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Trafalgar Square embraces the past and the present of the city in a single sweep, forming the vibrant core of Westminster. The public square hosts a lively milieu of events throughout the year and features the magnificent National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery along its hem. Trafalgar Square was named thus to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805, an event that marks the fall of the French naval fleet, securing Britain from invasion. A column with a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the summit is the centerpiece of the square, honoring the man responsible for this momentous victory. At the base of the column is the renowned Landseer Lions, flanked by babbling fountains. Renovations in 2003 removed traffic lanes to make room for a sizable staircase, connecting the National Portrait Gallery to the square. A beating heart of the neighborhood, Trafalgar Square is forever bustling with tourists making their way to the galleries and locals passing through.
St. James's Park and Green Park lie next to each other to the north and east of Buckingham Palace. The view from the bridge towards Whitehall is particularly pleasing and the lake is famous for its birds, especially the black swans and pelicans. With its well-groomed flowerbeds and summer concerts, the park remains a big favorite with Londoners and tourists alike. Office workers swarm into St James's on summer days to eat their lunch and enjoy the sunshine. Henry VIII acquired the land in the early 16th Century, around the same time as Hyde Park.
For many years, Piccadilly Circus, at the junction of five busy streets, has been a major London landmark, seen by many as the capital's center. In the heart of Piccadilly is a fountain topped with the aluminum statue of an archer. Although affectionately known as Eros by Londoners, it's actually the Angel of Christian Charity by Sir Alfred Gilbert, and it was so unpopular when first unveiled that he opted for self-imposed exile. Today, the statue is one of London's most famous sites and a popular spot for tourists and romantic couples alike. In the daytime Piccadilly Circus is a bustling area filled with shoppers, business people and visitors. But in the evening the area really comes alive, with its illuminated signs and heady mix of clubbers and couples heading for a big evening out. This is truly the gateway to the West End.
Covent Garden is a historic district that is famous for its street performers, shops, restaurants, bars and theaters. The most well known attraction in the area is the Royal Opera House. Before it became the capital’s premiere destination for entertainment and leisure, Covent Garden served as the largest fruit and vegetable market in England. Currently, the Apple, East Colonnade and Jubilee markets are held in the piazza area. Visitors can browse through antiques, artwork, jewelry and clothing that can be found among the market stalls.
Referring both to the famous tower that forms the north end of the Palace of Westminster, as well as the iconic clock built into its face, the Elizabeth Tower or Big Ben as it is popularly referred to, is deemed as one of the most prolific timekeeping devices of the 19th Century. This hugely exalted monument was constructed when the old Palace of Westminster was ravaged by a fire in 1834, sparking the need for a newer structure. It was then that English architect Augustus Pugin's spectacular design for the tower found fruition, an imposing Gothic Revival structure that would go on to become one of the most striking icons of the British empire. Towering over 315 feet (96 meters), the Big Ben is a brilliant blend of sand-colored Anston limestone that dominates its lower half and a cast-iron spire that pierces the city's ashen skies. Its impressive timekeeping mechanism weighs in at over 5 tons, and the pendulum, which beats once every two seconds, weighs 203 kilograms (447.53 pounds). While this imposing structure can be admired from a distance by overseas visitors, only residents are privy to the internal depths of the tower.
To the west of the Palace of Westminster, this superbly striking piece of Early English Gothic architecture enthralls one and all with its 700-year-old history and its immediate association with British Royalty. First built by King Edward the Confessor between 1042 and 1052 as St Peter's Abbey, the church was meant to serve as a royal burial site for himself and all regal heirs that followed. Quickly, this originally Romanesque church also became the site where coronations and royal weddings took place, thus going on to become one of the most significant religious buildings for British monarchs. While the abbey held the status of a cathedral for several years in the 16th Century, it was soon designated the title of a 'royal peculiar' or a church that is directly governed by the crown, in the later years. The abbey, with its majestic ivory turrets that aim for the sky, dramatic buttresses that line the southern facade and the Norman-style nave that sits between the two towers stands as one of London's most astonishing royal landmarks today.
For over 900 years, this impressive assemblage of Gothic buildings has been the home of British government. The building covers an area of 3.23 hectares (8 acres) and consists of over 100 rooms. The House of Lords occupies the southern end of the building while the House of Commons occupies the area to the north. The best view of this massive expanse can be seen from nearby Parliament Square. Within the Houses of Parliament there is Westminster Hall, the Crypt Church, Members' Lobbies, the Commons Library and the Peers Lobby. The tower containing Big Ben looms just outside. To attend PMQ (Prime Minister's Question Time) in the House of Commons, UK citizens need to contact their local MP in advance. Otherwise, there is a line at St Stephen's entrance.
The grand and stately Buckingham Palace has been the official London residence of the British monarch since 1837. Although the origins of the palace go back to the 18th Century when the Duke of Buckingham built his townhouse at the site, the palace as it stands today is principally the work of architects John Nash and Edward Blore. The palace holds 775 rooms, lavishly decorated with Sevres Porcelain and fine art by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Dyck. From the cream and gold palette of the Belle Epoque to the intricacies of the Chinese Regency, each room is a showcase of extravagant yet tasteful interior design. The Grand Staircase is perhaps one of the world's finest examples of bronze casting, illuminated by an etched glass dome and the focal point of the palace, while the forecourt is the setting for one of London's most popular tourist events - the Changing of the Guard. The Royal Mews and the Queen's Gallery are other popular features of this royal residence that are also open to visitors. All of this is surrounded by manicured lawns and lush gardens alive with myriad blooms in summer, painting a picture of grandeur befitting Britain's royal family.
The Globe Theatre is universally known as the place where the great plays of Shakespeare came alive. Today, Shakespeare’s Globe, located on the banks of the River Thames is a reproduction of the original Globe, which burned down in 1613 after a cannon shot set fire to its roof. The theater was built near the site of the original using nearly identical methods and materials, and is believed by historians and architects alike to be very realistic. Since it opened in 1997, The New Globe has been a popular and iconic addition to London theater, and has turned from hosting only open-air summer productions into a vibrant center of Shakespearean drama, education, exhibitions, and tours. The ‘groundling’ tradition is still alive at the Globe, whereby visitors can watch world-class theater from the yard for a low price.
Enthroned on London's highest point at the summit of Ludgate Hill, St. Paul's elegant silhouette is an icon of the city skyline, its soaring dome framed by the cathedral's spires. First built in 604 but destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, the beautiful building that stands today was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the English Baroque style. While the marvelous facade is a stunning triumph, it does little to belay the sumptuous interiors, brimming with vivid sculptures, intricate carvings and gleaming gilded details. St Paul's has been host to many important events over the years, including the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 and the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Of the cathedral's many treasures, the Whispering Gallery is worth a special mention; just a whisper against the blank circular wall can be heard 42 meters (137.7 feet) away on the opposite side. The seat of the Bishop of London, the St. Paul's remains a venerated place of worship even as droves of tourists flock to its benevolent embrace.
900 years of history is enshrined within the thick, turreted walls of the Tower of London. Originally built as a stronghold by William the Conqueror in 1066, the Tower of London was expanded over the years by various monarchs. Its most distinctive feature is also its oldest, the White Tower which dates back to 1078 by William the Conqueror as a symbol of the Norman supremacy. Although variously used as a royal residence, armory and mint, the Tower of London is best known for its stint as a prison and the site of numerous executions, most notably of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh and Prince Edward V are a few of the other famous personalities who were imprisoned here. Stories of treason, conspiracy and espionage are rife amid these historic walls, with countless secrets just waiting to be uncovered. Another curious feature is the ravens here, that are said to safeguard the British Crown. Today, the Tower of London is a museum and the home of the fabulous Crown Jewels. Tours of the castle are led by the Yeomen Warders, also popularly known as the Beefeaters.
This symbol of royalty resides in the heart of Kensington Gardens. Revered for centuries, this grandiose abode has served as a royal residence since the 17th Century. Surrounded by emerald lawns, and sparkling ponds, the Jacobean Kensington Palace is endowed with courtly interiors. Across the span of centuries, the palace has been variously altered by resident monarchs who sought to furnish the palace in accordance with their own tastes. One of the most dramatic additions is the Cupola Room, designed and decorated by William Kent. The ornate Orangery and Winter Café are replete with English flair, while the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, complete with ceremonial garb dating as far back as the 18th Century, offers insight into the historic cultural nuances of England.