Travel

A backstage view of London

Even longtime Londoners don’t know that anyone can tour the UK’s Houses of Parliament.
Even longtime Londoners don’t know that anyone can tour the UK’s Houses of Parliament. TNS

In February, Adaeze Uyanwah, a Los Angeles college student, won what was perhaps the ultimate travel contest. After submitting a brief statement and short video explaining why she should be picked, Uyanwah was chosen from among more than 10,000 entrants to visit London for two weeks as London’s “Guest of Honour.”

It was a truly unusual visit. She toured the Science Museum with Professor Stephen Hawking, met London Mayor Boris Johnson, had tea with Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson (actor Jim Carter), visited 10 Downing Street, took a private tour of the Houses of Parliament and Warner Bros. Studios Tour London, lowered and raised the famous Tower Bridge, toured the Royal Opera House backstage, and much more.

It was a true “insider” look at London and you, too, can experience some amazing “backstage” experiences on your next London visit. Here are seven unusual things you can do that most visitors, and even Londoners, scarcely know about.

▪ “Fly” a British Airways jet: If you like video games, have ever dreamed of being a pilot, or just want the thrill of a lifetime, British Airways will let you “fly” in the same flight simulators used to train their pilots. I did this for several hours and I was quite giddy. It’s an incredible experience. Info: http://bit.ly/1EUykj0.

▪ Tour the houses of Parliament: Adaeze got a private tour of the Palace of Westminster with the speaker of the House of Commons, but anyone can visit and watch debates in a group tour. The interior architecture will have you craning your neck in every direction. Info: http://bit.ly/1C0PoTF.

▪ Backstage tour of the Royal Opera House: Perhaps you’ll watch a ballet class in progress, see current and historic stage sets, or even spy an opera or ballet star. If you get a chance, pick up some tickets for a performance. Info: www.roh.org.uk/tours/backstage-tour.

▪ Tour the original Hogwarts Express: If you’re a Harry Potter fan, taking a tour of Warner Bros. Studios Tour London is a must. A new exhibit shows visitors the original Hogwarts Express steam engine and a re-creation of Platform 93/4 provides a glimpse into how some of the films’ scenes were created. Info: www.wbstudiotour.co.uk/.

▪ Backstage tours of London theaters: London’s Guest of Honour actually got to be an extra in the chorus of the London cast of Mamma Mia for an evening. Sorry, but that’s not on offer. However, if you’re a theater fan, these tours are a must. The National Theatre and Theatre Royal Drury Lane are two especially good ones. Info: http://bit.ly/1wpvAL0.

▪ Tour and witness the Royal Courts of Justice in action: No country does justice with quite the pomp and circumstance (wigs and gowns for days!) that England does. Not only is the architecture impressive but the proceedings, which you can witness from the gallery, are fascinating too. Guided tours should be booked far in advance of your trip. Info: http://bit.ly/1B0wqsV.

▪ Open House London: For the ultimate “backstage” experience, this annual event opens public access to buildings that are normally off-limits (this year the event happens Sept. 19 and 20). The theme is “revealing great architecture for free,” and, indeed, the entire weekend offers free admission. For example, last year you could visit 10 Downing Street (the UK’s White House equivalent) if you were lucky enough to win a lottery for the limited number of places. Info: www.openhouselondon.org.uk/.

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