PORTS OF CALL
If you're visiting London, England, for the first time, you may arrive expecting a European city that overflows with pomp and pageantry. Few visitors to London will fail to be impressed by the grandeur and craftsmanship of such monumental sights as Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's Cathedral, but that's just the historical foundation of today's modern, vibrant city.
Cosmopolitan London has every visitor attraction from Bengali markets to designer boutiques to world-class art exhibitions to hand-written Beatles lyrics at the British Library. London offers the best of British food, fashion and cultural pursuits, but its multicultural population gives it an international flair, as well. London has a lively mix of languages, dress, festivals and bustling street life.
As for sightseeing, visitors to London can admire orchids at Kew Gardens, gaze on the crown jewels at the Tower of London, learn about millennia of history at the British Museum and witness spectacular views of the city from the London Eye Ferris wheel—all in a day. An interest in the arts or royalty may be what draws you to the capital of England, but you don't have to be an avid theatergoer or a history buff to enjoy yourself thoroughly.
Sporting and cultural events take place across the capital, showing off this festive city at its best. London is a place you will want to visit again and again, and each time you visit, the city will have something new to offer.
Must See or Do
Sights—Westminster Abbey; St. Paul's Cathedral; the Tower of London and Tower Bridge; Shakespeare's Globe Theatre; the view from the London Eye.
Museums—The Victoria and Albert Museum, especially its British Galleries; works by Turner at the Tate Britain; antiquities at the British Museum; art collected by the first Duke of Wellington at Apsley House (closed for renovations until Spring 2015); the Tate Modern; Impressionist paintings at the National Gallery and the Fragonards at The Wallace Collection.
Memorable Meals—Eclectic and delicious vegetarian fare at The Gate; pub lunch at the Salisbury in the West End's theater district; afternoon tea at the English Tea Room at Brown's Hotel; dim sum at Hakkasan; fabulous French cuisine amid quirky decor at Les Trois Garcons; all-day dining at The Wolseley; Indian cuisine at Tamarind and an elegant late night assignation in the Oscar Wilde Bar at the historic Cafe Royal.
Late Night—Drinks at Baltic; jazz at Ronnie Scott's; dancing at megaclub Fabric; a performance in the West End; cabaret and cocktails at Circus.
Walks—Through Hyde Park or St. James' Park; along the Jubilee Walkway from Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge; any Original London walking tour; exploring the grounds at Kew Gardens; up Primrose Hill for a panoramic view of London.
Especially for Kids—Simulators at the London Transport Museum; the ZSL London Zoo; the giant, animatronic T. Rex at the Natural History Museum; the Science Museum; Warner Brothers Studios Harry Potter Tour.
The sights of London embrace 2,000 years of history—the tramp of Roman legions, strolling players in the age of Shakespeare, plagues, royal pomp and circumstance, the Great Fire, the architectural heritage of the Georgian era, the squalid alleyways of Dickens' time, Victoria's great age of railways and trade, and the Blitz of World War II. In a city of more than 600 art galleries, 250 museums and countless places of interest, considerable planning is needed for sightseeing. The city's tourist attractions are sights you've heard about all your life. You won't have time to see them all, but some are absolute musts.
The Tower of London (dating from 1078) is always popular—get there early if you can, because waits of up to three hours aren't unusual in summer. Huge St. Paul's Cathedral, designed by 17th-century architect Christopher Wren, can take hours to wander through if you're in the right mood. The other famous church, Westminster Abbey, is where royals are crowned and married and England's notables are buried.
Across the street from the abbey is the clock tower attached to the Houses of Parliament; this is commonly known as Big Ben, which is actually the nickname of the Great Bell of this famous chiming clock that everyone watches (on TV) to see in the new year. Don't expect to see everything in a few hours at the British Museum—there are too many treasures to explore and too many other people. Art lovers will find paradise at Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, not to mention the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Fans of the literary arts should treat themselves to a tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the British Library. And for great perspective, take a ride on the giant London Eye Ferris wheel. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, it offers fantastic bird's-eye views of the city.
The River Bus service on the Thames—part of London's transport network—is a great way for visitors to venture farther afield. Kew Gardens (officially, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew) and Hampton Court Palace are accessible by river from Westminster Pier. Immerse yourself in tranquility at the former, royal prosperity at the latter. You can also get boats in the other direction to Tower Bridge and Greenwich.
If you've seen all the major sights or just want to escape the crowds for a while, visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sir John Soane's museum (open during extensive renovations through 2016) or 18 Stafford Terrace. They're some of our favorite off-the-beaten-track spots in the city.
To make the most of your visit, consider buying a London Pass. Valid for one to six days (with prices £49-£81 adults without transport, £58-£199 with transport), it offers free entry to more than 60 London attractions, including the Tower of London, St. Paul's Cathedral and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Phone 020-7293-0972. http://www.londonpass.com.