London is the Queen’s city with a dynamic royal history. It is also a very modern global city – a world leader in commerce, culture, education, the arts, and entertainment. Gastroenterologist and UP College of Medicine alumnus Dr. Jun Ruiz lists down the Top 10 attractions you should not miss.
Every year, 20 million tourists visit London, which is dubbed as the world’s largest financial center. It is the capital and the largest city of England and the United Kingdom.
Due to its popularity, it has been the top-ranked vacation destination of the world every year, until last year when Bangkok grabbed the top spot. It is not surprising that London is a favorite among tourists, as the city has a great deal to offer. It has spectacular royal attractions, historical monuments, free museums, impressive entertainment, and a shopping mecca. However, London is an expensive city, such that the high cost of accommodation is one of its biggest drawbacks.
Standing on the River Thames, London began as a small Roman settlement 2,000 years ago that grew into this great metropolis of today. It is a collection of 32 boroughs, in addition to the ancient city of London. It is an internationally diverse city, as more than one-third of its residents are foreign-born.
London is yours to explore. It can be visited at any time of the year, as it has a mild temperate climate. Summer is peak, so I suggest spring and fall are the better seasons to tour London. It can rain at any time, so bring your umbrella.
Though guided tours are an effective way to tour the city, one can explore London on your own if you do your homework extensively as I did. The fastest and easiest way to get around London is by the underground railway (the tube). While in London, hear the chimes of Big Ben, look for the iconic red phone booths and red doubledecker buses, eat fish and chips, and get an English pub experience.
I came up with a list of London’s Top Ten greatest attractions that I believe most Filipino tourists will enjoy. A lot of these sights are physically close to each other, so you can schedule your daily tour per area to make the most of your time. Though at least three days is needed to cover these sights, we allotted six days to discover London and the surrounding areas.
1. Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace is the official home of the Queen, and has been the official residence of the monarch since 1837. Queen Victoria was the first royal resident. Today, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip live here most of the time.
As the venue where the visiting foreign heads of state are received, Buckingham Palace has become the symbol of the monarchy. The palace has a concert hall, several ballrooms for state and banquet functions, and 775 rooms. You can tour the lavishly decorated state rooms only in August and September. However, the palace’s main interior is off-limits to tourists.
Buckingham Palace is among London’s best recognized landmarks, primarily because this is the site of the Changing of the Guard. This is a royal spectacle, and a great introduction to all first-time visitors to London. The palace guards, stoic in their red coats and tall bearskin hats, change posts with lavish fanfare and pageantry. There is an accompanying marching band that plays a mini-concert. The colorful ceremony occurs in front of the palace at 11:30 a.m.
Coincide your visit here with the Changing of the Guard. Check the schedule online, as it is daily in summer, and on alternate days during the rest of the year. Come to the area by 10:30 a.m. to get a good spot just next to the fence. Do not be surprised to see thousands of excited people here.
2. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, is the distinctive Neo-Gothic revival building located along River Thames. It is the political heart of the country, as England has been ruled from this site since 1090. This has been the seat of the two Houses of Parliament, called the Lords and the Commons. There are 650 elected members who sit in the House of Commons, headed by the Prime Minister.
Big Ben is the resonant 14-tonne bell, and not the world famous huge clock nor the elegant 96-m tower as what most tourists believe. The bell tolls on the hour, and be fascinated with its chimes. The bell was named after the fat Benjamin Hall, who was the Chief Commissioner of Works when it was installed in 1858. The four-faced Clock Tower, also named as Queen Elizabeth Tower, has become an iconic landmark of London and an emblem of parliamentary democracy. The Palace of Westminster is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
3. Westminster Abbey
Just beside the Houses of Parliament is the Westminster Abbey, which is Great Britain’s finest church. This royal abbey, founded by King Edward the Confessor, has been the site of monarchical coronations of England and Britain since 1066. The abbey was where Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, as well as the venue of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, and of the wedding of her son Prince William to Catherine Middleton in 2011. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Westminster Abbey is an outstanding piece of Gothic architecture that is grand in scope and history. You will see spectacular display of medieval architecture inside its walls.
This is also the royal resting place, where the nation’s kings and queens have been buried since its foundation. Centuries of English history and tombs of 29 kings and queens lie inside. Men of non-royal lineage like poets, writers, and politicians are also buried here. Among the highlights are the Lady Chapel, the Tomb of Edward the Confessor, Coronation Chair, and Poet’s Corner.
4. London Eye
Truly indeed an amazing feat of engineering, the London Eye is the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel at 135 m, offering commanding views of the London skyline. It is located in the heart of London, opposite the Houses of Parliament across River Thames. The Eye is now an enormously recognizable landmark of London.
Towering over the Thames, it was built to celebrate the Millennium year. Since then, it has become the most popular paid attraction in Britain. A ticket cost £ 24 (P1,700) per adult, but worth the price. It has 32 enclosed glass capsules that have a capacity to each hold 25 people. Because of its design, it offers a total 360-degree visibility in all directions. A flight on the London Eye takes a slow 30 minutes to make a full rotation. The Eye has given London its symbol, in the same way the Eiffel Tower did for Paris.
5. Trafalgar Square
Another must-see destination in London is the Trafalgar Square – the center of modern London akin to Times Square for New York City. The name commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, a British naval victory against Napoleon of France in 1805. Admiral Lord Nelson led the British forces, but died heroically in his greatest triumph. A 50-m Corinthian column stands at the center of the square, which is topped by a statue of Nelson. This monument is guarded at its base by sculptures of four huge lions.
Trafalgar Square is a venue for public rallies, outdoor public meetings, and the annual New Year celebrations. Across the square is the National Gallery, which contains a collection of 2,000 European paintings. A few blocks away are the theaters of the West End district and Piccadilly Circus.
6. Tower of London
There is much history about the Tower of London. It was originally a royal historic palace and a riverside fortress. However, for most of its 900-year history, the Tower had a frightening reputation as a place of torture and death. Those who committed treason were imprisoned here, and a few were executed. Henry VIII notoriously executed two of his wives in the Tower Green for infidelity.
The Jewel House displays the Crown Jewels of England. The Imperial State Crown is the most dazzling of them all, with 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, and a sapphire at its top. The crown was designed for the coronation of George VI in 1937.
There are 37 Yeoman Warders, who are ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London. They are retired officers of the Armed Forces, and are popularly known as Beefeaters. They also conduct guided tours in the Tower. Allocate around two hours to explore the castle.
7. Tower Bridge
The Tower Bridge is another icon of London, which is recognizable by people all over the world. Completed in 1894, this flamboyant Gothic bridge has two bridge towers, linked by two high-level walkways, and quickly became a symbol of the city. The two halves of the roadway can be raised when big steam ships have to pass through, or for special events.
The twin towers, the walkways, and engine rooms form the Tower Bridge Exhibition. You see stunning views of the river from here. There are nearly 300 stairs to the top of the towers.
8. St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral is the great Baroque masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren that dominates the City skyline. He rebuilt the churches of London after the Great Fire of 1666, and St. Paul’s was completed in 1708. St. Paul’s Cathedral has many similarities with St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Its enormous ornate dome is 111 m high – the second biggest in the world, next to St. Peter’s. The Anglican cathedral has been the setting of many great ceremonial events, like the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965, and the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.
Climb to the top of the dome, through the Stone Gallery, and finally to the Golden Gallery. There are 528 steps to the top, without any elevator. The climb gets steeper, narrower, and can become claustrophobic. Once you reach the two galleries, you will be rewarded with splendid views of the city. Allow an hour to go to the top of the dome and back.
9. British Museum
The British Museum is the oldest museum in the world, and houses the greatest collection of 6 million treasures and artifacts, spanning 2 million years. Admission is free. Among the highlights are the Rosetta Stone (a granite tablet that allowed decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphics), Parthenon sculptures, and the Easter Island moai.
Seeing the spectacular Great Court was my motivation to visit the British Museum after I was amazed by pictures of it in travel books. It is the largest covered square in Europe, with a magnificent roof tessellated with 3,300 unique panes of glass alternating with steel. This looks breathtaking up close – the vision of an apparent floating glass canopy is both ethereal and futuristic.
10. Harry Potter’s Platform 9 ¾ or The Beatles’ Abbey Road
Whatever interests you: either explore the magical world of a young wizard set in Britain, or re-live the musical era of rock’s greatest band ever. If you are a fan of the Harry Potter books and movies, this should be on your bucket list. Visit Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station as seen in the first movie. Push a trolley through the wall to enter the magical world of witchcraft and wizardry to board the train to Hogwarts. Nearby, there is a shop that sells all merchandise related to the franchise.
For music fans, this photo-op is one you would not want to miss. Go to Abbey Road and re-create the most recognizable album cover in pop music history. Bring your friends to re-enact the Beatles’ famous “Abbey Road” shoot on the cross-walk just outside their former studio. This photo-op would be an object of envy for all Beatles fans.
There are many more attractions that London and its surrounding areas can offer, like the Kensington Palace, Windsor Castle, the National Gallery, Tate Modern, Thames River Cruise, and the West End Theater district, among others. It is indeed worth coming back to London as each time is a different experience. After all, London is truly a city where the world comes together.
“It is indeed worth coming back to London as each time is a different experience”
November 2017 Health and Lifestyle