With the world largely shut down, and most of us stuck inside for a while, how about a virtual tour of one of the world’s most amazing cities? Imagine, for a moment, you’ve got a day to spend in London, and you’ve just cleared customs…
It’s early morning as you exit Heathrow’s sprawling Terminal 5 from your flight across the Atlantic. The elevators take you to the tunnels below. There are lots of ways to get into London proper, including the Piccadilly line of the Underground, and since money isn’t currently a concern for us (in person, the one-way fare is a pricey £22 fare, or about $26), we’ll take the Heathrow Express. It’s a purple-liveried, direct connection to London Paddington in just 15 minutes. The Class 332 cars look quite impressive, despite their age, decked out in swoopy lighting.
Paddington would be the best-looking train station in almost any other city, with its soaring iron roof and red brick walls. But in this city of cities, it amazingly isn’t (just wait a few minutes until we get to St. Pancras). Still, Paddington is a delight on its own. Designed by the prolific and brilliant engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it’s a building from another time when trains ruled supreme.
We could walk from here to our first stop, since our virtual weather is perfect, but instead we’ll walk to the rear of the station and head for the Circle/Hammersmith & City Underground station. We’ll pick up an Oyster card, which is a reloadable card we can use to pay for all trains and buses within London. Even though you could use your phone, the card itself is a cool souvenir.
Four stops later we’re at King’s Cross station. It’s a bit touristy, but a quick photo at the luggage cart under the Platform 9¾ sign will only take a minute. From here, we’ll walk across the street and take a peek at St. Pancras station, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city and easily one of the most stunning train stations in the world. You could catch the Eurostar to Paris or Brussels here, but we’ll save that for another time.
Then we’re headed south. Watch out for traffic. It’s coming from the opposite direction. Fun fact: About 30% of the world drives on the left. Conveniently, most crosswalks have notice painted on the pavement instructing which way you should look. We’ll head past the Grade II listed ’60s masterpiece Brunswick Centre, across Russell Square, and to our first official stop.
The British Museum
One of the most impressive museums in the would, you could spend days exploring every floor of the British Museum and its many exhibits. Time slows down for us, letting us explore at our leisure. Take your time, and have a look around.
When you’re done, we’ll exit through the gift shop and head back outside. We’re in between a few Underground stations here, so picking one we’ll head southwest to Tottenham Court Road, We slap down our Oyster cards at the turnstile on our way down to the Central line, heading east to Bank.
It’s a short walk from here to our next stop.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, St Paul’s Cathedral was part of the extensive rebuilding of London after the Great Fire in 1666. It’s a stunning building, with high arching roofs that are impressive today and must have been absolutely mind-blowing in Wren’s time.
Nearly 100 feet above us, at the base of the dome, is the Whispering Gallery. We head up, unaffected by fatigue or heights, and look back down onto the elaborate tile work so far below. Then it’s up even more narrow stairs, following the inside curve of the dome, outside to the tiny Golden Gallery. The 528 steps we didn’t climb have been totally worth it, offering panoramic views of London.
It’s a little hard to see from here, thanks to centuries of construction, but looking southwest you can just about make it out…
The Tower of London
The food on your first-class flight was good, but you’re starting to get hungry. Instead of stopping somewhere for brunch, we’ll just pick up a coffee and snack to go. I’m partial to Costa, which is like Starbucks but with good tea and better food. There’s one on Canon street, right down from St. Paul’s. The buildings in this part of London are a mix of old, seemingly old, and new.
We could get there on the Underground, but instead we’ll walk, past the Monument to the Great Fire, also designed by Wren. We’ll save that claustrophobic stair climb for another visit.
The Tower’s full name is a much better description of what we’re looking at: Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London. Some parts are nearly 1,000 years old. It has, across the millennia, been used as a prison, a residence, a mint, an armory and more.
After exploring the castle and ogling the Crown Jewels, we head south, across Tower Bridge (which isn’t, as many incorrectly call it, London Bridge). We’re going to walk along the river for a bit, past the HMS Belfast, and the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.
We have time for a quick trip to the top of the Shard, the tallest building in the UK. The walls of the viewing platform are almost entirely glass, offering expansive views of the timeless city below.
The Tate Modern
We can see St. Paul’s again, but this time we’re on the far side of the river. Rising above us is the imposing brick tower of the Tate Modern, looking more like a late Victorian era power plant than a modern art museum (which, of course, it was).
Again, time slows down for us, allowing us to explore.
From here we’ve got a bit of a walk, but that’s OK. It’s late afternoon and the weather is still good. Hey, London can have beautiful weather. And when it does hit, it’s glorious. So, let’s imagine we’re in it.
Along the south bank of the river, we round the corner and see several more of London’s iconic structures. Ahead, on our side of the river, is the London Eye, a Ferris wheel that for a time was the tallest in the world. It takes about 30 minutes to go all the way around, and we’ve got a bunch more to see before the day’s over, so we’ll pass it by and cross Westminster Bridge, snapping a few pics of the Big Ben‘s extensive scaffolding. Technically it’s the bell inside the iconic Elizabeth Tower that’s called Ben, but whatever.
Around the other side we’ll take a a quick walk through Westminster Abbey.
On our way north we’ll have a look at Churchill’s War Rooms.
Across Trafalgar Square, waving at Lord Nelson high on his pillar, time slows for us again as we look around the National Gallery.
Our virtual sun is beginning to set, so we’re going to make our way from here to the lights of Piccadilly Circus, through Leicester Square, and grab a pint at a Covent Garden pub.
We’ve got one more stop, an after-hours special. Walking slightly south, we pick up one of London’s famous double-decker buses outside the Savoy. The sight of the theater has put you in a Gilbert and Sullivan mood, so you queue up some Pirates on Spotify because Linda Ronstadt is never a bad idea.
Quickly, though, she’s not the only legendary recording artist that comes to mind. Our bus drops us off next to the most famous zebra crossing in the world, minus the four boys from Liverpool that made it so famous. Our last stop of the day is a private tour of the one and only Abbey Road Studios.
After definitely not playing a few notes on the actual piano used in A Day in the Life and Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da (just kidding, we totally did), we head back outside as the sun is setting. Our virtual feet are beat. Paddington is not far away, and with it, a quick ride back to Heathrow and our flight home.
But perhaps we’ll stay a bit longer. There’s a lot more to see. After all, we’ve missed so much during our virtual day. What are some of your favorite, virtually-tourable places in London?
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.
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