There are two types of people in this world: Anglophiles and Francophiles, and I am both. Every adult Anglophile remembers the moment when her obsession first began, when she initially started not pronouncing her rs, eating scones, and watching BBC America. Perhaps it began with the Chronicles of Narnia and Turkish Delight, perhaps it began later with Jane Austin and Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth.
My gateway drug was Basil Fawlty. Any people who could produce anything as funny as “The Germans” were worth my time. Ever since then, it had been my dream to explore the land of Agatha Christie, Emma Thompson, and The Goblin King, and I was certainly not disappointed.
You Must Attend the Sunday Concert at Wigmore Hall
Address: 36 Wigmore St.
I feel like this should go without saying, but these concerts only take place on Sundays.
If you are in London on a Sunday, and you like classical music at all, there is simply zero percent of a reason that you should miss attending a Sunday Morning Coffee Concert at Wigmore Hall. The Big Wig, as only I call it, has great acoustics and a fascinating cupola depicting a gentleman who looks like he’s melting a gaggle of peons with a ball of fire. Apparently he is supposed to represent The Soul of Music. If that’s the case, I really need to go to more classical concerts!
Even if you DON’T like classical music at all, you should go because the concert hall is gorgeous and there is a free glass of sherry after the music. Sipping sherry after some chamber music is a highly glamorous experience; I felt like a character on an episode of The Duchess of Duke Street.
You Should Visit the National Portrait Gallery
Address: St. Martin’s Place
Hours: 10-6 Every Day, Until 9 Thursdays and Fridays
The National Portrait Gallery is a museum entirely dedicated to portraits of famous British men and women. Obviously, this was a nationalist project of the Victorian era. You can practically hear “Rule Brittania” play as you step through the doors. Anyway, every Brit who’s anyone, from Richard II to Kate Middleton, has a painted doppleganger in this collection. British History Nerds will plotz when they see all the beloved and familiar faces.
Here’s What I Learned…a lot of portraits of the Tudor monarchs were painted by Unknown Artists. For some reason I thought that Hans Holbein painted like 90% of them. Also, Henry IV liked to wear silly red hats.
That hat is a Glamour Don’t.
You Must See..The first two rooms featuring portraits of the Tudors, Room 17, which has the George Romney portrait of That Hamilton Woman, Room 30, which has portraits of suffragettes and WWI vets, and Room 32, which has David Hockney’s self-portrait, as well as the portrait of Princess Di,
Also, don’t miss the Portraits restaurant on the top floor.
You Must Visit Westminster Abbey
Address: 20 Deans Yd.
Hours: 9:30-3:30 Most Days, Closes at 1:30 Sat and 6 Wed. Closed Sunday
Sometimes Closed For Special Occasions
Price: 18 Pounds
I may be the only traveler in the world who has an embarrassing story about Westminster Abbey. I went to visit the church on my first day in London and had an amazing time. I revisited the Downtown Abbey (I think people call it that) on my last day in London because I was working on putting together an awesome itinerary. It was a little silly to visit the same landmark in the space of one week, but who would ever find out.
Well, little did I know that there would be a cute little old English lady taking a survey of Westminster Abbey visitors. She asked me if I would complete the survey, and I said yes because who can deny Miss Marple in the flesh? Well, one of the first questions she asked me was when was the last time I had visited the Abbey, and when I said it was a week ago, she looked at me askance and said, “Ooooh, you doooo like the Abbey, don’t you…” I felt deep shame, as if I had been outed as being a Furrie or something. Anyway…
Here’s what I learned…Westminster Abbey has been the coronation site of every British monarch since William the Conqueror, who everyone knows came over from Normandy in 1066 to defeat Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings and claim the English throne. It’s kind of a Big Deal.
Also, like many other landmarks in London, Westminster Abbey was damaged during air raids in WWII. It was saved by London’s courageous firefighters, but you can still see some remnants of the damage in the Abbey today.
You Must See… The Poet’s Corner, where such notable British writers as Dickens, Hardy, Kipling, and Tennyson are buried. Also you can’t miss the Lady Chapel built by Henry VII. I’m not sure, but I think it’s called the Lady Chapel because the ceiling looks like it’s made from lace from a fancy lady’s petticoat.
Also, you must take the audio guide which is objectively the greatest audio guide in the world because it is voiced by Jeremy Irons. Just imagine this voice guiding you around the Greatest Hits of English History. You are already packing your bags to go visit Westminster Abbey, yes?
You Should Walk Across the Millennium Bridge
London is famous for many things, but it is not a notable destination for thrill seekers. In London, there is no spelunking, no hang gliding, and nary a bull run. Instead of these, London offers the adventurous traveler merely a simple bridge. Fortunately this bridge is terrifying enough to challenge the darest devil.
The Millennium Bridge, which also sports the alias “the Wobbly Bridge”, was shut down for two years after its opening because of this incident during which the bridge is aggressively seen to wobble and perhaps even weeble. Though MB has since been fixed, it is still hard to go across without imagining that it will collapse and send one plunging to an icy death in the Thames. I highly recommend traversing this bridge after an afternoon spent at either St. Paul’s or the Tate Modern. It will get your heart rate going after all that culture.
You Should Visit St. Paul’s Cathedral
Address: St. Paul’s Churchyard
Hours: 8:30-4:30 Monday-Saturday Last Entry at 4
Price: 18 Pounds
St. Paul’s is famous to all Americans because it is also the “Feed the Birds” Cathedral from Mary Poppins fame. In fact, as I approached the building, I saw a troupe of Sigma Chi types outside warbling Feed the Birds to the famous St. Paul’s steps. It was all rather charming in an Ugly American sort of way.
A previous draft of St. Paul’s Cathedral was burned to the ground during the Great Fire of London, and the current edition was built by 17th century celebrity architect Christopher Wren. Aside from the Disney associations, St. Paul’s is most famous for its gorgeous dome. In fact, if you go to St. Paul’s and don’t visit the dome, I don’t really think you can say you’ve been at all, Internet Stranger!
I took the free Multimedia guide along with me as I toured the crypt, and it was great fun because it shows you close-ups of the dome and other parts of the galleries that you might not otherwise be able to see. Guided Tours are also included with the price of admission and they leave at 10, 11, 1, and 2.
You Should Go to Tate Britain
Address: Millbank (Why don’t London landmarks have real addresses?)
Hours: 10-6 Daily
Here’s What I Learned: British art is as underrated as its food! I already knew about Turner and Constable, but I also enjoyed the Hockneys, Freunds, Pre-Raphaelites, etc.
You Must See: the Turners, obviously, but I recommend going on one of the free guided tours because if the guides are anything like the one I met, they will be very knowledgeable. I still remember the interesting questions she asked about the different ways that Turner and Constable used light.
I was somewhat less fond of the fact that she kept saying to me, “You probably don’t know this because you’re American…” during the tour. I felt she was about one second away from calling me a rebellious Colonial. My only fellow tour takers were a nice retired English couple, and the wife kept whispering to me very politely, “Oh, I didn’t know that either.”
Fun Fact! If you try to Google Turner, the third result that will come up is for Turner and Hooch.
You Must Visit the Tate Modern
Hours: 10-6 most days, until 10 Friday and Saturday
Price: FREE!!! (Well, there is a charge for special exhibitions.)
The Tate Modern is the Tate Britain’s cool younger sister, the Twiggy to the Tate Britain’s Queen Victoria. It is located in an abandoned power station, so the whole building from both the outside and inside is quite fugly, and nothing is cooler than fuglyness. It is also where Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson meet up before beginning their torrid love affair in Match Point, which is very sexy but only if you forget about the Woody Allen connection.
The best way to get to the Tate Modern from Tate Britain is to tate the Tate to Tate boat. It leaves every 40 minutes every day from 9-7. It only tates a short while to get from one museum to another, and you get to enjoy a brief cruise on the Thames, punting not included.
You Must See…The Tate Modern’s regular collection contains the usual suspects: Picasso, Dali, a urinal by Duchamps, Rothko. I’m sure most people would say not to miss the Duchamps “Fountain”, which looked suspiciously like a urinal to me. However, the collections are not ordered chronologically, but are instead organized according to gallery titles like “Poetry and Dream”.
Here’s What I Learned…My favorite section is called “Energy and Process” because it contains the museum’s Arte Povera collection and I was not familiar with this term. Arte Povera was an Italian anti-capitalist movement that encouraged the use of non-traditional art materials, like dirt and rags.
You Must See the Theater
Going to London without going to the theater is like going to Paris just after having your stomach stapled. Why even bother going under those circumstances? Having said that, shows in the West End can be very expensive, and I was not exactly rolling in the stuff on this trip. London hotels are just as pricey as London theater.
I suggest just stopping in to the Leicester Square TKTS booth and seeing what shows are available that evening. You can get tickets for a West End show as low as 23 Pounds. I saw three shows this way when I was in London: The Mousetrap, Top Hat, (a stage adaptation of an Astaire/Rogers musical that featured excellent dancing and terrible American accents) and Let it Be, which is a goofy jukebox musical about the Beatles that is still running as of this writing.
Of course The Mousetrap is still running and will probably be running forever. I advocate seeing it at least once in your life. It is the longest running production ever, or at least in modern times, so you will be seeing a piece of theater history.
You Must Visit the British Museum
Address: Great Russell St. That’s still not a real address!
Hours: 10-5:30, Until 8:30 Fridays
Some museums are art museums, some are history museums, and some are even more specialized, such as various museums of sex, vodka, or chocolate. But the British Museum is a type that I like to call an Everything-In-The-Whole-Wide-World-Museum. The British Museum has everything from ancient Sumerian games to dead bodies. Basically it contains all the random goodies the English picked up on their great tour of conquering the globe. You could spend all day here and not see a quarter of the collection.
Here’s What I Learned…The British Museum is not only free, it also offers free Eye Opener tours of various galleries throughout the day. I went on an Eye Opener of the Medieval gallery and saw the hideous corpse of the famous Lindow Bog Man. I learned that if a body falls into a bog, it apparently becomes really well-preserved, if by well-preserved you mean “recognizably human but still super disgusting”. Voila!
IT’S THE BOGGYMAN!
You Must See…the Rosetta Stone, which is the key to reading hieroglyphs, and I believe is also a secret spell for warding off the curse of King Tut’s tomb. There’s also the room full of Elgin Marbles, which are not in fact good for playing marbles. Rather they are a series of amazing sculptures that the English stole from the Greeks and won’t give back, even though Greece kind of needs any treasures it can get its hands on right about now.
My favorite piece was the Lewis Chessmen set, which is a gorgeous Medieval ivory chess set found in Scotland. I thought the pieces were so adorable that I bought a replica at the museum store to take home with me. He is way less creepy than the Bog Man, trust me.
You Should Shop at Harrod’s
Address: 87-135 Brompton Road
Hours: 10 AM-9 PM Most Days, Opens at 11:30 PM Sundays
Harrod’s website claims that it is the world’s most famous department store, and who am I to argue with British Internet? Harrod’s holds a special place in my heart because it was the first place where I had a real English high tea. I still remember the waiter telling us that the meal had no calories because I actually believed him.
If you’re not in the mood for tea, I highly recommend shopping here after taking lunch at Zuma. Alternately, you could skip lunch and perambulate around Harrod’s stuffed to the gills with goodies food court, looking for nummy treats. Harrod’s brand toffee candies are especially delicious.
Another fun thing to do at Harrod’s is to buy a book in the bookstore that was written by an American author and see if they’ve replaced certain terms with British ones–like lift for elevator and lorry for truck.
You Must Visit the Tower of London
Address: I can’t find an official address. It’s on the North Bank of the Thames.
Hours:9-4:30, Last Admission at 4. On Sun. and Mon. it opens at 10
Price: About 23 Pounds if you buy the ticket online
The Tower of London, which prefers to be addressed by its full name of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, is famous for being the current location of the Crown Jewels, and the former prison of the Princes in the Tower and Elizabeth I before she got an I after her name.
The best way to see the Tower is to take one of the tours given by the Yeoman Warders, aka the dudes wearing fancy red coats and black hats who apparently don’t like to be called beefeaters. The tours run every thirty minutes and are included with admission. I think my Yeoman Warder was the best because he told lots of funny stories and looked exactly like Kenneth Branagh.
Here’s What I learned…This is probably ignorant of me, but I had no idea that six ravens are supposed to be kept in the Tower at all times, for superstitious reasons. Supposedly if there are no ravens in the Tower of London, England will cease to exist. First of all, I want to know how this rumor got started. Did a raven tell someone? That would be so cool.
Our guide also informed us with pride that it is very difficult to be appointed a Yeoman Warden. You need to have served in the British army for at least 22 years and you have to have earned the Long Service and Good Conduct medal. 22 years seems like a weirdly specific number. Where did it come from? (Probably it was one of the ravens.)
You must see…the Yeoman Warder who looks like Kenneth Branagh! I seriously recommend requesting him specifically when you buy your ticket. Also please see the Crown Jewels, which are inside the Tower, but please don’t take a selfie with them while pretending to be Queen Elizabeth. It’s not dignified. Please think of the ravens.
You Must Ride the London Eye
Address: I can’t find an official address. It’s on the South Bank of the Thames. You literally cannot miss it.
Hours: First trip leaves at 10 AM, last trip leaves at 8:30 PM.
Price: About 22 Pounds for a regular ticket
A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets. But one Ferris Wheel is still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions…Guy Noir, London Eye…
I strongly recommend buying your tickets online. For one reason, you save money, and for another, you can avoid waiting in a hideous line to buy your ticket. The tickets are timed at half an hour intervals. You should show up at the London Eye half an hour before the time on your ticket because the boarding line to get on the London Eye is not at all short.
You can also buy the Fast Track ticket, which means that you wait on a shorter line, but since it is more than 10 pounds more expensive than the regular ticket, I am not sure that the Fast Track is worth it.
Most people love the London Eye because on the two days of clear weather that London gets every year, it is possible to take some amazing pictures of Londontown. I love to ride the London Eye because it makes me feel like I have jumped into the opening credits of Sherlock.
You Must Tour Shakespeare’s Globe
Address: 21 New Globe Walk (Finally, a real address!)
Price: 15 Pounds, Tour Included
The Globe Theater was home to a little playwright you may have heard of…a guy named William Shakespeare. Now that I have just blown your mind, allow me to blow it even further. The Globe Theater that currently exists in London is merely a (historically faithful) replica from the 1990s. The original has long since gone to that great box office in the sky.
During the day, you will of course want to expand your Shakespearean knowledge by taking a tour of his ersatz former stomping grounds. Tours of the theater leave every half hour. There’s no need to pre-book.
Here’s What I Learned…Shakespeare’s Globe was the brain child of an American actor named Sam Wanamaker, but I only know who he is because he has a small role in Death on the Nile, and Hercule Poirot is one of my many obsessions. The theater is built of authentic for the period materials, including a thatched roof. Have you ever seen a thatched roof up close and personal, Internet Stranger? Probably not.
Also, the first artistic director of the Globe was Oscar nominee Mark Rylance, who staged a very famous all-male production of Twelfth Night at the Globe. Yeah, men! Way to take back the night from all those female-dominated plays and movies!
You Must See…aside from the tour, you must see a show here! The season runs from April to October, and as I visited in late October, I just missed getting a ticket.
That’s it for the major highlights of London. Do you have any more off-the-beaten path suggestions that I missed? Please comment, especially if you are a raven,
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.