Why London Should Be On Your Travel List

March 19, 2019

According to Herman Melville, there are exactly two places on the planet a person can disappear: London and the South Seas. The American novelist clearly had an understanding of how London’s quick tempo and whirlwind of culture and iconoclasm can dazzle and then consume a person. From the West End’s effusive world of theatre to the British capital’s pulsing financial hub of Canary Wharf, the city is alive with culture with a capital “C.” London is a bustling international center where British classics like Savile Row bespoke tailoring coexist alongside Indian restaurants that are, according to some, better than Indian restaurants in India. Yet its green, leafy squares and gardens, from Richmond to Regents Park, provide a much-needed respite from overstimulation. The city is an evergreen hot spot for travelers, but it seems to be more verdant than ever these days.

London—aka The Square Mile—has the distinction of being the only city to have hosted three Summer Olympic Games during modern times: 1908, 1948 and 2012. Good things seem to come in threes for the British metropolis, which has experienced three contemporary golden ages: the Swinging Sixties, Cool Britannia in the ’90s, and a current renaissance in postmillennial times. With all the buzz, fanfare, events, and general metropolitan madness, spread-out London might seem challenging to navigate.

The Olympic venues, located throughout the city—and beyond its confines—provide good starting points. Olympic Park is in the East End of London, which also encompasses some very cool and trendy neighborhoods like Shoreditch. Greenwich offers a chance to side-trip to the chronological center of the world: The Royal Observatory, where Greenwich Mean Time is set. And, of course, Hyde Park is a giant patch of nature in an urban area, near Buckingham Palace. What follows are more tips for maneuvering through the sights and customs of this sparkling, worldly city.

By tube: The London Underground is the fastest, easiest, most cost-effective way to make it to all the Olympic event venues and beyond. It’s advisable to buy an Oyster Card at the station (which you can fill up “pay as you go” at the kiosk). Dating back to the 1860s, the Tube isn’t as optimal as buses for sightseeing. But you can make your way to one of London’s oldest underground stations—Covent Garden— and give yourself an Olympic challenge by attempting to climb its notoriously Hitchcockian winding staircase of 193 steps. If vertigo is less of an issue than claustrophobia, avoid Waterloo station at all costs. With 57,000 people entering during morning rush hour, it’s London’s busiest Tube station. Find the  London Online Tube Map here.

By Car: London is such a big city that bobbing around town will cost you a bob or two, especially if you go the route of the black taxi— which is stylishly old-fashioned but notoriously expensive and generally avoided by smart Londoners. It’s wise instead to employ the services of Addison Lee, a popular first-rate “minicab” service. It establishes a set rate in advance so you can avoid screeching-halt-worthy fares. It also gives you the option to pay by credit card over the phone, and your driver will text you to alert you that your car has reached its destination. If you’re lucky, you may even be pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a sleek black Mercedes-Benz. Find the London Mini Cab Service here.

By Bus: Although terribly slow, the London buses, particularly the iconic red double-deckers, are certainly a memorable way to travel almost door-to-door and see the sights, especially if you’re lucky enough to get “the royal seat” (top level, front row center). For the first time in more than 50 years, the double-decker bus (aka The Routemaster) has undergone a makeover by English designer Thomas Heatherwick and enters service this year. Don’t worry—they’re still bright red, but they’re now also green, as in eco-friendly with a new diesel-electric hybrid drive. Find the  London Bus Map here.

The Pubs: There’s much dispute over which pubs are the oldest in London— some placards indicate roots as early as the 16th century. But there’s no argument about the fact that pub culture figures heavily into the daily lives of Londoners, even in the 21st century. People from all ages and walks of life congregate in these so-called public houses over beer and ale, the biggest and most diverse crowds assembling just after work hours to blow off steam. Londoners often put in overtime, so when the Friday whistle blows, these old watering holes become particularly jampacked and frankly undesirable. On such evenings, buses and Tubes are transformed into fluorescent-lit stages for some fairly disorderly antics. With so many dark, similar looking pubs dotting the streets of London, it can be difficult to choose one. Some pubs with notable features do, however, stand above the rest. The Elgin (96 Ladbroke Grove) in Notting Hill has free music on most nights. The band The Clash is rumored to have gotten its start there. On the last Tuesday of each month it has an open “gin club” that features gin tasting. The Churchill Arms (119 Kensington Church St.) in Kensington is hard to miss with its garlands of flowers festooning its facade (for which it has won awards). Its restaurant in the back oozes old-fashioned character and the feel of a classic beer garden.

Sunday Roast: On Sundays, in the late afternoon or early evening, Brits observe a sort of weekly Thanksgiving lite known as Sunday Roast. This is a time for family togetherness generally centered around a plump roast beef with Yorkshire pudding to follow. During a visit to London, it may not be possible to get adopted by a family and invited to such a traditional feast. But there are plenty of pubs that offer their own versions of Sunday Supper—the best of which are more upscale gastropubs such as The Grazing Goat (6 New Quebec St.) in Marble Arch or The Mitre (40 Holland Park Ave.) in Holland Park. In the East End, The Water Poet (9-11 Folgate St.) hosts a popular Sunday lunch until 5 p.m. Beyond the gastropub, Boisdale is a laid-back but high-end British restaurant/club with a whiskey bar, live jazz, a cigar terrace and library, and a caviar and oyster bar. It serves up hearty Scottish fare like haggis and fish pie in Belgravia (15 Eccleston St.) and Canary Wharf (at Cabot Place).

Tea, Anyone? Britain is pretty much synonymous with tea, casually referred to as “a cuppa.” Be aware that there are two kinds of tea services: afternoon tea and high tea (and of course the more casual a la carte cuppa which is enjoyed several times a day on tea breaks). High tea is served in the early evening from 5 onward and includes heavy meat dishes like shepherd’s pie. The multicourse tea service with finger sandwiches known to most Americans is afternoon tea, which is served from about 2 to 4 p.m. Etiquette-wise, especially when having tea in someone’s home, we’re told some Londoners consider it a faux pas to pour your tea before you add milk, as it might stain the fine china. The lavish and traditional high teas at hotels and tea houses like The Savoy (located at Strand), The Lanesborough (1 Lanesborough Place) in Knightsbridge, The Ritz (150 Piccadilly) and Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly) in Green Park tend to cater to tourists but can still be great fun. Smaller boutique hotels like the stylish Hempel (31-35 Craven Hill Gardens) in Bayswater and Blakes (33 Roland Gardens) in Chelsea host memorable afternoon tea services. And the former, a beautiful 5-star property, boasts an exquisitely manicured and designed front garden.

Leighton House: Once you’ve visited the art heavyweights like the British Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, The Tate Britain, The Tate Modern and the Victoria & Albert, it’s time for something a bit more off-the-radar: Leighton House. Some locals haven’t even heard of this exotic little jewel. Tucked away by gorgeous Holland Park, the small museum was once the 19th century home and studio of Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. Its Arab Hall is made up of more than 1,000 Islamic tiles from Damascus. Beyond the museum’s spectacular interior design, it has hosted some pretty esoteric and interesting exhibits, such as one featuring paintings of Marrakech by Winston Churchill.

There was a time when visitors to London planned their trips around the plethora of attractions that are the fabric of this cosmopolitan city. Meals were an afterthought, and the local fare had a reputation for being tasteless and bland. My, how times have changed. London today is truly a food lover’s paradise, and many a celebrated chef has set out to conquer the city. These days it’s a tasty, culinarily savvy hotspot—with Michelin stars to back it up. Goodbye fish and chips, hello global cuisine.

Japanese Zuma: 5 Raphael Street, SW7 A sophisticated blend of modern décor and innovative fare, loyal patrons continue to praise what they call the best Japanese restaurant in the city. A 10-yearold staple in Knightsbridge, Zuma has an atmosphere that combines urban coolness with seductive glamour. Whether it’s miso-marinated lamb chops seared on the robata grill, chiliglazed edamame or wine and sake from the acclaimed cellar of Alessandro Marchesan, everything about Zuma is electrifying and well worth the visit. 

Seafood J Sheekey: 28 St. Martin’s Court, WC2 Tucked away in the heart of Covent Garden in Soho, J Sheekey is renowned for its tantalizing preparation of fish, oysters, shellfish and other fruits de mer. Two of London’s top restaurateurs have created a fish-lover’s haven, and today locals and celebrities flock to the restaurant for some of the town’s greatest food, excellent service and fabulous wines. The restaurant’s clubby atmosphere is a welcome retreat, where guests can get comfortable at the counter or tuck into intimate leather booths that afford a great place to see and be seen. 

Euro Brasserie the Delaunay:  55 Aldwych WC2B 4BB New to London’s dining scene, The Delaunay is the latest restaurant of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, proprietors of the iconic Wolseley. Situated at the edge of London’s Covent Garden, this low-key brasserie harkens back to grand European tradition, with its bowlertopped doorman, dramatic décor, elaborate desserts and dishes that rival the finest from Germany and France. Here, celebrities can be seen indulging in mouthwatering desserts such as the incredible sacher torte, or noshing on an appetizer of Flammkucken, a German dish that resembles a thin-crust pizza topped with smoked bacon and shallots. The Delaunay offers great breakfasts, but will serve up a late-night meal that is well worth the wait. 

French Brawn: 49 Columbia Road, E2 7RG A great new local hangout, Brawn’s daily menu is an interesting mix of small plates and big, bold flavors. Salads and vegetables are well-represented, but it’s the prosciuttos, scallops and, yes, brawn that entice. Less adventurous diners will love the globe artichoke with vinaigrette or the English pea and mushroom risotto, but don’t be afraid to sample some of the other delicacies on the menu. The fresh-baked sourdough bread is simply delicious, and the wine offerings are varied and fun. 

Pub Lady Ottoline: 11a Northington Street, WC1N 2JF Named for a member of the aristocratic Bloomsbury set, the Lady Ottoline gastropub was recently refurbished and restored to its former glory. The first floor encompasses a typical pub where more serious drinkers can order from a less-formal bar menu. Up the narrow staircase is the restaurant, where diners can choose from surprisingly elaborate dishes such as cured duck breast or lobster and crab risotto. The mainstay of any pub, pork belly, is as good as it gets, served perfectly cooked and flavorful.

Cafe Bar Italia: 22 Frith Street, Soho, W1D 4RT  People flock to Bar Italia for the stupendous coffee, which is supplied by Signor Angelucci, who lays claim to a secret blend that he has been using since 1947. The barista prides himself on remembering customers, and that personal service is a source of customer loyalty. Celebrities are no strangers to the place, and it’s not unusual to see familiar faces drop in, such as Rupert Everett, Kylie Minogue, Boy George, or Francis Ford Coppola.