Enjoy the urban chic of London, sprinkled with the magic of royalty, art and gardens. See a West End theatre play, ride on the London Eye, tour the Tower of London, the British Museum, and take the Thames River cruise. Then venture to the picture perfect Cotswolds, discover the hidden Oxford, look for Jane Austen's heritage in Bath and visit the prehistoric Stonehenge.
London is an ancient city which embraces its future. Traditionally, it's a city of royalty, art, gardens and theatre. It's also the capital of the hip British style; it's funky and elegant, quaint and modern at the same time.
London entices visitors with great museums, royal pageantry, houses steeped in history, and the latest fashions. If the city contained only its famous landmarks - the Tower of London, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace - it would still rank as one of the world's top cities. But London is so much more: unsurpassed theatre, galleries overflowing with the world's best art, international ambience, antique markets scattered among manicured parks, colorful neighborhoods and imposing public spaces. With the dark, swift Thames following the same course as when it flowed past the Roman settlement of Londinium nearly 2,000 years ago, London is veiled in romance and history. At the same time, the city awes with the cutting edge architecture and the futuristic design of glass and steel that frame it.
If the urban energy gets to be too much, there are easy escapes into the "fairytale come alive" English countryside: castles and palaces along the Thames river, the legendary hiking in the Cotswolds, the white cliffs over the English Channel, and the bucolic fields, meadows and country gardens all are a perfect day trip from London.
The City of Art
In the heart of the Trafalgar Square stands the National Gallery in its full glory of marble and fountains. Inside, the gallery houses some of the world's most important paintings from as far back as the 13th century: you can gaze upon the works of Botticelli, Titian, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Raphael, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne or Van Gogh, and this is a highly abbreviated list.
The place to see the best theatrical plays in London is the fabled West End. The theatres put on big productions at reasonable prices - between $120 for top tickets and $18 for bargains available on some days of the week. The West End shows a lot of musicals, but there are still many good plays featuring superb actors. I don't think you will find as much diversity anywhere else in the world, including Broadway. The tickets are also easier to get than in New York. You can still buy June tickets for The Lion King, Chicago, Evita, Cabaret, Mary Poppins, Wicked, as well as for Lord of the Rings, which has not played in the US yet.
You can catch a Shakespeare play almost every night of the year in London. But standing on a floor of leaves and sawdust, and watching an offering from the Great Bard in a painstakingly re-created version of the galleried Tudor theatre for which he wrote is a special thrill. William Shakespeare's plays were first performed at the Globe Theatre some 400 years ago. The original Globe was destroyed by fire and when it was rebuilt, William Shakespeare became a partner in the theatre company as well as its most famous playwright. Closed by the Puritans in 1642, the Globe was eventually torn down and lost to history. A replica of the Globe was completed in 1994 by the Shakespeare Globe Playhouse Trust and offers Shakespeare's performances as well as visits led by young actors passionate about the world of theatre.
Gourmand's London: Ale, Shepherds' Pie and Tea
Learning to appreciate the region's or the country's cuisine is very important to the travel experience. When visiting London, make sure you experience Britain's diverse food culture. There is nothing quite like a Bakewell Pudding, a Shepherds' Pie, a Cornish Pasty, or a fry-up breakfast with Cumberland sausage, especially when you eat it in the very place that invented them.
Tea occupies an important place in British culture, and teatime is still a hallowed part of the day, with toasted crumpets honeycombed with sweet butter. The English afternoon tea ritual has been quietly brewing among London society, and it is now ever so fashionable to take afternoon tea.
The Cotswolds is a place that more than one writer has called the very soul of England. The rolling uplands of the Cotswolds Hills rise gently from the Upper Thames Valley, north of Bath, and they are considered the quintessence of rural England, as immortalized in countless books, paintings and films. With its pretty-as-a-picture villages, perfectly clipped hedges, and the mellow, centuries-old, stone-built cottages festooned with honeysuckle, this idyllic place has been thriving on the wool trade since medieval times, and it remains a concentrated vision of rural England.
Stonehenge is the most important prehistoric monument in Britain. It is a powerful national icon symbolizing mystery and endurance. While the construction of Stonehenge started about 5,000 years ago, the structure that we know today is the final of three building stages, completed about 3,500 years ago. It is most likely that Stonehenge was built as a temple dedicated to worship of sun, moon and earth deities, but it was also used it as an astronomical observatory for marking significant events on the prehistoric calendar. It is believed that Stonehenge was a burial site for high-ranking members of the prehistoric societies who lived here.
Jane Austen's Bath
In the 18th century, the city of Bath, originally built by the Romans around its hot spring, was transformed into a fashionable spa town, and Jane Austen is perhaps the best loved of Bath's many famous residents and visitors. She paid two long visits here at the end of the 18th century, and from 1801 to 1806 Bath was her home. The writer's intimate knowledge of the city is reflected in two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which are largely set in Bath. The city is still very much as Jane Austen knew it, preserving in its streets, public buildings and elegant city houses, the orderly world that she portrays so brilliantly in her novels.