It was great to be back in London! I like to think I know the city well, but I had not visited for several years, and London seems more vibrant than ever.
I took a daylight flight across the Atlantic for the first time in my travels, something I’ll recommend to every US traveler in future. It meant that after a very comfortable night at the Berkeley Hotel in fashionable Knightsbridge, I was wide awake and ready for my first day out and about in London.
When it comes to the easiest way to see the sites, my advice is to purchase a London Pass (www.LondonPass.com) – it's a sightseeing card that offers admission to more than 60 of London's top attractions as well as the hop on/off bus tour. More importantly, it lets you skip the long lines at many of the busier/ more popular attractions.
I headed first for Westminster Abbey, familiar to most Americans as the wedding venue for Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. Some of Great Britain’s most famous historical figures, including novelist Charles Dickens and scientist Sir Isaac Newton, had the honor of being buried here, but for me the big draw was getting within a few feet of the altar where Wills and Kate tied the knot. Everyone wants a photo of that spot!
Close by are the Churchill War Rooms. During World War II this underground warren was Winston Churchill’s secret headquarters, and from here he would hold conversations with President Roosevelt to plan each move in the war. The Transatlantic Telephone Room is tiny- probably the world’s most historic closet!
After getting the all-important tourist shots (as Chevy Chase would say, “Big Ben! Houses of Parliament!”) I rode a few stops on the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus that’s now included with the London Pass. I like to do this whatever city I’m in; what better way to travel between attractions and learn as you go?
I grabbed a bite to eat on the South Bank of the Thames- a popular hangout for Londoners on fine summer evenings, but a convenient lunch spot on a rainy sightseeing day for me- and jumped on the Underground heading for the last attraction of the day: Kensington Palace.
It’s the London home of William and Kate, and Prince Harry has an apartment here too. Sadly none of them made an appearance, but I found plenty to admire in the spectacular King’s Staircase and the beautiful Sunken Garden in the Palace grounds. And don’t miss the Fashion Rules Restyled exhibition of royal dresses worn by Princess Diana, Princess Margaret and the Queen herself.
For day one I’d stayed pretty close to my hotel, checking out the west London sights. Now it was time to head east.
Taking the Tube across the city once again I arrived at the Tower of London. I had visited before but the Tower never fails to impress- nowhere else in London do you get quite the same sense of history mixed with danger. If you’ve got a London Pass you get to skip the lines too, which can be a real boon at busy times.
Once you’re inside, the first thing to do is make friends with a Beefeater! These famous and colorfully outfitted characters are actually the Yeomen Warders of the Tower, and they are a mine of information- I joined one of their regular tours and learned so much about this fortress, which was originally built on the orders of William the Conqueror. Did you know this year marks the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest of Britain?
I could have spent the whole day enjoying the Tower, but time is precious when you’re on a flying visit. So I took a quick walk over to another famous London landmark: Tower Bridge. I guess every tourist gets a photo of this but I actually went inside this iconic Victorian structure for an absolutely unique London view: through a glass walkway and down to the River Thames 135 feet below! Reassuringly, the glass is strong enough to handle the weight of an elephant, but it was still a strange experience to gaze down at my own feet and see both road and river traffic rushing by beneath them.
The great thing about this part of town is that there are so many attractions to visit, all within easy walking distance. Heading back west along the south side of the river I passed the Second World War battleship HMS Belfast and the 13th-century Southwark Cathedral. Right on the doorstep is the foodies’ paradise of Borough Market, with all kinds of healthy and indulgent treats waiting to be tried. Despite forbidding clouds (that London weather!) the rain held off long enough for me to enjoy a take-out late lunch in the Cathedral gardens.
Southwark, I learned later, is a part of town with many associations with Charles Dickens. But for my final stop of the day I was heading even further back in time to the days of England’s finest writer.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a faithful reconstruction of the writer’s own playhouse which burned down in 1613 when a cannon misfired during a performance. It’s an open-air theater, as were all such Elizabethan venues, a point which was not lost on me when, on cue, the London skies opened once again. Taking the hint, I headed back to the hotel to plan my evening!
The last day, and time to get adventurous. That meant leaving central London and heading more than 20 miles west of the city centre to the Royal Borough of Windsor. On the agenda: Windsor Castle. But once again, there was much more to experience.
The London Pass comes in handy for Windsor- you get free travel from Paddington, which is the main rail station in west London. On arrival, the castle dominates the town. I took care to arrive well in time for the traditional Changing of the Guards ceremony, something you can catch most mornings at 11am as the guards march from the town’s High Street, up the hill and into the castle.
I spent a great couple of hours exploring one of the Queen’s official residences. More than 900 years old, Windsor is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, and it’s still Her Majesty’s favorite weekend retreat. The State Apartments are a treasure trove of lavish Royal furnishings and works of art, but the undisputed highlight for me was St George’s Chapel: breathtaking and majestic, several British monarchs were laid to rest here and it is hard to think of a more appropriate place.
The castle aside, Windsor is the kind of quaint English town you never want to leave. In fact, it’s two towns, Windsor and Eton, separated by the river. I found plenty of great options for lunch, from traditional English pubs to al fresco restaurants. But there was only one way to round off a great day out of town.
The character of Windsor, and I think of London generally, is shaped by the Thames. So it seemed only right to get out on the water on a Windsor river cruise, available at a discounted rate for London Pass holders. From the river I got a magnificent view of the castle, as well as Windsor racecourse and the world-famous Eton College, whose students have included Princes William and Harry, Homeland star Damian Lewis and Hugh Laurie of House fame.
As the river boat made its way back to the dock I found myself regretting my choice of an early morning flight back to Chicago. I had seen so much in London, and yet I had barely scratched the surface. Another day, even another few hours, would have been so valuable.
Goodbye, London. I enjoyed every minute of it. Even the rain. And next time, I won’t leave it so long….