After my last post, which turned out to be far more controversial than I expected, I’ve decided to go for a less contentious topic.
I am going back to England for the first time in 3 years, and am in the midst of deciding what to see. I’ll be going in August, so thank god the Olympics will be over and the crowds might have dispersed a bit.
There are certain things that I think every tourist should see, and certain things I think are overrated. So I’m going to share my personal recommendations, but would also love some ideas for attractions and events that are off the beaten track.
I’ve already made a post outlining my favorite parts of the UK, and I do hope to go back to some of them. But first things first, what’s worth seeing if you’re new to London, only there for a short time, want to see as much as possible, etc.
My top 5 recommendations to See/Do:
1-Parliament and Westminster Abbey
The lines are very long in the summer, but I have to say it’s worth it. These are, arguably, the two most important buildings in the country, and they are right next to each other. One has seen the coronation of 36 different monarchs, dating back to William the Conqueror in 1066. The other has seen the gradual shift of power away from the monarchy (and the clergy) to the hands of the Lords, and then to the hands of the Commons. I was particularly happy to see Poet’s Corner inside Westminster Abbey, where writers from Geoffrey Chaucer to Elizabeth Gaskell to Ted Hughes are interred or memorialized. I do, however, recommend going in the off-season or early on a weekday, if possible.
My favorite part about (most of) the museums in London is that they’re FREE. Not because I don’t value learning or museums in general, but because this takes off the pressure to see everything in one day, in one go. Which means if you have 20 minutes, you have time to see the Rosetta Stone, the second best collection of Egyptian artifacts (Cairo is, logically, a bit better), pieces off the Parthenon, as well as the same artifacts that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats to write some of their most famous poems.
This is an area of South Kensington so called because almost every important building you see was created by Prince Albert, or in his memory. If you don’t know, Albert was Queen Victoria’s husband. He urged the purchase of this area of London with the profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851, and tons of public buildings were erected on it. It’s a major cultural center and there is truly something for everything. Attractions include the Albert Memorial, the Science Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall.
4-The Royal Parks–
I can’t narrow it down to just one, but there are lots of parks in London. The Royal Parks refers to the areas technically hereditary property of the crown. These were hunting grounds for the monarchy back in the day. My favorite’s include Hyde Park, St. James’, and Regent’s, but really the point of these parks is just to have some green space in the city. It’s a really green city, with small parks and squares dotted around everywhere. On the first proper Spring day, you see people in droves, sitting in the grass with their shoes off, reading or sleeping or eating picnics. It’s lovely.
5-The South Bank.
None of the individual attractions of the South Bank are my favorite things in London, but if you add them together, along with the view of the Thames, the street performers, and the Saturday flea markets, it’s an awesome atmosphere. Skip the lines and just spend the afternoon walking. If you start from the Tower Bridge, you can walk past City Hall (called Darth Vader’s helmet b/c of its shape), past the reconstructed Globe theatre and the Tate Modern museum (worth a glance, even if you don’t get modern art), past Waterloo station and into the ‘culture complex’ which contains the National Theatre, galleries, festival halls, dining, the British Film Institute, past the Eye, the aquarium, and all the way to Westminster Bridge with its infamous views. After that long walk, take in dinner and then hit a show at the National, or walk a few blocks to the Old Vic. Trust me, that’s a good day right there.
Honorable mention–St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millenium Bridge, Chancery Lane and the Royal Courts of Justice, Kensington Palace, Hampstead Heath.
My top 5 to AVOID:
1-The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace
I think the palace is worth a look, but I fail to see the attraction of crowding around tons of people to watch a very sophisticated shift change.
2-A show in the West End
When people talk about London theatre, I’m always interested. I took a theatre course while I was there, with the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington. It was awesome. But we went to see real theatre, not the musicals on the West End. I admit that I dislike musicals in general, but that is not the only reason this is on my list. First of all, they are too expensive. About the same price you would pay for a Broadway show in NYC. But if you go instead to the Old Vic (or the New Vic), to the National, or to smaller theatres in Soho, you can see amazing plays with some real substance for much less money. If you’re under 25 (I think it’s 25), you can get tickets for free or £2-4 online to see shows at the National. And you can see big names there. I saw a play at the Old Vic with Richard Dreyfuss; I saw one at the National with Gary Cole, who I love. You can see 3 or 4 of these plays for what you would pay to see a West End musical like Billy Elliot or Oliver. Plus, a lot of the West End shows are just a London cast of an American musical, and why not just see that at home if you’re so inclined?
This is the London equivalent of Times Square, and appeals to me just as little as its American counterpoint. A bunch of tourists taking pictures of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not building and the Anteros sculpture. Tons of shops with trite souvenirs for sale. Pass.
I don’t really mind MT’s, and I had to go get my picture taken with the Beatles, but the lines are so incredibly long that it is in no way worth it. It’s also a bit pricy, after you wait for several hours to get in.
5-The London Eye
I do like the London Eye, so it hurts me to put it on the list. But if you go to London anytime between April and September, the lines are incredibly long. It’s nice to get to see the city, and they offer some cool private party options if you wanted something special, but for the money and the lines, it’s not worth it just to go on a Ferris wheel. If you’re there in the off-season, then go for it. Otherwise, give it a pass.
Honorable mentions–Harrod’s (way too crowded, way too expensive, not even owned by a Brit anymore). Trafalgar Square (soo crowded. If you’re going to go, go in off-hours or in the winter. Tower of London (the Tower is worth a look, but no way was I going to wait in the line to see the Crown Jewels).
So, I have seen all of these things, and am going back to a city as a tourist where I used to live. I’m not sure what to see or do. There are things I missed the first time around. I never got to go inside St. Paul’s cathedral. There are things I want to see again–The Camden market, for example. Decisions! I have a lot more money this trip than during my time there as a student, so I plan to eat some good food and enjoy myself a bit more this time.
I’m also really pleased to say that, this time, I’m going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival! So excited. I cannot wait to see the next big star doing some sort of weird anti-establishment play like Hamlet if he was a transvestite prostitute whose pimp was killed by his business partner, etc. Plus, Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world and I am so thrilled to go back.
If anyone has any suggestions for what to see, where to eat, what crazy performances I should see in Edinburgh, I’d love to hear them.