Sometimes, we really should listen to friends. Like when they say, “Bring an umbrella because it always rains in London,” you MUST grab an umbrella even if the sun is bright and shining when you leave the apartment to explore. Because those Londoners are right – it always rains in their corner of the Earth.
Another thing that’s always in London are tourists — all 17 million of them spending £11 billion like London wasn’t the sixth most expensive city in the world. Last year, London ranked the second most visited city, after Hong Kong.
At Heathrow alone, prepare to queue an hour or two for immigration clearance. It’s nothing like that famous opening scene in “Love Actually,” when Hugh Grant says in his perfect Love-me-I’m-British accent:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that… If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling love, actually, is all around.”
But I didn’t feel it in my fingers, or in my toes. Love wasn’t all around me as that song goes. In fact, within 30 minutes of landing, a grumpy old man made sure his disdain for “so many tourists” was heard. If 17 hours on a plane hadn’t drained me of all energy, I could have picked a fight on my first day in Europe (Six weeks later, as the Britons voted to leave the European Union, I heard that old man’s voice in my head again).
Thankfully, the cool spring breeze (and cool people in suits) of London mornings erased all bad memories of the arrival night. With its red buses, golden-gated castles, gray-blue skies and green parks, London was once again the place where love, actually, is all around.
Three days in London will never suffice, but for first-timers to the UK capital, this list serves up a nice London sampler.
Enjoy the free museums
London has some of the most magnificent museums in the world, many of them free to the public. The Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in Brompton has 150 grand galleries displaying everything from jewelry to furniture across the centuries. The V&A Museum, whose groundbreaking was the last public event attended by Queen Victoria in 1899, also has works done by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel, as well as sculptures by Italian masters. The British Museum in Bloomsbury, meanwhile, is famous for holding the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon sculpture from the Acropolis. Opened in 1759, the British Museum was the first public museum in the world; today, it attracts six million visitors a year.
Explore the historic royal palaces
Buckingham Palace is the working home of Britain’s monarchy and often hosts visiting heads of state. Queen Elizabeth and husband Prince Phillip live in private apartments on the premises, which are naturally, off-limits. However, there are parts of Buckingham that are open to visitors at certain times of the year, such as the State Rooms (July-October), the Royal Mews (February-November), and the Queen’s Gallery which is open all year round. Otherwise, the daily Changing of the Guards parade should provide tourists sufficient London photo-ops. In another side of London, Kensington Palace, the former residence of Princess Diana and now the official home of her son, Prince William, is an easy tour that will introduce you to Queen Victoria, who was born there. The Tower of London, located beside the Tower Bridge, is the most fascinating palace in my book. At the very least, it will take a half-day to see the towers, prison cells, line of kings, royal armouries and the crown jewels, but if there’s only one palace or museum you can visit – this is it (though it hardly looks like a palace next to Buckingham).
Catch a show in West End or Shakespeare’s Globe
London’s West End has given birth to the biggest names in theatre. Book early if you want to catch the popular shows. While in the area, explore the neighboring Covent Garden, which is famous for its shops and cafes, Leicester Square, and Trafalgar Square. The whole theater area is an attraction in itself. If Shakespeare is more your thing, head to Shakespeare’s Globe in Bankside and watch a play by one of the world’s greatest actors and playwrights. The Globe was built near the original site where Shakespeare himself acted in the 1580s.
Ride a red bus or a boat
Most tourists, especially those with little time, pick up a London Pass for the convenience it provides. The pass offers free, fast-track entry to more than 60 attractions, which include favorites such as Westminster Abbey, Tower of London and Kensington Palace. It also comes with a free hop-on, hop-off bus tour, which allows you to go around London in the comfort of a bus with a guide (live or audio). This lets you explore the city even when it rains. If you prefer not to deal with the weekday traffic, hop on a boat instead for the free Thames River cruise that also comes with the London Pass.
Sit in the park
When your legs start to w0bble from all the walking, you can slump on a bench or the grass in one of London’s many parks. Regent’s Park and St. James’s Park are my favorites – they remind me of all those Jane Austen novels I read when I was much younger. If you’re lucky, you might chance on a Luna Cinema run at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and watch Star Wars under the stars.
Have an English breakfast and go to a pub
Wherever you’re staying in London’s 32 boroughs, chances are, there’s a good pub – and fantastic Indian or Middle Eastern food – around the corner. Get in, have a drink and just feel like a local. Or if you require something heavier to start the day, enjoy an English breakfast at Garfunkel’s near Trafalgar Square. On weekends, score finds at any of the city’s flea markets. The famous one on Portobello Road near Notting Hill will give you a glimpse of the neighborhood made famous by, who else, Hugh Grant.
Walk like the Beatles
No trip to London is complete without a trip to Abbey Road. What they don’t tell you, however, is that cars and buses fly on that street, and it is only with superhuman powers that you can replicate the famous Beatles crossing. We spent at least an hour walking the street in fours, trying to look cool and Beatles-y. Some drivers were nice enough, slowing down when they see a bunch of hapless tourists. But we really did not have the talent for it, so we just headed to the Abbey Studio shop, where the Beatles did their first recording, and bought the usual souvenirs. For hardcore fans, there’s a shop a few blocks away–an old man will give you flyers on Abbey Road–where you can buy vintage, expensive, authentic rock n’ roll memorabilia.