Not Your Average Guide to London
Put down the guidebook. I repeat: Put down the guidebook. However, since you can’t throw all caution to the wind, here are a few things I learned as an American visiting London for the first time. To start, you may want to keep a map handy, because you can get turned around pretty quickly if you’re not paying attention. Speaking of which, be careful. They drive on the wrong side of the road over there. Or maybe it’s the right side — I don’t know. All I do know is, make sure you peek down at the "look left" or "look right" painted on the sidewalk before crossing the street. Trust me.
Honestly, though, my best advice is to leave the guidebook at home. Be friendly and start random conversations. We all know the big hot spots, anyway: the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and so on. If you really want to see London in all its glory, ask a local for some suggestions — or just start walking. You’ll find architectural beauty, top-notch markets, expansive parks, incredible museums and amazing restaurants and pubs — both historic and new — around just about every corner. Within 10 minutes of arriving, I basically trashed the itinerary I had been planning for weeks and started from scratch — and it was the best decision I ever made.
Comparable to yet not quite as expansive as Central Park in New York City, Hyde Park maintains its idyllic charm down every path traversing its 350 acres. Because of its vast nature, the royal park offers a wide variety of entertainment options, from playing football, Frisbee and cricket — among other sports — on the open pitches to cruising around the Serpentine Lake on a rowboat to letting your voice be heard at the famed Speakers' Corner. However, the best part about Hyde Park, aside from the lush landscape and blooming gardens, is the ability to sit back and relax on a patch of grass with your friends, crack open a bottle of wine, and enjoy one of the world’s oldest (and one of my all-time favorite) pastimes: people-watching.
The Tate Modern is very impressive, even for someone who doesn’t always appreciate art. Firstly, the building that houses the collection is a contemporary work of art in itself. Once inside, the multilevel space is also quite attractive, with exposed metal beams lending to its modern feel. There is usually some sort of expressive performance art on the ground floor that is sure to make you stop and gaze in awe before heading upstairs. Once you make it past the first-floor cafe, the exhibits range from abstract art from the early 20th century to British art dating back to the 1500s to acquisitions from all over the world, including the likes of Dali and Picasso. If you find yourself with a couple of minutes to spare, step out on the third-floor balcony and take in the breathtaking view of the River Thames, the Millennium Bridge and more.
'Borough' Your Way Through
Just a short walk along the River Thames from the Tate Modern lies one of the best and oldest fresh-food markets in the world, let alone in London. Supplying many of the city’s best restaurants with produce and other assorted treats, Borough Market is a food lover’s heaven. Make sure you come hungry so you can eat your way through the entire market, whose stalls are filled with various goodies from all over the globe. There is everything from fresh truffle spreads and handcrafted cheeses to just-baked breads, perfectly smoked sausages … I could go on and on. My point: Stopping by Borough Market is an absolute must for anyone who enjoys good food. And FYI — so as not to disappoint — make sure to go Wednesday through Saturday so all the stalls are open and ready to feed your hungriest of appetites.
London is one big melting pot, and with that diversity comes unabashed chefs from all over the world serving up international cuisine that will blow you away. If you’re in the mood for tapas, Barrafina in Soho is your place. No reservations are available, so it may be tough to find a stool around the small dining counter, but it’s well worth the wait. The freshness and quality of the food, from well-preserved charcuterie to mouthwatering, vine-ripened tomatoes, are unmatched. Maybe contemporary Chinese is more your speed? Super-chic Yauatcha, also located in Soho, offers its patrons a wide selection of the very best dim sum you’ll find in all of England. However, as a picky eater, I’m pleased to say that the best food I tasted in London was the Indian cuisine. Although I was hesitant at first, the dishes at Amaya, located in Belgravia, were some of the most satisfying I’ve ever had. I implore you to try it (even if you’re picky like me!). I promise it will not disappoint.
Soulful East End
Hipster meets soul in London’s historic East End neighborhoods of Shoreditch and Spitalfields. These areas make you feel as though you’re no longer in old-world London, with graffiti-laden streets that guide you past Brick Lane to modern British pubs such as the Ten Bells and hip, indie-type atmospheres such as the Big Chill Bar. And I swear, the essence of James Brown is resurrected inside the industrial-feeling Blues Kitchen when local artists hit the stage. The pub scene in this part of town, much like the streets themselves, differs from that of downtown London, offering up a more “chill” vibe for a younger crowd looking to escape the vibrant nightlife of neighborhoods such as Soho and Chinatown.
Filled to the Prim
Just north of the Regent’s Park, another one of London’s iconic royal parks, is a lovely, quaint little part of the city in the Camden borough that’s known as Primrose Hill. As soon as you arrive, you immediately recognize that you’re in one of the poshest neighborhoods in London. As you walk up the street, past pastel-colored homes reminiscent of the painted ladies in San Francisco (with a fresh pint in hand, mind you), you eventually make it to the top of the town’s namesake. If you’re looking for the perfect way to end your trip and say goodbye to the city, this is the place to do it, as you have an exquisite view of the central London skyline.
Once part of Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens is now a royal park in itself and is loaded with notable attractions, such as the Albert Memorial (pictured above next to London’s most famous music venue, Royal Albert Hall), as well as The Arch by Henry Moore and, of course, Kensington Palace, the residence originally occupied by King William and Queen Mary.
Taking a photo as you walk across the street in front of Abbey Road Studios is surreal — and a no-brainer for any Beatles fan.
Most people know about the remarkable pub scene in London, and it definitely does not disappoint. No matter where you go, from historic spots such as the Black Friar to new, speakeasy-type bars, including the Experimental Cocktail Club, there is always a cold (or, sometimes, room-temperature) beer waiting for you. Cheers, mate!