by Lee Foster
Samuel Johnson’s famous 18th-century aphorism, “He who tires of London tires of life,” suggests the thick texture of the city’s culture, then and now. A traveler might well ask: How can I grasp London? How should I approach this great city?
My answer comes in two parts: Peruse the Essentials and Indulge in the Amenities.
Peruse the Essentials
The essential London might be defined as seven major attractions. You’ll want to visit all of them once to begin to comprehend this great metropolis. The final two of the seven will draw you back year after year.
Visit at least once:
*The Tower of London, one of the most-visited monuments on earth, with roughly three million people passing through the turnstiles each year. Draconian imprisonment in this archetypal setting for real or imagined dastardly deeds provokes a morbid fascination. Medieval armor displays and the Crown Jewels are popular exhibits.
*Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard are the epitome of pomp and ceremony for a people who excel at showmanship. The marching soldiers, the pipe and brass music, and the residual seriousness in what is now a daily ceremony suggest the importance of tradition for the British. Actually more dramatic and more intimate, because of the horsemanship involved and the few spectators, is the Changing of the Horse Guard, which occurs at the other end of St. James Park from Buckingham Palace.
*The Houses of Parliament, nurturers of democratic institutions since the 11th century. From an adjacent bridge over the Thames, you can look back at this yellow-stone structure and check your watch by glancing at Big Ben. Tours can take you to the Stranger’s Gallery to contemplate democracy in action.
*Westminster Abbey, where so many of the great are buried. Quite a number of literary luminaries were laid to rest here, but not Shakespeare. Westminster is also the site where most of the kings and queens of England have been crowned since the time of William the Conqueror in 1066.
*St. Paul’s Cathedral, London’s classic church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 on a site that was known for a previous church as early as the 7th century. The grounds were cleared for construction by the Great Fire of 1666.
Two of the seven “essentials” will draw you back again and again:
*The National Gallery, on Trafalgar Square, whose treasury of paintings merits a lifetime of return visits. The mandate of the National Gallery has been to buy and display only a few paintings, always the best. From virtually every era, the National Gallery has outstanding works, making it an unrivaled collection of Western paintings from the 13th-20th century. For example, from the Dutch Golden Age, you’ll see several major Rembrandts, two of the seven extant Vermeers, several folkloric works of Jan Steen, and a generous selection of landscapes from Ruysdael and Goyen.
The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery houses the collection’s works from the earlier centuries, such as Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Marriage” from the 15th century.
(It should be noted that the Tate Gallery, a separate but sister institution, can be added to the art lover’s quest here. The Tate emphasizes English paintings, especially its core collection of luminescent landscapes by J. M. W. Turner.)
*The British Museum, the ultimate expression of the collecting impulse. The modern traveler may feel ambivalent about Britain’s political ability to collect and retain the major archaeology treasures of Egypt and Greece, including the marble friezes that once lined the lintels of the Parthenon in Athens. However, there can be only joy when seeing the masterpieces of English literature, including the oldest extant manuscript of the early English epic, Beowulf, and the first collected works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. The British Museum, like the National Gallery, also hosts a major, temporary show.
Indulge in the Amenities
Theatre and fine dining are two of the major pleasures of London.
London and New York are the undisputed leading centers of theater for an English-speaking audience. During a month’s visit in London you could spend each evening at a major, different theatrical offering. When you walk in the evening in the Shaftesbury-Piccadilly area, there is a sense of cultural and entertainment vitality.
Fine dining becomes a greater pleasure with each passing year in London as new restaurants exhibit innovation in food styling and in interior design.
The lively and boisterous restaurant Quaglino, 16 Bury Street, combines haute design with haute cuisine. You’ll marvel at the artist-painted columns, the mirrors and skylights, and the many metallic surfaces as you consider an intriguing menu in this St. James-district eatery. Try the grilled halibut with leeks in a pepper sauce
For an authentic afternoon tea service, complete with the cucumber sandwiches, consider the lounge and drawing room at The Stafford. If dining there, the Scottish smoked salmon appetizer, followed by delicate Dover sole, is delicious.
In the theatre district, before or after a performance, a good choice is the handsome, rectangular, marble room known as The Criterion Grill, at 224 Piccadilly. You might start with beef carpaccio, followed by a grilled pork chop, finished off with sticky toffee pudding. There are more pleasant surprises each year in the London fine-dining circuit.
When Samuel Johnson made his famous comment, he went on to say that London offered “all that life affords.” If we could slip the word “urban” into his comments, there could be no quarrel, for London does present all the best that modern urban life offers. London remains one of the few inexhaustible and endearing urban destinations on the planet.
It’s little wonder that London and England rank as one of the favorite destinations in Europe for North American travelers. Only Paris and France compare in terms of visitor interest.
London: If You Go
For further information, contact Visit Britain at www.visitbritain.com/us.