Updated: Nov 20, 2021
The National Gallery and Trafalgar Square
One of the most recognized sites in the world and a hub for both tourists and Londoners alike, Trafalgar Square should be at the top of any thrifty vacationer’s list. This beautifully adorned public square once housed the King’s Mews and today stands as a hallmark of British culture and history. At its center rises the 169-foot monument commemorating Admiral Horatio Nelson, the celebrated British Naval officer who valiantly gave his life at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. According to legend, the four giant bronze lions which defend Nelson’s Column awake from their sleep if Big Ben chimes 13 consecutive times. Glorious fountains adorned with statues of dolphins and sea nymphs offer a pleasant space to sit and relax before heading out to survey the square’s many fascinating pieces of art.
At the north end of Trafalgar Square sits the National Gallery, one of Europe’s greatest free admission art collections. This building, designed by the famed William Wilkins, contains over 2,300 Western European paintings dating from the 13th to 19th centuries. Stroll through its broad hallways to encounter some of the greatest works of Titian, Cezanne, Monet, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, and many others. If you love art or history, wish to be in the presence of greatness, or just want a cool, aesthetically-pleasing setting in which to unwind from a day of travel, don’t miss this. The gallery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and closes at 9 p.m. on Fridays.
This church is probably my favorite in the world. And I love churches. Just stepping within the ancient stone walls of this massive cathedral, you instantly feel like you’ve entered another world. Brilliant shrines skillfully etched in various marbles denote tombs belonging to some of the most distinguished names in England’s history. As you amble through the exquisite Purbeck marble coated nave, images of coronations, royal weddings, and grandiose funerals will frolic through your imagination. Getting into this impressive chapel, however, is neither cheap nor convenient. The entrance fee stands at £16.00 and visiting hours run from 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m., Monday – Saturday (to my frustration, I always seemed to arrive too late). But budget travelers, have no fear! There are free ways to witness the splendor of this church for yourself.
Each day, the church hosts several worship services that cost no admission. I attended a 5:00 Choral Evensong, and found it to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of my whole trip. Even if you’re not particularly keen on religious affairs, the Choir of Westminster Abbey, comprised of 30 young boys and 12 professional adult singers, should knock your socks off anyway. Just please, please don’t be one of those people who disrespectfully takes advantage of your free visit. This is a worship service, and reverence is just the polite way of saying “thank you” to those who work tirelessly to provide these programs. Don’t meander through the abbey, trying to catch a glimpse of as much as you can before a vicar kindly requests that you take a seat. DON’T try to sneak pictures (I saw guy do this, and it isn’t pretty). Just sit still and enjoy the fact that you’re lucky enough to share in such a time-honored tradition in the very heart of Britain’s Christian history.
The Tower Bridge
You’ve seen it on postcards, magazine ads, and movies. Now see it for yourself! One of the most recognizable landmarks in the entire world, the Tower Bridge (don’t worry, I call it “London Bridge” sometimes, too), stretches across the Thames River like an old friend, welcoming you to its fair city. The magnificence of this 880-foot, combined bascule and suspension bridge cannot go unnoticed from the banks of the Thames or from walking the bridge itself. However, for a truly incredible view, visit the Tower Bridge Exhibition. This attraction does cost £8.00 to visit, but will provide an unrivaled look at the bridge from within and spectacular views of the Thames River from its high-level walkways. Personally, I’m content just to marvel at the renowned site for free, but it’s your call.
End your day full of sightseeing with a lovely stroll through Hyde Park, one of London’s oldest and largest outdoor commons. This 350-acre stretch of verdant wonders nestled amid central London once served as hunting grounds for the kings of England. Perhaps the most interesting section is Speaker’s Corner, a historic area where visitors are permitted to speak on and debate issues as they please. Historically, this division of the park has seen riots and monumental disputes with frequenters including Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, and Karl Marx. Beyond this, park guests may enjoy seeing Rotten Row, an avenue once a popular haunt among the London elite, the Holocaust Memorial, the Diana, Princess of Wales memorial, and the Weeping Beech, or “Upside-down Tree”.