For my 21st birthday, my Mom treated me to my first trip to Europe.¨We can go anywhere you want,¨she said, spreading the continent out before me like a treasure map. Naturally, I could think of no place more exciting than Paris… and Santorini had always been a dream destination. So those were my top choices. A family friend lived in London, so we decided to tack on a few days there too — just for kicks.
After only one night in London; breathing and smelling the thick, damp air; savoring the sound of authoratative British accents, seeing the big red buses, the newspaper-vendors, the chaos of the tube, and the quietness of the Thames, I announced that I didn’t need to go anywhere else. Ever.
A decade later, I still feel the same way: London has it all.
However, a trip to London is never quite as easy as you think it will be. It can be like a frustrating travel companion, a stubborn old codger whose tubes are late due to roadwork, buses that are so crowded that you’re being elbowed by more people than you’ve ever met in your life. But then you’re back on the street. You turn a corner, and London surprises. You are confronted with a flat where William Blake used to live; a sign that says, ¨Please don’t leave your teabags in the flowerpots¨, free admission to the world’s most popular modern museum, or a glimpse of the dazzling London Eye on the horizon when you least expect it.
London, I believe, is the greatest city in the world. And if you take the proper route, you will get to see the sights, meet the real Londoners, and have a chance to escape the crowds in order to take it all in. If I only have a few days in London (a long weekend, for example), here is the itinerary I follow to see all that this big, bright city has to offer.
Make your way to the London Bridge tube station. Exit the station… don’t even try to resist the wafting scents of Cornish pasties from the street vendors (they make a delicious breakfast or a delightful mid-morning snack.) Walk past the London Dungeon through Hay’s Galleria – a 17th-century brew house, now an enclosed shopping area full of artisans and coffeehouses – until you reach the Thames and the HMS Belfast museum-on-a-boat. Look to your right, and there you will see the city’s most picture-postcard sight: the Tower Bridge, in all her majestic, blue beauty. Before walking across the bridge, stroll around Shad Thames, a historic neighbourhood full of cobblestoned streets and converted warehouses where you can choose one of the quiet cafes to have your morning tea.
After you’ve explored the Tower Bridge, the sprawling Tower of London across the river, and the striking glass building known as the ¨Gherkin¨, return to the south side and begin the walk that will keep you entertained for hours.
The north side of the Thames is where all of the city’s historically-important locations are located: Westminster, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the central City of London. For that reason, and because the north side is sunnier, the south bank was slower to develop, and therefore became a hang-out for the fringe society: artists, writers, actors and prostitutes. No surprise that Shakespeare built his Globe Theatre on the south bank, where you can still watch one of his classic plays today. The path along the river veers in and out of the cobbled streets, taking in the 13th-century Gothic Southwark Cathedral, and right beside it, the fabulous Borough Market, where you can sample cheese, dips, sausages and other goodies. Keep walking past the Clink Prison Museum and the OXO Tower with its shops and art exhibits, until you arrive at the Tate Modern Museum. The Tate Modern, a former power station, is the most-visited modern art museum in the world. And, it is free admission to all. Here you can warp your mind with Dali, Liechtenstein, and whatever new installation is currently making London raise a curious eyebrow.
After all that walking, you’ll be ready for lunch. Grab a seat on the patio at Founder’s Arms, next to the Tate, where you can enjoy the panoramic view of St. Paul’s Cathedral across the water. Finish your walk with a ride on the London Eye, the tallest ferris wheel in Europe. Looking out across the river, you will be treated to a sight that you’ve waited your whole life to see: Big Ben.
When you finish your tour of the South Bank, cross the river at Westminster Bridge, fighting the hordes of tourists who have stopped to take photos of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Head down Whitehall street, saying hello to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street and the Horse Guards. All the while, Admiral Nelson beckons to you from his perch atop Trafalgar Square. Take a tour through the (free) National Gallery, featuring one of the world’s greatest art collections, letting your own tastes guide you. My personal favourite is the 18th to 20th-century collection, with paintings by, among others, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Tououse-Lautrec and Picasso. If you still fancy a little more art, head next door to the National Portrait Gallery, which usually has an interesting photography exhibition on display. From there, head straight to Waxy O´Connors, a multi-levelled pub near Leicester Square, for a much-deserved pint, and then spend the rest of your evening in the West End, with all of London’s glittering nightlife spread out before you. Here you will find the streets of Covent Garden alive with street performers, the bright lights of Picadilly Circus, the world-class theatre district, the stars on Leicester Square, the hustle and bustle of fragrant Chinatown, and the allure of Soho. Take your pick!
Until recently, the East Side of London was only an afterthought to the far more exciting West End. But, in recent years, like so many neighbourhoods before it, the east side has become the only place in the city for young, cutting-edge Londoners to express themselves, get creative, and follow in the footsteps of previous trend-setters. What else might you expect from a neighbourhood which has been home to Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Damien Hirst, and a tattoo artist who can boast Boy George and Amy Winehouse as his clients? Shoreditch, Hoxton, Hackney and Old Street are the neighbourhoods to really experience this city in all its eclectic glory. Catch a tube to Liverpool Street and spend the afternoon browsing through the antique shops, flower markets, second-hand clothing shops, and bookstores. And be sure to make time for one of the famous curries – the unofficial dish of London – on Brick Lane. Reggae spills out of the bars, musicians line the roads, artisans and artists sell their wares along the sidewalks, and everyone is happy to be there. Grab a pint of cider, stand out on the sidewalk, and enjoy.
Make your way north to Camden Town for an even edgier side of the city. Camden Town hosts the city’s most popular markets, with thousands of indoor and outdoor shops and stalls, selling everything from vintage clothing to crafts, to more alternative fashion (think black leather and spikes!). The markets are housed in a variety of locations, including the Electric Ballroom nightclub, and the Camden Stables, an old stable and hospital for horses who pulled barges along the river. There are steaming food stalls where you can grab a bite to eat and people-watch, before heading to one of the area’s many lively pubs, such as the 18th-century watering hole, the World’s End. Check-out who is playing at the Camden Roundhouse, one of the city’s best live music venues, or just bar-hop with the Goths and Punks who make Camden the city’s most diverse, unusual and exciting neighbourhoods.
After two big days in the city, Sunday afternoon is the perfect time to escape the crowds in one of the city’s quieter boroughs. Most visitors to London never leave the centre of town. But, if you spend an hour on a tube heading southwest, you will certainly feel far away from it all — as though you were in the middle of the English countryside. There are several lovely neighbourhoods to choose from: Putney, Wimbledon, Richmond-Upon-Thames, and my personal favourite: Kingston-Upon Thames. Like London-in-miniature, these boroughs have all of the Oxford Street shops without the Oxford Street crowds, cobblestone streets that wind their way around creeks full of white swans, lovely green parks, and the Thames River sparkling under sailboats and paddleboats. With their many traditional pubs, most of them with patios overlooking the river, they are also the best place to indulge in one of the greatest English traditions: the Sunday Roast. Choose the coziest pub, and spend the afternoon in a lazy wing-back with a plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Top it off with a pint of cider or lager, a football game on telly, if you’re lucky, and a chat with a local about the Olympics, tube strikes, or the weather.
Wow, I do love London!
Written by Andrea McDonald for EuropeUpClose.com