London (Tower Bridge),
London is an ancient city whose history greets you at every turn. If the city contained only its famous landmarks—the Tower of London or Big Ben—it would still rank as one of the world's top cities. But London is so much more. The foundations of London's character and tradition endure. The British bobby is alive and well. The tall, red, double-decker buses (in an updated model) still lumber from stop to stop. Then there's that greatest living link with the past—the Royal Family with all its attendant pageantry. To ice the cake, swinging-again London is today one of the coolest cities on the planet. The city's art, style, and fashion make headlines around the world, and London's chefs have become superstars. Plus, London's hosting of the 2012 Olympics means the city will be a hot spot for years to come.
British Museum. Filled with plunder of incalculable value and beauty from around the globe, the museum occupies a ponderous Greco-Victorian building that makes a suitably grand impression. Inside are some of the greatest relics of humankind: the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the Sutton Hoo Treasure—almost everything, it seems, but the Ark of the Covenant. The focal point is the Great Court, a brilliant techno-classical design with a vast glass roof that highlights and reveals the museum's most well-kept secret—an inner courtyard with a lovely, albeit expensive outdoor café. The revered Reading Room has a blue-and-gold dome, ancient tomes, and computer screens. If you want to navigate the highlights of the almost 100 galleries, join one of the free Eyeopener 50-minute tours by museum guides (details at the information desk). Great Russell St., Bloomsbury WC1. Admission charged.
Buckingham Palace. Buckingham Palace tops many must-see lists, although the building itself is no masterpiece. The palace contains some 600 rooms, including the Ballroom and the Throne Room. The state rooms are where much of the business of royalty is played out and these are open to the public while the Royal Family is away during the summer. The Changing of the Guard culminates in front of the palace. Buckingham Palace Rd., St. James's SW1. Admission charged.
Cabinet War Rooms. Britain's World War II fortunes were directed from this small maze of bombproof underground rooms in the back of the hulking Foreign Office. In the Churchill Museum, which opened in 2005, different areas explore the great man's life and achievements—failures, too—through objects and documents. Clive Steps, King Charles St., Westminster SW1. Admission charged.
Houses of Parliament. Seat of Great Britain's government, the Houses of Parliament are, arguably, the city's most famous and photogenic sights. Designed in glorious, mock-medieval style by two Victorian-era architects, Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin in the 1830s, the Palace of Westminster, as the complex is still properly called, was first established by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. It has served as the seat of English administrative power, on and off, ever since. Now virtually the symbol of London, the 1858 Clock Tower designed by Pugin contains the bell known as Big Ben that chimes the hour (and the quarters). Weighing a mighty 13 tons, the bell takes its name from Sir Benjamin Hall, the far-from-slim Westminster building works commissioner. St. Stephen's Entrance, St. Margaret St., Westminster SW1. Admission charged.
London Eye. The London Eye is the largest observation wheel ever built, and in the top 10 tallest structures in London. The 25-minute slow-motion ride inside one of the enclosed passenger capsules is so smooth you'd hardly know you were suspended over the Thames, moving slowly round. On a clear day you can take in a range of up to 25 mi, viewing London's most famous landmarks from a fascinating angle. If you're looking for a special place to celebrate, champagne and canapés can be arranged ahead. Jubilee Gardens, South Bank SE1. Admission charged.
Museum of London. If there's one place to get the history of London sorted out, right from 450,000 BC to the present day, it's here—although there's a great deal to sort out: Oliver Cromwell's death mask, Queen Victoria's crinolined gowns, Selfridges' art deco elevators, and the Lord Mayor's coach are just some of the goodies. The museum is currently undergoing modernization work so sections may be off-limits to visitors until the end of 2009. London Wall, The City EC2Y 5HN.
National Gallery. Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage, Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin and Child, and Diego Velázquez's Rokeby Venus are only a few of the highlights in this priceless collection. There are approximately 2,200 paintings in the museum, many of them among the most treasured works of art anywhere. The National's collection includes paintings of the early Renaissance, the Flemish and Dutch masters, the Spanish school, and the English tradition (notably William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough, George Stubbs, and John Constable). Trafalgar Sq., Westminster WC2. Admission charged.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. A spectacular theater, this is a replica of Shakespeare's open-roof, wood-and-thatch Globe Playhouse (built in 1599 and burned down in 1613), where most of the Bard's great plays premiered. Throughout the year you can tour the theater as part of the Shakespeare's Globe Exhibition, an adjacent museum that provides background material on the Elizabethan theater and the construction of the modern-day Globe. There's also an exhibition at the Globe's near neighbor, the Rose Theatre, at 56 Park Street, which was built even earlier, in 1587. 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, South Bank SE1. Admission charged.
St. Paul's Cathedral. The symbolic heart of London, St. Paul's may take your breath away. The structure is Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece, completed in 1710, and, much later, miraculously spared (mostly) by World War II bombs. Most famous in recent times as the scene of the marriage of Diana to Charles Prince of Wales in 1981, the church has played host to the funerals of English heroes the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Lord Nelson, both of whom lie in the Crypt. Behind the high altar is the American Memorial Chapel, dedicated in 1958 to the 28,000 GIs stationed in the United Kingdom who lost their lives in World War II. St. Paul's Churchyard, The City EC4. Admission charged.
Tate Britain. This museum is a brilliant celebration of great British artists from the 16th century to the present day. The collection's crowning glory is the Turner Bequest, consisting of Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner's personal collection. Millbank, Westminster SW1. Admission charged.
Tate Modern. This former power station has undergone a dazzling renovation by Herzog de Meuron, to provide a grand space for a massive collection of international modern art. On permanent display are classic works from 1900 to the present day by Matisse, Picasso, Dalí, Francis Bacon, Warhol, and the most talked-about upstarts. Bankside, South Bank SE1.
Tower Bridge. Despite its medieval, fairy-tale appearance, this is a Victorian youngster. Constructed of steel, then clothed in Portland stone, the Horace Jones masterpiece was deliberately styled in the Gothic persuasion to complement the Tower next door. The Tower Bridge Experience exhibition is a fun tour inside the structure to discover how one of the world's most famous bridges actually works. One highlight is the glorious view from up high on the covered walkway between the turrets. Admission charged.
Tower of London. Nowhere else does London's history come to life so vividly as in this mini-city of 20 towers filled with heraldry and treasure, the intimate details of lords and dukes and princes and sovereigns etched in the walls (literally, in some places), and quite a few pints of royal blood spilled on the stones. This is one of Britain's most popular sights—the Crown Jewels are here as well. H.M. Tower of London, Tower Hill, The City EC3N. Admission charged.
Trafalgar Square. This is the center of London, both geographically and symbolically. Great events, such as royal weddings, political protests, and sporting triumphs, always draw crowds to the city's most famous square. Trafalgar Square takes its name from the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's great naval victory over the French, in 1805. Appropriately, the dominant landmark here is Nelson's Column, a 145-foot-high granite perch from which a statue of Nelson keeps watch. Trafalgar Sq., Westminster SW1.
Westminster Abbey. A monument to the nation's rich—and often bloody and scandalous—history, this is one of London's most iconic sites. Nearly all of Britain's monarchs have been crowned here since the coronation of William the Conqueror on Christmas Day 1066—and most are buried here, too. The current abbey is a largely 13th- and 14th-century rebuilding of the 11th-century church founded by Edward the Confessor, with one notable addition being the 18th-century twin towers over the west entrance, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. In 1400 Geoffrey Chaucer became the first poet to be buried in Poets' Corner. There are memorials to William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens (who is also buried here). Broad Sanctuary, Westminster SW1. Admission charged.
Napoléon was being scornful when he called Britain a nation of shopkeepers, but Londoners have had the last laugh. The finest emporiums are in London, still. You can shop like royalty at Her Majesty's glove-maker, discover an uncommon Toby jug in an antique shop, or find a leather-bound edition of Wuthering Heights on Charing Cross Road. If you have limited time, zoom in on one of the city's grand department stores, such as Harrods or Selfridges, where you can find enough booty for your entire gift list.
Chelsea centers on King's Road, once synonymous with ultra-high fashion; it still harbors some designer boutiques, plus antiques and home furnishings stores. Covent Garden has chain clothing stores and top designers, stalls selling crafts, and shops selling gifts of every type. Kensington's main drag, Kensington High Street, houses some small, classy shops, with a few larger stores at the eastern end. Try Kensington Church Street for expensive antiques, plus a little fashion.
Crafts Council Gallery Shop (44A Pentonville Rd., Islington, N1) showcases a microcosm of British crafts.
Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly, St. James's, W1), the Queen's grocer, is paradoxically the most egalitarian of gift stores, with plenty of luxury foods, stamped with the gold BY APPOINTMENT crest, for less than £5.
Harrods (87 Brompton Rd., Knightsbridge, SW1), one of the world's most famous department stores. The food halls are stunning—so are the crowds.
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