The UK's largest museum is the most visited tourist attraction in London,
with over 6 million annual visitors. Millennium renovations led to the
inner courtyard - hidden from public view for 150 years - being transformed
into a spectacular, light-filled Great Court. It is the oldest, most august
museum in the world.
Highlights include the weird Assyrian treasures and Egyptian mummies;
the exquisite pre-Christian Portland Vase and the 2000-year-old corpse
found in a Cheshire bog. With the removal of the British Library to St
Pancras, the Reading Room is now open to the public, sadly making Reader's
Tickets a thing of the past.
Buckingham Palace, built in 1705 for the Duke of Buckingham, has been
the royal family's London home since 1837 when St James's Palace was judged
too old-fashioned and insufficiently impressive. Nineteen of the 661 staterooms
are open to visitors for two months each year. Don't miss the changing
of the guard.
The Queen opened Buckingham Palace to the public for the first time in
1993 to raise money for repairs to Windsor Castle. The interiors range
from kitsch to tasteless opulence and reveal nothing of the domestic life
of the Royal Family apart from a gammy eye when it comes to interior decoration.
The huge Camden Markets could be the closest England gets to free-form
chaos outside the terraces of a football stadium. They stretch between
Camden and Chalk Farm tube stations, incorporating Camden Lock on the
Grand Union Canal, and get so crowded on weekends that you'll feel like
a sardine in a straitjacket.
The markets include the Camden Canal Market (bric-a-brac, furniture and
designer clothes), Camden Market (leather goods and army surplus gear)
and the Electric Market (records and 60s clothing).
Once a vegetable field attached to Westminster Abbey, Covent Garden became
the low-life haunt of Pepys, Fielding and Boswell, then a major fruit
and veg market, and is now a triumph of conservation and commerce. The
piazza is surrounded by designer gift and clothes shops, hip bars and
restaurants. Stalls sell overpriced antiques and bric-a-brac.
Houses of Parliament
The neo-Gothic brilliance of the Houses of Parliament was restored by
a recent spring clean of the facade. The building includes the House of
Commons and the House of Lords, and the grandeur of the incredible exterior
is let down only by the level of debate in the interior ('hear, hear').
There's restricted access to the chambers when they're in session, but
a visit around 6pm will avoid the worst of the crowds. Check the time
on the most recognisable face in the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben.
Nearby, the official residence of the prime minister and the chancellor
of the exchequer (No 10 Downing St) has been guarded by an imposing iron
gate since the security forces realised that the lone iconic bobby outside
Maggie's door was not sufficient to stop the IRA mortar bomb attack in
Humongous Hyde Park used to be a royal hunting ground, was once a venue
for duels, executions and horse racing, and even became a giant potato
field during WWII. It is now a place of fresh air, spring colour, lazy
sunbathers and boaters on the Serpentine. The park has sculptures by Jacob
Epstein and Henry Moore.
Kew Gardens, in Richmond, Surrey, is both a beautiful park and an important
botanical research centre. There's a vast expanse of lawn and formal gardens
and two soaring Victorian conservatories - the Palm House and the Temperate
House - which are home to exotic plant life. It's one of the most visited
sights in London.
It can get very crowded, especially in the summer. And with nearby Heathrow
continuously spitting out jets, there isn't much chance of total peace
and quiet. Spring is probably the best time to visit, but any time of
the year is delightful.
Natural History Museum
On Cromwell Rd near the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History
Museum is one of London's finest Gothic-revival buildings, but even its
grand cathedral-like main entrance can seem squashed when you're confronted
with hordes of screaming schoolkids. Despite this, it's a gem of a place,
a dizzying combination of august artefact and amusement arcade.
Keep away from the dinosaur exhibit while the kids are around and check
out the mammal balcony, the Blue Whale exhibit and the spooky, moonlit
rainforest in the ecology gallery.
St Paul's Cathedral
Half the world saw the inside of St Paul's Cathedral when Charles and
Di tied the knot here in 1981. The venerable building, complete with famous
dome, was constructed by Christopher Wren between 1675 and 1710, but it
stands on the site of two previous cathedrals dating back to 604.
Its famous dome, the biggest in the world after St Peter's in Rome, no
longer dominates London as it did for centuries, but it's still quite
a sight when viewed from the river. Visitors should talk low and sweetly
near the whispering gallery, which reputedly carries words spoken close
to its walls to the other side of the dome.
The Tate Britain is the keeper of an impressive historical archive of
British art. Built in 1897, the Tate underwent an ambitious program of
expansion, the Centenary Development, completed in November 2001.
Ten new galleries and five refurbished galleries showcase the collection
of peerless Blakes, Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, Hogarths, Constables, Turners
and Pre-Raphaelite beauties and provide space for temporary exhibitions
and educational projects.
Its sister gallery is the vastly popular Tate Modern.
The resting place of the royals, Westminster Abbey is one of the most
visited churches in the Christian world. It's a beautiful building, full
of morose tombs and monuments, with an acoustic field that will send shivers
down your spine when the choirboys clear their throats.
The roll call of the dead and honoured is guaranteed to humble the greatest
egoist, despite the weighty and ornate memorabilia.
In September 1997, millions of people around the world saw the inside
of the Abbey when TV crews covered Princess Di's funeral service. Since
then the number of visitors has increased by 300% and the visit is now
more restricted, with some areas cordoned off.
Sights to take in during an abbey visit include the Coronation Chair,
where all bar a few monarchs have been crowned since 1066, the Tomb of
Mary Queen of Scots and the 10 statues of 20th-century martyrs.
Off the Beaten Track
Brick Lane Market
Sunday morning means bagels for breakfast at Brick Lane market in the
East End. The ground is strewn with blankets covered in everything from
rusty nails to gold watches. Haggling's the key, though consonants drop
off vowels faster than zeros drop off prices.
Hampstead Heath is one of the few places in London where you can actually
forget that you're in the middle of a huge, sprawling city. There are
woods, meadows, hills, bathing ponds and, most importantly of all, lots
of space. Lose the 20th century altogether in Church Row, Admiral's Walk
and Flask Walk, which have intact Georgian cottages, terraces and houses.
After a brisk walk on the heath, pop into the Spaniard's Inn for a tipple
or have a look at Robert Adam's beautiful Kenwood House and wander around
its romantic grounds.
Highgate Cemetery can't be beaten for Victorian-Gothic atmosphere and
downright eeriness. Its overgrown grounds include Egyptian-style catacombs,
enough chipped angels to please the most discerning Joy Division fan,
Karl the more serious Marx brother and personalised tombs reflecting their
Holland Park is both a residential district, full of elegant town houses,
and an inner-city haven of greenery, complete with strutting peacocks
and scampering bunnies, the restored remnants of a Jacobean mansion (now
set aside for the world's backpackers), two exhibition galleries and formal
Ye olde Kensington Market is the place to go to replace your punk mohair
jumper, bum bag and kilt, and why not get a haircut, tattoo, pierced upper
ear and a new slogan painted on your leather jacket while you're there?
Other England Attractions
The most impressive and evocative, if not the most beautiful, cathedral
in England is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of
All England. Like most cathedrals, it evolved in stages and reflects a
number of architectural styles, but the final result is one of the world's
The ghosts of saints, soldiers and pilgrims fill the hallowed air, and
not even baying packs of French children can completely destroy the atmosphere.
After the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1170, the
cathedral became the centre of one of the most important medieval pilgrimages
in Europe, a pilgrimage that was immortalised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the
Canterbury Tales. Canterbury itself was severely damaged by bombing in
WWII and parts of the town have been insensitively rebuilt, but it still
attracts flocks of tourists, just as it has for the past 800 years - though
numbers may decrease now pilgrims are charged a fee to enter the cathedral.
Durham is the most dramatic cathedral city in Britain. It straddles a
bluff surrounded on three sides by the River Wear and is dominated by
the massive Norman cathedral which sits on a wooded promontory, looking
more like a time-worn cliff than a house of worship. The cathedral may
not be the most refined in the land, but no other British cathedral has
the same impact. The cathedral shares the dramatic top of the bluff with
a Norman castle and the University College, while the rest of the picturesque
town huddles into the remaining space on the teardrop-shaped promontory.
The most green and pleasant corner of a green and pleasant land, the landscapes
of the Lake District are almost too perfect for their own good: 10 million
visitors can't be wrong, but they can sure cause a few traffic jams.
The area is a combination of luxuriant green dales, modest but precipitous
mountains and multitudinous lakes. Be prepared to hike into the hills,
or visit on weekdays out of season if you have any desire to emulate the
bard and wander lonely as a cloud.
Arguably the world's most famous university town, Oxford is graced by
superb college architecture and oozes questing youthfulness, scholarship
and bizarre high jinks. The views across the meadows to the city's golden
spires are guaranteed to appear in 30% of English period dramas, but they
manage to remain one of the most beautiful and inspiring of sights. Back
in the real world, Oxford is not just the turf of toffs and boffs: it
was a major car-manufacturing centre until the terminal decline of the
British car industry and is now a thriving centre of service industries.
The pick of the colleges are Christ Church, Merton and Magdalen, but nearly
all them are drenched in atmosphere, history, privilege and tradition.
Don't kid yourself, you wouldn't have studied any harder in such august
It's the most famous site in prehistoric Europe, and is both a tantalising
mystery and a hackneyed tourist experience: tantalising because no one
knows why the stones were dragged up from South Wales 5000 years ago;
hackneyed because tourists are processed through Stonehenge like cans
on a conveyor belt.
It consists of a ring of enormous stones topped by lintels, an inner
horseshoe, an outer circle and a ditch. Although it is known that the
Henge is aligned to the movements of the celestial bodies, little is known
about the site's purpose. What leaves most visitors gobsmacked is not
the site's religious significance but the tenacity of the people who dragged
the stones. It's estimated that it would take 600 people to drag one of
these 50-ton monsters more than half an inch. The downside of Stonehenge
is that it's fenced off like a dog compound; there are two main roads
slicing past the site; entry is via an incongruous underpass; and clashes
between New Age hippies and police at summer solstice have become a regular
feature of the British calendar. Each year New Age Druids celebrate the
summer solstice, but closer access at other times is strictly limited.
This limestone escarpment overlooking the Severn Vale is an upland region
of stunningly pretty, gilded stone villages and remarkable views. Unfortunately,
the soft, mellow stone and the picturesque Agatha Christie charm have
resulted in some villages being overrun by coach tourists and commercialism.
For nearly 2000 years York has been the capital of the north, and it played
a central role in British history under the Romans, Saxons and Vikings.
It's a great city in which to amble through the spectacular Gothic cathedral,
medieval city walls, tangle of historic streets and glut of teashops and
York is a fascinating city of extraordinary cultural and historical wealth.
Its medieval spider's web of narrow streets is enclosed by a magnificent
circuit of thirteenth-century walls. The city is thick with museums tracing
its long history, and, especially in summer, is a tourist honeypot.
Isles of Scilly
These balmy rocky islands, slap in the middle of the warm Gulf Stream,
have a pace of life just one slow heartbeat away from total extinction.
There are no cars on any of the five inhabited islands, but all have white,
sandy beaches, gin-clear waters and a swag of shipwrecks for treasure-loving
Wedged between Southampton and Bournemouth on the holiday South Coast,
this huge patch of woodland is the largest area of natural vegetation
left in England. It has been that way since William the Conqueror gave
the area its name in 1079.
This is one of the wildest and least-spoilt counties in England. There
are probably more castles and battlefield sites here than anywhere else
in the country, testifying to the long and bloody struggle with the Scots.
The most interesting and well-known relic is Hadrian's Wall. The Northumberland
National Park has a windswept grandeur that is distinctly un-English in
character. The grassy Cheviot Hills, part of the park, are a lonely, beautiful
and challenging hiking area. The main town in the area is Berwick-upon-Tweed,
the northernmost town in England; the prettiest villages are Corbridge
and Brampton in neighboring Cumbria.
The 'blue remembered hills' of Shropshire form one of the most beautiful,
peaceful and underrated areas of Britain. The gentle terrain and the low
population density make it perfect cycling or open walking country, and
the county's capital, Shrewsbury, is probably the finest Tudor town in