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  London - Sightseeing

The sights of London embrace 2,000 years of history and invoke the tramp of Roman legions, strolling players in the age of Shakespeare, plagues and Great Fires, the architectural heritage of the Georgian era, the squalid alleyways of Dickens, Victoria’s great age of railways and trade, and the Blitz of World War II.

In a city of 600 art galleries, 150 museums and countless places of interest, considerable planning is needed for sightseeing. The following represent a cross section only of some of the more famous and/or interesting places to visit. Many museums and galleries are free; so, of course, are the many landmarks and monuments. White Cards for three or seven days allow entry to many museums and galleries; they’re 16 and 26 respectively, family pass 32 for three days, 50 for seven days. Sold at the British Travel Centre on Lower Regent Street, principal Underground stations and participating venues, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Museum of London, London Transport Museum, Design Museum, Imperial War Museum, Hayward Gallery and the Natural History Museum.

Landmarks, Monuments And Historic Sites Or Districts

Buckingham Palace was opened to the public for the first time in 1993 and will remain open at least to the year 2000. The 1705 Royal Residence was refaced with a rather forbidding facade in Victorian times. The interior is overpoweringly baroque; 18 rooms are available to view, including the Throne Room and State Dining Room. Open early August to late September. Tickets can be charged by phone by calling 321-2233. All tickets are 9.50 when ordered by phone. Tickets are also available through the ticket office in Green Park from 9 am daily, 9 adult, 6.50 seniors over age 60, 5 children under age 17. For recorded information, call 799-2331. Expect to wait in line. You can witness the changing of the guard after 11:30 am, daily during summer, and on alternating days throughout the remainder of the year. Be advised that, if it’s a cold or rainy day, the guards may be wearing gray overcoats—the ceremony is much more enjoyable when you can see their trademark red jackets.

Docklands is the recently redeveloped area east of the City with 55 mi/89 km of waterfront and an elevated railway. A scenic guided tour is offered of the Docklands’ many historic buildings and the new Canary Wharf Tower, which is the tallest building in Europe. Monday-Friday 8:30 am-6 pm, Saturday and Sunday 9:30 am-5 pm. Free. Docklands Visitor Centre, 3 Limeharbour, Isle of Dogs, phone 512-1111.

Guildhall is one of London’s best-preserved old buildings. It is the seat of the city council and houses a medieval crypt. Despite the jarring 1960s add-ons to the exterior, the interior is beautifully restored, including a great hall used for ceremonial occasions. Monday-Saturday 10 am-5 pm. Free. Off Gresham Street, City of London, phone 606-3030.

You’ll need a permit to visit the Houses of Parliament. The impressive architecture includes the Big Ben clock tower. Foreign visitors should write with their request (and suggest a range of dates) to the Public Information Office, House of Commons, 1 Derby Gate, London SW1A 2DG. Parliament is not in session late July to mid October or weekends. October to July, tours are offered Friday afternoons after 3:30 pm; in the summer they operate weekday mornings. Free. Parliament Square, Westminster, phone 219-4272.

Pall Mall (pronounced pal mal) is a broad avenue lined with genteel buildings and gentlemen’s clubs running from Trafalgar Square to St. James’s Palace. Reform Club (No. 104, members only) was the point of departure for Phineas Fogg on his 80-day circumnavigation.

Piccadilly Circus, with its landmark statue of Eros, marks the start of the West End’s nightlife zone, with theater, cinema and Soho. Souvenir stands clutter every corner, and you’ll notice more than a suggestion of seediness, especially at night.

Royal Albert Hall is the domed, oval concert venue, imposingly situated opposite Hyde Park. The statue of Albert is encased in scaffolding, patiently awaiting some heavy cosmetic surgery to be completed by 1999. A proposed 20 million renovation of the building will take at least until the turn of the century to complete. Kensington Gore, Knightsbridge, phone 589-3203.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, the fifth cathedral on this site, is Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. Inside the great dome is the Whispering Gallery; at the top of the dome is the Golden Gallery, with panoramic views of central London. The cathedral is open for worship and discreet viewing Monday-Saturday 8:30 am-4 pm (with occasional changes to accommodate special services). For cathedral only: 3.50 adults, 2 children under age 16. For galleries: 6 adults, 3 children under age 16. Ludgate Hill EC4, phone 236-4128.

The Tower of London has served as a castle, a prison, a royal mint, an observatory and a place of execution. It’s now the home of yeoman warders and the crown jewels (in the Jewel House). Also a permanent exhibition of crowns and diamonds in the Martin Tower. Immensely popular and crowded. March-November: Monday-Saturday 9 am-5 pm. December-February: Sunday and Monday 10 am-4 pm, Tuesday-Saturday 9 am-4 pm. 8.50 adults, 5.60 children under age 15, 25.40 family ticket. Tower Hill, City of London, phone 709-0765.

Trafalgar Square is a busy traffic interchange surrounded by grand, historic buildings, such as St. Martin in the Field Church and the National Gallery. The square is dominated by Nelson’s Column with four bronze lions. This is the site of New Year’s Eve shenanigans. Between Westminster and the West End.

Westminster Abbey is a magnificent gothic building where kings and queens are crowned and famous historic figures interred. The nave and cloisters are open Monday-Saturday 8:30 am-6 pm. Religious services only on Sundays. The Royal Chapels are open Monday-Friday 9 am-4:45 pm, Saturday 9 am-2:45 pm and 3:45 to 5:45 pm. 4 adults, 1 children under age 16. Parliament Square SW1, phone 222-5152.

Whitehall is the wide boulevard connecting Trafalgar Square with the Houses of Parliament. Essential walking for its many fine buildings, including Old Admiralty and Old Scotland Yard.

Greenwich lies to the east of London and offers many attractions in 200 acres/80 hectares of riverside parkland as well as fine views of the lower River Thames. It is the focus for Britain’s millennium celebrations, which are commemorated each new year, leading up to the gala celebration for the year 2000. The Old Royal Observatory has recently been moved from its 0-degrees-longitude site, but you can still stand astride the prime meridian in Greenwich. Part of the National Maritime Museum, which has one of the world’s biggest collections of boats and navigational equipment, is located in Greenwich. The 1869 sailing ship Cutty Sark stands in a dry dock nearby; its cargo is a wonderful display of figureheads. Open daily 10 am-5 pm, admission 5.50 adults, 3 children ages 5-16, free for children under age 5, 16 for family ticket (includes 2 adults and 3 children). Phone 0181-858-4422.

At Hampton Court Palace on the Thames west of London, built in 1515 for Cardinal Wolsey and enlarged by Henry VIII, you’ll find grand and elaborate state rooms and a gallery with Italian masterpieces. Outside is an orangery and a famous maze. Open mid March to mid October these hours: Monday 10 am-6 pm, Tuesday-Sunday 9:30 am-6 pm. Open October to mid March these times: Monday 10:15 am-4:30 pm, Tuesday-Sunday 9:30 am-4:30 pm. East Molesey, Surrey, phone 0181-781-9500. Admission to palace, cloister and maze 8.50 adults, 5.60 children under age 16; free for children under age 5, 25.40 family ticket. The maze is open all year and is included in the price of admission to the palace. Admission to maze only is 2 adults, 1.20 children.

Art Museums

Admission to many of the museums and galleries listed below is included in the White Card, which gives unlimited entry to 13 attractions for 14 (good for three days) or 23 (seven days). Family tickets are available for 29 and 50, respectively. Available from the British Travel Centre on Lower Regent Street, principal underground stations and most participating museums and galleries.

Hayward Gallery mounts a wide variety of large, temporary exhibits, including historic and contemporary works from Europe and the U.S. Thursday-Monday 10 am-6 pm, Tuesday-Wednesday 10 am-8 pm. Closed between exhibitions. 5 adults, 3.50 children. Belvedere Road, Southbank Centre, phone 261-0127.

The National Gallery houses the U.K.’s major collection of paintings by many famous artists in an endless series of galleries, too much to take in at a single visit. See Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode in Gallery E for a droll caricature of life in 18th-century London. The Gallery loans out CD players with detailed, recorded explanations of the major paintings for a donation of 3. Monday-Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Sunday noon to 6 pm. Free. There’s also a program of exhibitions, for which the average entrance fee is 4. Trafalgar Square. Phone 839-3321.

The National Portrait Gallery offers five floors of famous faces arranged in chronological order, from Will Shakespeare to Mick Jagger. Monday-Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Sunday noon-6 pm. Free, excepting special exhibitions. 2 St. Martins Place, phone 306-0055.

The Royal Academy of Arts mounts a notable annual Summer Exhibition and others through the year. Paintings on display can be purchased. Daily 10 am-6 pm. 4-7. Long lines are typical for major exhibitions. Burlington House, Piccadilly, Mayfair, phone 439-7438.

The Tate Gallery holds a major collection of international modern art as well as historic and impressionist works. Paintings are shown in rotation because of the vast size of the collection. The newly refurbished Clore Gallery now has a room devoted to the marine paintings of J. M. W. Turner. The new site for the modern art collection will be the Millbank Power Station, on the South Bank, which will be renamed the Tate Gallery of Modern Art. It’s expected to open in the spring of the year 2,000. Daily 10 am-5:30 pm. Free, but with varying admission fees to special exhibitions. Millbank SW1, phone 887-8000.

Additional Museums

The British Museum, in a classical columned and domed building of 1857, accommodates the world’s greatest collection of antiquities. You’d have to walk more than 2 mi/3 km to take in all 94 galleries. See the controversial Elgin Marbles, which Greece would like returned. For the first time, the museum has now devoted a room to part of its vast Mexican collection. Monday-Saturday 10 am-5 pm, Sunday 2:30 to 6 pm. Guided tours Monday-Saturday at 10:45 am, 11:15 am, 1:45 pm and 2:15 pm; Sunday at 3, 3:20 and 3:45 pm. Free, but donations invited. Exhibitions 4.50. Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, phone 636-1555.

The London Transport Museum, in a refurbished Victorian flower garden, recounts the development of the underground, trams and red buses. Innovations include touch-screen technology, videos, actors. Daily 10 am-6 pm, except Fridays 11 am-6 pm. 4.50 adults, 2.50 children ages 5-16, free for children under age 5. 39 Wellington St., WC2, phone 379-6344.

The Museum of London is probably the most comprehensive city museum in the world. It’s like being inside a biography: Rooms and displays re-create stages in history. Tuesday-Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Sunday noon-6 pm. 4 adults, 2 children ages 5-16, children under age 5 free, family ticket 9.50. London Wall, City of London, phone 600-3699.

The Museum of Mankind mounts ethnographic exhibitions, regularly changed. The material—from Africa, Asia and the Americas—is invariably fascinating. Daily 10 am-5 pm, Sunday 2:30 to 6 pm. Free. 6 Burlington Gardens, Mayfair, phone 437-2224.

The Natural History Museum and Geology Museum house a huge collection of animal models, skeletons and specimens, plus an earthquake experience and other displays concerning the workings of the planet. Monday-Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Sunday 11 am-6 pm. 6 adults, 3 children ages 5-17, family ticket 16. Free admission Monday-Friday after 4:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday after 5 pm. Cromwell Road, South Kensington, phone 938-9123.

The Victoria and Albert is the national museum of art and design—in 7 mi/11 km of galleries! Some of the exhibits at “the V & A” are just exquisitely decorated rooms. Monday noon to 5:50 pm, Tuesday-Sunday 10 am-5:50 pm. 5 adults, 3 senior citizens, free for students with valid student ID and children under age 18. Cromwell Road, South Kensington, phone 938-8500.

The Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) provides a complete history of the moving image, from Chinese shadow plays dating back to 2000 BC to the latest in TV and optical disk technologies and an elaborate tribute to Hollywood. The museum has a variety of interactive exhibits—visitors even get a chance to audition for their own starring role. Daily 10 am-6 pm. 6.25 adults, 5.25 students, 4.50 children, 17 family ticket. Located on the Southbank, Waterloo, SE1, Waterloo or Embankment tube station, phone 401-2636.

The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood houses the national collection of toys, dolls, dollhouses, games, puppets and children’s costumes. Monday-Thursday and Saturday 10 am-5:50 pm, Sunday 2:30 to 5:30 pm. Closed Fridays. Free. Cambridge Heath Road, E2, phone 0182-980-2415.

Parks, Gardens And Zoos

Hyde Park, where the royals once hunted boar, is now 360 acres/145 hectares of landscaped parkland with avenues of trees and the Serpentine, an ornamental lake on the site of a long-disappeared river. Residents and visitors enjoy exercise, rest and recuperation in the heart of the city. At Speaker’s Corner, near Marble Arch, all forms of humanity vent their obsessions on Sunday mornings. Closes at midnight. Phone 298-2100.

Regent’s Park, the fine and stately site of the London Zoo, is fringed by imposing terraced houses. Other features include a rose garden, a mosque, an outdoor theater and places for boating and tennis. Open 7 am until dusk. Off Marylebone Road near Baker Street. Phone 486-7905.

St. James’ Park is the oldest royal park. It has an ornamental lake, intimate promenades, daily bandstand performances, views of Buckingham Palace. Connects with the plainer but equally pleasant Green Park. Dawn until midnight. Westminster, phone 930-1793.

The London Zoo is Britain’s largest, with an aquarium, a reptile house and a children’s zoo. Open daily 10 am-4:30 pm. 8 adults, 6 children ages 4-14. Regent’s Park, NW1, phone 722-3333.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the West of London, displays a marvelous array of specimens in 300 acres/120 hectares, first planted in the 17th and 18th centuries. Orchids and palms are nurtured in the hothouses. See also the lake, aquatic gardens and a Chinese pagoda. Daily 9:30 am-5:30 pm. Glasshouse closes 4:45 pm. 4.50 adults, 2.50 children ages 5-16, 12 family ticket. Kew Road, Richmond, Surrey, phone 0181-940-1171.

Aquariums And Planetariums

London Planetarium takes you on a journey to the stars. Expert commentary, Spirit of London ride, frequent extravagant updates. Call for times, which change seasonally. 5.65 adults, 3.70 children under age 16. Combination ticket with Madame Tussaud’s (next door), 11.20 adults, 7.10 children under age 16. Marylebone Road, phone 935-6861.

The London Aquarium is the capital’s first world-class aquarium. It plays host to a vast array of global aquatic life in great detail. Thousands of species—including sharks, stingrays, piranha and sea scorpions—live in two million liters of water. Elaborate marine habitats have been simulated: European freshwater; tropical; deep, dark pseudo oceans; coral reefs; and rain-forest pools. Monday-Friday 10 am-6 pm, Saturday and Sunday 9:30 am-7:30 pm. 6.50 adults, 4.50 children, 20 family ticket. Phone 967-8000.

Amusement Or Theme Parks

Chessington World of Adventure and Zoo provides Disney-like diversions and rides on a 65-acre/25-hectare theme park with hair-raising rides and a new Mobster Magic attraction. Open daily, 2 Mar-2 Nov, 10 am-5:15 pm (last admission is 3 pm). 18 adults, 14 children ages 4-14. Chessington, Surrey (approximately one-half hour from London’s Waterloo Station by train), phone 01372-727-227.

Additional Experiences

The Trocadero, an entertainment complex at Piccadilly Circus with a Planet Hollywood restaurant (phone 287-1000), is a surefire hit for teenagers. Attractions: Sega World—all the Sega madness you can handle and a bit more (phone 734-2777); Rock Circus—pop stars in wax (phone 734-7203); Alien War—monster experience (phone 437-2678); Imaginator—stomach-wrenching rides (phone 437-5723); and Virtual World—a virtual reality system (phone 494-1492). Call for times and prices, which vary.

Madame Tussaud’s. Celebrated likenesses of the great and famous in wax. Eerie Chamber of Horrors (murderers) and interaction experiences (the Time Taxi). Daily 9 am-5:30 pm. 9 adults, 6.50 children. Combination ticket with London Planetarium: 11.20 adults, 7.10 children under age 16. Marylebone Road, phone 935-6861.

London Dungeon is a creepy re-creation of the mean streets of Old London Town. Grisly medieval torture tableaux (complete with screams), plus a Jack the Ripper experience. Includes live actors and is not for the squeamish. April-September daily 10 am-6 pm, October-March closes 5:30 pm. 8.95 adults, 7.95 students, 6.50 children under age 14. 28-34 Tooley St., phone 403-0606.

Tower Hill Pageant, a “dark ride” museum, takes visitors through 2,000 years of city history in automatic cars. Realistic scenes of London’s waterfront through time, complete with sounds and smells. Daily April-October 9:30 am-5:30 pm, November-March 9:30 am-4:30 pm. 6.45 adults, 4.45 children ages 4-16, 15.95 family ticket. Tower Hill Terrace, phone 709-0081.

Self-Guided Walking Tours

The London Wall survives in fragments, marking the boundary of Roman London. Look for explanatory plaques located at intervals along a 1.5-mi/2.4-km walk from the Museum of London to The Tower, tracing a path through the city of London.

Green Park and St. James’ Park provide a most agreeable stroll between the many sights immediately to the north and west. Clockwise, these include Mayfair, Piccadilly, Burlington Arcade, Museum of Mankind, Royal Academy, Piccadilly Circus, Pall Mall, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.

The River Thames offers vistas of famous waterfront buildings, small parks, statues, monuments and old bridges. A walk along the north bank is noisy with traffic but rewarding nonetheless, especially between the Tate Gallery and Victoria Embankment. The Waterloo Bridge offers the best river views.

The Queen’s Silver Jubilee Walkway was recently completed by the opening of a link. It now provides an uninterrupted stroll along the south side of the Thames from Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge, more than 2 mi/3 km with views of the river and landmarks and monuments on the opposite bank.

A number of companies offer guided walks, at prices averaging about 4.50 per person. Check the “Around Town” section of Time Out magazine.

Local Tours

Evan Evans is a long-established organizer of tours in London and outlying attractions. 26 Cockspur St., Trafalgar Square, phone 0181-332-2222.

Thomas Cook Travel offers an extensive program of local and extended tours. 45 Berkely St., Mayfair, phone 499-4000.

Original London Sightseeing Tours specializes in double-decker buses, some open topped and providing ideal photo opportunities. Pickups at Victoria, Marble Arch, Haymarket and Baker Street. 12 adults, 6 children under age 16. London Coaches, Jews Row, SW18, phone 0181-877-1722.

London Waterbus Company. Tickets: 9.80 adults, 6.50 children. Recorded information at 482-2660.

Historical Walks of London, 3 Florence Rd., South Croydon, phone 0181-668-4019.

Original London Walks offers eight or nine different walks that depart from various points. P.O. Box 1708, NW6, phone 624-3978.

Stepping Out. Guided walking tours. Some walks have such offbeat themes as “Brothels, Bishops and the Bard,” which explores the oldest prison in London, Shakespeare’s memorial window in Southwark Cathedral and the site of the original Globe Theatre. 32 Elvendon Rd., 0180-881-2933.

Catamaran Tours of the Thames will take you from the embankment at Charing Cross to Greenwich, via the Tower of London. Round-trip takes about an hour, with boats departing every half hour, 10:30 am-4 pm in summer, to 3 pm in winter. Phone 987-1185.

Several river tours originate at Westminster Pier, Victoria Embankment, SW1, close to Westminster tube station. Downstream to the Tower of London and Greenwich, upstream to Kew and Hampton Court. Recorded information at (0839) 123432.