London Things to Do Tips by toonsarah
London Things to Do: 8,852 reviews and 14,857 photos
Horse Guards: the Household Cavalry
Halfway down Whitehall on the west side of the road you will always see a crowd gathered. This is the location of the Horse Guards building, and outside two troopers from the Household Cavalry are on guard every day, from 10.00 AM to 4.00 PM. Their colourful costumes and impassive stare attract attention, and legions of tourist photographers. Once an hour the crowd swells as the troopers are relived and a small ceremony marks the handover of duties to a new pair.
The building behind is often overlooked by those watching this ceremony, but from the other side, by St James’s Park, it is very impressive (see photo two). There it is fronted by the wide expanse of Horse Guards Parade, where the Trooping the Colour ceremony is held. This wide expanse of gravel on the eastern edge of St James’s Park has been used as a parade ground since the 17th century, although its original use was for jousting tournaments held for the pleasure of Henry V111 at what was his main London residence, Whitehall Palace. The palace itself was destroyed by fire at the end of the 17th century, but this tiltyard, and the Banqueting House nearby on Whitehall, remain.
On the northern side of the parade ground is the Old Admiralty, while on the southern side you can see the back of the buildings in Downing Street, including no 10, the home of the British Prime Minister. Access to the ground is open apart from during official ceremonies, and indeed it makes a good short cut between Whitehall and the park.
Horse Guards was built between 1751 and 1753, and served as the headquarters of the British Army's Commander-in-Chief until 1904, when it became the headquarters of the Household Cavalry. The unit of the Household Cavalry which you see on guard here is known as the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. The troops and horses are based at Hyde Park Barracks, a mile or so away, and it isn’t unusual to see them on the streets around here, coming or going from their duties. Indeed, I once saw a rather exciting incident – one of the horses was being led by a trooper riding a second horse, and the horse being led managed to escape from the man’s grasp and bolt down the road. Luckily it was quiet at the time, and a policeman on motorbike who was with the troop of cavalry was able to catch up with the horse and grab its rein.
Incidentally, there are two regiments within the Household Cavalry, and they wear different uniforms, so you can easily tell which is on duty when you visit. The Life Guards wear red tunics with a black collar and a white plume on their helmets. The Blues and Royals, as the name suggests, wear blue tunics with a red collar and a red plume. So you can see that the troopers in my photo are from the Blues and Royals.
In 2012 Horse Guards Parade took on a new role, and was transformed into a temporary beach – or at least, into the site for the Olympic Beach Volleyball tournament. Chris and I had tickets for the event and were there to see what was surely one of the most unusual and exciting of any Olympic venue.
Directions: Roughly halfway between Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square on the west side of Whitehall
Entrance to the Photographers' Gallery
This has been one of our favourite destinations in London for many years, and a move to a new location a few years ago has done nothing to change that. As keen photographers we love to explore the work of all sorts of photographers, and almost always find something to interest, inspire or intrigue us in the gallery’s regularly changing exhibitions. These are very varied and could feature an established “name” in the world of photography, relative newcomers or perhaps students or prize-winners. Themes can be challenging but are only occasionally dull. As an example, a description of a May 2009 exhibitions reads:
”The internationally renowned artists in this exhibition use stitching, cutting, piercing and punching to explore the ambiguous space between two and three dimensions. Dissatisfied with the conventional function of photography as a surface that reproduces the external world, these artists test the materiality of their medium.”
Admission to the gallery is free, and there are usually two or three shows on at any one time, so there’s always plenty to see. The gallery also has an excellent shop selling books on photography, postcards and prints. For more serious shopping, collectors will be interested in the print sales room, where prices start at a reasonable £150. There are regular talks and events (some free, some at a small charge) and courses on the history and on the theory of photography. Lastly, the small café serves hot and cold drinks, sandwiches and delicious home-made cakes in pleasant surroundings only a stone’s throw from hectic Oxford Street.
Tuesday, Wednesday & Saturday: 11.00 – 18.00
Thursday & Friday: 11.00 – 20.00
Sunday: 12.00 – 18.00
Address: 16-18 Ramillies Street, London, W1F 7LW
Directions: Nearest tube is Oxford Circus (Central and Bakerloo lines)
Phone: 0845 262 1618
Westminster Abbey from Tothill Street
Westminster Abbey should definitely be high on every visitor's must see list. I think is one of the two places in London where you get the greatest sense of the country's history (the Tower of London is the other). Here all British monarchs from 1066 onwards, with the exceptions only of Edward V and Edward VIII, have been crowned, many of them married and, until George II, buried. Its wealth of historic sights include the Coronation Chair, the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, various Royal Tombs and the Royal Chapels.
So many of Britain's great men and women are buried here: Chaucer, Spenser, Kipling, Dickens & Tennyson with other writers in Poets' Corner; Handel, Vaughan Williams & Purcell; Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton & Robert Stephenson; Dame Peggy Ashcroft & Sir Henry Irving ...
Others are buried elsewhere but commemorated here: the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Winston Churchill ...
The abbey is mainly Gothic in style, and its proper name is actually the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster - but no one ever calls it that, and very few Londoners would even recognise the name! There has been a church on this site since 616AD but the present building was started in 1045 and much added too over the following centuries, being more or less finished in the 15th.
The Abbey is open to visitors on weekdays and Saturdays, but on Sunday only for those atending a service. Times vary a lot, so check the website below before you go - also if you'd like to attend a service. There is an entry charge of £18 (adults), £15 (students and 60+) and £8.00 (children 12-18 - under 12s go free).
Update March 2013: prices updated and new photo added
Address: Deans Yard, SW1
Directions: St James's Park or Westminster tube (both on the Circle and District lines). Westminster is nearer but I prefer the approach from St James's Park. Follow signs to the right exit, and walk ahead down Tothill Street - you can't miss it!
Phone: 020 7654 4900
An evening at the theatre is of course a “Nightlife” activity, but did you know that you can also visit the Globe Theatre for a tour during the daytime? This is hugely enjoyable, and you learn so much at the same time about the theatre of Shakespeare’s day.
Firstly you visit the Globe Exhibition, which explores the life of Shakespeare, the London he lived in, and the theatre of his day. You will see Elizabethan costumes and Renaissance instruments. You also learn about the construction of both the original Globe Theatre and this modern-day version. The exhibition has been greatly extended in recent years so even if you've been before you'll find plenty to interest you. You can have an audio tour gadget at no extra charge (and as well as English, these are available in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese). And your ticket is valid all day, so if you prefer to do the tour before visiting the exhibition that's fine too.
Next, you will be taken on a tour of the theatre itself. When I went with friends for the first time, a few years ago now, our guide was one of the theatre company’s actors, and he enhanced our tour with an account of the challenges of mounting productions in this unique space, and with our own private recital of Hamlet’s soliloquy! On my more recent visit (with VT's Regina1965) our guide was not an actress, but was very good just the same.
In the summer when there are matinee performances the tours don't run after about midday, but you can still visit the exhibition (at a reduced charge) or choose to go instead to the the Rose Theatre archaeological site to view the remains of the earliest theatre in Bankside, where some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays were performed. The Rose tour includes the Bankside area, allowing you to imagine this area during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
The exhibition and tour cost £13.50 for adults, £12.00 for seniors (60+), £11 for students (with valid ID) and £8.00 for children (5-15). A family ticket, covering up to 2 adults & 3 children costs £36.00. Prices are reduced on those days when the theatre cannot be visited and the Rose is substituted. Pre-booking, on the phone number below or online, is advised – both to guarantee admission, but also to confirm that the theatre itself will be open.
Update March 2013: information updated (including prices), new photo added
Address: 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT
Directions: About 10 minutes’ walk from Mansion House (District & Circle lines) or London Bridge (Northern & Jubilee lines) stations. From the former, you can cross the river via the Millennium Footbridge, with excellent views of both banks
Phone: 020 7902 1500
In the Clink Museum
The Clink Museum combines history and the macabre in equal measure. It is is on the site of the original Clink Prison ("possibly the oldest mens prison and probably the oldest womens prison in England") which held prisoners from the early Tudor years until 1780. The exhibits here focus on punishments from medieval times through to the 18th century, and include hands-on encounters with instruments of torture and restraining devices such as stocks.
One particularly unpleasant object that caused much squirming when we visited was the iron boot. The prisoner’s foot would be inserted, the space around it filled with pieces of wood, and water poured in to swell the wood, with the result that circulation to the foot would be cut off and eventually the foot would be lost.
There are also, as you can see from my photos, various tableaux showing prisoners from different periods of history. This isn’t a museum for the squeamish, but could well be a good way of persuading youngsters to take on board some history without even realising they were doing so!
The museum is open every day 10.00 AM – 9.00 PM in the summer ((July - September), and
Monday - Friday 10.00 AM - 6.00 PM, Weekends 10.00 AM - 7.30 PM the rest of the year. Admission costs £7.50 for adults, £5.50 for children under 16, senior citizens and students with I.D. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) is available for £18.00.
Update March 2013: prices and opening hours checked and updated
Address: 1 Clink Street, SE1 9DG
Directions: The nearest tube (Jubilee and Northern lines) and mainline station is London Bridge – see map on the website for walking directions (I think the museum may be signposted at street level - follow exit signs for Borough High Street)
Phone: 020 7403 0900
This is one of the iconic structures of London – so much so that an urban myth has it that the rich American who bought London Bridge to erect in the Arizona desert actually thought he was getting this one and was disappointed when he realised what he had purchased! I’m not sure if that’s true, but if you think about bridges over the Thames this one will inevitably come to mind.
Tower Bridge was completed in 1894, and was considered one of the great engineering marvels of its age. It was the first to be built east of London Bridge, and its design was a response to the problem of constructing a bridge over a stretch of the river where shipping was so busy. The road crosses the river on two “bascules” – sections which can be raised to allow for ships to pass through. High above these a walkway was intended to allow pedestrians to cross even when the bascules were raised, but was closed as it was found that most people preferred simply to wait. Nowadays this walkway houses an exhibition about the history of the bridge and offers great views of the river (or so I’ve heard – I’ve yet to visit myself).
Although river traffic is not as busy as it once was, the bridge is still lifted approximately 1000 times a year to allow tall ships, cruise ships, naval vessels and other large craft to pass through. If you want to time your visit to coincide with a lift, check out the schedule on the website.
You can see the bridge at any time of course, but if you want to visit the exhibition and check out the views, opening hours are 10.00 – 18.30 (last admission 17.30) 1st April - 30th September and 09.30 – 18.00 (last admission 17:00) 1st October - 31st March. Admission costs £8 for adults, £3.40 for children (5-15) and £5.60 for concessions. There are various deals for family groups of different sizes, so make sure you ask about these.
Update March 2013: prices corrected
Address: Tower Bridge Road, EC3/SE1
Directions: Nearest tube is Tower Hill (District & Circle lines) or London Bridge (Northern & Jubilee lines – follow signs to Tooley St and the river). The Ticket Office is on the north side of the Bridge.
Phone: 020 7403 3761
Houses of Parliament
This photo has to be one of the iconic images of London …
… but how many of you think that it is a photo of Big Ben? In fact, Big Ben is the name of the bell inside the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. And “Palace of Westminster” is the official name for the building which is home to the Houses of Parliament. This is because until 1512 the royal family lived where Parliament is now situated.
Parliament is open to all members of the UK public and overseas visitors. You can watch laws being made, attend debates and committees, tour the buildings, and if you’re a resident of the UK, climb the clock tower. I’ve never been to a debate or on a tour, but I’m lucky that my job has led to me being invited to receptions here on several occasions. There is an incredible sense of history in this building – echoes of the weighty decisions that have been made here, the great statesmen and women who’ve walked these corridors, the major events witnessed here. If you get the opportunity to go inside I would certainly recommend it if you have any interest in history or in politics.
To attend a debate you simply need to join the queue outside St Stephen’s entrance, although you may need to wait an hour or more. Make sure you check that the House is sitting though – details are available on the website below, including recess dates. Security these days of course is very tight, so come prepared for your bags, and your body, to be searched.
Overseas visitors can only tour Parliament during the Summer Opening, when paid-for tickets are available, but if you’re a UK resident you can arrange a place on a free tour through your MP.
Update March 2013: new photo added
Address: Parliament Square, SW1
Directions: The nearest tube station is Westminster, on the Circle, District and Jubilee lines. Follow the signs to Exit 3
St John’s, Smith Square
St John’s in Smith Square is a Baroque church dating back to 1728. It was damaged during the Second World War but has been restored and now serves as a concert venue. I have never been to a concert here, but I have often walked through the square, as I used to work in this area, and I love the way the church dominates and fills the square. If you have been walking through the quiet streets to the north it can come as something of a surprise to turn a corner and find this large church building among the terraced houses.
Concerts are held both at lunchtimes and in the evening, and prices can be very reasonable, especially for the former - £5 is not uncommon for a lunchtime concert, which for an hour’s entertainment in central London is something of a bargain! Evening events are more expensive but still not bad – expect to pay between £10 and £20. You can book in advance in person, by phone (see below) or online, or just turn up – I imagine at lunchtime especially that shouldn’t be a problem.
There is also a café serving light meals and lunches, which is also open in the evenings when there are performances, serving drinks and post-concert food. It looks very attractive but again I have to say I haven’t yet got round to trying it. One day soon, hopefully ...
Address: Smith Square, London, SW1P 3HA
Directions: See the maps on the website. The nearest Tube stations are Westminster (District, Circle and Jubilee lines) and St James's Park (District and Circle lines)
Phone: 020 7222 1061
Platform 9 ¾, Kings Cross
Kings Cross Station has recently been extensively remodelled and modernised, with a brand new departures hall. Harry Potter fans will be pleased to hear that this incorporates a special “Platform 9 ¾” photo opportunity! The sign and trolley are against the wall near the bookshop, Watermark (to the left as you exit the tube station, and left of the departure boards).
You may have to queue to take your photo by the way, but if you’re a fan of the books, no doubt you won’t mind that too much – just allow enough time if you’re here to catch a train too!
Directions: Kings Cross St Pancras tube station is on lots of different lines; follow signs to mainline departures from Kings Cross (not St Pancras)
When I was much younger, as a child and in my early teens, this was my favourite of London’s museums. As a kid I loved the special children’s gallery, where you could press buttons, flick switches and conduct “experiments” galore! Later, in my teens, I got very interested in space travel and with a friend would visit every school holiday to see the exhibits about other planets, meteors and so on.
In those days museum exhibits were largely static (with the exception of that wonderful children’s gallery) but it was what we were used to and accepted. Today the museum is full of hands-on displays and is a fun way of introducing children to science, or keeping those already interested occupied for hours! There are also regular special exhibitions. The main collection covers both pure and applied sciences, with galleries devoted to, among other things, flight, medicine and agriculture. Check out The Secret Life of the Home to find out about the inner workings and history of household gadgets; learn about psychology on Mind your Head; or see a piece of moon rock in Exploring Space, which remains one of the most interesting galleries for me. Have a look at the third-oldest clock in the world, the Wells Cathedral clock (1392) or Henry Babbage's analytical engine, the first fully-automatic calculating machine and predecessor of today’s computers.
When you’ve had enough exploring, or need a break, there are two cafés and also, thoughtfully, a space where you can eat your own food. As with all the major London museums, entry is free, making this a great choice for families on a budget.
Address: Exhibition Road, SW7
Directions: The main entrance is on Exhibition Road and the nearest tube station is South Kensington (Piccadilly, Circle and District lines) from which it is a five minute walk at street level or through the special museums subway (clearly signposted)
Phone: 0 870 870 4868
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