Tour London - Days 2 & 3
Start the day at the British Library ... a library you ask? Well, this is not your average library! This state of the art building houses 150 million works and grows by 3 million each year. More impressive is the dazzling collection of priceless books, manuscripts, letters and documents found in the special exhibition gallery. Of interest are two of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Beatles' manuscripts, a Gutenberg...read more
1 hide detailWords for the Worthy
In 1996, one of the world's great libraries began moving its collection of some 12 million books, manuscripts, and other items from the British Museum to its very own home in St. Pancras. In the new building, you get modernistic beauty rather than the fading glamour and the ghosts of Karl Marx, William Thackeray, and Virginia Woolf of the old library at the British Museum. You are also likely to get the book you want within an hour instead of 3 days. Academics, students, writers, and bookworms from all over the world come here. On a recent visit, we sat next to a student researching the history of pubs.
The bright, roomy interior is far more inviting than the rather dull red-brick exterior suggests. The most spectacular room is the Humanities Reading Room, constructed on three levels with daylight filtered through the ceiling.
The fascinating collection includes such items of historic and literary interest as two of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta (1215), a Gutenberg Bible, Nelson's last letter to Lady Hamilton, and the journals of Captain Cook. Almost every major author -- Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Keats, and hundreds of others -- is represented in the section devoted to English literature. Beneath Roubiliac's 1758 statue of Shakespeare stands a case of documents relating to the Bard, including a mortgage bearing his signature and a copy of the First Folio of 1623. There's also an unrivaled collection of stamps and stamp-related items.
Using headphones set around the room, you can hear thrilling audio snippets such as James Joyce reading a passage from Finnegan's Wake. Particularly intriguing is an exhibition called "Turning the Pages," where you can, for example, electronically read a complete Leonardo da Vinci notebook by putting your hands on a special computer screen that flips from one page to another. There is a copy of The Canterbury Tales from 1410, and even manuscripts from Beowulf (ca. 1000). In the Historical Documents section are letters by everybody from Henry VIII to Napoleon, from Elizabeth I to Churchill. In the music displays, you can seek out original sheet music by Beethoven, Handel, Stravinsky, and Lennon and McCartney. An entire day spent here will only scratch the surface.
Though self-guided admission to the library is free, walking tours library cost £8 ($16) for adults and £6.50 ($13) for seniors, students, and children. They are conducted Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 3pm, and Saturday at 10:30am and 3pm. Library tours that include a visit to one of the reading rooms take place on Sundays and bank holidays at 11:30am and 3pm; £8 ($16) adults, £6.50 ($13) for seniors and students. Reservations can be made up to 2 weeks in advance.
2 hide detailBritain's National Shrine
With its identical square towers and superb archways, this early-English Gothic abbey is one of the greatest examples of ecclesiastical architecture on earth. But it's far more than that: It's the shrine of a nation, the symbol of everything Britain has stood for and stands for, and the place in which most of its rulers were crowned and where many lie buried.
Nearly every figure in English history has left his or her mark on Westminster Abbey. Edward the Confessor founded the Benedictine abbey in 1065 on this spot overlooking Parliament Square. The first English king crowned in the Abbey may have been Harold, in January 1066. The man who defeated him at the Battle of Hastings later that year, William the Conqueror, had the first recorded coronation in the Abbey on Christmas Day that same year. The coronation tradition has continued to the present day. The essentially early-English Gothic structure existing today owes more to Henry III's plans than to those of any other sovereign, although many architects, including Wren, have contributed to the Abbey.
Built on the site of the ancient Lady Chapel in the early 16th century, the Henry VII Chapel is one of the loveliest in Europe, with its fan vaulting, Knights of Bath banners, and Torrigiani-designed tomb for the king himself, near which hangs a 15th-century Vivarini painting, Madonna and Child. Also here, ironically buried in the same tomb, are Catholic Mary I and Protestant Elizabeth I (whose archrival, Mary Queen of Scots, is entombed on the other side of the Henry VII Chapel). In one end of the chapel, you can stand on Cromwell's memorial stone and view the Royal Air Force Chapel and its Battle of Britain memorial window, unveiled in 1947 to honor the Royal Air Force.
You can also visit the most hallowed spot in the abbey, the shrine of Edward the Confessor (canonized in the 12th c.). Near the tomb of Henry V is the Coronation Chair, made at the command of Edward I in 1300 to display the mystical Stone of Scone (which some think is the sacred stone mentioned in Genesis and known as Jacob's Pillar). Scottish kings were once crowned on the stone. (It has since been returned to Scotland.)
When you see a statue of the Bard, with one arm resting on a stack of books, you've arrived at Poets' Corner. Shakespeare himself is buried at Stratford-upon-Avon, but resting here are Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Tennyson, Browning, and Dickens. There's even an American, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as monuments to just about everybody: Milton, Keats, Shelley, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, George Eliot, and others. The most stylized monument is Sir Jacob Epstein's sculptured bust of William Blake. More-recent tablets commemorate poet Dylan Thomas and Sir Laurence Olivier.
Statesmen and men of science -- Disraeli, Newton, Charles Darwin -- are also interred in the abbey or honored by monuments. Near the west door is the 1965 memorial to Sir Winston Churchill. In the vicinity of this memorial is the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, commemorating the British dead of World War I.
Although most of the Abbey's statuary commemorates notable figures of the past, 10 new statues were unveiled in July 1998. Placed in the Gothic niches above the West Front door, these statues honor 10 modern-day martyrs drawn from every continent and religious denomination. The sculptures include Elizabeth of Russia, Janani Luwum, and Martin Luther King, Jr., representatives of those who have sacrificed their lives for their beliefs.
Off the Cloisters, the College Garden is the oldest garden in England, under cultivation for more than 900 years. Established in the 11th century as the abbey's first infirmary garden, this was once a magnificent source of fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs. Five of the trees in the garden were planted in 1850 and they continue to thrive today. Surrounded by high walls, flowering trees dot the lawns, and park benches provide comfort where you can hardly hear the roar of passing traffic. The garden is open only Tuesday through Thursday April through September from 10am to 6pm, and October through March from 10am to 4pm.
Insider's Tip: Far removed from the pomp and glory is the Abbey Treasure Museum, which displays a real bag of oddities in the undercroft -- or crypt -- part of the monastic buildings erected between 1066 and 1100. You'll find royal effigies that were used instead of the real corpses for lying-in-state ceremonies because they smelled better. You'll see the almost life-like effigy of Admiral Nelson (his mistress arranged his hair) and even that of Edward III, his lip warped by the cerebral hemorrhage that felled him. Other oddities include Henry V's funeral armor, a unique corset from Elizabeth I's effigy, and the Essex Ring that Elizabeth I gave to her favorite (Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex) when she was feeling good about him.
On Sundays, the Abbey is not open to visitors; the rest of the church is open unless a service is being conducted. For times of services, phone the Chapter Office (tel. 020/7222-5152).
3 hide detailCovered Victorian marketplace and buzzing piazza
Our Local Expert Says:
When you tire of the crowds in the central area, explore the interesting and bohemian little streets and alleyways leading off Covent Garden, particularly those around Neal's Yard and Monmouth Street
Sheltered beneath a beautiful Victorian iron-and-glass arcade that once held England's largest fruit and vegetable market are the shops and restaurants that make up the heart of Covent Garden. Its famous piazza is the only area of London licensed for street entertainment and all performers are required to audition before they are allowed to perform. Buskers such as magicians, statues, opera singers, musicians, and jugglers perform for your enjoyment and in return you give them a bit of money. There's a nice buzz to the piazza and surroundings. It is always a child favorite even if it is quite touristy. Sample a freshly baked treat from Ben's Cookies or a Cornish pasty while people watching the entertainers. The market is perfect for souvenir shopping but be warned, at peak times it gets uncomfortably busy.
Dedicated to Her Majesty's Household Division which protects the Sovereign and Royal Palaces... in other words, dedicated to those who wear the red tunic and bearskin hat! Small and quiet, it is a perfect place to learn more about the guards and even have your photo taken in that famous regimental tunic and hat. On display are uniforms, helmets, instruments, medals, a tent from the Crimean War and more. There's a little shop next door and you might even catch...read more
4 hide detailHer Majesty's Residence
This massive, graceful building is the official residence of the Queen. The red-brick palace was built as a country house for the notoriously rakish Duke of Buckingham. In 1762, King George III, who needed room for his 15 children, bought it. It didn't become the official royal residence, though, until Queen Victoria took the throne; she preferred it to St. James's Palace. From George III's time, the building was continuously expanded and remodeled, faced with Portland stone, and twice bombed (during the Blitz). Located in a 16-hectare (40-acre) garden, it's 108m (354 ft.) long and contains 600 rooms. You can tell whether the Queen is at home by checking to see if the Royal Standard is flying from the mast outside. For most of the year, you can't visit the palace without an official invitation. Since 1993, though, much of it has been open for tours during an 8-week period in August and September, when the royal family is usually vacationing outside London. Elizabeth II agreed to allow visitors to tour the State Room, the Grand Staircase, the Throne Room, and other areas designed by John Nash for George IV, as well as the Picture Gallery, which displays masterpieces by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Rubens, and others. You have to buy a timed-entrance ticket the same day you plan to tour the palace. Tickets go on sale at 9am, but rather than lining up at sunrise with all the other tourists -- this is one of London's most popular attractions -- book by phone with a credit card and give yourself a few more hours of sleep.
During the 8 weeks of summer, visitors are also allowed to stroll through the royal family's garden, along a 4.5km (2.75-mile) walk on the south side of the grounds, with views of a lake and the usually off-limits west side of the palace. The garden is home to 30 types of birds, plus 350 varieties of wildflowers.
Buckingham Palace's most famous spectacle is the vastly overrated Changing of the Guard (daily Apr-July and on alternating days for the rest of the year). The new guard, marching behind a band, comes from either the Wellington or Chelsea barracks and takes over from the old guard in the forecourt of the palace. The ceremony begins at 11:30am, although it's frequently canceled because of bad weather, state events, and other, harder-to-fathom reasons. We like the changing of the guard at Horse Guards better because you can actually see the men marching and you don't have to battle such tourist hordes. However, few first-time visitors will resist the lure of the Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guard. If that includes you, arrive as early as 10:30am and claim territorial rights to a space in front of the palace. If you're not firmly anchored here, you'll miss much of the ceremony.
Timesaver -- With 4km (2 1/2 miles) of galleries, the British Museum is overwhelming. To get a handle on it, we recommend taking a 1 1/2-hour overview tour for £8 ($16), £5 ($10) for students and children under 11. Daily at 10:30am, 1pm, or 3pm. Afterward, you can return to the galleries that most interest you. If you have limited time to spend on the museum, concentrate on the Greek and Roman rooms (nos. 11-23, 69-73, and 77-85), which hold the golden hoard of booty both bought and stolen from the Empire's once far-flung colonies.
The Guard Doesn't Change Every Day -- The schedule for the Changing of the Guard ceremony is variable, at best. In theory, at least, the guard is changed daily from May to mid-July, at which time it goes on its "winter" schedule -- that is, alternating days. Always check locally with the tourist office to see if it's likely to be staged at the time of your visit. The ceremony has sometimes been cut at the last minute, leaving thousands of visitors feeling they have missed out on a London must-see (though we say it's overrated anyway).
5 hide detailRoyal ritual at Buckingham Palace
Our Local Expert Says:
If the crowds are too much, try catching the guards before the parade at Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk
The Queen's Guard is made up of five regiments: Coldstream, Grendadier, Welsh, Irish, and Scots who protect Her Majesty when she is in residence at Buckingham Palace. When these guards require a rest, a ceremony known as the Changing of the Guard takes place, drawing thousands of spectators. Famed for the bearskin hats and smart red coats, the Guard's spectacle of pomp and circumstance is part of the reason people flock to London.
The new guard leaves Wellington Barracks a few minutes before the change and marches down Birdcage Walk to Buckingham Palace. The 40 minute ceremony takes place within the gates of the palace, so get there early to secure a good vantage spot along the palace gates. In addition, the St. James's Palace detachment of the Queen's guard marches to Buckingham Palace at 11:15am and back to St. James's at 12:10p.
For another, less crowded Changing of the Guard ceremony visit the Horse Guards around 11am where soldiers on horseback make the swap.
6 hide detailHistory of the Royal Guards
Our Local Expert Says:
Ask at the desk to try on a true Royal Guard bearskin hat and scarlet tunic for a fun photo op.
Dedicated to Her Majesty's Household Division which protects the Sovereign and Royal Palaces... in other words, dedicated to those who wear the red tunic and bearskin hat! Small and quiet, The Guards Museum is a perfect place to learn more about the royal guards and even have your photo taken in that famous regimental tunic and hat. On display are uniforms, helmets, instruments, medals, a tent from the Crimean War and more. There's a little shop next door to the Guards Museum and you might even catch the new guards forming at nearby Wellington Barracks before the Changing of the Guard ceremony at London's Buckingham Palace.
7 hide detailLas Vegas lights in London
For many years, Piccadilly Circus - at the junction of five busy streets - has been a major London landmark, seen by many as the capital's centre. In the daytime it's a bustling area filled with shoppers, business people and tourists. But visit in the evening to see the area really come alive, with its sparkling illuminated signs and heady mix of clubbers and couples ready for a big evening out. At the heart of Piccadilly is a fountain topped with the aluminium statue of an archer. Although affectionately known as Eros by Londoners, it's actually the Angel of Christian Charity by Sir Alfred Gilbert, and it was so unpopular when first unveiled that he opted for self-imposed exile. Today the statue is one of London's most famous sites and a haven for tourists and romantic couples alike. This is truly the gateway to the West End.
8 hide detailHigh flying
- +44 20 7234 5800(Tourist Information)
- Oxford Circus
- Regent and Oxford Street
Our Local Expert Says:
Browse through iconic London department store Liberty within the gorgeous timber framed Tudor building. For funkier shops & food try the pedestrianized area of Carnaby Street.
At the bustling intersection of Regent and Oxford Streets rests Oxford Circus. The square is the ideal place for people watching because the steady stream of pedestrians persists throughout the night. Several cafes and shops line the square.
9 hide detailExplore Cultures
The Victoria and Albert is the greatest decorative-arts museum in the world. It's also one of the liveliest and most imaginative museums in London.
The medieval holdings include such treasures as the early-English Gloucester Candlestick; the Byzantine Veroli Casket, with its ivory panels based on Greek plays; and the Syon Cope, a unique embroidery made in England in the early 14th century. An area devoted to Islamic art houses the Ardabil Carpet from 16th-century Persia.
The V&A boasts the largest collection of Renaissance sculpture outside Italy. A highlight of the 16th-century collection is the marble group Neptune with Triton, by Bernini. The cartoons by Raphael, which were conceived as designs for tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, are owned by the Queen and are on display here. A most unusual, huge, and impressive exhibit is the Cast Courts, life-size plaster models of ancient and medieval statuary and architecture.
The museum has the greatest collection of Indian art outside India, plus Chinese and Japanese galleries. In complete contrast are suites of English furniture, metalwork, and ceramics, and a superb collection of portrait miniatures, including the one Hans Holbein the Younger made of Anne of Cleves for the benefit of Henry VIII, who was again casting around for a suitable wife. The Dress Collection includes corsets that are sure to make you wince. There's also a remarkable collection of musical instruments.
The V&A has opened 15 modern galleries -- the British Galleries -- telling the story of British design from 1500 to 1900. No other museum in the world houses such a diverse collection of British design and decorative art. From Chippendale to Morris, all of the top British designers are featured in some 3,000 items, ranging from the 5m-high (16-ft.) Melville Bed (1697) with its luxurious wild-silk damask and red-velvet hangings, to 19th-century classics such as furniture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. One of the most prized possessions is the "Great Bed of Ware," mentioned in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Also on exhibit is the wedding suite of James II. The interactive displays hold special interest. Learning about heraldry is far more interesting when you're designing your own coat of arms. And don't miss the V&A's most bizarre gallery, Fakes and Forgeries. The impostors here are amazingly authentic -- in fact, we'd judge some of them as better than the old masters themselves.
Don't miss the suite of five renovated painting galleries that were originally built in 1850. A trio of these galleries focuses on British landscapes as seen through the eyes of Turner, Constable, and others. Constable's oil sketches were donated by his daughter, Isabel, in 1888. Another gallery showcases the bequest of Constantine Ionides, a Victorian collector, with masters such as Botticelli, Delacroix, Degas, Tintoretto, and Ingres. There's even a piano here designed by the famous Edward Burne-Jones, which once belonged to Ionides's brother.
10 hide detailTraditional British
The St James's Restaurant and Lounge are situated on the fourth floor. Serving traditional British foods using the very best of seasonal British ingredients. Formal afternoon Tea is served every day in the Lounge and restaurant.