What to See in London for First Time Visitors

by on December 12th, 2010
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London is a massive city and hardly the kind of place that you’ll be able to cover in one trip. For the first time visitor, however, there are some standard experiences and sites that you’ll want to take in. Whether you’re in town for business, a vacation or for the 2012 Summer Olympics, most of the places on this list are within walking or subway distance of the city center.

Westminster Abbey – Westminster is the most important church in the UK. It’s where royal weddings, funerals and coronations take place. It is also the burial place of some of the most famous English men and women who ever lived, including Henry V, Elizabeth I, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens and Laurence Olivier. One of the great travel experiences of my life was in the summer of 2005 when I was allowed to observe a chorale evensong performance from the gallery of chairs.

Buckingham Palace – Buckingham Palace is the official residence of the British royal family, although naturally they have homes all over the place and don’t live in Buckingham year round. A certain flag flies above the palace when the Queen is in residence. The main attraction of Buckingham Palace is the changing of the guards, which takes place every day at 11 AM. I’ve seen the ceremony twice and it is the closest you’re going to get to the majesty of the British monarchy.

Oxford Street – Oxford Circus is formed by the intersection of Oxford and Regent Streets on the West End. Oxford Street is London’s main clothing district. Along this street standard brands like Topshop, Benetton, H&M, Zara and Mango vie with the fancier clothing boutiques. Keep your eyes peeled for celebrities. I once saw Ewan MacGregor while buying designer jeans on Oxford Street.

Trafalgar Square and the Portrait Gallery – Trafalgar Square was named for a famous victory of the British Admiral Nelson over the naval forces of Napoleon. A statue of Nelson sits atop the large column in the Square. Another curious site is the statue of George Washington in front of the National Gallery. The statue and the ground it stands on are gifts from the State of Virginia (which honored Washington’s vow that he would never set foot on British soil again). To the south of the square is the famous equestrian statue of Charles I, which was completed during the king’s lifetime. It was supposed to be destroyed after Charles was beheaded in 1649 but it was put back in place during the restoration. On the north side of the square stands the British Portrait Gallery, which houses many paintings of British royals and other famous Britons. The Gallery also showcases temporary photographic exhibits of modern artists. Admission is free.

The London Underground – The Underground, or Tube, is the most famous and oldest subway system in the world. However, the Tube is more than that; it’s a symbol of London’s urban sophistication. Souvenir shops sell Underground t-shirts, mugs, thimbles and the like. Find some excuse to use the Underground. It’s more expensive than a New York subway ride but the Tube stations are clean and the trains are fast and efficient. All it takes is one ride to get the famous, “Mind the gap, please,” slogan in your head.

The Thames and the Millennium Bridge – A walking tour is the best way to get a sense of any city. In London, the River Thames runs right through the heart of the city and the cities bridges offer some of the best views in town. A great walking route is to start at St. Paul’s cathedral and walk toward the river to the steel Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian walkway built in honor of the year 2000. You can walk north toward Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre or south and re-cross the river on the famous Tower Bridge where you can visit the tower of London.

The Cheshire Cheese – Most of London was destroyed during the Great Fire in 1666, thus most famous buildings were built later than that. The Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was originally built during the 16th century but was rebuilt after the fire. Located on Fleet Street, it is one of the oldest and most historic pubs in the London. Inside the seating is all upright wooden benches. Brass plaques denote where famous personages like Samuel Johnson used to sit. The floor creeks and the original glass in the windows is warped. The Cheshire Cheese serves up famous British fare such as Yorkshire Pudding, Bubble n’ Squeak and steak and kidney pudding.


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