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A hundred movies and Masterpiece Theater productions have prepared you for London's quintessentially British brew of history, royalty, dignity, and civility. Even before you arrive, its images are imprinted on your consciousness. The dome of St. Paul's is iconically familiar. So are the Tower Guards, Big Ben, and the Thames. Walk along its light-strung promenade at dusk before an evening of theater, after a day of shopping or palace-hopping, and you'll understand why so many visitors have so loved the city for so long, since before the Nursery-rhyme bridge fell down -- and why, of all the world's travel destinations, London may be the most revisited.
Trappings of royalty set London apart not only from the rest of Britain but from all the cities of the world. Even in places such as Stockholm and Madrid, where kings and queens still make a living embodying their nation's heritage, royals are simply not such a big deal. Almost more than any other people, the English nurture an emotional investment in their sovereigns and the proud legacy they represent -- despite the controversy that rages over the viability of the monarchy.
Britons still snap up tabloids when royals are in the headlines, congregate for processions of the Royal Livery from the Royal Mews, and throng the streets on the Queen's birthday for the parade known as Trooping the Colour. Pilgrimlike, they visit Kensington Palace, former home of Diana, Princess of Wales. The royal warrant in the windows of fine shops signals wares of the highest quality. The royalty connection and the castles, palaces, and collections of paintings left by royals through thecenturies fill the imagination of travelers, as well. Who could fail to gawk at the incomparably regal State Dining Room in Buckingham Palace or to marvel at the Changing of the Guard outside?
Everyone wants to inspect the splendid Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, once the final stop for unlucky royals, children included, on the outs with their kinsmen on the throne. A chat with one of its Yeoman Warders, who have guarded the Tower for 500 years, yields a fascinating look at British history -- and gives you a sense of just how much the Crown has meant through the centuries to the people of Shakespeare's "sceptered isle."
Museums and Marvels
A blizzard of blue plaques all over town proclaims the historic importance of structures as wide-ranging as Dennis Sever's House, the Geffrye Museum, and the Dickens House Museum and turn London itself into something of a museum. High culture and low, it's here.
The National Gallery holds Bronzino's An Allegory with Venus and Cupid and a flurry of masterworks that are instantly familiar. Hertford House showcases the splendid Wallace Collection, stuffed with old masters and fine French furniture. Gracious England lives on here and in wonderful stately homes such as Spencer House and Leighton House.
If you had defeated Napoleon, saving Europe in the process, you might have hung your medals in an imposing structure like gilded Apsley House (where the Duke of Wellington's trophies remain). Farther afield are Chiswick House and Ham House, and Hampton Court Palace, where Henry VIII gamely battled gout and a rotation of subsequent monarchs took up residence, having fallen in love with the place. Visit and you will instantly see why: the grounds are beautiful beyond description, the palace is extraordinary, and, in the best English tradition, it is reputedly frequented by a royal ghost. Sightings are free. Then there's the Natural History Museum, very much of the 19th century outside but totally 21st within. Many of its ingenious displays are animated and as delightful to grown-ups as to kids.
Of all of London's great museums, the British Museum is preeminent. Think of it as a jumbo time capsule. The full scope of human endeavor is represented here, including the Rosetta Stone and the Magna Carta, as well as such exquisite, if controversial, treasures of antiquity as the Elgin Marbles of ancient Greece. Impressive in its own right is the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose whimsically eclectic collections might someday, conceivably, include a hat from one of the schoolchildren who tour it regularly. The Tate Gallery possesses one of the world's finest collections of modern art but also reaches back to Gainsborough, Turner, and Blake.
As a break from sheer beauty or just to see what attracts millions every year, make a beeline for Madame Tussaud's and commune with a forever-young and toothy Dudley Moore and dozens of other celebrities both dead and alive.
Arts and Nightlife
If London dazzles you by day, wait till the sun goes down. Many travelers come specifically for theater vacations, cramming into a few days as many shows as they might see in a few years back home. The sheer number of productions in the district known as the West End makes this possible. Reasonable ticket prices help, too. And Shakespeare lives: In summer, productions of his plays are a cherished tradition at Regent's Park Open-Air Theatre and are becoming so at the reconstructed Globe on the South Bank.
Audiences at the Globe experience living history as well as great drama. The theater clones the Elizabethan original, right down to the standing-room pit, and the Bard's work (and his humor) seem all the more topical. Also in summer, between July and September, ticket prices are slashed at Royal Albert Hall for its "proms" series. Then and during the rest of the year, performances by local and international musicians fill the concert calendar, divas draw sellout crowds, and dancers of the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, and other stellar companies jete across a handful of stages.
As for nightlife, the scene ranges from casinos to karaoke, comedy to drag cabarets, heavy metal to world-beat clubs, and there's plenty of good jazz. Think of it like this: When you dance all night at clubs like the Sound Republic, you get an early start on your next London day.