In January, I opted to go to London for my birthday. I hadn’t been to London in over 20 years. So I spent the week in this fabulous city being a geek, gawky tourist.
Like most vacations, it’s impossible to do everything in one week. But with some planning (thanks to my local friends who gave us great advice) and some flexibility, we saw a lot.
I also recommend going in the off-season. I got a lot of cocked eye-brow looks and questions when I announced I was going to London . . . in January. But let me tell you, January was the best time to go. We dealt with minimal crowds and no lines. Yes, we wore winter coats, scarves, and sometimes hats. But the weather actually wasn’t that bad. And more importantly, no lines (or queues as they say in the UK).
So without further ado, here are my top 5 must-see things in London.
1. The Cutty Sark
The Cutty Sark is a 160+ year-old British clipper ship owned by Willis Shipping Line. Built in Scotland in 1869, she was one of the last and fastest tea clippers to be built before sailing ships gave way to steam propulsion.
The Cutty Sark is one of only three remaining original composite construction (wooden hull on an iron frame) clipper ships from the 19th century.
She’s now in dry dock (you can walk completely under her (bottom right photo).
A part of the Royal Museums Greenwich, she is located only steps from the Greenwich underground station.
While touring the Cutty Sark, I met the neatest museum proctor (bottom left photo), a retired merchant marine who had loads of stories about the ship and her crew.
The Cutty Sark is definitely one of the most fun museums to visit. (Plus, we had an absolutely gorgeous day in Greenwich.)
Greenwich Bonus: the Cutty Sark is within walking distance to several other Royal Museums Greenwich—the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House, and, a little bit further and up a hill, the Royal Observatory where you can stand on the Prime Meridian Line.
2. The V&A
The Victoria and Albert Museum has an impressive collection of art and design. Everything from ancient tapestries and ceramics to cars and fashion. The collection is amazing and so diverse—I guarantee there’s an exhibit for everyone in the V&A.
We didn’t attempt to go into any of the special exhibits because there’s just so much to see in the main exhibits. (At the time we were there, the special exhibits included Cars and Mary Quant.)
In fact, we didn’t even go through the entire museum. With 2.3 million objects, you have to pick and choose what you want to see. But whatever you do see at the V&A will be worth it.
3. The Natural History Museum
Near the V&A is the British Natural History Museum. I love natural history museums and have spent a lot of time at the Smithsonian NHM in D.C., so I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the British NHM.
Normally, Dippy, the NHM’s iconic Diplodocus, is on display in the main hall. But Dippy, being the celebrity he is, is currently on tour. So instead, the NHM has this incredible blue whale skeleton on display in the main hall.
Blue whales are the largest animals ever known to have lived on Earth at up to 110 feet long and upwards of 200 tons (330,000 pounds).
You read the specs on a blue whale, but you really don’t comprehend exactly how large it is until you stand underneath its skeleton. And let me tell you, it’s large. And this is why I love natural history museums.
Like the V&A, there are so many amazing things to see at the NHM, it’s hard to see it all.
One of the museum’s must-see treasures (at least for this booknerd) is a first edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. I found this extremely awesome to see.
And while you’re there, I also recommend the NHM’s cafe. It’s a great place to have a tea break. After visiting some of the exhibits, we stopped to have some coffee and scones. Well worth it.
4. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
The Globe. What more do I need to say? Theater and book nerd fun.
If you plan it right, you can even see a performance. We did not because (1) we had too many other things on our agenda and (2) none of my favorite plays were on. But it’s a lovely option if you have a chance to get to see a play on the Globe stage.
I simply enjoyed looking at all the Shakespearean goodies in the gift shop.
5. The British Library
No booknerd trip to London is complete without visiting the British Library.
The building itself is rather unremarkable because it’s a new, modern building. For a city that was originally settled in 47 AD, any building that’s not at least a century old is modern. And when I say the library building is new, I mean that the building is younger than I am.
The St. Pancras building was officially opened by the Queen in June 1998. For London, the library building is still in it’s infancy.
But I didn’t go to the the Library because of the building. I went for the books.
The British Library contains over 170 million artifacts from every age of written civilization. Think about that.
Every age of written civilization.
The British Library the largest library in the world (or maybe second behind the U.S. Library of Congress depending how you count—if just actual books and not artifacts too, then the Library of Congress has the edge).
In addition the the tower of books, the Treasures room is a must-see. Because the Treasures room was closed the first day we visited, we went back later in the week just to see it. And let me tell you, it was totally worth it.
Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), hand written sheet music by Mozart, Handel, Chopin, and Beethoven, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), a draft manuscript of Wordsworth’s poem Composed Upon Westminster Bridge (1806), George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1869-72), letters, a suffragette’s scrapbook, Jane Austin’s writing desk, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1868-71), the Magna Carta, and so many more bookish treasures.
The Library also has special exhibits throughout the year.
And if you’re lucky enough to live in or around London, you can not only be a member, but get to read in the member-only areas. How cool would that be?
So that’s my top 5 must-see places in London.
Obviously I could have doubled, even tripled this list. There are so many lovely things to see and do in London—parks, writers’ residences, Baker Street, the Royal Palaces and various royal residences, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster, the London Eye, all the amazing bookstores . . . the list goes on. But these 5 were the highlight of my trip and ones I recommend anyone visiting London to see.
Have you been to London? What are your favorite places to see? Share your London must-sees in the comments below.