The U.K. Travel Guide:
London – Big Ben, The Thames and Westminster Bridge

The LowDown:
Jet lag is still in full effect. Despite nearly an entire night of no sleep, I’m up at the crack of dawn for my first full day in London.  First stop: a sixteen story Gothic clocktower, Westminster, London SW1A 0AA.


John Barry – Goldfinger, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
First trip to London, back in 1989. We were still using maps made out of paper.
Another shot from 1989, when I didn’t know how to buy shirts in my size.
Nearly the same shot as above, 26 years later

Most travelers just arriving in London are likely to make their first stop the most iconic landmark in the city, the great bell inside the enormous clock tower at the Palace of Westminster, known more commonly as Big Ben.

I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my own arrival and start my London adventure than by visiting the famous timepiece that has kept Londoners on schedule for over 150 years.

Technically, Big Ben refers only to the actual bell that sits inside Elizabeth Tower, previously known as Clock Tower, and re-named after Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 to honor her diamond jubilee. The bell weighs a whopping 13 tons and sits over 200 feet off the ground, just above the four clock faces. Each face is 23 feet in diameter and contains 312 separate pieces of opal glass inserted individually into the cast iron framework

From where I was staying in Bow Road, it was a straight shot to Big Ben via the District (Green) Line. After loading up my Oyster Card I made my way to the platform and discovered that hitting the tube at 8:30 on a weekday morning might not have been the smartest move.

Being relatively unfamiliar with subway travel and the particular manners and habits of the locals, I laid back as the first train pulled in and the sliding doors were flooded with morning commuters fighting their way out, and just as many fighting their way in. By the time the third train made its way into the station, I had sourced enough confidence to hunker down and fight for a spot in one of the cars, and I made it. Off I go!

I exited at the Westminster Tube station and was expecting a bit of a walk to find my way to Big Ben. That was not necessary. The tower sits just across the street from the tube’s exit steps. I’m sure I backed up a whole queue of locals behind me when I first caught sight of the ornate tower staring down on me so imperiously. You’re nearly right up against it when you emerge from the tube, and it completely swallows your eyes. It is truly breathtaking.

I found it hard to believe everyone doesn’t stop and gawk stupidly up at the clock tower the way I did, just in time to hear Ben ring in the hour. It was just as majestic as you might imagine. And with a dark, ominous cloud cover, a strong morning chill and some heavy drizzle, it was truly the dramatic London of books and movies. I couldn’t have asked for a better reception.

The good news is that if you find yourself staring up open-mouthed and speechless at Big Ben, the locals will ignore you entirely, shoving their bodies around you to make their way to work. The bad news is that if you’re not a U.K. resident, you are not allowed up into the Tower for a tour. But just to my left stood the mighty Thames River and Westminster Bridge, and that was my next stop.

I don’t think I encountered more picture-takers on my entire trip than I did crossing Westminster Bridge over the Thames. I think I was the only person there who didn’t own a selfie stick. Maybe next time.

Aside from being beautiful in its own right, the Westminster Bridge gives visitors a sensational view not only of Big Ben and Parliament, but also The London Eye and Victoria Embankment, a road and river walk that runs along the north bank.

Construction on Westminster Bridge began in the early 1700s. It’s built entirely of stone and accommodates both road and foot traffic, and it’s very, very busy. I had read warnings to keep an eye out for pickpockets and thieves, and being that it was only my first day in the city, I heeded those warning especially. But to be honest, with so much for my eyes to take in, I would have been more likely to lose my camera by accidentally dropping it into the river than having it stolen off me. Either way, this is not a spot to be caught without something around your neck to preserve the breathtaking images. There are no bad views on Westminster Bridge, no weather and no amount of tourist traffic that could ruin the scenery, and Big Ben is right there to remind you that time is precious. It was a spectacular start to my two weeks.

Next stop is Trafalgar Square and then on to Covent Garden and Charing Cross Road for browsing the numerous antiquarian bookshops and grabbing my first ticket for theatre on the West End.

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