A week in London isn’t much time, so we mostly hit highlights. Even so we missed a lot of things you might think would be must sees: Buckingham Palace, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Parliament (although we did pass Big Ben), 10 Downing Street and many other places. That will leave plenty for our next trip but even with another week, London is so massive that we’d still be scratching the surface. Anyhow, here’s places we did see while in London, aside from theaters, roughly in this order.
St. Bartholomew the Great Church – This church goes back to the 12th century and still has an active congregation. The Priori Church on the main level shows the influence of the Norman architecture of the time. St. Bart was apparently martyred by the pagans for his proselytizing, reportedly flayed alive. In the back of the church you can see a remarkable gold statue of St. Bart holding his own skin, a fairly recent addition and on loan from the artist Damien Hirst. This less often seen church in entered through the Elizabethan Gate, which is one of the few Tudor houses still around.
St. Bartholomew’s Hospital – England’s oldest hospital it is still in use and not a tourist attraction at all. We didn’t go inside but our guide Helen asked us if it looked familiar. It did, sort of. Here they shot a scene from Sherlock where Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) jumped off the roof to what seems like certain death. Fans of the show left plenty of graffiti on the granite near the street.
British Museum – The United Kingdom’s human history museum, it makes the Smithsonian’s American History Museum look tiny. It is massive and we only had a chance to see parts of it. The Rosetta Stone is here but so much more, most of it pilfered by the Brits during their colonizing centuries earlier and never returned. We mostly hung around the most ancient parts of the museum, which included a lot of Egyptian mummies, and then we wandered into even more ancient areas like the Sumerian Dynasty. We are looking forward to a few more days to spend exploring it.
Piccadilly Circus – London’s Times Square hosts a hub on the London Underground and offers a variety of theaters and shopping nearby. No circus here, unless you mean what Brits call a circus, known in the states as a traffic circle or roundabout, and it’s a small one. If there is a center to London, it’s here although it’s actually in Westminster, not the official City of London.
Trafalgar Square – If Piccadilly Circus is the center of London, Trafalgar Square is its heart. It’s a large open plaza with a huge statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, who is celebrated for his massive victory at Trafalgar off Spain in the 19th century. The epic sea battle led by Admiral Nelson largely destroyed the Spanish Navy and kept Britain from the threat of invasion until Hitler’s time. You can feel Britain’s soul here and probably hear some first class buskers playing on the plaza steps too. We did.
Southwark Cathedral – It’s worth a walk across the Thames to see this cathedral although St. Paul’s gets more attention. Constructed started in 1106, it’s still an active church, although it is Anglican now. You will find a Shakespeare here, not William, but the grave of his brother Edward. William does warrant a reclining statue and a stained glass window. Restored in the 19th century it’s quite impressive to visit even with so much competition.
Thames River – The river stretches for hundreds of miles but in London it’s a tourist attraction in itself, with its constantly moving rush of tidal waters and many bridges that carry both autos and foot traffic across it. River cruises with or without expensive dining options are available and are constantly chugging up and down the river. Many prime attractions are right along its banks including the Tower of London, the Parliament and the Eye (London’s large Ferris wheel). We had many opportunities to cross it during the day and at night and it’s always breathtaking.
St. Martin’s in the Field – Silly me, I imagined this church somewhere in rural England, but it’s right next to Trafalgar Square. One of many very old churches it is still very active, liberal and caters to the poor. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, known for its exquisite classical music, is based here but mainly it’s a real church, just not terribly ornate. The Crypt in the basement is a good place to get hot, fresh and cheap food.
The Tower of London – Allot most of a day to see The Tower, which is in fact many towers and you can go through most of them. There are few places in London that are older than the Tower, or with a grislier history. You can see the exact spot where many of Henry VIII’s wives were beheaded, along with many other noblemen and women like Sir Thomas More. Outside the gates and near its underground you can see markers where lesser-known but still distinguished people met their grisly ends, often by drawing and quartering. If you don’t know what that is, trust me, you don’t want to know more; those were barbaric times. At least those in the Tower sometimes got reprieves and lived pretty well. There is more than death to sell the Tower. It’s primarily an armory and you can tour one building that attests to the how well it was defended. It also houses the crown jewels, and there are many to gawk at (and more at Windsor Castle, as we discovered). The Tower has never been captured. Primarily a pricey tourist attraction, today it’s well worth the entrance fee. After the first bombing of London, Hitler sent a surrender demand to the King. Replying for the King, the Queen Mum (Queen Mary) ordered Hitler to report to the Tower for punishment. The Tower has probably not seen its last prisoner.
Westminster Abbey – A totally awesome church that’s more cathedral than church where Britain’s monarchs are ordained and most of the country’s highest nobles are buried. Elizabeth I (Church of England) and her predecessor Queen Mary (Roman Catholic) have coffins side by side in a crypt that you can walk right next to. Around the corner is the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots that Elizabeth I had put to death. You can also find tombs of notables like Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Darwin. You can’t take pictures inside which is a shame because it is spectacular. The outside pictures don’t do it justice. This is a must see attraction. The center of the English spirit surely must reside inside. It’s a short walk to Big Ben, the Parliament and Downing Street.
Natural History Museum – Similar to the British Museum, this museum is massively huge and requires more than a day’s visit to do it justice. You’ll find it in South Kensington, which was close to our hotel so we saved it for our final day. Footsore from walking 8-10 miles a day, we made a half-day of it and saw maybe a quarter of it. The earthquake simulator was neat, as was the Dinosaur exhibit and the Darwin Museum. Admission is free and there are plentiful places to eat inside.