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.
The guards at Buckingham Palace change with much fanfare at around 11:00 almost daily in the summer and every other day for the rest of the year (no band in very wet weather). This is the spectacle every visitor to London has to see at least once: stone-faced, red-coated (or in winter, gray-coated), bearskin-hatted guards changing posts with much fanfare, in an hour-long ceremony accompanied by a brass band.
The working headquarters of the British monarchy, Buckingham Palace is where the Queen carries out her official duties as the head of state. This lavish home has been Britain’s royal residence since 1837, when the newly ascended Queen Victoria moved in. When today’s Queen is at home, the royal standard flies (a red, yellow, and blue flag); otherwise, the Union Jack flaps in the wind. The Queen opens her palace to the public — but only in August and September, when she’s out of town.
The Palace of Westminster, this Neo-Gothic icon of London and the royal residence from 1042 to 1547, is now the meeting place of the legislative branch of government. Like the US Capitol in Washington, DC, the complex is open to visitors. You can view parliamentary sessions from the public galleries in either the bickering House of Commons or the sleepy House of Lords. Or you can tour the historic building on your own or with a guide (through a few closely monitored rooms).
The Horse Guards change daily at 10:30 (9:30 on Sun), and a colorful dismounting ceremony takes place daily at 16:00. The rest of the day, they just stand there — making for boring video (at Horse Guards Parade on Whitehall, directly across from the Banqueting House, between Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street, Tube: Westminster). Buckingham Palace pageantry is canceled when it rains, but the Horse Guards change regardless of the weather.
This excellent sight offers a fascinating walk through the underground headquarters of the British government’s fight against the Nazis in the darkest days of the Battle for Britain. It has two parts: the war rooms themselves, and a top-notch museum dedicated to the man who steered the war from here, Winston Churchill.
Displaying an unsurpassed 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 church, built in the 1720s with a Gothic spire atop a Greek-type temple, is an oasis of peace on wild and noisy Trafalgar Square. St. Martin cared for the poor. “In the fields” was where the first church stood on this spot (in the 13th century), between Westminster and The City. Stepping inside, you still feel a compassion for the needs of the people in this neighborhood — the church serves the homeless and houses a Chinese community center.
You can climb the 331 steps inside the column, Wren’s 202-foot-tall tribute to London’s 1666 Great Fire, for a monumental view of The City.
Wren’s most famous church is the great St. Paul’s, its elaborate interior capped by a 365-foot dome. Despite 57 nights of bombing, the Nazis failed to destroy the cathedral, thanks to St. Paul’s volunteer fire watchmen, who stayed on the dome. 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.
Well-run by friendly and accommodating Simon and Leonie Tan, Aster House has a cheerful lobby, lounge, and breakfast room. Its 13 rooms are comfy and quiet, with TV, phone, and air-conditioning. Enjoy breakfast or just lounging in the whisper-elegant Orangery, a glassy greenhouse.
The greatest church in the English-speaking world, Westminster Abbey is the place where England’s kings and queens have been crowned and buried since 1066. Like a stony refugee camp huddled outside St. Peter’s Pearly Gates, Westminster Abbey has many stories to tell. The steep admission includes a fine audioguide, worthwhile if you have the time and interest. To experience the church more vividly, take a live tour, or attend evensong or an organ concert.
Here, in just two rooms, are the literary treasures of Western civilization, from early Bibles to Shakespeare's Hamlet to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to the Magna Carta. You’ll see the Lindisfarne Gospels transcribed on an illuminated manuscript, Beatles lyrics scrawled on the back of a greeting card, and Leonardo da Vinci's genius sketched into his notebooks. The British Empire built its greatest monuments out of paper; it’s through literature that England made her most lasting and significant contribution to civilization and the arts.
This modern and interesting museum, which fills an old sugar warehouse, gives the Docklands historic context. In telling the story of the world’s leading 19th-century port, it also conveys the story of London.
Now that the Royal Navy has moved out of this grand complex, the public is invited to view the college’s elaborate Painted Hall and Chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul, which are in symmetrical buildings that face each other overlooking a broad riverfront park.
Located on the prime meridian (0° longitude), the observatory is famous as the point from which all time is measured. A visit here gives you a taste of the sciences of astronomy, timekeeping, and seafaring — and how they all meld together — along with great views over Greenwich and the distant London skyline. The Royal Observatory grounds are made up of the observatory (with the prime meridian and three worthy exhibits), the Weller Astronomy Galleries, and the Peter Harrison Planetarium.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re having a jolly good time with lots of royal pageantry…in London. Thanks for joining us.
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, check out 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.
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.
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.
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.
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: the Houses of Parliament.
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.
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.
All across Europe Neo-Gothic was a reaction against the Neoclassical Age of Revolution, which challenged royalty and religion. With this less-cerebral, more romantic style, Victorian England reaffirmed its royal and Christian roots.
People call this famous tower “Big Ben,” but it’s actually the “Queen Elizabeth Tower.” Ben is the 13-ton bell behind the clock.
Here’s a fun way to make your sister envious:
Rick: Hi, Jan. It’s Rick. Audio postcard from London.
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.”
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.
Prime ministers — like Winston Churchill — have long lived and worked on Whitehall. Here, Churchill is wrapped in the iconic trenchcoat he wore as he led Britain through the dark days of World War II.
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. Audioguides give it meaning.
Audioguide: 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 six years, and went home. And that’s the way the room stayed.
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.
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.
You’ll get a taste of Winston’s irascibility, wit, work ethic, even the industry of kitschy knickknacks he inspired.
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.
The year was 1805. Napoleon, with his mighty army, was poised, just on the other side of the English Channel, preparing to invade. Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the south, off of the coast of Spain, Admiral Nelson defeated the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. Because Britannia ruled the waves, Napoleon was stopped.
Bronze battle reliefs — made of melted-down French cannon — decorate the column. These huggable lions are a hit with visitors.
Trafalgar Square marks the very center of London. Big Ben is just a short walk down there, past Admiral Nelson. Buckingham Palace: straight down that street. Soho, where all the nightlife is: just six blocks over there. And the National Gallery has the greatest collection of paintings anywhere in Britain. Right there is St. Martin-in-the-Fields — a church that’s famous for its classical-music concerts, and the charity work it does in this community.
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.
We’re entering the historic core of London: the 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.
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 spearhead the project. And the city that rose from the ashes of that fire was decorated by the Wren-designed spires of some 50 churches. Christopher Wren spent four decades — the rest of his life — working on his grand vision.
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 World War II.
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 1800s, 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.
While the church’s survival in World War II 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 US rocket, circa 1958, shooting up to the stars.
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.
Climbing the dome is like climbing a 30-story building…with no elevator. And the reward: a commanding view of London.
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.
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 [Circus], the city’s most touristy square, has a magnetic attraction all its own. With its tipsy, yet somehow balanced statue of Eros in the center, this is where worlds of temptations fan out in all directions.
While Piccadilly seems tacky, just a few steps away is a more elegant slice of London. And to enjoy this, we’re joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Britt Lonsdale.
Britt: This is a lovely street to come down, if you want an alternative to all of the big shopping centers.
Rick: Jermyn Street, right?
Britt: It is, yes, Jermyn Street, named after Dr. Henry Jermyn, who was the Earl of St. Albans. And it’s full of lots of beautiful 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.
Britt: 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.
Britt: Yes, of course.
Bates Hats sells bowlers and top hats, as it has for a century.
Britt: 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.
Britt: It’s going to set you back a bit.
Rick: So what would this cost me?
Britt: About £330. Worth every penny though; it’s beautifully made.
Rick: Oh, my goodness, just under $500. Nice, a top hat for the races.
Britt: 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 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.
Britt: Oh, definitely. Definitely. More Laurel & Hardy I think!
Rick: Laurel & Hardy!
Britt: A little more Laurel & Hardy than banker.
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.
Britt: 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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Air Force Chapel. It honors the fighter pilots of all nations who died defending Britain in 1944.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fourth 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.
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.
Cases are dedicated to the titans of English literature, showing, for instance, early editions of Shakespeare’s plays. 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.
Ponder the evolution of maps: In 1350 this view came with Jerusalem at the center. By 1550, with this, you could plan your next trip to England.
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.
Each morning a thunderous high-tech work force surges into a district called the Docklands.
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.
Workers enjoy good public transit and plenty of green spaces for relaxing. The entire ensemble sits upon a vast underground shopping mall.
In the 1700s the Thames riverfront was jammed up with shipping in downtown London, while this end of town was an industrial zone, with the stinky industries — glue making, chemical works, and so on — conveniently located just downwind from the rest of the city. In order to relieve all the congestion in downtown London, they decided to replace the industries out here with what became the world’s ultimate port.
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.
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.
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.
While still well within the city limits of London, Greenwich feels like a small town. Visitors enjoy lively market streets and fascinating museums.
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.
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.
Originally intended as a dining hall for retired naval 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.
The message — which you can see without craning your neck with the help of this handy mirror: King William granted Europe liberty by defeating the French.
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.
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. 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.
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.
A trip to London makes it easy to see how this city truly is where the world comes together.
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’!
Rick: What’s not to like about that?
Rick: Very dashing, huh?
Rick: Not quite “dashing” is the word…
Britt: See you next stop!
Film crew: Oh, there’s our bumpkin!