By Saul Schwartz
Royal Palaces, political attractions, historic churches, Jewish legacy, world-class museums and quintessential British institutions. There are many reasons to visit the capital of the British Empire: London. America-based Saul Schwartz puts us in the passenger’s seat on his well-choreographed visit to this diversified metropolis, that leaves you spoiled for choice. Sit back and enjoy the ride of his London City Guide.
The capital of United Kingdom is home to over 8 million residents. As one of the world’s leading tourist destinations, my wife Fern and I had to carefully pick and choose which attractions to see during our week in Greater London. After flying on Wow Airlines into Gatwick Airport from Baltimore – Washington Airport, we explored some of royal London, several historic churches, a number of the world-class museums and galleries, portions of the government of the UK, a series of historic landmarks and Jewish London. To our surprise, the weather in September was good. Overall our trip was amazing!
London is full of historic royal palaces and exquisite attractions where we explored the wealth of its royal history. This is our take on the Best Royal Sights.
Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace
The colourful forty-five minute showing takes place four mornings per week, beginning at around 10.45 a.m. To fully enjoy all of the pomp and ceremony, we lined up early to watch among the huge crowd outside the palace. By standing in an elevated position on the Victoria Memorial across from the palace, we were able to see both the approach and changing of the guards.
First, the Queen’s guard proceeds up the mall from St. James Palace. Then the new guard approaches from Wellington Barracks, led by a regimental band. The guards march with precision to the lively bands playing stirring music. Some of the guards are mounted on horses, others are on foot. Then the old and new guards are exchanged inside the forecourt of the palace, followed by more music and marching.
Touring Buckingham Palace
The official residence of the British monarch is opulently filled with priceless tapestries, artwork, marble, gold leaf and gilt moldings. With 775 rooms, this grand palace has been home to every monarch since the reign of Queen Victoria in 1837. Self-guided tours are available only in the summer, so we were fortunate to be able to tour the sumptuous nineteen state rooms. The state rooms provide a stage for state entertaining, receptions and official banquets.
For us, the highlights of the state rooms included the 1953 coronation throne, the grand hall and marble staircase, plush red carpets, the elaborate red and gilt state dining room, the ornamental ceilings and many royal portraits. This year’s exhibition entitled “Prince and Patron” displays Prince Charles’ choices from the royal collection trust and his own private art collection. As we exited the palace, we walked by the grounds where there are garden parties with the royals.
To save time, online signup is available at their website. The current price is £24 . An audio guide was included in the price of admission.
Touring Kensington Palace and Gardens
Our self-guided tour through the King’s and Queen’s state apartments gave us a glimpse into the more domestic and personal side of royal life. In 1689, King William III and Queen Mary II purchased a country estate in Kensington and converted it into the palace by Sir Christopher Wren. Much less formal and more visitor friendly than Buckingham Palace, as visitors we were allowed to sit on the window sills or furniture and take photos. The state apartments have been restored to their 18th century appearance.
We entered the palace which sits behind a large statute of Queen Victoria. Royals have been in residence since the conversion and now occupy large apartments in the private parts of the palace. Prince William and his family live here now. Prince Harry has a cottage on the grounds. Less grand than Buckingham, we could actually imagine people living in Kensington Palace.
This palace has been influenced by generations of royal women. A permanent exhibit entitled “Victoria Revealed” is devoted to the long and extraordinary private life of the queen who was born, baptised and grew up here. The current exhibit called “Diana, Her Fashion Story” explores the evolution of the princess’ style throughout her life and included many of her most iconic outfits. We particularly enjoyed a short talk which focused on the lives of William and Mary in the palace, along with behaviour at the Georgian court.
Laid out by King William III, the adjoining gardens are more formal than other royal parks. The pretty gardens contain fountains and plants and flowers of many colours. The online price for admission is £19,5.
St Paul’s Cathedral
The towering dome of the cathedral has stood sentinel over London since the present church was completed in 1710. Our tour included a very personal thirty minute introductory walk and talk with a church volunteer, as well as an audio guide. The beautiful cathedral is a towering architectural masterpiece of Baroque design. Events of national historical importance have been held here, such as Churchill’s state funeral and the royal wedding of Princes Charles and Princess Diana.
Our guide pointed out the American memorial chapel dedicated to the 28.000 American GIs stationed in the UK during World War II, the beautiful decor of the vast cathedral floor and the crypt, the largest crypt in Europe and the resting place of many famous Britons, including the Cathedral’s architect, Sir Christopher Wren. One floor down near the crypt is a very lovely café, the Kitchen Cafe, where we had tasty salads for lunch, while admiring the magnificence of the architecture and artefacts around us.
Then we ascended 259 steps to the whispering gallery which provided amazing views of the interior of the Cathedral, including the great organ. Another 119 steps took us outside to the top of the dome for breathtaking panoramic London views from the Stone Gallery. The dome is the second largest cathedral dome in the world. With a cost of £16, tickets can be purchased online for a small discount at their website:
One of the world’s grand churches, the medieval structure was built in the 13th century. Indeed, the abbey has held royal coronations since 1066, and has been the site of sixteen royal weddings. In addition, Westminster Abbey is the burial place of many kings and queens, including Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and Henry VII. More than 3000 individuals are either buried or honored within the abbey.
Following a set route around the abbey, the audio tour included in the price of admission was very informative. For us, highlights included the coronation chair in the nave dating from 1296, Britain’s oldest door dating to the 1050s and the grave of the unknown warrior in the nave which commemorates soldiers who lost their lives in both world wars.
Prior to our visit, we had breakfast tea in the Cellarium Café. After our visit, we relaxed and ate lunch in the café. Entering the café through stunning cloisters, the cellar is cool and tranquil. The site of the café is where monks used to store food and drink. At a cost of £20, tickets for Westminster Abbey can be purchased in advance online at the website:
St Martin in the Fields
Churches on this site date back to the 13th century. The current building was constructed in 1726. Just off Trafalgar Square, this church is in the heart of London. The James Gibb design has been imitated by many churches throughout the world.
The interior of the church is highlighted by a dramatic east window. St Martin is the setting for many musical concerts due to its great acoustics. Its chamber ensemble is well-known internationally and admission to the church is free.
World Class Museums and Galleries
With more than 2.300 paintings, dating from the middle ages (around 1250) through to the early twentieth century, the National Gallery is Britain’s greatest art collection. The Gallery focuses on western European art, with both famous and beautiful works throughout the museum. Our favourite rooms contained Impressionists, with Monet and Van Gogh masterpieces, including Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Admission is free, but we paid for an audio tour which focused on eighty essential highlights.
The docent-led daily introductory tour lasted one hour and focused on a handful of paintings. We strolled through the gallery’s four wings, each of which covers a different chronological period. The splendid interior of the Gallery provides a suitably grand setting for one of the best collections of paintings in Europe. The present building was designed in 1832 and its design reminded us of Greek temples. Its central London location faces Trafalgar Square.
The Victoria and Albert Museum
The V and A is considered one of the world’s leading museums of decorative arts and design. Opened in 1857, the attractive building contains a beautiful courtyard. Its permanent collection contains over 2.3 million objects, spanning over 5000 years of human creativity. We particularly enjoyed the one hour introductory tour which focused on the museum itself and several key works.
The museum contains applied arts by category, such as furniture, textiles, sculpture, paintings and ceramics. Opened in 1873, the cast court displays copies of some of the world’s most significant works of art reproduced in plaster and other media. The case collection contains a huge reproduction of Michelangelo’s David.
We toured one temporary exhibit called “Fashioned from Nature” which shows fashion’s dependence on the richness of nature for inspiration, energy and new materials. This exhibit contained about three hundred objects from 1600 to the present day. We ended our visit with a pastry and drink in the stunning and lavishly decorated main café, the world’s oldest museum restaurant, while listening to a piano player in the Victorian era room. The “refreshment rooms” were opened in 1866 and feature a glass chandelier and decorative sculptures.
We highly recommend a visit to this café to admire its luxurious interior design. Admission to the permanent collection of the museum is without charge.
With its extraordinary permanent collection of 8 million artefacts, this museum is one of the most visited attractions in the UK. With geographic regional floor plans, the museum is well organised by continent and period of history. After viewing the grand exterior Greek Revival façade with its forty-four columns, we entered into the great court, which sits under a massive glass roofed space. The great court is the largest covered square in Europe.
Introductory eye opener tours focus on the museum’s creation or topics. The audio guide allowed us to quickly focus on some of the major highlights, such as the Rosetta stone, the multilingual key to deciphering hieroglyphs, the royal game of Ur, popular in the ancient world, and the Lewis chessmen, the most famous chess set in the world. Before leaving, we ate a fine lunch in the great court restaurant, which sits under the magnificent roof and contains an open kitchen which shows a glimpse of the chefs at work.
Admission is free for the permanent collection, which focuses on human history, art and culture.
Created in 2000 from the disused Bankside power station, the Tate Modern consists of two connected buildings, the Boiler House and the Blavatnik. This museum focused on international modern and contemporary art, from 1900 forward. The collection is cutting edge art.
Even with an audio guide, we found the museum hard to navigate. The museum is organised by themes rather than chronologically. For us the highlight may have been the spectacular views from the tenth floor, which look out at St Paul’s Cathedral, the Thames and the London skyline. Admission to the main collection is free.
House of Parliament Tour
The palace of Westminster complex, with its three iconic towers, contains the Houses of Common and Lords, the legislative bodies of the UK. The current gothic complex largely dates from the mid-19th century and was undergoing some renovations to the interior and Big Ben when we visited. The government complex was first established on this site in the 11th century.
Our tour was the highlight of our week in London. We were fortunate to be able to be guided around by a member of the Parliament for one hour, followed by a member of his staff. The members of the parliament tours are normally reserved for UK residents. During our tour, we entered through Westminster Hall, which is almost 1.000 years old, and then viewed the galleries where opposing members of Parliament literally face each other to debate and then vote on pending legislation. As we travelled through the Commons and Lords chambers, we learned how Parliament works. We were able to see the throne where the Queen sits at the state openings of the Parliament session.
The current House of Commons Chamber was rebuilt after World War II. Its benches, as well as other furnishings, are green in colour, a custom which dates back 300 years. The adversarial layout, with benches facing each other, is a relic of the original Commons Chamber. A number of UK Commonwealth countries contributed to the newer furnishings and their contributions are identified (such as Australia paying for the Speaker’s Chair, India and Pakistan paying for the entrance doors to the chamber).
Our guide pointed out the box containing the bibles of various faiths which members are required to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown on before they take their seats in Parliament after a general election. The House of Lords Chamber is much more lavish. This chamber is decorated in red. Stained glass windows show coats of arms. The gates at the entrance to the House of Lords are solid brass.
Tours can be booked on line with an advanced price of £25,50 at their website:
10 Downing Street (Prime Minister’s Office)
Although there are no public tours, we walked to this address off of Whitehall. Number 10 sits behind wrought-iron gates, with armed guards blocking the entrance. Nevertheless, through the gates we could easily see the famous black door to this mid-17th century mansion. During our brief observance, we were able to view a few officials coming and going to visit the prime minister, Theresa May.
Churchill War Rooms and Museum
We explored the small number of rooms beneath the vast Treasury government building that acted as the top-secret nerve centre from which Winston Churchill and his inner circle directed troops and determined the course of the Second World War. These rooms allowed us to step back in time and walk in the footsteps of the UK’s most iconic political figure!
The whole complex has been preserved almost exactly as it was when the last light was turned off at 5 p.m. at the end of the war. We particularly enjoyed seeing the cabinet room where the leading government ministers met during air raids and the map room where the allied campaign is still charted on wall-to-wall maps, with pin holes showing troop movements. In addition, highlights included the desk from which Churchill made his morale boosting broadcasts and the telephone room with his hot line to President Franklin Roosevelt.
We spent less time in the interactive Churchill museum, which uncovers the influences and pressures that shaped Churchill’s life, legacy and leadership. The museum commemorates Churchill with many artefacts which reveal both his personal and political life. Our tour ended with a light lunch in the café, which specialises in classic British fare, although we had salads.
An audio tour is included with admission. A ten percent discount with priority entry is available for advance online purchases, which cost £18,90 at their website. Without priority entry, we had a short wait for admission.
Historic buildings and landmarks
Tower of London
Once inside the tower complex, we immediately joined a one-hour tour with one of the 36 Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters. The Beefeaters are colourfully attired in top hats and black and red uniforms, imprinted with the crown. Our tour guide/guard entertained us with bloody tales as we stood where famous heads once rolled (including Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas Moore, Queen Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey).
With a 950 year history of imprisonments, myths and legends, the tower may be the UK’s most well-known medieval fortress. The complex’s white tower was first built in 1078 as a royal residence. The tower complex has been the site of a palace, a barracks, an armory, a prison and even a mint.
One of the highlights was marveling at the world-famous crown jewels kept in the heavily fortified jewel house. The jewel house contains the imperial state crown used by the monarch during state openings of Parliament, along with other crowns, diamonds and orbs encrusted with gems.
The entrance fee of £22,70 includes the tour, and represents a 15% discount when purchased online at the website below. The audio guide requires an extra fee and did not seem necessary after the Beefeater’s tour.
The easily recognizable Tower Bridge has stood above the Thames since 1894. The neo-gothic style intentionally blends in with the nearby Tower of London, with the bridge clad in stone and granite. The bridge is famous for its 1.000 ton arms, which can open to allow tall ships to glide beneath a few times per week. Within the bridge, the Tower Bridge exhibit contains detailed information about its construction.
We really enjoyed the breathtaking panoramic London city views from the high level walkways, which included glass floors in part. Through the glass floors, we were able to see the River Thames and the traffic below. Advanced tickets are discounted to £8,70 and can be purchased at
We posed for pictures as we crossed the famous black and white zebra crossing near Abbey Road Studios. This location is the picture on the fabled cover of the Beatles album, Abbey Road from 1969. We took our turn as tourists avoided the onrushing traffic for their poses. The studios themselves are still open for recording.
The intersection is a short walk from the St. John’s Wood underground station.
The world-famous department store contains numerous luxury boutiques, including expensive jewelry and cavernous ground floor food halls. Opened in 1849, Harrods is a London institution, with over 300 departments striving to fulfill its motto: “all things for all people everywhere”. The store is located in Knightsbridge and it adjoins the Knightsbridge underground station.
Clearly the highlight of our Harrods visit was taking the Egyptian escalators, opened in 1998. As we ascended this walk-in sculpture, the glittering decorations besides the elevators transported us from the lower Nile to the upper Nile, with Egyptian motifs, with some of the images taken from the ancient Temple of Dendera. The ceiling contains a decorative night sky with Zodiac figures.
West End Theatre
No visit to London is complete without attending a West End show, comparable to Broadway in New York City. We enjoyed the spectacular magical musical performance of Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Phantom has been playing at this historic theatre for 31 consecutive years, since its world premiere. The theatre has been in use since 1897, with the name of the theatre changing with the gender of the monarch! The leg room of the seating is tight, but the sound quality is superior.
As a quintessential English ritual, we sought out an English Tea served with finger sandwiches and cakes. Located near the British Museum, Tea and Tattle fit the bill quite nicely. This is one of London’s hidden secrets.
Tea and Tattle specialises in affordable afternoon tea. The decor of the tea room is a beautiful mix of traditional and modern English influences. We had a memorable and tasty experience.
Walking Tour of Jewish East End
Meeting at the Tower tube station, we spent two hours walking through what was London’s Jewish community in the East End. We walked by the site of the first synagogue which existed from 1657 to 1701, a sign offering bagels for sale at a deli no longer in business called Kossoff, the Sandy’s Row synagogue, which is still in use (founded in 1854) and a Jewish soup kitchen from 1902, that no longer exists except for a sign on the façade of the building with the sad words “Soup Kitchen For the Jewish Poor.” At the end of the tour, we stopped by a large sign on a building labelled “S.Schwartz,” where my namesake used to sell cigars in the East End.
The highlight of our walking tour in the old Jewish quarter was a visit to the Bevis Marks synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the UK. Just off the ancient through fare of Bevis Marks, the synagogue stands within a secluded courtyard approached through a stone archway with wrought-iron gates. The congregation is the only Jewish house of worship in Europe that has held regular continuous services for over 300 years. Opened in 1701, the congregation maintains the traditions of its Spanish and Portuguese founding families. During our visit, Maurice Bitton told us many stories about the history and design of the building, the Sephardic culture and famous visitors to services, including Prince Charles and several Prime Ministers.
The cost of the tour was £10. Entry to the synagogue is £5
The Holocaust Memorial Torah Scrolls
The Westminster Synagogue is a Reform movement Jewish congregation near Hyde Park. Westminster is a 60-year-old congregation, located in Kent House, a restored Victorian town house in Knightsbridge.
We travelled to Westminster for a tour of its collection and maintenance of Holocaust torah scrolls. This building, which dates from the late 1800s, houses the Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre. The Scrolls museum is located on the third floor of Kent House. Westminster Synagogue rescued 1564 Czech Scrolls in February 1964. Over the five decades since their arrival, usable kosher scrolls are loaned out to Jewish congregations around the world. The Scrolls came from congregations destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. They are maintained by the Memorial Scrolls Trust.
In 1988, the Centre established a permanent exhibition which tells the story of the Scrolls arrival from Prague. The exhibition displays some of the remaining Torah Scrolls and Torah bindings, some of which date from the 18th century, as well as other documents from the vanished Jewish communities of the former Czechoslovakia. Tours are available by appointment arranged through the Trust. Our tour by trustee Jeffrey Ohrenstein lasted over one hour and was very informative. After the tour, we sat with our Jewish English colleagues and chatted over tea and biscuits.
When Fern and I returned home to Virginia, we took particular pride in viewing the Holocaust Torah in our congregation, Temple B’nai Shalom, in Fairfax Station, Virginia. The plaque at our temple explains that this Torah, number 933, is one of the 1564 Czech memorial Torahs which constituted part of the treasures looted from the desolated Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.
Travel Tips for London
London has multiple international airport options. South of London, Gatwick is less hectic than Heathrow. In addition, travel to central London is easy with the Gatwick Express. These comfortable trains go from Gatwick airport to Victoria Station every 15 minutes. With online purchases there is a ten percent discount.
London Underground: We didn’t mind the gap!
With eleven colour coded lines, the underground, also known as The Tube, was easy to navigate and took us close to major sites. With the smart card, called the Oyster card, fares are lower than single ticket purchases. We found it very helpful to carry around a tube map to facilitate when we needed to switch lines. Outside of the underground, the tube stations are well-marked by circular symbols.
Opened in 1863, the extensive underground system contains 270 stations. The fare charged depends on the time of day and how far you travel. Although very crowded during rush hours, the trains arrive frequently. The well-known phrase “mind the gap” was introduced into the underground in 1969 as an oral or written warning to take caution when stepping from the station platform to the train door.
With over 80 attractions and tours included, we took advantage of this travel card for many sites for free entry. The card provided fast track entry for selected attractions. We purchased the London Pass including an Oyster Card, which allowed free passage on the underground, buses and trains up to a designated monetary limit. Although the 6-day pass with travel card normally costs £199, the London Pass is frequently on sale and was discounted ten percent on their website.
The London Pass comes with a useful guidebook which contains a series of maps. In addition to the free and priority entries, a series of attractions had discounts, including West End shows and restaurants. The pass, however, does not include tours of Buckingham Palace or the Parliament.
Hop on Hop Off Bus
The open-top sightseeing bus provided us with a good orientation of London locations, as well as nice views. We especially liked that the Big Bus provided live guides on several routes, in addition to the audio guide. The live guide provided some good sightseeing tips, like where to stand when watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
We traveled on two different routes, which took about 2 ½ hours together. The open double-decker bus provides over one hundred stops on multiple routes.
A Convenient Hotel
It was very important for our hotel location that we’d have easy access to the Underground. The Hilton London Metropole is located right across from the Edgware tube station, offering easy access to four of the lines. In addition, the fitness centre was far above average, with a nice selection of cardio equipment and weights. As Hilton Honors members, we particularly enjoyed the selection of breakfast foods in the morning and appetizers at night in the executive room.
If you want to dig deeper into a more magical side of London, perhaps our guide to Harry Potter’s London might tickle your fancy.
About Saul Schwartz
Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country.