London Part 1: Old Favourites

NOVEMBER 2008…

London was second on my list of European destinations to visit. But in fact, I had wanted to visit London as much as I did Paris. As luck would have it, these two cities are a mere 2-hours-odd train ride away from each other, so I happily bundled them together into the same trip.

Hop on to the Tube
London has a great subway system and you can get to just about anywhere on the Tube. Including the airport. The Piccadilly Line (that’s the blue one) connects Heathrow airport to downtown London in less than an hour. Hence, it was a no-brainer where to stay – on the blue line, of course. It’s a great way to save on transport and have more to spend on food and shopping!

Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, London.

Heading to the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

A royal experience
On my first day in London, I made a beeline for the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace, one of the world’s few remaining working royal palaces. This 11am free attraction involved a lot of waiting, especially since I arrived early to grab a gate-side view.

The ceremony also took time to go through its paces, some of which took place inside the palace, leaving the audience to their own imagination (and more waiting). Nonetheless, this was about as royal as my trip was going to get, so I stayed put till the end.

The Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, London.

The Victoria Memorial in front of the palace gates.

A note though: if your wish is to see the guards dressed in their bright-red tunics and bearskin hats, you’d have to come in the warmer months (summer maybe). When it gets chilly (like when I was there), the guards pile on a grey coat and the ceremony literally loses colour and vitality.

An additional perk if you visit in summer as well: you’ll be able to tour the 19 State Rooms in Buckingham Palace. Because that’s when Her Royal Highness goes on her summer break.

Buckingham Palace in London.

The familiar East Front of Buckingham Palace, where the royal family greets the crowds from the balcony. The Union Flag being flown means the Queen was out on vacation.

Lots of new but plenty of old as well
London doesn’t have the mind-boggling quantity of ancient buildings a la Paris or Rome, no thanks to the Great Fire of London in 1666. Modern skyscrapers make up a large part of the list of things to see, such as the Shard, Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge and London Eye. But there are still many old favourites though, such as St Paul’s Cathedral, Palace of Westminster and Trafalgar Square.

Palace of Westminster, London.

The Palace of Westminster and Big Ben in downtown London…

Commonly known as the Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster used to house the Kings of England until destroyed by a fire in 1512. Though the complex contains multiple buildings, tourists came mostly to see Big Ben, the clock tower at the corner of the complex.

What you might not know is that Big Ben actually refers to the largest of five bells in the clock tower. What’s more, the tower’s official name is Elizabeth (as in Elizabeth Tower). But if you ask me, Big Ben sounds more personal and makes you feel like you’re visiting a friend in London.

Westminster Abbey, London.

And the Westminster Abbey across the road.

Across the road from Palace of Westminster is the Gothic-styled Westminster Abbey. This is the location where coronations and royal weddings have been held since long before the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Trafalgar Square, London.

Trafalgar Square commemorates the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, where Horatio Nelson led the British navy to victory.

The centre of London life happens at Trafalgar Square, the scene of celebrations, protests and rallies. The public square commemorates the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars, where Horatio Nelson led the British navy to victory. His statue tops the 52m-tall Nelson’s Column in the middle of the square.

Nelson's Column at Trafalgar Square, London.

Nelson’s Column standing tall in the middle of Trafalgar Square.

Another centre of London life could arguably be Piccadilly Circus, a major traffic junction and busy meeting place. The dazzling lights and neon signs momentarily transported me to Akihabara in Tokyo, Japan.

Piccadilly Circus, London.

Neon signs lighting up the night at Piccadilly Circus.

Shop till you drop
Like most major cities, London is a shopping haven. Oxford Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, is an attraction by itself at 1.6 km long. A brief shopping trip there can easily turn into a day-long affair if one is not disciplined enough.

For something less mainstream and classier, I headed over to Covent Garden. Covent Garden exudes a nostalgic feel with its 19th-century buildings and exquisite selection of shops and wares. Cafés and restaurants dot the piazza around the market halls, creating a cosy hideout in busy London.

Then it was off to Camden Market for the ultimate flea market experience. A combination of three markets, there were a total of 200-odd stalls that sold clothes, jewellery, arts, crafts and just about anything that came to mind. The goods there were a hit and miss though, but it was still worth checking out.

Join me as I continue my London adventure in the next article!

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