More great reasons to visit bustling Great Britain

  • By Rick Steves
  • Thursday, January 30, 2014 12:48pm
  • Life

For travelers, Great Britain is a work in progress, richly rewarding those who visit with up-to-date information.

Here are a few important changes to be aware of for 2014.

London continues to grow and thrive post-Olympics. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, bus transportation is more efficient than ever and the city’s freshly scrubbed monuments have never looked so good.

Some of the biggest changes are in East London, where backhoes and bulldozers buzz around busily turning the 2012 Olympics site into what is now Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

The Shard, a shimmering glass pyramid that soars 1,020 feet above the Thames in central London, started welcoming visitors to its observation decks last year.

Perched in the building’s pinnacle, the decks offer great views of the Tower of London (directly across the river), St. Paul’s, and the South Bank (underfoot). But a visit to the top costs a jaw-dropping 25 pounds ($40 U.S.) for advance tickets — not worth it for most visitors.

Years ago the venerable Tate Gallery split in two, with the original site dedicated to British art and the new site — the Tate Modern — filled up with modern art.

Now the Tate Modern is adding a new wing (opening bit by bit), allowing the museum to expand beyond its current European and North American focus with exhibits on Latin American, African, and Asian art.

Shakespeare’s Globe now boasts an indoor theater, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It’s an intimate space designed to use authentic candle light for period performances — and allows the Globe to stage plays year-round.

Greenwich’s famous Cutty Sark, the last and fastest of the great tea clippers, was gorgeously restored in 2012 after a devastating fire.

It’s now suspended within a glass building, allowing visitors to walk on its decks, through its hold, and below its gleaming golden hull.

Multimedia and hands-on exhibits bring the ship’s record-breaking history to life.

Finally, after nearly 5,000 years, Stonehenge has a decent visitors center. The new center features artifacts found at the site and a 360-degree virtual view of what the stone circle looked like back then.

People start at the visitors center — more than a mile west of the stones — then take a shuttle or walk to the stone circle. Reservations are required.

In the Georgian city of Bath, the Georgian House, which gives an intimate look at life in the 18th century, has reopened following an extensive renovation.

In Portsmouth, the Mary Rose Museum opened last May. The 36-million-pound ($58 million U.S.) facility, shaped like an oval jewel box, preserves the hull of Henry VIII’s favorite warship, which sank in 1545.

The highlight is the collection of Tudor-era items that were found inside the wreck. There’s even the skeleton of Hatch, the ship’s dog.

In York, the renovation of the Minster’s Great East Window continues, with temporary exhibits that explain the project.

The Minster’s new undercroft museum focuses on the history of the site and its origins as a Roman fortress.

In 2014, Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games July 23 to August 3, with 6,000 athletes expected to compete.

The Battle of Bannockburn — Scotland’s most significant military victory over the English — will mark its 700th anniversary in 2014.

In honor of the occasion, the Bannockburn Heritage Centre in Stirling is being spiffed up and will reopen this March.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com.

© 2014 Rick Steves distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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