By Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells
London is the civilized version of New York, with much more history and culture and far less dirt, crime, homelessness, and meanness. Trying to cover its two millennia of history in four days (from a Friday afternoon through Tuesday in September) seemed an impossible task. We consulted travel guidebooks, TripAdvisor, and friends to come up with a priority list of what to see and do.
We only cover history and the arts and detest the standard travel story obsession with dining and shopping, since major U.S. cities offer similar opportunities. We treat every destination as if we were never going to return, our only chance to savor its most important experiences (in the case of London, our only prior visit was 35 years ago). We decided we could best spend our time in the city center north of the Thames.
VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM
We arrived in the morning and visited the Victoria and Albert Museum on the way to the hotel. We normally don’t care for decorative arts, which are the V&A’s specialty, but the TimeOut London guide ranked it the No. 1 attraction. On arrival, we realized it justified spending a whole day there, but we were too tired to last more than a couple of hours. We wandered hrough its five floors of jaw-dropping Renaissance sculptures, Islamic carpets, medieval tapestries, Tibetan Buddhist gold-work, English ceramics, stained glass, exquisite jewelry, and furniture. We paid for the delay by getting stuck with our luggage in rush hour on the subway aka Tube or Underground, but made it to the K-West Hotel and slept like logs.
GAY OLE LONDON
London is the most LGBT-friendly city in the world. TimeOut provides a guide to its three districts, calling Soho mainstream, Vauxhall most decadent, and East London alternatively vibrant. Soho’s legendary club is Heaven, Vauxhall’s Horse Meat Disco is thriving, and the East’s hot dance halls are George & Dragon, Dalston Superstore, and The Glory. This website has up-to-date details on the local scene http://www.travelgayeurope.com/destination/gay-united-kingdom/gay-london/
BRITISH LIBRARY AND MUSEUM
After moving to the Pullman Saturday morning, we visited the British Library next door, the nation’s treasure house of 18 million books in English, as well as historic documents. These include Shakespeare’s First Folio, Bibles lavishly illustrated by hand, the Magna Carta that laid the foundation for modern democracy in 1215, letters from Florence Nightingale and Galileo, and original lyric sheets by the Beatles.
The British Museum is easily the greatest museum of history in the world (you need to do some reading in advance and the guided tour helps). It is so vast, with artifacts from every corner of the globe back to the dawn of man, that you could spend weeks in its galleries without seeing anything a second time. The Rosetta Stone that enabled the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics is here, as are the sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens. There are African masks, Samurai armor, mythical figures that guarded Assyrian gates, exquisite Greek vases, painted coffins of Australian aborigines, and the body of a British sacrificial victim preserved in a bog two millennia ago.
NATIONAL ART GALLERIES
The next morning we moved to the Sofitel and took pictures of the mustering of the guard at St. James’s Palace, with the soldiers proceeding to relieve those at Buckingham. We then walked to the National Gallery, which specializes in European art 1500-1900. For a couple of hours we basked in the glory of Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Monet.
The Tate Britain features British artists up to the 21st century (there is pretentious contemporary crap, but most is at the Tate Modern). The collections of J.M.W. Turner and John Singleton Copley are popular, but we were more enthralled by the William Blake exhibit and the Pre-Raphaelites, who sought to make paintings that stimulated a transcendent experience in viewers.
THE TOWER AND MUSEUM OF LONDON
We hauled our luggage the final time to the new Courthouse-Inn Shoreditch and hurried to the infamous Tower of London, where 48 prisoners were tortured and 22 traitors were executed. But today it is where the Crown jewels are kept, along with armor and relics from the medieval era. The best part is being guided by one of the lively and costumed Yeoman Warders, who live there and entertain crowds with tales of the Tower’s colorful history.
The Museum of London was the biggest surprise of the trip because it is little-known and uses the latest technology to educate visitors about the island’s past. Using video, recordings of eyewitnesses to events, interactive exhibits, artifacts, and recreated street scenes, it goes back 400,000 years and up through the many wars and dramatic events, as seen from many different viewpoints. Most imaginatively presented is the story of the Great Fire of 1666 that allowed London’s leaders to reinvent it as a world city.
The last day we were really dragging, but spent an hour in Westminster Abbey, where most of the kings and queens were married, crowned, and buried (Elizabeth I and her sister, Bloody Mary, are in the same tomb). There are also graves, plaques, and monuments to other immortals, including Shakespeare and Dickens.
Next door is Parliament and if you’ve watched the debates on public TV you know how informed and articulate its elected members are (to our national embarrassment by comparison). Statues recall the great leaders from William Gladstone to Margaret Thatcher.
Our last stop was the nearby underground headquarters known as the Churchill War Rooms, from which British forces in World War II were directed. Dioramas show the difficult living conditions and the sacrifices made to defeat the Axis Powers.
Every American would benefit from learning about our inspiriting heritage rooted in the world’s greatest city, London.
GETTING THERE: Gatwick Airport is often cheaper and you can get to the central city in 30 minutes with the Gatwick Express (about $56 roundtrip with an exchange rate of $1.60).
GETTING AROUND: The Underground/Tube is least expensive and the least hassle for four intense days with the 7-Day Travelcard ($48 and $8 refundable deposit).
GETTING INFORMED: Rick Steves’ Pocket London; DK Eyewitness Travel Guides London; London: A Short History of the Greatest City in the Western World (Teaching Co. DVD); www.VisitLondon.com.
GETTING COMFORTABLE: Courthouse Hotel Shoreditch http://www.shoreditch.courthouse-hotel.com/ is brand new in a restored historic building in this north-central hipster neighborhood; it has already gained a reputation for outstanding service and has a movie theater and bowling alley.
K-West www.k-west.co.uk in west central’s fashionable Shepherds Bush, a retail Mecca; the hotel has long been a fave of celebrities and is enjoying new buzz over its redesign, spa, and event space.
Pullman London St. Pancras http://www.pullmanhotels.com/gb/hotel-5309-pullman-london-st-pancras/ is the stunning tower next door to the British Library and has one the best hotel restaurants, by far the best whisky bar, and an excellent wine selection.
Sofitel St. James http://www.sofitelstjames.com/ is the 5-star property within walking distance of Buckingham Palace that is renowned for its ultra-comfortable beds, luxurious bathrooms, and gourmet meals.