The United Kingdom
Made up of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom may not always seem very united - indeed, Scotland came close to voting for independence in 2014. Yet this historic state is packed with appeal for the visitor, from pulsing cities to stunning countryside. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are fine destinations in their own right, and travels between these countries reveal both the shared culture and distinct local flavours that contribute to the UK.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The United Kingdom.
The world’s largest and oldest continuously occupied fortress, Windsor Castle is a majestic vision of battlements and towers. Used for state occasions, it’s one of the Queen’s principal residences; when she’s at home, the Royal Standard flies from the Round Tower. History The story of Windsor Castle began in 1071, when William the Conqueror ordered the construction of a hilltop, earth-and-timber fortress. A century later, his great-grandson Henry II replaced it with a stone round tower. Edward III added a Gothic palace; Elizabeth I, the sturdy North Terrace; and Charles II gave the State Apartments a baroque makeover, creating an ‘English Versailles’. George III stuck on turrets and battlements, to make it look more medieval, while George IV inserted a modern palace into the ancient ensemble. After a thousand years of rebuilding, the 951-room castle thus displays an amazing range of architectural styles, from half-timbered fired brick to Gothic stonework. Inside Windsor Castle The castle precincts are divided into the Lower, Middle and Upper Wards. A visit will take you through the lavish State Apartments and beautiful chapels; certain areas may be off limits if in use. Here are some of the highlights: Inner Hall Created by George IV in the 1820s as a welcoming area for heads of state and official guests, this hall was later closed by Queen Victoria in 1866 – its entry sealed by a stone wall – and used primarily for storage space for 150 years. Reopened to the public in 2019, restoration works included chipping off layers of paint to reveal the intricate Regency ceiling bosses created by stuccoist Francis Bernasconi, and linking the visitor entrance on the North Terrace with the State Entrance Hall on the south side, which offers an uninterrupted view of the Long Walk. Also on display are stone remnants believed to be part of the buildings constructed by Henry I around 1110. Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House Filling a side chamber as you approach the State Apartments from the North Terrace of the Upper Ward, this astonishing creation is not a toy but a masterpiece of artful miniaturization. Designed at 1:12 scale by Sir Edwin Lutyens for Queen Mary, and completed in 1924, it displays a phenomenal attention to detail. It's equipped with fully functional plumbing, including flushing toilets, plus electric lights, tiny Crown Jewels, a silver service and wine cellar, and even a fleet of six cars in the garage. State Apartments The State Apartments, in the castle’s Upper Ward, reverberate with history and style. Around two dozen rooms are usually open to the public, with the crossed swords, suits of armour and banners of the initial Grand Staircase setting the tone. A seated statue of Queen Victoria presides over the Grand Vestibule at the top, which displays tribute and trophies from the British Empire. Highlights include a life-sized tiger’s head of gold with crystal teeth, seized from Tipu, sultan of Mysore, and the musket ball that killed Lord Nelson. The Waterloo Chamber beyond, commemorating the 1815 battle, is festooned with portraits of triumphant generals and diplomats. Two self-guided routes – ceremonial and historic – take in the fabulous St George’s Hall, the headquarters of the 24-strong order of the Knights of the Garter, which is still used for state banquets. Its ornate ceiling, re-created following a devastating fire in 1992 – it began in the adjoining Lantern Lobby – holds the shields of Knights past and present. Blank shields record "degraded" knights expelled from the order; most are foreign royals who declared war on Britain. Beyond the Grand Reception Room, where the Queen hosts state visits, lie 10 chambers designated as the King’s Rooms and Queen’s Rooms. Largely created by Charles II, they’re bursting with opulent furniture, tapestries, frescoed ceilings and carved wall panels, as well as paintings by Hans Holbein, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck and Gainsborough. The Queen’s Guard Chamber, bristling with pistols and swords, holds statues and busts of military leaders including Sir Winston Churchill. St George’s Chapel This elegant chapel, commissioned for the Order of the Garter by Edward IV in 1475, is a fine example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture. The nave and beautiful fan-vaulted roof were completed under Henry VII, and the final nail driven under Henry VIII in 1528. Along with Westminster Abbey, it serves as a royal mausoleum. Both Henry VIII and Charles I lie beneath the beautifully carved 15th-century Quire, while the Queen's father (George VI) and mother (Queen Elizabeth) rest in a side chapel. It’s also where Prince Harry married Meghan Markle in May 2018, and where Prince Philip's funeral took place in 2021. Albert Memorial Chapel Built in 1240 and dedicated to Edward the Confessor, the small Albert Memorial Chapel was the place of worship for the Order of the Garter until St George's Chapel, alongside, snatched away that honour. After Prince Albert died at Windsor Castle in 1861, Queen Victoria ordered the chapel to be restored as a monument to her husband, adding a magnificent vaulted roof that incorporates gold mosaic pieces from Venice. Although the chapel holds a monument to the prince, he’s actually buried, with Victoria, in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park. Their youngest son, Prince Leopold (Duke of Albany), is, however, buried here. Changing of the Guard A fabulous spectacle, with triumphant tunes from a military band and plenty of foot stamping from smartly attired troops in red uniforms and bearskin caps, the changing of the guard draws crowds to Windsor Castle each day. Although the Household Troops march through the streets of Windsor, the actual handover happens in the Lower Ward or, when the Queen is in official residence, the Quadrangle in the Upper Ward. Weather permitting, it usually takes place at 11am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but this is subject to change. Check the Household Division website for more information. Tickets Entry is timed and tickets must be booked in advance. The price includes a multimedia guide. If you wish to visit again, your ticket can be converted to a year-long pass – just ask a member of staff before you leave.
A splendid mixture of architectural styles, Westminster Abbey is considered the finest example of Early English Gothic. It's not merely a beautiful place of worship – the Abbey is still a working church and the stage on which history unfolds. Never a cathedral (the seat of a bishop), Westminster Abbey is what is called a "royal peculiar", administered by the Crown. Inside Westminster Abbey At the heart of the Abbey is the beautifully tiled sanctuary, the stage for coronations, royal weddings and funerals. Architect George Gilbert Scott designed the ornate High Altar in 1873. In front of the altar is the Cosmati Pavement, dating to 1268. It has intricate designs of small pieces of stone and glass inlaid into plain marble, which symbolize the universe at the end of time (an inscription claims the world will end after 19,683 years). At the entrance to the lovely Chapel of St John the Baptist is a sublime translucent alabaster Virgin and Child, placed here in 1971. The most sacred spot in the Abbey is the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, which lies behind the High Altar; access is restricted to guided tours to protect the fragile 13th-century flooring. King Edward, long considered a saint before he was canonised, was the founder of the Abbey, and the original building was consecrated a few weeks before his death in 1066. Henry III added a new shrine with Cosmati mosaics in the mid-12th century where the sick prayed for healing – and also chipped off a few souvenirs to take home. The Quire (choir), a stunning space of gold, blue and red Victorian Gothic above a black-and-white chequerboard tiled floor, dates to the mid-19th century. It sits where the original choir for the monks' worship would have been but bears little resemblance to the original. Nowadays, the Quire is still used for singing, but its regular occupants are the Choir of Westminster Abbey – about 30 boys and 12 "lay vicars" (men) who sing the services and evensong. Henry VII's magnificent Perpendicular Gothic–style Lady Chapel, with an impressive fan-vaulted ceiling and tall stained-glass windows is at the eastern end of the church. Opened in 2018, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries are a museum and gallery space located in the medieval triforium, the arched gallery above the nave. Among its exhibits are the death masks and wax effigies of generations of royalty, armor and stained glass. Highlights are the graffiti-inscribed chair used for the coronation of Mary II, the beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the Litlyngton Missal from 1380 and the 13th-century Westminster Retable, England's oldest surviving altarpiece. At the western end of the nave near the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, killed in France during WWI and laid to rest here in 1920, is St George's Chapel, which contains the rather ordinary-looking Coronation Chair, upon which every monarch since the early 14th century has been crowned (apart from joint monarchs Mary II and William III, who had their own chairs fashioned for the event in 1689). Apart from the royal graves, keep an eye out for the many famous commoners interred here, especially in Poets' Corner, where you'll find the resting places of Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Alfred Tennyson, Samuel Johnson and Rudyard Kipling, as well as memorials to the other greats (William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters etc). Another set of illustrious stones is in Scientists' Corner near the north aisle of the nave, including the final resting places of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and the ashes of Stephen Hawking. The octagonal Chapter House dates from the 1250s and was where the monks would meet for daily prayer and their job assignments, before Henry VIII's suppression of the monasteries some three centuries later. To the right of the entrance to Chapter House is what's claimed to be the oldest door in Britain – it’s been there since the 1050s. Used as a treasury, the crypt-like Pyx Chamber dates from about 1070 and takes its name from boxes that held gold and silver to be tested for purity to make coins. History Much of the Abbey's architecture is from the 13th century, but it was founded much earlier, in AD 960. Henry III began work on the new Abbey building in 1245 but didn't complete it; the Gothic nave was finished under Richard II in 1388. The Lady Chapel was completed after 13 years of construction in 1516. For centuries, the country's greatest have been interred here, including 17 monarchs from King Henry III (1272) to King George II (1760). Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned here, with the exception of a couple of Eds who were either murdered (Edward V) or abdicated (Edward VIII) before the magic moment. It has also hosted 16 royal weddings, the most recent being that of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011. Tickets and other practicalities Sightseeing visitors must book their tickets in advance via the website. There is an additional charge for a multimedia guide. The Abbey is open for worship and individual prayer, and there are daily services. Check the website for the schedule. Evensong is 5pm on Tuesdays and 3pm on weekends. Photography is allowed inside the church, but beware that there are restrictions on what you can photograph and when.
Edinburgh Castle has played a pivotal role in Scottish history, both as a royal residence – King Malcolm Canmore (r 1058–93) and Queen Margaret first made their home here in the 11th century – and as a military stronghold. The castle last saw military action in 1745; from then until the 1920s it served as the British army's main base in Scotland. Today it is one of Scotland's most atmospheric and popular tourist attractions. The brooding, black crags of Castle Rock, rising above the western end of Princes St, are the very reason for Edinburgh's existence. This rocky hill was the most easily defended hilltop on the invasion route between England and central Scotland, a route followed by countless armies from the Roman legions of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD to the Jacobite troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. The Esplanade The castle's Esplanade is a parade ground dating from 1820, with superb views south over the city towards the Pentland Hills. At its western end is the Entrance Gateway, dating from 1888 and flanked by statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. Above the gate is the Royal Standard of Scotland – a red lion rampant on a gold field – and the Scottish royal motto in Latin, " Nemo me impune lacessit" ("no one provokes me with impunity"). The One O'Clock Gun Inside the entrance a cobbled lane leads up beneath the 16th-century Portcullis Gate, topped by the 19th-century Argyle Tower, and past the cannon of the Argyle and Mills Mount Batteries. The battlements here have great views over the New Town to the Firth of Forth. At the far end of Mills Mount Battery is the One O'Clock Gun, a gleaming WWII 25-pounder that fires an ear-splitting time signal at 1pm every day (except Sunday, Christmas Day and Good Friday). St Margaret's Chapel South of Mills Mount the road curls up leftward through Foog's Gate to the highest part of Castle Rock, crowned by the tiny St Margaret's Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. It's a simple Romanesque structure that was probably built by David I or Alexander I in memory of their mother, Queen Margaret, sometime around 1130 (she was canonized in 1250). Following Cromwell's capture of the castle in 1650 it was used to store ammunition until it was restored at the order of Queen Victoria; it was rededicated in 1934. The tiny stained-glass windows – depicting Margaret, St Andrew, St Columba, St Ninian and William Wallace – date from the 1920s. Mons Meg Immediately north of St Margaret's Chapel is Mons Meg, a giant 15th-century siege gun built at Mons in Belgium in 1449. The gun was last fired in 1681, as a birthday salute for the future James VII/II, when its barrel burst. Take a peek over the wall to the north of the chapel and you'll see a charming little garden that was used as a pet cemetery for officers' dogs. Great Hall The main group of buildings on the summit of Castle Rock are ranged around Crown Sq, dominated by the shrine of the Scottish National War Memorial. Opposite is the Great Hall, built for James IV (r 1488–1513) as a ceremonial hall and used as a meeting place for the Scottish Parliament until 1639. Its most remarkable feature is the original 16th-century hammer-beam roof. Prisons of War vaults The Castle Vaults beneath the Great Hall (entered on the west side of Crown Square) were used variously as storerooms, bakeries and prisons. The vaults have been restored to how they were in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when they were used as a prison for soldiers captured during the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars. Original graffiti carved by French and American prisoners can be seen on the ancient wooden doors. Honours of Scotland The Royal Palace, built during the 15th and 16th centuries, houses a series of historical tableaux leading to the highlight of the castle: a strongroom housing the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels), among the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe. Locked away in a chest following the Act of Union in 1707, the crown (made in 1540 from the gold of Robert the Bruce's 14th-century coronet), sword and sceptre lay forgotten until they were unearthed at the instigation of novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1818. Also on display here is the Stone of Destiny. Among the neighboring Royal Apartments is the bedchamber where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to her son James VI, who was to unite the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603. Tickets to Edinburgh Castle The castle operates a timed ticket system, and all visits must be booked online in advance. You can only enter the site within the timeframe outlined on your ticket, but you may stay as long as you like up to closing time. Children under 5 can visit for free.
One of London's most amazing attractions, Tate Modern is an outstanding modern- and contemporary-art gallery housed in the creatively revamped Bankside Power Station. A spellbinding synthesis of modern art and capacious industrial brick design, this gallery has been extraordinarily successful in bringing challenging work to the masses, both through its free permanent collection and fee-charged big-name temporary exhibitions. The original gallery lies inside what was once the boiler house for the power station, now called the Natalie Bell Building in recognition of a local community activist. The stunning Blavatnik Building, with a panoramic 10th-floor viewing terrace, opened in 2016, increasing the available exhibition space by 60%. The Turbine Hall The first space to greet you as you pour down from the side entrance at Holland Street into the Natalie Bell Building is the astounding 3300-sq-meter Turbine Hall. Originally housing the power station’s huge electricity generators, this vast area has become the commanding venue for large-scale installations and temporary exhibitions. The annual commission aims to make art more accessible and has led to popular and often interactive pieces, such as Kara Walker's Fons Americanus, a 13m-tall working fountain that highlights the history of the slave trade; a full-on playground of three-person swings installed by Danish art collective Superflex; and a maze of geometric gardens called Empty Lot by Abraham Cruzvillegas, which took soil from parks around London and watered it for six months to see if anything grew. Note that if you enter from the riverside doors, you’ll end up on the more muted level 1, but stairs lead down to the main floor of the Turbine Hall. Permanent collection More than 60,000 works of the permanent collection are on constant rotation, and the curators have at their disposal paintings by Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Installations have included works by Joseph Beuys, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Ai Weiwei, along with films by Rebecca Horn and photography by Zanele Muholi. The collection is arranged by both theme and chronology on levels 2 and 4 of the riverside Natalie Bell Building and on levels 0, 3 and 4 of the Blavatnik Building. A great place to begin is the Start Display on level 2 of the Natalie Bell Building: this small, specially curated taster features some of the best-loved works in the collection and gives visitors useful pointers for understanding modern art. Architecture The 200m-long Natalie Bell Building, made of 4.2 million bricks, is an imposing sight, and was designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, who scooped the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2001 for their transformation of the former power station. Significant achievements include leaving the building's central 99m-high chimney, adding a two-storey glass box onto the roof and turning the cavernous Turbine Hall into a dramatic exhibition space. Herzog and de Meuron also designed the new 10-story Blavatnik Building extension. Viewpoints Don't miss sublime city views from the 10th-floor Viewing Level of the Blavatnik Building and the view of the River Thames and St Paul's Cathedral from the 6th-floor cafe in the Natalie Bell Building. Head to the level 4 bridge connecting the two buildings to get a lofty view of Turbine Hall. Tickets and information Tate Modern’s permanent collection is free to visit, but timed tickets are required for all visitors, including Members. Tickets for special exhibitions start from £15. Book online in advance. Free guided tours of the permanent collection may be available – check at the information desk when you arrive. There are three stations located within five to 10 minutes' walk of the gallery: Blackfriars (rail, District and Circle Lines), Southwark (Jubilee Line) and London Bridge (rail, Jubilee and Northern Lines). To visit the sister museum Tate Britain, hop on the RB2 riverboat service from Bankside Pier.
Welcome to one of Northern Europe's most significant Roman sites. Today more than a million visitors a year come to see its historic finds, atmospheric pools and imaginative displays, making this one of Bath's top things to do. Best of all you can still sample the waters that drew the Romans here almost 2000 years ago. History The elaborate spa complex dates from around 70AD and was known then as Aquae Sulis. In typically ostentatious style, the Romans built a bathhouse complex above Bath's 115°F (46°C) hot springs. Set alongside a temple dedicated to the healing goddess Sulis-Minerva, the baths now form one of the world's best-preserved ancient Roman spas, and are encircled by 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Inside the Roman Baths The heart of the complex is the Great Bath, a lead-lined pool filled with steaming, geothermally heated water from the so-called "Sacred Spring" to a depth of 1.6m. Though now open-air, the bath would originally have been covered by a 45m-high barrel-vaulted roof. More bathing pools and changing rooms are to the east and west, with excavated sections revealing the hypocaust system that heated the bathing rooms. After luxuriating in the baths, Romans would have reinvigorated themselves with a dip in the circular cold-water pool. The King's Bath was added sometime during the 12th century around the site of the original Sacred Spring. Every day, 1.5 million liters of hot water still pour into the pool. Beneath the Pump Room are the remains of the Temple of Sulis-Minerva. Digital reconstructions pop up in some sections of the complex, especially in the Temple Courtyard, and the West and East Baths, which feature projections of bathers. There is also a fascinating museum displaying artefacts discovered on the site. Look out for the famous gilded bronze head of Minerva and a striking carved gorgon's head, as well as some of the 12,000-odd Roman coins thrown into the spring as votive offerings to the goddess. Surrounding buildings The complex of buildings around the baths was built in stages during the 18th and 19th centuries. John Wood the Elder and the Younger designed the buildings around the Sacred Spring, while the famous Pump Room was built by their contemporaries, Thomas Baldwin and John Palmer, in neoclassical style, complete with soaring Ionic and Corinthian columns. The building now houses a restaurant, which serves magnificent afternoon teas. You can also taste free samples of the spring waters, which were believed in Victorian times to have curative properties. If you're lucky, you might even have music provided by the Pump Room's string trio. Tickets and other practicalities To dodge the worst of the crowds avoid weekends, and July and August. Tickets and time slots should be booked online in advance. Admission to the Roman Baths includes an audio guide, featuring commentary in 12 languages – there's also one especially for children and a guide in sign language. The majority of the site is accessible to wheelchair users, but there are some steps. The water here is completely untreated and is not safe for swimming. However, you can sample the city's curative waters at the fantastic modern Thermae Spa complex, housed nearby in a shell of local stone and plate glass. The showpiece is the open-air rooftop pool, where you can bathe in naturally heated, mineral-rich waters with a backdrop of Bath's cityscape – a don't-miss experience, best enjoyed at dusk.
A rich repository of more than 1400 years of Christian history, Canterbury Cathedral is the Church of England’s mother ship, and a truly extraordinary place with an absorbing history. This Gothic cathedral, the highlight of the city’s World Heritage Sites, is southeast England’s top tourist attraction as well as a place of worship. It is also the site of English history’s most famous murder: Archbishop Thomas Becket was killed here in 1170. The cathedral is an overwhelming edifice crammed with enthralling stories, arresting architecture and a very real and enduring sense of spirituality – although visitors can’t help but pick up on the ominous undertones of violence and bloodshed that whisper from its walls. History St Augustine, a missionary sent from Rome, built the first cathedral here sometime after his arrival in England in 597CE. He became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and formed a household here. A major fire damaged the building around 1070, leading to the cathedral being completely rebuilt by the Normans. Later, a community of Benedictine monks lived at the cathedral until Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. Even after 800 years, it's the story of Archbishop Thomas Becket that continues to draw many pilgrims to Canterbury Cathedral. The martyrdom of Thomas Becket Not one to shy away from cronyism, in 1162 King Henry II appointed his good friend Thomas Becket to the highest clerical office in the land, figuring it would be easier to force the increasingly vocal religious lobby to fall into line if he was pals with the archbishop. Unfortunately for Henry, he underestimated how seriously Thomas would take the job, and the archbishop soon began to disagree with almost everything the king said or did. By 1170, Henry had become exasperated with his former favorite and suggested to four of his knights that Thomas was too much to bear. Becket was murdered on December 29. Becket’s martyrdom – and canonization in double-quick time (1173) – catapulted Canterbury Cathedral to the top of the league of northern European pilgrimage sites. Mindful of the growing criticism of his role in Becket’s murder, Henry arrived in Canterbury in 1174 for a dramatic mea culpa and, after allowing himself to be whipped and scolded, was granted absolution. Canterbury Cathedral today This ancient structure is packed with monuments commemorating the nation’s battles. Also here are the grave and heraldic tunic of one of the nation’s most famous warmongers, Edward the Black Prince (1330–76). The spot in the northwest transept where Becket met his grisly end is marked by a flickering candle and a striking modern altar. The doorway to the crypt is beside the altar. This cavernous space is the cathedral’s highlight, the only survivor from another devastating fire in 1174, which destroyed the rest of the building. Look for the amazingly well-preserved carvings among the forest of pillars. The wealth of detail in the cathedral is immense and unrelenting, so allow at least two hours to do it justice. Tickets Entry to the cathedral is timed and tickets must be pre-booked online. Guided tours run with limited availability; call on the day (01227 762862) or ask at the desk on arrival.
Why you should go With its thunderous, animatronic dinosaur, riveting displays about planet earth, outstanding Darwin Centre and architecture straight from a Gothic fairy tale, the Natural History Museum is astonishing. Kids are the target audience, but adults will be equally mesmerized. Go on a journey through the times of dinosaurs with a visit to the Dinosaurs Gallery in the Blue Zone, an absolute must for those traveling with children. It's packed with specimens from tiny fossils to a colossal triceratops skull, but it's the animatronic T-rex that steals the show. Also in the Blue Zone you can learn all about Human Biology, and stroll the Mammals gallery, which is lined with life-size creatures from hippos to horses. A model of a blue whale is suspended dramatically from the ceiling. Adults will love the intriguing Treasures exhibition in the Cadogan Gallery (Green Zone), which displays a host of unrelated objects, each telling its own unique story, from a chunk of moon rock to a dodo skeleton. Also in the Green Zone, the Mineral Gallery is a breathtaking display of architectural perspective leading to the Vault, where you'll find the Aurora Collection of almost 300 colored diamonds. In the Orange Zone, the vast Darwin Centre focuses on taxonomy, showcasing 28 million insects and six million plants in a giant cocoon; glass windows allow you to watch scientists at work. Travel through a sculpture of Earth in the Red Zone, where you'll learn all about the natural forces that have helped shape our world. At the center of the museum is Hintze Hall, a huge room resembling a cathedral nave. The blue whale skeleton you see on entering the hall was unveiled in 2017, replacing the famous cast of a diplodocus skeleton (nicknamed Dippy), who has gone on a long tour of the UK. The transfer itself was a painstaking engineering project, disassembling and preparing the whale's 4.5 tonnes of bones for reconstruction in a dramatic diving posture that greets museum visitors. Seasonal treats at the NHM include the beautiful Wildlife Garden (April to November), next to the West Lawn, which encompasses a range of British lowland habitats, including a meadow with farm gates and a bee tree where a colony of honey bees fills the air. From Halloween to January, a section of the museum by the East Lawn is transformed into a glittering and highly popular ice rink, complete with a hot-drinks stall. Tickets and other practicalities It's free to enter the museum, although donations are welcome. There is a charge for special exhibits. Book well ahead for Wildlife Photographer of the Year and ice-skating. The best time to come to the museum on weekdays is after 2pm when school groups leave; at weekends arrive as soon as it opens. More than five million visitors come each year, so lines can often get long, especially during the school holidays. If the main Cromwell Road entrance is looking congested, head to the Exhibition Road entrance round the corner. Entrances at Queen's Gate and Exhibition Road are wheelchair-accessible.
Why you should go Sir Christopher Wren’s 300-year-old architectural masterpiece is a London icon. Towering over diminutive Ludgate Hill in a superb position that's been a place of Christian worship for more than 1400 years (and pagan before that), St Paul’s Cathedral is one of London’s most magnificent buildings. For Londoners, the vast dome is a symbol of resilience and pride. Seeing this stunning structure from the inside and climbing to the top for sweeping views of the capital is a celestial experience. The dome Inside, rising more than 85m above the floor, is the dome, supported by eight huge columns. It actually consists of three parts: a plastered brick inner dome, a nonstructural lead outer dome visible on the skyline and a brick cone between them holding it all together. The walkway around its base, accessed via 257 steps from a staircase on the western side of the southern transept, is called the Whispering Gallery. A further 119 steps brings you to the exterior Stone Gallery, your first taste of the city vistas, and 152 iron steps more bring you to the Golden Gallery at the very top, with unforgettable views of London. The crypt The crypt has memorials to around 300 of Britain's great and the good, including the Duke of Wellington and Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose body lies directly below the dome. But the most poignant is to Wren himself. On a simple tomb slab bearing his name, part of a Latin inscription translates as: "If you seek his monument, look around you". History Following the destructive Great Fire of London in 1666, which burned 80% of the city, Wren designed St Paul's to replace the old church, and it was built between 1675 and 1710. The site is ancient hallowed ground, with four other cathedrals preceding Wren's English baroque masterpiece, the first dating from 604 BCE. The cathedral dome, inspired by St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, is famed for surviving Luftwaffe incendiary bombs in the "Second Great Fire of London" of December 1940, becoming an icon of London resilience during the Blitz. North of the church is the simple People of London Memorial, honouring the 32,000 civilians killed. Tickets and other practicalities Book tickets online in advance for a slight discount and faster entry. Admission includes access to the cathedral floor, the crypt and the dome galleries, as well as multimedia guides. Free 1½-hour guided tours run daily; reserve a place at the tour desk, just past the entrance. For an additional charge, there are also tours to the geometric staircase, Great Model and library, offering impressive views down the nave from above the Great West Doors. Check at the tour desk for details. There's no charge to attend a service, but not all areas of the cathedral are accessible. To hear the cathedral choir, attend Sunday Eucharist or Evensong. Check the website in advance for timings and information on visiting choirs.
Why you should go Few parts of the UK are as steeped in history or as impregnated with legend and superstition as the titanic stonework of the Tower of London. Not only is this fabulous fortress an architectural odyssey, but also there are the world's largest diamond, free tours from magnificently attired Yeoman Warders (better known as "Beefeaters"), a dazzling array of armor and weaponry, and a palpable sense of ancient history at every turn. It has been a royal residence, a treasury, a mint, an armory and a zoo, but it's perhaps most remembered as the prison where a king, three queens and many nobles met their deaths. Most visitors head straight to the Waterloo Barracks, which contains the spectacular Crown Jewels, including the platinum crown of the late Queen Mother, set with the 106-carat Koh-i-Nûr (Persian for "Mountain of Light") diamond, and the Imperial State Crown, worn by the monarch at the State Opening of Parliament. Slow-moving walkways slide wide-eyed visitors past the collection. Look out for the Tower's famous ravens, which legend says could cause the Tower, and therefore the kingdom, to collapse should they leave (a spare bird is kept in the aviary, and their wing feathers are clipped in case they get any ideas). They are free to roam within the walls during the daytime. To fully appreciate all of the Tower's roles through its vast history – as well as gawp at the Crown Jewels and meet the famous ravens – you'll need to allow at least half a day here. History Started in the 1070s by William the Conquerer, the striking White Tower is London's oldest building, with its solid Norman architecture and four turrets. On the entrance floor is a collection from the Royal Armouries, including Henry VIII's commodious suit of armor. One floor up is the impressive but unadorned 11th-century Chapel of St John the Evangelist, which was once used as the national record office. Southwest of the White Tower is the Bloody Tower, where 12-year-old Edward V and his little brother Richard were held by their uncle, the future Richard III, and later thought to have been murdered to annul their claims to the throne. Sir Walter Raleigh did a 13-year stretch here too under James I, and wrote his Historie of the World. Near the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula stood the Tower Green scaffold, where nobles such as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (Henry's second and fifth wives) were beheaded. Tickets and other practicalities Book online in advance for cheaper rates, and start your day early to make the most of your visit ahead of the crowds. Allow at least half a day for your visit. There are stairs and cobbled paths throughout the site, and wheelchair access is limited.
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