Sunday, June 26, 2011

In One Day in London

Touring London in a day seems ridiculous at first, considering that it's a sprawling metropolis filled with treasures, but it can be done if you get an early start and have a certain discipline, plus a lot of stamina. Since Britain is the world's most famous kingdom, this "greatest hits" itinerary focuses on royal London, monumental London, and political London, with some great art thrown in to satisfy the inner soul. After an early morning trip to Westminster Abbey, you'll want to see London's greatest plaza, Trafalgar Square, take a grand "royal stroll," visit the National Gallery, and perhaps poke into Whitehall, seeing 10 Downing St. (home of the prime minister). A pint of lager in a Victorian pub and a night in a West End theater will cap your day very nicely. Start: Tube to Westminster.

1. Westminster Abbey

This early English Gothic abbey is the shrine of the nation, and most of England's kings and queens have been crowned here -- and many are buried here as well. We always like to get here when it opens at 9:30am before the crowds descend. Architecturally, its two highlights are the fan-vaulted Henry VII's Chapel (one of the loveliest in all of Europe) and the shrine to Edward the Confessor, containing the tombs of five kings and three queens. For a final look, walk over to the Poets' Corner, where everybody from Chaucer to Robert Browning, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson rests in peace.

As you emerge from Westminster Abbey, you confront the virtual symbol of London itself:

2. The Houses of Parliament & "Big Ben"

Guarded over by "Big Ben" (the world's most famous timepiece), the former royal Palace of Westminster shelters both the House of Lords and the House of Commons and has done so since the 11th century. Gaining admission to the debating chambers requires a long wait and a lot of red tape that the "1-Day Visitor" will have to forego, but at least you can admire the massive architectural pile from the outside before passing on your way.

If you feel you've missed something, duck into the Jewel Tower across the street, one of only two surviving buildings from the medieval Palace of Westminster. Here you can see an exhibition of the history of Parliament and even use a touch-screen computer that takes you on a virtual tour of both Houses of Parliament.

Continue walking north along Whitehall until you reach:

3. No. 10 Downing St.

Hang a left and look down Downing Street to number 10, flanked by policemen. Because of security concerns, it is no longer possible to walk down the street -- you can only look down it through the gates on Whitehall. The official residence of the prime minister isn't much of a sight and is rather modest, but it's been the home of everybody from Sir Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher. Today Gordon Brown and his family call it home. Although the building is hardly palatial, it's the most famous address in Britain, other than Buckingham Palace, and all visitors seem to want to take a peek.

After that look, continue north to:

4. Trafalgar Square

The hub of London, this is Britain's most famous square and the scene of many a demonstration. A 44m (144-ft.) granite statue of Horatio Viscount Nelson (1758-1805) dominates the square. As you walk around this square, noting the ferocious pigeons "dive-bombing," you'll know that you're in the very heart of London where thousands amass on New Year's Eve to ring in another year.

Right on this square, you can enter the:

5. National Gallery

On the north side of Trafalgar Square looms this massive gallery. All the big names, from Leonardo da Vinci to Rembrandt, from van Gogh to C├ęzanne, strut their stuff here. Displaying some of the most important art ever created, the panoramic galleries cover 8 centuries. This is one of the greatest art museums on the planet. On even the most rushed of schedules, you'll want to devote at least 1 1/2 hours to its galleries. Since everybody's taste in art differs, check out our Insider's tip under the National Gallery review. A computer makes it easy and convenient for you. Select 10 paintings you'd most like to see, and a computer will design your own map and print it out for you.

Directly north of Trafalgar Square, you enter the precincts of:

6. Covent Garden

The old fruit-and-vegetable market of Eliza Doolittle fame is long gone, and the market has been recycled into one of the most bustling and exciting sections of London today. Begin with a walk around the Piazza [SS], the center of Covent Garden. When architect Inigo Jones designed it in 1633, it became London's first square. To its south you'll see St. Paul's Church, which Jones called "the handsomest barn in England." Immediately to the southeast of St. Paul's you can enter the Jubilee Market and to its immediate east the London Transport Museum. After wandering around the gardens and after a heavy morning of sightseeing, even with a full English breakfast, you may be ready for lunch. For our pounds sterling, there is no better place for lunch in all of London than Covent Garden.

Take a Break -- Porters English Restaurant

We suggest a visit to our dear old friend, the Earl of Bradford, who owns and runs this venerable Covent Garden favorite. Try one of Lady Bradford's old English pies (ever had lamb and apricot?), and finish off with her fabled steamed pudding, made with ginger and banana. 17 Henrietta St., WC2. tel. 020/7836-6466. Tube: Covent Garden or Leicester Sq.

The day is marching on, and you should too if you want to take in more that London has to offer.

At Covent Garden, take the Tube to Charing Cross Station to the south of Covent Garden. After disembarking here, prepare yourself for one of the grandest strolls in all of Britain, walking west along:

7. The Mall & Buckingham Palace

A stroll along the Mall all the way west to Buckingham Palace is the most aristocratic walk in Britain. Passing King George IV's glorious Carlton House terrace on your right, you can enjoy the same view Elizabeth II sees when she rides in her gilded "fairy-tale" coach to open Parliament every year.

Whether you can actually go inside Buckingham Palace itself depends on the time of year. We've deliberately skipped the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which isn't held every day and is often difficult to schedule. It's an overrated attraction anyway.

After viewing Buckingham Palace, walk along Constitution Hill to the Tube stop at Hyde Park Corner. Once there, head east for one big final attraction for the afternoon:

8. The Tower of London

We prefer to visit this attraction later in the afternoon, when some of the hordes pouring out of tour buses have departed. A first-time visitor to London wouldn't dare miss this old symbol of blood and gore standing on the Thames for 900 years. Many famous Englishmen have lost their heads at the Tower. It's been a palace, a prison, and a royal mint, but mostly it's a living museum of British history. Since you don't have a lot of time, take one of the hour-long guided tours conducted by the much-photographed Beefeaters. They make the history of the Tower come alive with their often humorous and irreverent commentary.

After viewing the Tower, we suggest you head back to your hotel and take a much-needed break before descending on London by night.

We like to begin our evening with a pint in an evocative London pub. Try one of the best and also one of the most famous:

Take a Break -- Salisbury

This Art Nouveau pub is in the heart of the theater district. You can enjoy a drink and a quick pub dinner of home-cooked pies or freshly made salads before heading out to see the show of your choice. 90 St. Martin's Lane, WC2. tel. 020/7836-5863. Tube: Leicester Sq.

9. A Night at a London Theater

Unless you've got your heart set on seeing a big London hit, perhaps a musical, we suggest your one-and-only night in London be spent at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. This is a replica of the Elizabethan original where the Bard premiered many of his plays. The productions, often performed in Elizabethan costume as in Shakespeare's days, are of the highest quality, often showcasing the talents of many of Britain's greatest thespians, both young and old.

Head back to your hotel for a well-earned night of rest and promise yourself you'll come back to London soon.
In One Day in London at Frommer's

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