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London Travel Guide

  • Photo: © Zach Nelson / Fodors Travel

Westminster, St. James, and Royal London

This is postcard London at its best. Crammed with historic churches, grand state buildings, and some of the world’s best art collections, Royal London and Westminster unite politics and high culture. (Oh, and the Queen lives here, too.) The places you’ll want to explore are grouped into four distinct areas—Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, St. James's, and Buckingham Palace—each nudging a corner

of triangular St. James's Park. There is as much history in these few acres as in many whole cities, so pace yourself—this is concentrated sightseeing.

Home to London's most photogenic pigeons (albeit in lesser numbers these days), Trafalgar Square is not only the official center of the district known as Westminster, it is the official center of London. What will bring you here are the two magnificent museums on the northern edge of the square, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. From the square, two boulevards lead to the seats of different eras of governance. The avenue called Whitehall drops south to the neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament, where members of both Houses (Commons and Lords) hold debates and vote on pending legislation. Just opposite, Westminster Abbey is a monument to the nation’s history and for centuries the scene of daily worship, coronations, and royal weddings. Poets, political leaders, and 17 monarchs are buried in this world-famous, 13th-century Gothic building. Sandwiched between the two is the Jewel Tower, the only surviving part of the medieval Palace of Westminster (a name still given to Parliament and its environs). Halfway down Whitehall, No. 10 Downing Street is both the residence and the office of the prime minister. One of the most celebrated occupants, Winston Churchill, is commemorated in the Churchill War Rooms, his underground wartime headquarters off Whitehall. Just down the road is the Cenotaph, which acts as a focal point for the annual remembrance of those lost in war.

The Mall, a wide, elegant avenue beyond the stone curtain of Admiralty Arch, heads southwest from Trafalgar Square toward the Queen Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace, the sovereign's official residence. The building is open to the public only in summer, but you can see much of the royal art collection in the Queen's Gallery and spectacular ceremonial coaches in the Royal Mews, both open all year. Farther south toward Pimlico, Tate Britain focuses on prominent British artists from 1500 to today.

This area can be considered "Royal London" partly because it is neatly bounded by the triangle of streets that make up the route that Queen Elizabeth II usually takes when processing from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey or to the Houses of Parliament on state occasions, and also because it contains so much of British history going back a thousand years. Naturally, in an area that regularly sees the pomp and pageantry of royal occasions, the streets are wide and the vistas long. There is a feeling here of timeless dignity—long avenues of ancient trees framing classically proportioned buildings, constant glimpses of pinnacles and towers over the treetops, the distant throb of military bands on the march, the statues of resolute kings, queens, and statesmen standing guard at every corner, while the deep tones of Big Ben count off the hours. The main drawback to sightseeing here is that half the world is doing it at the same time as you. So, remember that for a large part of the year a lot of Royal London is floodlit at night (when there's more elbow-room), adding to the theatricality of the experience.

As a fitting coda to all of Westminster's pomp and circumstance, St. James's—packed with old-money galleries, restaurants, and gentlemen's clubs that embody the history and privilege of traditional London—is found to the south of Piccadilly and north of the Mall.

When Whitehall Palace burned down in 1698, all of London turned its attention to St. James's Palace, the new royal residence. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the area around the palace became the place to live, and many of the estates surrounding the palace disappeared in a building frenzy, as mansions were built and streets laid out. Most of the homes here are privately owned and so closed to visitors, but there are some treasure houses that you can explore (such as Spencer House), as well as a bevy of fancy shops that have catered to the great and good for centuries.

Today, St. James's remains a rather masculine enclave, containing most of the capital's celebrated gentlemen's clubs (especially the classic Atheneum), long-established men's outfitters and clothiers, and some interesting art galleries and antiques shops. In one corner is St. James's Park, framed on its western side by the biggest monument in the area: Buckingham Palace, official residence of the Queen. The smaller St. James's Palace is where much of the office work for the House of Windsor gets done; nearby is Clarence House, London home of Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla.

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