Spring has sprung in England’s capital and there’s a sense that things are getting back to normal after the pandemic-induced woes of the past few years. Visiting London this week has reminded me not just what a life-affirming place it is, but what a joy it is to travel more or less as we did before. Here are five highlights of the “Big Smoke”.
Lofty gardens and rooftop bars continue to sprout across London’s skyline, luring patrons in with the prospect of cosmopolitan food, drink and epic panoramas. But there are few more satisfying viewing experiences than drifting (or zipping) along the River Thames, mesmerised by timeless sights like Tower Bridge and the Palace of Westminster (where most of the scaffolding has come off “Big Ben” after its big refurbishment). You can navigate this mighty river with various modes of transport. One morning, we ride the Thames Clippers, essentially London’s river buses, which glide through the heart of the capital, making several stops on their way to Greenwich — where historic maritime sights, like the legendary tea clipper, Cutty Sark, are worth a visit. Another morning, we try a white-knuckle alternative: the Thames Rockets RIB speedboat, which reaches speeds of 30 knots as it tears along the water, twisting and turning, and slowing down to allow a guide to reveal fascinating snippets about some of the landmarks we see. Did you know, for instance, that there are 32 capsules on the London Eye — one for every London borough?
TOWER OF LONDON
You can board or alight a Thames Clipper at the pier next to this formidable medieval complex, which was established by William the Conqueror and has served as a royal palace, fortress and prison for over 1000 years. While the headline draw are the glittering Crown Jewels — a staggering collection of diamond-laced crowns and golden trinkets — it’s a treat to simply potter around the tower’s cobbled lanes (especially if, like us, you come first thing on a weekday morning, when it’s almost eerily quiet). You’ll see the resident ravens and can take informative tours with the yeoman warders, ceremonial guardians known as “Beefeaters”, in their iconic red and black outfits. After climbing the steps into the White Tower to peruse the impressive royal armoury and atmospheric chapel, we take a peek at the famous moat, where about 20 million seeds are currently being sown for Superbloom, a new installation to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. From June, a spectacular field of flowers will bloom here and it’s set to become a permanent new biodiverse wildlife habitat.
Though vast in size and scale, London is an incredibly walkable city. I love strolling its streets, delving down its side alleys, and looking up at the mish-mash of architecture that makes up this magnificent cityscape. It’s not just the well-known sights that cause a stir — the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, for example, or the glittering Shard — it’s the ornate, tile-clad facades of pubs and Tube stations, the monumental sweep of almost Parisian-style palatial buildings that flank Regent Street, and the glossy new-fangled offices which curve and jut into all sorts of peculiar directions between Westminster’s Parliament Square and Victoria railway station. And that’s without even mentioning the chunks of ancient Roman walls or the repurposed Georgian and Victorian factories and warehouses clad in quirky murals. In London, you’ll rarely go a minute without seeing something worth photographing.
When you’ve had your fill of glass, chrome and concrete — and need a breather from all the traffic and bustling footpaths — there’s a green space not too far away. It’s said London has about eight million trees — one for every resident — and there’s not another city on earth that can match it for parks. What a pleasure it is to stretch your legs by the sprawling lawns and swan-blessed lakes of royal parks like Hyde Park, Regent’s Park and St James’s Park, where daffodils and blossom trees are blooming on our visit. There are also gorgeous flower beds, lawns and benches in lesser-hyped verdant bubbles such as Victoria Embankment Gardens, a serene series of gardens by the Thames, a five-minute walk from the commotion of Charing Cross station and Trafalgar Square.
WEST END THRILLS
This slice of central London is the one that best encapsulates the city’s international buzz. It’s where you’ll see and hear people from every part of the globe, and find a mind-boggling array of entertainment, from centuries-old pubs and fine-dining restaurants to department stores and playhouses (not to mention the likes of Chinatown, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden markets). A highlight for us is watching Moulin Rouge, an onstage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film. As with the movie, much of the dialogue incorporates pop tunes from the likes of Queen, David Bowie and Pink, but there’s something extra-special about seeing it live. The sets at the Piccadilly Theatre are spectacular and the cast, clad in suitably flamboyant costumes, deserve their standing ovation. We have a spring in our step as we exit the theatre and take an evening wander through the still-thronging, neon-lit streets of Soho.
- Steve McKenna was a guest of Visit Britain. They have not seen or approved this story.