Yes, London’s classic landmarks never get old, and sometimes it is good to experience a place beyond its metropolitan limits. But the point of big apples like London, Paris or New York is that they always have something new to offer.
Like St Dunstan-in-the-East, the church between London Bridge and the Tower of London was mostly destroyed on WW2 and then turned into a beautiful public garden where open-air services are occasionally performed. Commercials and video clips are routinely shot.
The brand-new Elizabeth line was a delight to ride. Not only because it’s fully air-conditioned, but also because the trains are so quiet that you wouldn’t spill a martini even when they’re breaking.
The frequent, hybrid and rapid rail service between central London (Paddington) and its suburbs (Heathrow to the west and Shenfield to the east) features accessible stations and trains, including cushioned seats and platform edge doors.
I rode it to Canary Wharf, where I transferred to the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to reach the historic southeastern town of Greenwich, where many London gems are.
Including The Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College. Also known as The British Sixtine Chapel, the grand room’s walls and ceilings covered with dramatic images depict the United Kingdom’s ascension as a dominant maritime global empire.
Nearby, the Tulip Stairs are the crown jewel at the Queen’s House. One of the most Instagrammable places in Britain is also the location of the infamous 1966 “ghost” photograph.
Greenwich’s wealth of treasures makes it impossible to cover it all in one day, so more on that later. Meanwhile, back in central London, I headed to the financial district to experience a couple of sights that—while not “hidden”—had been out of my radar up until then.
I had seen TikTok videos of the beautiful Royal Exchange, the 16th-century-designed former stock market now a luxury shopping center and eatery, but seeing it in person was short of breathtaking.
I also stopped at the nearby Sky Garden. The observation deck/food plaza on the 36th floor of 20 Fenchurch Street (“the Walkie-Talkie building”) was perhaps the most touristy of them all, despite the stunning views of the London skyline on such a bright and clear summer day.
My favorite in the neighborhood, Leadenhall Market, was established in 1321. Its elaborate roof structure, painted in pastel colors, makes you feel like you just stepped into a Wes Anderson movie.
A 10-minute walk away, the Museum of London brings to life the city’s history, from pre-Roman through Edwardian, Victorian to modern times—including vivid representations of the Great Plague, the Great Fire and other calamities suffered by Londoners throughout their long history.
The most impressive part is the juxtaposition of the London Wall (erected c. AD 200) and the glass high-rises outside the museum and close to the Barbican Centre.
And speaking of the future, The Vaults, London’s underground home for urban, alternative and immersive art, lives in Waterloo station‘s unused tunnels. Also known as Leake Street graffiti tunnels, the one and only Banksy founded it.
Highgate Cemetery in the borough of Camden opened in 1839 to solve overflowing and unsanitary church graveyards. The Victorian funerary ground is best known for being the final resting place of Karl Marx.
Come for Marx and stay for Queer icon Radclyffe Hall. The author of the controversial Victorian lesbian novel “The Well of Loneliness” is buried in the Batten family’s vault in the Circle of Lebanon on the western side of the cemetery. Singer Mabel Batten was Radclyffe’s first lover.
I live for London’s niche museums, and the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill didn’t disappoint. It documents the history of consumer culture through items from the Robert Opie Collection (The most extensive collection of British nostalgia).
Curated and installed as a “Time Tunnel,” the museum takes you on a 200-year journey of the history of labeled packaged goods, from Victorian times to the present, describing how brands, shopping habits and human behavior have evolved and their influence on pop culture and movements like the emancipation of women.
For my second visit to Greenwich, I hopped on a Thames River Sightseeing boat, which took my fellow tourists and me through the historic waterway on a bright, beautiful day to admire London’s landmarks—including a brief stop at Tower Bridge/Tower of London.
After a 40-minute ride, we disembarked at Greenwich Pier, from which I climbed the 15-minute steep Greenwich Park hill to the Royal Observatory to witness the legendary Prime meridian.
The Royal Observatory is also home to The Great Equatorial Telescope, installed in 1893.
At the bottom of the hill, the National Maritime Museum documents Greenwich’s maritime history from the landing of the Romans through the times of Henry VII, Charles II and beyond.
A temporary exhibition, “Canaletto’s Venice Revisited,” shows paintings from the 1700s by artist Giovani Antonio Canal representing Venetian life and how it inspired British and other global citizens to visit the beautiful Italian city.
It also examines how over-tourism and rising sea levels threaten the Venetian way of life, as evidenced by the sale of colorful plastic boots to keep tourists’ feet dry during acqua alta.
Not an “off-the-beaten-path” destination, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum stands out for its outstanding permanent collection of the history of fashion, which could give the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute a run for its money.
A couple of temporary exhibitions are prime examples. The first, “Africa Fashion,” displays legendary couture, photographs, textiles, music and visuals from the mid-20th century to the present, exploring the artists and movements parallel to decolonization and its impact on a global scale.
The second one, the Gucci-sponsored “Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear,” highlights male fashion through the history of men’s clothing and the way designers, tailors, artists and their clients have molded masculine gender identities.
The British’s eagerness to question themselves is at the core of these exhibitions. Often dubbed a “dying empire,” the bruised United Kingdom seems determined to keep treasuring its glorious past while looking toward the future.
Keep calm and carry on, indeed.