London’s Attractions

Tower Bridge at Night

February 9 – 13, 2013

Photo set on Flickr

London in Winter?

Under normal circumstances I would either choose to stay home or travel to a warm destination during the Chinese New Year break, but this year my wife and I took a 12-hour flight to the coldest place we had been to since leaving Vancouver in 2008. We stayed in London for five days to visit some family and friends, then squeezed in three days for Amsterdam, a longtime fixture on my wish list.

Prohibitively expensive and consistently gloomy were my impression of London from my previous visits. But I was ready to wipe the slate clean to find out firsthand what the hype surrounding London was all about. If 2012 has a “City of the Year”, no doubt London would top the list. Between the successful Olympics and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, London has transcended beyond Britain’s underwhelming economic performance and volatile social unrest.

Unlike my past visits, I really enjoyed London this time around. If there is a city that best represents globalization, it has to be either London or New York. The need to visit friends on several occasions caused us to scramble across town and left us with a chaotic schedule. That said, we still managed to see a fair bit of London despite the familiar dreary weather.

Museums

Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

Because most museums in London are free, I ended up visiting five museums, though none as thorough as I would like. Coming back to London after seeing more places over the past few years, I have come to realize how little credit I had given London for its museums. Even without taking into account the absence of admission fee, London still boasts the best collection of museums anywhere on earth, with apologies to Berlin, Paris and New York.

Want to catch a glimpse of the British Empire at its apex? Go visit the British Museum and be in awe by all the looted treasures from every corner of the world (Read full entry here).

National Gallery

The National Gallery might not have the coherent focus of a d’Orsay or Uffizi, but with the possible exception of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC (never been), I can’t think of another place that offers more insight on the development of European paintings from the Middle Ages up to Cubism. The experience is similar to visiting a Hall of Fame.

Tate Modern fully deserves its status as a pioneer on how to successfully reuse abandoned industrial buildings. Too bad its underwhelming permanent exhibition was quite a letdown. I can confidently argue Tate Modern’s status as the most visited art gallery in the world (4.7 million visitors per year) has more to do with its location and free admission than its art collection.

European Gallery, V&A Museum

One of the advertisement I saw the most in London was the opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s Furniture Gallery. Unfortunately I slotted only two hours for the museum, which allowed me to see only the first floor. I should have went straight to the sixth floor where the Furniture Gallery was and made my way down. Still, I enjoyed the museum’s collections on East Asia, the Middle East and European sculpture.

World Heritage Sites

The Tulip Stairs, the Queen’s House

There are no lacking of good reasons to pay Greenwich a visit. This London suburb’s quaint appearance belies the great contributions it has once made in the fields of navigation and astronomy. Take a look at a world map – at the centre of the earth is the Prime Meridian, based at Greenwich’s Royal Observatory. Ever wonder why your time zone comes with a +/- sign? That’s because all time zones are benchmark against the Greenwich Mean Time. To top it all off UNESCO has awarded the World Heritage Site status to Greenwich since 1997.

Time, as always, was in limited supply. Three hours was what we had before we had to rush back to Old Spitalfields Market for lunch with some relatives. Winter is not an ideal time to visit Greenwich – the town felt even gloomier than the rest of London. We breezed by the Old Royal Naval College (designed by Christopher Wren), the Cutty Sark (a refurbished tea clipper) and the Royal Observatory (as noted above, the location of the Prime Meridian).

Instead of scattering our scarce time all over the place, we focused on the Queen’s House. The former royal residence was designed by Inigo Jones, who introduced Palladian architecture style from Italy. The house’s main draw, the Tulip Stairs, is the first geometric self-supporting spiral stair in Britain. Also worth a look is its substantial collection of maritime-themed paintings.

The Palace of Westminster, with its iconic Perpendicular Gothic style, is probably London’s most recognizable sight. Continuously occupied since the 11th century, the current version of the palace was completed around 1870 following a devastating fire that destroyed much of the previous buildings in 1834.

Like most visitors, I made a beeline to Westminster during my first trip to London and took the mandatory photo under the Big Ben. On subsequent visits I bypassed the area altogether, but this time I decided to come back at night to try some long exposure shots. If you are willing to shell out £20 you can probably gain a deeper appreciation of the complex — since I have never felt compelled to do so the Palace of Westminster would have to settle as a famous photo background in my book.

What I did pay the big bucks for was the Tower of London, located some 5 km east from Westminster along the Thames. When I visited in 2007 I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I saw the entrance fee cost a whopping £17. I couldn’t put aside my sourness and I saw everything in a negative light. The complex, starting from the 930-year-old White Tower, might be steeped in history, but I found the visitor experience solely lacking.

It should have an interesting story to tell, seeing how it had served as  an armoury, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public record office and a prison at various stints in its long existence. Unfortunately in its current incarnation as a tourist attraction it is hard to get a sense of its past. The rooms were dark and empty while large sections were cordoned off. Signage was lacking so often I was wondering aimlessly. The only saving grace was the Crown Jewels. 

This time I took the free route and looked at the Tower of London from the other side of the Thames. It didn’t even make a decent photographic subject — the adjacent Tower Bridge completely dwarfed the former royal residence.

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