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Travel

London: Just a Brit Different

Posted March 21, 2008

Walking tours are a great way to see some of London's highlights, and the city is perfectly situated for day trips around much of England.

Public transportation is so easy to use in London. Start by taking a trip on the Tube (subway) to Covent Garden, the perfect place to begin an “orientation” walk.

There are different markets open here every day. The street buskers are top notch, from “performance artists” painted as human animatronic statues, to solo violinists playing Mozart. Stop and enjoy the unicyclist or juggler for a moment, then browse the stalls. There’s everything from souvenir kitsch to handcrafted cosmetics and fine jewelry and antiques.

Stroll up the street, and you wind up at Piccadilly Circus. Here are world-famous marquees and the Eros fountain (otherwise known as Cupid), where young people gather to watch the world go by. Then, wander over to Leicester Square, the best place for people watching. There are artists set up to do caricatures and sketches, street “preachers” and trend-setters.

You’ll also see some of London’s famous theaters (the TKTS booth is the place to try for day-returns and half-price tickets). Continue walking, and you come to Trafalgar Square. Look up at Nelson’s Column and the other statuary (and all the pigeons that think the statutes were erected for them). Later, you might want to visit the National Portrait Gallery.

Continue down Charring Cross Road, and you’ll wind up at Parliament. Big Ben and the River Thames are must-sees, along with Westminster Abbey across the street. Don’t miss St. Margaret’s Chapel. I like it better than the bigger Abbey because it's more quaint and historical anecdotes about the monarchy.

Then, meander up Pall Mall and through St. James Park to Buckingham Palace, where the changing of the guard occurs every day at 11 a.m. during spring and summer and on every other day fall and winter. Go early to get a good spot, as the crowds are always huge.

Another Tube trip to Tower Hill, and you’ve arrived at the Tower of London. Really a collection of buildings built by various monarchs starting with William the Conqueror in 1078, the Tower is home of the Beef Eaters. They will take you on a tour and tell fascinating stories, including the beheadings. Be sure to watch for the ravens. It is said that if they ever leave the tower, the monarchy will fall. And don’t forget to look at Tower Bridge.

Day Trips

One of the best things about London is you are perfectly situated to see a large part of England by train on day trips. I’d recommend starting with a half-day trip to Windsor. The castle there is marvelous. The tour lets you see changes over the years, including the renovations after the fire in 1992. If you don’t want to brave the crowds at Buckingham, watch a changing of the guard here. Check out the great little shops. There’s just about every kind imaginable. Be sure to visit Eaton, just across the bridge over the Thames. A boat ride down the Thames provides a different view of the castle.

Returning to London, Kew Gardens is perfect for an afternoon trip. An excellent botanical garden with ever-changing displays, Kew is always on my list of places to see and things to do. You can walk or take a tram around to various areas. There are gigantic greenhouses and rare plants galore.

Now we’re off for some full-day trips. All of these places can easily be reached from London by train in one or two hours. What would a trip to England be without seeing the home of the Bard, William Shakespeare? At the edge of the Cotswold region, Stratford-Upon-Avon has the feel of a small town rather than a city. There are beautiful walks down the Avon, old churches, a butterfly preserve, rose gardens and canal boats, as well as Shakespeare’s birthplace. Stop and have a cream tea in one of the teashops, or grab a piece of shortbread and walk along the riverside. If you like, stop in and do a brass-rubbing halfway to the chapel where Shakespeare is buried.

Another destination is York. Leaving the train station, you’ll see what remains of the old city wall and walk along the top. Cross the River Ouse to enter the main part of the city. The major shopping area is just off the town square. There are high-street stores (as major chain stores are known) and a small market. Then there’s “The Shambles,” site of some of the oldest buildings left in York. The old daub-and-timber buildings are amazing to look at, and they house some quaint shops. Lots of woodworking and crafts, as well as some fine jewelry stores here. The Jorvic Museum has a Disney-type ride through time, showing the history of York, focusing on the Viking invasion. Finally, stroll over to York Minster, with its truly beautiful rose windows.

Bath, what an enticing city! Georgian to the core of its Roman heart, you can’t match its architecture anywhere. You can tour the Roman baths, eat at Sally Lunn’s teahouse or take a river cruise and feast your eyes on beautiful architecture. Buses make trips to Stonehenge. Bath is especially interesting around Christmas time, as they have one of the best Christmas markets in England.

Canterbury is a small town with a big heart. The cathedral is simply beautiful, and docents will tell you the story of Tomas ‘a Beckett’s murder. If you’ve forgotten your senior English lessons and want to refresh your Chaucer, there’s a waxworks exhibit with some of the most popular (and clean) tales retold.

Cardiff, Wales, is a shopper’s paradise. Modern malls are mixed with quaint Victorian shopping alleys and markets in old converted churches. There are top-quality goods and atmosphere as well. The castle is in the heart of the city, and the new soccer stadium is an engineering marvel. The harbor makes a nice change of scenery, and its recent refurbishment means that it’s easy to negotiate.

The White Cliffs of Dover are a striking natural wonder. Additionally, you can see the fortress and learn a great deal about England’s part in World War II and other conflicts. Just be prepared – Dover is located on top of some very high hills.

On your final day in London, you may have a hard time choosing what to do. There’s the British Museum, where you can see history thorough the eyes of English anthropologists. There’s Greenwich, where you can stand on the Prime Meridian, or Camden, with trendy and sometimes just plain strange people. Maybe Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks or Churchill’s War Rooms interest you.

Whatever you want to see, London has it.

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