London is one of the world’s best cities. It’s my hometown, so I’m not unbiased. Where else can you find pubs that date to the 15th century, stores with a million square feet of shopping, a thriving cultural scene, and a palace? Plus these days, the struggling pound makes London more affordable for visitors.
Here are some of my favorite itineraries for walking, sightseeing, and eating.
Stroll the South Bank
One of the best places to walk in the city is the South Bank. To start your excursion, you might grab coffee from Monmouth Coffee Company (2 Park St.; 020 7940 9960) at Borough Market. The open-air coffee store is touted as having the best beans in London—with the lines to prove it, though they move quickly. While at Borough Market (8 Southwark St.; 020 7407 1002)—a sprawling year-round farmers market selling everything from organic heirloom tomatoes to artisanal teas to wild-boar sausages—you can gather fixings for a picnic and sit on the grass by Southwark Cathedral (Montague Close; 020 7367 6700), which has views of the Thames.
A short walk up cobbled Clink Street—named after a 12th-century “clink,” or prison, that’s now a museum—will get you to the South Bank, where during a 20-minute walk you’ll pass the Globe theater, the Tate Modern art museum, the Millennium Bridge—which leads across the river to St. Paul’s Cathedral—Gabriel’s Wharf, and the National Theatre. You don’t have to just pass them. Shakespeare’s Globe (21 New Globe Walk; 020 7902 1400), originally built in 1599 and reconstructed in 1997, offers guided tours and exhibits; in June you can see an open-air production of Macbeth. The Tate Modern (Bankside; 020 7887 8888) is free and has one of the world’s best Mark Rothko collections.
See Shops and Science
The adjacent tony neighborhoods of Knightsbridge and South Kensington are fun for museum hopping and shopping.
Knightsbridge has Harrods department store (87-135 Brompton Rd.; 020 7730 1234)—famous for its size, mosaic-tiled food halls, and inflated prices. Attractions include a self-playing piano, an oyster bar, and an outpost of Paris’s bakeshop Ladurée, famous for its macarons. Across the street, Harvey Nichols (109-125 Knightsbridge; 020 7235 5000) is the Barneys of London. If you don’t spot a few celebrities there, you just might at Zuma (5 Raphael St.; 020 7584 1010), a Japanese restaurant down the street.
For a more wallet-friendly but almost as stylish dining option, take the bus to South Kensington and enjoy sushi from the revolving bar at Itsu (118 Draycott Ave.; 020 7590 2400). South Kensington is home to three of the city’s best—and free—museums: the Science Museum (Exhibition Rd.; 0870 870 4868), where 3-D Imax movies venture into space and under water; the Victoria and Albert Museum (Cromwell Rd.; 020 7942 2000), which through September has an exhibit on Grace Kelly’s wardrobe; and the Natural History Museum (Cromwell Rd.; 020 7942 5000), renowned for its dinosaur displays.
No place else makes an art of a midafternoon meal quite like London. There are hundreds of places to go to experience the ritual of afternoon tea, but my favorite is the Dorchester (53 Park La.; 020 7629 8888), overlooking Hyde Park.
Tea begins with finger sandwiches and a choice of gourmet teas, is followed by scones and jam, and ends with cakes and pastries—and perhaps a nap on one of the pillowy couches while a pianist lulls you to sleep. It doesn’t come cheap—£34.50, or about $53, per person—and reservations are advised, but the experience is hard to match.
Afterward, wander down Park Lane toward Green Park. Constitution Hill will lead you toward Buckingham Palace, where you’ll know the queen is home if you can see the royal standard flying.
Or walk from Green Park down Piccadilly toward the West End. London has some of the world’s most innovative theaters, largely in the West End. Summer visitors can see David Suchet, best known for PBS’s Poirot, in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Apollo Theatre (31 Shaftesbury Ave.; 0844 579 1971) or catch Love Never Dies, the long-awaited sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, which is at the Adelphi Theatre (The Strand; 0844 42 4651) all summer before going to Broadway in November.
Take a Walk in the Park
Hyde Park is often called the best park in London, but I prefer hopping on a bus to 200-acre Battersea Park, just across Chelsea Bridge. There are riverside walking trails, a children’s adventure playground, a Buddhist peace pagoda, a rowing lake, an art gallery, and a zoo. In nice weather you can spend a day getting lost on some of the pathways, and a vendor sends fantastic gelato by the boathouse.
Across the river in Chelsea, King’s Road stretches from Sloane Square, home to the historic Royal Court Theatre, to Fulham, with hundreds of stores and restaurants along the way. Londoners love Peter Jones (Sloane Square; 020 7730 3434), an unglamorous but reliable department store. Also look out for the pedestrianized Duke of York Square, which leads off King’s Road—it has some great boutiques, cafes, and a French patisserie.
Once you’ve shopped your way up the street, Bluebird Café (350 King’s Rd.; 020 7559 1000) offers prime people-watching, so grab an outdoor table and eavesdrop to your heart’s content. Or follow all the homesick Italian soccer players and visiting celebrities to La Famiglia (7 Langton St.; 020 7351 0761), and feast on vitello tonnato and spaghetti with wild-boar ragu.
To find some real bargains, take a trip to Old Spitalfields Market (105A Commercial St.; 020 7375 2963) in East London. Sunday is the busiest day, when art and fashion vendors congregate and Londoners pick through the stalls for unique pieces.
Try an English delicacy at Square Pie (105C Commercial St.; 020 7247 2100), where popular varieties include steak and Guinness, lamb and rosemary, and jerk chicken. Or wander up to Brick Lane and sample that other British specialty: curry. The Aladin (132 Brick La.; 020 7247 8210) boasts Prince Charles as a fan of its Bangladeshi and Indian dishes. The heart of London’s Asian community, Brick Lane has restaurants, shops, and galleries as well as a bustling hipster scene—guerilla-art fans should look out for graffiti by Banksy.
Then head north to Hoxton Square and visit White Cube (48 Hoxton Sq.; 020 7930 5373), one of the world’s most successful and controversial commercial art galleries. Owner Jay Jopling is responsible for discovering a cadre of young British artists, including Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley.
Finally, indulge in dinner at Fifteen (15 Westland Pl.; 020 3375 1515), where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver—recently seen on ABC’s Food Revolution—first started training disadvantaged young people to work as chefs, kicking off a global franchise. The tasting menu in the dining room is a hefty £60 a person (about $86), but the restaurant also houses a trattoria with pasta options under £10 (about $14).
Where to Lay Your Head
Even when exchange rates are favorable, London hotels can be expensive, particularly if they’re in the center of town. Lastminute.com is a good resource for discounted rates—four-star hotels can be booked for less than £100 ($140) a night. If you don’t mind taking a chance, the site offers special deals on “top secret” luxury accommodation. Hotels prefer not to be identified by name because the rates are so low.
If money’s no object, London has some of the most elegant hotels in Europe. Claridge’s (49 Brook St.; 020 7629 8860) has been a Mayfair institution since the 19th century; it’s famous for its opulence, its glitzy clientele, and its discretion. During the 1940s it played host to many an exiled European monarch, and Katharine Hepburn was once banned from the lobby for wearing trousers. The Art Deco furnishings have been updated recently with a series of rooms designed by Diane von Furstenberg. Afternoon tea is served daily, and the hotel also boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. June rates start at $638 a night.
Less storied but considerably hipper, the Sanderson (50 Berners St.; 020 7300 1400) is a Philippe Starck-designed boutique hotel off Oxford Street. Lime-green walls, whimsical furniture, and a surrealist influence give it a dramatic sense of style, and the courtyard garden is an urban oasis by candlelight. The hotel is conveniently located for sightseeing and shopping, just a short walk from Soho and the restaurants of Charlotte Street. Rates start at $350 a night.
Walking distance from London Bridge, Borough Market, and the South Bank, the Bermondsey Square Hotel (Tower Bridge Rd.; 020 7378 2450) is in one of London’s recently gentrified neighborhoods, just south of Tower Bridge. The area—home to bustling art galleries, nightclubs, and museums—offers cheaper prices than tonier areas in central London, despite being steps from major tourist attractions and public transportation. The decor is light and ‘60s-inspired, with amenities such as Apple iMacs. One “loft” suite has a rooftop Jacuzzi with views of the Thames. An organic bar, restaurant, and delicatessen is on-site for those who get hungry. Rooms start at $142 a night.
Just looking for a clean, fuss-free place? Base2Stay (25 Courtfield Gardens; 020 7244 2255) offers small chic rooms in Kensington, close to Chelsea, Earls Court, and Notting Hill. All rooms are equipped with a mini-kitchen, tea and coffee, free wi-fi, a flat-screen TV, and bath/shower. The hotel is only the second in London to be given a Gold Award by the Green Tourism Business Scheme. Rooms start at $133 a night.