London is a vacation destination by itself. It is impossible to see all of the worthy sites in a single trip. Many visitors will see little else of England, which is unfortunate, but there is enough to do in London for a week. 150 years ago England’s empire was global and it was often said that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. At one time the empire ruled over one-fifth of the world’s population. Its impact on societies all over the world is incalculable. Today there are visitors from those countries who may want to come to England to find their ancestral roots or to search England for their societal roots. It is truly an international city.
London is the most visited city in the world. It is the financial capital of Europe and rivals only NYC as the greatest financial center in the world. London has been described as the world’s cultural capital with the largest city airport system measured by passenger traffic. It has the largest concentration of higher education in Europe with more than 43 universities calling London home. There are more than 300 languages spoken within its city boundaries. The London Underground is the oldest underground railway system in the world and the second largest to Shanghai.
With almost 13 million residents in metropolitan London, it is one of the busiest cities in the world. It can also be one of the most expensive. Traveling to London can be tricky so make sure that you check online reviews of hotels before making a reservation, even though a travel agency. Bring comfortable shoes and plan to walk a lot! Also, you should plan for congestion when preparing for your trip to London.
London is located in southeast England with the Thames (pronounced “tims” in English) River running through it on the way to the ocean.
My Experience with the Tour Bus
London can be overwhelming and I would suggest taking one of the bus tours available to London visitors. They mostly use double decker buses with an open-air top. There is a guide with a microphone on the top deck pointing out key sights as you drive by. There are lots of anecdotal and historical information provided. Make sure you sit close to the tour guide as it can be difficult to hear when the bus is moving and you don’t want to miss his words. When it rains, as it did when I took the tour, the guide handed out clear-plastic raincoats or ponchos which were helpful. The bottom half of the bus is protected from the elements.
The bus tour was surprisingly worth the expense of an all-day pass. It stops frequently to allow passengers to sight see in a particular part of town or at a particular sight. You can hop back on the tour bus as it makes frequent stops. I don’t remember waiting more than 15 minutes for a bus to arrive. Most tour bus companies will provide you with a map which shows the bus routes along with key historical sites and can be easily used in planning your day. On the bus tour that I went on there were two routes – an east one through London and a west one through Westminster. An added benefit is the free boat ride on the Thames River that came with my tour bus ticket. I took the boat upriver from the Tower of London to Westminster where I docked at the base of Big Ben. It was included in my original price.
There are 3 major ways to travel around London: 1) underground subway, 2) bus or 3) taxi. By the end of your trip you will more than likely have used all of them. For example, traveling to Hampton Court Palace, which is on the far west side of London, requires a trip by the underground (in this case it also travels above ground). Taking a cab or a bus might be expensive or time consuming because of traffic in certain instances.
At each stop on the tour bus line are employees who are willing to assist you and even sell you tickets to the major sights. I was skeptical at first about buying tickets from these vendors but, in fact, it turned out to be a good move. There may be two lines at the site – one to buy tickets and another to get into the actual site. Buying your ticket at the bus stop didn’t cost any more money and it saved me from having to stand in line to purchase a ticket. The tour bus workers were knowledgeable, helpful and glad to take my money.
Look for my post soon about transportation which will include advice on using the underground, hailing a taxi or using the bus lines. The Brits have made it easy once you get used to it, but it can take a person several days to understand how they are connected and the best way to get around. I actually find London an easy place to get around after learning how to do it “properly” as they say in England.
I have been to London on business and personal trips more than two dozen times. What surprised me most about the bus tour is how much more I learned from taking this trip. Driving by a residential area our guide pointed out a plaque showing the home of Benedict Arnold, the “American Patriot”. The English look upon Benedict Arnold a little different than Americans. The tour bus will take you by all the major sights and a lot of smaller locations that normally you wouldn’t see on a tourist trip: 1) famous music recording studios, 2) areas of historical events, 3) homes of famous people, 4) famous landmarks and 5) the major shopping areas.
I bought my tickets to the tour bus at the concierge desk of my hotel. They offered tickets, brochures and information on all major tourist sites. There was a tour bus stop right across the street. Interesting enough, one of the first things the guide said as I sat down on the upper deck was that Jimmy Hendrix, the guitar legend from the 1960s who sang “Purple Haze”, died in the hotel in which I was staying.
The History of London
Getting to know the history of London may help in understanding the historical sites you wish to visit. The first major settlement called London was founded by the Romans in 43 AD. After defeating King Harold in the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror came to London. He began building and improving a variety of sites including Westminster Abbey, Westminster Hall and the Palace of Westminster as well as the Tower of London. During the 12th century the institutions of central government became too large for the royal court and increasingly moved to Westminster. Today there are markers that separate London from Westminster but, for the most part, tourists will consider the history of these two cities as one.
There are a multitude of great events in the history of London. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century it was largely abandoned. In the 6th century the Anglo-Saxons, Germanic tribes that invaded Britain, created a settlement just west of the original Roman city of London. The Vikings repeatedly raided London in the 9th century. To provide better protection from attacks on the city, thousands moved further east behind the walls of the original Roman settlement. England was unified in the 10th century and London became the center of trade and politics with competition from Winchester, the former capital of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex just west of London on the Thames. The 11th century saw Westminster’s influence grow with King Edward the Confessor and with William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings. By the 12th century Westminster became the true capital in governmental terms but London remained England’s largest city and commercial center. In 1100 the city of London was 18,000 but by 1300 it had grown to 100,000.
London lost almost a 1/3 of its population to the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The following Tudor period, 16th century, saw the rise of England as a maritime super-power both militarily and commercially. The second pandemic called the Great Plague killed 100,000 people or 1/5th of the London population. Within a year of the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London burned the city to the ground through a fire which started on Pudding Street. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s cathedral and most buildings within the old Roman walls. Westminster avoided the tragedy. Rebuilding the city took more than 10 years.
In the late 18th century George III acquired Buckingham House and it was enlarged over the next 75 years. This was the London of “Oliver Twist” when crime was rampant. In response, over 200 crimes were punishable by death with some women and children hanged for petty theft. During this time over 75% of children born in London died before age five.
London was the world’s largest city from early in the 19th century to the early 20th century. This period in London history was defined by crowded and poor living conditions, disease, and the urbanization of the population after the industrial revolution. The 20th century saw Britain fighting two world wars. London suffered heavy loss of life and damage during German bombing raids from 1940-1941. Although 16 English cities were bombed, London was bombed 71 times, one time for 57 consecutive nights. Reports differ but deaths from the bombing of London resulted in 20,000-40,000 lives lost.
Planning A Trip To London
Greater London is a thriving metropolis and similar to New York City with regard to traffic, noise, sights, congestion, aggravation and fun. Plan ahead wherever you are going. When planning a sightseeing trip use maps and consider using the Underground first as it is the fastest and least expensive. Taxi drivers are knowledgeable, generally very nice and helpful but there is nothing they can do about the congestion on the roads either. The morning and afternoon rush hours are difficult times to travel regardless of your mode of transportation.
London is known for its great restaurants. Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern food is unmatched. For the less adventurous there is plenty of Italian and American food available. Plan your meals like you do your sightseeing or you will end up eating at a local pub, McDonalds or at your hotel. The concierge desk at any major London hotel can help you find the restaurant that best fits your desire.
Although there will be another section coming out soon with greater details on hotels it is worth mentioning here that this is something that requires your attention while planning. Allow me to briefly tell you about my last two visits to London. My business partner called me all excited that he had booked us at the Four Seasons Hotel for £100 a night. With the conversion rate at that time it was $160 a night not including tax (20+%). London is one of the most expensive hotel markets in the world. We were making the trip on short notice, availability was limited and the cost much higher than normal so he thought it was a stroke of luck. When we arrived we found out it wasn’t THE Four Seasons Hotel but A Four Seasons hotel. We checked in and had to walk across the street to our rooms and three flights of stairs with our luggage. There was no AC and we happened to be there on one of the few hot London nights. With the windows open the traffic outside was noisy. The bathroom was not big enough for one person. The fan was broken and there was no internet or continental breakfast as promised. We also had to pay £35 just to park our car for the night. Our challenges were completely avoidable if my partner had looked at the internet for reviews of this hotel. Yahoo Travel, Hotels.com and other websites give people the opportunity to rate the hotel. PAY ATTENTION! If he had looked up this particular hotel he would have been forewarned, as we were not the first to make this mistake.
A few weeks later we had to make another trip on short notice. As usual most of the affordable hotels were booked but I found one that looked nice, got good reviews for what is a reasonable price for London. When we arrived to check in they immediately tried to upsell – internet was £15 a day, breakfast another £15, etc. My partner has never found an up-sell he didn’t like. The hotel staff was friendly, the accommodations acceptable, even nice, but what I could never have determined by the internet reviews was that this hotel mainly catered to tourists from a specific country outside of Europe. Most visitors and staff did not speak English as their first language but at least our rooms were comfortable and clean.
Category Rating: A
Overall Rating: #2
Comments: I have been to London several dozen times on business and pleasure. It is impossible to see all of the historical sites. You could plan a trip around just the museums, parks, theatre/shows, monuments, churches, buildings or palaces. Even though some of my favorite sightseeing locations are outside of London proper you will enjoy every visit to this wonderful, global city. Take a double decker tour bus the first couple of days you are there so that you can become informed, get your bearings and see some of the sights that you normally wouldn’t even know were there unless you took the tour.