One of the world’s most visited cities, London has something for everyone: from history and culture to fine food and good times. London is immersed in history, with more than its share of mind-blowing antiquity and historic splendor. London’s buildings are eye-catching milestones in the city’s unique and compelling biography, and a great many of them – the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben – are familiar landmarks.
There’s more than enough innovation (the Shard, the London Eye, the planned Garden Bridge) to put a crackle in the air, but it never drowns out London’s well-preserved, centuries-old narrative. Architectural grandeur rises up all around you in the West End, ancient remains dot the City and charming pubs punctuate the banks of the Thames. Take your pick.
You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.– via Samuel Johnson
Places of Interest
Big Ben Facts
- Each dial is seven meters in diameter
- The minute hands are 4.2 meters long and weigh about 100kg (including counterweights)
- The numbers are approximately 60cm long
- There are 312 pieces of glass in each clock dial
- A special light above the clock faces is illuminated when parliament is in session
- Big Ben’s timekeeping is strictly regulated by a stack of coins placed on the huge pendulum.
- Big Ben has rarely stopped. Even after a bomb destroyed the Commons chamber during the Second World War, the clock tower survived and Big Ben continued to strike the hours.
- The chimes of Big Ben were first broadcast by the BBC on 31 December 1923, a tradition that continues to this day.
- The Latin words under the clockface read DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, which means O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First
- In June 2012 the House of Commons announced that the clock tower was to be renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
The History of Big Ben
The Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834. In 1844, it was decided the new buildings for the Houses of Parliament should include a tower and a clock.
A massive bell was required and the first attempt (made by John Warner & Sons at Stockton-on-Tees) cracked irreparably. The metal was melted down and the bell recast in Whitechapel in 1858. Big Ben first rang across Westminster on 31 May 1859. A short time later, in September 1859, Big Ben cracked. A lighter hammer was fitted and the bell rotated to present an undamaged section to the hammer. This is the bell as we hear it today.
You can visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and discover more about Big Ben’s origins.
London’s Favourite Landmark: Why Ben?
The origin of the name Big Ben is not known, although two different theories exist.
- The first is that is was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the first commissioner of works, a large man who was known affectionately in the house as “Big Ben”.
- The second theory is that it was named after a heavyweight boxing champion at that time, Benjamin Caunt. Also known as “Big Ben”, this nickname was commonly bestowed in society to anything that was the heaviest in its class.
Kings, queens, statesmen, and soldiers; poets, priests, heroes, and villains – Westminster Abbey is a must-see living pageant of British history.
Every year, the Abbey welcomes over one million visitors who want to explore this wonderful 700-year-old building – the coronation church of England. Audio guides are available in eleven languages or there is a highly-popular verger-led tour.
Audio guides are free with individual entry tickets and the tour takes around one hour. The English-language tour is narrated by the actor Jeremy Irons and audio guides are also available in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Polish, Hungarian, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese.
Enter St Paul’s and enjoy the cathedral’s awe-inspiring interior. Take advantage of a touch-screen multimedia guide or join a guided tour to explore this iconic building, both now included with the sightseeing admission charge.
Venture down to the crypt and discover the tombs and memorials of some of the nation’s greatest heroes such as Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Also visit Oculus, an award-winning 270° immersive film experience.
Visitors can try out the acoustic quirks of the Whispering Gallery and continue their climb to the Golden Gallery to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views across London.
Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
Audio and guided tours include the route taken by the Queen at State Opening of Parliament; from the Queen’s Robing Room, through the Royal Gallery, and into the majestic Lords Chamber.
Tours then move on through Central Lobby, Members Lobby, and one of the voting lobbies before entering the Commons Chamber, scene of many lively debates.
Passing through St Stephen’s Hall, tours end in 900-year-old Westminster Hall where Guy Fawkes was tried and where Nelson Mandela addressed Parliament in more recent years.
Tours are available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Mandarin.
Royal Observatory Greenwich
Stand at the center of world time. Discover the past, present, and future wonders of astronomy at the center of time.
Take an amazing journey through the historic home of British astronomy, Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian of the World.
Explore how great scientists first mapped the seas and the stars, stand astride two hemispheres on the Prime Meridian Line, see pioneering inventions and the UK’s largest refracting telescope, touch a 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid, and travel the Universe at London’s only planetarium.
Covering 350 acres, Hyde Park is London’s largest open space and has been a destination for sightseers since 1635. One of the park’s highlights is the Serpentine, an 18th-century man-made lake popular for boating and swimming. Hyde Park is also where you’ll find Speakers’ Corner, a traditional forum for free speech (and heckling). Another Hyde Park landmark is Apsley House, former home of the first Duke of Wellington and purchased after his famous victory at Waterloo. Now a museum, it houses Wellington’s magnificent collections of paintings, including Velázquez’s Waterseller of Seville, along with gifts presented by grateful European kings and emperors. England’s greatest hero is also commemorated at the Wellington Arch.
The London Eye
Built to mark London’s millennium celebrations in 2000, the London Eye is Europe’s largest observation wheel. Its individual glass capsules offer the most spectacular views of the city as you embark on a circular tour rising 443 ft above the Thames. The journey lasts 30-minutes, often quicker than the time spent queuing for your turn. If you can, reserve your time in advance. The best option is to skip the line completely with a London Eye: Skip-the-Line Ticket. This advance ticket allows you to take a flight at any time on the day you plan to visit.
Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square
Two of London’s best-known tourist spots, these famous squares lie not far apart and mark the gateways to Soho, London’s lively theater and entertainment district. Trafalgar Square was built to commemorate Lord Horatio Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson’s Column, a 56-meter granite monument, overlooks the square’s fountains and bronze reliefs, which were cast from French cannons. Admiralty Arch, St Martin-in-the-Fields, and the National Gallery surround the square. Piccadilly Circus marks the irregular intersection of several busy streets – Piccadilly, Regent, Haymarket, and Shaftesbury Avenue – and overlooking this somewhat untidy snarl of traffic stands London’s best-known sculpture, the winged Eros delicately balanced on one foot, bow poised. “It’s like Piccadilly Circus” is a common expression describing a busy and confusing scene.
The market halls of Covent Garden are only the beginning of the neighborhood, which encompasses the shops and restaurants of Long Acre and other adjacent streets, those of Neal’s Yard and Seven Dials, as well as the Central Square with its street performers. The halls and arcades of Covent Garden Market are lined with specialty shops and kiosks selling everything from fine handcrafts to tacky souvenirs. Housed in the former flower market, you’ll find the London Transport Museum, filled with historic buses, trolleys, and trams. This area is also where you’ll find the Royal Opera House.
The Two Tates: Tate Britain and Tate Modern
Once collectively known as the Tate Gallery, London’s two Tate galleries – Tate Britain and Tate Modern – comprise one of the world’s most important art collections. Opened in 1897 as the basis of a national collection of significant British art, the gallery continued to make acquisitions and needed more space to properly display its collections. The end result was the establishment of Tate Britain, in Millbank on the north side of the Thames, as home to its permanent collection of historic British paintings. A superbly transformed power station across the Thames became home to the modern art collections. Art lovers can spend a whole day viewing both sites, conveniently connected by high-speed ferry.
Hampton Court Palace
Another great Thames-side attraction, Hampton Court is one of Europe’s most famous palaces. Its Great Hall dates from Henry VIII’s time (two of his six wives supposedly haunt the palace), and it’s where Elizabeth I learned of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Other interesting features include the Clock Court with its fascinating astronomical clock dating from 1540, the State Apartments with their Haunted Gallery, the Chapel, the King’s Apartments and the Tudor tennis court. The gardens are also worth visiting – especially in mid-May when in full bloom – and include the Privy Garden, the Pond Garden, the Elizabethan Knot Garden, the Broad Walk, an area known as the Wilderness and, of course, the palace’s famous Maze.
Ranking among the top art museums in the world, London’s National Gallery represents an almost complete survey of European painting from 1260 until 1920. The museum’s greatest strengths are in its collections of Dutch Masters and Italian Schools of the 15th and 16th centuries. Among its highlights are a cartoon (preliminary sketch) of the Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo’s The Entombment, Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and The Waterlily Pond by Monet.
Art & Culture
A tireless innovator of art and culture, London is a city of ideas and imagination. Londoners have always been fiercely independent thinkers (and critics), but until not so long ago people were inherently suspicious of anything they considered avant-garde. That’s all in the past now, and the city’s creative milieu is streaked with left-field attitude, from theatrical innovation to contemporary art, pioneering music, writing, and design. Food in all its permutations has become almost an obsession in certain circles.
A Tale of Two Cities
London is as much about wide-open spaces and leafy escapes as it is high-density, sight-packed exploration. Central London is where you will find the major museums, galleries, and most iconic sights, but visit Hampstead Heath or the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to escape the crowds and view the city’s greener hues up close. Or venture even further out to Kew Gardens, Richmond, or Hampton Court Palace for excellent panoramas of riverside London.
This city is very multicultural, with a third of all Londoners foreign-born, representing 270 different nationalities. What unites them and visitors alike is the English language, for this is both our tongue’s birthplace and its epicenter. These cultures season the culinary aromas on London’s streets, the often exotic clothing people wear and the music they listen to. London’s diverse cultural dynamism makes it among the world’s most international cities. And diversity reaches intrinsically British institutions too; the British and Victoria & Albert Museums have collections as varied as they are magnificent, while flavors at centuries-old Borough Market now run the full gourmet and cosmopolitan spectrum.
Why I love London
Like most Londoners, I revel in all our familiar landmarks – Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the murky Thames, the London Eye. I still thank the former government that made some of the greatest museums and art galleries in the world free to one and all. The choice of restaurants, bars, and clubs is legion, and what’s not to love about a city with more lush parkland than any other world capital? But the one thing that sets my adopted city apart from any other is its amazing tolerance. ‘As long as you don’t scare the horses, mate, you’ll be all right here,’ I was told when I arrived here more than 20 years ago. Guess what… It still hasn’t happened.