A LOCAL’S-EYE GUIDE TO THE BIG CITY
A journey across the pond (translation: the Atlantic Ocean) is more than a change of latitude. Indeed, a visit to London is a trip to the past.
But it’s much more.
Yes, English is spoken, albeit the Queen’s English (making no translation necessary), but this is where many similarities end.
London is an introduction to Big Ben and little tea sandwiches . . . Green Park and red phone booths . . . the Tate Modern and Old Scotland Yard. It is a city where the term “loo” means “restroom,” taxis are stately black cabs (no yellow here) and traffic signals at Wellington Arch have walk and do-not-walk signs . . . for horses.
In short, this town on the Thames is a study in contrasts — uniquely British ones — that make London seem much further from California’s west coast than its 5,500-mile distance.
Here’s some insight to give an insider’s edge.
SEE AND BE SCENE
The best way to see London is like a local. It’s a big, noisy, self-confident place, the core around which Britain pivots. Bustling along the streets and negotiating the web of cobbled walkways are men sporting bowler hats (folded newspaper under an arm, trusty umbrella in hand), women in tasteful knee-length ensembles, children with rosy cheeks and visitors from everywhere.
It is important to join in, to set out with a map (discreetly stored as there’s no need to announce “tourist”) and tackle the sights on foot or from atop a double-decker bus. Transportation tip: though the underground is quick, it lengthens one’s getting-to-know London curve.
All is within easy reach, with many guidebook must-sees clustered near one another. Examples are endless. Buckingham Palace is a short walk through Green Park from Piccadilly Circus. Big Ben is across the River Thames from the London Eye (the millennium’s Ferris wheel-like structure). And from Harrods, Kensington Gardens (site of Princess Diana’s palace home) is nearby.
PLEASURES OF THE PEDESTRIAN
It is not a race. London’s maze of streets is littered with pubs and tearooms (and nowadays, Starbucks). My advice: by-pass the tried-and-true for a pint of lager or a cup of English Breakfast and the homegrown buzz.
On the occasion of a wonderfully sunny day (considered God’s most precious gift to Londoners), the best visitor investment is leisure in the park — with every local who can sneak the time. Cost is the rental of a deck chair (two hours, £1.50) and lunch, take-away (tip: avoid the term “to-go”) from Pret A Manger.
WHERE TO TAKE OFF YOUR COAT AND STAY A WHILE
The Dorchester — The hotel is like an elderly man with clothes as elegant as his demeanor. Situated on Park Lane, it opened to fanfare in 1931 and to this day is a classic reminder of its glamorous origins.
Its history is oh-so British — the hotel was the site of Prince Philip’s bachelor party on the eve of his wedding to Queen Elizabeth II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower planned the Normandy Invasion from his suite (Eisenhower Suite, rooms 104 and 105) and Judy Garland called it home during appearances at the London Palladium.
Big news is not limited to the past. The crown on the hotel’s recent refurbishment program is the redesign and reopening of The Bar (celebs such as Kate Moss and Jade Jagger attended). Decorated as a reminder of the long-ago classic cocktail hour, its impressive drinks list helps further the tradition.
But The Dorchester is best known for amenities that go beyond abundant. ‘Tis true, for the only pleasure missing from the luxury digs is a knight on a white horse delivering breakfast.
The Capital — Where The Dorchester has a moody, evening gown feel to it, The Capital is cozy and clubby. The comfortable, at-home atmosphere is not by accident. It is a reflection of Scottish proprietor, David Levin, who envisioned a grand hotel in miniature over 35 years ago. The hotel remains family-run.
Located on a quiet, residential road named Basil Street, it seems miles removed from London’s action. Yet, the setting is delightfully deceptive — it is mere steps from Harrods and the activity of Knightsbridge.
Independent of the snob factor, the concierge team is known for its snicker-free answers.
The Halkin — A little backstory: When creator and owner Christian Ong purchased a London car park on a small side street near Hyde Park Corner, her goal was simple — design a hotel where she would want to stay. The result is The Halkin — it opened in 1991.
Mission accomplished. The hotel captures what the luxe life should be: Armani-dressed staff, anti-mist bathroom mirrors and complimentary mobile phone hire.
Technically, The Halkin transports guests well into the 21st century. Its in-room control panel (operating in six languages) manages the lighting, temperature, “do not disturb” sign (activation mutes the door bell) and butler call. In short, it’s cooler than thou.
The Vineyard at Stockcross — Taking its inspiration from owner Sir Peter Michael’s noted Napa Valley winery, The Vineyard is a country getaway dedicated and defined by its foods and wines in a luxury setting.
Andrew Lloyd Webber concurs, “If you have the remotest interest in wine, you must hasten to this restaurant immediately. If you really love wine, take a suite for a week.”
The best part is its accessibility from London: one hour by car; 45 minutes by train. Nearby attractions are A-list — Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and the races at Newcastle.
Hotel hint: Don’t negate a hotel if the room rate is not in the budget; rather, get the experience from high tea, a bar stop or a meal. Contrary to past truths, many of London’s hotel eateries are worthy of a slot on the itinerary.
Those who remember yesteryear’s offerings — unimaginative menus showcasing fish and chips, pork pies and overcooked meats — can forget them. These days, London is a contender with epicurean capitals such as New York and Paris. A long-time laughingstock amongst foodies, this city is no longer the butt of any joke.
The Capital Restaurant — With an inclusive feel, dining at the Capital is like dining in a local home. The only restaurant in London to hold two Michelin stars, it is where competing chefs might be spotted on their nights off. Chef Eric Crouillere-Chavot is known for his French fare. A delicious example is crab lasagna with langoustine cappuccino.
Nahm — The Halkin’s Michelin star Thai restaurant (the world’s first and only), is bold and brilliant. The Evening Standard’s review says it all: “more sagacious, undulating, bewitching and boisterous than any you will find even in Thailand.”
The Vineyard — Chef John Campbell’s two-star Michelin restaurant is known for dishes such as terrine of ham hock and foie gras with apple soubis and the Cellar’s 23,000 bottles of wine.
IF YOU GO
The Vineyard at Stockcross
London Theatre Guide
Self-described as insightful, intelligent and independent, Night+Day London guidebook should be packed in the carry-on luggage of every visitor traveling across the pond. Purpose? It promises to give the cosmopolitan traveler the necessary edge to make the most of their time — insider-style. If interested, go to www.pulseguides.com.
THE FUN ALSO RISES
- HIGH TEA is quintessential London. And THE DORCHESTER is consistently recognized as the city’s best. Set in the comfort of the hotel’s impressive Promenade, it is the place to spend an afternoon in the same manner that the rich and famous have always whiled away the hours.
- A FOOTBALL (AMERICAN SOCCER) GAME can be an expensive souvenir; but to a sporting enthusiast, it is well worth the price of admission. Advice for takers: drink plenty, sing loud and have fun.
- The backstage tour of ROYAL OPERA HOUSE makes it possible to visit closed-to-the-public areas of one of the world’s leading theatres as it prepares to open its doors for the evening performance. It’s an insider’s dream.
WHO, WHAT, WEAR
Retail reconnaissance, London-style, goes well beyond springing for a Burberry trench or the simplicity of spending a few pounds on a Bobby’s helmet from a street stand.
Harrods – Though it may be overwhelming and initially seem the size of the Parthenon, this store is a must-see. Not to be missed are the Diana and Dodi Memorial (lower ground floor) and the Meat Hall (ground floor), the oldest of the store’s historic food halls (its Royal Doulton tiles date back to 1902).
Jezebell – One’s best splurge might be found at this Marylebone boutique. Featuring both established designers and rising stars from the fashion centers of New York and Paris, Brit’s best are showcased too. Among them are Vivienne Westwood, Bella Freud and Jonathan Saunders.
Top Shop – Its three-floor, Oxford Street megastore is the world’s largest single-brand clothes shop. Showcasing everything — from trend to trinkets, the appeal is fun fashion at fabulous prices.
Old Spitalfield Market – The recommended remedy for the anti-mall crowd is a London market. Old Spitalfield is one of the more famous. Established in 1887, this seven-days-a-week event (Sunday has the most action) sells just about everything . . . from custom jewelry and ethnic food to vintage clothing. A lucky looker might unearth a find like a men’s recycled YSL trench for as little as £75.
SHAVING OFF POUNDS
These days, the not-so-pleasant surprise when cashing in U. S. dollars for British pounds is the stratospheric exchange rate. However, fret not. For if one’s caviar taste is supported by a fish-and-chips budget, these suggestions are worthy of a try.
- Inquire about a hotel’s best value offerings (i.e., The Capital’s room rates are more favorable during weekends and the months of January and February).
- When booking a hotel room, ask if the VAT (17.5% value added tax) is included in the quoted fee — avoiding an unexpected boost in the bill at check-out.
- A five-minute cab ride can cost £12 (translation: $25); an all-day Underground pass is £5.
- Visit museums with free admission. A short list includes the National Portrait Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Maritime Museum and British Museum.
- Don’t breakfast in the hotel (unless it is an inclusion); but rather a street café.
- Opt for lunch, rather than dinner at top-tier restaurants (example: Chef David Thompson’s four-course lunch at Nahm runs £26 compared to its £50 evening fare).
- If applicable, consider the more casual (and less expensive) sister eatery of a well-known restaurant. Example: Tom’s Kitchen vs. Tom Aikens Restaurant, both celeb magnets of the renowned restaurateur.
- Should a theatre night be at the top of the to-do list, stop at Leicester (pronounced Lester) square’s TKTS booth for half-price, day-of tickets.
- By-pass currency exchange booths for an ATM to get the best rate.