So much to see and do in London
A man holds a British flag as an illuminated London Eye is seen in the background during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games in London on July 27, 2012. (LUIS ACOSTA, AFP, Getty Images)
Our plan was simple: Pay the admission, stick our heads inside to see what it looked like, and then quickly duck out and move on to a museum.
The museum never happened.
That because expatriate Geoff Auerbach, my wife, Pat, and I were all dazzled by the thousand-year-old church where England's kings and queens have been crowned since 1066. That is a lot of history.
Iconic Westminster Abbey is, quite frankly, a lot of church with its architecture, chapels, crypts, paintings, stained glass and textiles. Many of the decorations go back to the 13th and 14th centuries.
It was the most impressive sight we saw in London, part sacred space, part national shrine, part pageant of British history. It was filled with a half-lighted medieval atmosphere and lots of tourists.
The church has more than 600 statues, tombs, crypts and markers. It triggers a bit of sensory overload because there's just so much to see and absorb.
Thirty kings and queens are buried in Westminster Abbey, along with English poets, authors, politicians and actors: Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Robert Browning, Edmund Spenser, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Laurence Olivier and George Frederic Handel. A total of 3,300 people are buried there.
The West Towers stand 225 feet high. The body of the building is 531 feet long. The transept is 203 feet long and 80 feet wide. It boasts the highest ceiling in Europe: 102 feet.
It is opulent and wears its age well. In places, the marble floor has been worn down by countless footsteps.
It has been the site of 16 royal weddings and 38 coronations. It is home of the coronation chair ordered in 1301 by King Edward I.
Much of the Gothic church was built from 1245 to 1272 by King Henry III to honor St. Edward the Confessor. Benedictine monks came to the site in the middle of the 10th century.
Guided and self-guided audio tours are available.
Westminster Abbey is surrounded by other very familiar landmarks: Big Ben and the Parliament Building, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, 10 Downing Street (home of the prime minister and a must-stop if your name is Downing).
It's been a big year in London with the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, the upcoming Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games that begin July 27, plus the London 2012 Festival that runs to Sept. 9 with 12,000 events and 25,000 artists. London typically gets 25 million visitors a year but this year is even bigger.
But there's a lot to see: the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Square, the London Eye, Oxford Street with its shopping, the Tate Modern and St. Paul's Cathedral, designed by Christopher Wren.
London with its 7.5 million residents is known for its rainy weather, world-class museums, shopping, royalty, art galleries and football (soccer). It has 100 theaters, seven royal palaces, 6,000 restaurants and 5,000 pubs or bars. It is the city of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, Abbey Road and Jack the Ripper.
London is known for its parks and gardens, more than 2,500 of them. Nine of its parks were once royal property (hunting grounds or estate gardens). Eleven percent of Greater London, or 70 square miles, is parkland.
London is sophisticated, hip, expensive, diverse, cosmopolitan. Thirty percent of its residents were born elsewhere. Its residents come from 300 countries.