London’s second airport. It lies at 45 km south of the city center.
The fastest connection is the train (Gatwick Express).
- Luton Airport lies at 56 km north-west of central London. The train is the best option from there (Thameslink).
- Stansted lies at 56 km northeast of central London, with the best and fastest connection being the train (Stansted Express).
- London City Airport lies in the Docklands, at 9.5 km east of central London. The best option from here is the Blue Airport Shuttle bus.
From continental Europe you can go by car (and ferry):
- From Calais, France to Dover.
- From Hoek van Holland, the Netherlands to Harwich.
- From Rotterdam Europort, the Netherlands to Hull.
- From IJmuiden, the Netherlands to Newcastle.
More information: www.visitlondon.com