Things to Do in London

Image courtesy of Pixabay


London, England. The words still evoke an era, probably the 1960s and 19670s of mods and rockers, Carnaby Street, youth culture, Princess Margaret, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, fun and fashion, but that image overlooks what London was then and is now. The funky sheen may have faded, but London still stands tall within its triumvirate of the three major cities in Europe: London, Paris, Rome. It remains one of the top global cities for business and culture.

London is an extremely old city, believed to have been established in about 46 AD; evidence suggests it was also a settlement during the Bronze and Iron Ages. It wasn’t until the Romans set up shop in about 60 AD (London’s situation on a major river is similar to Rome’s). Typically for London, all was well and fine until Queen Boudica and trashed the place. London’s indomitable spirit had already been entrenched and within a decade, it was rebuilt and growing, which it has continued to do.

It is this powerful start that has made London what it is today. It has survived, since Boudica, many major fires, a couple of rounds with the plague and mass influenza, the Blitz, civil war, riots and terrorist attacks; and then there’s Brexit. But London rises.

Today, it’s a renewed city of perhaps reluctantly cosmopolitan nuance and almost 9 nine million people, a bed of diversity. Once the British emigrated to mostly North America, leaving behind the bombed-out cities and towns post-WWII, immigrants came, many of them from third-world nations to repopulate. And London grew yet again.

One of the great historic capitals on the planet, London has seen its share of victories and defeats. And yet, its strength is not altered, its popularity unfazed. Like perfect English cream, it rises to the top. All this up-and-down history and cultural change has made for a fascinating city. It’s the London we know and visit today.

London literally has something for everyone. Shoppers go mad at Harrods. Historians are addicted to the Tower of London. Kids love the giant ferris wheel, the London Eye. Fashionistas are only happier when in Paris. Art lovers would move in to the Victoria and Albert Museum if it only let out flats. Theatre fans prepare themselves for overdose in the West End. The range of things to see and do in London is mind-boggling.

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Things to Do in London

London Eye

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Meant to be more of a moving observation platform than a midway ride, the London Eye (aka the Millennium Wheel) is nonetheless a popular ride, hosting about 3.75 million visitors per annum. Located on the south shore of the Thames in the borough of Lambeth, it provides an excellent vantage point from which to view the city and understand its complex layout (regardless, later on the ground, you can still find many ways in which to get lost). It is the most popular attraction in the United Kingdom.

Eclipsed in height by London’s own commercial tower, The Shard, with its viewing platform on the 72nd storey, the Eye is still more favoured by tourists. Like a giant, spoked bicycle wheel (that lights up at night), the London Eye has 32 pods, or capsules, each sealed and air-conditioned, that carry a maximum of 25 passengers each; they are large enough that people can walk about, but seats are also provided.

The London Eye moves very slowly — 26 centimetres (10 inches) per second, such that it doesn’t need to stop to let passengers on and off. Other than sheer height, it has no sense of motion that might make riders queasy. The structure is 135 metres (443 feet) tall, and the wheel’s diameter is 120 metres (394 feet); it was only intended as a temporary attraction, but proved so popular, it has remained in use. To get there by tube, get off at the Waterloo Underground station.

Tower of London

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Few buildings in London, or for that matter in the world, can be truly called as multi-purpose as the Tower of London. Building began on it in 1078, triggered by William the Conqueror just after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Like any structure of that age it has been rebuilt (1285) and expanded (in modern times), and requires constant refurbishing. Because it was designed to have several wards, or sections within sections, it was regarded as a secure building, hence its diversity of uses, some of those assuredly requiring thick walls and strong locks.

The Tower of London, technically a castle, has been used over its nearly ten decades as: a royal residence; a prison (several times); a warehouse; an armoury; a fortress; a Royal Mint and treasury; a wild animal menagerie (zoo); a public records office; and a museum. One of the city’s most visited tourist attractions, it welcomes close to 3 million visitors each year.

While the Tower of London, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a dark reputation, not as many executions have taken place there as many assume. Still, when you go you can almost sense the presence of the murdered, be that Anne Boleyn, Henry VI, Lady Jane Grey or the unfortunate Princes in the Tower. Tower staff report regular examples of hauntings.

Plan a day-long visit as there is much to be seen in the Tower of London, including The Jewel House, which displays the Crown Jewels.

Buckingham Palace

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Buckingham Palace is assuredly one of the most famous buildings on the planet. London is rich with such places, but this one is special; we have all seen it in newspapers or on television at some point. Its facade and fenced front area are familiar.

Only open to the public from late July into October, visitors still clamour to see the exterior of the building and the changing of the guard all year round. Those who do get to see the inside are not permitted free range of the 775 rooms; the public is welcome in the 19 staterooms. There is also a large indoor swimming pool within this 77,00 square metre (829,000 square feet) building.

This is not, generally, where the current Queen lives. Rather it is one of her many residences, and the administrative centre and headquarters for the monarch of the United Kingdom; Queen Elizabeth does business here. It is used to host state occasions, such as weddings and funerals, and has been used in this capacity since 1837. Construction began on Buckingham Palace in 1703.

The British Museum

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Do not attempt this in one day! A visit to The British Museum, the first (established 1753) and largest public museum of its kind in the world, is either a one-day, one-department plan or a week-long expedition. There are more than 13 million artefacts to see; overwhelming! The objects cover a period of two million years of human history, art and culture.

Located on Great Russell Street in the Bloomsbury district of London, the Greek Revival-style collection of buildings (a great deal of expansion as occurred since it opened) boasts an ornate facade of 44 Ionic columns. The structure houses 75,00 square metres (807, 000 square feet) of exhibit space in 94 galleries covering departments such as Egypt and Sudan, Greece and Rome, the Middle East, Britain and Europe, Asia, and Africa, Oceania and the Americas. There is also a vast library, donated by King George III, and a Prints and Drawings department.

Six million visitors attend The British Museum every year, viewing objects like the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon Marbles. The only better way to learn about humans and our world would be to live for thousands of years and visit every place on earth. While The British Museum contains this under one roof, the expanse leaves one gob-smacked. It is a must-see in London. Check out the museum’s litany of YouTube videos before you go. You’ll learn about how objects were used in their day, and be able to narrow down your visit to your favourite things.

Westminster Abbey

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The formal name for this living, working, royal church is the Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster. It has been, since 1066 when its first royal coronation was held, the location of crownings, weddings and funerals of the monarchy. Because Westminster Abbey is a functioning religious institution, it is necessary that you check when you are planning a visit to learn if any areas (or the entire abbey) might be closed from public visitation.

Designed in the Gothic style, Westminster Abbey boasts two towers that distinguish it among the London cityscape. It is more than a thousand years old, a spectacular historic church. It’s a popular attraction in London, accessed easily by two Underground stations, namely Westminster and St. James’s Park.

More than just a large old church, this is a venerable burying ground, with some of its 3,300 bodies interred under the floor of the building. Tribute tombstones and statuary are works of art in their own right. Some 17 kings and queens lie at rest here, together with writers, scientists, composers and actors like Sir Laurence Olivier. Other notable people interred here are: Charles Darwin (interesting that an evolutionist ended up in a church!); Isaac Newton; Stephen Hawking (a recent addition); Samuel Johnson and Geoffrey Chaucer; Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose “The Lark Ascending” is often played at funerals), and George Frideric Handel; and Mary, Queen of Scots. An utterly fascinating place to see in London.

Big Ben

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The famous clock, wrongly (curiously) called Big Ben, affixed to the Elizabeth Tower at Westminster Palace, next to the British Houses of Parliament is a major London icon. But Big Ben is actually a bell, one that strikes on the hours, not a clock. Big Ben lives behind the four clock faces on the Elizabeth Tower, and weighs in at 13,760 kg (13 tons).

The clock, 96 metres (just under 300 feet) above ground, can be seen from numerous locations in London. Its large (7 metres or 21 feet), prominent dial, lit up at night, has been watching over the city since May 31, 1859. In 2012, for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee the tower was renamed in her honour.

The clock, being a working mechanism, is occasionally shut down for maintenance and repairs. Even then, visitors are not able to go inside, behind the clock faces, to visit Big Ben the bell. But it’s a comforting sound, the great gong of Big Ben, heard all around the town; it has rung consistently though its years, even through disasters like The Blitz.

Trafalgar Square

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Trafalgar Square is better than an affordable thing to see and do in London, it’s free! This large, 110 metres by 110 metres (360 feet) public square opened for use in the mid-1800s, and is situated in the Westminster area of central London; it is served by the Charring Cross Underground station.

Named for Britain’s naval victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, October 1803 during the Napoleonic Wars, the square has two glorious fountains (lit at night), statues of resting lions, plus a column honouring Admiral Lord Nelson who was the commander when the battle was won.

These days, Trafalgar Square is a gathering and meeting place, a spot to relax and people-watch; often live concerts and artists displaying their works are on hand in the square. Fifteen million people stop by Trafalgar Square each year, many of those en route to other places of interest that border on the square, including the National Gallery art museum, and the bucolic St. Martins-in-the-Field church, better known as a classical music venue than a church.

Globe Theatre

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To rebuild or not to rebuild, that was the question. The answer? Get it done. Thanks largely to an initiative by American actor Sam Wanamaker, London again has a rendition of the Globe Theatre where in the 1500s William Shakespeare made a name for himself. The new version of the theatre, opened in 1997, stayed as true as possible to the original, but due to certain restrictions only has 1,400 seats (the original Globe had close to 3,000).

The original Globe Theatre as erected in 1599, near the Thames River, by its resident troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, within which Shakespeare was an actor; he evidently began writing plays along the way... The theatre company staged the works of Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe until the building was engulfed by fire in 1613. A new theatre was built soon thereafter, but closed at various times due to situations such a Puritan protest and disease.

The current theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe opened its first season with a production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, and continues to thrive. It should be clear, however, that no part of the original theater exists today. Visitors will enjoy world-class theatrical productions in a very similar setting to Elizabethan times.

The O2 Arena

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The O2 is a large entertainment district located in the southeast sector of London, known as the Greenwich Peninsula. It has for years been fun-central offering cinema, bowling and trampolines, bars and restaurants, shopping and all manner of leisure activities. It’s the go-to place for a good time in London.

In 2012, an enormous indoor arena, the O2 Arena, was added to the area, at the time to be a sports venue in th 2012 London Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Since the end of that sporting event, the venue has become host to major music concerts and high-end sports events. The O2 Arena seats 20,000 audience members.

This was the multi-purpose event location that was intended to be a musical residency for Michael Jackson, but he died a couple of weeks before his performance schedule was to start. It remains one of the top performance venues in the world. Visitors to London who wish to attend an event must plan in advance and get tickets or risk missing the show they plan to see. The venue posts all of its entertainment line-ups and dates on-line.

Royal Albert Hall

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Contrary to what the Beatles sing, the Royal Albert Hall is not filled with holes, just beautiful music. Guitarist Eric Clapton has played there so many times that he claims it feels like his personal sitting room; the acoustics are that good. The stately building is round, and the hall similarly curved, with a large domed roof. It seats 5,272 patrons and is situated in the London area of South Kensington.

Opened in 1871 by Queen Victoria and named in honour of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, who had died six years prior, the venue is constantly in use for a litany of entertainments and celebrations, even tennis! Albert Hall, as it is commonly referred, hosts concerts of many sorts from classical to jazz, rock to opera and ballet, as well as films. This glorious hall is also used for special events like speeches, tributes and graduation ceremonies.

A registered charity, Royal Albert Hall’s arguably most famous annual tradition is an eight-week summer concert series known as The Proms. It sells out well in advance, so if you are planning a summer visit to London, book your tickets as soon as possible. The venue stages almost 400 shows per annum; performances and dates are posted on its website along with ticket prices.

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