Between the museums, palaces, theaters and pubs, it’s easy to spend a week in London entirely indoors. Given the famously drab weather, it is often preferable to do so.
But every now and again the sky clears, a pale sun bathes the cityscape in a warm light — and it seems a shame to waste such weather in a museum.
If you should chance upon such a spell, don’t feel guilty about neglecting art and history. From royal sightings to Jewish monuments to a glorious collection of parks, there is plenty to see in central London without ever going indoors — or spending a pound. After all, there is nothing more British than a good constitutional.
Victoria Station is many visitors’ arrival point and a fine starting point for a stroll. Walk along Buckingham Palace Road, which takes you past the Royal Mews — where the queen parks her coaches — to the palace itself. While the latter is only open to visitors during August and September (and during a few days in winter, for a much higher price), you can ogle the royal spread from the road.
Naturally, you have to be outside to watch the changing of the guards — daily from April through July, and every other day the rest of the year. But to get an even better view of Buckingham Palace, keep walking to St. James’ Park, the oldest of London’s eight Royal Parks.
Even in the gray heart of London, you are never far from a green oasis. London’s verdant, peaceful parks, with rolling lawns and lush foliage, are a tribute to all that famous rain. St. James’s boasts not only a shimmering lake that runs its length, but also views of three palaces — Buckingham, St. James’s Palace and Westminster, now the Houses of Parliament — as well as 10 Downing St.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that when the prime minister strolls across the park to the Palace, he must contemplate the extraordinary, 82-foot-high fin-de-siècle monument to Queen Victoria, whose marble likeness is crowned by a gold winged Victory statue. Along with Victoria, St. James’ Park is a virtual memorial to prominent recent royals — including monuments to the Queen Mother and King George VI.
Taken together, these displays throughout London’s Royal Parks are more than aesthetic punctuation; they’re a lucid and enjoyable guide to British history, a visual smorgasbord of English pride, nostalgia and taste. (St. James’ Park also has rotating outdoor exhibitions on British history, including the current one spotlighting World War I battlefields.)
The focus is on remembrances of soldiers and veterans in the memorials at Green Park, located just on the other side of the Palace. Green Park is smallest of the Royal Parks (though at 40 acres, this is a high bar indeed); its inviting lawns, spread over the slope of Constitution Hill, are one of the more popular spots for picnics and sunbathing. If your timing is right, you might spot royal guards riding their horses in formation in a training exercise.
There’s even more to see amid the fountains and gardens of Hyde Park, London’s answer to Central Park and the largest of its royal lawns. The lake at its heart is known as the Serpentine, and if you’re feeling romantic, you can rent a rowboat here as well. You can also stop for tea at any of several pretty cafés around the lake, including the Serpentine Bar and Kitchen, where glass walls showcase the scenery.
Here the most prominent memorials recall the 20th century, and as such they are among the most-visited. At the lake’s edge, children play in and around the burbling, granite-enclosed stream of the Princess Diana memorial fountain.
And amid the silver beech trees of the Serpentine Dell, English and Hebrew letters detail a stone marking the Holocaust Memorial Garden. This was Great Britain’s first Holocaust memorial; dedicated in 1983, it is modest but lovely in its restraint, and the site of an annual remembrance service.
The festive side of London Jewish life is also on view outdoors — at the annual Chanukah festivities in Trafalgar Square, which lies just down the Mall from St. James’s Park. Last year more than 7,000 people flooded the square to watch Mayor Boris Johnson light the towering candelabra for the first night of Chanukah, and stayed for concerts by local Jewish choirs and music ensembles.
Though it’s a fairly recent phenomenon, the menorah lighting has become a literal bright spot on the Jewish calendar. Throngs of families come for free doughnuts, hot kosher food, and sightings of the Chabad Chanukah superhero Dreidelman. And it’s just one more reason to enjoy London in the fresh air.