WHAT TO DO
London is one of the greatest cities in the world. It is also one of the most visited destinations - due to its remarkable history, fascinating culture and endless attractions. Whether you are in town for a short visit or extended stay, the city on the River Thames will indeed impress and inspire you. London is a walkable town, but I recommend purchasing an Oyster card - it will allow you to use public transport (the awesome double decker buses and the Underground or "Tube") at a lower cost. Note: the plastic card can be obtained at most Tube stations and you can add value to it as often as you want. Another option for getting around is in the back of one of the famous black cabs, the drivers are friendly and usually have good stories to tell. Be sure to grab an umbrella as you begin your tour of London Town.
London has several great neighborhoods to wander, each with its own unique character. With so much to see and do, it's best to pace yourself and follow a manageable itinerary. A smart introduction to any big city would be to take a guided tour. I enjoyed Big Bus Tours - the fleet of open top double decker buses take in the major sights and provide live commentary. You can hop on and off as you wish, tickets are valid for 24 hours and include a free cruise on the River Thames. Once you get your bearings and establish a to do list, head out on your own and explore all the wonders London has to offer.
A good starting point is Parliament Square in Westminster. There are several famous landmarks nearby including the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. The massive abbey was consecrated in 1065 and is the crowning and burial site of most English monarchs. With a superb mixture of architectural styles, Westminster Abbey is considered the finest example of Early English Gothic. At the heart of the abbey is the beautifully tiled sanctuary - a stage for coronations, royal weddings and funerals. The most sacred spot in the abbey is the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the founder of the abbey. Apart from the royal graves, the abbey houses Poet's Corner - the burial place of Charles Dickens and other prominent writers. Officially called the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament's most famous feature is its clock tower - Elizabeth Tower, aka Big Ben. The famed Ben is actually the 13.5 ton bell inside the tower, named after Benjamin Hall, who was Commissioner of Works when the tower was completed in 1858. Big Ben first chimed in July 1859. Next, take a picture in front of the statue of Winston Churchill as you make your way to the impressive Churchill War Rooms. This museum is located at Clive Steps, King Charles Street and honors the former British Prime Minister. Churchill coordinated the Allied resistance against Nazi Germany from this underground military bunker during World War 2. The Cabinet War Rooms remain much as they were when the war ended in 1945 and provide intriguing insights into the resolute, cigar smoking wartime leader. From there, take a short stroll to the River Thames for an excellent view of the city's famous bridges and the London Eye (giant Ferris wheel) on the South Bank. Then turn back and take Whitehall (road) to 10 Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister for a quick photo op. If you happen to be hungry or thirsty, cross Parliament Street and stop in at The Red Lion. Located at 48 Parliament Street, it dates back to 1900 and does a mean fish and chips, along with a solid pint of ale. After recharging your battery, head up to Trafalgar Square and one of my favorite art museums anywhere, The National Gallery. Trafalgar Square is the center of London, with Lord Nelson on his column and the stone lions - it is an ideal spot to chill, take some pictures and people watch. The National Gallery is one of the world's great art institutions, with some 2300 works on display, dating from the mid 13th to the early 20th century. Must see masterpieces include: Sunflowers by Van Gogh, Virgin of the Rocks by Da Vinci, Venus and Mars by Botticelli and Bathers at La Grenouillere by Monet. I recommend renting an audio guide or taking a complimentary 1 hour guided tour that leaves from the information desk in the Sainsbury Wing. The National Gallery is open 361 days a year (closed December 24-26 and January 1) and admission is free. From Trafalgar Square, head through Admiralty Arch and down The Mall (road) between St Jame's Park and Green Park until you reach the end at Queen Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace. The London residence and principle workplace of the monarchy, Buckingham Palace was built in 1703 and has 775 rooms. It is usually closed to the public, except in summer (late July to September) when Her Royal Highness is on holiday. Be sure to watch the changing of the Queen's Guard (weather permitting) on the Palace's forecourt. During the ceremony, one regiment takes over from another. Note: it lasts about 40 minutes and draws large crowds.
After your royal experience I suggest taking some time for afternoon tea. This ritual owes its origins to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. As a young woman in the early 1800's she lived during a time when it was common to eat only two meals a day, one early in the morning and another late in the evening. Routinely weakened and irritated by hunger pains, she decided to schedule time to take tea and snack each afternoon. This private ceremony has evolved into what millions of patrons (including yours truly) enjoy today. There are several tea rooms and hotels in London that offer variations of this centuries old tradition. If you want to do it proper and experience something special, I recommend the following: The Drawing Room at Brown's Hotel, The Palm Court at The Ritz and Claridge's. When you conclude your pinky down delights, stretch your legs and roam a few neighborhoods - there are many spots to window shop along the way. Some of my favorite areas to wander are Dean Street in Soho, the Piazza in Covent Garden, Camden Market in Camden Town and Brick Lane Market in Shoreditch. Nearby is the best record shop in town. Rough Trade East is located in Old Truman Brewery at 91 Brick Lane. For serious shopping, head to Bond Street and Carnaby Street. Oxford Street in Mayfair is a must, so is a visit to Harrods department store on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. This place is massive and has everything from a grand perfume hall to a magnificent food hall.
If you fancy more culture and history then make your way to The British Museum on Great Russell Street (Piccadilly line to Russell Square tube station). It is England's largest museum and boasts vast Egyptian, Greek, Roman and European galleries, among others. Don't miss the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics - discovered in 1799. Other must sees include the Parthenon Sculptures, Egyptian mummies and the Winged Bulls from Khorsabad. The Great Court, restored and augmented by Norman Foster in 2000, has a spectacular steel and glass roof - making it one of the most impressive (and photographed) architectural spaces in London. Admission is free and the museum is open every day of the year except December 24-26 and January 1. Next, head to St Paul's Cathedral - one of London's most majestic and iconic buildings. For Londoners, the vast dome, which still manages to dominate the skyline is a symbol of resilience and pride - standing tall for more than 300 years. The cathedral was designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire and built between 1675 and 1710; it opened the following year. The dome, the world's second largest cathedral dome (weighing 65000 tons) is famed for evading German bombs during the Blitz of December 1940. Inside, appreciate the stunning mosaics before walking up a staircase to the Whispering Gallery then up some more steps to the Stone Gallery and Golden Gallery at the very top. The crypt has memorials to Wren and Lord Nelson. Note: photography is not permitted inside the cathedral. Continue east along the River Thames until you reach the unmissable Tower of London. This historic landmark includes the Bloody Tower, White Tower and the Jewel House - home of the dazzling Crown Jewels. Anne Boleyn was beheaded in 1536 for treason against Henry VIII (her ghost supposedly haunts the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where she is buried). Snap a photo with the colorful Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) then take the entertaining, hour long guided tour free of charge. Tours leave every 30 minutes from the bridge near the main entrance. Following your glimpse into the gruesome and compelling history of the Tower, cross the River Thames on the breathtaking Tower Bridge. Built in 1894, Tower Bridge is one of London's most famous and photographed landmarks. Once over the bridge to the South Bank, stop in at the fantastic Borough Market. The market specializes in high end fresh products - there are also plenty of takeaway stalls and many cake stalls. If you're in the mood for a bite try Arabica Bar & Kitchen, it does inventive Middle Eastern cuisine. Note: although the full market runs from Wednesday to Saturday, some stalls do open Mondays and Tuesdays. Nearby is the reconstruction of William Shakespeare's original Elizabethan Globe Theatre. The new Globe was designed to resemble the original as closely as possible, including the open air thatched roof. The adjacent Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a candlelit performance space. Just a few short steps away is one of London's most amazing attractions, the Tate Modern museum. This contemporary art gallery is housed in the creatively revamped Bankside Power Station south of the Millennium Bridge. The 4.2 million bricks of the former power house is an imposing sight, designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. Significant achievements include leaving the building's central 325 foot high chimney, adding a two story glass box onto the roof and creating the cavernous Turbine Hall as a dramatic entrance space. As cool as the building is, the contents of the museum are the main draw. The supreme collection of modern art includes works by Matisse, Warhol, Picasso, Dali and Pollock. Head up to the level 10 viewing gallery in Switch House for a commanding view of Millennium Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral on the far bank of the river. Note: to visit the sister museum Tate Britain, hop on the Tate Boat from Bankside Pier.
London has several lovely parks to enjoy where you can ride a bike, take a leisurely stroll or simply chill out and unwind. Besides the aforementioned St James's Park and Green Park, I enjoy Regent's Park and the enormous Hyde Park - London's largest open space. Just south of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are other fantastic museums worth a visit. The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is located on Cromwell Road and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects. Next door is the Science Museum and the colossal Natural History Museum. Down the road on Kensington Gore is the Victorian concert hall Royal Albert Hall. Built in 1871, this huge, domed, red brick amphitheatre is Britain's most famous concert venue. The Beatles performed at RAH in 1963 and forever immortalized it in their 1967 song, A Day in the Life, "now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall" - sung beautifully by John Lennon. Staying with the Fab Four, every Beatles fan (which should mean every human being) has to make the pilgrimage up to Abbey Road Studios in St John's Wood. Take the Tube to St John's Wood, cross the road, follow Grove End Road to its end, turn right and look for the crowd. The studios are off limits to the public, so take some photos and get in line to walk across the iconic zebra crossing and reenact the cover of the band's 1969 masterpiece, Abbey Road.
To conclude your London adventure, spend some time exploring a few more neighborhoods. Mayfair and South Kensington are charming, Notting Hill has its candy colored townhouses and Portobello Road, while North London has some bloody good pubs. Finish up in stylish Marylebone with a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum (221b Baker Street). This famous address is dedicated to the fictional detective and kept exactly as described in the author Arthur Conan Doyle's thrilling stories, written between 1881 and 1904. After solving a mystery, wet your whistle at the Chiltern Firehouse bar - it's a hotel built within a refurbished fire station. Don't miss a visit to Daunt Books at 83 Marylebone High Street. This original Edwardian bookshop with long oak galleries and graceful skylights has a dedication towards the travel variety - my kind of bookshop. Finally, one cannot visit London without mentioning soccer (sorry, I mean football). It is home to some of the best clubs you'll ever get to see. Tickets are highly prized and the Premier League season runs from August through May. The top London clubs are Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham - if you are unable to attend a match, taking a stadium tour is the next best thing. Chelsea's home is Stamford Bridge in West London and Arsenal play at Emirates Stadium in North London. Another option is Wembley Stadium, the city's landmark national stadium where England traditionally plays its international matches and where the FA Cup final is contested.
WHERE TO EAT
London has many great places to eat and drink. From Kensington to Shoreditch, whether it's the famous fish and chips with a pint of cider or other global flavors, there is something for everyone. When I travel I like to eat and drink local and when I'm in London I head straight for the outstanding Indian restaurants. There is no better place to start than at Gymkhana in Mayfair. Located at 42 Albemarle Street, this Michelin starred venue with a colonial style, focuses on tandoori and charcoal grills. I highly recommend the 6 course tasting menu that includes delicious samosa, tender chicken tikka and out of this world pork cheek vindaloo. The bar serves up some great cocktails - try the Quinine Sour (tanqueray gin, ginger, curry leaf, tonic bitters, egg white) or the Bhurport (rittenhouse rye whisky, lambic cherry beer, lemon, egg, basil dust). Reservations are suggested and try to sit downstairs. Nearby is Tamarind at 20 Queen Street. It does a nice take on traditional North Indian cuisine and innovative seasonal dishes in a contemporary setting. The set 2 course lunch is a good deal and the chicken tikka masala is yummy. Another excellent spot is Dishoom Shoreditch, located at 7 Boundary Street in the East End. This lively destination for Indian street food in Bombay style digs has a vintage decor with a modern twist. Try the sheekh kabab, spicy chicken ruby and bhel (Bombay mix and puffed rice with pomegranate, onion, lime, mint). Wash it all down with a Viceroy's Old Fashioned. Two other places that do modern Indian quite well are Amaya in Belgravia and Benares in Mayfair.
A wonderful spot for breakfast or brunch (if you're jet lagged) is the Wolseley at 160 Piccadilly, one block from the Green Park tube station. This opulent Viennese style brasserie with golden chandeliers and black & white tiled floors always draws a crowd. Do get the traditional English Breakfast (fried eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, tomato, black pudding, mushroom) with a perfect cup of tea. They also have nice soups and salads, not to mention some tasty desserts. A classic South Bank gastropub is The Anchor & Hope. Located at 36 The Cut, it offers a frequently changing modern British menu served in a wooden floored pub. Stand outs include the cauliflower soup with tapenade croutons and the slow cooked beef shin in red wine with kale mash and horseradish. The almond tart with clotted cream ice cream is delightful. Great Queen Street is another superb gastropub at 32 Great Queen Street in Covent Garden. The menu is seasonal, the dishes are hearty and the atmosphere is vibrant. There are always delicious stews, roasts and the small cellar bar has great drinks. Note: be sure to make a booking online in advance. The Palomar serves modern fare from Jerusalem in a decor that's good looking and exciting. It can be found at 34 Rupert Street in Soho, not too far from the Piccadilly Circus tube station. The plates are small and ideal for sharing. Start with the kubaneh (pull apart baked bread served with tahini and tomatoes), then enjoy the beetroot carpaccio, Jerusalem style polenta and shakshukit kebab with minced lamb and yogurt. Reservations are essential. I also enjoy Tom's Kitchen in Chelsea. Located at 27 Cale Street, this former pub turned brasserie goes to great lengths to support British farmers, growers and fishermen. Farm to table classics such as grilled steaks, slow cooked pork belly and chicken schnitzel are cooked to perfection. The steak tartare along with the fish and chips with mashed peas are excellent. One more place that is not to be missed is Beigel Bake. Found at 159 Brick Lane in Shoreditch, this 24/7 bakery does a cracking salt beef filled bagel with pickles and mustard.
London has some very cool spots to enjoy a drink or two. It seems that there is a pub on every corner and that's a good thing. It also is home to several of the best music venues in England. I would like to share some of my personal favorites. When I am in town the first place I always hit is Mr Fogg's at 15 Bruton Lane in Mayfair. This totally awesome old world gin parlor is based on the eccentric British adventurer, Phileas Fogg (the protagonist in the 1873 Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days). This place is stuffed with all of Fogg's fake travel trinkets - every wall is covered with hunting rifles, stuffed animals, weathered flags and maps. It'd be easy for cocktails to take second place with an interior like this, but at Mr Fogg's the seriously knowledgeable bar staff make sure they're exciting and altogether sensational. One drink I especially enjoy is the Elskling (hendrick's gin, st germain elderflower liqueur, cloudy apple juice, fresh lime juice, homemade sugar syrup, peach bitters). A great neighborhood pub in Mayfair is The Punchbowl. Located at 41 Farm Street, this cozy place is tucked away on a quiet side street. It retains many of its original 18th century features and offers a variety of flavorful ales, including the Punchbowl 1750 ale. The Churchill Arms is a popular pub at 119 Kensington Church Street in Kensington. With its cascade of geraniums and Union Jack flags outside and Winston Churchill memorabilia inside, this spot is a favorite with both locals and tourists. The Blackfriar can be found at 174 Queen Victoria Street, just north of Blackfriars tube station. This art nouveau pub opened more than 100 years ago and has a good selection of ales. Next, make your way to Little Bird Gin at Maltby Street Market for a refreshing Gin & Tonic - served in jam jars. Note: it is open Thursday through Sunday. Finally, finish up in Shoreditch at Bar Kick. Located at 127 Shoreditch High Street in the East End, this happening joint is the perfect place to watch a football (soccer) match - there are large screens both upstairs and down. It has comfy leather sofas, foosball tables, tons of memorabilia and a solid selection of adult beverages.
London gave the world David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. It's a great music town and it has a handful of cool places to catch a show. The following 4 are my favorite venues in town. Located in Camden Town and formerly known as Camden Palace, Koko is maintaining its reputation as one of London's better gig venues. The theatre (capacity 1400) has a dance floor, decadent balconies and a great roof terrace. The Roundhouse (it's a circular building in North London) was built as a railway repair shed in 1847, then it became a performing arts venue in the 1960s and hosted several legendary bands including The Doors, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. It was fixed up in 2006 (capacity 1700) and now hosts everything from concerts to dance, comedy and poetry improvisation. Brixton Academy is one of London's leading music venues. Located in Brixton (where David Bowie was born David Jones), this cavernous art deco theatre (capacity 5000) has a sloped floor providing good views, as well as plenty of bars just in case you fancy a drink. The Eventim Apollo (formerly the Hammersmith Odeon and Apollo) is one of London's major live entertainment venues. It is located in Hammersmith, West London and is one of the UK's largest and best preserved original theatres. Opened in 1932, the fan shaped auditorium (capacity 5000) has excellent sightlines from all parts of the house and top notch sound. It has played host to many legendary acts, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie (where Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust in 1973).
WHERE TO STAY
London offers a number of places to call home during your stay. There are 2 superb hotels in particular that I highly recommend. They both provide exceptional service and comfort in the stylish neighborhood of Mayfair. The first is The Connaught, a beautiful property in a prime location at Carlos Place. Dating from 1897, this elegant hotel is just a short walk from the Bond Street tube station. The sophisticated rooms with marble bathrooms and designer linens offer flat screen TVs and free WiFi, plus personal sitting areas, original art and Bose sound systems. It has an acclaimed French restaurant, a glass enclosed brasserie and The Connaught Bar is a city landmark. There's also an outstanding spa with a steam room, an ionized pool and a gym.
A second option is Brown's Hotel, located on Albemarle Street. Opened in 1837 and made up of 11 historic Georgian townhouses (no two of the 117 rooms are alike), it is the oldest hotel in London. It has hosted famous writers including Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and Michael Lichtstein. Plush rooms offer free WiFi, flat screen TVs and designer toiletries, as well as sitting areas and marble bathrooms with soaking tubs. Amenities include The Drawing Room, The Donovan Bar, an artsy restaurant and an impressive basement spa that performs several treatments. An added bonus is Brown's Hotel is just one block from my favorite restaurant in town, Gymkhana.
London has an extraordinary past, astonishing diversity, fascinating culture and a never say die spirit. Cheers London, I look forward to seeing you again.