Continuing from Part 1 of my recommended itinerary for London, here’s what you should plan on doing for the second half of your trip.
Day 4: Medieval and Tudor England
Wake up early and spend your morning exploring the Tower of London (included on the aforementioned London Pass), a castle built almost a thousand years ago and which exhibits an often grisly history. Though its endured a reputation of torture and death (Anne Boleyn was executed there, as well as the famous disappearance of the Princes in the Tower at the time of Richard III), it has been meticulously cared for by the Yeomen Warders (Beefeaters) who serve a ceremonial purpose as well as guiding guests through the grounds. The Crown Jewels are also housed in the Tower of London; however, it is often the busiest area of the grounds so be prepared to wait in line. Additionally, you will see at least six ravens during our time on the grounds, which are also cared for by the Yeomens – there is a saying that if the ravens leave the tower, England will fall.
Head to the almost adjacent Tower Bridge (often mistakenly called ‘London Bridge’). It is an impressive bridge, especially when compared to what I see in Western Canada, and you’ll also get good views of the city as you walk across the Thames to the Southwark neighbourhood. If you have time, there is an option to visit the Tower Bridge Exhibition and see inside the bridge and Victorian Engine rooms. If you didn’t eat at The Tower, you can grab lunch at one of the many riverside restaurants.
Walk westward along the Thames and you’ll pass City Hall and the HMS Belfast, a World War II battleship turned boat museum. It was not open when I passed by, but you can go into the HMS Belfast museum on the London Pass. If the weather is terrible you can choose not to walk and tube instead, but a walk along the boulevard next to the Thames makes for, in my opinion, a lovely break.
After walking for fifteen minutes, you will eventually reach Southwark Cathedral, which is a small church with a thousand years of history and free to enter. The cathedral is highlighted by its links to Elizabethan theatre, which include a memorial to William Shakespeare. The Borough market is immediately to the south of the cathedral, which also makes a good stop for a bite to eat. Be warned that around meal times the crowds at Borough market are especially insane.
A bit further along the Thames path and you will reach the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. If you’re lucky, a play might be on that night and you can buy extremely cheap seats that involve standing in the pit, just like the peasants of 16th century England would have! Though the original theatre was destroyed, it is fascinating to learn the history of the original theatre, as well as learn what went into its reconstruction.
The interpreters are knowledgeable and do various demos – I was lucky to participate in a demo about Shakespearean costume!
Day 5: Windsor
It takes between an hour to an hour and a half to get to Windsor, so leave reasonably early to get to a station servicing Southwest Trains. From where we stayed, we took a bus to Putney Station and took the train from there (though we got caught up in a crazed rugby crowd on a Saturday morning – that’s a story for another time). Windsor Castle, the highlight of the day, is a short walk away from the train station (it is included on the London Pass).
Windsor Castle is usually the weekend home of Queen Elizabeth II, so much of the castle is obviously not available for exploring. Highlights include St. George’s Chapel, which is the burial site of Henry VIII, the gardens surrounding the towers, and the Norman Gate. There will always be a ridiculously long line to see Queen Mary’s dollhouse, which was created by an architect and furnished by leading craftsmen. Due to the line you can’t get a really good look at the intricacy of the dollhouse so I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you absolutely have to see it then all of the intricately painted and designed furniture and rooms will be worth it.
Windsor is also the site of the Royal Windsor Racecourse, if horseracing is your thing. If not, another historical site of note is Eton College, a prestigious boys’ school which has famously educated male English royalty (including Princes William and Harry), prime ministers, writers (including Ian Fleming and George Orwell), and even actors (Hugh Laurie). You can take a guided tour through the campus if school is not in session, and a notable highlight is a classroom with several old wooden desks where past students have engraved their names – Princes William and Harry included.
When you finish off at Windsor, head back to London and take in a sight that you’ve missed or hasn’t been mentioned here, or just take the time to relax, shop, or take in a play on London’s West End. You can get cheap same-day tickets at the Leicester Square ticket booth or from a website like timeout.com/tickets. Or, if you’re more choosy about your theatre, look up prior to your visit if any shows that interest you are playing, and buy your tickets in advance.
Day 6: Out of London
Due to the limited time we had in London, we chose to book an all-day bus tour to see Stonehenge, Bath, and Stratford, with a drive through the Cotswolds. Unfortunately, though the tour began at 7 AM and dropped you back off at your hotel around 7 PM, you only got about 3 hours on the ground NOT on the bus. As it turns out, Stonehenge, Bath, and Stratford are not very close to each other! (Side note: our bus didn’t have bathrooms). We had half an hour in Stonehenge, 1.5 hours in Bath, and under an hour in Stratford. You don’t need more than half an hour at Stonehenge, that gives you plenty of time to make a full circle around Stonehenge and see the stones from every angle. But it wasn’t enough time to explore Bath or Stratford.
I wanted to see Stratford because of my interests in Shakespeare, but unless you are okay with the limited exploring time, I would recommend just choosing two tour activities – Stonehenge and Bath, or Stonehenge and Oxford, just so you don’t feel so rushed. We booked with Premium Tours and the tour and guide were pleasant (no bathrooms aside).
I get asked a lot whether Stonehenge is worth it – I say yes! It’s a wonder of the ancient world and although it may just seem like a pile of rocks, what would have had to happen for those rocks to be in that formation in a time with no technology is a puzzling mystery, as is the meaning of the site. Unless you arrange for a private sunrise or sunset tour, you can only walk along the outside of the site due to the ground becoming uneven by treading feet.
Bath is a beautiful old English town and a UNESCO world heritage site, and holds a special significance for those who love Jane Austen (I don’t, but I found the town lovely anyway). It’s historically a Roman town, so the Roman Baths and associating museum are a highlight, as well as the Pulteney Bridge. I can’t speak to much else unfortunately, due to only having limited time there.
Stratford is a site for Shakespeare and theatre nerds only; others may have a hard time appreciating its significance. For me to visit Shakespeare’s childhood home as well as the home he shared with his wife Anne Hathaway was a dream come true, especially to stand in the room where, supposedly, he was born; I do not expect this to have the same significance for everyone else in the world. It is home to a large theatre company as well as charming shops and cobblestone streets, but it will not be enjoyable for those who don’t appreciate its theatrical significance.
All in all?
Visiting London requires several days, as you can see. In six days to see the things we wanted to see, we had to cram our days fairly tightly, which doesn’t necessarily jive with all travel styles. It’s an old place with lots of history and culture, and as a result, the sights to see will be never-ending. Though it may rain your whole time there, appreciate the time you have with London, and count down the days until you’re back again to complete the rest of your to-do list.