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London s blockbuster attractions
Stephen Scourfield, The West Australian The Great Clock tower at Westminster, which houses the bell Big Ben.

Europe always was “the big trip” for Australians, and in 2012 it looks like being even bigger.

Our Big Trip Guide to Europe:
QUIRKY TREASURES
COASTING THE ISLANDS OF CROATIA
LIVELY LISBON

Many readers will have been making decisions as tour companies matched exceptional airline Earlybird Europe airfares for the next European summer.

Many of those have booking deadlines of November 30.

It's time to get out and about and plan not just where to go, but what to do and experience.

We often look for something new and different, but the fact remains that the blockbuster tourist attractions in London are just that for a reason.

More British travel news and reviews:
OXFORD
CAMBRIDGE
STRATFORD

So, don't be shy - be a tourist. Some of these are the most touristy things to do in London and I love 'em. Camera, wallet, map, brolly and we're off.

MY TOP FIVE


Boat cruises on the River Thames
It's right at the top of my to-do list. There are boat rides all year in a choice of pleasure boats, faster Thames Clippers and high-speed rigid inflatables. What do you see? Canary Wharf, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, the Houses of Parliament and more. Many leave at 10am onwards from Westminster Pier, but some also from London Eye Pier, Tower Hill Pier and Greenwich Pier.
• citycruises.com.

Tower of London
More than 23,500 gems make up the Crown Jewels. Fabulous. The Tower has been a royal residence, military fortress and prison. And when visitors walk the grounds, the White Tower, Medieval Palace and prisoners' exhibition, they might just keep a lookout for the ghost of the queen Anne Boleyn, who was executed in 1536 and who is said to hang around the tower. (I didn't see her.)
• hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon.

London Eye
Speaking of views - on a clear day, you can see Windsor Castle from the top. That's about 40km away. I didn't get a clear day but the view from 135m up on the London Eye was still well worth it. The whole circular trip feels like quite an event.
• londoneye.com.

Hyde Park
I just kept ending up back here. The stands of trees; open grassy areas; boats, ducks, swans and geese on The Serpentine; the Australian war memorial; a nice cup of tea at the restaurant; the parade grounds. It's nice having horse paths in the middle of one of the world's busiest cities. Then, over in the elegant avenues and architecture of Kensington Gardens (which is really an extension of Hyde Park), the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground.
•royalparks.gov.uk/Kensington -Gardens.aspx.

Greenwich
One of my favourite days out, anywhere. Catch a boat from just about any pier, walk through the historic architecture, visit the Royal Observatory and stand on Greenwich Mean Time's meridian line. End up at the National Maritime Museum - entry is free - and see John Harrison's wooden clocks, which solved the longitude problem. I am transfixed again by standing in front of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's undress coat, which he wore at Trafalgar in 1805.

Part of the left epaulette is missing, where the shot that killed him carried it into the wound. There's plenty of places to eat and drink - from the Great British Fish and Chip Shop, King William Walk, to pubs such as the Gypsy Moth, Spanish Galleon or Admiral Hardy where I had a ration of rum and toasted this fine chap who served as flag captain to Nelson and commanded HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. After that, take the rail back to Bank, which puts you on many Underground lines.
• nmm.ac.uk.

STERLING STUFF ... shopping as an event

Sunday UpMarket and Backyard Market, Brick Lane
Sunday morning and for something different head to Sunday UpMarket and Backyard Market in Brick Lane. They're slightly off the beaten track, there's a hip Brick Lane feel, and the locals and fashionistas love 'em. Up-and-coming fashion designers and artists and craftspeople sell at Backyard Market, with its entry on Brick Lane on Saturday from 11am-6pm and on Sunday from 10am-5pm. Sunday UpMarket has many international food flavours and free tastings from 10am-5pm at Ely's Yard (entrances on Brick Lane and Hanbury Street), E1.
• sundayupmarket.co.uk for both.

Borough Market
The theme is not just food but where it comes from. There's a seasonal feel, and people who want to chat about their produce. And it's not just tourists - restaurateurs and chefs shop here. It's beneath the railway viaducts between the River Thames and Borough High Street in South East London on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Best to get there between 8am and 10am.
• boroughmarket.org.uk.

BRILLIANT and FREE

Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Science Museum
These three in Exhibition Road are all free. It is almost embarrassing having such a wonderful, interesting, inspiring day and parting with only the odd "pound" to check your bag into the cloakroom and £2.70 ($4.20) for a sandwich.

In Exhibition Road, I started at the V&A, particularly loving the hall showing British sculpture of the past 350 years. (Lots of art students were drawing the sculptures. Interesting.) The Natural History Museum is a dinosaur-kids' delight - an ichthyosaur from Dorset, stegosaur from Wiltshire and crocodile skeleton from Germany which is about 180 million years old. But I have to say the Science Museum's the best - reinvented and taking me from the original, actual 1829 Stephenson's Rocket locomotive to the 1969 Apollo 10 space command module and beyond.
• nhm.ac.uk, vam.ac.uk, science museum.org.uk.

National Gallery
The National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, has a superb collection of Western European artwork from the early 20th century to the present. In room after room, I see the works of Renoir, Seurat, Pissarro, seven van Goghs in a row, Rousseau's tiger, Cezanne, Gauguin and Degas. Incredible. Admission is free. In another room are the stunningly beautiful religious icons of Lorenzo Monaro from around 1399 and Fra Angelico from about 1417. Egg tempera on wood.
• nationalgallery.org.uk

SERENDIPITY


Add serendipity to the mix. Just get out and about in London and something will happen. I was walking past the Royal Geographical Society building (just because I wanted to have seen it) opposite Hyde Park and saw a sign for the free exhibition Rivers in Ice, showing how the glaciers of the Himalaya are vanishing by hanging David Breashears' epic photographs of them adjacent to earlier black and whites, such as those of Vittorio Sella's Jannu Glacier, Nepal, in 1899.

On another day, just wandering, I bump into the Regent Street Motor Show, celebrating three centuries of motoring. Veterans, E-Type Jaguars and Minis set against the Georgian architecture of this beautiful London street.

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY


London isn't expensive. I pay £15 ($23.40) for a set-menu dinner - a choice of two courses from three starters, three mains and three desserts - at Le Metro Bar and Brasserie in Basil Street, Knightsbridge, just steps from Harrods, long treasured by locals and visitors alike. A bottle of very decent red wine is £18 ($28.15).

A full (and I mean full) cooked English breakfast at Arco in pricey Knightsbridge, is £6.60 ($10.32).

I pay £1.50 ($2.30) to leave a heavy bag in a cloakroom at a free-entry museum; £2.75 ($4.30) for tea in Harvey Nichols' restaurant; £9.80 ($15.33) for a large latte, roast beef sandwich and a salad at the National Gallery's cafe.

I buy a £20 ($31.20) Oyster card for travel on the mass of public transport - buses everywhere, the Underground to everywhere - and it lasts me four days around central London.
• oyster.tfl.gov.uk

You will notice that I have been quoting all these prices initially in British pounds. That's for a reason. As I go about my sightseeing in London, it feels to me that I am using a pound as I would a dollar. The exchange rate as we go to print means that £1 costs us $1.56. In other words you roughly have to add half again to these prices. But I don't call that expensive.

You have to factor in that you can spend much of your day doing things that are free. I left the hotel at 8am one day and returned exhausted after seeing the sights and going into galleries and museums, and had bought two cups of coffee at £2.80 ($4.38) each and lunch at £13.40 ($20.95). A priceless big day out for a small price.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Thai Airways and The Capital Hotel and Levin Hotel, Knightsbridge.