London: Mod and Trad
Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 305
London is quintessentially English, yet cosmopolitan. We check out the new — the Millennium Bridge and the British Museum's Great Court, and admire the old — well-wrapped mummies and a rare Leonardo. After bantering with Beefeaters at the Tower of London, we do some riverside beach-combing. Strolling the trendy South Bank of the Thames takes us from the Tate Modern to the dizzying London Eye.
- Read the script from the show.
Having beaten Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was once the most famous man in Europe. He was given London's ultimate address, #1 London. His mansion offers one of London's best palace experiences, with an 11-foot-tall marble statue of Napoleon, a small gallery of Wellington memorabilia, and a fine collection of paintings (20 yards from Hyde Park Corner Tube station, tel. 020/7499-5676).
The world's top collection of decorative arts (vases, stained glass, fine furniture, clothing, jewelry, carpets, and more) is a surprisingly interesting assortment of crafts from the West as well as Asian and Islamic cultures (Tube: South Kensington, a long tunnel leads directly from the Tube station to museum, tel. 020/7942-2000).
Simply put, this is the greatest chronicle of civilization...anywhere. A visit here is like taking a long hike through Encyclopedia Britannica National Park. The most popular sections of the museum fill the ground floor: Egyptian, Assyrian, and ancient Greek, with the famous Elgin Marbles from the Athenian Parthenon (Great Russell Street, Tube: Tottenham Court Road, tel. 020/7323-8000).
Displaying Britain's top collection of European paintings from 1250 to 1900 — including works by Leonardo, Botticelli, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Turner, van Gogh, and the Impressionists — this is one of Europe's great galleries. The audioguide tours are the best I've used in Europe (on Trafalgar Square, Tube: Charing Cross or Leicester Square, tel. 020/7747-2885).
The impressive Tower Bridge is freshly painted and restored; for more information on this neo-Gothic maritime gateway to London, you can visit the Tower Bridge Experience for its 1894–1994 history exhibit and a peek at its Victorian engine room (good view, poor value, enter at the northwest tower, tel. 020/7403-3761).
The Tower has served as a castle in wartime, a king's residence in peace time, and, most notoriously, as the prison and execution site of rebels. You can marvel at the crown jewels, take a witty Beefeater tour, and ponder the executioner's block that dispensed with troublesome heirs to the throne and a couple of Henry VIII's wives (Tube: Tower Hill, toll tel. 0844-482-7777, booking toll tel. 0844-482-7799).
The Gilbert Collection is now located at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The collection of gold, silver, mosaics, gold boxes, and portrait miniatures was on display at Somerset House until 2008, when it was transferred to the V&A Museum.
Dedicated in the spring of 2000, the striking museum across the river from St. Paul's opened the new century with art from the old one. Its powerhouse collection of Monet, Matisse, Dalí, Picasso, Warhol and much more is displayed in a converted powerhouse (cross the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul's; Tube: London Bridge plus a 10-min walk; or connect by ferry from Tate Britain; tel. 020/7887-8008).
Gourmet Cheese Shop
Just south of Southwark Cathedral is the Borough Market. Be here weekdays at 2:00 in the morning, when the first trading starts at this open-air wholesale produce market, and you can knock off by sunrise for a pint at the specially licensed Market Porter tavern (on Park Street — check out the fragrant cheese shop at Neal's Yard Dairy nearby). On Friday afternoon and all day Saturday, the colorful market opens for retail sales to Londoners seeking trendy specialty and organic foods.
London's answer to the Eiffel Tower is the world's highest observational wheel. While the experience is memorable, London doesn't have much of a skyline and the price is borderline outrageous. But whether you ride or not, the wheel is a sight to behold. From the top of this 450-foot-high wheel — the highest public viewpoint in the city — even Big Ben looks small (Tube: Waterloo or Westminster, tel. 0870-500-0600).
For up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition of the Rick Steves' London travel guide, the Rick Steves' England travel guide or the Rick Steves' Great Britain travel guide — or join us on one of our free-spirited England tours.