Image: Westminster Abbey
Rick Steves
At London’s Westminster Abbey, the excellent, included audio guide nearly makes up for the $18 admission fee.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 2/11/2009 12:36:53 PM ET 2009-02-11T17:36:53

While updating my guidebooks for 2009, I found plenty of changes, starting with London’s museums. Fortunately, one of my favorite offbeat sights — the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum — will reopen later this year. It had closed following the death of its founder, Edward Bramah. He believed that the tea bag, invented in the 1950s to let Brits brew tea during a TV commercial, spelled the death of a good “cuppa.” Aficionados of tea or coffee will find this small, quirky museum fascinating.

The Monument, central London's 202-foot column designed by Sir Christopher Wren to mark the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 began, should reopen this spring after a complete makeover. Its 311 steps lead to a city view.

Somerset House, near Covent Garden, used to house three fine arts museums, but the Hermitage Rooms and Gilbert Collection have closed, and only the Courtauld Gallery of European paintings remains open. And this year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who produced the first Dictionary of the English Language. You can expect frenzied mobs of editors, proofreaders, and lexicographers descending upon Dr. Johnson’s House throughout 2009.

A delight for kids and parents, Pollock’s Toy Museum — a funky old house in north London — is filled with toys that predate batteries and computer chips. And also great for kids, Kew Gardens’ new Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway puts you high in the tree canopy — 60 feet above the ground on a scenic steel walkway.

Many of London’s ostensibly “free” sights ask for donations. Rather than donate, my conscience is cool with “giving” money other ways (such as renting an audio guide — generally around $5 — or buying a book in their shop).

At Westminster Abbey, the excellent, new audio guide (narrated by Jeremy Irons) helps take the sting out of a steep $18 admission price, which includes the device. Church entry is still free for legitimate worshippers, but you won’t see the tombs, and officials are wise to camera-toting tourists who try to get in as “worshippers.”

With the fast-moving, irreverent and entertaining New London Free Walking Tours, you always at least get your money’s worth. Students give three-hour London tours (Old City and Royal London) for free, but they push for tips at the end and cross-promote their evening pub crawl. To see more, but hear less, consider Fat Tire Bike Tours, which now offers four-hour tours by bike in London.

The Docklands, London's rising Manhattan of skyscrapers, has sprung up east of the city center. It’s bustling with businesses migrating here from downtown London and energized by being near the site of the 2012 Olympics. The pedestrian-friendly, high-rise office park hosts trendy restaurants, stimulating art, underground malls, peaceful parks, awe-inspiring subway stations and the Museum in Docklands, telling the story of the area when it was the world’s leading port in the 19th century.

In Bath, a town west of London, the long-awaited Thermae Bath Spa is in its second full year of operation. But if you've been to the great spas on the Continent, it’s an overpriced disappointment. In Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home theater is under renovation until 2010, but in the meantime, you can see productions in their temporary Courtyard Theatre.

“Save the pasty” is the cry in Cornwall. The British government is currently seeking EU protection for the traditional Cornish meat pie. This means that only those pies made in Cornwall using traditional techniques and recipes can be called a “Cornish pasty.”

Edinburgh will host special events this year as Scotland celebrates the 250th birthday of its favorite bard, Robert Burns. Expect Edinburgh’s streets to be dug up; a skeptical public seems to regret the huge investment it’s made in a new tram system even before the 2011 opening.

The Culloden Battlefield north of Edinburgh has a new, $10 million visitors center. Its 360-degree movie screen surrounds viewers with attacking soldiers, taking you back to 1746 to relive the stirring battle won by the English over the Scottish clans.

A new seaplane service connects downtown Glasgow and Oban, gateway to the Hebrides Islands. While pricey — about $120 one way — the trip takes only 30 minutes and provides a stunning view of the Highlands. If you’re in Oban on a weekend, drop by the Skipinnish Ceilidh House for Highland storytelling, music and dancing.

Image: Cliffs of Moher
Rick Steves
At Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, thrill-seeking tourists can no longer be so edgy.
On the west coast of Ireland, one of the great free thrills of travel is no longer allowed. At the Cliffs of Moher, rangers now keep visitors from getting near the edge of the towering cliff that marks the west edge of Europe.

But travel itself remains a thrill. Whether flying low over Highlands, strolling through treetops over Kew Gardens or toasting the birthday of Robert Burns in his hometown, you’ll discover there’s no end to what the British Isles have to offer.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2009 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: London calling

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  1. A view from the top in London

    London is home to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, which will be held July 27 to Aug. 12, 2012. Visitors will be able to see all this wolrd-class city has to offer in the summertime - -everything from plays in Shakespeare's Globe Theater to bird's-eye views of the city on the London Eye. Pictured here, a passenger travels on the London Eye observation wheel which stands 135 meters high and is the tallest such wheel in Europe, on Oct. 22, 2010 in London. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Millennium Bridge

    Pedestrians cross the Millennium Bridge, spanning the River Thames in London, on Feb. 15, 2012. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Double-decker bus

    A double-decker bus travels through Piccadilly Circus on March 19, 2012 in London. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Buckingham Palace

    At the end of The Mall is Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace, where Her Majesty The Queen resides. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Great Court

    Visitors walk in the Great Court of the British Museum on Feb. 22, 2011 in London. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Treetop walkway

    A woman walks across the new Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop walkway, with a view of the Temperate House behind, at Kew Gardens in London on May 22, 2008. The 18-meter high structure gives visitors the opportunity to view the tree canopy at Kew. (Luke MacGregor / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. St. Paul's Cathedral

    Tourists look towards St. Paul's Cathedral while riding on an open-top bus through central London on April 15, 2012. Despite a short-term tourism boom at the time of the Olympics, economists are warning that it won't be enough to prevent a sharp slowdown in the economy this year. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Inside St. Paul's Cathedral

    A verger pauses to look at one of the statues in St. Paul's Cathedral after its recent major restoration, in London on June 16, 2011. The St. Paul's Cathedral program of cleaning and repair cost 40 million pounds, has taken 15 years and is the first time in its history that the building has been comprehensively restored inside and out, it was reported on the Cathedral website. (Paul Hackett / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Oxford Circus

    Traffic at the Oxford Circus junction at the intersection of Oxford Street and Regent Street on May 1, 2012 in London. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Trafalgar Square

    Tourists enjoy the sunshine in front of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square on March 28, 2012 in London. (Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The Tower of London

    The Tower of London is a historic castle that early in its history served as a royal residence. It's probably most well-known for its use as a place of imprisonment. King Henry VIII executed two of his wives there, and before she became queen, Elizabeth I was held captive there by her half-sister, Queen Mary I. (Scott Barbour / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. River Thames

    An aerial view of the River Thames in London, with the Shard at left and Tower Bridge in the foreground, on September 5, 2011 in London. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tate Modern

    Visitors to Tate Modern walk through sunlight shining through the windows, in London on July 30, 2009. (Andrew Winning / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Walking across the bridge

    People cross the Millennium Bridge in wet weather in front of the newly-restored St. Paul's Cathedral on June 16, 2011 in London. A prominent feature in the London skyline and one of the world's most beautiful buildings, St. Paul's Cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th Century, and is celebrating its 300th anniversary with the completion of a 40 million pound restoration project. (Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Graffiti art

    A woman walks past an ornately-painted building in the Shoreditch area of London on Jan. 14, 2012. Ornate graffiti appears on many buildings and structures in areas of the east London borough of Shoreditch. (Andrew Winning / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Time for soccer

    People play soccer during a warm autumn weather spell on Hampstead Heath, with the City of London in the background, on Oct. 29, 2009. (Jas Lehal / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Fish and chips

    Chelsea soccer fans eat fish and chips outside The Cafe Fish Bar in west London on May 13, 2012. Deep-fried fish in a crispy batter, with fat golden chips, is still as popular as ever with the British public, ranked alongside roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and chicken tikka masala as the nation's favorite dish. (Eddie Keogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Shopping spree

    Selfridges department store is illuminated on Oxford Street on December 5, 2011 in London. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial

    An aerial view of the Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial on July 26, 2011 in London. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Shakespeare's Globe Theater

    Actors Dominic Rowan and Miranda Raison perform as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in Shakepeare's "Henry VIII" at the Globe Theatre in London on July 6, 2010. William Shakespeare's Globe Theater, on the south bank of the River Thames, burned to the ground during the staging of a play about Henry VIII in 1613 and was rebuilt in the late 1990s. (Luke MacGregor / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Westminster Abbey

    A view of Westminster Abbey on Nov. 19, 2010 in London. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The Shard

    The Shard towers over St. Thomas Street, on July 5, 2012 in London. A new addition to the London skyline, It is the European Union's tallest building. (Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Borough Market

    A woman walks through Borough Market in London on Dec. 9, 2011. (Luke MacGregor / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Houses of Parliament

    A car travels along Westminster Bridge past the Houses of Parliament on March 27, 2012 in London. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A classic pub

    Patrons drink at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in London, on Dec. 19, 2011. This is one of London's oldest pubs and one of Charles Dickens' favorites, alluded to in "A Tale of Two Cities." (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. London's West End

    Cars travel at night, along Shaftesbury Avenue past West End theatres, on March 29, 2012 in London. The city's West End is synonymous with theater productions, containing over forty venues showing plays, musicals and operas. The theaters typically play host to over 14 million spectators that view over 18,000 performances each year. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The 'Gherkin'

    The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' is pictured in the City of London on August 12, 2010. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A day in the park

    Visitors enjoy summer sunshine as they row boats on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. One of King Henry VIII's former hunting grounds, the 350-acre park in the middle of London features more than 4,000 trees, a lake and a meadow. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Bouquets of flowers

    A woman carries sunflowers at the Columbia Road flower market in East London as summer weather hit the United Kingdom on May 24, 2009. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Street art

    A woman walks past street art by Banksy on Pollard Street on Nov. 1, 2007 in London. Recent works of art by Banksy have been bought for hundreds of thousands of pounds by celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The Tower Hamlets Council recently said that they had a duty to remove all graffiti in the area, including anything done by Banksy. However, the public in Bristol recently voted over 90 percent in favor of keeping a piece of graffiti art by Banksy as it was deemed so popular. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A tribute to a princess

    The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park opened on July 6, 2004, in London. The fountain was designed by American Kathryn Gustafson as a tribute to the former princess, who died in a car crash in 1997. (Scott Barbour / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A famous crossing

    Tourists pose for a photograph on the pedestrian crossing at Abbey Road in St. John's Wood, North London on Dec. 22, 2010. The crossing, sited outside Abbey Road Studios in North London and made famous by The Beatles, was designated a site of national importance by the British government. (Andrew Winning / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Brick Lane

    Signs for businesses on Brick Lane, which is synonymous with curry restaurants, on March 16, 2011 in London, England. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. The heart of London

    Summer crowds gather in Trafalgar Square in front of the National Gallery. At the center of Trafalgar Square is Nelson's Column, which commemorates the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A cultural center

    A view down Camden High Street on March 31, 2012 in London. Camden in North London has been one of the city's cultural centers since the 1960s, and is home to the famous Camden Market. The borough is rich in musical heritage with a variety of theatres, art galleries and world famous musical and comedy venues. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Official timekeeper

    The historic Royal Observatory, Greenwich, is the home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian of the world, making it the official starting point for each new day and year. (Visit London) Back to slideshow navigation
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