Sunday, April 1, 2007

Frommer's Guide To London (England)


London is still recovering from the bombings of July 7, 2005. Time will tell how these attacks shape the character of this city over the long term -- but it would be foolish to define this city by the terror that was inflicted upon it. The Queen would not stand for it.

Truth is, this British capital is alive and well and culturally more vibrant than it's been in years.

The sounds of Brit-pop and techno pour out of Victorian pubs; experimental theater is popping up on stages built for Shakespeare's plays; upstart chefs are reinventing the bland dishes that British mums have made for generations; and Brits are even running the couture houses of Dior and Givenchy. In food, fashion, film, music, and just about everything else, London, as it moves deeper into the 21st century, stands at the cutting edge again, just as it did in the 1960s.

If this sea of change worries you more than it appeals to you, rest assured that traditional London still exists, basically intact under the veneer of hip. From high tea almost anywhere to the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the city still abounds with the culture and charm of days gone by.

Discovering London and making it your own can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you have limited time. Even in the 18th century, Daniel Defoe found London "stretched out in buildings, straggling, confused, out of all shape, uncompact and unequal; neither long nor broad, round nor square." The actual City of London proper is 1 square mile (2.6 sq. km) of very expensive real estate around the Bank of England. All of the gargantuan rest of the city is made up of separate villages, boroughs, and corporations -- each with its own mayor and administration. Together, however, they add up to a mammoth metropolis.

Luckily, whether you're looking for Dickens's house or hot designer Vivienne Westwood's flagship store, only the heart of London's huge territory need concern you. The core of London is one of the most fascinating places on earth. With every step, you'll feel the tremendous influence this city once exerted over global culture when it had an empire on which the sun never set.

London is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it's a decidedly royal city, studded with palaces, court gardens, coats of arms, and other regal paraphernalia, yet it's also the home of the world's second-oldest parliamentary democracy. (Iceland was the first.)

Today London has grown less English and more international. The gent with the bowler hat has long gone out of fashion; today's Londoner might have a turban, a Mohawk, or even a baseball cap. It's becoming easier to find a café au lait and a croissant than a scone and a cup of tea. The city is home to thousands of immigrants and refugees, both rich and poor, from all reaches of the world.

Frommer's Favorite Experiences:

Watching the Sunset at Waterloo Bridge: This is the ideal place for watching the sun set over Westminster. You can see the last rays of light bounce off the dome of St. Paul's and the spires in the East End.

Enjoying a Traditional Afternoon Tea: At The Ritz hotel, 150 Piccadilly, W1 (tel. 020/7493-8181), the tea ritual carries on as it did in Britain's heyday. You could invite the Queen of England herself here for a "cuppa." The pomp and circumstance of the British Empire live on here -- only the Empire is missing.

Cruising London's Waterways: In addition to the Thames, London has an antique canal system, with towpath walks, bridges, and wharves. Replaced by the railroad as the prime means of transportation, the canal system remained forgotten until it was rediscovered by a new generation. Now undergoing a process of urban renewal, the old system has been restored, with bridges painted and repaired, and paths cleaned up, for you to enjoy.

Spending Sunday Morning at Speakers Corner: At the northeast corner of Hyde Park, a British tradition carries on. Speakers sound off on any subject, and "in-your-face" hecklers are part of the fun. You might hear anything from denunciations of the monarchy to antigay rhetoric. Anyone can get up and speak. The only rules: You can't blaspheme, be obscene, or incite a riot. The tradition began in 1855 -- before the legal right to assembly was guaranteed in 1872 -- when a mob of 150,000 gathered to attack a proposed Sunday Trading Bill.

Studying the Turners at the Tate Britain: When he died in 1851, J. M. W. Turner bequeathed his collection of 19,000 watercolors and some 300 paintings to the people of Britain. He wanted his finished works, about 100 paintings, displayed under one roof. Today you see not only the paintings, but also glimpses of Turner's beloved Thames through the museum's windows. The artist lived and died on the river's banks and painted its many changing moods.

Strolling Through Covent Garden: George Bernard Shaw got his inspiration for Pygmalion here, where the Cockney lass who inspired the character of Eliza Doolittle sold violets to wealthy opera-goers. The old market, with its cauliflower peddlers and butchers in blood-soaked aprons, is long gone. What's left is London's best example of urban renewal and one of its hippest shopping districts. There's an antiques market on Monday and a crafts market Tuesday through Saturday. When you're parched, there are plenty of pubs to quench your thirst, including the Nag's Head, 10 James St., WC2 (tel. 020/7836-4678), an Edwardian pub that'll serve you a draft Guinness and a plate of pork cooked in cider.

Rowing on the Serpentine: When the weather's right, we head to Hyde Park's 42-acre (17-hectare) man-made lake dating from 1730, whose name derives from its winding, snakelike shape. At the Boathouse, you can rent boats by the hour. It's an idyllic way to spend a sunny afternoon. Renoir must have agreed; he depicted the custom on canvas.

Making a Brass Rubbing: Take home some costumed ladies and knights in armor from England's age of chivalry. Make your very own brass rubbing in the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square; the staff there will be happy to show you how.

Getting to Know North London on a Sunday: Begin by looking for some smart fashion at Camden Market, a Sunday event on Camden High Street where stallholders hawk designer jewelry and clothing. Next, walk up to Hampstead Heath off Well Walk and take the right fork, which leads to an open field with a panoramic view of London. Cap your jaunt with a visit to the Freud Museum, open on Sunday until 5pm.

Dining at Rules: Rules, at 35 Maiden Lane, WC2 (tel. 020/836-5314), was established as an oyster bar in 1798; it may be the oldest restaurant in London. Long a venue for the theatrical elite and literary beau monde, it still serves the same dishes that delighted Edward VII and his mistress, Lillie Langtry, who began their meals with champagne and oysters upstairs. Charles Dickens had a regular table. If you're looking for an old-fashioned British dessert, finish off with the treacle sponge or apple suet pudding.

Spending an Evening at the Theater: London is the theatrical capital of the world. The live stage offers a unique combination of variety, accessibility, and economy -- and maybe a look at next season's Broadway hit.

Crawling the London Pubs: Americans bar-hop; Londoners pub-crawl. With some 5,000 pubs within the city limits, you would certainly be crawling if you tried to have a drink in each of them! We have suggested the traditional pubs that we think will make a worthwhile crawl. While making the rounds, you can partake of that quintessentially British fare known as "pub grub," which could be anything from a ploughman's lunch (a hunk of bread, cheese, and a pickle) to shepherd's pie, to nouveau British cuisine. Today, in the right places, some of that pub grub tastes better than the fare served in many restaurants.

Suggested Itineraries:

The Queen would perhaps scoff at the idea of tackling her beloved city over which she has reigned for so long in just 1 day -- or even 2 or 3 days. But what does she know, really?

If that is all the time you have, we want to help you make the most of it by providing a ready-made itinerary that allows you to have a complete, unforgettable trip. Of course, there is always a hidden London that awaits discovery on your own as you seek out its secret treasures, but that can wait for another day and another trip.

You can make the most out of your short time by fortifying yourself with an old-fashioned English breakfast -- order "the works," perhaps skipping the blood pudding or sautéed kidneys if you're faint of heart. That way, following a "real tuck-in," as the Brits say, you might even skip lunch or else order only a snack, so as not to lose precious daylight hours in your rushed schedule.

Day One:

Touring London in a day seems ridiculous at first, considering that London is a sprawling metropolis filled with treasures, but it can be done if you get an early start and have a certain discipline, plus a lot of stamina. Since Britain possesses the world's most famous kingdom, this "greatest hits" itinerary focuses on royal London, monumental London, and political London, with some great art thrown in to satisfy the inner soul. After an early morning trip to Westminster Abbey, you'll want to see London's greatest plaza, Trafalgar Square, take a grand "royal stroll," visit the National Gallery, and perhaps poke into Whitehall, seeing 10 Downing St. (home of the prime minister). A pint of lager in a Victorian pub and a night in a West End theater will cap your day very nicely. Start: Tube to Westminster.

1. Westminster Abbey

This early English Gothic abbey is the shrine of the nation, and most of England's kings and queens have been crowned here -- and many are buried here as well. We always like to get here when it opens at 9:30am before the crowds of the day descend. Architecturally, its two highlights are the fan-vaulted Henry VII's Chapel (one of the loveliest in all of Europe) and the shrine to Edward the Confessor, containing the tombs of five kings and three queens. For a final look, walk over to the Poets' Corner, where everybody from Chaucer to Shelley and Keats are buried.

As you emerge from Westminster Abbey, you confront the virtual symbol of London itself:

2. The Houses of Parliament and "Big Ben"

Guarded over by "Big Ben" (the world's most famous timepiece), the former royal Palace of Westminster shelters both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and has done so since the 11th century. Gaining admission to the debating chambers requires a long wait and a lot of red tape that the "Day 1 Visitor" will have to forego, but at least you can admire the massive architectural pile from the outside before passing on your way.

If you feel you've missed something, duck into the Jewel Tower across the street, one of only two surviving buildings from the medieval Palace of Westminster. Here you can see an exhibition of the history of Parliament and even use a touch-screen computer that takes you on a virtual tour of both Houses of Parliament.

Continue walking north along Whitehall until you reach:

3. No. 10 Downing St.

Hang a left and walk down this famous street, although at times security guards might block your way. The official residence of the prime minister isn't much of a sight and rather modest, but it's been the home of everybody from Sir Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher. Today Tony Blair and his family call it home. Although the building is hardly palatial, it's the most famous address in Britain, other than Buckingham Palace, and all visitors seem to want to take a peek.

After that look, continue north to:

4. Trafalgar Square

The hub of London, this is Britain's most famous square and the scene of many a demonstration. A 144-foot (44m) granite statue of Horatio Viscount Nelson (1758-1805) dominates the square. As you walk around this square, noting the ferocious pigeons "dive-bombing," you'll know that you're in the very heart of London where thousands amass on New Year's Eve to ring in another year.

Right on this square, you can enter the:

5. National Gallery

On the north side of Trafalgar Square looms this massive gallery. All the big names, from Leonardo da Vinci to Rembrandt, from van Gogh to Cézanne, strut their stuff here. Displaying some of the greatest art ever created, the panoramic galleries cover eight centuries. This is one of the greatest art museums on the planet. On even the most rushed of schedules, you'll want to devote at least 1 1/2 hours to its galleries. Since everybody's taste in art differs, check out our Insider's tip under the National Gallery preview. A computer rooms makes it easy for you. Select 10 paintings you'd most like to see. A computer will design your own map, printed out for you, directing you easily and conveniently to the art you most want to see.

Directly north of Trafalgar Square, you enter the precincts of:

6. Covent Garden

The old fruit and vegetable market of Eliza Doolittle fame is long gone, and the market has been recycled into one of the most bustling and exciting sections of London today. Begin with a walk around The Piazza, the center of Covent Garden. When architect Inigo Jones designed it, it became London's first square. To its south you'll see St. Paul's Church, which Jones called "the handsomest barn in England." Immediately to the southeast of St. Paul you can enter the Jubilee Market and to its immediate east the London Transport Museum.

After wandering around the gardens and after a heavy morning of sightseeing, even with a full English breakfast, you may be ready for lunch. For our pounds sterling, there is no better place for lunch in all of London than Covent Garden.

Take a Break--Porter's English Restaurant--We suggest a visit to our dear old friend, the Earl of Bradford, who owns and runs this venerable Covent Garden favorite. Try one of Lady Bradford's old English pies (ever had lamb and apricot?) and finish off with her fabled steamed pudding, made with ginger and banana. 17 Henrietta St., WC2. tel. 020/7836-6466.

The day is marching on, and so should you be if you want to take in more that London has to offer.

At Covent Garden, take the Tube (subway, to Americans) to Charing Cross Station to the south of Covent Garden. After disembarking here, prepare yourself for one of the grandest strolls in all of Britain, walking west along:

8. The Mall & Buckingham Palace

A stroll along the Mall all the way west to Buckingham Palace is the most aristocratic walk in Britain. Passing King George's IV's glorious Carlton House terrace on your right, you can enjoy the same view that Elizabeth I sees when she rides in her gilded "fairy-tale" coach to open Parliament every year.

Whether you actually go inside Buckingham Palace itself depends on the time of year. We've deliberately skipped the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which isn't held every day and is often difficult to schedule. It's an overrated attraction anyway.

After viewing Buckingham Palace, at least from the outside, walk along Constitution Hill to the tube stop at Hyde Park Corner. Once here, head east for one big final attraction for the afternoon.

9. The Tower of London

We prefer to visit this attraction later in the afternoon when some of the hordes pouring out of tour buses have departed. A first-time visitor to London wouldn't dare miss this old symbol of blood and gore standing on the Thames for 900 years. Many famous Englishmen have lost their heads at the Tower. It's been a palace, a prison, and a royal mint, but mostly it's a living museum to British history. Since you don't have a lot of time, take one of the hour-long guided tours conducted by the much-photographed Beefeaters. They make the history of the Tower come alive with their often humorous and irreverent commentary.

After viewing the Tower, we suggest you head back to your hotel and a much-needed break before descending on London by night.

We like to begin our evening with a pint in an evocative London pub. Try one of the best and also one of the most famous:

10. The Salisbury

At 90 St. Martin's Lane, WC2 (Tube: Leicester Sq.), you'll be in the heart of the theater district. You can enjoy a drink of your choice and a quick pub dinner of home-cooked pies or freshly made salads before heading out to see the show of your choice.

11. A Night at a London Theater

Before purchasing your ticket, read our box on "Ticket Bargains", and you might save a lot of money. Unless you've got your heart set on seeing a big London hit, perhaps a musical, we suggest your one and only night in London be spent at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. This is a replica of the Elizabethan original where the Bard premiered many of his plays. The productions, often performed in Elizabethan costume as in Shakespeare's days, are of the highest quality, often showcasing the talents of many of Britain's greatest thespians, both young and old.

Head back to your hotel for a well-earned night of rest and promise yourself some future visit to London.

Day Two:

If you've already made your way through "The Best in 1 Day," you'll find your second full-day tour takes in a different part of London. You've seen Royal London. Now visit what might be called "Academic London" by heading to the history-rich district of Bloomsbury, following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf. After lunch, head for "the City," London's financial district, wandering around St. Paul's Cathedral, masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren. Have a thrilling afternoon riding the British Airways London Eye and visiting Tate Modern. Start: Russell Square.

1. The British Museum

This is the mammoth home of one of the world's greatest treasure troves -- much of it plunder from other parts of the globe when Britannia ruled the waves. The most exciting of these treasures are the Elgin Marbles stolen from Greece and the Rosetta Stone stolen from Egypt. You'll need at least 2 hours for the most cursory of visits. An easy-to-follow map at the entrance will take you to all the highlights, including the legendary Black Obelisk, dating from around 860 B.C. and exhibited in the Nimrud Gallery. You can't see it all, so don't even try. But you'll see enough to promise yourself another visit some time in the future. End your quickie tour in the modern Great Court covering the celebrated Reading Room where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital.

Since the museum doesn't open until 10am, the early bird can arrive before and wander about for a brisk morning walk, getting the feel of this famous district. Our favorite square for wandering is Russell Square, where the Tube will take you, followed by Bedford Square to the east and Bloomsbury Square to the southeast.

After the British Museum, it's time for lunch. You've already lunched in Covent Garden, so it's time to head for "the City," the financial district of London in the East End.

Take a Break--Bow Wine Vaults--No place in the City is more evocative and atmospheric than this venerated choice for lunch. Here you can mingle with the movers and shakers of the City's financial district, enjoying well-prepared, affordable food and a drink in the bar or in the more formal street-level dining room. We always go for the Dover sole or the mixed grill (no one does this dish better than the English). 10 Bow Churchyard, EC4 (tel. 020/7248-1121; Tube: St. Paul's).

Fortified for the afternoon, you can begin your descent on yet another monument:

3. St. Paul's Cathedral

Wren's Cathedral, the fifth to be built on this spot, is not filled with great art and treasures. But it's an adventure nonetheless. The thrill comes in climbing to the dome and taking in the Whispering Gallery (259 steps), the Stone Gallery (530 steps), and especially the panoramic sweep from the Inner Golden Gallery on top of the dome.

4. Tate Modern

On the south side of the Thames, the relatively new Tate Modern, shelters the greatest collection of international 20th century art in Britain, ranking with the Pompidou in Paris but not the equal of New York's Museum of Modern Art. You'll see all the Warhols, Picassos, and Pollocks an art devotee could ever conjure up. Allow at least 1 1/2 hours for the most cursory of visits.

Head for Westminster Bridge (Tube: Westminster), the embarkation point for the:

5. British Airways London Eye

The world's largest observation wheel is the fourth-tallest structure in London, with panoramic views that extend on a clear day for 25 miles (40km). One of 32 futuristic-looking "pods" carries visitors to a bird's-eye view of London, making a complete rotation every 30 minutes. Currently, it's the most popular ride in London.

6. Royal National Theatre

For your final night in London (assuming you're skipping Day 3), we'd recommend a night at the Royal National Theatre. On the South Bank of the Thames, this is one of the world's great stage companies -- not just one theater, but a trio of modern auditoriums, each with the latest equipment and great acoustics. Even the Queen attends for one of the new plays, comedies, musicals, or whatever. There is always a major event being presented here, often with the greatest thespians or musicians in the world. You can arrive early for a pretheater meal in one of the cultural complex's dining facilities such as the main restaurant, the Mezzanine.

Day Three:

Having sampled the charms of London in just 2 days, make your third and final day a little different by skipping out of town and heading for nearby Windsor Castle, which the Queen prefers as a royal residence to Buckingham Palace itself. She's got a point there because it's rather splendid. Return to London in time for a final afternoon of sightseeing in Hyde Park and elegant Mayfair, home to some of the world's most expensive real estate. Start from Waterloo Station or else Paddington Station, depending on the location of your London hotel.

1. Windsor Castle

In just half an hour, a train from London will deliver you to the royal town of Windsor, site of England's most legendary castle. The first castle here was ordered built by William the Conqueror, and much of English history has unfolded within its walls. If you skipped the Changing of the Guard ceremony in London, you can see an even more exciting pageant here taking place only from April to July Monday to Saturday at 11am (winter offers differ slightly). On a first visit to the castle, wander into its greatest attraction, St. George's Chapel, where British monarchs are entombed, and try to budget enough time to see the state apartments, including George IV's elegant chambers. No, you can't go into the Queen's present bedchamber. Before leaving the castle precincts, wander the beautifully landscaped Jubilee Garden spread over 2 acres (8 hectares).

Since you'll need 2 hours to explore Windsor Castle, this will put you in the little town for lunch, which, incidentally, is not a gourmet citadel.

Take a Break--House on the Bridge--This charming restaurant lies adjacent to the bridge that links Windsor with the exclusive prep school of Eton. The school itself has turned out some of England's greatest men, including the Duke of Wellington and the poet known as "mad Shelley" to his fellow pupils. In atmospheric surroundings, you can enjoy the restaurant's fixed-price lunch of English and international dishes. In summer, opt for one of the outdoor tables in a garden leading down to the Thames. We'd recommend both the oak-smoked salmon and the grilled Dover sole, rushed here fresh every day from the southern coast. 71 High St. tel. 01753/860914.

After lunch, with your precious time fading, we'd suggest an immediate return to London, arriving at Waterloo or Paddington Station, where you can hook up with the Tube leading to:

3. Hyde Park

Adjoining Kensington Gardens, the "green lung" of London, Hyde Park (Tube: Marble Arch) was the former deer-hunting ground of Henry VIII. Allow at least 30 minutes for a stroll through its scenic grandeur. Our favorite oasis in the park is a miniature lake known as the Serpentine, where you can row, sail model boats, or even swim. In the northeast corner of the park, at Speakers Corner, you can hear everything from protest speakers calling for the overthrow of the monarchy to sex advocates demanding legalization of child prostitution in Britain. Any point of view goes here. You can even stand up and make a speech of your own. After taking in the landmark Marble Arch (a gate originally designed as the entrance to Buckingham Palace), stroll east along Upper Brook Street to:

4. Grosvenor Square

In the heart of Mayfair, and one of the world's most famous squares, this was the grandest of all London addresses for 2 centuries. In modern times, its former allure has been diminished by Eero Saarinen's outsized and grandiose U.S. Embassy (1956), which led to the demolition of the west side of the square. As you cross the square through the garden, take in William Reid Dick's bronze statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who honeymooned in Mayfair with Eleanor at Brown's Hotel.

Time out for some ritzy shopping (or at least window shopping) along:

5. Oxford Street

From Grosvenor Square (northeast corner), cut north up Duke Street until you reach the junction of Oxford Street, at which point you can head east, moving deeper into the heart of commercial and theatrical London. A shopping mecca since 1908 when the American retail magnate, Gordon Selfridge, opened Selfridge's Department Store, this is the most popular street in London for out-of-town shoppers. It is no longer a "lurking place for cut-throats," as an early-18th-century writer called Oxford Street, although with the present pound-to-dollar ratio, you might indeed consider some of today's merchants "highway robbers." Many of the fruit-and-flower vendors you encounter along Oxford Street are the great-grandchildren of former traders, their style of making a living passed on from one generation to the next. When you come to New Bond Street, cut southeast along:

6. New & Old Bond Streets

The luxury shopping street of London, consisting of both Old and New Bond streets (Tube: Bond St.), links Piccadilly with Oxford Street. "The Bonds" have both traditional old English shops and outlets for the latest and hottest of international designers. In the Georgian era, the beau monde of London promenaded here, window shopping. Young rakes hung out here "looking for virgins." Today this dazzling thoroughfare of shops is celebrated for haute everything, from couture to jewelry. The fun-loving set ranging from the Prince of Wales to the celebrated photographer Cecil Beaton et al, could be seen parading up and down the tiny Old Bond Street, with its deluxe art galleries.

Once you reach the intersection with Piccadilly, continue east, passing on your left the:

7. Burlington Arcade

The Burlington Arcade (Tube: Piccadilly Circus) closes at 5:30pm, so, of course, try to get there before then. The blueprint for all London arcades, the Burlington Arcade opened back in 1815. It's been going strong ever since. The glass-roofed, Regency-style passage is lined with exclusive shops and boutiques and lit by wrought-iron lamps. Luxury items such as jewelry and designer cashmeres are sold here. Look for the Beadles, London's representative of Britain's oldest police force.

On the opposite side of Piccadilly, you enter the precincts of the world's most famous food department store:

Take a Break--Fortnum & Mason--Founded in 1707, this deluxe purveyor of fancy foodstuffs is still grocer to the Queen. "Mr. Fortnum" and "Mr. Mason" still present a footman's show on the outside clock every hour. You have a choice of an elegant tea in St. James Restaurant or The Fountain Restaurant. St. James is the more formal of the two. 181 Piccadilly. tel. 020/7734-8040.

After tea, continue walking east into:

9. Piccadilly Circus

What Times Square is to New York, Piccadilly Circus is to London. Dating from 1819, the circus or square centers on a statue of Eros from 1893, that symbolizes love, which is about the only thing that occasionally brings together this diverse group of humanity who converge on the circus at times. At the traffic hub of London, you're at the doorway to "theaterland" if you'd like to cap your visit to the West End with a final show.

At the end of 3 days, realize that the time was ridiculously short to take in the allure of London -- and promise yourself some future visit when you can discover such London neighborhoods as trendy Chelsea or aristocratic Belgravia -- and take day trips on a boat sailing down the river to Hampton Court.



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