London will soon be reveling in the global hoopla that comes along with hosting the Summer Olympic Games. Many people will use the opportunity to add London to their travel list and explore what is truly one of the great cities of the world. While the Olympics are fine, there’s obviously a lot more to do in the city, including my five favorite non-Olympic London activities.
1. Churchill War Rooms – I only just discovered this popular tourist spot on my last trip to London, but it immediately became my favorite thing to do in the city. Part of the Imperial War Museum system, the Churchill War Rooms were the original rooms that sheltered the people at the heart of Britain’s wartime government during the Blitz. It was at this location, near Westminster, where the Prime Minister and his Cabinet directed the war efforts and quite literally changed the course of world history. I was most amazed at the Map Room, where everything was left in situ following the bunker’s abandonment in 1945. If you look closely at the wall maps, you can still see pin marks used by the war planners. The war rooms are well presented, interesting and appropriate for all ages and interest levels. It really is a must-stop for any traveler to London.
2. Retracing Footsteps of the Bloomsbury Group – I’m a literature buff and British literature in particular has always appealed to me. In college I took a special class on the Bloomsbury Group that analyzed their writing, their biographies and their influence on English writing. From that moment on I was a fan of the writers but especially their own fascinating personal histories. The Bloomsbury Group was a group of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists, including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, who believed in the power of the arts and whose lifestyles put them on the intellectual fringes of Edwardian British society. Most of the group lived and worked near the Bloomsbury area of London, giving the associated personalities their name. These intellectuals led the great revolt against long held Victorian thought, morality and ideals and helped to usher in modern thinking in what was a very stuffy culture. Several members were homosexual at a time when it just wasn’t accepted it was illegal. Several were ardent feminists at a time when the movement was gaining strength. Still others were influenced by the concepts linking the group together to formulate non-artistic movements, like Keynes and economics. Even if you haven’t heard of the group before there is no doubt that your life has been influenced by them and spending an afternoon learning more about these revolutionary thinkers is one of the most interesting things to do in London.
3. British Museum – If you time it right, you can combine your tour of Bloomsbury with an exploration of one of the greatest museums in the world, the British Museum. If you’re ok with the fact that a lot of the exhibits are the result of rampant, colonial looting, then you’ll be in love instantly. I’m a history buff and especially enjoy learning about ancient cultures, which is one reason why the British Museum appeals to me so much. On display is everything from the Elgin Marbles to the Rosetta Stone, with the Lindow Man thrown in for good measure. If that’s not your proverbial cup of British tea, there are collections from every corner of the planet, detailing just about every major culture that has ever existed. It truly is one stop shopping for world history and I always make sure to visit for at least a few hours when I visit London. Also be sure to check out their special exhibits; they tend to be extraordinary.
4. Leaving London: Great Day Trips – If you’re actually in London during the Olympics, you will now doubt be driven insane by the crowds after only a few days. Luckily there are plenty of great places to explore close to the capital city. Some of the perennial favorites are Oxford, the Cotswolds, Stratford-on-Avon, Cambridge and Bath, but my favorite is Stonehenge and Avebury. Everyone knows Stonehenge, the grouping of standing stones is one of the most famous Neolithic sites in the world, and with good reason. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s also an amazing experience to see these ancient monuments in person. Don’t miss the nearby site Avebury though, which is larger than its more famous cousin. The henge monument contains three stone circles, including what is the largest stone circle in Europe. It is currently used as both a tourist attraction and a place of religious importance to contemporary Pagans. Many visitors to Stonehenge mistakenly just stop there and don’t continue exploring the wider prehistoric landscape of Wiltshire, but they absolutely should.
5. Exploring the Borough Market – Lately I’ve realized that touring a truly great food market is one of the best things any visitor to a new city can do. Not only do you get to sample some of the best, most fresh food in town, but it’s also a great way to get underneath the skin of a new location. In London, one of the best is the Borough Market, which is located in Southwark. I’m always humbled by the age of places in London, and the Borough Market is no different since it has probably been operating for a thousand years. Today it hosts a wide array of vendors and caters to both restaurants and retailers as well as to private individuals and curious tourists. It’s such an iconic London spot that you’ve probably seen it in movies without realizing it. Films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban all had scenes shot at the Market.
These are some of my favorite non-Oympic London activities, what are some of yours?