London: Places to Explore

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The City

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The City is the capital's fast-beating financial heart, with a powerful architectural triumvirate at its epicenter: the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, and Mansion House, where the lord mayor of The City of London (not to be confused with the mayor of London) lives and entertains. The "Square Mile" also has currency as the place where London began, its historic heart. St. Paul's Cathedral has looked after Londoners' souls since the 7th century, and the Tower of London—that moat-surrounded royal fortress, prison, and jewel house—has occasionally taken care of their heads.

The City is a dizzying juxtaposition of the old and the new. You'll find yourself immersed in historic London if you begin your explorations on Fleet Street, the site of England's first printing press and the undisputed seat of British journalism until the 1980s. Nestled behind Fleet Street is Dr. Johnson's House, former home of the man who claimed that to be bored of London was to be bored of life and author of Dictionary of the English Language. The nearby church of St. Bride's, recognizable by its tiered wedding-cake steeple, is a Sir Christopher Wren gem and still the church for journalists, while eastward rises the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral, also designed by Wren and the architect's masterpiece. You'll encounter more of traditional London at the Central Criminal Court (nicknamed Old Bailey, and home to London's most sensational criminal trials) and the 800-year-old Smithfield Market, whose Victorian halls are the site of a daily early-morning meat market. Nearby are the ancient church of St. Bartholomew the Great and St. Bartholomew Hospital, both begun in 1123, as well as the Guildhall, the site of the only Roman amphitheater in London, the church of St. Mary-le-Bow, and the charmingly old-fashioned narrow maze of streets around Bow Lane.

You can put all this history into context at the Museum of London, where archaeological displays include a portion of the original Roman Wall that ringed The City.

Just beyond rises the modern Barbican Centre, a concrete complex of arts venues and apartments that incites many observers to worry about the architectural direction of modern London. The sight of some other new structures rising above The City—especially the Lloyd's of London Building and the Swiss Re Tower, popularly known as "the Gherkin"—may or may not be more reassuring.

The Monument, near the banks of the Thames, was built to commemorate the Great Fire of London of 1666. From here, the river leads to one of London's most absorbing and bloody attractions, theTower of London. Tower Bridge is a suitably giddying finale to an exploration of this fascinating part of London.

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