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London

March 22, 2006

London

Where better to have your finger on the pulse of the times than London, Europe's number-one trendsetting city? The British capital is buzzing with joie-de-vivre, and its calendar is packed with festivals, sensational exhibitions and massive concert eve...

Where better to have your finger on the pulse of the times than London, Europe's number-one trendsetting city? The British capital is buzzing with joie-de-vivre, and its calendar is packed with festivals, sensational exhibitions and massive concert events.

The picture is one of enormous contrasts. The architecture ranges from classical buildings such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace to futuristic constructions of glass and steel like Sir Norman Foster's Swiss Re Tower and City Hall near Tower Bridge. In the tube, way-out teens, fashionable yuppies and smart ladies sit side by side with turbaned Sikhs from India and dreadlocked Caribbean Britons. And there are plenty of attractions, ranging from the exoticism of Soho to Victorian-style Covent Garden and the City, London's business center, and from shopping to culture or the new British cuisine.

Getting tired so soon? That would be a pity, as you can flirt in the trendy bars and enjoy yourself in the clubs until morning. Whatever your taste is - a symphony concert or modern jazz, a Shakespeare play or avant-garde theater on a small stage - you'll always find something to suit you in London.

British Museum

The British Museum, which was founded about 250 years ago thanks to the private initiative of a passionate collector, today ranks as one of the most important museums in the world. The huge collection includes mummies and artifacts from the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and exquisite works of art from the Near and Middle East, from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

If you are interested in relics dating back to ancient Britain and the days when it was occupied by the Romans, then the British Museum is just the place for you. The famous 650-foot long frieze from the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis in Athens attracts huge numbers of admirers. The museum's other treasures include priceless books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, a copy of the Magna Carta, and the Sutton Hoo and Mildenhall treasure troves.

Covent Garden

Halfway between Westminster in the west and the banks and stock market in the City, Covent Garden provided the capital with fresh produce until 1974. When the market relocated, small businesses, cafés, pubs and restaurants moved into the renovated Victorian covered market. The important thing here is to see and be seen.

In the summer, jugglers and street musicians entertain the public, and you will find a mini-performance on one street corner and a one-woman show on another. The Theater Museum in the old flower market hall offers a backstage glimpse of the theater world, and the attractively designed London Transport Museum tells the story of London's public transport from 1830 onwards. Take a stroll through the attractive little side streets of Covent Garden, with its tempting shops and places to eat. The area is packed with health food markets, shops selling goods from East Asia, jeans boutiques and trendy restaurants.

Greenwich

To the east of Tower Bridge and the post-modern landscape of Docklands, this small area close to the Thames has a long history, but also bears the distinctive mark of the 21st century.

The locals take pride in the idyllic heart of Greenwich, with its delightful pubs and restaurants, and also in the National Maritime Museum, the biggest maritime museum in Britain. Fans of classical architecture will be inspired by the elegant ensemble of Queen's House and the former Royal Naval College. A wonderful walk leads from the Thames and the Cutty Sark clipper past the Maritime Museum and Queen's House through Greenwich Park to the Old Royal Observatory, home to the Greenwich meridian, the reference point for time measurement around the world. The huge Millennium Dome can be seen in north Greenwich. Greenwich is a lively place at the weekend, when the craft, central and antique markets are all open and are bustling with enthusiastic flea market shoppers

Hyde Park

To the west are Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, both perfect spots for picnics beneath the shade of old trees in the heart of the metropolis. You can either gaze into your lover's eyes, watch the ducks, or take the more energetic option and go for a jog. Between them, the two parks provide 615 acres of green space to relax in.

On fine summer days the Lido - London's only inner-city open air swimming facility, on the lake in Hyde Park - beckons. Or why not rent a rowboat for yourself and your friends? At the northeastern corner of the park, near the triumphal Marble Arch, crowds of curious people gather at Speakers' Corner on Sunday mornings to listen to passionate speeches from those hankering after a better world, religious fanatics and oddballs. Children can work off some of their energy in the imaginatively designed Diana Princess of Wales playground in Kensington Gardens, before you all visit Kensington Palace, where exhibits include items from the Royal Family's wardrobe.

Madame Tussaud’s

When the Queen is away on a State visit, you can still see her here along with all her family. Prominent politicians, stars from the worlds of pop music and show biz, sporting personalities and film stars are honored in wax at Madame Tussaud's. New examples of the great and the glorious are constantly added to the carefully arranged groups of figures and settings. The huge numbers of visitors never cease to be amazed at how lifelike the models are (Please note: children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult).

But don't be surprised if the security guard doesn't answer your question about the Chamber of Horrors, which contains the most infamous criminals to have lived in the realm - he may be made of wax, too. After your tour, take a ride in a motorized black cab on the 'Spirit of London' through the sights, sounds and smells of 400 years of London life before you visit the gift shop. The Madame Tussaud’s building is also home to the London Planetarium, where you can enjoy an instructive and exciting journey to outer space.

Soho

This small area between Oxford Street, Regent Street and Covent Garden is home to a melting pot of different cultures. Immigrants from France, Italy and Greece run small grocery stores, where to this day the employees of the film and advertising agencies around the green space of Soho Square do their shopping.

The aroma of cappuccino wafts across from Italian bars, and elegant restaurants offer tempting French cuisine. A traditional fruit and vegetable market (Mon-Sat 9 am-6 pm) runs along Berwick Street, where the first exotic fruits were offered for sale in London. London's small Chinatown around Gerrard Street is a truly exotic experience, dotted as it is with Chinese restaurants and shops full of herbs, spices and watercolors, and with its telephone boxes adorned with pagoda-style roofs. Shimmering illuminated billboards in Piccadilly Circus, jazz sessions in cellar bars, cabaret shows and drag queens, huge discos and cinemas in Leicester Square, gay clubs and theaters - all these are essential ingredients of Soho by night.

Tate Britain

London has a number of first-class art galleries, but the Tate leads the field both with respect to the importance of its collections and also in the popularity stakes. This, the original Tate Gallery, which has outposts in St. Ives and Liverpool as well as a second London Tate Gallery in the former Bankside power station, now aptly calls itself Tate Britain. It houses the national collection of British paintings from the 16th century onwards. The international classics of the modern era are also well represented. The works on display range from sculptures by Picasso and Henry Moore to the paintings of Mark Rothko.

Altogether the Tate owns some 5,000 paintings and sculptures, plus around 30,000 drawings and sketches. Since only 1,000 works can be exhibited at any one time, those on view are changed at regular intervals. The collection of works by Joseph Mallord William Turner in the adjoining Clore Gallery is simply incomparable. It includes some of the artist's most famous oil paintings and watercolors.

Tower of London

This huge castle right beside the River Thames is one of the British capital's foremost tourist attractions. Encircled by mighty walls, buildings from different eras are grouped around velvety green lawns. For 900 years, the Tower has been bound up with the story of London and of England as a whole. Its heart, the White Tower, was built by William the Conqueror. His successors built additional palaces within the protective confines of the Tower.

When later kings took up residence in Westminster, the Tower served as a prison and a place of execution. A brass plate in the inner courtyard marks the place where two of Henry VIII's wives mounted the scaffold. The Beefeaters, guards in traditional uniform, will be happy to tell you about prominent prisoners and unsolved crimes which took place in the Tower. The priceless British Crown Jewels, which can be admired in the Jewel House, contrast in sparkling fashion with the more gruesome side of the Tower of London. Royal crowns heavily embellished with diamonds and precious stones, swords, decorations and royal tableware make a dazzling spectacle.

Camden Canal Market

There are several different flea markets to be found in the area around Camden Lock in Camden Town, in the northern part of London - a veritable flea market paradise! The area is becoming ever more popular with browsers, collectors and visitors to London. Grandma's silver, rare shellac records, junk, old-fashioned shoes and pine furniture are for sale along with plants, old linens and craft items of all kinds.

Teenagers and tourists, those on the lookout for anything trendy and fashion designers can be found happily sorting through the second-hand clothes. If it is the ethnic look you're after, then here you will find baggy Indian garments together with matching crocheted bags or, as an alternative, ancient jeans. Those of you who don't mind milling crowds and can't resist all the bargains on offer can also add an old leather suitcase to transport your booty home…

Notting Hill

Even before the box-office hit Notting Hill, starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, hit the screen in 1999, this area to the north of Kensington was already famous for its exuberant, colorful Caribbean carnival featuring reggae and salsa. Every year, during the last weekend of August, everyone celebrates and lets their hair down, when the streets of Notting Hill are transformed into a dance floor which is miles long.

Here high flyers, Caribbean Britons and mysterious eccentrics all live next door to one another. For some time now, Notting Hill has been regarded as the center of the London scene. Pop stars and supermodels are happy to boast a Notting Hill address and to rendezvous in stylish cafés and fashionable bars. To cater for these wealthy customers, star designers are opening up interior design businesses, cult shops and boutiques. The Portobello Road street market is typical of Notting Hill. Around 2,000 traders sell good-quality antiques (Sat 7 am-6 pm), bric-a-brac (Fri 7 am-4 pm), old books and second-hand clothes.

Kew Gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are among the most beautiful of their kind in Europe, and they are devoted to both indiginous and tropical flora. Three Victorian greenhouses, which are magnificent examples of iron and glass architecture, house among other things the world's largest orchid collection, and also the world's tallest 'indoor plant', a type of palm that grows to over 60 feet.

As well as the ten-story pagoda and Queen Charlotte's cottage, another magnet for visitors is the Princess of Wales Conservatory, where you can see specimens of the plant world in ten of the world's climate zones. Interesting and attractive changing exhibitions illustrate the ecological connections between flora and fauna, as well as the human influence. Incidentally, the most attractive way to get to Kew is by boat along the Thames (e.g. from Westminster Pier).

Westminster Abbey

Closely bound up with the history of the Crown, this magnificent church right beside the Houses of Parliament symbolizes historical continuity. It was born of a Benedictine monastery church founded in 1079, a few relics of which still remain. Most British kings have had their coronations, weddings and funerals here, under the high arches of the Gothic nave. The majority of the cultural monument we see today, which has been damaged by fire several times, was constructed between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Highlights include the magnificent choir stalls, the gravestone and shrine of Edward the Confessor, the Royal Chapels with Gothic fan vaulting worked in filigree, Poets' Corner with its monuments to famous British writers such as Shakespeare and Keats, and the 13th-century Coronation Chair. At the start of the new millennium, a spectacular new lighting system was installed to show off the many treasures to perfection.

© Berlitz Publishing/Apa Publications GmbH & Co KG, Singapore Branch, Singapore

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