Travel Treasures: London 2012 Ė Part 2

by Tom Reed
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Story filed July 5, 2012

There are so many things to see and do in London that itís hard to know where to start, but a good way to begin is to take one of the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing tours. Two major companies Ė the Original Tour and the Big Bus Tour -- operate similar tours, and they hit most of the highlights. You ride in an open top double-decker bus (not to be confused with the familiar red double-deck city busses London is known for). The beauty of these tours is that you can listen to a knowledgeable guide describing the landmarks, get off at places that interest you, and board another bus to continue your tour. The companies also offer recorded narrations in other languages, but get one with a live, English-speaking guide. Included in your ticket is a free Thames River cruise. Itís a short cruise, but one thatís not to be missed.


Just a listing of London's world-famous landmarks -- Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. Paulís Cathedral, the Tower of London Ė bring up reminders of a great city with a great history.

The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is one of the must-sees. I was there a couple of days after the Queenís Diamond Jubilee celebration, and workmen were still dismantling the bleachers and stage that had been set up for the big concert in front of the palace. They still went through with the ceremony, but we couldnít really get close enough to see the pomp and circumstance associated with it. Things are back to normal now.


Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey has been a historical site for more than a thousand years, and has been the coronation church since 1066. The magnificent building that exists today was begun by King Henry III in 1245. Most of the countryís monarchs have been crowned here, most recently Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. And itís where the next king will be crowned. The coronation chair, in use since 1308, is being restored and can be seen, though not in its accustomed place. Much more recently, the church was the site of Prince Williamís wedding to Kate Middleton in 2011. Westminster Abbey was damaged by German bombs during World War II, though most of its treasures remained unscathed. The RAF is honored with the beautiful stained glass Battle of Britain window. A free audio tour is included with admission. Photography is not allowed.


St. Paulís Cathedral

St. Paulís Cathedral, built after the Great Fire of London in the 17th century, is the crowning achievement of architect Christopher Wren. It has been the site of royal weddings, including that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, funerals of such political leaders as Winston Churchill, and other state functions. The cathedral was damaged during the Blitz, and during the restoration it was decided that the people of Britain should pay tribute to the 28,000 Americans who were killed while on the way to, or stationed in, the UK during the war. Their names are recorded in a 500-page honor roll behind the high altar. St. Paulís, too, provides a free audio guide with admission, but this one is on an iPod. If youíre feeling up to it, you can climb part way up the dome to the Whispering Gallery, so named because the acoustics make it possible to hear a whisper on the opposite side, 100 feet away. If youíre really energetic, you can climb another 271 steps to the top for a breathtaking view of London. Again, you canít take pictures inside. A cafť in the crypt is an excellent place for a quick lunch.


Tower of London

The Tower of London has figured in British history for more than 900 years as a fortress, palace, prison, and place of execution. Anne Boleyn was among those beheaded here. The colorfully dressed Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters, conduct regular tours through the complex every half-hour. Youíll have many photo ops here, but you canít take pictures of the most popular exhibit, the Crown Jewels. One of the most spectacular items is the Imperial State Crown, created in 1937 and worn by the Queen at each State Opening of Parliament. Try to see this exhibit early in the day, before it gets too crowded. Visitors get on a moving walkway to see the exhibit, but are free to stand behind it for as long as they wish.You can save a little money and avoid long lines by booking tickets online. Tickets bought online are valid for seven days from the date you select, giving you some flexibility in your sightseeing plans. The Tower, by the way, has a connection to the Olympics. The 4,700 Olympic medals are being stored in the secure vaults until they are needed for the games.


Parliament Square

The British Museum is known for its fabulous collection of antiquities. You wonít have time to see it all, so be selective. Some of the highlights are the Rosetta Stone, which was the key to translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the Elgin Marbles, statuary from the Parthenon in Athens. Acquisition of the latter is still controversial today, and Greece wants them back. Admission is free, but a donation is requested. And you can use your cameras.

You can keep up to date on the Olympics at www.london2012.com.

Next: Some more recent attractions and overlooked gems


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Copyright 2012 Tom Reed