LONDON The exterior of Westminster Abbey is imposing and grandiose.
Our plan was simple: Pay the admission, stick our heads inside to see what it looked like, and then quickly duck out and move on to a museum.
The museum never happened.
That because we were all dazzled by the thousand-year-old church where England’s kings and queens have been crowned since 1066. That is a lot of history.
Iconic Westminster Abbey is, quite frankly, a lot of church with its architecture, chapels, crypts, paintings, stained glass and textiles. Many of the decorations go back to the 13th and 14th centuries.
It was the most impressive sight we saw in London, part sacred space, part national shrine, part pageant of British history. It was filled with a half-lighted medieval atmosphere and lots of tourists.
The church has more than 600 statues, tombs, crypts and markers. It triggers a bit of sensory overload because there’s just so much to see and absorb.
Thirty kings and queens are buried in Westminster Abbey, along with English poets, authors, politicians and actors: Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Robert Browning, Edmund Spenser, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Laurence Olivier and George Frederic Handel. A total of 3,300 people are buried there.
The West Towers stand 225 feet high. The body of the building is 531 feet long. The transept is 203 feet long and 80 feet wide. It boasts the highest ceiling in Europe: 102 feet.
It is opulent and wears its age well. In places, the marble floor has been worn down by countless footsteps.
It has been the site of 16 royal weddings and 38 coronations. It is home of the coronation chair ordered in 1301 by King Edward I.
Much of the Gothic church was built from 1245 to 1272 by King Henry III to honor St. Edward the Confessor. Benedictine monks came to the site in the middle of the 10th century.
Guided and self-guided audio tours are available.
Westminster Abbey is surrounded by other very familiar landmarks: Big Ben and the Parliament Building, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, 10 Downing Street (home of the prime minister and a must-stop if your name is Downing).
It’s been a big year in London with the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games, plus the London 2012 Festival that runs to Sept. 9 with 12,000 events and 25,000 artists. London typically gets 25 million visitors a year but this year is even bigger.
But there’s a lot to see: the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Square, the London Eye, Oxford Street with its shopping, the Tate Modern and St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Christopher Wren.
London with its 7.5 million residents is known for its rainy weather, world-class museums, shopping, royalty, art galleries and football (soccer). It has 100 theaters, seven royal palaces, 6,000 restaurants and 5,000 pubs or bars. It is the city of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, Abbey Road and Jack the Ripper.
London is known for its parks and gardens, more than 2,500 of them. Nine of its parks were once royal property (hunting grounds or estate gardens). Eleven percent of Greater London, or 70 square miles, is parkland.
London is sophisticated, hip, expensive, diverse, cosmopolitan. Thirty percent of its residents were born elsewhere. Its residents come from 300 countries.
It lacks the edginess of New York City and is friendly, albeit a little aloof.
London covers 607 square miles. It is composed of two cities, London and Westminster, and 31 other boroughs.
You can walk neighborhoods and explore alleys, squares and streets on foot. But Londoners rely heavily on the Underground, the ancient subway system called the Tube that is the No. 1 way to get around. It gets 12 million passengers a day.
Britons love their tea, consuming 60 billion cups a year. They also consume 27 million pints of beer daily. Pubs are disappearing at the rate of one or two a year, according to some estimates.
British food is known for fish and chips with mushy peas and pub grub, but many say that London is becoming a restaurant hot spot.
Immigration has shaped London’s cuisine. Chicken tikka masala, an Anglo-Indian curry hybrid, is often called the national dish.
Getting around London
London has no central downtown. But the city is slowly shifting toward the east, with the Olympic development and hipsters moving into the once-industrial areas in East London.
Shoppers love Oxford Street and Harrod’s department store, where you can buy just about anything. St. James, Mayfair, Chelsea and Notting Hill on the city’s west side are known for shops and boutiques.
We began our London visit with a 2 1/2-hour tour on a red double-decker bus. It was a great way to get our bearings and an overview of the city. That’s where we learned that London lost one-third of its buildings to German air raids in World War II.
We also took the train 20 miles north to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of “Harry Potter.”
The 150,000-square-foot studio is where the eight Potter movies were filmed, and it has been converted into a self-guided playground of all things Potter, from sets and props to costume and special effects. Reservations are a must: www.wbstudiotour.co.uk.
You can explore the Great Hall at Hogwarts, Dumbledore’s office and Diagon Alley. It is heaven for Potter lovers.
Back in London, we explored the British Museum, one of the top museums in the world. It is home to the Rosetta Stone, the Magna Carta and other artifacts from around the world. It is one of 300 London museums, big and small.
St. James Park, Big Ben, Parliament
We walked through lovely 90-acre St. James Park, especially appealing with its pond and three nearby castles, and now-quiet Carnaby Street. Hyde Park covers 630 acres and is known for its soapboxes for free speech.
Big Ben is actually the bell in the 320-foot-high clock tower, not the clock itself. It was cast in 1859 and rings every hour. Other bells ring on the quarter hour.
The tower looms over the Houses of Parliament that are housed where a royal palace once stood. The face of the clock is big: 24 feet in diameter.
Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms. We missed the changing of the guard, but did see the legendary redcoats.
We traveled to Trafalgar Square with the tower monument to Admiral Horatio Nelson, hero of the Battle of Trafalgar against the French and Spanish in 1805, and Piccadilly Circus, a sort of New York Times Square.
St. Paul’s Anglican Church is a major London landmark with its dome. It took 35 years to build it after the Great London Fire of 1666 wiped out 80 percent of the city. Poet John Donne preached there on Ludgate Hill. The views from atop the church are spectacular. St. Paul’s was designed by Christopher Wren (1632-1723).
Some of the longest lines will greet tourists at the Tower of London. It is an 18-acre complex of royal buildings where 100 Britons, including Henry VIII’s queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were executed.
The 1,000-year-old complex has served as a royal residence, prison, armory, mint, zoo and observatory. It is also the repository for the royal jewels. A moving walkway takes visitors past the royal jewelry, including the Imperial Crown of India with 6,000 diamonds. It was worn just once, by King George V in 1911.
It’s hard to ignore the seven well-cared-for ravens that live at the Tower of London. A legend says the tower will collapse if the birds ever depart.
We explored Borough Market on the south side of the River Thames and walked along the pretty Regent’s Canal that cuts across northern London. The canal is filled with narrow-beamed houseboats.
The 4.5-acre market filled with more than 130 vendors and stalls is one of the largest in London, and has become a full-blown tourist attraction by itself. It dates to 1014, perhaps earlier. For information: www.boroughmarket.org.uk.
The Thames provides a great way to see the city. So, too, does the London Eye, an oversized Ferris wheel that reaches heights of 443 feet. It is one of the biggest London attractions. Each glass-sided car holds 25 people.
Near Tower Bridge, look out for a new pyramid-shaped glass skyscraper: It’s the Shard, Europe’s tallest building at 1,016 feet.
We even watched England’s national soccer team play on television in a London pub. That was heaven for soccer fans like my family.
Keep an eye out for blue circles that identify famous people who lived in specific London buildings. It’s a fun way to identify them. London has 17,000 protected buildings.