London’s cultural scene combines the assurance of long-standing tradition with the verve of regained creativity. If culture could kill, you'd be dead in London. It's all here, and your greatest problems will be time and money. There's so much history and culture here you could spend your whole life exploring it. Here are the greatest hits.
Buckingham Palace may charge exorbitant entry fees but, as the London home of the Queen, it draws millions of tourists each year. They flock to witness royal pageantry dating back centuries at the Changing of the Guard ceremony at 11:30 daily from April to July (alternate days at other times of the year), and for the rare chance to see inside a royal residence. The building, by John Nash and Edward Blore, was built in the 19th century around the shell of Buckingham House. The State Rooms of the palace, including the Throne Room and the Picture Gallery, are only open to the public in summer.
Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
(Bridge St. and Parliament Sq.; tel. 0207/219-42-72 House of Commons, tel. 0207/219-31-07): Standing gloriously on the Thames, these buildings add another striking aspect to the city's skyline. Benjamin Clock is about as characteristic of England as the Statue of Liberty is of New York. Visiting the House of Commons is a unique experience. The debates are certainly colourful and watching Tony Blair in action is a somewhat surreal experience.
(Riverside Building, County hall, Westminster Bridge Rd.; tel. 0870/500-06-00; www.british-airways.com/londoneye): The big wheel you see looming over the Thames with cable cars attached to it is not a temporary carnival attraction, it's the spanking new observation wheel, which turns continuously all day long and provides panoramic views of the city. Arrive early or prepare to languish in endless lines for a chance to hop on the contraption. Towering 135m (444ft) into the heavens, right in the heart of London, the BA London Eye is literally an unmissable attraction. The initial engineering problems have long been forgotten and the world’s tallest observation wheel has emerged as one of the city’s most popular attractions. Its unparalleled views of the city, which are particularly impressive in the evening, reach as far away as 40km (25 miles). The experience is one revolution of the wheel, lasting approximately 30 minutes.
(Parliament Sq.; tel. 0207/222-51-52): Across Parliament Square is Westminster Abbey – a magnificent Gothic structure where innumerable members of the British royal family have been christened, married, crowned and interred. Consecrated in the 11th century, under Edward the Confessor, it was rebuilt over the next four centuries in Gothic style. Highlights include Henry VII’s Chapel, Poet’s Corner and the Coronation Chair. A tour through this focal monument of English political and religious life will teach you more than you ever wanted to know about medieval British history.
The infamous royal fortress on Tower Hill, the Tower of London, was begun in 1078 by William the Conqueror and remained a royal residence until the mid-16th century. Today, it houses the priceless Crown Jewels and the Royal Armouries. The history of the tower is a catalogue of intrigue and bloodshed – key historical figures were imprisoned, tortured and/or executed here. There are hour-long tours of the main sights. Meanwhile, the nearby Tower Bridge –a prime example of Victorian architecture and engineering – spans the River Thames. Hydraulic machinery, hidden in twin neo-Gothic towers, lifts the central section to allow ships in and out of the Pool of London. Visitors can learn about the bridge in the Tower Bridge Experience or enjoy the excellent views towards Canary Wharf and the City of London.
Admiral Nelson lords it over the traffic on Trafalgar Square. Nearby is the beautiful 18th-century neo-classical church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, which hosts regular concerts and has a cafe in the crypt.
St. Paul's Cathedral
(St. Paul's Churchyard; tel. 0207/236-41-28): Famous for the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981, this cathedral is an indelible part of the London skyline. The great dome is the symbol of English survival during the blitz or WWII. The dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece is the third largest in the world and one of the most distinctive features of the London skyline. The present building was completed in 1710, on the site of an even larger medieval cathedral that was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The Whispering Gallery, named for its incredible acoustics, offers a close-up of the frescoes of the life of St Paul that decorate the interior of the dome. Higher up, there are magnificent views across the City of London.
Hyde Park used to be a royal hunting ground, was once a venue for duels, executions and horse racing, and even became a giant potato field during WWII. It is now a place of fresh air, spring colour, lazy sunbathers and boaters on the Serpentine. Features of the park include sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore and the Serpentine Gallery, which holds temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. Near Marble Arch, Speaker's Corner started life in 1872 as a response to serious riots. Every Sunday anyone with a soapbox - or anything else to stand on - can rant or ramble on about anything at all.
Kew Gardens, in Richmond, Surrey, is both a beautiful park and an important botanical research centre. There's a vast expanse of lawn and formal gardens and two soaring Victorian conservatories - the Palm House and the Temperate House - which are home to exotic plant life. It's one of the most visited sights on the London tourist agenda, which means that it can get very crowded, especially in the summer. And with nearby Heathrow continuously spitting out jets, there isn't much chance of total peace and quiet.