The capital of England, London, which is home to the royals, is the preferred holiday destination in Europe. Whether it’s an array of monuments and museums that provide a peek into the city’s glorious past or the modern offices and commercial premises located in contemporarily designed buildings, not to forget its multicultural crowd, all contribute to giving the city a distinctive cosmopolitan stamp. The Thames river meandering through its heart, with its south and north banks buzzing with locals and tourists, provides the city with its vibrant energy and makes one feel that one is amid a carnival with numerous street artists and amusements vying for your attention.
Our London trip was a family reunion celebrating the birth of my brother’s twin kids, as well as a reward for our children for having worked hard and excelled in their exams. It was also an opportunity to explore world-renowned universities like Oxford and Cambridge, which would give us a glimpse of educational opportunities that are available abroad. Having my brother escort, us around London ensured that we got to see as much of the city in the least possible time and we could capture the pictures from the best locations.
No trip to London would be complete without a visit to the Buckingham Palace, which is home and administrative headquarters of the British monarchy. (The Queen though prefers to stay at the Windsor Castle.) We headed to the palace to witness the changing of guards and a parade that took place around eleven in the morning. Large crowds of tourists and families had assembled as we saw young kids riding on their dotting daddy’s shoulders curious to see the event. Smartly dresses guards, in their signature red tunics and black trousers with furry black hats, marched as the ceremonial band played. A parade of the guards on horseback added more drama to the proceedings.
Trafalgar Square is the epicentre where all the action takes place, be it rallies or festivities. Surrounded by historical buildings, museums and art galleries, the square had several fountains and statues including that of national hero Admiral Nelson.
Located near each other are the Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Westminster’s Abbey. Elizabeth Tower or to give it it’s more popular name Big Ben is the landmark clock tower of London. The Houses of Parliament which houses the Big Ben is known for its stunning Gothic architecture and is best viewed from the northern banks of Thames. Restoration work was underway during our visit, so the Big Ben had fallen silent, and scaffoldings covered sections of the tower and the parliament building.
The Westminster’s Abbey is a gothic cathedral which has the tombs of royal family members, writers, politicians and scientists including Darwin. With a thousand-year-old history, it truly deserves the UNESCO World Heritage tag. The other cathedral that is prominent is the St. Paul’s Cathedral, with its characteristic dome, located atop the Ludgate Hill.
The Tower of London is an impressive fortress located on the northern banks of Thames. It served as a prison during the medieval ages but today boasts of an impressive collection of famous royal jewels including the 105-carat Kohinoor diamond! One of the tourist’s remarked tongue in cheek, how ironical it was that first the priceless Kohinoor was taken from India by the British and now we Indians must pay a good 20-pound fee to get a glimpse of it.
For those interested in politics the Churchill war rooms and 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister, may be of interest. Hyde Park, where concerts and shows take place, is also a favourite among the locals to relax and unwind, as well as Piccadilly circus with its famous fountain and neon lights are other landmarks to be explored. As we walked around, we did stop by to take pictures with the trademark red telephone booth which today in the age cell phones is obsolete but seems a perfect backdrop for a selfie. Another similar structure which we saw was the red post box whose utility is redundant in the age of emails and messages.
The London skyline is a unique confluence of the old and new buildings which seem to coexist peacefully. So, on the one hand, you will find historical buildings like the abbey, cathedrals and Houses of Parliament providing a peek into the grandeur and history of the past. Juxtaposed to it are the modern contemporary buildings like the Gherkin in the shape of a vegetable, Shard a 95-floor skyscraper or Leadenhall Building in the form of a ‘cheese grater’ and the ‘walkie-talkie’ shaped building which became infamous for reflecting light that was responsible for melting down parts of a parked Jaguar! It makes one wonder who was more advanced, the architects of the historical buildings or the makers of the contemporary ones.
What makes London every travellers delight is it’s easily accessible and well-connected transport system. It is impossible to be lost in London, even if you are a first-timer, as sooner or later you will find your way. The London underground is the lifeline of the city very much like what the suburban trains are to Mumbai. The red double-decker buses, some of which offer the hop on hop off bus tour, are a delight as you can then watch the city and its monuments from the upper deck and capture some good aerial shots of this pulsating city.
A river cruise on the Thames provides scenic views of the city, as well as the numerous bridges, including the iconic Tower Bridge, that span across the river. Walking is another option of exploring London up close and letting the sights, sounds and smells of the city enthral you. You may, for the sake of memory, want to take a ride in the famous black cabs of London.
For children as well as those young at heart, the amusements are plenty like Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studio tour, Shriek’s adventure, Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, Sea Life Aquarium, The London Dungeon and so on. Our children were keen on the Harry Potter Warner Bros. studio tour, but we soon realized that because of its popularity, one needs to make bookings. So as not be disappointed we headed to King’s Cross Station’s Platform 9 ¾ from where the Hogwarts Express departs. The shop here sells all the Potter paraphernalia and souvenirs. Children can get a photo clicked with their chosen house scarf and props against the backdrop of the famous trolley entering platform 9 ¾ scene!
The north and south banks of the Thames river is where there is always something endearing and entertaining happening. The street artists will amuse and please you with their clever tricks and skills. A floating Yogi, a sculpture of a combat soldier which on closer look reveals a cleverly disguised artist, a poet who will write a poem on a topic of your choice and will accept whatever payment you chose to make, a musician playing his instrument including a bagpiper are but some of the attractions one is likely to experience.
The London Eye on the south bank, which provides a 360-degree aerial view of the city and its skyline is an exciting breath-taking experience for tourists. If you’re hungry, then get hold of some caramelized peanuts and almonds or candy floss or slush from the kiosks located here. Several food joints and chic eateries and cafes located near the south bank offer a multi-cuisine experience. Since we were craving for something spicy and yet not Indian, we headed to a restaurant that specialized in Mexican food and dug into the tacos, quesadillas, nachos and steak.
You can never go hungry in London since it has willingly embraced world cuisine so much so that the national dish is ‘Curry’. However, do try the Fish and Chips for which the locals have reserved Friday’s. From Central Asian and Middle Eastern kebabs to South-East Asian noodles and soup or Italian pizzas and pasta here is something or the other which will tickle your taste buds. Another culinary trend that is gripping London is that ‘artisan foods’ made by hand using traditional recipes and methods are gaining popularity over mass-produced mechanized food products that are served by big brands with a chain of restaurants or cafes.
For shopping, if you want international fashion labels, accessories, perfumes, jewellery and watches then head to Oxford Street. It is one of the most luxurious shopping destinations in London. You will find flocks of shoppers, the rich and famous as well as the ordinary people, wanting to lay their hands on and if their pockets permit shop for a range of merchandise till one can drop. The biggest crowds were at Primark, which offers value for money quality products. We saw families with more bags than they could comfortably carry with smiles on their faces, excited at having got a dopamine rush after some frenzied shopping.
London with its cosmopolitan fabric representing diverse cultures and religions, alongside its rich architecture and history, coupled with limitless tourist attractions and its efficient transport system is a sought-after travel destination and more than compensates for it being an expensive city.
Nearest Airport: Heathrow and Gatwick are international airports in London. Several international flights from major cities in India can take you to London.
Where to Stay: You can check for hotels on the net depending on comfort and budget.
Travel Tips: The UK visa takes time, so make sure that you apply well in advance to avoid being disappointed. Get an Oyster card to use on the train journey. Do check the weather forecast, which is reasonably accurate, in advance and plan your trip accordingly. You can plan indoor activities on cloudy and rainy days and reserve the sunny days for the outdoors to get good pictures. Make bookings online for all the attractions you want to visit so as not to be disappointed and to save yourself from long queues.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons Magazine, June 2018.