With over 17 million annual visitors London now ranks ahead of Paris as Europe’s most visited city, recent statistics being buoyed by major events including the hosting of the Olympic Games and the birth of Prince George of Cambridge. In the long term it’s the city’s history, royal family, world famous attractions, fascinating museums and its irrepressible theatre scene that make the English capital one of the world’s great cities. Typically our American cousins have accounted for the largest volume of tourists by nationality but an interesting new trend shows a remarkable surge in numbers arriving from the Far East.
So what has suddenly encouraged such a rise in tourism from Japan in particular? You’d think it would be the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Queen or to attend some of the great theatre shows in the West End but no, it seems the new found attraction is thanks to the screening of popular British TV shows in the Far East such as Downton Abbey and Sherlock which has caught their imagination. Another recent and less likely attraction which is bringing in more visitors is the 2014 film ‘Paddington’ which tells the tale of a Peruvian bear who moves to London when his rainforest is destroyed. Apparently it’s a huge hit in Japan and is responsible for encouraging even more Japanese people to head for the United Kingdom for their holidays.
Aside from the stately homes, afternoon tea on the lawn and a fictitious bear what else can our friends from overseas look forward to seeing once they land in London?
Top 10 Attractions in London
Tower of London This Royal Palace dates back to the year 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England. Of particular interest to many young visitors are the Crown Jewels which are kept in the Waterloo Barracks at the Tower.
Tower Bridge This iconic bridge is a symbol of London. It has been an important point for crossing the River Thames since it opened in 1894. It shouldn’t be confused with London Bridge which was sold to an American businessman and shipped to Lake Havasu City in Arizona.
Big Ben The city’s clock tower at the Palace of Westminster is perhaps London’s most recognised landmark. Try getting a photo from the red phone box below it with Big Ben in the background.
Buckingham Palace This is the main residence of the British Royal Family. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to spot the Queen but do try to time your visit to watch the Changing of the Guard in the grounds outside the Palace.
London Eye Since its opening in the year 2000 this enormous Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames has attracted over 60 million visitors making it the UK’s most popular paid tourist attraction.
St Paul’s Cathedral The enormous dome of London’s Anglican cathedral is one of the most recognisable sights on London’s skyline. Until 1962 it was the city’s highest building with the iconic dome inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
British Museum Whilst London is home to an impressive selection of museums it is the British Museum which stands out above the rest. A permanent collection of over 8 million works are on display dedicated to the history and culture of mankind.
Westminster Abbey Lying across the road from the Palace of Westminster this historic building has seen the coronation of British monarchs since 1066. It has also hosted royal weddings including that of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.
Houses of Parliament More correctly termed the Palace of Westminster, this is the seat of Government for the United Kingdom which is comprised of elected Members of Parliament in the House of Commons and the powerless House of Lords who are appointed.
Trafalgar Square Providing easy access to the Mall which goes to Buckingham Palace, the Parliament buildings and Covent Garden’s theatre land, every visitor to London will at some point find themselves perusing the fountains in this famous public square beneath Nelson’s Column.
The Royal Family in London
Anti-monarchists would like to see an end to the British Royal Family and see it replaced with a republic. They claim that the institution is outdated and a waste of taxpayers’ money yet as many as 80% of the UK population is in favour of maintaining the monarchy. A significant part of the support for the Royal Family is the recognition that the monarchy is a huge money spinner when it comes to attracting foreign visitors to our shores and their number one destination is London. Whilst the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey are the best known of the city’s main royal sites there are plenty more scattered around the city and others further afield:
Kensington Palace This beautiful royal residence in Kensington Gardens dates back to 1605. Since Prince Harry moved out it is no longer the royal party house! Currently it serves as the official London home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as well as other members of the Royal Family.
Hampton Court Palace Located in the London Borough of Richmond this is a royal palace which is open to the public (take the train from Waterloo Station) as it is no longer occupied by any members of the Royal Family.
Windsor Castle It’s also worth hopping on a train at London Paddington (the station after which the Peruvian bear was named!) and taking the 30 minute journey to Windsor where you can visit the Queen’s favourite residence.
West End Theatre Shows
In my youth I was under the impression that going to the theatre was just for posh people. Many years later I learned the error of my ways when I was dragged along to the London Palladium to see Connie Fisher in The Sound of Music and was immediately hooked by the spectacle. The theatre is there for everyone and is at the heart of London’s nightlife as far as tourists are concerned with annual attendances of more than 20 million people seeing shows at the city’s 241 professional theatres.
Most recently I saw The Lion King, which is in its 15th year at the Lyceum Theatre, from the same seat as the one President Obama had occupied some weeks earlier! I suspect he was there for security reasons whilst I was there because they were the last ones available due to their restricted view! Jersey Boys at the Piccadilly Theatre is one of my favourite shows of recent times which tells the story Of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. According to box office ticket sales the current top shows are as follows:
- The Lion King – Lyceum Theatre
- The Phantom of the Opera – Her Majesty’s Theatre
- Wicked – Apollo Victoria
- Mamma Mia! – Novello Theatre
- Thriller – Lyric Theatre
If you buy theatre tickets in advance directly from the theatre or its website then you’ll get the seats that you want but will pay the official price. Many reputable ticket agents operate from London and offer heavily discounted tickets. These agencies can often do deals on packages which include hotels and restaurants. If you leave your purchase until the last minute then head to the ticket offices around Leicester Square who offer some great deals. Of course prices vary enormously according to which show you want to see, the night of the performance and your preferred seating but the average ticket price is around £30. This is a great deal in my now cultured opinion!
Gateways to London
London attracts around 15 million tourists every year making it Europe’s most visited city. Whilst some visitors arrive from the continent on the Eurostar train service, which connects Paris Gare du Nord to St Pancras International in as little as 2 hours 15 minutes, the majority touch down at one of its five airports. Getting into Central London from these diversely located airports can prove challenging:
London Heathrow (32km West) This monster of an airport has five terminals and around 200,000 passengers per day. There are numerous trains that head for the city centre but the Heathrow Express is the fastest option taking less than 20 minutes to London Paddington. The Heathrow Connect service also goes to Paddington but is a lot slower due to its numerous stops en route. A cheaper but soul destroying option is to jump on the London Underground or ‘Tube’ as it’s more commonly known. This takes about 50 minutes on the Piccadilly line into Central London. Coaches operate from the bus station at Heathrow and run to Victoria Coach Station but depending on the route and traffic conditions this can take as long as 90 minutes. Taxis are widely available costing around £70 into the city centre, a better option is to arrange for a transfer with an official private hire service.
London Gatwick (45km South) The fastest way of getting into Central London from the airport is on the Gatwick Express which takes just 30 minutes non-stop to Victoria station. Other services are provided to St Pancras International by Thameslink whilst the Southern train service takes you to Victoria with stops at East Croydon and Clapham Junction. There are efficient coach services operated by National Express and easyBus which run to Victoria Coach Station and Earls Court respectively. Plenty taxis are available provided you don’t mind forking out over £100 or you can pre-book a private transfer.
London Stansted (65km North-East) Again the train is the quickest option with the Stansted Express taking just 47 minutes to Liverpool Street station. Both National Express and easyBus provide 24 hours a day coach services to Victoria Coach Station or Baker Street whilst Terravision, a lesser known operator, links with various city centre locations. Taxis will set you back over £100 or else you could have a car and driver awaiting your arrival for a comparable, if not cheaper, price.
London Luton (55km North-West) Luton is popular with budget airlines who are largely responsible for the nearly 10 million passengers who pass through the airport every year. There’s a shuttle bus which takes you to Luton Airport Parkway train station from where frequent East Midlands Trains to St Pancras International take just over 20 minutes. Thameslink also provide numerous services into the city. National Express, easyBus and Terravision all offer economical coach services to various city destinations by coach. Taxis are plentiful and typically cost upward of £80 into the city. Private transfer specialist Shuttledirect offer an attractive service which will ensure that a car and driver are ready for your arrival and will safely deliver you to your London hotel.
London City (10km East) In spite of being London’s quietest airport it still manages to serves more than 3 million annual passengers. Located just 5km from Canary Wharf, it is by far the most accessible of the five gateways allowing arrivals to get on the Docklands Light Railway which transfers you to the Tube network in a few minutes. Taxis and private hire vehicles are readily available.
If you’re planning on being in London for a few days it’s well worth buying an Oyster Card which you can buy at railway and Tube stations including the ones at airports. The Oyster Card is like a credit card that you just place in front of electronic card readers when you’re beginning your journey. It is accepted on most London bus and rail services including the Tube and works out a lot cheaper than buying single tickets or Travelcards as you make your way around the city.