We hopped across the pond for our big trip of the year to the UK and Ireland, starting with London. Since I’d been to London before and Kevin hadn’t, we had a lot of ground to cover! We made sure to see most of the main London sites, even if we didn’t get to go into and explore some of them. Follow along on our hectic two days of sightseeing in London:
After a long 8 hour flight and another 4 hours to get through customs, find our hotel, eat lunch, and take a nap, we were off to explore the city. We mapped out our route to take us in a loop hitting the major London sites. Day one of our sightseeing was just us looking from the outside, but since I’ve explore most of these places before, I’ll also include some information about actually visiting them.
Westminster Abbey has been the place of coronation since the William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest in 1066. Much of the abbey’s architecture dates back to the reign of King Henry III, who intended to be buried in the church. The abbey’s iconic West Towers, the two Gothic Revival towers of Portland stone, were the last edition to the abbey in 1745.
Visiting Westminster Abbey
Inside Westminster Abbey is even more incredible than outside. In St George’s Chapel, you can see the Coronation Chair made by order of King Edward I to enclose the Stone of Scone, the traditional Scottish coronation stone he seized in the spoils of war. Poets’ Corner commemorates over 100 poets and writers who are either buried or have memorials here. The abbey is also the resting place of 30 monarchs who have vaults and tombs placed all over the church.
Westminster Abbey is open to visitors, but since it is an active church, some parts of the abbey may be closed during certain times or entry may end earlier than usual. Because of this it is probably best to book tickets online beforehand if you can. Plus, tickets are cheaper if you book online. £20 for adults online, and £22 for adults when you buy there. All tickets come with an audio guide so you can listen and learn about the abbey’s history.
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
The clock tower that houses Big Ben is currently being renovated, so if you go to London now, expect to see a bunch of scaffolding!
Big Ben is the quintessential picture of London, so that’s a bit disappointing that the clock tower is completely covered in scaffolding. I had forgotten about this and did not warn Kevin in advance. Here’s a picture of what Big Ben looks like right now:
The Houses of Parliament, or the Palace of Westminster, are the seat of the UK’s Parliament. The current Gothic Revival style buildings were completed in 1860 and contains the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the southwester Victoria Tower, and the newly named Elizabeth Tower that houses Big Ben.
St James’s Park
St James’s Park is 57 acres of green lawn, serene lake, and manicured gardens that is surrounded by many London landmarks. The park is just a short walk from Trafalgar Square, 10 Downing Street, Big Ben, St James’s Palace, and Buckingham Palace. And it connects to the chain of Royal Parks that includes Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens. You can cut through St James’s Park to get to the rest of the London sights.
St James’s Palace
St James’s Palace used to be the principal royal residency until the reign of Queen Victoria. Now it’s a ceremonial meeting place for things like state visits and other ceremonial events. St James’s Palace isn’t open to the public, but you can take a look at it from the outside. It’s an interesting Tutor-style building that’s worth the detour on your way to Buckingham Palace.
Today, the principal royal residency of the Queen, when in London, is Buckingham Palace. You’ll know when the Queen is home by the Royal Standard flag is flown. If the Union Flag is up, then the Queen is not in residence.
You can approach the palace from St James’s Park by using The Mall, the ceremonial route to the palace. In front of the palace is the Victoria Memorial, a huge monument to Queen Victoria, depicting Winged Victory gilded in bronze at the top. It is 82 feet tall and is the tallest monument to a King or Queen in England.
Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace
Multiple times a week, crowds gather at the ornate gates of Buckingham Palace for Changing the Guard. You can see the Changing the Guard schedule here, but during the summer it usually takes place at 11 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Changing the Guard is an elaborate ceremony where the Queens Old Guard is replaced with the New Guard. It involves the band, marching, cavalry, a presentation of arms, and more. The ceremony lasts about 30 minutes.
Not to be confused with Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral was built in a unique neo-Byzantine style of striped brick and stone, domes, and a 210 foot bell tower. Since it’s out of the way of the usual London sights, most tourists miss this spectacular cathedral. Westminster Cathedral is the largest Catholic church building in England and Wales. Inside, the walls and ceilings are covered in mosaics, and more are still being added.
We ended our day one sightseeing at Westminster Cathedral. With all of the walking that we did, it’s no surprise we were ready to get back to the hotel and head to bed.
There is still more of London to see on day two, when we actually went inside most of the sights!
Tower of London
The Tower of London was my first British castle and will always be a thrill to see no matter how many times I visit (it’s been three times, I’m definitely counting). The castle dates back to the Norman Conquest, with the White Tower built in 1078. The Tower of London has been used as a royal residency, a prison, a place of execution, a royal mint, an armory, the home of the Crown Jewels, and more, so there is a lot of history to learn about when you visit.
At the Tower, you can see the ravens that effectively hold the whole of the United Kingdom together, based on a superstition that at least six ravens have to be on the grounds at all times or the kingdom will fall. You can also meet the Beefeaters, the Yeoman Warders who have been in charge of guarding the Tower of London since the Tutors. I, of course, bought a Beefeater bear to commemorate the occasion.
Visiting the Tower of London
Tickets are £26.80 for adults at the gate, or £22.70 when you buy online. The castle is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Sunday to Monday from 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
The castle-like Tower Bridge was built between 1886 and 1894. It is both a drawbridge and a suspension bridge. It’s a busy crossing point for cars and pedestrians across the Thames, and the drawbridge is raised for passing ships about 1,000 times a year. Tower Bridge makes a great backdrop for the Tower of London, and vice versa.
We actually have a Lego version of Tower Bridge in our house. My family bought it for my brother years ago, and Kevin and I rebuilt the Lego set in our house last year. So we get to see this marvel all the time sitting atop Kevin’s bookshelves.
Visiting Tower Bridge
Didn’t know you could go inside Tower Bridge? Well you can! A few years ago, my family and I toured the inside of Tower Bridge, along with being lucky enough to watch the drawbridge rise right before we walked across. The Tower Bridge Exhibition lets you learn about the building of the tower, the engine rooms, and lets you walk across the top of the bridge on a glass floor. The exhibition is open from 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m in the summer, 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. in the winter, and tickets are £9.80, but are cheaper if you book ahead of time online.
The British Museum is an art and history museum that is completely free to visit. It’s permanent collection is one of the largest in the world, with artifacts like the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian mummies, and a bust of Caesar Augustus that I’ve taken a picture with all three times I’ve visited (this time though, the bust was on loan so my picture was with a replica). The center of the museum was redesigned in 2001 as a Great Court, and the design has made the interior as much of a work of art as those on display around the museum.
Visiting the British Museum
Entrance to the British Museum is free, and it is open daily from 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., and some galleries are open late on Fridays until 8:30 p.m.
National Gallery, London
The National Gallery, London, located in Trafalgar Square, is a free art museum housing over 2,300 paintings. The museum exhibits paintings from the greatest names in art history, including Monet, Seurat, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Michelangelo, Turner, Raphael, and more. Even though it is smaller than many other popular museums in Europe, it is still one of the most visited art museums in the world.
Visiting the National Gallery, London
The National Gallery is free to visit. It is open daily from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., and Fridays it is open until 9 p.m.
There is certainly a lot to see in London, and two days of sight seeing doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. It definitely takes multiple trips to get the most out of London!
What’s your favorite thing to do in London? Let me know in the comments!