Learn how to navigate London by tube and foot. Go inside the underground stations and learn why the tube is the best way to get around the city. Above ground, discover the urban retreats of Regent’s Park and Hyde Park, and the shopping hub that is Regent Street. With so many museums, parks, and attractions, London has never been a more interesting and fun city to visit.
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Traveling the London Underground
The best way to get around in London is on the Underground, better known locally as “the Tube.” Dozens of the stations have been decorated with imaginative tiling, elegant signs, and distinctive facades, which bespeak a pride in craftsmanship and a determination to go beyond the merely practical.
The most spectacular of all the stations is Westminster, radically redesigned in the 1990s and opened in 1999, underneath Portcullis House, a parliamentary office building. Many of the suburban stations are little gems of early 20th-century design, including the drum-shaped stations at Chiswick Park and Arnos Grove, both of which are now Grade II listed buildings, meaning that they are recognized and protected for their architectural merits.
And then there’s the experience of the trains themselves. If it’s a District Line train, you can actually see the whole thing from end to end because the cars no longer have sealed-off ends, but are open-ended, with concertina joints for safety and warmth.
Finally, look at its satisfyingly regular lines, combining strong straights with emphatic diagonals, and keeping the relationship between all the stations and lines exactly right. It was drawn by Harry Beck in 1931, a technical draughtsman employed by the Underground. He worked out how to simplify all the lines without losing the necessary relationships.
The Metropolitan Line was the first of the London undergrounds. It opened in 1863. A major extension program for the entire system was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Because the unfinished lines were deep underground, they were attractive as air-raid shelters. German bombing was heavy from August of 1940 until mid 1941, such that thousands of Londoners sheltered in the stations every night.
Rebuilding a War-Torn London
Large parts of London, especially eastern areas like Bethnal Green, lay in ruins by war’s end. The great task of the late 1940s and early 1950s was to rebuild them. The “Festival of Britain” was an attempt to declare that the hardships of the war and its aftermath were now ending, and that prosperity was returning. Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison planned it to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and to be a showpiece for British creativity.
The site chosen was on the unfashionable south bank of the Thames. A dome, 365 feet across, and looking like a flying saucer, enclosed exhibits about science, technology, and urban planning.
The addition of a theater and an art gallery on the site in the 1960s has made this area a hub for the arts—collectively it is known as the Southbank Centre.
A few hundred yards upstream from the Royal Festival Hall stands the London Eye, a huge white ferris wheel, prominent as a London landmark since its opening in 2000. It is nearly 450 feet tall and dominates the skyline, just across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament and near the end of Westminster Bridge.
One millennium-related project that didn’t work out quite so well was the Millennium Dome. It’s a big, white fabric circle, held up by cables extending from 12 bright yellow towers that lean away from one another. The Dome is now known as The O2 , and operates partly as a concert venue or conference center, and partly as a sports facility, being adaptable to tennis, ice hockey, and basketball.
London is blessed with parkland right in its center. Hyde Park was seized from Westminster Abbey by King Henry VIII as a hunting ground when he dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s. James I opened the park to “gentlefolk” in the 1620s, and his son Charles I opened it to everyone else in 1637.
At the Northeast corner of Hyde Park, just over the road from Marble Arch, stands Speakers’ Corner. This used to be the site of the Tyburn gallows, where from the 1190s to the 1780s criminals were put to death, often in front of big crowds that regarded executions as public entertainment.
Every weekend you can witness the Speakers’ Corner tradition; some harangues are religious, some crackpots have a great nostrum for saving the world, some are conspiracy theorists explaining how the system really operates, and some are struggling to publicize forgotten political prisoners in obscure parts of the world.
Hyde Park itself, which is contiguous to Kensington Gardens, making a combined green space of 625 acres, is crisscrossed by paths, and big enough that you can have a healthy five-mile walk or run without covering the same ground twice (though you would frequently cross your own tracks). In the middle of Hyde Park there’s a lake, half of which is called the Serpentine and the other half of which is called “Long Water.” If you’re hardy enough, you can swim in the lake at any time of the year.
Head northeast out of Hyde Park and you’ll be walking along Piccadilly. The street’s name refers to piccadills, which are pieces of frilled fabric used for decorative collars—they were made there by one of the street’s early inhabitants, the tailor Robert Baker.
Piccadilly Circus is the London counterpart to New York’s Times Square, a great wall of illuminations, with hundreds of thousands of bulbs making it brilliant even at midnight. One of London’s most impressive shopping streets leads Northwest from Piccadilly Circus. This is Regent Street, built by John Nash in the first and second decades of the 19th century and named in honor of the Prince Regent, who was standing in for the mad King George III and would soon become king in his own right as George IV.
Just behind Regent Street runs Carnaby Street, made famous and fashionable in the 1960s by Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and other rock stars. It was ground zero for the “Swinging Sixties.”
The broader neighborhood around Carnaby is known as Soho. Back in the 1850s the area was much less desirable. In fact, it was the center of a cholera outbreak. It was here that John Snow, often remembered as the world’s first epidemiologist, plotted the incidence of cholera deaths to establish the Broad Street pump as the infection’s source.
Continuing north from Soho, you’ll soon come to another of the great London parks, Regent’s Park. As the name suggests, it was developed at the same time as Regent Street, in the early 1800s, and is surrounded by superb Regency-era terraced houses built by John Nash and Decimus Burton.
A short walk east from Regent’s park is Camden Town. This is another neighborhood that, like Soho, was once a grimly practical place but has now come into its own as a fashionable area for shopping, restaurants, and night clubs. Criss-crossed by canals and railways, its center is Camden Lock, built on the Regent’s Canal in the early 1800s but now a place for open-air markets, pleasure boat rides, and “alternative” culture.