A First Timer’s Guide to London
Arguably one of the most multicultural cities in the world, London is incredibly diverse with more than 300 languages spoken. The capital of England & UK is like the world in one city with a different smell on every corner. From black cabs to red double decker buses, enjoy your London guide and mind the gap!
Your excuse to pay a visit to London could depend on seasons if you want to attend to something extra:
In spring there’s the London Coffee Festival, the Chelsea Flower Show and Open Garden Squares weekend when many of the city’s gardens open to the public.
The summer season gets underway with highlights like the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, the Proms at Royal Albert Hall and the Nothing Hill Carnival.
Autumn sees events like Bonfire Night, Poppy Day, the Lord Mayor’s Show, and the Magical Lantern Festival. Open House London enables city’s architectural gems to be accessible to the public.
Winter is good for Christmas decorations, the big New Year’s Eve fireworks and also Chinese New Year.
So let's take a look at the attractions you can see on your very first visit to London over a couple of days.
Buckingham Palace was commissioned by King George IV way back when, though it wasn’t until Queen Victoria moved in a few years later in 1837 that the palace became the official royal residence. Since then, many monarchs have come and gone and it remains Queen Elizabeth’s home to this day. Throughout WW2, the royals had refused to leave the palace even though it was struck by nine bombs.
Apart from 775 rooms, the palace holds a cinema, pool, post office, police station, clinic and even an ATM.
Tower of London
Situated in Central London, by the River Thames, the Tower of London has seen service as royal palace, prison, armoury and even a zoo. Dating all the way back to the 1070s, this iconic historical site started off life as an imposing river fortress for William the Conqueror. It was initially resented by the people of London when it was built, as it stood as a symbol of oppression by the new ruling forces. Later in the 1800s, it became the place where all the money in the nation was created. In addition to that, the Royal Family also began storing its most precious jewels.
Houses of Parliament & Big Ben
Residing opposite Westminster Bridge, is Big Ben, named after the bell, in fact, not the clock. The clock tower’s official name is currently the Elizabeth Tower named after Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 for her Diamond Jubilee. Big Ben continued to strike the hours despite a bomb destroyed the House of Commons chamber during the Second World War. The Great Bell can be heard up to four miles away on a clear day.
Parliament Square features statues of important political individuals including Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill.
Located on the south bank of the River Thames across from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye was opened to the public in 2000 to celebrate the Millennium. Europe's tallest ferris wheel is ideal to catch some of the best views of the city. It's one of the most famous places to be when the clock strikes 12 o’clock on 31st December.
Just a short walk from the Thames, Westminster Abbey owns the most important collection of monumental sculpture anywhere in Britain. It’s been the nation’s coronation church since the crowning of William the Conqueror in 1066. In 2011 it was the venue for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
St Paul’s Cathedral
Sitting on the highest point of the City of London is St. Paul’s Cathedral. This is where Prince Charles and Lady Diana wed in 1981. The present St. Paul’s Cathedral is actually the fourth to be located on this spot. The first cathedral dedicated to St Paul in the City of London was made of wood and built in 604AD. Inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, St. Paul’s Dome is the second largest cathedral dome in the world. In the Whispering Gallery, if you whisper against the wall at any point, you can be heard by anyone with their ear against the wall at any other point around the gallery, even on the other side.
This bridge is the prime feature of Victorian engineering. It was originally the only crossing over the Thames. The “bascule” bridge is still lifted to this day on a schedule to allow boats and barges to pass. Do experience the glass floor that lines the structure's two walkways, which provide a fascinating view of the Thames, London skyline and cars passing by down below.
Sister of New York’s Time Square is recognized for its advertising billboards, shops, "always on" lights, Statue of Eros, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not interactive museum and many more. The origin for the name ‘Piccadilly’ is pretty interesting; the ‘piccadil’ part comes from a 17th century neck collar worn by men. The word ‘circus’ is actually Latin for ‘circle’, so that’s where it gets its name. On your way to Haymarket, you’ll find the The Four Bronze Horses of Helios in front of The Criterion Theatre.
Covent Garden is one of the most popular areas of the city with some of the best theatres, independent shopping opportunities, street-performers and bustling restaurants. From a home to the aristocracy and the main center of theatrical life in London it developed into the largest produce market in the world. Attend a show while you’re here and see some of the shows that make London famous. Don’t forget to find the little hidden courtyard, Neal’s Yard nearby. The enclave contains the iconic Neal’s Yard Remedies Store, Neal’s Yard Dairy, Wild Food Café and several other retail spaces and cafés.
Trafalgar Square is full of incredible museums, galleries, cultural spaces, and historic buildings that you can’t miss. Nelson's Column was built in the year 1842 in remembrance of the famous British war hero Admiral Lord Nelson. The bronze Lion Sculptures at the foot of Nelson's Column are a challenge for young and old. The Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is especially known because of its excellent location and as a venue for classical concerts.
The National Gallery
Discover more than 2,000 Western European paintings dating from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and many more. Enjoy the free entrance 😉
With a permanent collection of over 8 million works from all over the world, the British Museum is dedicated to human history, art, and culture. Designed in the Greek Revival style, the museum is in fact the most visited tourist attraction in the UK; 7 million yearly visitors! Rosetta Stone that helped decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles that were removed from Parthenon in Athens (check my Athens post for the story here), Hoa Hakananai'a, an original Easter Island statue are just a few among the many pieces that are in display.
For international modern art lovers the Tate Modern is the place to visit. The collection at Tate Modern includes all the major modern art movements from Fauvism onwards. It features Picasso and Matisse, Dali, Ernst and Mirò. It's based in a spectacular disused power station in the heart of London.
A vibrant and exciting part of the city that is home to an amazing range of pubs, jazz and blues bars and the heart of London’s gay scene.
This charming neighbourhood is for dreamers and romantics. From adorable gardens to colorful houses in Denbigh Terrace, Notting Hill is one of the most instagrammable places in the city. Visit Portobello Road Market, literally the world’s biggest antiques market. You can also do vintage shopping and find one-of-a-kind items in the area.
Take a walk by the riverside or join a cruise on Thames River, as pieces of Egyptian & British history welcome you. The lifeblood of London is home to many.
Royal Air Force Memorial
Dedicated to the memory of the casualties of the Royal Air Force in World War I, the details in this memorial is absolutely striking. You can almost feel the pilots' emotions as they dash to their aircraft.
The ancient Egyptian obelisk stands on Victoria Embankment. It was originally erected in ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis by Pharoah Thutmose III around 1450BC. The reason why Cleopatra’s name is associated with the obelisk is inaccurate, but probably brings a bit of glamour to it. Following the victories of Lord Nelson and Sir Ralph Abercromby in the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandra in 1798 and 1801 respectively, Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali gave one of the obelisks to the United Kingdom as a thank you gift in 1819. The two Victorian faux sphinxes ‘guarding’ the obelisk aren’t quite so old. The bronze sphinxes were designed by George John Vulliamy in 1881.
The egg-shaped Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) is an office building and a symbol of the global dominance of London's financial district.
In a city made up of hundreds of grey tones, it's invigorating to spend time in a green lung. Largest of the four Royal Parks in central London, Hyde Park contains countless walking and biking paths, Kensington Palace, one of many British Royal Family residences, and a beautiful lake. It has in fact hosted a number of demonstrations and protests including protests by the Suffragettes.
Oxford Street is not only London’s top spot for shopping but is Europe’s busiest shopping street. It has 300 shops and receives over 500,000 visitors every day. Shop ‘til you drop.
Visit Harrods, London’s most famous department store and see its Egyptian hall especially.
Borough Market is a mecca for foodies who want to sample all things fresh and local.
Baker Street is best known for the infamous detective Sherlock Holmes' residence. Madame Tussauds is just around the corner, too.
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