London Town

There is quite a lot to see and do in London. Like every other major city, you could visit for weeks and not see everything. With only 2 full days and a Friday evening at my disposal, I had to be realistic in my list of must-sees. My London Pass offered free entry into a long list of attractions for Saturday and Sunday, so right away I nixed anything that wasn’t included. I listed out the attractions that I wanted to see and organized my weekend by the opening/closing hours and location of each (hello Type A personality).

Friday night I decided to take advantage of a few free options. London is an incredibly expensive city to visit and live in but there are many ways of saving money. Visitors who are interested in parks and museums can take advantage of the fact that most in London are free. I had heard great reviews about the British Museum from multiple sources so I added it to my Friday night itinerary. And although I did not want to do any shopping, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to swing by Harrod’s on my last stop in London so I added that to Friday evening as well. Unfortunately, I did not get situated in my hotel and back in to the city until almost 18:00 (6:00 pm for those who don’t know the 24-hour clock used all throughout Europe), so I had limited time in each.

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Harrod’s is the largest department store in Europe, occupying a 5 acre sight and spanning over one million square feet of retail space with over 330 departments. There is no way you would want to visit the entire store, I was there for less than an hour and was still overwhelmed by the magnitude and crowds. A quick jaunt through the furniture and toy departments was enough for me before I was off to the museum.

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The British Museum is another behemoth in its class. Ranking 3rd globally in annual visitors at over 6 million, it houses approximately 8 million historical and cultural objects from all around the world. I arrived with only one hour until close, which is truly a sad excuse for a visit (although I am known for this as my first and only trip to the Louvre so far was a mere 30 minutes in length!) Luckily, a map and visitors guide gave instructions for the 10 most important pieces in the museum and I molded my tour around those few items. Arguably the most important artifact housed in the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone. Since the British Museum houses the world’s largest collection of Egyptian antiquities, at over 100,000, it comes as no surprise that the Rosetta Stone is one of them. This piece, from 196 BC, was the key to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Maybe next time I visit London, I can devote an entire afternoon to exploring the British Museum, it would definitely not be time wasted!

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Saturday’s excursions included two of the most famous churches in the United Kingdom, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. St. Paul’s Cathedral has dominated the London skyline for over 300 years, making its 365 foot high dome a highly recognizable sight around the world. Inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, this architectural masterpiece by Sir Christopher Wren has housed many great British events such as the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, the Golden and Diamond Jubilees of Queen Elizabeth II and the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. The pricey entry fee includes a worthwhile audio guide (luckily my London pass took care of these) and photos are not allowed, although I managed to snap a few.

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I found the architecture of Westminster Abbey to be less impressive than St. Paul’s, but the history of this great cathedral is second to none. Thirty-eight coronations have taken place in Westminster Abbey, the first being William the Conquerer in 1066 and the most recent of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Made famous world-wide in 2011 with the royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, it has hosted 15 other royal weddings over the years. And Princess Diana’s funeral was held there in 1997. Westminster Abbey was considered the most prestigious burial sight for Britain throughout much of history. Subsequently, a wealth of  famous tombs can be found throughout the cathedral, many monarchs and others such as Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Just as St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey charges a high entry fee and prohibits photography. These British churches really need to get on the free French cathedral bandwagon.

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Other highlights of my Saturday included two World War II sights, the Churchill War Rooms and a tour of the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Belfast. Both include representations of what daily life was like during the war. Another exciting historical must-do in London is the Tower of London. There is so much history in the Tower that it is impossible for me to give you any abridged version that would do it justice. Just know that the original building, the White Tower, was built by William the Conquerer in the 11th century. Several expansions have taken place since them. Originally used as a fortress and residence of royalty, the reign of Tudors changed its typical use to that of a prison and execution sight for famous “traitors” such as Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn. A visit to London is not complete without touring the Tower. If you don’t mind “queueing” for an hour or so, visitors can see the Crown Jewels, but I enjoyed walking through the various towers laid out as museums, and walking the walls to get a fantastic view of the city instead.

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My Sunday was reserved for two exciting tours. In the morning I visited the Globe Theater, a re-creation of Shakespeare’s famous playhouse. The brain child of American Sam Wannamaker, this re-creation was built to the precise specifications of the original theater using only hand-hewn materials. One major difference between the original and new: the addition of a sprinkler system atop its thatch roof. Had this technology been around in the 17th century, the original might have survived.

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The majority of my Sunday was spent journeying to a southwest district of London, Wimbledon. It is a little far away, and the Underground ride and subsequent walk from the station will be long, but a trip to Wimbledon is most definitely worth it. I’m not even a huge Tennis fan, but I always watch Wimbledon and as a fan of sports in general, it is exciting to look behind the scenes. Our 1.5 hour tour took the group through Court One, Henman Hill, the press rooms, and Centre Court. Not only did I get to see the pristine beauty of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, but I also learned a lot during the tour and museum visit. I will be extra excited to watch this year’s tournament.

One thing I did not get to do while in London this time around was see a musical in the West End. I’m usually very organized with my travels, and London was no exception. But for some reason, I never bothered to research what the Sunday show options would be, just assuming that all shows ran on Sundays. However, only a select few have Sunday matinees and they were not any shows that I had an interest in seeing. Of course I did not realize this until late Saturday night. I guess the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

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