I can’t get enough of London. Not just any day, but one of those miraculous sunny rarities that happen between the normal rainy ones. London is a fantastic stopover. If you’re going to Europe, Africa or Asia from the US with British Airways there’s a good chance you’ll be landing in London first. With a little planning you can turn that stop into a mini-cation. I’ve always felt that there’s something magical about eating fish and chips and throwing back a pint while eyeing Big Ben from the banks of the Thames. Even it is for just a day or two.
If you’d like to get an overview of the city, you can’t go wrong with Big Bus double decker tours. Pick the bus up at any of it’s stops, hop off wherever you’d like, and then catch another one to continue your tour. The London Pass includes a ticket for the bus and allows entry into almost all the popular tourist sites in London. It’s the easiest and most affordable way to see the city if you want to squeeze all the tourist sites and you have several days.
If you’re there for a shorter time or just a DIY traveler, there’s lots of fun things to do for nearly nothing. Start by getting an all day six zone travelcard that will allow you to get to and from Heathrow Airport (or Gatwick with a supplement) to just about anywhere you want in London for around $20. Keep in mind you’ll have to get a map and learn where to change lines and there can be lots of walking involved. Stuck with luggage? Bigger stations like Victoria have left luggage offices so if you’re encumbered by baggage that weighs more than you, it might be worth dropping off rather than trying to cross Abbey Road with it. Here are some of my favorites:
Highgate cemetery– this gem of a cemetery looks like the perfect setting for a horror movie, which is perfect… since it is. More than just a filming location, this graveyard has a lot of famous residents: Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, can be found near the entrance. George Elliot, who’s real name was Mary Ann Evans. is buried there. Punk rock band manager Malcolm McLaren has an interesting headstone full of hidden meanings. 100 meters away, Karl Marx, the father of communism, has a giant memorial you can’t miss. Across the road is the cemetery’s most visited star, George Michael. There is a small entrance fee and arrangements to see George must be made in advance. Just walking around the moss covered cemetery is creepy enough, but finding the famous graves is like a scavenger hunt. Archway tube station is about a 10 minute walk from the cemetery.
Abbey Road– If you’re a Beatles fan, Abbey road is a must-stop-photo-op. The intersection is way busier than you’d expect and Fab Four purists will tell you that the zebra stripe has been moved from its original album spot. Regardless of the stripes’ present location, this crosswalk is undoubtedly the most famous one in the world as well as the cover photo for one of the world’s most iconic albums. To get there take the tube to St. John’s Wood stop and ask another tourist. It’s unlikely that any English people will be hanging out around there.
Piccadilly Circus and Ziggy Stardust– the ultimate “I’m in England and you’re not” photo is a double decker bus, a bright red phone box (booth) and Piccadilly Circus in the background. It’s not hard to line up all three the moment you step out of Piccadilly tube stop. It is the Times Square of Britain with its neon signs, street musicians and people lounging around the fountain. It’s also the epicenter of every British souvenir ever made with shop after shop selling flags, teacups and beefeater statues. For David Bowie fans, walk a few minutes to 23 Heddon St. to see the place where the Ziggy Stardust album photo was shot. It’s now a trendy alley with restaurants and offices, but it’s not difficult to find the plaque that marks the spot where Bowie posed for his most famous album cover.
Hard Rock Cafe– Love them or hate them, Hard Rock Cafe has its guitar strings wrapped around the most famous cities in the world and has become the one place you can get a decent hamburger or nachos almost anywhere. Before you dismiss the establishment as amateur tourist fare, know the Original London Hard Rock Cafe is special. It’s the first one in the world and it’s got a great story with humble beginnings. Ask someone to give you a tour of the basement vault. The original rock star clothing and guitars left by the famous musicians who started the trend can be found there along with some great stories about how it all began. My Fuego sunglasses are also displayed there unless someone picked them up.
Sky Garden-The Shard is one of London’s most famous and tallest buildings but it’s quite expensive to get to the top. For a cheaper alternative (free actually) visit the Sky Garden and enjoy views of the city in a lovely 3 story atrium with a cafe and bar. The only catch is that you need to make reservations a day or two before you arrive and print out your ticket. On a clear day you can see the entire city. The building at 20 Fenchurch has a unique concave shape with mirrored glass planes that were magnifying the sunlight and melting cars and burning objects on the ground until some …er… adjustments were made. You can get there from the nearby Monument station or take a 10 minute walk from the Tower of London.
Westminster Abbey– Just around the corner from Big Ben is Westminster Abbey. This famous chapel has seen its share of royalty and famous Brits getting married or attending services there. Tickets are required to visit it throughout the day and photography is not permitted. You can get in at 5pm for the free Evensong service if you know about it (which you do now) and go to the main gate (not the side ticketed door) and tell the guard you’re attending. One of the most interesting parts of the church is the “poet’s corner” where Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe and a host of other literary giants are buried. There’s plenty of “memorial plaques” as well that are honorable mentions of famous writers rather than their actual resting place. Westminster station is the closest metro station.
Tower Bridge/Tower of London– Built by William the Conqueror on the banks of the Thames in the 11th century, this palace was home to many of Britain’s monarchs and also served as a prison, an armory, a menagerie, a treasury, as well as several other uses throughout it’s 950 year history. The complex is a must see tourist stop that gives you an real insight to the history of London. You can walk along it’s walls, visit the white tower, check out its dungeons and admire the amazing Crown Jewels collection. There is an entrance fee, but you can walk across the 19th century tower bridge for free and get great views of the outside of this UNESCO site. Take the tube to Tower Hill to get there. Every evening 50-60 visitors are allowed for free into the “Ceremony of the Keys”. You can make reservations here.
National Gallery– This museum is conveniently located in the heart of the city at Trafalgar Square. Not only is the building a fabulous venue for some of England’s most treasured art, but admission is free. This huge collection has paintings from Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh, Rembrandt Michaelangelo, and other well known artists. It is one of the most visited museums in the world. Get there from Charing Criss station or enjoy a short walk from Piccadilly Circus.