Travel

What's new in London since the last big royal wedding

Coming to town April 29 when Prince William marries Kate Middleton in Westminster Abbey?

Here are some things you couldn't do in 1981, when Prince Charles married Diana Spencer in St. Paul's Cathedral, in Britain's last royal wedding:

Stroll across the Thames

The Millennium Bridge, a few blocks south of St. Paul's, is a steel suspension span - about 1,000 feet long - that puts you into a parade of international visitors who tend to grin and linger even in raking winter winds. The bridge opened in June 2000 and was shut down within days because its lateral movements gave many people the willies. It reopened in 2002 after a steadying retrofit and can surely be credited for tempting tourists toward the implausible hulk at its southern end.

Glide on a 'Boris bike'

Notice the many Barclays Cycle Hire stands? They started popping up around town last summer, and there are dozens now. Londoners call them Boris Bikes, after Mayor Boris Johnson. (Thirty years ago, British political power was more centralized and London didn't even have a mayor.) For a few pounds, you can grab one of the light blue two-wheelers from a stand, ride, then leave it at a stand near your hotel and walk home. It takes some nerve to share the lanes with London traffic - especially on the busiest thoroughfares, especially as an American accustomed to the other side of the street. But I did it in Soho and lived.

See open-air Shakespeare

Next door to the Tate Modern is Shakespeare's Globe, an open-air theater that replicates the original Globe and stands just a few hundred yards from the site where Shakespeare and Lord Chamberlain's Men put on their shows four centuries ago. Conceived by American actor and director Sam Wanamaker (who died in 1993), this Globe opened in 1997 and offers shows from April through October (www.shakespearesglobe.com), with tours and an exhibition area open year-round.

Walk unhindered from Trafalgar Square to the National Gallery

The laws of London and gravity are such that you will sooner or later find yourself in Trafalgar Square. It's the home of Nelson's Column, the four sculpted lions that guard it and a band of street performers who work the crowd of resting tourists. For decades, the roar and menace of traffic undercut pedestrian pleasures. But in 2003, local leaders banished vehicular traffic from the north side of the square and added a cafe. This means uninterrupted strolling between the lions and the National Gallery of Art and more space for the jugglers, the magicians and you.

Follow Prince Charles' second career as an architecture critic

The National Gallery (www.nationalgallery.org.uk) specializes in art from 1250 to 1900, and for years its leaders wanted to expand. But when they began to move forward and publicized one proposal for a new wing in 1984, the traditionally inclined prince couldn't hold back. Imagining this postmodern nonsense on Trafalgar Square, he declared, was like finding a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend." And Charles got his way. The museum hired a different (but still postmodern) architectural team, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Their Sainsbury wing, which opened in 1991, might still annoy some traditionalists with its "quotations" of disparate elements from other buildings. But the Sainsbury Wing gave the museum more room for its Renaissance paintings, shop and restaurants, and we can't complain about that.

Escape the rain in Great Court of the British Museum

In 1981, the British Museum (www.britishmuseum.org) had the Elgin Marbles (a coveted set of sculptures and architectural details also known as the Parthenon Marbles, removed from Athens in the early 1800s), but Greece wanted them back. In 2011, the British Museum still has them, and Greece still wants them back. But other things have changed. In 2000, the museum reorganized itself and unveiled a new Great Court, an airy two-acre courtyard space covered with a glass-and-steel skylight roof. It eases access to the museum's exhaustive collections, and it makes a fine refuge from wet weather.

Look down on Big Ben

Was it really a good idea to plunk down the London Eye (www.londoneye.com ) - an overgrown carnival attraction - just across the river from perhaps London's most beloved landmark? I wasn't so sure, but I bought a ticket to the Eye anyway, largely because there was no line that night. (The price is about $55 per adult for the no-waiting ticket. In summer, reserve in advance.) After a brief film with kid-pleasing effects, we boarded one of the 32 egg-shaped, climate-controlled, glass-walled capsules as the wheel continued its stately rotation (0.6 mph; and, yes, there is time for somebody to close the hatch). Then the capsule rose over the city with a dozen of us inside, the Thames bent below and the city lights sprawled. It was brilliant - at least, it was if you didn't cower on the bench staring at your knees, as one man did in our capsule while his wife and son oohed and aahed. From the highest point of the 30-minute ride, about 440 feet up, you can admire the tower and green roof of Big Ben as they rise below you (about 315 feet tall) across the water.

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