The bleak of winter can be a heavy burden on the soul. The sunless skies, the freezing rain, the brutal wind, the scenery of naked trees stripped of all life until the warmer seasons. However do we make it to spring year after year without losing heart?
For me, it is taking refuge in the richness of the arts, the mystique of history and the warmth of theater in the city. It is travel to a city far more frigid and sunless than home to find the warmth of soul for these winter months. A city where even on a second visit, the abundance of history and the wealth of arts and theater is simply astounding. A city so blessed with rich museums, grand cathedrals and flabbergasting talent in the theaters that you indeed forget about the weather, the traffic, the noise and perhaps even your problems at home for just a little while. The timeless city of London, England.
With only three and a half days to take in all of London’s arts and history, not to mention everything else, you have to exercise some serious discipline in choosing what you really want to do. It is hard to go wrong but it would also be a shame to miss out on some things. In 2003, I saw London for the first time. This trip, I saw the same city with fresh perspective and a new appreciation for the city’s treasures. Since London hardly changes, I know the difference must be in my own evolution as a traveler and a person, a realization that alone makes traveling oh so worthwhile. I write this post for you to share the 8 brilliant ways we enjoyed London’s arts and history in our short visit and why you should do the same if you find yourself in the grand capital of United Kingdom.
1. Enjoy a daytime free concert at St. Martin in the Fields: Located right in Trafalgar Square, the incredibly beautiful church of St. Martin in the Fields puts on excellent free concerts during the lunch hour. The level of music and singing is beyond impressive. We donate a little to the church as a form of gratitude but it is entirely optional. The church is a magnificent beauty with wonderful acoustics. During our visit, we watched a piano and soprano duo. An accomplished soprano, Tanya Cooling was filling the room with vibrations of her gorgeous voice alongside an equally accomplished pianist, Simone Lane. An hour of rejuvenation through music and singing.
2. Browse through the London National Gallery: Right across the St. Martin in the Fields church, you will find the famous National Gallery. It is a massive collection of paintings. Entrance is Free but no photography is permitted. I much prefer the Louvre policy of photography but alas it was going to be of little use for me: Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks was off display and the only other work by him was his large cartoon of Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist. That beauty alone made the visit completely worthwhile. You can of course browse through the Renoir, Monet and other collections too. Perhaps my next favorite painting was the sensual Venus at her Mirror.
3. Watch a show at the Wyndham’s Theatre: The exquisite theater halls and houses in London are made to be used for entertainment to the end of time it seems, so beautifully preserved they are. Wyndham’s Theatre is a West End Theatre, a popular term for mainstream professional theater staged in the large theatres of London’s “Theatreland”as per Wikipedia, and truly a gorgeous space to enjoy a play. We booked in advance but many were buying tickets on the spot. We watched “An Inspector Calls“. The story takes place in the span of one night when Inspector Goole visits a family. Every moment was captivating with smart dialogues which allude to our daily assumptions, morals and responsibilities in life’s circumstances. It afforded us a few lines of humor but far more thought-inducing acts and unanswered questions at the end. The mood was tense as the mystery unfolded layer by layer. The acting was superb, flawless, and extremely enjoyable.
4. Enjoy a play at the Novello Theatre: Of course it is not enough to watch one or a dozen plays, but two is a minimum especially if extremely popular American legendary actors area acting alongside the talented British ones. We had the privilege of watching an adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a Tennessee Williams Play, starring the incredible James Earl Jones (The voice of Darth Vader, you star war fans!) with his incredible voice and presence alongside the accomplished Phylicia RashÄd, better known as Mrs. Huxtable of the Cosby show. My British friend was kind enough to point out the deservedly well-known British actor, Adrian Lester, who put on a formidable performance of his own. All this in London’s beautiful Novello Theatre. The play touched on an array of deep social problems from drinking, marriage, homosexuality, jealousy, with a looming large inheritance at stake and the tender relations of father and son gone sour. This play was no short of watching an intense movie in the making. Bravo to the unforgettable cast.
Traveling changes your mind and expands your horizons! If you like to see the other travel stories here, check On the Road category.
5. Catch a movie at the Odeon in Leicester Square: I will never forget the crowds around the Odeon on the preview opening night of 2003 film “Master and Commander”, we saw “Charlie”as the screaming crowds called him or better known as Prince Charles of England, emerge from a car to go into this theater to greet Russel Crowe. It is this Odeon where we decided to watch a movie. We went for Avatar in 3D in the nicest seats of the house. The theater has a single showing at a time and the upper deck seats give you the best viewing. Avatar cinematography was beyond beautiful especially in 3D, while the plot was predictable yet smart. James Cameron is of course a genius, that goes without saying, and Ana Lucia from my fave TV show LOST did her usual bang-up job. A perfect movie to watch at the Odeon if only to be able to say you did.
6. Visit and Bask in the British Museum: How did we miss this on our first visit in 2003 is beyond me. We spent far too little time in the British Museum, which has not only free entrance but also permits photography. My new found interest in ancient Egypt, thanks to Michelle Moran’s books made the visit to the gallery far more enjoyable. I recognized Pharaohs and Egyptian Gods!
The Greek gallery with the infamous Parthenon pieces were another point of extreme interest. Should they be returned to Greece to sit for eternity with the remains of Parthenon or should the British Museum hold on to them? Do artifacts and pieces of art belong with the creator’s homeland or wherever the hands of destiny have placed them? I would certainly be disheartened if I had to travel to each country to see its history displayed in its own museums. Perhaps in an ideal world it would work. Who knows! But remember to set aside a half a day for this museum. I hardly had a chance to make a dent into its rich collections.
7. Spend an hour in Westminster Abbey: Visiting Westminster Abbey is an absolute must. You can enjoy the magnificent outdoor view if you choose not to spend the £15 for the inside tour. But I think you really should splurge and go in. You won’t regret it! From the moment you set foot in this colossal abbey, you feel numbed with awe at the realization that mere humans built this around 1045AD.
For me, it is baffling beyond words to imagine what it must have taken to build this and other magnificent architectural sites in Europe when today it takes us months to pave a highway and nothing will remain of our lousy buildings in a thousand years. How is it that technology and civilization has advanced so much but our ability to repeat what our ancestors did without electricity, heat, power, tools and computers has only diminished drastically? The free audio tour is an excellent guide. I particularly enjoyed the Poet’s corner with the memorials to Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Emily BrontÃ« and the burial sites of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, politely chuckling at the irony of scientists buried in the church of God. Yes do visit Westminster Abbey and marvel at what was once achievable by man and no longer is.
8. Stroll through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park: What I love dearly about Europe and even used to love about Iran to some extent is the parks. The importance of parks in the everyday lifestyle is a simplicity that we do not have very often in America. Of course, you find exquisite parks rich with beauty, natural wonder, admirable memorials and statues in London’s Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. They are next to each other, and even on a freezing January morning, you can see runners in shorts and parents with their children out playing with birds. There is a calmness about parks that is not easily attainable even in a luxury spa. It is nature settled in the midst of a busy bustling city, reminding us of its bold presence and its irresistible beauty.
London leaves you wanting more and it is never too soon to return a city so timeless and universal that you feel as though you hardly left home.