London: Historic and Dynamic

In many-faceted London, we'll ponder royal tombs in Westminster Abbey, discover treasures in the British Library, enjoy the vibrant evening scene in Soho, uncover Churchill's secret WWII headquarters, join the 9-to-5 crowd in the new London, shop where the queen shops, and straddle the Prime Meridian in Greenwich.

Travel Details

Changing of the Guard
The guards at Buckingham Palace change with much fanfare at around 11:30 almost daily in the summer and every other day for the rest of the year (no band in very wet weather). Call 020/7766-7300 for the day's plan. Afterwards, stroll through nearby St. James's Park (Tube: Victoria, St. James's Park, or Green Park).

St. Paul's Cathedral
Wren's most famous church is the great St. Paul's, its elaborate interior capped by a 365-foot dome, Britain's symbol of resistance (it survived 57 nights of bombing during World War II). Today you can climb the dome for a great city view. The crypt (included with admission) is a world of historic bones and memorials, including Admiral Nelson's tomb and interesting cathedral models (Tube: St. Paul's, tel. 020/7246-8348).

The Soho "Food is Fun" Dinner Crawl
For a multicultural, movable feast, consider eating (or splitting) one course and enjoying a drink at each of these places. Start around 5:30 p.m. to avoid lines, get in on early specials, and find waiters willing to let you split a meal. Prices, while reasonable by London standards, add up. Servings are large enough to share. Arrive at Belgo Centraal in time to split the early-bird dinner special: mussels, fries, and dark Belgian beer. At Yo! Sushi, have beer or sake and a few dishes. Slurp your last course at Wagamama Noodle Bar. Then, for dessert, people-watch at Leicester Square, where the serf's always up.

Aster House
3 Sumner Place
tel. 020/7581-5888

British Library
Here, in just two rooms, are the literary treasures of Western civilization, from early Bibles to the Magna Carta to Shakespeare's Hamlet to Lewis Carol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The British Empire built its greatest monuments out of paper. And it's with literature that England made her lasting contribution to civilization and the arts (Tube: King's Cross, turn right out of station and walk a block to 96 Euston Road, library tel. 020/7412-7332).

Script

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're having a jolly good time and enjoying lots of royal pageantry...in London. Thanks for joining us.
 
[2 Show Open]

[3] This time we'll see the "Old London" and....the  "New London". Enjoy some of the city's traditional pomp... hop a double decker bus ride to Christopher Wren's  magnificent St. Paul's...shop for a jaunty hat...checkout the vibrant scene in Soho...ponder some of England's greatest names in Westminster Abbey, Discover treasures in the British Library and straddle the zero meridian in Greenwich.

[4] But first, we're checking out the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace — beautiful weather, lots of royal pageantry, and a huge excited crowd.

[5] The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is a fine introduction to London. While no longer ruling a vast empire — London is still a capital of regal traditions. This time-honored ritual still stirs English hearts. And, while you have to be very tall or very early to actually see the guards change...I get a kick out of watching what seems like every tourist in London gathered together in one place at the same time.

[6] Today, England's royal family calls Buckingham Palace home. But for centuries they lived closer to the River Thames...where, in the 11th century, King Edward the Confessor built the first Palace of Westminster. Over the centuries, that palace evolved to become this building and an icon of modern democracy.

[7] Eventually, representatives of local communities or "commons" gathered here to be near their king. They began meeting independently as the "House of Commons." And to this day, Britain is ruled from here...in the Houses of Parliament.

[8] Visitors are welcome to queue up for a free look at either the uppity House of Lords or the rowdier House of Commons in action.

[9] Like much of the most medieval-looking architecture in Europe, this is actually over-the-top faux medieval. It's Neo-Gothic...built in the 1800s...the Romantic Age.

[10] All across Europe Neo-Gothic was a reaction against the neo-Classical Age of Revolution, which challenged royalty and religion. With this less-cerebral, more romantic style, Victorian England reaffirmed its royal and Christian roots.

[12] People call this famous tower, Big Ben. But Ben is actually the 13-ton bell behind the clock. Here's a fun way to make your sister envious... Rick: Hi Jan. It's Rick.

[13] An enormous royal palace once stretched all the way from Big Ben to Trafalgar Square at the end of this street. While the palace is long gone, its name survives; Whitehall — today Britain's most important street. The British Empire — which at one point ruled nearly a quarter of the world's population — was managed from here and a Whitehall walk is filled with reminders of England's proud and hard-fought history. Stately reliefs and stern buildings seem to celebrate "the empire upon which the sun never set."

[14] As it has for centuries, the Royal horse guard still keeps the royal family safe. And if you're here at the right time, you'll enjoy the ritual changing of this guard as well.

[15] Prime ministers — like Winston Churchill — have long lived and worked on Whitehall. Here, Churchill is wrapped in the iconic trench coat he wore as he led Britain through the dark days of WWII.

[16] Duck under sand bags and descend into the Churchill War Rooms. This was the secret underground nerve-center of the British government's fight against the Nazis in the desperate Battle for Britain. Shut down after victory in 1945, and ignored for decades, it's open today as a fascinating time warp for visitors to explore. Audio guides give it meaning.

Audio Guide: On the morning of the 16th of August 1945, the day after VJ day and the end of the war, the map officers tidied their desks, switched out their lights for the first time in 6 years and went home. And that's the way the room stayed.

[18] You'll see the room where Churchill famously took his short naps. In this room the progress of the entire war was followed as the day by day movement of troops and convoys was charted. And this room was the communication hub from where Churchill maneuvered Britain to ultimate victory.

[19] The adjacent museum introduces you to Churchill — the man. It brings the colorful statesman to life — complete with his trademark cigar, bow tie, cognac — he loved his drink, and famous hat.

[20] You'll get a taste of Winston's irascibility, wit, work ethic, even the industry of kitchy knicknacks he inspired. 

[21] Back out on Whitehall there are monuments to other great English war heroes and at the end of the street at Trafalgar square is a memorial to the greatest English war hero of them all. The one-armed, one-eyed, and one-minded Admiral Horatio Nelson looking out to sea.

[26] The year was 1805. Napoleon with his mightly army was poised on the other side of the English Channel, preparing to invade. Meanwhile, a thousand miles away off the coast of Spain, Admiral Nelson defeated the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. Because Britannia ruled the waves and Napoleon was stopped.

[27] Bronze battle reliefs — made of melted down French cannon — decorate the column. These huggable lions are a hit with visitors.

[28] Trafalgar Square marks the very center of London. Big Ben is just over there. Buckingham Palace is about a ten-minute walk that way. Soho, where all the entertainment is, is that way. That is the National Gallery with the best paintings in Britain. Right there is St. Martin in the Fields — a church famous for great classic concerts and the charity work that it does for this community.

[29] As big as it is, London's easy to get around in. And, once you're oriented, riding its double-decker buses can be both efficient and fun. For me, enjoying the view from the top deck is one of the great treats of this city.

[30] We're entering the historic core of London, a one-square-mile district locals call, simply, "The City." While only a few thousand people actually live here, its 9 to 5 crowd numbers half a million. This is Britain's Wall Street, thriving with big time commerce and packed with banks.

[31] "The City" is also packed with history. This monument commemorates the devastating fire of 1666 — which started here and burned down nearly all of London. These reliefs show in heroic terms how city leaders came together determined to rebuild. The great architect Christopher Wren was chosen to spear-head the project.

[32] And the city that rose from the ashes of that fire was decorated by the Wren-designed spires of some fifty churches. Christopher Wren spent four decades — the rest of his life — working on his grand vision.

[33] The centerpiece: this mighty cathedral, St. Paul's. Today, it's the symbol of London's resilience: its rise from the Great Fire and of London's survival of the Blitz of WWII.

[34] The church is one of the world's biggest. Wren accentuated its spaciousness by the lack of decoration...notice the simple ceiling...and the clear glass lighting everything evenly. Today, only the west end of the church keeps Wren's original vision. In the 18oos, Queen Victoria called St. Paul's "dim, dingy, and ungodly" so the east end of the church was then slathered with Victorian bling...beautiful Victorian bling.

[36] While the church's survival in WWII was almost miraculous, the apse of the church did take a direct hit and was destroyed. Today it's rebuilt as the American memorial chapel to honor our nation's contribution to the defense of Britain. We see Jesus, Mary, and...George Washington. The American iconography includes stars, stripes and eagles and hiding behind birds and plants native to the USA...it's a U.S. rocket circa 1958, shooting up to the stars.

[37] The British are grateful to their WWII allies. The Roll of Honor lists the 28,000 American servicemen based in Britain who gave their lives.

[38] Climbing the dome is like climbing a 30-story building...with no elevator. And the reward... a commanding view of London.

[39] Christopher Wren spent nearly half his life working on St. Paul's. At age 75, he got to see his son crown his masterpiece with this golden cross.

[40] London has thriving shopping districts. Oxford Street is lined with big department stores. It's fun to feel the energy of this dynamic city. And Piccadilly, the city's most touristy square, has a magnetic attraction all its own.

[41] With its tipsy-yet-somehow-balanced statue of Eros in the center, this is where worlds of temptations fan out in all directions.

[42] While Picadilly seems tacky, just a few steps away is a more elegant slice of London.

[43] And to enjoy this, we're joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Brit Lonsdale.

Brit Lonsdale: This is a lovely street to come down. If you want an alternative to all of the big shopping centers
Rick: Jermyn Street right?
Brit Lonsdale: It is, yes, Jermyn Street and Dr. Henry Jermyn who was the Earl of St. Albans. And it's full of lots of little, very individual, quintessentially English shops. It's really worth coming down here even if you haven't got the money to buy all those wonderful things that you see.
Rick: Just if you want to window shop it gives you a little elegant slice of London culture.
Brit Lonsdale: Yes, absolutely. And a lovely flavor, yes...We're walking past Swaine Adeney & Brigg, this is where members of the Royal Family buy their umbrellas, gloves and whips.
Rick: Whips! Oh, for horses.
Brit Lonsdale: Yes, of course.

[43a] Bates Hats still sells bowlers and top hats as it has for a century.

Brit Lonsdale: This is Bates, one of the lovely old shops on Jermyn Street. And they sell wonderful hats here. This is a lovely top hat that you can see here. That's the sort of thing that you might wear if you were going to the races.
Rick: Oh, going to the horse race.
Brit Lonsdale: It's going to set you back a bit.
Rick: So what would this cost me?
Brit Lonsdale: About 330 pounds. Worth every penny though, it's beautifully made.
Rick: Oh, my goodness, just under $500. Nice, a top hat for the races.
Brit Lonsdale: Now, the hats that you can see hanging on the wall here, these are Panama hats and they're the sort of thing that you might wear in summertime when you're watching the cricket, you know traditional British occupation, the crack of leather on willow, sitting on the river at Village Green with your Panama hat... This is a bowler hat. Years ago this is what you wore when you went to work. It was a standard item of hat wear. If you worked in financial institution in the city in the oldest part of London you would wear a bowler hat. Nowadays...
Rick: If you were a banker you had to have a bowler.
Brit Lonsdale: Oh, definitely. Definitely. More Laurel & Hardy I think!
Rick: Laurel & Hardy!
Brit Lonsdale: A little more Laurel & Hardy than banker.

[44] Simply wandering around London as evening approaches and people come out to play is an experience in itself. Soho is particularly lively. The people-watching is fascinating and talk about variety....

Rick: This is thriving with restaurants.
Brit Lonsdale: Yes, we're in Soho. It's full of excellent restaurants. It's a big center for media, the arts. There's a big gay community here. Always humming, always buzzing. One of the marvelous things about London is that it's such a mix. We used to have an enormous empire spanning the globe and as a result lots of different nationalities came here. This part of London is the part that we call Chinatown.
Rick: Dim Sum, this is the place.
Brit Lonsdale: Definitely. And of course Soho's all about theater. There are at least 30 theaters within a 10 minute walk from this spot, running the whole gamut musical, comedy, Shakespeare even.

[53] We're staying on a delightful — and peaceful — street in South Kensington. Hotels in London are expensive — choose carefully. In my London guidebook, I recommend the family-run Aster House. It has a friendly staff. And my room provides a good home base. To stretch my budget — especially important here in London, I stock it with a few groceries. The conservatory has a sunny Victorian elegance. And a genteel breakfast here is a fine way to start your London day.

[55] A short taxi ride away is Westminster Abbey. This most historic church in the English-speaking world is where kings and queens have been crowned and buried since 1066. While it was first built in the 11th century, much of what we see today is 14th century. When there's a royal wedding, the world looks on as, amid all this splendor, thousands of Britain's glitterati gather under these graceful Gothic arches.

[56] The centerpiece is the tomb of Edward the Confessor, who founded the abbey. And, surrounding Edward, are the tombs of 29 other kings and queens. This is the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I. Her royal orb symbolizes she was queen of the entire globe.

[56a] The abbey is filled with the remains of people who put the Great in Britain — saints, musicians, scientists, and soldiers. For lovers of English literature, strolling through Poets' Corner can be a pilgrimage in itself.

[57] King Henry VII's Lady Chapel, with its colorful windows and fanciful banners, has the festive air of a medieval pageant. The elaborate ceiling is a fine example of fan vaulting — a style that capped the Gothic age. 
At the far end, a wall of modern stained glass marks the Royal Airforce Chapel. It honors the fighter pilots of all nations who died defending Britain in 1944.

[58] With saints in stained glass, heroes in carved stone, and the remains of England's greatest citizens under the floor stones, Westminster Abbey is the national church and the religious heart of England.

[59] London's subway — fondly known as "the tube" — is one of this planet's great people‑movers and easy to master: To avoid slow-moving ticket queues, buy your tube pass from machines. Then, simply swipe yourself in and out...until your prepaid account needs topping up.

[60] Follow signs to the right platform. Visualize the layout of the city and remember: Lines are labeled north, south, east, or west. Each train line has two directions and therefore two platforms. Signs list the line, direction, and stops served by each platform.

[61] Because some tracks are shared by several lines, signboards announce which train's next and how many minutes till it arrives. Final destinations are displayed above the windshield. And always...Mind the Gap...mind the gap.

[62] Once on board, you can track your progress. Confused? Many of the locals...speak English. Our stop is King's Cross. Helpful signs show the best street exit for you, saving lots of walking. The British Library's right this way.

[63] The British Library is the national archive. The statue of Isaac Newton measuring the immensity of the universe symbolizes the library's purpose: to preserve the record of man's endless search for knowledge.

[64] The massive building fills 180 miles of shelving with over 12 million books. For sightseers, only one room matters — The Treasures Room. It showcases early gospels on papyrus; the first complete New Testament — written in Greek from the 4th century; Illuminated manuscripts — with pages lovingly illustrated by monks — some of the finest art from Europe's Middle Ages; and the Gutenberg Bible — from 1455. Gutenberg's revolutionary movable metal type made printing affordable. By bringing information to the masses, this innovation helped power Europe into the modern age.

[65] The Magna Carta — from 1215 — documents the first steps toward government by people rather than kings...and the king was forced to hang his seal on it.

[66] Cases are dedicated to the titans of English literature... showing, for instance, early editions of Shakespeare's plays.

[67] You'll see precious musical manuscripts: a hand-written score of Handel's Messiah...a Beethoven work tracing his stormy creative process... and hand-written Beatles lyrics.

[68] Ponder the evolution of maps: In 1350 this world view came with Jerusalem at the center. By 1550, with this, you could plan your next trip to England.

[69,] London is growing and its underground is growing with it. Historically most London attractions have been contained within its downtown Circle Line. But there's a new Tube network emerging and it's clear that London is shifting east.

[70] Each morning a thunderous high-tech work force surges into a district called the Docklands.

[71] Once a gritty industrial harbor, then a neglected no-man's-land, today the Docklands has been transformed. It fills a peninsula created by a bend in the Thames with gleaming skyscrapers springing out of a futuristic people zone. Canary Wharf Tower is one of the mightiest skyscrapers in all of Europe. 
[72] Workers enjoy good public transit and plenty of green spaces for relaxing. The entire ensemble sits upon a vast underground shopping mall.

[73] In the 1700s the Thames riverfront in Central London was jammed up with shipping in downtown London while this end of town was an industrial zone — stinking industries like glue making and chemical works and so on — located conveniently downwind from London. So, in about 1800 to clear the shipping out of downtown London, they built what was the world's ultimate port.

[74] The Docklands organized shipping for the vast British Empire. Evoking the days when Britannia ruled the waves, the old West India warehouses survive. But rather than trading sugar and rum, today they house the Museum of London Docklands and a row of happening restaurants. 

[77] London's Docklands illustrates how in order to fully experience the energy of a great city, you often need to get out of the historic old town and explore its modern business district.

[79] Further down the River Thames is Greenwich. Since many of its sights are free and it's cheap to get here on the tube, it makes for a great budget day out.

[80] While still well within the city limits of London, Greenwich feels like a small town. Visitors enjoy lively market streets and fascinating museums.

[81] Tudor kings, who ruled in the 15th century, favored their palace at Greenwich. Henry VIII was born here. Later kings commissioned the top architects — Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren — to beautify the town and palace.

[82] Old Royal Naval College was originally a hospital founded by King William and Queen Mary in 1692 to care for naval officers. Today, the navy's gone and the lavish place is open to the public.

[83] Originally intended as a dining hall for retired navy officers, this sumptuously decorated room features one of the largest painted ceilings in Europe — 112 feet long. It's a big propaganda scene, glorifying the building's royal founders and their defeat of the French. Under his foot, William's crushing a dark figure with a broken sword...Louis XIV. He's handing a red cap (representing liberty) to a woman holding the reins of a white horse (symbolizing Europe). Another woman hands him an olive branch, a sign of peace.

[84] The message — which you can see without craning your neck thanks to this handy mirror: King William has granted Europe liberty by defeating the French.

[86] A stately park turns an adjacent hill into an inviting people zone. From its bluff visitors enjoy sweeping views of Greenwich, the Docklands, and the distant London skyline. Crowning the hill is the Royal Observatory, founded in the late 1600s by King Charles II.

[86a] Its purpose: improving maritime navigation by more accurately charting the night sky. Visitors gain an appreciation of how exciting breakthroughs in astronomy and timekeeping led to Britain's mastery of the sea.

[87] For ships to know their location while at sea, mariners needed to know the precise time from a reference point on the globe. With this, they could solve what was called "the Problem of Longitude." After a huge effort, in 1760 John Harrison built this clock and figured it out. And by 1772 this fine timekeeper was portable and functioned without a pendulum — critical because pendulums don't work at sea.

[89] Along with marking global time, Greenwich marks the earth's prime meridian. Outside the observatory, visitors line up to grab a photo as they straddle the line — to be at precisely 0 degrees longitude, with one foot in the east hemisphere and the other in the west.

[90] A trip to London makes it easy to see how this city truly is where the world comes together.

[90a] I hope you've had a grand visit with us here in London. This is one city that's certainly worth coming back to again and again. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!

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