In November of 2013 my wife Kendra and I took our first big vacation together as a married couple. Our itinerary included four nights in London, England; four nights in Edinburgh, Scotland; and three nights in Dublin, Ireland. The first full day we spent in London was my favorite beginning-to-end day of the trip as we were able to see a number of iconic sites as well as dig up a few gems that we hadn't expected to find.
Our AirBnb was located just a few feet from the Leicester Square tube station, so our day began with a leisurely stroll down Charing Cross Road and past Trafalgar Square on a sunny Thursday morning. We popped into a little sandwich shop to grab breakfast to-go. I had a bacon sandwich with a fried egg which became my go-to way to start the day in the UK and I demand an answer as to how otherwise gluttonous America missed the boat on the bacon butty sandwich.
On the way to the Millennium Bride with breakfast in hand we passed St. Paul's Cathedral. This is one of many Christopher Wren designed buildings that we would see during our trip and it's probably the most impressive of them all. We didn't have time to tour the interior, but we walked a lap around the outside and took in all of the beautiful artistic intricacies on display. The Queen Anne statue out front is also quite striking with her golden crown, orb, and scepter. Just before arriving at the Millennium Bridge, we passed the National Firefighters Memorial. This memorial was originally intended to honor firefighters who lost their lives in the London Blitz during World War II. The scope of the memorial has since been expanded to include firefighters lost during peacetime as well.
After crossing Millennium Bridge, we made our way to Shakespeare's Globe for a morning tour which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip for me. The self-guided Exhibition in the Globe is engrossing and covers a wide breadth of topics from Shakespeare's impact on the English language that we use it today as well as techniques they used to sew, stitch, and dye the elaborate costumes used in his productions. The guided tour offers a fascinating opportunity for visitors to get a firsthand glimpse into life in 17th century London through the lives of those who produced, performed, and attended Shakespeare's plays. An awe-inspiring amount of work went into recreating The Globe from the ground up so that this important historical insight would be available for generations to come. I would put Shakespeare's Globe among my top must-see sites for anyone visiting London.
After leaving The Globe, we continued east along the riverfront, stopping to sample Turkish delight and fresh roasted nuts at the Borough Market. We then crossed the Thames on the modern version of the famed London Bridge and made our way to the Monument to the Great Fire, also known simply as The Monument. I knew little about the Great Fire of London going in, but luckily The Monument turned out to be both informative and interactive!
The Monument stands 202 feet tall, the exact distance from its location to Pudding Lane where the Great Fire began. Inside is a narrow staircase with 311 steps that take you to an observation platform with views of Tower Bridge and a number of iconic modern buildings along the Thames. One of the biggest takeaways from our time spent in the United Kingdom was that builders of monuments are passionate about stairs. While the immediate area has been built skyward over the last 340 years, the view is still well worth the climb.
From The Monument we continue east a short distance to the Tower of London. I was slightly let down by the Tower of London overall, but part of that was our own fault. The castle is huge and you could easily spend half a day or more checking it out. I had only budgeted a couple of hours since we wanted to do both Tower Bridge and Westminster Abbey before the end of the day.
We started out doing a tour of the medieval palace and the East Wall with an audio guide. This took up a lot of time and we would see plenty of medieval castles later on in the trip that I thought made for much more interesting exhibits. We then quickly toured the Crown Jewels and walked through most of the Royal Armouries before moving on. It was neat to see the Crown Jewels up close, although I didn't find the exhibit that engrossing. I really enjoyed the Royal Armouries, but we were short on time and sort of rushed through it. I would recommend that you see the Crown Jewels first, tour the Royal Armouries, take the East Wall Walk, and then end at the Medieval Palace on your way back to the main entrance.
Just outside the southeast corner of the Tower of London is the entrance for Tower Bridge. The exhibition here was one of my favorites in London and went very in depth on the history of engineering and constructing the bridge. After walking across via a glass-floored observation deck above the roadway, you head back downstairs to the engine rooms to learn about the mechanical side of operating the bridge. It's a great tour overall and from up high on the bridge you get some truly spectacular views of the River Thames.
It was late in the day at this point, so we decided to take the tube to Westminster which was back the way we came and then some. Unfortunately, Westminster Abbey was closed by the time we got there, so we moved on to the Churchill War Rooms which is right across the street. The War Rooms are open until 6:00 p.m. which is at least an hour later than most of the other tourist sites we visited, so it might be a good idea to leave it until later in the day since you'll have more flexibility on time. I am a somewhat of a World War II buff, so I loved the hell out of this museum.
The War Rooms exhibit is housed inside the actual Cabinet War Rooms which were built in the late 1930s just before the outbreak of World War II. When the war ended, the secret command center was more or less abandoned for nearly 40 years before it was turned into a museum in the early 1980s. Because the War Rooms were never re-purposed, the entire underground complex is basically unchanged from when it was in use during the war. A major redevelopment in 2005 added an immense level of detail to the displays such that it feels like you could actually be involved in the key moments of the war. After the War Rooms exhibit is the Churchill Museum which is a large exhibition solely dedicated to the life of Winston Churchill. It's a brilliant and detailed museum that includes many fascinating artifacts from Churchill's life before, during, and after the war. As a history dork, I was in heaven, but Kendra actually enjoyed all of it just as much.
The streetlights were on by the time we'd finished in the Churchill War Rooms, so we made our way back toward Trafalgar Square to call it a day at our AirBnb. The weather held up well and we ended up walking over 5 miles on the day, not including all the stairs we climbed at The Monument, Tower of London, and Tower Bridge. Seeing so much in one day actually had a humbling effect as we realized we could put in another 5-10 days just like it and still have barely scratched the surface of all there is to do and see in this great city. Even so, this was my favorite day in Central London; at least until the next one. Cheers!