When a man is tired of London, he's tired of life, for in London there is all that life can afford.
- Samuel Johnson
The span of a human life is simply too short for one to even hope to experience all that London has to offer. I, a mere mortal, have had the privilege of making about twenty or so business trips to London (from Canada) over the past few years. During that time, I've managed to develop my own perspective on London. This perspective, i.e. my London, is what I'd like to try to give you a glimpse of in this writeup.

Geography of London

Before we begin, we need to have a quick look at the geography of London. The actual City of London or just The City is the area originally enclosed by the walls of the ancient Roman city of Londonium. It is about a square mile in size (a fact which results in it also being referred to as the square mile) and is located on the north bank of the Thames. Completely surrounding The City is the City of Westminster and surrounding that is an area known as Greater London.

Although there are many London landmarks which are actually in The City (e.g. St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London), most of the landmarks which people associate with London are actually in the City of Westminster (e.g. Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park and Covent Garden). The Queen not only doesn't live in London, she isn't even allowed to enter the City of London without permission from the Lord Mayor of London (it's a long story).

My London

The following sections describe some of what makes London such an incredible place. Unfortunately (or not), you'll have to put up with a somewhat biased viewpoint!

When someone asks me what I like about London, my answer always includes the sense of history. Included in the following are just a few of the historic places in London which give me this sense.

It would be impossible for me to produce a list like this in any sort of order-of-preference so this list is in a pretty random order.

You may also want to check out Things to see, do and experience in London.

The Temple of Mithras

My wife and I were walking through the center of London one evening in 1998 when we happened to come across the Roman-era ruins of the Temple of Mithras. Although there wasn't really all that much to see (i.e. the foundations of an ancient building), it was a strong reminder that the history of London dates back a very long ways.

The temple was unearthed during the construction of a new building in central London. In order to preserve them, the temple's remains were moved to their current place where they're visible to anyone who happens by. Definitely worth a look if only to remind yourself that the history of London goes back a long ways (visit the Museum of London for more information).

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square was developed as a memorial to Admiral Lord Nelson's victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It is, without a doubt, located at the heart of London (even though it isn't actually located in the City of London). The buildings around the square include the National Portrait Gallery (north side), Saint Martin in the Fields church (north east corner), South Africa House (east side), Admiralty Arch (south side), and Canada House (west side). Many many London attractions are nearby (the Theatre district, Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden, Green Park, Westminster Abbey, etc).

Westminster Abbey

Located within walking distance down Whitehall to the south of Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey is one of many must see places in London. Many of the kings and queens of England are buried here along with many other important historical figures. If you're a literature fan, don't miss Poet's Corner and if you're a Churchill fan like myself, don't miss the memorial to Sir Winston Churchill. Britain's unknown soldier from the First World War is also buried here.

My wife and I took a self-guided audio tour of the Abbey. As we were walking around the main part of the Abbey, the audio commentary was telling us who's buried in each of a truly impressive series of tombs. Finally, we got to what was obviously a very old tomb. The commentary simply said "we've no idea who's buried here" - wow!

Covent Garden

If you head off down the twisty streets in a roughly north easterly direction from Trafalgar Square, you may find yourself in Covent Garden square (you might not as it is pretty easy to get lost!). This square was originally a garden (i.e. a place where food-producing plants were grown) which developed into a market area for local produce. Today, the market is still there but the produce is more of the sort that tourists would buy (mostly in the positive sense of that the term). My wife's grand-aunt has a stall there on Saturdays and Sundays so be sure to buy something from every vendor just to make sure that you get something from her stall!

The area surrounding Covent Garden is one of my favourite parts of London and I try to make a point of just walking aimlessly around the area for a few hours at least once per trip.

Greenwich

The village of Greenwich, including the Royal Greenwich Observatory, is one of my absolutely favourite places in London. The Royal Observatory is at the top of a hill with a commanding view of the surrounding area. It is at this observatory that the early work which led to the definition of the Prime Meridian (i.e. 0 degrees longitude) was performed. There are a series of remnants of meridian telescopes (i.e. a telescope which is oriented in a north-south direction and which can only be moved north to south). The crosshairs of the last of these telescopes is defined, by international treaty, to be at 0 degrees longitude (another personal wow!). The Observatory is now a museum which is definitely worth a visit (while in the museum, make sure you check out John Harrison's clocks).

Train stations

There are a whole series of train stations in London. Practically all of them are worth a visit for some reason or other. Here are a few of the main ones:

Charing Cross Station

This station is located just off Trafalgar Square on the Strand and mostly serves the south of England. I really like the way this building looks from across the Thames.

Kings Cross Station

Located right next to the really impressive looking St. Pancras Station, Kings Cross serves the north of England. It will soon also be the terminus of the high speed rail line that runs through the Chunnel. Lots of interesting things in this area although it is a bit on the seedy side.

Liverpool Street Station

This one is located on the north east corner of The City (i.e. the original city) and serves the north and north east of England. The surrounding area has all sorts of interesting pubs, statues, streets and sights. This is also one of the few stations that has an upper balcony from which one can stand and just watch crowds (0830 or 1700 are good times to drop by).

Paddington Station

Located just off to the north west of Hyde Park and serving the west of England, this is the termination point of the Heathrow Express which is a fast rail link from Heathrow Airport (this is how I always get from Heathrow into the city area). The station was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and still retains a very old train station feel - definitely worth a visit (check out the Brunel statue in the small lobby entrance across from track 1 and the Paddington Bear statue in the large glassed-in lobby just above the entrance to the London Underground).

Victoria Station

As the name suggests, this station is located near Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria's private train would run from here to her country home at Windsor Castle or wherever else she wanted to travel. This station serves the south east of England.

Waterloo Station

You havn't visited a London train station until you've visited Waterloo Station. I'm not sure exactly what it is but there's something about this station that just blows me away. It serves the south of England and is currently the terminus for the train through the Chunnel (the line between Waterloo and the English Channel is a conventional rail line which is being replaced by a proper highspeed line to Kings Cross).

I've got prints of a pair of rather famous paintings of Waterloo Station. One of them shows a very busy Waterloo Station during wartime. The second shows Waterloo Station during peacetime. The two are nearly identical right down to the individual people hustling around the station with the exception that the former has more military folks than the later.

This is not a complete list of the London train stations. Also, please take the descriptions of the area of England served by each of these stations with a large grain of salt as there is a lot of overlap in the coverage areas.

The Tube

The London Underground or the Tube is, in practical terms, the only way to get around the city. One could take a London Cab from place to place but one would quickly discover that a Cab is rarely faster than the Tube and is always much more expensive.

Unfortunately, the Tube is also dirty, noisy, generally late, unreliable and involves a lot of stair climbing (although efforts are underway to provide wheelchair access, most of the stations are simply too old to have decent access for disabled people). Yet, even though it is definitely something to be endured, I like it and use it a lot when I'm in London.

The tube map is something which has to be seen to understand (see writeups under London Underground and find an image of it on the 'net). The actual underground lines are quite curved and don't follow the above ground geography (i.e. streets) in any particularily discernible way. The tube map, on the other hand, is instantly comprehensible.

The Islands of London

When I first started touristing my way around London, I used a small London Underground Maps booklet. It had the full tube map on the back cover and about fourty maps inside, each of which showed the area surrounding a key Tube station. I quickly started to think of the booklet as being a map of the Islands of London. To travel between islands, I'd use the Tube. Once at my destination, I'd use the appropriate map to find my way around the area. Over time, the islands started to coalesce as I'd accidentally walk from one island to another. It wasn't all that long that I started to be able to view a reasonably large portion of the area around Trafalgar Square in my mind although the islands of London analogy was still useful for some time.

I now almost always travel around London without a map of any sort in my possession. When I want to get somewhere, I figure out which Tube station is nearby and then hop on the Tube to get there. If I need to know which route to take through the Tube system then I check the maps in each station (I don't do this very often any more).

You can find a much more detailed description of this metaphor in my Islands of London writeup (this London writeup, including the brief description above of the islands of London metaphor, was written a couple of months before the Islands of London writeup).

London Cabs

The Tube is fine but to really see London, one has to experience it from above ground. The only practical way to do that is by cab. Hire one at any of the train stations or just flag one down on the street and you're away. If you want a reasonably quick look at London from above, try this:
  • start at Paddington Station and hire a cab
  • take the cab to Victoria Station, Waterloo Station, Charing Cross Station, Liverpool Station and Kings Cross Station (in that order)
  • pay the driver (it will be at least £50 so be prepared)
You'll have seen more of London than you can possibly comprehend in a day.

After I'd been travelling around London by Tube and by foot for a while and had gotten to know my way around reasonably well (i.e. my islands of London analogy was starting to fade), I decided that I needed to learn how the city really looked. I hired a friend's friend who drives a London Cab to just tour me around London for a day (it cost me £160 - a true bargain for what I learned). Highly recommended.

Harrods

The ultimate tourist trap and yet an amazing place which must be seen to be appreciated. This very VERY upscale department store is a truly amazing place. The deli area is truly awesome and worth a visit all by itself (arrive hungry and have a meal as the receipt from the meal can be used to gain free access to the executive toilets which normally cost something like £2 per visit).

Harrods is a great place to go if you want to see really big numbers on price tags. The highest that I can recall seeing was a little over £100,000 and I've seen quite a few that are well over £10,000.

Tower of London

Although no visit to London is complete without visiting the Tower of London, I didn't actually make it to the Tower until about my tenth trip. It's an important place that dates back about 1,000 years. Take your time and give yourself lots of time (the lineups can be pretty long). Check out the Crown Jewels which are kept there (the security is understated yet very real in a strange sort of way). Absolutely breathtaking.

The Tower is served by the Tower Hill Tube station (just outside the station is a short section of original Roman wall).

The British Museum

A Cockney friend of mine calls the British Museum "the place where the British store all the stuff that they've stolen from around the world". Although possibly (just possibly, mind you) a bit extreme, this is actually a pretty good description. English explorers have been traveling the world and "bringing back interesting things" for hundreds of years. They need someplace to store them and the British Museum is the someplace that many of these treasures have ended up in.

The Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, the Egyptian section, and even their collection of old clocks are just some of the must sees in the museum.

This has been just a glimpse of my London which is a mere microscopic glimmer of the real London. I've missed all sorts of things, many of which are more important (to me and to London) than some of what I've included. That said, I hope that you found it interesting.

By the way, Johnson was right.


Walking tour of London