London guidebook author Marsha Moore spills the beans on England’s sprawling capital. Roller Discos, floating gardens, South Bank strolls and stolen marbles are all part of the experience…
Covering over a thousand square kilometres with almost 8 million people, it’s hard to know where to start exploring a mega-metropolis like London. Taken as a whole, the city seems brash, noisy and impenetrable. But when you break it down, borough by borough, the real character shines through. From East End market traders on Roman Road, the oldest trade route in Britain, to the oh-so-chic (and expensive) fashions of Chelsea, every area – every street, even – has its own story to tell.
And it’s a story that’s constantly evolving. With the influx of immigrants from nations around the world – most recently, Eastern Europe – whole areas are taking on new and rapidly changing identities. Like Brick Lane, for example. Once a haven for Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France, the area became home to the Irish, then Ashkenazi Jews, before morphing again under the influence of today’s Bengali population. Each group left its mark through food, music and religion. It’s this delightful mish-mash of normally disparate cultures that makes London neighbourhoods so wonderful to explore.
London is a city in flux, a city whose population and culture is influenced by and, in turn, influences the world. You can almost feel the creativity humming as people from all over the globe mix to create an atmosphere unlike any other. Dive in and see!
Best of the Beaten Track
There’s no escaping it: when in London, you must see Big Ben. You can’t go inside, but you can hear the bells toll and see the tower to its best advantage just across Westminster Bridge on the South Bank. Once you’re done, take a ride on the London Eye nearby, see the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall, have a drink under Waterloo Bridge at the British Film Institute, all before trotting down the Jubilee Walk beside the Thames to the Tate Modern (the view from the 7th floor is spectacular – and the art isn’t half bad).
From the Tate you can cross the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral, and test the acoustics of the famous Whispering Gallery. Make sure to hit the British Museum (free entry!), whose many treasures include the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles (on a controversial ‘long-term loan’ from Athens), and round off your tourist circuit with a visit to one of Buckingham Palace (Aug & Sept only), the Royal Albert Hall or Kensington Palace.
A great way for first-timers to take in all the sights without losing their mind is via Big Bus Tours where you can whip around the city on a double-decker and hop on and off to your heart’s content. The more adventurous can escape London traffic and see the sights from the city’s main thoroughfare, the Thames, with London Duck Tours.
During winter you add some romance to your weekend break with a spin around one of the capital’s outdoor ice rinks, which spring up around Christmas in some gorgeous locations like Somerset House and Hampton Palace.
Forget the gentrified west; London’s East End is where it’s all happening. If you want to mix music with muesli, head to The Premises where breakfast is served all day long. A functioning recording studio, you might run into Little Boots or Lily Allen as you munch. Then drop into co-op Stoke Newington International Airport, where you can take a flight of artistic fancy without leaving the ground – concerts, shows, exhibitions abound. Browse the stalls in Spitalfields Market for food, jewellery and clothes or take your pick of crazy fashion on display at The Old Truman Brewery.
At 93 Feet East, just off Brick Lane, there’s burgers, beer, and dancing ‘til late. Or try out a new London trend with a ‘plub’ – a hybrid of club and pub – at the Horse and Groom. And if you need some carbs to keep you going, Brick Lane’s Beigel Bake is open 24 hours.
Experience & Events
Let your senses be your guide at Dennis Severs House, where you’ll encounter ten rooms set to create ‘moods’ from between 1724 and 1914. Weave your way through the silent house by candlelight as you interrupt the invisible occupants, an eighteenth-century French Huguenot family of silk-weavers, at their dinner. If you want to look forward rather than back, go on a Cutting-Edge Green Tour. In the three-hour tour, you’ll see everything from London’s only floating gardens to recycled fashion – and make lots of other stops along the way. (On a similar theme find out what happened when Urban Travel Blog went guerilla gardening in London).
Every August bank holiday weekend, almost a million people flock to the Notting Hill Carnival for music, food and the pinnacle of it all: the Parade, where hundreds of drummers pound out the beat as crowds line the streets. With smoke from jerk chicken clogging the air along with the booming bass from street-side sound systems, it’s hard to believe you’re still in London. Fans of dance and rare grooves should make an e-line for the Good Times stage, where king of the carnival Norman Jay keeps the party in full swing.
Fancy some firecrackers? Make sure you’re in town around the fifth of November for Guy Fawkes Day. Commemorating the day when Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, the dark autumn sky is punctuated by the sharp pop of firecrackers culminating in one big annual blow-out at Alexandra Palace. If you’re more into water than fire, head to the river the first week of April for the yearly boat race between rivals Cambridge and Oxford.
For travellers on a budget, the YHA Hotel in Holland Park provides a central London location in a beautiful setting – a former Jacobean mansion smack in the middle of affluent Kensington. If you want to keep the great spot without the hostel conditions, opt for mid-range Kensington Close Hotel, just steps from the shop-packed Kensington High Street and around the corner from Kensington Palace. To really live large, book yourself into the Zetter’s roof-top rooms with private patios overlooking St John’s Square in trendy Clerkenwell, East London. For a range of London apartments that won’t break the bank Oh-London.com are a good bet. And if you want to combine a spot of theatre with your stay then check London hotel and show deals.
People from all over the world come to live in London – and they bring their cuisine along too. From Ethiopian to Egyptian, whatever you’re craving can be found here. Forget the curry hacks on Brick Lane and head over to Pakistani-Punjani restaurant Tayyab’s, voted Indian Restaurant of the Year in the London Restaurant Awards. If you’re after nose to tail eating – where no bits are wasted – St. John Restaurant can provide you with a taste of chitterlings with dandelion and bone marrow salad. And if you want to stay local, go to Konstam where over 85% of ingredients are sourced from within the six London underground zones. For some brilliant Thai within a traditional English pub environment, Churchill Arms serves up steamy Pad Thai to die for.
The Brits are notorious pub lovers, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to be had. Get your skates on and head back to the seventies every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at the Renaissance Room’s Roller Disco. If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, go to Notting Hill Arts Club where the mix of great music, buzzing crowds and artsy locals always makes for a great night. Or pack it in under the railway arches at club Cargo, where entry on Fridays in free. For all those who like to mix fitness with fun, Club Aquarium is the only club in the UK with a pool. Swim some lengths, get steamy in the jacuzzi, or work it out on the dance floor.
EasyJet and Ryanair both fly into London from a variety of European cities, although have a tendency to land in the likes of Luton and Stansted so make sure transport into the centre is still running when you arrive. Big carriers are more likely to drop you in the better connected Heathrow and Gatwick. Eurostar also runs frequently from France and Belgium; book early for best rates.
Londonist keeps you up-to-date with news, reviews and general information about the city. For weekly listings, TimeOut provides an easily searchable online database. For interesting (and sometimes obscure) tidbits about local life, check out Diamond Geezer’s blog, whilst for a host of capital tips of every variety head over to Spotted by Locals’ London guide.
The Rough Guide to London has everything you need to know to get you here and sort you out. If you’re looking for what’s on at any hour of the day or night, check out 24 Hours London. And to impress the locals with your depth of knowledge, get your hands on I Never Knew That About London.
Soundtrack to the City
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