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Empire and conquest has shaped the identity of London in such a way that it comes as no surprise that one of its most famous landmarks possesses a foreign name. If the capital had an official central point, then this would be it. Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the French navy at every turn during the Napoleonic era and the Battle of Trafalgar was his most famous victory. It is commemorated here with a statue of the great sea warrior set atop an imposing column and guarded by four imperial lions. Under their gaze, celebrations, demonstrations and cultural milestones have all taken place and it is often the first port of call for short stay visitors.
As the London skyline becomes more and more dramatic, it makes sense to view it from higher up in order to get a better perspective. The London Eye is the world’s largest Ferris wheel and serves as a classy and convenient viewing platform with an ideal position on the River Thames facing Big Ben. From here, you can see most of London’s bridges and landmarks and can even hold events and parties in the specially made pods.
This artistic quarter, comprising a collection of theatres, galleries and concert venues forms a riverside backdrop to the mighty London Eye. From alternative circuses to modern art installations, there’s always something ground-breaking going on here, making it a magnet for adventurous culture lovers. A recurring feature at the Southbank is the summer long Udderbelly festival which focuses on the strange, alternative and quirky side of the arts.
- Buckingham Palace: She may not spend most of her time there but big house at the end of The Mall is where Her Majesty the Queen likes to show her glamorous side. Here you will see the Trooping of the Colour, a military ceremony that’s full of pageantry and tradition. There is also a small exhibition that shows off some of the royal treasures such as paintings, furniture and other valuables.
Whenever you see a picture of the monarch waving at her people during a state occasion, it’s usually from here so it’s a must-see destination.
- The Palace of Westminster (The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben) Fact: Big Ben does not refer to the famous clock tower but rather, the 13 ton bell that is housed within it. It’s chimes personify the dignity and permanence of Britain’s government like no other sound and the neo gothic building attached is known as the “Mother of all Parliaments”. The representatives of the people meet here to debate the matters of government and as such proceedings are open to the public. Students of politics and history will find this place intriguing.
- The Tower of London: Palace, fortress, prison and slaughterhouse. This brooding castle was built and rebuilt on the bank of the Thames to keep invaders out and to keep Londoners quiet. Guarded by the inscrutable Beefeaters who double up as tour guides, the tower was often the last stop for anyone who displeased the monarch, be they traitors, wives or interfering priests.
All this grim history is balanced out by the presence on the premises of the Crown Jewels. These are the fabulous gem – encrusted pieces that the Queen wears at state occasions and they are on view for the public.
This World War 2 battleship is anchored opposite the Tower of London and serves as a symbol of Britain’s pride in the sacrificial courage of its wartime sailors. Basically a floating gun platform, HMS Belfast escorted convoys of ships carrying supplies from the USA to Russia via the hazardous Arctic route. She then supported the allied troop landings in France before going into retirement in the late fifties.
Visitors can experience the living and fighting conditions of Royal Navy personnel as they took the fight to the enemy. The gun control platforms are of particular interest and to show the vast range of these weapons, the ship has trained them on a motorway service station outside north London. This demonstrates how valuable an asset HMS Belfast was considered to be in times of conflict.
Recent renovations due to fire damage have allowed authorities to make refinements to the general viewing experience of this 19th Century sailing ship. The Cutty Sark tea clipper is now raised up on a transparent plinth which allows visitors to see under the vessel. Inside, there is an exhibition which tells the tale of how this magnificent sailing ship set world speed records as it raced across the oceans in a bid to bring tea and other precious commodities to these shores.
This is where London’s gory past is dug up for all to see. Blood spattered and scary, the exhibitions here are nonetheless hugely entertaining with re-enactments of high crimes in low places. Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd and a cavalcade of crazy noblemen all appear in animatronic form.
Executions, murders and high treason all led to grisly deaths as London proved to be a magnet for all manner of murderers and thieves. The location is under the arches below London Bridge station and is suitably dark and mysterious with actors and props all playing their part in creating a super scary atmosphere.
In these celebrity mad times, the famous waxworks museum must be working overtime in order to keep up with the number of famous figurines that populate this most celebrated of London attractions. Kings, presidents and prime ministers are joined by Hollywood royalty and famous sporting personalities as these astonishingly realistic statues bring the lives of the rich and famous into 3D focus.
The same ticket gains access to the London Planetarium which is a dome shaped map of the universe. Exciting and informative displays of far-away constellations and galaxies are a popular draw to Londoners and tourists alike.
Want to see London’s riverside sights but pushed for time? Or maybe you’re an extreme sports fan wanting to fit in a bit of sight-seeing. The Thames Rocket is an aerodynamic speedboat that can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour and will whisk you past the world famous London skyline in minutes. Starting in the City and heading up to the Thames Barrier, you will be in the hands of an experienced skipper and a hilarious yet informative tour guide. The round trip only takes 40 minutes thanks to the designated river lanes and the sheer speed of your distinctive red boat. So wave goodbye to the boring old tour cruises as they trundle along in your wake and make like James Bond on a mission to save the capital (or whatever). The Thames Rocket is the newest and, some say, only way to see London.
Touring London by bus is great for close up detail but not so good if the traffic snarls up. Taking to the river avoids jams but is limiting in terms of scope. Duck Tours solves this conundrum in an imaginative way by using an ingenious invention from yesteryear. The “Duck” refers to the DUKW amphibious truck that was used by the allied armies to ferry troops from ship to beach during WWII. Whether rolling through London’s streets or gliding down the Thames the bright yellow Duck is a flexible and fun way to get about. There are bespoke tours incorporating “James Bond”, “Treasure Hunt” and “D – Day” themes.