Having grown up a thirty-minute train journey from London, I have many intermittent experiences of England’s capital city. My first memory of it is when my Dad took me to the Natural History Museum at the age of 7 – strangely I remember the journey more clearly than the museum itself; I was fascinated by the blue flashes of electricity jumping outside the tube windows! At 14, a friend and I explored London on foot, wandering along, getting pleasantly lost around the Soho and Oxford Street vicinity, and later, at the age of 21, I was living and working in London, seeing a different side to the city again. So, here are my tips for what to do and where to go – perhaps a more eclectic mix, but hopefully there’s something for everyone…
OK, so the UK once had (and perhaps still does have) a bad reputation for food. One thing I know it does well, however, is good pub food. Plus, it’s a damn sight cheaper than eating at a restaurant in Zurich! Bermondsey Street (near London Bridge) is a good area to head to for foodies. For one thing, it’s not overly touristy. For another, there are two very decent pubs a stone’s throw from one another: The Woolpack (www.woolpackbar.com) and The Garrison (www.thegarrison.co.uk). The Woolpack is a little cheaper on the whole – I can heartily recommend their sausages and the burgers (there are plenty of veggie options too for the non-meat-fiends among you). There’s a relaxed atmosphere, a beer garden, and if you’re into celeb spotting you might even get some action here (Gok Wan and Sarah Harding are known to frequent it; I have seen the former chilling out with a beer at the bar and looking just as coiffed as on TV).
Not far from here, there is also the famous Borough Market, a huge food fair open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (www.boroughmarket.org.uk) – where the foodies buy their weekly shop, or others like me wander amongst the stalls bemused by the variety on offer. Try the pork belly and apple sauce baguette, but be warned if you have already eaten that day – it’s enormous!
Also worth checking out if you like Indian cuisine is Brick Lane, famed for its curry houses (and the site of the Jack the Ripper murders…) But don’t let that worry you – you should also take a wander around while you’re there: plenty of markets, street art, and vintage clothing stores await the explorer. The huge Old Truman Brewery building houses lots of indy shops and galleries, as well as bars, clubs and restaurants.
London is a great place for retail therapy. There are the usual haunts in Oxford Street: its vast Top Shop, Primark, and dazzling array of shoe shops are interspersed with pretty much every other store you can think of, all conveniently placed on one street, but be warned: it is like navigating a motorway, and once you’re in the traffic stream, it’s hard to get out again! Don’t expect to get anywhere quickly on a weekend, and be prepared to have your elbows out as you are jostled along by the crowds. Definitely worth a look at Christmas, when in the evenings the streets are illuminated with hundreds of lights; nearby Carnaby Street – also very pretty at Christmas – has a large number of indepedent boutiques, but they are a bit pricier.
Those who are looking for some non-highstreet-label action might check out Covent Garden. As well as the well known labels like Calvin Klein, Karen Millen, Mango, G-Star etc. there are plenty of smaller places with more unusual finds along Neal Street, and there are a number of markets to visit – the Apple Market is a large covered area that traders and customers alike flock to, and you will most likely hear some live classical music from the talented buskers too.
For jewellery and arts and crafts lovers, Gabriel’s Wharf (an area on the South Bank of the River Thames) is home to lots of designers’ and artists’ boutiques. You can spend a whole day wandering along the South Bank with its array of cafes and bars, its views of the river and St Paul’s Cathedral, and you might also come across some of the free cultural events that often take place here – for example, one weekend I encountered an open-air performance of Macbeth done with only four actors armed with crazy costumes, props and an assortment of musical instruments.
And if you’re keen on markets, there is Spitalfields, near Liverpool Street, which has a wide variety of stalls, antiques, jewellery, arts and crafts, and plenty of different cuisines to sample, whilst Camden Market is one of the largest open air markets in London and is the heart of alternative fashion – gothic, punk, and hippy/ethnic clothing can all be found here, and there are often bargains to be had.
Central London is theatreland. You can barely move around the Leicester Square/Piccadilly districts without being confronted by enormous billboards, and every hundred metres there seems to be another theatre. Musicals are the order of the day – check out www.lastminute.com for deals on tickets, because quite often there will be cheaper prices than the rather hefty £60-75 tag on the better seats. My personal favourite shows are (in no particular order):
Sister Act (spine-shiveringly good singers); Les Miserables (an old classic); The Lion King (fantastic costumes and stage sets); Phantom of the Opera (hugely atmospheric); Blood Brothers (a smaller, but still brilliant musical with a great story); The Woman in Black (not a musical: I have never been so terrified by a stage show in all my life – it is not for the faint-hearted!). There are many, many more but I’ll leave you to discover them yourselves.
Not a fan of musicals? Head to the National Theatre or the Globe for some ‘higher brow’ entertainment. The Globe has a programme that runs through summer (as, being an outdoor theatre they are reliant on the weather) so have a look at ‘What’s On’ at www.shakespearesglobe.com before turninng up. If you don’t mind standing like the plebs of old, you can get in for £5. Students can frequently get deals at the National too, and if you can see a show that makes good use of the Olivier’s enormous revolving drum mechanism, it will be worth it!
For the culturally minded, there is also a huge variety of museums – and best of all, they are all free! (Except for special exhibitions). The Tate and the V&A are great for art lovers, with such vast collections that you will be easily able to spend the whole day looking around (and don’t forget to take in the tea rooms!) While you’re in the South Kensington area, and just in case the V&A doesn’t sate your appetite, the Science and Natural History Museums are also close by.
There are plenty of green spots in London if you know where to look, and the parks are great for relaxing walks at the weekend or to take a picnic to in better weather. Of the famous St James’ Park, Regent’s Park, and Hyde Park, my favourite is probably Regent’s because of its boating lake and its flower gardens, which are beautiful in summer.
Lesser-known as a picnic and walking spot, perhaps, Hampstead Heath in Northern London has enjoyed a more dubious reputation in the past, but now it is populated by families and is a good place for a weekend walk. You will probably also encounter the kite flyers at the top of the hill, and you might even see people swimming in the Highgate Ponds. Whilst you’re in the vicinity, you should also visit Highgate itself, a lovely area of London on a steep hill, with lots of tea shops – great for the perennial cake-eaters like myself…And no visit is complete without a trip to the cemeteries. If you can, book a tour of the Western Highgate Cemetery: www.highgate-cemetery.org (you can’t visit it without a tour guide), which has a rich history and is great for those with a gothic imagination. Mausoleums and crypts aplenty!
Walking the streets is one of the best ways to discover London – many tourists rely on the tube, but you will find much more if you stay above ground. It’s also surprising to find out how close certain areas are. You don’t need to use the tube to travel between Leicester Square, Piccadilly, Covent Garden, Oxford Street, for example – it’s all within very easy walking distance. And also, surprisingly, how relatively far away others are (as I discovered when the tube system was crippled by snow — which, given it is underground, never ceases to amaze me — and decided to walk from Kings Cross to where I worked near Barbican. Being only one tube stop, I thought it would be a matter of minutes, but it turned out to be a little trickier!) Still, you will come across more of the city’s gems this way than any other. Happy exploring!