By Jim Ferri
Whenever I fly to London’s Heathrow Airport I always try to get a window seat on the right side of the plane. My reward is a magnificent view of London as we glide up the Thames before landing.
From my seat in the sky I view the magnificent tableau below, picking out some of the most iconic buildings and sights in the world… the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the London Eye, Piccadilly Circus, Westminster Abbey. It’s a sight that never fails to mesmerize me.
Like many travelers, I’m enamored by London because the city is a virtual living history book. Stroll through London and you’re walking through history on the streets of Dickens and Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Churchill, Gainsborough, the Beatles, Hitchcock, Chaplin and countless others.
But it’s London’s creative milieu that transcends the city’s historic appeal. That milieu gives us a city that also percolates with art, theater, music and amazing museums and galleries. And when you add to that mix numerous world-class restaurants and wonderful shopping you begin to understand why London is at the top of so many travelers’ must-see lists.
The following are the top 10 places in London that evidently are on many of those lists, and are based on visitor numbers furnished by London & Partners, the official promotional company for London.
The world-famous British Museum is must-see for any visitor to London. It’s not only the most popular museum in the British capital, it’s also the oldest in the world. Its collection is extensive, ranging from the prehistoric to the present. Although many visitors flock to the museum to see such treasures as the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, Egyptian mummies, the Rosetta Stone and the 2,000 year-old Lindow Man, the museum’s 94 galleries contain a plethora of treasures spanning a period of two million years so it’s best to plan your visit in advance. And don’t miss the spectacular Great Court and the Reading Room. Entry is free but there is a charge for special exhibitions.
Great Russell Street
Tel: +44 20 7323 8299
Reigning over sprawling Trafalgar Square, the beautiful National Gallery has become one of the world’s iconic art museums. Built in the early-19th century, the vast museum is filled with Western European paintings spanning the 13th to the 19th centuries, including treasures from such masters as Renoir, Van Gogh, Rubens, da Vinci, Botticelli, Constable and Titian. Most of the more than 2,000 treasures in its collection are hung in chronological order on the main floor of the building. Entry is free although there is a charge for special exhibitions.
Trafalgar Square, London WC2
Tel: +44 20 7747 2885
Natural History Museum
Inside this spectacular Victorian building is a collection of the largest and rarest animals in the world, ranging from a life-sized blue whale to a 40-million-year-old spider. The impact of the place meets you head on as you enter its cathedral-like lobby and come face-to-face with the huge skeleton of a dinosaur. Further on you’ll find the world-renowned Dinosaurs Gallery where a life-like T Rex moves and roars. Be sure to visit the Creepy Crawlies Gallery and the museum’s earthquake simulator, a room that mimics the feeling of an earthquake. The museum’s cafeteria is also a good place to stop for lunch. Entry is free but special exhibitions require tickets.
Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5000
The Tate Modern, Britain’s national museum of modern and contemporary art, is one of the most-visited modern art museums in the world. Just as fascinating as its collection is the building itself, an ingeniously converted power plant that sits splendidly on the south bank of the Thames. Its collection includes works by such modern masters as Matisse, Monet, Pollock, Picasso, Lichtenstein and Rothko. Entry is free but special exhibitions require tickets.
Tel: +44 20 7887 8888
From the moment it opened in 2000 to help celebrate London’s millennium celebrations, the London Eye has become a predominant feature of the city’s skyline. The Ferris-wheel like structure is more than 400 feet tall and holds 32 10-ton glass cabins, each capable of holding 25 people. As it turns ever so slowly (it takes 30 minutes to make a complete revolution) it provides an incredible 25-mile view across London. There’s no other place where you’ll get such a unique perspective of the city’s most famous landmarks.
Riverside Building, County Hall
Westminster Bridge Road
Tel: +44 871 781 3000
Another London museum with a massive and splendid collection, the Science Museum holds something for everyone regardless of gender or age. This is a fascinating scientific and technological collection with a lot of hands-on exhibits that showcases developments in contemporary science, medicine and technology. One popular exhibit is the Launch Pad gallery, which demonstrates basic laws of physics, and the actual Apollo 10 capsule that went around the moon. If you’re interested in medicine you’ll find numerous medical history treasures in its Medical History Gallery. There’s also an Imax cinema. Entry is free but some exhibitions require tickets.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Adjacent to the Natural History and Science Museums, the Victoria and Albert Museum (aka the V&A) houses 3,000 years’ worth of amazing artifacts from around the world. It is one of the most incredible art and design museums you’ll find anywhere, a treasure trove so large that you are continually discovering something new among its exhibits of furniture, paintings, sculpture, metalwork and textiles that line its seven miles of walkway. Entry is free but special exhibitions require you to purchase tickets.
Tel: +44 20 7942 2000
Tower of London
Throughout its 900-year history the Tower of London has been a royal palace, a prison and place of execution (where two kings and three queens met their demise), an arsenal, a jewel house and even a zoo. Today it’s one of the world’s most famous buildings and one of the most popular tourist sites in London. Visit it and take a tour with one of the 35 Yeoman Warders, wander through a king’s medieval bedchamber and be awed by the Crown Jewels. In its center is the striking White Tower built by William the Conqueror, once the tallest building in the city. Entrance fee £22.00 per adult; £18.70 students, disabled visitor or 60+.
Tel: +44 844 482 7777
Royal Museums Greenwich
A half-hour east of the Tower of London is the complex known as the Royal Museums Greenwich that encompasses the National Maritime Museum, which is the world’s largest maritime museum, the historic Queen’s House and the famous British clipper ship Cutty Sark, now reopened after a near-disastrous fire in 2007. It is here where you can also stand astride the Prime Meridian at Royal Observatory Greenwich. Some parts of the Royal Museums Greenwich are free to enter, admissions to others range from £7.70 to £12.15.
Tel: +44 20 8858 4422
At Madame Tussauds you’ll come face-to-face with some of most famous faces in the worlds of show business, politics, royalty and sports. If you’re looking to meet Shakespeare or Lady Gaga, Vladimir Lenin or Vlad the Impaler, President Barack Obama or Her Majesty the Queen, and even Marvel Super Heroes, you’ve come to the right place. Housed in the former London Planetarium, it still retains its famous Chamber of Horrors while adding several other “experiences” including a “taxi ride” reliving London history. Admission for adults is £30.
Tel: +44 (0) 871 894 3000