Must-see Europe: London
When I found out we were being stationed in Europe, I began a must-see list. And London sat prominently at the top of that list. It’s a phenomenal city that can be visited over a long weekend from anywhere in Europe.
London has a recorded historical reference that goes back more than 2,000 years. During that time, many events have contributed to its landscape; the Romans, plague, devastating fires, and aerial raids, and yet, it become one of the most iconic capitals of the world. We’ve bopped to the Beatles, stayed up late for royal weddings, and lost ourselves in the poetry. London is fish and chips, My Fair Lady and bobbies— all rolled into one gigantic goody bag. It’s a city of extremes, where dives and luxury coexist almost side-by-side; where modern and medieval know no boundaries and where the indifferent chimes of time ring eternal.
London offers a wealth of entertainment for visitors today. Some people would rather get a root canal rather than spend a day wandering the shops on Carnaby, Oxford and Regents Streets. For others, a day of shopping for antiques or bone china would rank as the highlight of their trip. Same goes for cramming a dozen churches and museums into a single day—heaven for some, not so much for others. Double-decker bus tours also offer hop-on hop-off tours that are reasonably priced and offer an alternative to a lot of walking.
Need to know info
- Keep in mind that you may have to adjust your itinerary in case one of the days you’re in town happens to fall on a Monday (when most museums are closed) or a Sunday (when most everything else is closed, and those that remain open tend to operate on reduced hours).
- The United Kingdom has not adopted the Euro and continues to use the Pound Sterling (also known as the British pound) shown by the £ symbol. ATMs offer the best exchange rates.
- Remember, vehicles drive on the left rather than the right in the UK and London and the cars and buses will be on the “wrong side” of the road. Look to the right before stepping off the curb.
- Congestion charging came into effect in 2003 and was implemented to decrease traffic on the city’s roads and encourage people to use public transportation. The charge applies 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays), costs £11.50/day and can be paid at shops, garages, via telephone, online or SMS texting. For more information on the Congestion Charge and how to pay log on to the official website.
- The London Underground or tube has stops at all the popular tourists attractions. An Oyster card allows for multiple day use, and can be topped off at any station on a pay as you go basis. Traffic is extremely heavy during the morning and evening commutes, so plan accordingly. September and the beginning of October is a great time to visit London. It is off season and hard winter hasn't kicked-in yet. This is when you will get best deals and fewer crowds.
- London’s West End is the theater district. One of the best places to find discounted tickets is the Tkts booth in Leicester Square. However, shop around Piccadilly Square before you actually commit.
- People are very accustomed to walking. A 30-45 minute walk is nothing. On my first day in London, “right around the corner” was really a 30-45 minute walk.
- Want to attempt the impossible and see London in a day? You’ll definitely need a guide. Trust in London’s famous black cab drivers. These super-cabbies are licensed by the city and given an exhaustive test to assure intimate knowledge with London’s labyrinth-like lanes. Remember there are limited entries allowed every day at places like Buckingham Palace. So if you don't want to miss the palace while you are in London, make sure to get there early in the morning or purchase them online.
- London Travel Pass comes in handy. It covers free entrance to many London attractions as well as transportation.
- The RAFs at Alconberry, Mildenhall and Lakenheath have extremely affordable lodging and are located 90 minutes from central London. Discount tickets for travel and excursions are also available on each installation.
See London highlights
Take a 45 minute walk along the Thames from Westminster Bridge to the Tower Bridge. You’ll stroll past Westminster Abbey, the houses of Parliament and Big Ben, the London Eye and St. Paul’s Cathedral and end up at the Tower of London. The Tower of London offers a fantastic guided tour that is both entertaining and educational for all ages.
Stop by Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard ceremony in the forecourt every morning at 11:30 a.m. The ceremony, officially called the “Guard Mounting,” lasts about 45 minutes, does not occur during extremely wet weather, and has an alternate schedule during the winter months. Take a break and enjoy a traditional English Tea Time complete with crumpets, strawberries and clotted cream on the ground floor of the famous Harrod’s Department Store.
If you like to visit museums you’re in for a cheap treat as many of London’s top museums are absolutely free. The National History and Science Museum, which are side by side, on Exhibition Road and the Victoria and Albert Museum which is just around the corner on Cromwell Road, have many national treasures. The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square showcases masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. The Tate Modern on the Millennium Bridge and The British Museum (my absolute favorite) on Great Russell Street are great ways to spend an afternoon, especially in inclement weather. And did I tell you they were free??
London shopping and touring
London doesn’t acquire the title of World’s Financial Center and playground for the fashionista elite for nothing. Harrods’s (a tourist destination in itself), Oxford and Piccadilly Circuses are all postcard-perfect London, with all the glamour and price tags that go along with it. But if you’re looking for something with a more local flavor, try one of the many exciting local markets. Portobello Road, famous for antiques and quirky odds ‘n’ ends (Saturdays); Borough Market, a Saturday must-do for foodies; and Camden Markets (open every day) with bargains galore in fashions and hand-made crafts, are a few of my favorites. If you’re looking for a tasty memento, you can’t go wrong with English toffee or tea.
The neighborhoods also offer distinct personalities of their own. Go to Soho for the nightlife or Covent Gardens for trendy shops and restaurants. Camden has a small town feel with numerous markets, alternative clothing shops and tattoo parlors. In Notting Hill, you can visit the bookshop made famous by the movie of the same name.
If the hustle and bustle of the city starts to get to you, and it’s a nice day, go for a leisurely walk along the south bank of the Thames, or in one of London’s wonderful parks. Regent’s Park, St. James (across from Buckingham Palace), Hampstead Heath, Primrose Hill (breathtaking views of the city), and Hyde Park — home of Speakers Corner where every single Sunday people come to boisterously, yet politely, speak their mind on all topics.
Day trips beyond
London could keep you occupied for weeks, but there are plenty of things to see and do just beyond the city limits too. Head from London to Windsor Castle, which has been continuously occupied for 1,000 years. Visit the mysterious Stonehenge or the Roman spas of genteel Bath. Make a pilgrimage to Canterbury, Dover, or Leeds Castle. You can also visit the famous universities at Oxford and Cambridge.
For information on hours of operation, maps, special events, festivals, hotel and reputable tour operator information, visit the official guide to London website.