Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re in London again — this city just keeps on getting better. Thanks for joining us!
London is quintessentially English…yet cosmopolitan. It’s a city where the new and modern seems to mingle enthusiastically with the old and traditional. I keep coming back and always find a fresh travel experience.
We’ll check out the new — like the Millennium Bridge and the British Museum’s Great Court — and admire the old — like a Leonardo and fragments of the Parthenon. We’ll respect tradition…and do some shopping. And after a bite of tasty English cheese, we’ll hike the newly revived South Bank of the Thames.
London — straddling the River Thames — is vast, but everything we’ll see is within a few minutes by taxi, bus, or Tube. We’ll check out Hyde Park, the British Museum, the National Gallery, and, of course, the Tower of London. We’ll walk from St. Paul’s across the Millennium Bridge to visit the Tate Modern Gallery and the attractions of London’s South Bank.
London was cutting edge in the ’60s…and it’s back — in vogue again for fashion, architecture, the arts, and food.
Smokey pubs are giving way to trendy outdoor cafés. London’s City Hall seems to endorse the wave of contemporary architecture which studs the busy skyline and seems to clamor for attention.
Strolling through London’s parks is a reminder that so many people call London not a world-class sightseeing destination, but simply home. The parks — like just about everything in the city — sit on a foundation of history. These inviting green spaces, once the hunting grounds of kings, are now the sunbathing grounds of commoners. And these Londoners may not realize that they very well could be speaking French if it wasn’t for the heroics of the man who lived right here.
Apsley House was the mansion of the Duke of Wellington, who beat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.
The duke’s guests were greeted by the man he defeated: a larger than life, nearly naked Napoleon. The Duke of Wellington was once the most famous man in Europe. His lavish living quarters are embellished by gifts showered on him by a grateful Europe — including 200 paintings still displayed much as the art-loving duke hung them.
Wellington’s victory over Napoleon and the French set the stage for Britain’s glorious Victorian age, when it was the world’s only superpower and the sun never set upon its empire. This was the reign of Queen Victoria, who ruled from 1837 to 1901.
The Victorian Age was an exuberant time. The Neo-Gothic Albert Memorial reminds London how Victoria’s beloved husband Albert (the only one who called her “Vickie”) did so much to promote technology and culture during that industrial boom time. The statues at the base herald the great accomplishments of Britain’s 19th-century glory days.
Albert died in 1861. His wife, Queen Victoria, was possibly the world’s most determined mourner. She wore black for the standard two years — and then tacked on 38 more…for good measure.
Taking mourning to new heights, she required that the city’s once colorful finials be painted black — as they remain today. The queen built grand monuments to her Albert, like the Royal Albert Hall.
The immense Victoria and Albert Museum is named for the royal couple who did so much to support the many triumphs of their day. Like lots of London’s top attractions, it’s free.
The V&A grew out of the Great Exhibition of 1851. This first “world’s fair,” housed in a temporary glass and steel people’s palace, celebrated the Industrial Revolution and the greatness of Britain.
The theme of the Britain Galleries is “style, taste, and design from 1500 through 1900.”
Four hundred years of English fashion history are corseted into a series of exquisite display cases.
This painting, from around 1600, is of a woman wearing this actual garment. It was typical formal daywear: linen and silk embroidered with silver thread. Nightcaps were fashionable among aristocratic men. This tortoise-shell and silver toiletries kit shows that in 1640, careful grooming was as important as dressing magnificently
In the 1670s shoes were called “straights,” and there was no difference between right and left. Whalebone and lacing kept torsos flat and long. Fans were tools for flirting. It was said, while a man’s weapon was a sword, “a woman’s weapon [was] a fan…and the fan [did] more damage.”
In the 1740s a rich woman’s court dress was an extravagant display of wealth — even if it meant she entered rooms sideways.
The huge collection illustrates the far reach of the British Empire. From its exquisite Indian art to its sumptuous hall of Chinese artifacts.
The hall of casts is filled with plaster copies of Europe’s greatest statuary, made for the benefit of London’s 19th-century art students who couldn’t afford a rail pass. Students could compare the Renaissance genius of Donatello, whose David was Europe’s first male nude since Roman times, and that of Michelangelo a century later, with his more heroic David.
Around the back you’ll find that this David came with an accessory…a clip-on fig leaf. As this was the Victorian Age, when royal ladies came to visit they’d hang it on the statue for modesty.
If the delights of the V&A whet your shopping appetite, London’s Victorian galleries evoke shopping in the 19th century. And all over London you’ll find inviting little shops for whatever treasure you fancy.
Harrods is London’s vast and venerable department store. It’s huge — 300 departments, a million square feet on seven floors — yet classy.
The food halls with their Edwardian tiled walls, delicious displays, tempting eateries, and staff in period costumes are lots of fun.
A small shrine invites visitors to pay their respects to Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed — whose father owns Harrods.
The Egyptian Escalator is a reminder that Mr. Al Fayed is from Egypt, and he spent a fortune revitalizing this historic department store. Riding it, you ascend into Harrods shopping wonderland. You’ll find everything from sprawling halls of designer women’s wear to traditional men’s wear, to a $12,000 mini Jaguar — for the kid who has everything.
Huge European cities like London are made manageable by excellent subway systems. London’s mighty “Tube” takes us anywhere in the center for less than the cost of a cucumber sandwich at Harrods. We’re on our way to the British Museum.
At the peak of its empire, when the Union Jack flew over a quarter of the planet, England collected art and artifacts as fast as it collected colonies. This place, the British Museum, is the showcase for those extraordinary treasures.
Its centerpiece is the Great Court — an impressive example of Europe’s knack for preserving old architectural spaces by making them fresh, functional, and inviting. The stately Reading Room — a temple of knowledge and high thinking — was the study hall for Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and T.S. Eliot. Karl Marx researched right here while writing Das Kapital.
The British Museum is the chronicle of Western civilization. You can study three great civilizations — Egypt, Assyria, and Greece — in one fascinating morning.
The Egyptian collection is the greatest outside of Egypt. It’s kicked off with the Rosetta Stone, which provided the breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Discovered in 1799, it told the same story in three languages: Greek, a modern form of Egyptian, and ancient Egyptian.
This enabled archaeologists to compare the two languages they understood, with the ancient Egyptian, which was yet to be deciphered. Thanks to this stone, they broke the code, opening the door to understanding a great civilization.
The Egypt we think of — you know, pyramids, mummies, pharaohs, and guys who walk funny — lasted from about 3,000 to 1,000 B.C. It was a time of unprecedented stability — very little change in government, religion, or arts. Imagine 2,000 years of Eisenhower.
Egyptian art was art with a purpose. It placated the gods — the entire pantheon, a cosmic zoo of deities,was sculpted and worshipped — and it served as propaganda for the pharaohs. They ruled with unquestioned authority and were considered gods on earth.
And much of the art was for dead people — for a smoother departure and a happier afterlife. In ancient Egypt, you could take it with you.
Corpses were painstakingly mummified: the internal organs were removed and put in jars, then the body was preserved with pitch, dried, and wrapped from head to toe.
The wooden coffin was painted with magic spells and images thought to be useful in the next life.
The finely decorated coffins were put into a stone sarcophagus, like this. These were then placed in a tomb, along with the allotted baggage for that ultimate trip. The great pyramids were just giant tombs for Egypt’s most powerful — carefully designed to protect their precious valuables for that voyage into the next life.
In its waning years, Egypt was conquered by Assyria — present-day Iraq. These winged lions guarded an Assyrian palace nearly 900 years before Christ. Assyria considered itself the lion of early Middle Eastern civilizations. It was a nation of hardy and disciplined warriors.
Assyrian kings showed off their power in battle, and by hunting lions.
This dying lioness, roaring in pain, was carved as Assyria was falling to the next mighty power: Babylon. History is a succession of seemingly invincible superpowers, which all eventually fall.
Greece, during its Golden Age — roughly 400 B.C. — set the tone of so much of Western civilization to follow. The city of Athens was the site of a cultural explosion, which, within a couple of generations, essentially invented our notion of democracy, theater, literature, mathematics, science, philosophy, and so much more.
An evocative remnant of Greece’s glory days is the sculpture, which once decorated the Parthenon — a temple on the Acropolis Hill in Athens. Here a long procession of citizens honors the goddess Athena. The carvings of the temple’s pediment — even in their ruined state — are a masterpiece, showing gods and goddesses celebrating the birthday of Athena.
The Greeks prided themselves on creating order out of chaos, here symbolized by the struggle between half-animal centaurs and civilized humans. First, the centaurs get the upper hand. Then, the humans rally and drive them off. In Golden Age Greece, civilization finally triumphed over barbarism.
And where did this heroic triumph eventually lead? Covent Garden. This boutiquish shopping district is a never-ending carnival of people enjoying life.
Nearby, Trafalgar Square is another vibrant people zone.
And, overlooking it, is the National Gallery, with London’s greatest collection of European paintings. The National Gallery lets you tour the sweeping story of European art without ever crossing the Channel.
From medieval altarpieces — which told Bible stories in rich, yet two-dimensional detail — art enters the Renaissance.
Here the Italian master Crivelli pulls out all the stops to show realistic detail while portraying the annunciation. Notice the playfulness he employs to show off his mastery of 3-D. From the foreground you go back, back, back, and then…bam! you’ve got a pickle in your face.
And Renaissance painters revel in pre-Christian classical scenes. Here, another Italian master, Sandro Botticelli, paints Mars taking a break from war…succumbing to Venus and the delights of love, while impish satyrs play innocently with the discarded tools of death. It was the dawn of the Renaissance, and there was an air of playful optimism.
Leonardo da Vinci takes Mary and Jesus out of the gold leaf never-never land of medieval altarpieces, and brings them right down to a real world we can relate to. Leonardo’s subtle play of light on the faces is masterful.
And the National Gallery’s delightful sweep through art history continues: From Baroque with dramatic fantasies (this one thanks to Rubens) — to frilly Rococo decadence. Impressionists like Renoir capture the breezy ambience of a boat ride, and Cézanne takes us to the brink of the modern world.
Many of London’s top sights front the River Thames, which has become a transportation thoroughfare for tourists. We’re sailing from Westminster, under Big Ben, to the Tower of London…enjoying an informative narration with the views.
Narrator: Somerset House, built over 200 years ago, was a private residence for the earls and dukes of Somerset.
Tower Bridge looks medieval, but it was actually built with a steel skeleton in 1894 in faux-medieval style to match its famous neighbor just a few steps away.
The Tower of London goes back to the Norman Conquest.
William, Duke of Normandy, became William the Conqueror when he crossed the English Channel in 1066 and took the throne of England. To help establish his rule, he had this awesome — and reallyawesome-in-its-day — fortress built.
Its purpose: put 15 feet of stone between him and his new subjects. This original tower — the White Tower — gave the castle complex its name. The style of the age was Romanesque, which the English call “Norman” for the invaders who imported it.
This charming chapel of St. John — dating to 1080 and one of the oldest in England — provides a rare look at pure Norman architecture: round Roman-style arches and thick walls.
You’ll see an intimidating collection of medieval weaponry and armor. Your entry includes a peek at the most dazzling crown jewels in Europe — no cameras allowed — and an entertaining tour with one of the Yeoman Warders — or “Beefeaters.”
Beefeater: Please to note this is still a royal palace. Although no longer a royal residence, we should not lose sight of the fact that all of our kings and queens, they lived here for more than 500 years.
The tower marks the oldest part of London — a district called “The City.” Today this is the financial center of Britain. But these days bank headquarters fill shiny skyscrapers and many of the elegant original bank buildings survive as fancy pubs — their vaults now filled with kegs of real English ale.
In pubs you order at the bar. Lager is the cold carbonated American-style beer. Ales and bitters are the more traditional English choice. Only confused tourists leave a tip.
While the Tube takes me on long jaunts underground, buses are great for quick hops. And, when armed with my cheap all-day transit pass, buses work perfectly for hopping on and off between sights. Take advantage of public transit, and London gets much easier.
In a move to alleviate its notorious traffic problems, London levies a “congestion charge” on private cars entering the city center. This leaves the streets mostly to taxis and buses. Things move along a little quicker, and money raised helps subsidize public transit: more departures and cheaper fares.
Somerset House, a grand 18th-century civic palace, now houses several fine galleries and museums.
The Gilbert Collection displays some of the best in European decorative arts.
Snuffboxes are a highlight. These contained powdered and scented snuff tobacco — a craze among the aristocracy in 18th-century Europe. These fancy little boxes were popular as gifts. Diplomats and royalty gave them away like jewelry. A fashionable man would have a different snuffbox for every occasion.
Frederick the Great owned over 300 boxes. His best — while considered part of the Prussian crown jewels — are here in London. This one, from 1765, is mother of pearl, studded with precious stones and a profusion of diamonds.
Micro-mosaics are another exquisite art form from the 1700s. These were souvenirs for aristocrats making the Grand Tour. Scenes featured their favorite sights — like postcards tourists pick up today. Rome was the most popular destination featured. Made from thousands of tiny fragments, the pieces are so intricate that the museum provides magnifying glasses. To adorn their jewelry, wealthy women brought mosaics home, where their favorite jeweler fashioned them into delights such as these.
The Millennium Bridge connects the City of London with the South Bank of the Thames. It’s a suspension bridge, but its pylons veer out in order not to obliterate the fine views. Nicknamed the “blade of light” for its sleek design, it connects old and new, trad and mod: St. Paul’s Cathedral with the great Tate Modern art gallery.
The Tate Modern, opened to celebrate the millennium, fills an old power station. It kicked off the 21st century with a high-voltage collection of art from the 20th.
Visitors enjoy an entertaining cocktail of Dalí, Picasso, Stella, Pop Art, and dada. While you can simply wander, enjoying the refreshing juxtaposition of bizarre images and surreal fantasies, you can also rent an audioguide that lets you stroll through the collection accompanied by the voice of the artists describing their work.
The South Bank of the Thames — once a depressed industrial zone — now thrives with restaurants, condos, and cultural centers, all tied together by the Jubilee Promenade. This riverside lane — popular with strollers, joggers and bikers — stretches from the Tower Bridge to Big Ben, with plenty of curiosities and trendy pubs along the way. And, at low tide, you can actually do some beachcombing.
These are my favorite treasures — these are broken little bits of pipe stem, dating back a couple hundred years. Back when Londoners bought and sold their tobacco in little disposable one-use pipes. They’d smoke their tobacco, and toss it into the Thames River. History is everywhere. Here’s a piece of red tile. This dates back from before they had slate roofs, when the entire city was covered with red tile roofs.
And just a block inland, at the Borough Market, you can still feel a little of the grit of the South Bank before its revitalization. A thousand years ago, this marked the edge of town and farmers brought fresh goods here to the city gates. Today the descendent of London’s oldest vegetable market fills this Victorian arcade.
This gourmet cheese shop keeps its devoted following happy, and introduces visitors to fine English cheeses with a passion.
Merchant: There’s a lot more British cheese than people think. Even British people coming in here are surprised by the variety. I mean, you can see it comes in all different shapes and sizes. You’ve got cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, goat’s milk…such a wide variety of styles. These are all artisans, very small cheese makers. Basically hand-made cheese. Everything we sell is handmade. Well, here we’ve got basically a cheddar, and a Stilton. A Stilton is unusual, unlike the cheddar, because it has to be made in a specific area — Nottingham, Derbyshire, or Leicester. It’s the only British cheese which has that sort of control on it. There’s only six makers of Stilton in the world. And of the six, these are probably the smallest, and do it most by hand. And what you get is a creamier Stilton. Try this, this is what we call — this is what we call — a proper cheddar. It’s made in the Cheddar region, about two hours west of London: Somerset. It’s cloth-bound, 50-pound wheels, unpasteurized milk, and it’s their own herd of cows as well that it comes from, the milk.
Our riverside walk finishes with a classic view of Big Ben and the Halls of Parliament. And, for a cheap and easy flight over London, we’re riding the London Eye.
The world’s largest observation wheel is designed like a giant bicycle wheel. A pan-European undertaking, it’s made with British steel, Dutch engineering, and German, French, and Italian parts. It runs efficiently, and almost silently, as visitors enjoy a 30-minute once-around rotation. From the top of the 450-foot high wheel — the highest public viewpoint in London — Big Ben looks small, and one of the world’s greatest cities seems to stretch on and on forever.
London. It’s a city you can enjoy coming back to…for the rest of your life. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’.
Enthusiastically with the old and traditional! I keep coming back and back and dig it, I dig it. I really dig it.
Could I just stand here and talk to the camera for a moment? You’ll pull off? That’s what we want. Hey I’m Rick Steves. Back with more of the Best of Europe!