Beefeater, Bond in Motion, Buckingham Palace, gin distillery, gin tasting in London, Kensington Palace, London, London Eye, London Film Museum, Notting Hill, Portobello Road, St. Paul's Cathedral, Stumper & Fielding, things to do in London, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey
It’s October already! I can’t remember the last time I was this happy to bid adieu to summer and welcome fall with open arms. So long, sweltering weather. Bring on the hot cocoa, tall boots, and sweaters!
In keeping with my plan to use the next few weeks to report on our trip to the United Kingdom, I thought I would use this post to write about my favorite attractions in London.
The London Eye
I did a lot of research online while planning our trip to London. Over and over, I saw the same advice–do the London Eye. No one bothered to mention what the hell the London Eye actually is though. Not until I bought a guidebook (Top Ten London by Eyewitness Travel–highly recommend it, btw) did I finally find out that the Eye is the world’s tallest “cantilevered observation wheel,” originally built for the millennium celebrations. Mystery solved.
The Eye is located on the south bank of the River Thames, just across Westminster Bridge from Parliament and Big Ben. It has 32 fully enclosed carriages, each of which holds about 25 people. There is a bench in the middle of each carriage, but not everyone can sit at the same time. This doesn’t really matter, because most people stand at the windows. The wheel moves slowly, and it takes about 30 minutes to make your full rotation (you just go around once). The view is spectacular–supposedly up to 25 miles on a clear day. We rode at night so we could enjoy the city lights.
Buying tickets in advance is highly recommended. You have to stand in line once to buy tickets at the welcome center, and then stand in line again to ride the Eye. The line to board the Eye moves fairly quickly though, because they’re loading 25 people at a time. One thing to note is that the Eye does not stop moving for people to board or disembark (unless you are a wheelchair user or have some other mobility issue). The wheel turns rather slowly, but still, you are hopping onto and off of a moving structure.
Westminster Abbey is stunning. Breathtakingly stunning. I’ve been inside dozens of cathedrals across Europe, and I think Westminster is the most amazing one I’ve seen. It’s also massive. No photos are allowed inside, so I don’t have any to share with you.
The history of Westminster is epic. Every English king and queen since the Norman Conquest in 1066 has been crowned at Westminster Abbey. It was also the site of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 and Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton in 2011. Seventeen former monarchs are buried there, including Edward the Confessor, Henry III, Edward I, Edward III, Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I. Over 3300 people are either buried or commemorated there (with a plaque, a bust, or something more elaborate). The famous Poet’s Corner is here, with graves or monuments to most of the great English-language writers of the past several centuries.
Admission to the abbey is a little steep, but you get a free audio guide, which is really helpful. You cannot wander freely around the abbey–the path you must follow is cordoned off throughout–but you can pause along the way to take a longer look at certain items. We spent about 90 minutes walking through the abbey and listening to all the tracks on the audio guide.
I feel like no visit to London would be complete without a visit to the Queen’s house. And what a house it is! The State Apartments at Buckingham Palace are only open for tours two months out of the year, August and September, so we were lucky that our visit fell in this time period. Much like Westminster Abbey, no interior photos are permitted, a free audio guide is included in the price of admission, and you must stick to the path once inside.
The palace is just as grand as you think it will be–perhaps grander. There is a LOT of gold, and the crystal chandeliers (in every. single. room.) are gorgeous and enormous. Each room has sumptuous damask wall coverings in a different color (there’s the blue drawing room, the white drawing room, the green drawing room, you get the idea). The lush carpets, the massive portraits, the antique furniture–Buckingham rivals Versailles in its opulence and richness.
As an American, it’s easy to be awed by the near decadence of the palace. But as we toured the rooms, I kept thinking about how I would feel if I were a Briton and my tax dollars were spent keeping up such grandeur. I can understand why many British subjects feel that the monarchy is an unnecessary extravagance.
But until they abolish the monarchy altogether, I highly recommend a tour of Buckingham if you’re in town during August or September.
The Tower of London
As a person who majored in medieval British history, the Tower of London was one of my must-do attractions. The Tower played such a large role in the time period I studied. After reading about it for so many years, I was thrilled to get to see it in person.
The “Tower” is more than just a tower. It was a fortified castle/medieval palace/royal mint/prison/execution site with nearly a dozen separate towers and multiple chapels. The complex is rather extensive. We spent about two hours there and didn’t even see everything.
High on our list though was the exhibit of the Crown Jewels. The security around the jewels is understandable. They are the only item in the castle that you are not allowed to photograph, and you can’t stand and look at them up close. A moving sidewalk on either side of the display cases shuttles visitors past. There is an observation area set back a bit from the display, where you can stand and look at them. You can also circle around to ride the moving sidewalk again. We rode it once on each side of the display.
A grassy area with a memorial marks the Execution Site, where two of Henry VIII’s wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) were separated from their heads. It was also the site of numerous other executions.
The medieval palace has many artifacts from the reigns of Henry III (1216-1272) and his son, Edward I (1272-1307), both of whom expanded the original castle (which dates from 1066, like much else in England) into the vast complex it remains today. There’s even a re-creation of Edward’s bedroom. For a history nerd, it doesn’t get much better than the Tower of London.
And because we can’t go anywhere without touring some sort of alcohol producer, we visited the Beefeater Distillery, which is just across the Thames in Kennington. We’re usually Tanqueray people, but they’re way up in middle-of-nowhere Scotland. There are several gin distilleries in London, but Beefeater was the only one with the kind of tour flexibility we needed. (Others to check out, if you’re interested, are City of London Distillery, London Distillery Company, and Sipsmith Independent Spirits.)
Beefeater just opened its visitors center in spring 2014, so we were lucky in that regard. The tour is self-guided to start. They have an extensive, interactive gin museum of sorts with all kinds of information and graphics about the rise of gin and the various gin crazes in London. After you spend about 30 minutes learning the history, a guide takes over and walks you through the distilling process and explains the botanicals they use in the different versions of Beefeater. The best part, though, is at the end, when you get a complimentary gin & tonic, heavy on the gin. If you’re a gin drinker, I recommend a distillery tour while you’re in London.
The Best of the Rest
We also visited Kensington Palace, which is beautiful and interesting, but not as over-the-top opulent as Buckingham. Kensington should be high on the list of anyone who is a fan of Queen Victoria, because many of the rooms are decorated as they were when she lived there with her royal family. Several articles of her and Prince Albert’s clothing are on display, and there are numerous excerpts from her extensive personal diaries on display. It’s really quite interesting. And don’t miss the lovely gardens.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is not as overwhelming as Westminster Abbey, but it is worth a visit. Wear comfortable shoes though, because if you want to climb to the observation decks (which I recommend) it’s a whole lotta steps (more than 400). St. Paul’s is the home of the Whispering Gallery, where a person whispering on one side of the rotunda can be heard by a person on the other side. My husband and I gave this a try, and it works, but you have to do more than whisper. Maybe if the cathedral were otherwise empty, a mere whisper could be heard. But the level of ambient noise from the crowds means you have to speak up a bit to make the phenomenon work. It’s still pretty neat though.
As a big fan of the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts movie Notting Hill, I naturally wanted to go to Portobello Road. I read that the “best” day to go is Saturday because that’s when the most antiques vendors are out. If by “best” you mean “most crowded” and by “antiques” you mean “mostly junk,” then yes, Saturday is the best day to go.
Seriously though, it was a total madhouse. Wall-to-wall people, all jostling to get a better view of the streetside vendors hawking what appeared to be a lot of large, ugly jewelry, silverware, and tea pots. Don’t get me wrong–I’m glad I went so I know what it’s all about, but it was crazy. My favorite place on Portobello Road is a shop called Stumper & Fielding.
They sell the most delightful traditional English clothing and accessories there. My husband bought a tweed bow tie, and I got a nice Union Jack tote. We also stumbled upon the bookshop used for exterior shots of Hugh Grant’s character’s bookshop in the movie. So that was a nice bit of serendipity.
If you’re a James Bond fan, don’t miss the Bond in Motion exhibit at the London Film Museum in Covent Garden. Loads of cars, motorbikes, water craft, and other vehicles used in the movies, along with artwork and storyboards. They have clips from the relevant film playing near each display item to put them in context. It’s really cool.
Museum-wise, we visited the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, both of which are free. They’re right next to each other, so we did them both in the same day. It was a lot of museum-ing for one day, and we didn’t even see everything in both museums. But they’re well worth visiting. They have some great artwork.
And although we didn’t take the inside tour of Parliament, we did walk past it at least a dozen times while we were in town. It is an impressive Gothic architectural wonder. You have to see it in person to appreciate how massive the building really is.
To Do Next Time
There’s SO MUCH to see in London. We managed a fair bit, but we’ll definitely have to go back. Things on my list for next time: the British Museum (home of the actual Rosetta Stone and the so-called Elgin Marbles), the Tate (Modern or Britain, or both), the Sherlock Holmes Museum, Lambeth Palace, another distillery tour, and some excursions outside London, like Windsor Castle.