When it comes to major cities, London resides at the top of my list for a host of reasons — including the fact that regardless of the mood I’m in or with whom I’m traveling, the city always provides superb diversion. Beyond its tranquil parks, historic sites, great restaurants and a range of galleries and theaters, there are always splendidly unexpected corners to explore, cozy nooks perfect for sipping a cup of tea a deux and meandering avenues to stroll hand-in-hand.
The Romans bestowed the original settlement with the name Londinium in A.D. 43. Usually on the winning side of occupations, they were run out of town — literally — around A.D. 61 by Boudica, queen of an ancient local clan. The soldiers made the mistake of mistreating the queen and her daughters, inciting Boudica’s wrath and leading her to rouse her tribe, who turned the settlement into a bonfire, leaving it smoldering and temporarily Roman-free. Now immortalized in flame-proof bronze, Boudica can be seen driving a chariot along the Thames embankment close to Westminster Bridge.
Since those early days, the United Kingdom’s capital city has produced some of the greatest poets and writers in English literature. It’s also grown into a global financial center and a multicultural metropolis with a population hovering around 8 million in the urban city center. Today there are multiple ways (excluding chariots) to experience the city, from boat and double-decker bus to themed walking tours (http://www.visitlondon.com and www.walks.com) built around royalty, art, music, ghosts, history, literature, gardens and Jack the Ripper, as well as tours that visit sites used in filming Harry Potter. Sightseeing cruises along the Thames provide excellent views of major historic sites and allow you to enjoy a unique perspective of the city’s symbolic bridges, including the iconic — and still standing — London Bridge. Multiple operators sail year-round from Westminster Pier (http://www.westminsterpier.co.uk).
Prominent on the skyline from the river or the shore, the London Eye (http://www.londoneye.com) holds claim to being the world’s largest observation wheel, designed by a husband-and-wife architectural team. A leisurely ride in one of the glass seating capsules affords 360-degree views of the city and many of its most famous sites. Enhance the romance factor: Reserve a “Champagne Flight” (in a private or shared capsule) and take in the view, flutes of chilled Laurent-Perrier in hand.
Spanning a path from the river’s edge to Euston Road, London’s Museum Mile (http://www.museum-mile.org.uk) comprises 13 galleries and museums. Among them are the Charles Dickens Museum; London Transport Museum; Royal Opera House; and the British Library with its stunning collection of historic maps, documents and manuscripts, including Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks and the Magna Carta. The British Museum (http://www.britishmuseum.org) on Great Russell Street, with its fascinating mix of archaeological exhibits and British treasures, is perfect for whiling away an occasional drizzly afternoon. Many of the museums offer free admission as well as activities and interactive exhibits.
For something more contemporary, the Tate Modern (tel 44 20 7887 8888, http://www.tate.org.uk/modern), on the south bank of the Thames across from St. Paul’s Cathedral, is hard to beat. This power-station-turned-exhibition-space is open daily except Dec. 24–26. This year, the museum will host exhibits of Theo van Doesburg and the international avant-garde movement, a retrospective of works by Arshile Gorky and collections by Gauguin and Henry Moore. At the Design Museum (28 Shad Thames, http://designmuseum.org), new exhibits include Sustainable Futures and Urban Africa.
There’s something meditative about pausing long enough to savor a cup of tea while the city’s irrepressible energy swirls around outside. London has no shortage of lovely tearooms, and plenty have garden options. At Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (http://www.kew.org) stroll the Treetop Walkway and then enjoy tea and handmade cakes at The Orangery Restaurant. For something especially distinctive, make a reservation for a romantic, traditional afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason’s fourth-floor restaurant, St. James’s (181 Piccadilly, http://www.fortnumandmason.com/stjames-restaurant.aspx). Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and during select weekend hours, you can butter your crumpets to the accompaniment of live piano music. The Fortnum & Mason store, home of the legendary food hampers, has become almost synonymous with London chic, and it’s worth strolling past just to view the famous window displays.
Every visit to London should include at least a few forays into its vivid past. The Tower of London (http://www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon) — actually part of a complex of buildings properly known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress — is one of the city’s four World Heritage sites. The location of numerous imprisonments, torture sessions and political assignations, it has also housed a zoo and is the official address for London’s principal lolly, the Crown Jewels. It’s also where, each evening for the past 700 years, the Ceremony of the Keys has taken place. The popularity of this historic ceremony requires considerable advance planning, and you’ll need to make requests for the free tickets in writing several months ahead.
Buckingham Palace (tel 44 20 7766 7300, http://www.royalcollection.org.uk), the queen’s official residence (and possibly Western culture’s most impressive office space), is open to the public on a limited basis during summer months. While only the 19 State Rooms are open for viewing, just a ramble along the avenue outside will give you a good sense of its enduring grandeur.
The palace’s stately Changing of the Guard takes place each morning at 11:30 a.m. from May until late July and on a staggered schedule at other times (check the website for specific dates). A fascinating — and underrated — corner of the palace’s sprawling complex is the Royal Mews (tel 44 20 7766 7302). A tour provides an intriguing glance into the behind-the-scenes lifestyles of the royal horses. There’s also a remarkable carriage collection, including the Gold State Coach used during the queen’s 2002 Golden Jubilee.
You can get a taste of the city’s wilder side at the London Zoo (tel 44 20 7722 3333, http://www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo) in the northeast corner of Regent’s Park. Well over 700 animal species are in residence, from moon jellyfish and red pandas to exotic, audaciously spotted African servals. Which just goes to show that when it comes to extraordinary destinations, London is always spot on.
Info To Go
Five airports serve London: Heathrow (LHR), Gatwick (LGW), London City (LCY), Luton (LTN) and Stansted (STN). The Heathrow Express connects to Paddington Station, and the Gatwick Express provides non-stop service to London Victoria. From STN, take the Stansted Express to London Liverpool Street or the National Express East Anglia to Stratford and East London. Trains also connect Gatwick to Stansted and Heathrow. Taxis and buses are options from all. Visit http://www.visitlondon.com or www.londontown.com.
You’ll find posh coziness and impeccable service in this quiet location adjacent to Buckingham Palace and Victoria Station. Family owned for four generations. Beeston Place, tel 44 20 7396 9000, $$$
The Royal Horseguards
Newly renovated 5-star has a wide range of room options, some overlooking the Thames. Stroll to Covent Garden and Houses of Parliament. 2 Whitehall Court, tel 44 871 376 9033, $$$
The Stafford Hotel
This gem of modern luxury is embellished with period furnishings, a fabulous spa and butler service. Perfect central London walking base, on Green Park. St. James’s Place, tel 44 20 7493 0111, $$$$
This elegant Soho eatery offers a different menu daily, based on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Open daily for lunch and dinner, pre-theater seatings available. 63–64 Frith St., tel 44 20 7734 4545, $$$
The Grill at the Dorchester
Modern British menu in a stylish setting, with a tasty take on classics such as duck, cod and lamb. Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily. Park Lane, tel 44 20 7629 8888, $$$
What’s London without a curry? Try this sophisticated spin on classic Indian dishes in Covent Garden. Serving lunch and dinner daily, except Sundays. 45 Great Queen St., tel 44 20 7240 9329, $$
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