Freemason Parade? I never did find out what exactly it was for.
In the wake of the royal family’s new arrival, there’s no better time to learn about the United Kingdom. I spent two and a half years living in Britain and have visited the capital city a number of times. I’m going to tell you how to see a number of major sites (that are all worthwhile) in just one day.
Outdoor art show on the South Bank.
The great thing about London is that you never know what you will run into. I’ve walked across a temporary outdoor art gallery along the South Bank, a very odd parade on the north side of the river, and not to mention a delicious market with delicious cider and sandwiches. You’ll miss these wonderful London quirks if you stick to the tour busses! Ditch the bus route for a more authentic experience, wear some comfortable walking shoes and get ready to climb a lot of stairs. Start early to make the most out of your day in London and be sure to not miss out on any of the sights.
Depending on how you arrive to London, whether by train, bus, car, or plane find your way to Westminster and Buckingham Palace to start your day. It’s easy to find and with all the Royal Baby fever going around you’re sure to find a lot going on near the palace grounds.
Buckingham Palace (photo credit to my cousin Wesley).
Buckingham Palace is where “Her Majesty The Queen” resides and works. The building as it stands today was added in the 1800s onto a home built in 1705 for the Duke of Buckingham. If you want to splurge you can go inside the palace if you are there from the beginning of August to the end of September and purchase a ticket for nearly £20. I have never gone inside, although if I was taking a longer trip to the city I would consider it, a tour can last over 2 hours.
My newsfeed from my friends in the UK is currently full of variations on, “So, new baby = new bank holiday?” and “There’s so much news coverage because Jesus was born again, right?” If you visit Great Britain you’ll discover that everyone has a different opinion on the royal family. You will find Royalists who “bloody love” the royals and support the monarchy wholeheartedly to those who “can’t be bothered” with the pomp and circumstance and want to see it dismantled. I imagine right now you’ll find royalists out in full swing, flags waving and celebration on the streets. Get out there and take pictures of the palace, just don’t expect the queen to ask you for tea. Someone in my family discovered that I’m Queen Elizabeth’s 18th removed cousin, I mean that’s practically like sisters and she didn’t invite me in for tea! Shocking.
*Bonus, go at 11:30 and you’ll likely see the Changing of the Guards!
Walk towards Westminster Abbey
Once you’ve had your fill of staring at the beautiful palace behind the gates, head towards Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. You can either walk down Birdcage Walk which is a gorgeous one way street along St. James Park lined with deciduous trees. And at the end take a right onto Storey’s Gate where you’ll see beautiful architecture and brick laid road. Or meander down Buckingham Gate and hang a left at Victoria Street, you’ll see less of the park this way but more of the city, there are more places to eat along Victoria Street too.
*Bonus, there are some of the iconic red phone booths along this route too.
A red phone booth and me, not in London but you’ll find these there!
The entrance to Westminster Abbey in London.
Either way, you’ll cross at the intersection of Storey’s Gate and Victoria Street and Westminster Abbey! This is a must see, going with the Royal Baby theme, this is the venue where Prince William and Kate Middleton wed. You absolutely must go inside. Closing hours can vary depending on when you are visiting, but generally they are open at 9:30 everyday and stop admitting visitors at 3:30pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. They are open later on Wednesday with the last visitors accepted at 6pm, and 1:30 on Saturday. The Abbey is actively in service so Sundays are reserved for worship only. Entry fees are highest for single adults at £18 but families get a discount, children under 11 are free, if you are aged between 11 and 18 it only costs £8.
*Bonus, get an international student card before you visit Britain and you will get major savings, the Abbey only charges £15 if you have a valid student card (or if you are over 60 years old).
You cannot take photographs inside most churches in England (Scotland is a different story) so make sure to abide by these guidelines so you are not asked to leave! Westminster Abbey is huge and build on nearly a thousand years of history. It was first established in 1066 and the current church’s construction began in 1245 under the guidance of King Henry III. It houses artifacts, tombs, sculpture, and beautiful Gothic architecture (stone and wooden). If you’re lucky you might hear the choir practicing while you’re there. Be sure to check out the gardens too!
*Bonus, in the East Cloister you will come across the Chapter House which was built in the 1250s. Here you will find what is believed to be Britain’s oldest door! Archaeologists have dated it to the 1050s through dendrochronology (using tree rings).
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
Time to move on to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament just across the street. This is another flyby stop, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is built in Gothic style. The magnificent building is golden in color and sits on the North Bank of the River Thames.
Big Ben is attached to the Parliament.
Snap your pictures and head down Westminster Bridge.
Walk down the Westminster Bridge towards South Bank and go left along the Thames. If you want, take a trip in the London Eye, the lines can be atrocious and out you 20 quid. If you opt out, later on in this trip you can get an amazing view not obstructed by glass at the top of a cathedral.
*Bonus, back up from the London eye onto Chicheley Street for an awesome picture of London and the London Eye.
Small skate park on the South Bank.
If you continue to walk along the South Bank you will walk past artists painting, usually a small book market, an awesome small skate park covered in colorful graffiti, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Keep an eye out for the Millennium Bridge which is a pedestrian bridge across the River Thames.
The Millennium Bridge is featured in the movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Getting hungry yet? Good time for the Borough Market!
New Forest does delicious ciders (try their heated cider).
Just before the London Bridge is the Borough Market, a premier food market with high quality food, independent and local stalls, and cider. Check out their website for opening times when you’ll be there. Try and go on a day when the entire market is in full swing, but you can always go there for lunch. You can taste test most everything while you’re there, and be sure to pick something for your lunch after you’ve strolled around for a while. I went in November and had a delicious Christmas sandwich special (turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce on a baguette). I also had some of the best warmed cider I’ve ever had at New Forest Cider. Cider in Britain is generally always hard cider, and New Forest Cider is open three days a week from Thursday to Saturday.
My delicious Christmas baguette with roast turkey.
London Bridge and Tower Bridge
You see this awesome bridge? That is not the London Bridge. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it mislabeled by tourists. This is Tower Bridge.
The London Bridge is a simple concrete and steel bridge that was opened just in 1973. On the bridge are a few vendors selling London Bridge gifts, but I suggest you bypass the London Bridge and make your way to Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge was built in the late 19th century, the bridge has two towers with high walkways crossing between the two. You can go up in the towers if you’d like, or just cross the bridge to reach the Tower of London (to fit everything into one day you need to choose one or the other!).
Tower of London
Keep an eye on the time, because you need to be onto the next site by 3pm. The Tower of London deserves an entire day to see it right, but if you have only one day you can still experience it!
View of the Tower of London while standing on the South Bank.
The Tower of London charges an admission fee which is the highest on this tour at £21.45 for a full priced adult ticket. Inside you have a treasure trove to see and an infinite number of things to explore. From museums to the Crown Jewels (which you get to see in passing while standing on a moving walkway.
It’s like time travel inside the Tower of London.
The Tower of London, another World Heritage Site, is a castle that has been expanded upon since 1066. It was used as a prison, for executions, as an armory, the venue for the coronation of the monarch, and even had a moat. It is a legit castle.
If you left early like I suggested, you should have time to spend a couple hours exploring the Tower London with enough time to spare at the end for the grand finale of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral is easy to get to from the Tower of London, just follow Lower Thames St. (keep the river on your left) and then when you reach London Bridge, take a right away from the bridge, hang a left at Cannon Street and keep going straight to reach the church. You won’t miss its iconic dome and sky scraping steeple.
In front of St Pauls Cathedral, up close.
St Paul’s is open 6 days a week for visitors with Sunday reserved for worship only. No more entries are allowed after 4pm and everyone is asked to leave at 4:30pm, so be sure to give yourself enough time to see it. It also charges an admission fee, the full adult price is £16.
There was an original church in the same place in the year 604 AD, but the current structure was constructed in the late 1600s after the Great Fire of London which destroyed St Paul’s along with tens of thousands of other buildings.
*Bonus, you cannot take photographs inside the cathedral, but you can from the top of it.
Once you’ve immersed yourself in the beautiful architecture and artwork, and explored the underground crypt where many historical figures are buried, start climbing up. Climb the dome and you’ll be along the inside of the dome, looking down at everyone walking around nearly 100 feet from the floor. Keep climbing up and you’ll get above the dome. Here you will be invited to look through a plexi-glass hole in the floor and you can see all the way to the floor from the top of the dome. I’m afraid of heights, so this was a struggle for me, so be careful of your stomach turning!
One view you get from the top of the cathedral.
I kept climbing despite my shaking knees and nervous disposition. Once you reach the very top, the view you get will make it all worth while and you’ll be glad you saved the best for last. Take in the breathtaking views from what was once the tallest building in London (until 1962).
Walk around and take in the panoramic view.
Is it 4:30 and they’ve kicked you out?
Find a Pub
Whew, long day, you’ve earned yourself a drink!
Me and a pint (photo credit to my cousin Wesley).
Time for some British pub food and a good pint. You’re in a great place to find any number of old pubs with a great vibe. Now is the time to meander a bit and discover one on your own! You can tell everyone about the awesome pub you stumbled across near St Paul’s and direct new visitors to your find.
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