The Olympics in London are a celebration of the world’s greatest athletes, and the city will be hopping this summer with the sweat and excitement of the summer games.
But if you yearn to indulge in the more intellectual offerings of the city, head over to the Bloomsbury District. This is ground zero in London for the treasures of the mind and the heritage of world cultures.
The main points of interest in and near Bloomsbury are the British Library and the British Museum. If you’re pressed for time you can do both in a day, but you’ll have to be selective about what you see. It’s about a 15-30 minute walk between the two. They'll collectively be the best bargain of your trip to London, as both are free.
The British Library is just north of Bloomsbury on Euston Road next to the King’s Cross and St. Pancras train stations (and Harry Potter’s platform, 9¾). The library moved offsite from the British Museum in 1998. The building has a light, airy ambience, and an outdoor piazza displays several sculptures.
The Treasure Room holds a dazzling display of historical manuscripts and documents open for viewing by the public. The Magna Carta, Gutenberg Bible and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci are here, as well as the original Beowulf and Alice in Wonderland. There are original manuscripts by Dickens, Tolkien, Bronte and Blake, folios by Shakespeare, even original lyrics by the Beatles scribbled on an envelope and the back of a birthday card.
It’s particularly striking to see how books have evolved over the centuries. The King’s Library, a four-story glass tower in the middle of the library, holds the personal collection of King George III. Much of the British Library’s collection can now be accessed online.
The library’s collection of 14 million books is second in the world to the Library of Congress, and it is first in total number of items.
Along with written manuscripts, there are musical scores and papers, artwork, postage stamps, sound recordings, maps and specialized journals. Many of the holdings rest in underground storage spaces. Guided walking tours are offered to help orient the visitor.
The stroll through Bloomsbury from the library to the British Museum is worth lingering over; there are several points of interest related to London’s literary history. The name Bloomsbury stems from a group of artists and writers who resided and met here in the 1920s. Virginia Woolf was probably the most well-known of the group.
In earlier years, Charles Dickens lived in several locations around Bloomsbury and wrote several of his classics here. The Dickens Museum is located here on 48 Doughty Street, but it's closed until December 2012 for renovations.
Bloomsbury was also home to W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Charles Darwin and Bob Marley, among others.
Several garden squares dot the area, surrounded by Georgian architecture – most notably Russell Square and Tavistock Square. In the middle of Tavistock Garden, considered a Peace Garden, stands a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived in the area for a few years.
Other points of interest in Bloomsbury include The Great Ormond Hospital, which inspired J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan, and The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
The Senate House, which George Orwell used as his inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in his famous novel 1984, is here. The central departments for the University of London are located in Bloomsbury as well, although the university’s campus is not worth visiting.
The centerpiece of the Bloomsbury District is, of course, the British Museum. Opened in 1759, the building holds perhaps the most comprehensive collection of valuable historical treasures of any museum anywhere. There are holdings from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas and the ancient world, including the largest and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian artifacts anywhere.
One could easily spend two or three days perusing the wonders of the museum and still not come close to seeing all that it has available.
Some of the highlights include Hammurabi’s Code, the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian mummies, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, statues from the Pantheon, Easter Island heads, and the controversial Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles (which the museum stubbornly clutches to like a three-year-old to her favorite doll).
Some call the British Museum the “plunder palace” due to its acquisition of so many antiquities in the days when the tentacles of the British Empire reached across the globe. There's been friction between the museum and the governments of Egypt and Greece because of its unrelenting grip on the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon Marbles. More recently, the museum has sent archaeologists to the ancient world to look for new artifacts.
If you’re a history buff, a visit to the British Museum can be invigorating, but a bit overwhelming. You can spend a full day here and only see a fraction of what it offers. Seeing these pieces from the past can certainly stimulate the imagination and help one imagine what these ancient civilizations might have looked like.
The British Museum has its own tube stop. You can also reach Bloomsbury via the Russell Square and Tottenham Court Road stops. The British Library can be reached via the King’s Cross/St. Pancras stop.
After filling your mind with the intellectual richness of the Bloomsbury District, you may be in the mood to walk over to Soho to the west to peruse its many restaurants and bars. The area is a historic (and infamous) center of London’s nightlife. Go ahead and splurge with the money you saved visiting the British Museum and British Library.