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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The Tate Modern is one of London's best and most-loved art galleries. Located in an old power station on the south bank of the Thames, the huge turbine hall makes an imposing entrance and wonderful art space for innovative and playful artworks - kids especially love it. The other gallery spaces show a range of the world's most significant modern art in changing exhibitions around various themes.
Tate Modern has an excellent shop and its cafe, overlooking the Thames River and St Paul's Cathedral, is a great place to rest your feet and mind with one of the best views in London. The Tate Modern is one of four museums: Tate Britain (just down the river), Tate St Ives (Cornwall) and Tate Liverpool. Tate Modern and Tate Britain are connected by riverboat so it's easy to move from the modern art at the Tate Modern to the British art of the Tate Britain.
Greenwich is a quaint village area of London just downriver from central London. It is most famous for its maritime history and as home to the Royal Observatory. Located at zero degrees of longitude, all the world's time zones begin here with Greenwich Mean Time. Greenwich was also once a fashionable 17th century retreat from London and there is much grand architecture to be seen including the magnificent Observatory, the Queen's House and the National Maritime Museum.
A 15th-century royal palace, at one time home to Henry VIII and birthplace of Elizabeth I, it was rebuilt in the 18th century and is now the Old Royal Naval College. Don't miss the Painted Hall which took 19 years to complete.
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.
London is full of dark, terrifying history. At the London Dungeon you can experience the terror of fleeing the Great Fire of London, of being sentenced and sent to Traitor's Gate, or - worst of all - be beheaded or burned at the stake!
Walk in the footsteps of serial killer Jack the Ripper, or sit in the barber seat of notorious murderer Sweeney Todd. Whichever way you like to be terrified, the London Dungeon will send shivers down your spine.
The 330-meter-long steel Millennium Bridge stands over the River Thames, connecting the St. Paul’s Cathedral to the north with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern at the southern end of the structure.
Due to a noticeable swaying motion, which had some people clinging to the rails feeling seasick and others enjoying the exhilarating ride, the structure had to be closed down only two days after opening in June, 2000. Although it took almost another two years to complete the necessary repairs, install dampeners and make the bridge more stable, it had already become widely famous in the two days it was accessible and earned itself the nickname “Wobbly Bridge.” The suspension bridge is no longer wobbly, but it is still an interesting way to cross the Thames. And due to its low-hanging support beams and rods, the bridge offers nice views of both the City of London and the South Bank.
Covent Garden is an area of London centered on a popular covered market in the heart of London. Once a monks' convent garden in the 13th century, it quickly developed into a fruit and vegetable market for the city, was redeveloped in 1630 by the Earl of Bedford to be ringed by fashionable residences modeled on Italian piazzas, then became a center for theater and opera. Today the covered market building is a home to shops selling gourmet and specialist foods and souvenirs. The Royal Opera House remains located in Covent Garden, and the piazza area is long famous for its street performers.
Within the wider area known as Covent Garden are many more theaters and a wonderful tangle of narrow streets full of some of London's best shops. Floral Street, Long Acre, Shorts Gardens, Neal Street and Mercer Street have some of London's best and most diverse shopping, leading towards the area Seven Dials, where seven streets converge.
The grand focal point of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage site, the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) is an impressive architectural feat, stretching along the banks of the River Thames. Originally designed as a Royal Naval Hospital, the ORNC was the work of legendary architect Sir Christopher Wren (whose other masterpieces include St Paul’s Cathedral) and was built on the site of the Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of Henry VIII.
The magnificent classical buildings, with their twin domes, striking colonnaded façade and vast lawns now serve as the dramatic centerpiece of Greenwich and offer a fascinating introduction to the neighborhood for visitors. Highlights of a visit include the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, where exhibitions are devoted to the ORNC and Greenwich’s maritime heritage; Sir James Thornhill’s spectacular Painted Hall; and the neo-classical style Chapel of St Peter and St Paul.
Soho is one of London's most famous areas. Bounded by Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, it's a close-knit tangle of busy streets with some of London's best cafes (Bar Italia), music venues (Ronnie Scott's), pubs (the French House), shops, nightclubs and history. Once famed as a seedy red-light area, now it's a cultural hub, full of actors, artists, musicians, and the center of London's gay scene.
In summer, people flock to lovely Soho Square to loll on the lawn. In winter, stroll Carnaby Street and famous Liberty department store for fashion, or eat decadent cakes at Princi in Wardour Street. Sit outside Bar Italia and celebrity spot, especially before and after theater shows on the nearby Shaftesbury Avenue.
Immortalized on-screen in the eponymous 1999 romantic comedy film, Notting Hill is much more than just a backdrop for the famous Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts’ love affair. The west London district, stretching over Ladbroke Grove, Portobello Road and parts of North Kensington is one of the city’s hippest destinations, lined with vintage boutiques, bijou cafés and indie music venues. Located between the upmarket neighborhoods of Knightsbridge and Kensington, Notting Hill brings a dash of bohemian cool to the stately Victorian townhouses and cobbled side streets, making it the perfect location for the annual Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest and most flamboyant street festival.
Notting Hill is also home to the world famous Portobello market, where one of the largest antique markets in the world is held alongside stalls selling everything from vintage and alternative clothing to handmade crafts and jewelry.
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