As Samuel Johnson once said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”…and he was right, London indeed offers endless possibilities for both locals and visitors.
A first time visit to this cosmopolitan city will only scratch the surface and many people will come back time and time again as there is always something new to see or do: a new show, new shops, restaurants and attractions opening.
A good starting point to begin to get to know London is probably Piccadilly Circus: sitting on the steps under Eros statue watching the world go by in the shadow of the bright lights of those famous neon signs (now replaced by more modern LED displays).
From here there are a number of options: the shopaholics will probably walk up Regent Street; trendy shops like Hollister, Burberry and the world’s famous Hamleys toy store are all located along this street. It crosses Oxford Street at the very busy Oxford Circus. London main shopping street, Oxford Street is busy all year round but particularly in the run up to Christmas when the big department stores like Selfridges and John Lewis unveil their sumptuously decorated windows.
For those looking for a respite from the crowded shops and traffic, it is just a short walk to Marble Arch and Hyde Park one of the many green spaces in London.
It is like moving from the city to the countryside in an instant, mingling with the roller skaters, the joggers and families feeding the ducks in the Serpentine; this popular boating lake in the middle of the park can be crossed by boarding a solar-powered boat; the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain is also nearby. A popular activity on Sundays, is the chance for anyone to express their opinions (within the law) to crowds who gather to hear from them at Speakers’ Corner, an area of Hyde Park near March Arch.
London is famous for its ethnic neighborhoods: Brick Lane home of the Bangladeshi community is a street lined with curry restaurants and in recent years edgy art galleries; on Sundays, market stalls selling clothes, bags and jewelry can be found all along this street.
On Edgware Road, the aromas of perfumes and spices mix with the smoke coming from shisha cafes in this mainly Middle Eastern neighborhood, with a vast array of restaurants serving the best of Lebanese dishes among other delicacies from the Middle East.
London’s Chinatown is another neighborhood worth a visit where good quality and inexpensive meals can be enjoyed at all hours, popular with the post-theater crowds and the late night revelers, its window displays include roasted ducks and intricately decorated sweets. It is here that every here the Chinese New Year is celebrated with a colorful parade.
A swipe of the Oyster card (a rechargeable travel card very useful to travel around London), and a short bus ride (depending on traffic!) will take you to Trafalgar Square, a pedestrianized space with fountains, lions statues and Nelson’s Column topped with a statue of Horatio Nelson, the famous Admiral who died heroically in the Battle of Trafalgar.
On the north side of the square it’s the National Gallery and St.Martin-in-the-Fields church with the adjacent Cafe in the Crypt providing a welcome respite from walking around the city.
Before getting a closer look of the most famous clock tower in the world, it is better to leave Trafalgar Square through Admiralty Arch and walk along the Mall to Buckingham Palace. The monument in front of the palace is the Victoria Memorial, marble statues around a central pylon with a gilded Winged Victory at the top, it commemorates Queen Victoria.
Buckingham Palace is open to the public in summer when the Royal Family is away to Balmoral on holiday. The famous ceremony of the Changing of the Guard is held outside the Palace to the delight of tourists who crowd the area to get a glimpse of the guards and their horses.
St.James’ Park opposite the Palace is another oasis in the city; home to swans, pelicans and the ubiquitous camera-friendly squirrels it is a popular spot especially on a sunny day.
From the Blue Bridge in the middle of the park there are beautiful views towards Buckingham Palace on one side and Horse Guards Parade on the other.
From St.James’s Park, on the other side of Horse Guards Parade (the site of the Trooping the Color ceremony which marks the Queen’s official birthday), is Whitehall where a number of Government buildings can be found.
The Prime Minister’s residence is at Number 10 Downing Street off Whitehall; the street is not accessible to the general public but, people are allowed to stand at the gates and try to catch a glimpse of politicians getting in and out of Downing Street.
The south end of Whitehall becomes Parliament Street, leading to Parliament Square where a number of statues in memory of great men like Winston Churchill and the much loved Nelson Mandela can be seen.
On one side of the square, is the imposing Westminster Abbey where Princess Diana funeral and the Royal Wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge took place.
On the other side is what is left of the ancient Palace of Westminster,now housing the Houses of Parliament home to the British Government. The Queen makes the trip from Buckingham Palace to the Parliament on the day of the State Opening of Parliament when crowds gather to enjoy the pomp and ceremony and get the chance to see the monarch up close.
A good view of the building and Elizabeth Tower can be enjoyed day or night by crossing Westminster Bridge.
And it’s on the South Bank where we find one of the city’s main attractions: The London Eye. A Ferris wheel that offers views of London from the top, stretching all the way to Windsor and its castle on a clear day.
For a different perspective, a boat trip on the river Thames is highly recommended; there are piers at Westminster and by the London Eye from where boats depart to Tower Bridge and Greenwich.
Alighting at Tower Bridge, the Tower Bridge Exhibition offers the chance to learn more about the history of Tower Bridge, the lifting mechanism and to enjoy a beautiful view from the high-level walkways.
The nearby Tower of London houses the world-famous Crown Jewels. Six ravens live on the grounds within the Tower and the legend says “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it”…maybe that is the reason why each one of them had one of their wings clipped!