London: Mod and Trad

In this program, we go to London to 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 beachcombing. Strolling the trendy South Bank of the Thames takes us from the Tate Modern to the dizzying London Eye.

Travel Details

Apsley House

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).

Victoria and Albert Museum

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).

The British Museum

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).

National Gallery

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).

Tower Bridge

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).

Tower of London

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).

Gilbert Collection

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.

Tate Modern

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 Eye

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).  


See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the Best of Europe. We're exploring London again — a city that just keeps on getting better. Thanks for joining us.

London. It's quintessentially English and yet cosmopolitan. It's a city where the new and modern seem to mingle enthusiastically with the old and traditional. I keep coming back and always find a fresh travel experience.

We'll check out the new (like the Millennium Bridge and the British Museum's Great Court) and admire the old (like a Leonardo and bits of the Parthenon). We'll respect tradition and do some shopping. And after a bite of traditional English cheese, we'll hike the newly revived South Bank of the Thames.

London — straddling the River Thames — is vast, but everything we'll see is within a few minutes by taxi, bus or tube: Hyde Park, Harrods, the British Museum and National Gallery, and the venerable Tower of London. We'll walk from St. Paul's across the Millennium Bridge to visit the Tate Modern gallery and attractions of the South Bank.

London was cutting edge in the '60s and it's back — in vogue again for fashion, architecture, the arts and food.

Smoky pubs are giving way to trendy cafes. London's City Hall seems to endorse the wave of contemporary architecture which studs the busy skyline and seems to clamor for attention.

Strolling through London's parks is a reminder that so many people call London not a world class sightseeing destination, but simply home. The parks — like just about everything in the city — sit on a foundation of history. These inviting green spaces, once the hunting grounds of kings, are now the sunbathing grounds of commoners. Sprawling Hyde Park (on a sunny day) is particularly crowded. And these Londoners may not realize that they very well could be speaking French if it wasn't for the heroics of the man who lived here.

Apsley House was the mansion of the Duke of Wellington who beat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.

The duke's guests were greeted by the man he defeated — a larger than life, nearly naked Napoleon. The Duke of Wellington was once the most famous man in Europe. His lavish living quarters are embellished by gifts showered on him by a greatful Europe — including 200 paintings still displayed much as the art-loving duke hung them.

Wellington's victory over Napoleon and the French set the stage for Britain's glorious Victorian age — when it was the world's only superpower and the sun never set on its empire. This was the reign of Queen Victoria, who ruled from 1837 to 1901.

The Victorian age was an exuberant time. The neo-Gothic Albert Memorial reminds London how Victoria's beloved husband Albert (the only one who called her "Vickie") did much to promote technology and culture during that industrial boom time. The statues at the base herald the great accomplishments of Britain's 19th-century glory days.

Albert died in 1861. His wife, Queen Victoria, was possibly the world's most determined mourner. She wore black for the standard two years — and then tacked on 38 more…for good measure.

Taking mourning to new heights, she required that the city's once colorful finials be painted black — as they remain today. The queen built grand monuments to her Albert, like the Royal Albert Hall.

The immense Victoria and Albert Museum is named for the royal couple who did so much to support the many triumphs of their day. Like many of London's top attractions — it's free.

The V&A grew out of the Great Exhibition of 1851. This first "world's fair" was housed in a giant temporary glass and steel people's palace. It celebrated the Industrial Revolution and the greatness of Britain.

The theme of the Britain Galleries is "style, taste and design in Britain from 1500 through 1900."

Four hundred years of English fashion history are corseted into a series of display cases.

This painting, featuring this garment from around 1600, was typical formal day wear — linen and silk embroidred with silver thread. Night caps were fashionable among aristocratic men. This tortoise shell and silver toiletries kit shows that in 1640, grooming was as important as dressing magnificently. While watches were expensive and didn't keep time well — they really impressed friends.

In the 1670s, shoes were called "straights" and there was no difference between right and left. Whale bone and lacing kept torsos flat and long. Fans were tools for flirting. It was said that "a woman's weapon was a fan, a man's was a sword and the fan did more damage."

In the 1740s a wealthy woman's court dress was an extravagant display of wealth — even if it meant she entered rooms sideways. As was typical of rococo embroidery, the flowers featured are botanically accurate.

The collection illustrates the immensity of the British empire. The India collection is veddy veddy good. And the Chinese hall is really stunning.

The hall of casts is filled with plaster copies of Europe's greatest statuary — made for the benefit of London's 19th-century art students who couldn't afford a rail pass. Students could compare the Renaissance genius of Donatello, who sculpted the first male nude since Roman times, and that of Michelangelo a century later, with his more heroic David.

This David came with an accessory — a clip on fig leaf. As this was the Victorian Age, when royal ladies visited it was hung on the statue for modesty.

If the delights of the V&A wet your shopping appetite, London's Victorian galleries evoke shopping in the 19th century. And all over London you'll find inviting little shops for whatever treasure you fancy.

Harrods is London's vast and venerable department store. It's huge — 300 departments, a million square feet on seven floors — yet classy.

The food halls with their Edwardian tiled walls, exuberant displays, tempting eateries, and staff in period costumes are lots of fun.

A small shrine invites visitors to pay their respects to Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed, whose father owns Harrods. The glass is still stained with wine from their last dinner. Dodi purchased this engagement ring the day before their tragic death.

The Egyptian Escalator is a reminder that Mr. al-Fayed is from Egypt, and spent a fortune revitalizing this venerable department store. It takes you up into Harrods shopping wonderland. You'll find everything from vast halls of designer womens wear to traditional men's wear to a $12,000 mini Jaguar — for the kid who has everything. Some cap their visit with a high tea in the Georgian restaurant.

Huge European cities like London are made managable by excellent subway systems. London's impressive "Tube" takes us anywhere in the center for less than the cost of a cucumber sandwich at Harrods.

At the peak of its empire, when the Union Jack flew over a quarter of the world, England collected art and artifacts as fast as it collected colonies. This place, the British Museum, is the showcase for those extraordinary treasures.

Its centerpiece is the Great Court — an impressive example of Europe's knack for preserving old architectural spaces by making them fresh, modern, and inviting. The venerable Reading Room — a temple of knowledge and high thinking — was the study hall for Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and T.S. Eliot. Karl Marx researched in this room while writing Das Kapital.

The British Museum is the chronicle of Western civilization. You can trace the rise and fall of three great civilizations — ancient Egypt, Assyria and Greece — in one fascinating morning.

The Egyptian collection is the greatest outside of Egypt. It's kicked off with the Rosetta Stone, which provided the breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Discovered in 1799, it told the same story in three languages — Greek, a modern form of Egyptian and ancient Egyptian.

This enabled archeologists to compare the two languages they understood, with the ancient Egyptian — which was yet to be deciphered. Thanks to this stone, they broke the code, opening the door to understanding a great civilization.

The Egypt we think of — pyramids, mummies, pharaohs and guys who walk funny — lasted from 3000 to 1000 B.C. It was a time of unprecidented stability — very little change in government, religion or arts. Imagine 2,000 years of Eisenhower.

Egyptian art was art with a purpose. It placated the gods. The entire pantheon — a cosmic zoo of deities — was sculpted and worshipped. And it served as propaganda for the pharoahs. They ruled with unquestioned authority and were considered gods on earth.

And much of the art was for dead people — for a smoother departure and a happier afterlife. In ancient Egypt, you could take it with you (that included your body) if properly mummified — and even your servants (carved miniatures apparently got them on board with you).

Corpses were carefully mummified: the internal organs were removed and put in jars. Then the body was preserved with pitch, dried and wrapped from head to toe.

The wooden coffin was painted with magic spells and images thought to be useful in the next life.

The finely decorated coffins were put into stone sarcophagai. These were then placed inside a tomb — along with the allotted baggage for that ultimate trip. The great pyramids were just giant tombs for Egypt's most powerful — carefully designed to protect their precious valuables for the voyage into the next life.

In its waning years, Egypt was conquered by Assyria — present-day Iraq. These winged lions guarded an Assyrian palace nearly 900 years before Christ. Assyria considered itself the lion of early Middle Eastern civilizations. It was a nation of hardy and disciplined warriors.

Here, a conquered enemy is paraded before an Assyrian king. Above the prisoners' heads are the booty: elephant tusks, metal pots and so on.

Assyrian kings showed off their power in battle and by hunting lions.

This dying lioness, roaring in pain, was carved as Assyria, falling to the next mighty power — Babylon. History is a succession of seemingly invincible super powers which all eventually fell.

Greece, during its Golden Age — roughly 400 B.C. — set the tone for much of Western Civilization to follow. The city of Athens was the site of a cultural explosion which, within a couple of generations, essentially invented our notion of democracy, theater, literature, mathematics, philosophy, science and so much more.

A great remnant of Greece's glory days is the sculpture which once decorated the Parthenon — a temple on the Acropolis hill in Athens. Here a long procession of citizens honor the goddess Athena. The carvings of the temples pediment — even in their ruined state — are a masterpiece showing gods and goddesses celebrating the birthday of Athena.

The Greeks prided themselves on creating order out of chaos, here symbolized by the struggle between half-animal barbarians and civilized humans. First, the centaurs get the upper hand. Then, the humans rally and drive them off. In Golden Age Greece, civilization finally triumphed over barbarism.

And where did this heroic triumph eventually lead? Covent Garden. This boutiquish shopping district is a never-ending carnival of people enjoying life.

Nearby, Trafalgar Square is another vibrant people zone.

And overlooking it is the National Gallery, with London's greatest collection of European paintings. The National Gallery lets you tour the sweeping story of European art without ever crossing the Channel.

From medieval altarpieces, which told Bible stories in rich yet two-dimensional detail, art enters the Renaissance.

Here the Italian master, Crivelli, pulls out all the stops to show realistic detail while portraying the annunciation. Notice the playfulness he employs to show off his mastery of 3-D…from the foreground you go back, back, back and then…bam, you've got a pickle in your face.

And Renaissance painters revel in pre-Christian classical scenes. Here, another Italian master, Sandro Botticelli, paints Mars taking a break from war…succumbing to Venus and the delights of love, while impish satyrs play innocently with the discarded tools of death. It was the dawn of the Renaissance and there was an air of playful optimism.

Leonardo da Vinci takes holy Mary and Jesus out of the gold leaf never-never land of medieval altarpieces and brings them right down to a real world we can relate to. Leonardo's subtle play of light on the faces is masterful.

And the National Gallery's delightful sweep of art history continues: From Baroque — with dramatic fantasies (this one thanks to Rubens) — to frilly Rococo decadence. The collection continues as Impressionists like Renoir capture the breezy ambiance of a boat ride and Cezanne takes us to the brink of the modern world.

Many of London's top sights front the Thames River, which has become a transportation thoroughfare for tourists. We're sailing from Westminster, under Big Ben, to the Tower of London…enjoying an entertaining narration with the views.

Tower Bridge looks medieval, but it was actually built with a steel skeleton in 1894 in faux-medieval style — to match its famous neighbor.

The Tower of London goes back to the Norman conquest.

William, duke of Normandy became William the Conquer when he crossed the English Channel in 1066 and took the throne of England. He had this awesome…and really awesome-in-its-day fortress built.

It's purpose: put 15 feet of stone between him and his new subjects. This original tower — the White Tower — gave the castle complex its name. The style of the age was Romanesque…which the English call Norman for the invaders who imported it.

This charming chapel of St. John — dating to 1080 and one of the oldest in England — provides a neat look at pure Norman architecture — round Roman-style arches and thick walls.

You'll see an intimidating collection of medieval weaponry and armor. Your entry includes a look at the most dazzling crown jewels in Europe — no cameras allowed…the line starts here….

...and an entertaining tour with one of the Yeoman warders, or Beefeaters.

The tower marks the oldest part of London — a district called "The City." Today this is the financial center of Britain. But these days bank headquarters fill shiny skyscrapers and many of the elegant old bank buildings are fancy pubs — vaults now filled with kegs of real English ale.

In pubs you order at the bar. Lager is the cold carbonated American style beer. Ales and bitters are the more traditional English choice. Only confused tourists leave a tip.

While the tube takes me on long jaunts underground, buses are great for quick hops. And, when armed with my cheap all day transit pass, buses work perfectly for hopping on and off between sights. Take advantage of the system and London gets much easier.

In a move to overcome its notorious traffic problems, London levies a "congestion charge" on private cars entering the city center. This seems to leave the center mostly to the taxis and buses — things move along a little quicker…and the money raised subsidizes public transit: giving people more departures and cheaper fares.

Somerset House, a grand 18th-century civic palace, now houses several fine galleries and museums.

The Gilbert Collection displays some of the finest in European decorative arts.

Snuff boxes are a highlight. These contained powdered and scented snuff tobacco — a craze among the aristocracy in 18th-century Europe. These fancy little boxes were given as gifts — like jewelry — especially between diplomats and royalty. A fashionable man would have a different snuff box for every occasion.

Frederick the Great owned over 300 boxes. His best — while considered part of the Prussian crown jewels — are here in London. This one — mother of pearl studded with precious stones and a profusion of diamonds — dates from 1765.

Micro-mosaics are another exqusite art form from the 1700s. These were souvenirs for aristocrats making the Grand Tour. Scenes featured their favorite sights, like postcards tourists pick up today. Rome was the most popular destination featured. The pieces are so intricate that the museum provides magnifying glasses. On a smaller scale, aristocratic women brought mosaics home where their favorite jeweler fashioned them into delights such as these.

The Millennium Bridge connects the City of London with the South Bank of the Thames. It's a suspension bridge, but its pylons veer out in order not to obliterate the fine views. Nicknamed the "blade of light" for its sleek design, it connects old and new: St. Paul's Cathedral with the great Tate Modern art museum.

The Tate Modern, opened to celebrate the millennium, fills an old power station. It kicked off the 21st century with a high-voltage collection of art from the 20th.

Visitors enjoy an entertaining cocktail of Dalí, Picasso, Warhol, pop art and Dada. The audio guide lets you wander through the collection accompanied by the voice of the artists describing their work.

The South Bank of the Thames — once a depressed industrial zone — now booms with restaurants, condos and cultural centers, all tied together by the Jubilee Promenade. This riverside lane — popular with strollers, joggers and bikers — stretches from the Tower Bridge to Big Ben with plenty of curiosities and trendy pubs along the way. And at low tide you can actually do some beach combing.

Look at this. These are my favorites — it's a broken stem from a little clay pipe…probably from a couple of centuries ago when tobacco was sold with disposable little one-use pipes. These tiles were from houses before the advent of slate roofs.

And just a block inland, at the Borough Market, you can feel a little of the grit of the South Bank before its revitalization. A thousand years ago, farmers brought fresh goods to the city gates. Today the descendent of London's oldest vegetable market fills this Victorian arcade.

This gourmet cheese shop keeps its devoted following happy and introduces visitors to fine English cheeses with a passion.

Our riverside walk finishes with a classic view of Big Ben and the Halls of Parliament. And, for a cheap and easy flight over London, we're riding the London Eye.

The world's largest observation wheel is designed like a giant bicycle wheel. A pan-European undertaking, it's made with British steel, Dutch engineering and German, French and Italian parts. It runs efficiently and almost silently as visitors enjoy a 30-minute once-around rotation. From the top of the 450-foot high wheel — the highest public viewpoint in London — Big Ben looks small and one of the world's greatest cities seems to stretch on and on forever.

London. It's a city you can enjoy coming back to…for the rest of your life. Thanks for joining with us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.