Surely one of the major reasons to travel anywhere in the world is to discover the unique culture of various countries, major cities and other differing places of interest. Indeed, many a keen traveller likes to keep an eye on the guidance of UNESCO – or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, to give it its full title.
Specifically because this organisation is well known for maintaining its World Heritage Sites list, a compendium of more than 1,000 places its many experts deem to be of significant culture and/ or physical importance. Culture, you may have guessed dominates the list, accounting for nearly 800 of the sites listed; while Italy accounts for 50 sites, more than any of country.
But, you may ask, why is this relevant to someone who may be interested in – or intending – to visit London? Well, reflective of just what an engaging, intriguing and electric city it is, the UK capital can claim four of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites all to itself. Yes, really. Reason above all then to give them – and the city as a whole – a visit, surely…?
The Tower of London
Maybe the most famous of the London UNESCO attractions, the Tower dates back to a year imprinted on the memory of every British schoolchild – 1066. Why’s that? Because that was the year William the Conqueror invaded the British Isles, battled for control of the country and became England’s first Norman king, ushering in the medieval age. The Tower was specifically built as his London stronghold, meaning it began life as an imposing yet elegant, square-shaped stone fortress. Over time, however, it’s fulfilled several roles, which is essentially why it belongs on the UNESCO list.
As English history evolved and the nation’s monarch’s shifted power-bases to castles throughout the land and London became a big metropolis that could take care of itself, the Tower was often used a high-class prison and place of torture and execution (for instance, in Tudor times two of King Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives were imprisoned and lost their lives here, as did, a little earlier, the notorious so-called ‘Princes in the Tower’). Yet, as England became more civilised, so did the Tower’s purpose. Royalty relied on it as a jewel depository (hence why the Crown Jewels are still stored there), a palace and even a private menagerie of exotic animals – until they were moved in the early 19th Century to the new London Zoo in Regent’s Park. So, if you’re staying in accommodation near Brewery Road London City, then the Tower will be practically on your doorstep, reason indeed to pay it a visit, surely?
The Palace of Westminster
Much younger (but no less impressive or famous) than the Tower is the home of British democracy and the seat of power throughout the land, the Palace of Westminster. Although it now fulfils far from the conventional function of a palace – being the meeting-place and workplace of officials elected to the UK Parliament and those charged with sitting in the upper house (the House of Lords) – it takes its lofty-sounding name from the building that preceded it, which was once a real Royal palace before burning down in 1834. The present building was designed and erected in the mid-19th Century and is a world-class example of Neo-Gothic architecture, unmistakeable for its stark but magnificent clock-tower known as a ‘Big Ben’ (but which is actually a misnomer; it’s really the name of the enormous bell housed behind the clock).
Its interiors are hugely impressive too, including the wondrously ornate chambers where the Members of Parliament and the members of the House of Lords sit when in session, as well as an imposing Central Lobby. Indeed, another of the Palace’s towers (Victoria Tower) holds more than three million documents, including every one of the Acts of Parliament issued since 1947. Note: UNESCO actually classes the Palace of Westminster as a World Heritage Site along with the neighbouring Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s Church.
Added to the UNESCO list in 2003, this venue has actually been in existence for more than 175 years. Featuring greenhouses galore that attract tourists from all over the world thanks to the brilliant bright colours of their millions of plants and many family-friendly events, it’s also renowned for its historical landscaped gardens, ensuring it contains major elements that illustrate garden art from the 18th Century onwards, as well as the world-leading research into plants that’s conducted on-site.
Completing the quartet, London’s fourth and final World Heritage Site is actually a collection of venues making up what can be loosely referred to as ‘Maritime Greenwich’. First up is the glorious rolling green expanse that’s Greenwich Royal Park, which is perfectly complemented by the beauty of The Queen’s House, the historic resonance of the Royal Observatory and the Greenwich Meridian Line just outside, plus, of course, the magnificent collection housed in the National Maritime Museum. All in all, ‘Maritime Greenwich’ owes its UNESCO status due to its inestimable contribution to 17th and 18th Century scientific and artistic endeavour – but, doubtless, also makes for a fantastic day out.