London: My Introduction to Great Britain

Despite having traveled pretty extensively in Europe, I had never been to Great Britain or the UK before. London was the first stop in my 5 week tour of England, Scotland, and Wales. What can I say about London that hasn’t already been said before? It truly is one of the world’s great cities; it kind of reminds me of New York City but with a much richer history. There is so much to write about London and the surrounding area, that I decided to devote two whole blog posts to it.

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Parliament Square

One of the great things about London is that, although it’s very large and spread out, it’s pretty easy to get anywhere fairly quickly using the underground metro system. I bought a weekly unlimited ticket, which came in very handy throughout my visit. On my first day, I made a beeline to the Westminster area to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Needless to say, it was really really crowded, and I had to stand on my tip-toes to see much of anything. Nevertheless, it was cool to see one of the Queen’s official residences, and just days after her 90th birthday. Unfortunately, since Her Majesty was at home, the inside of Buckingham Palace was off-limits to visitors. So instead, I headed down to Westminster Abbey to see the place where nearly every British monarch has been crowned for the past thousand years. (Tip: buy your tickets online before you go, so you don’t have to wait in a ridiculously long line.) The Abbey was a fantastic introduction to what would be a long series of incredibly beautiful English cathedrals during my visit. There is also a seemingly endless list of famous historical figures buried here, including monarchs, poets, and scientists such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Lastly, don’t miss seeing England’s oldest door in the chapter house, which dates back nearly 1000 years.

My final stop for the day was the Palace of Westminster. This vast, imposing structure houses the British Parliament as well as the most famous clocktower in the world (Big Ben is actually the clocktower’s bell, not the tower itself). I was able to take a self-guided tour of the inner workings of Parliament, including the House of Commons (lower Parliament) and the House of Lords (upper Parliament). It was interesting to learn about the tumultuous history of the Parliament, including the various attempts by kings (and others) to overthrow it.

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Palace of Westminster

On the following day I visited the Tower of London, which is located just a short walk from the iconic Tower Bridge. This is probably one of my favorite castles in the world, as there is so much dark history, with more than 20 executions taking place here (including two queens). In fact, it is supposedly one of the most haunted places in the world. Many other famous people were held prisoner here, including William Wallace and Guy Fawkes. I was able to explore the former cells where some of the prisoners were kept, and it is still possible to see graffiti etched in the walls that is more than 500 years old! Finally, the Tower is the home of England’s royal crown jewels, although be prepared to wait in a very long line if you want to see them. The Tower of London is a large complex with lots to see, and I easily spent a good half day here.

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The White Tower, Tower of London

One of the other highlights for me was the British Museum, which is my favorite museum in London (and probably one of my top 3 in the world). This place is simply massive; I spent nearly an entire day here but still wasn’t able to see everything that I wanted. One nice thing about the museums in London is that, unlike most other attractions there which are very pricey, they are absolutely free. The highlights for me (and probably for most people) were the huge Egyptian collection including the Rosetta Stone, which was an integral piece of cracking the code for deciphering hieroglyphics. Other notable highlights are the Elgin Marbles stripped from the Parthenon in Athens, the 5000 year-old human figurines, and figures from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Don’t forget to bring good walking shoes when visiting the museum, because there’s so much interesting stuff to see here that you’ll probably be on your feet for hours.

Believe it or not, I’ve only just scratched the surface. In the next post, I’ll talk more about the good stuff to see in London (like St. Paul’s Cathedral), as well as some can’t miss day-trips just a short bus or train ride outside the city (like Windsor Castle and Canterbury).

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