London Travel Information
Here's some travel information for first-time visitors to London. London can be an intimidating city, but it's also one of the world's most fascinating places.
London attracts more American visitors than any other European city. Dig deep enough and you'll find Roman, Saxon and Medieval remnants but, you'll also find skyscrapers and imposing Victorian architecture. The past is alive and well in London, you just have to know how to look for it. Over the centuries, all the outlying villages have become consolidated into one huge and wonderful city. The size alone can intimidate the first time visitor. Here's a few suggestions to make your first journey to London stress free.
Take an orientation tour. Get your bearings by taking an orientation tour, such as those offered on the red double-decker buses. Take the tour on the very first afternoon, or the next morning at the latest.
Be sure your accommodations are near a subway (tube) stop. Don't even think about renting a car within the city. Streets are typically congested, drivers are aggressive and parking is nearly nonexistent. Not to mention you'd be driving in the left lane. Try to stay within a ten minute, (or less) walk from a subway stop. For convenience, purchase a subway pass, which allows speedy entrance and exit of the subway. Buying individual tickets will slow you down and cost more over the long run.
Study a city map and subway map before leaving home. You need not be an expert, just get a feel for the place to lessen confusion. For example, Tower Bridge is on the East side of the city, and Kensington Gardens is on the West side of the city, and so on.
Don't expect to cover all the sites of the city in one trip. You could return to London five times and still not see everything the city has to offer. On your first trip, narrow down your list to a manageable number. Traveling within the city, even with their efficient subway system, will still take a chunk of time from your day. Going from one section of the city to another could take forty minutes to an hour. In other words, don't plan to see such major sites as the British Museum, Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and the Tower of London all in a single day. Unrealistic sightseeing schedules will leave you frustrated and exhausted.
Plan for crowds. London gets millions of visitors year-round, not just in the summer months. Don't kid yourself, even if you go in November or January, the tourists will be there in full force.
There are a few "must-sees" for any first time visitor to London. Here's a list.
Changing of the Guard: This is perhaps London's greatest spectacle and one dating back hundreds of years. It takes place year round outside Buckingham Palace. The Palace itself, the Queen's official residence, is open each year for two months in late summer. Visitors can see the magnificent State Rooms containing some of the Queen's fine collection of paintings and furniture.
The Tower of London: Home of the famous Yeomen Warders or Beefeaters, the tower has been a fortress, palace, prison and zoo. The most historic part, the White Tower, was built in the time of William the Conqueror and is more than 900 years old. The priceless crown jewels are on display, as well as new displays of armor. To avoid the long lines at the jewels, arrive at 9:00 a.m. and go straight to the jewels. You'll also want to take the free Beefeater tour which lasts about an hour. Other famous sights at the Tower include the immense black ravens and Traitors' Gate.
The British Museum: As the oldest public museum in the world, this mammoth place also claims to be the most visited of all museums in Britain. Highlights include the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the Magna Carta and Egyptian mummies. The museum was founded in 1753 by an Act of Parliament from the collections of Sir Hans Sloane. If it all seems overwhelming, take a "highlights" tour, then come back later to see your favorites in-depth.
Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral: Westminster Abbey is one of Britain's finest Gothic buildings and the scene of coronations, marriages, and burials of British monarches. Built between the 13th and 16th centuries, this church, with its great rose windows, outstanding height and flying buttresses, seems to have been inspired by the great cathedrals of Rheims and Amiens of France. Well-produced Walkman tours are available or you can join a 90-minute tour with a human guide.
St. Paul's: London's classical cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is famous for being the site of Prince Charles and Diana's wedding. It was built between 1675 and 1710 and features the whispering gallery and the crypt, in which many famous individuals are buried. A word of warning, the whispering gallery requires walking up 259 steps.
Tower Bridge and Big Ben: Perhaps the two most photographed sites in London, most first time visitors make time to see both. Although not old by London standards, (opened in 1894) Tower Bridge is the city's most beloved bridge, while Big Ben is often considered the city's landmark.
When you are in London, you're in one of the world's most exciting cities. Just walking and looking can be an unforgettable experience. Like Samuel Johnson said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford."