Visiting London, UK
London is officially the most visited city in the world, has the worlds largest airport system, and is the world's leading financial center, next to New York. England's capitol for nearly 1,000 years and the United Kingdom's capitol for three hundred, London has truly stood the test of time, giving us a beautifully rich city which has evolved through the ages.
London began its existence as a Roman settlement in 43 A.D., originally named Londinium from its Latin roots. The outpost lasted just seventeen years until Queen Boudica burned it to the ground. The reconstruction of the city by the Romans afterward made it into a lush and prosperous city, becoming the official center of Roman Britannia in 100 A.D. and reaching a population over 60,000. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, Londinium was mostly abandoned, until the 7th century began to see a prosperous settlement by the Anglo-Saxons. By the 10th century London had become England's largest city and most important trading center, and has begun to rival Winchester (the original capitol of Wessex and England) in political influence. William the Conqueror made huge contributions to the cityscape in the 11th century, such as the Tower of London, and the city continuously grew in influence and power. London had been at the center of the English, then British, empire throughout the middle ages, and through the Renaissance. The city experienced waves of cultural enlightenments and architectural explosions (especially after the Great Fire of 1666). After the Great Fire London transformed from a mostly timber city to a gleaming one made from stone and marble. It was from this point that London began to take on the shape it currently has. London is a beautiful city filled with history, culture, beauty, fun, and an endless list of things to do.
What I love most about London is that it doesn't feel like other major cities do. When I visit cities like New York, Paris, Berlin, LA, Sydney etc, I usually get the big city vibe straight away. But, for a myriad of reasons London has an all together different character and makeup, giving a more big town feel than a major city. You won't find many skyscrapers in London, which combined with the city's unique white stone buildings and countless squares and circus's produce a much more intimate urban setting than your average major city. Venturing through some of London's many boroughs you often forget that you're in a major city of over 8 million people.
Getting around London is a breeze. Between the tube, the bus, biking, and walking there aren't many places in London you can't reach quickly and easily (at least when considering it's a city of over 8 million people).
The Tube - Marked by the -Underground- sign, the tube (or London Underground) is by far the fastest and easiest way to get around London, although you miss a bit of the city as it's mostly underground, and it can be a bit expensive. Tube lines stretch throughout the entire city and can transport you from one place to the other in no time. There is nearly a tube stop on every major corner in central London. The sheer number of tube lines, stops, and winding underground tunnels can be overwhelming, but once you study a tube map for a few minutes you'll find it's actually quite easy to navigate. Basically every line is color coordinated with a specific tube line and name, each going two ways, that travel throughout different parts of the city. The northern line travels north the south. The center line runs east to west, and so on. The best way to find out how to get to a particular tube stop is to begin looking at the station you want to go on the map, and follow it backwards to the line (or lines) with the quickest and least amount of stops. Like I said it takes a little practice, but it's easy enough to figure out if you just pick up one of the small mini tube maps they give out for free at every station. Beware as the tube is not open 24 hours, lines usually open at 6am and close at 12 or 1am.
Buses - Buses run all over the city day and night, and are a slow but cheaper alternative to the tube. The upside to riding the buses during the day is you're able to see more of the city while traveling, and many of the buses are double-decker which if it's your first time to Britain you're going to want to ride one for sure. Another great thing about the London bus is they have lines running 24 hours a day, so if you're out partying late and the tube is closed you can just hop on a bus. However, the biggest downside to buses in my opinion is the time (as it can take a very long time to get across the city sometimes) and the complexity of routes. London is a complex web of winding streets, intersecting neighborhoods, one way streets, and to make matters worse often streets last only 20 feet before they change, making attempting to find a route that goes past your street often agitating.
Cabbies - Obviously a major city will have taxi's on call 24 hours a day. My advice, find alternative means of travel. EXPENSIVE!! But, the cool part is being able to ride in the iconic black London cabbie.
Driving - Driving in London is not recommended. Huge congestion, lack of parking, insane network of roads, and about a million one way lanes make navigating downtown London a major headache. Best just to park your car and enjoy the city's great mass transit!
Hotels - Being a major a city, London has endless options for hotels, ranging from the cheap to the obscene. The farther in advance you book the cheaper and easier you will find rooms for your specified dates as the city sees millions of travelers every year, and hotels can fill up quickly.
Hostels - As a major financial, political, and touristic city London is one of the best cities in the world for hostels. Where most of the European backpackers rest their heads, London's hostels are a great place to meet travelers from all over the world to share in some adventures. Unless you're with a significant other I would highly recommend staying in one of London's many fine hostels; for the most completely clean, cheap, and safe.
A list of all the great sights in London would cover far more than you are willing to read, and more than I am willing to type. It is truly a city extremely rich in history, culture, and fun things to do. I've been to London several times now and each time I discover something new I hadn't even heard of, that upon discovery seems strange as it's so well known. There are just that many special places in London. When people think of London they often think of Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the London Eye, and Big Bend, etc, but the city offers a great deal more than just international icons, although those are neat too. Come read about the places I found to be London's most iconic, most interesting, and most beautiful sights in the city.
Tower Bridge - Stretching across the River Thames near the Tower of London, from which it received its name, Tower Bridge was built between 1886-1894 and is the world's first combination bascule and suspension bridge. As one of London's most iconic sights, the bridge also serves as a vital crossing of the river Thames. Early in the bridge's history the open-air walkways between the towers received a bad reputation for thieves, and was closed in 1910. However, the walkways were reopened in 1982 as part of Tower Bridge exhibition. The best places to take a picture of the bridge are next to the Tower of London, and across the river in the small fair grounds area.
Tower of London - Synonymous with London, the Tower of London has been a center piece of the city since the building's creation by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Full of exhibitions, a museum filled with amazing historical facts, and housing the Crown Jewels, the Tower of London should be at the top of your to London to see list.
Westminster Abbey - Officially the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster abbey has been at the center of London's religious scene for hundreds of years. This abbey is traditionally the coronation and burial places of English monarchs, and houses the single most monarchical tombs in the country. Westminster Abbey is a beautiful 13th Gothic Royal Peculiar Church, or, and should apart of any visit to London. According to legend the site was originally founded by Mellitus the Bishop of London in the 7th century, then was reconstructed by Edward the Confessor in the mid-11th century, before finally retaining its present form under Henry III in the 13th century.
Buckingham Palace - This beautiful palace has served as the official London residence of Britain's sovereigns since 1837, drawing millions of visitors every year. Located at the end of the the Mall, just south of Green park and west of Westminster, you will undoubtedly see the palace while cruising around London, but to get inside you must take a paid tour. The tour isn't really that great as you don't see a great deal, but it's always neat to say you've been inside. I prefer to just get great photos of the outside, as that's where the real beauty is. This is also the place where the famous Queen's Guards stand fast free from any expression or distraction.
St. Paul's Cathedral - As a Church of England Cathedral, St. Paul's serves as the mother church for the Diocese of London. The dedication of St. Peter comes from the original church on the site, which dates back to the early 7th century. St. Paul's present form dates to the late 17th century, as just another one of Christopher Wren's brilliant designs; an absolute must see on any visit to London. Wander around the beautiful church nave, look up and marvel at one of the largest domes in the world, climb down into an underground crypt, check out one of three galleries inside the cathedral dome, or test your nerves by climbing up the 365 ft to reach the top of the dome. The amazing panoramic views of London are absolutely worth the effort hauling your butt up there! Tickets into the cathedral are $15 for adults, which may seem a bit steep, but it really is worth the money.
Big Ben - The nickname Big Ben is actually not the clock and tower so iconic in London landscapes, but rather just the bell in the tower. The official name of the tower is Victoria Tower, and is apart of Westminster Palace. However, the name has long been extended to the entire clock and tower, which was completed in 1858.
Houses of Parliament -The Palace of Westminster was the primary living place of English monarchs from the 11th-15th century, and has been the official meeting place of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, which forms British Parliament and where the building receives its common name, since the early 16th century. After a great fire destroyed much of the palace in the 16th century the palace became the official meeting place of Parliament, which had already been meeting here since the 13 century. The 13th century great hall and beautifully decorated rooms are an amazing sight. Unfortunately, oversees visitors are not permitted to see very much of the palace and Houses of Parliament. A link below will outline what available activities and tours there are for oversees visitors. However, if you are a current resident of the United Kingdom (and that means students, as that is how I was able to see it) and you are reading this then you are allowed full access to the palace and Houses of Parliament, whom you can even schedule to watch debate.
The London Eye - The largest Ferris wheel in Europe sits on the north bank of the River Thames, and stands at 443 (135m) tall. Officially the UK's most popular paid tourist attraction, it seems millions of oversees visitors every year. The Eye is open daily 10am-8:00pm and runs 20 pounds ($35 USD) per adult. Placed in a little capsule, you can get great vies of the city from the top of the wheel.
British Museum - Open to the public in 1759, the British museum is now one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of antiquities in the world, boasting over 8 million artifacts. The building itself is a marvel, which has expanded over the centuries after colonization to now encompass a National Library, the only building to do so. Definitely worth a visit if you enjoy history at all, and even if you don't as it's that freaking awesome. Free admission; Open daily 10-5:30pm.
National Gallery - Founded in 1824, London's National Gallery houses over 2,500 pieces of art from the medieval to Renaissance periods, making it the fourth most visited art museum in the world.
Shakespeare's Globe Theater - Although this reconstruction is not actually the one in which Shakespeare performed his historic plays, it is a close likeness and very near the area of the original site. The theater is open for touring every work day, and hosts a number of Shakespearean plays throughout the year. If you're able I highly would recommend seeing one of these plays as it is very unique, but if not I would still wander through the theater as you get a sense of the scene Shakespeare saw 400 years ago.
Trafalgar Square - A beautiful public space, with the iconic Lord Nelsens column in the center, has been publicly loved and used from its creation in the 1820s. As one of London's most demonstrated in square's, there is often a chance for some lively action. On one of my visits to London I ran into the London Occupy movements, who were trying to break through the barrier the police had put up around Parliament and Downing St. I attached a video of the incident, which for a minute was getting a bit hairy!
Piccadilly Circus - This junction, from the latin literally meaning circle, has been a vibrant scene of city life in London since its creation in 1819. The junction was originally created to connect the popular shopping street of Piccadilly with the well traveled Regent St. Picaddily circus serves as the center of a wide array of cultural connections, such as Shaftesbury Avenue and the West End, and as such has become so popular it has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Best known for it's iconic fountain, of the Greek god Anteros, and its neon signs, the circus is a fun place to visit, especially for your first time to London.
Southwark Cathedral - Possibly a site of worship siince the 9th century A.D., this beautiful 12th century building now presides as a cathedral over an area from the Thames to Gatwick Airport. A beautiful building, especially at night, and well worth a visit if you are in the area (Just south of the Thames Tube stop London Bridge). They often have choirs here as well, which combined with the old Gothic look, is a very neat experience.
Monument to the Great Fire of London - Standing at 202 ft (62m) this great stone Roman Doric stands at the very spot where the great fire of 1666 began. The fire nearly engulfed the entire city, leveling nearly a third of it. It's a powerful reminder of the transformation of London, as the monument marked a new era in London city building. No more timber buildings, but solid stone structures that the world could marvel at! Into this world came some of history's greatest architects, such as Christopher Wren who designed a large portion of London's churches. Visitors can pay to climb to the top and catch a great view of the city.
Tate Modern - London's most visited ultra modern museum located on the banks of the Thames, reached by Blackfriars tube stop, millions of annual visitors revel at the unique artistic creations while admiring the contrast of St. Paul's historic cathedral just across the river.
Greenwich - Originally a separate town located south east of central London, this Royal Borough of London has a deep connection to English history, and the wider world as well. Greenwich was the site of a 15th century palace which saw the birth of many of English monarchs, including Henry VII. Also, Greenwich is the site where the world's first prime meridian was created, giving us Greenwich mean time and the Greenwich Meridian; which begins all lines of latitude and longitude in the world. So, in short, Greenwich is sitting at 0 latitude and 0 longitude. The area is also famous for its maritime history, which the great National Maritime Museum will show you. Sites of interest are the Maritime Museum, The Royal Observatory (the official starting point of each new day), the Old Royal Naval College, Cutty Sark (old warship and the last 'tea clipper' in the world), and Greenwich town center. Spending a day here is easy work so if you plan on venturing this far down the Thames make sure you give yourself enough time.
Hyde Park - Once a royal hunting ground for Henry VII, the area that now comprises Hyde Park now sees over 7 million visitors every year engaging in all types of activities ranging from boating in the Serpentine lake or attending one of the many concerts and exhibitions in the park. Hyde Park is a great visit, and even if you don;t feel up to boating or rocking out to a concert, it's still enjoyable to walk through the park on a nice day. Best tube stops for the park are Marble Arch or Hyde Park corner.
Shaftesbury Avenue - London equivalent of Broadway headlining the biggest plays in the country. Worth a wander around as it's a neat cultural spot in London.
HMS Belfast - And one cannot forget the loveable, albeit lazy these days, the glorious HMS Belfast. Once a mighty ship of her Majesty's Navy, she now humbly rests on the Thames watching over London.
Best Boroughs of London
Greater London has 32 distinctly diverse boroughs, which are largely autonomous authorities, giving great character and variety to U.K.'s capital city. The city of London is administered by its own body, the City of London Cooperation, which predates the boroughs. All these diverse areas of London often give the visitor a feel of being in just a small town rather than a major city. I have made a list of what I think are the most interesting boroughs to see while visiting London.
Camden - This historic borough, commonly just called "Camden Town" is one the most interesting in London, and one of my personal favorite areas. Camden Town was once a separate town, owing its name to the 1st Earl of Camden in the 18th century. Camden is a very diverse area of London, playing host to a wide ethnic makeup. Just a walk through Camden Town is worth the effort as you'll encounter so many bizarre things. Famous sites in Camden include its underground "Horse Market", Electro store/sex shop 'Cyberdog', large nightclubs like Proud, and a wide array of street stands selling an endless variety of goods. Camden is well worth a visit.
Covet Garden - Although not technically a borough since the creation of Greater London in 1965, this historic area of London lies on the eastern fringes of the West End, between St. Martin's and Drury Lane. This area was formerly known for its vegetable markets in its central square, but is now a popular shopping area, seeing millions of visitors every year. I really enjoy walking through the area around the square, peaking into all the different shops surrounding it.
Soho - Soho lies within the West End of London, just north of Piccadilly Circus, and lies within the borough of Westminster, being incorporated in the 60's like Covent Garden. Soho was long established as an entertainment district, and the area became infamous during the 20th century for its abundant sex shops. The area has undergone a large transformation in recent history, with only a few adult entertainment venues left. There are a lot of great clubs and bars in this area, which is a must see if around the Piccadilly/Westminster area.
Kinsington and Chelsea -This Royal borough is one of the wealthiest in England, comprising London's most exclusive residential neighborhoods, some of the most expensive in the world, and many of the city's central facilities; such as museums and universities. This area is neat to walk through for its elegance and architectural beauty, and worth a visit if you want to see how London's elite lives.
Best Pubs of London
London has pubs on nearly every corner it seems, so there is no shortage of options if a pub is what you seeks. Every pub takes on its own character and history, many of which date back hundreds of years. Many pubs serve as local watering holes for the surrounding district, which often prove to have the most character, over more commercialized pubs in the city. I hate to even make a list of the London pubs as there are too many good ones to chose from, but below is a a link to a list of great pubs, all of which are worth a visit if ever seeking out a great pub in London.
Nights out in London
Nights out in London can be a ton of fun. Whether you're looking for a major club, an indie rock joint, a gay bar, or just a nice pub to have some drinks with some friends, you will find it all in London. I have no idea what sort of taste you have and what fits your fancy, but I can make some suggestions of quality places to have a good time.
Ministry of Sound - The Ministry of sound is perhaps London's most internationally famous club which is also a record label hosting many of Europe's hottest dj's. Despite the outrageous entry fee (around 20 pounds) and ridiculously priced drinks, the club is absolutely worth a night out if you are a clubber (or even if you're not and want to experience a crazy scene). The club is absolutely ginormous complete with several separate areas. If it's your first time in London and you're looking for a good night out you should definitely start here.
Chinawhite - As London's most prestigious club, Chinawhite often plays host to the UK's celebrity scene with appearances from famous musicians, movie stars, and athletes.
Fabric - This massive London nightclub opened in 1999 was rated #1 Club in the world in 2007. Boasting three separate rooms, each with its own character and sound system, offer a choice of clubs within the same club! One of the rooms features a vibrating dance floor, powered by 400 bass transducers.
Pacha - Located just across the street from the main terminus Victoria station, this London nightclub brings a taste of Ibiza all the way from Spain. Decked out and themed to fit the bill, Pacha is a fun and refreshing night out complete with tropical drinks and foam parties.
Madame Jo-Jo's - As Soho's most popular nightclub, and crowning jewel, Madame JoJo's is a brilliant mix between nightclub, music venue, and burlesque show. All three are featured weekly, offering a rowdy and entertaining time for those looking for a wild time.
Festivals of London
London has dozens of annual festivals, as well as playing host to many temporary events as well, London always has something going on in its streets. Home to the City of London festival and the World Naked bike ride in June and the Lord Mayor's show in November, there are many interesting events going on in the busting capitol.
London really is an amazing city full of beauty and culture that I highly recommend visiting at least once in your life. As I said at the start there is simply too much to see in London to convey in a single article. I hope I helped you decide on some great stuff to see, and as for the things I haven't listed get out there and go discover them!