This is actually perhaps the post I have been dreading most because I love London so much that I can’t write about it with any real articulation. I studied abroad here, so while I’m hardly a true Londoner, I can’t approach the city with any level of objectivity. Not that I’m interested in being objective, but “oh my god, London is the best” is not a helpful or informative assessment of a place.
With the exception of perhaps New York, I will emphatically vouch for London as the world’s most diverse and dynamic city. We’d be here until the end of time trying to list every Londoner, native or transplant, but no other city has been home to a cast of characters that includes 1,000 years’ worth of monarchs and everyone from Shakespeare to Kate Moss, Jane Austen to Austin Powers, John Keats to John Lennon, three rock stars named Mick (Jagger, Taylor and Jones), Sherlock Holmes and Sweeney Todd, James Bond and Mr. Bean, David Beckham and David Bowie. Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens lived in houses five blocks apart. Practically every character in all of British literature has taken a turn through London at some point and it has been a fitting setting for them all.
In American writing, I find descriptions of cities are so labored. No one can write about New York without sounding angsty, no writer has described LA without being compulsively neurotic, and no one can talk about Chicago without forever lamenting the fact that it’s been a city on the decline for a century, but it just keeps holding on. Dan Sinker wrote once that Chicago is “a set of knees that should have given out long ago, but didn’t out of pure will.” A brilliant and totally apt description, but so tortured.
Descriptions of London, whether they’re penned by Samuel Pepys or Arthur Conan Doyle or J.K. Rowling, seem so effortless. It was every bit as grimy as Charles Dickens thought (luckily it’s not 1850 anymore), every bit as farcical as Shakespeare described, and as magical for us as it is for Harry Potter. London is the only city I’ve ever been to that’s resolved its many faces. Camden still has an edge; Kensington is still regal; and Piccadilly is bubblegum pop London, while Shoreditch is forever too cool for anything else. But no one area, no one character, is any more true of London than any other.
I’d like to take this moment to extend my thanks to the citizens of the UK for cratering the pound at the exact moment I got here. This is one of those exchange rates that usually makes Americans cringe, but the 30-year low value for the pound has been a great service to me. In all seriousness, it is of course hard to gauge at this point what the Brexit vote means, but it’s probably not as apocalyptic as both the British and the international press make it out to be. That said, democracy is a wonderful tool that allows us to shoot ourselves in the foot. I find it so tempting to laugh at the UK for this, but perhaps we Americans should hold our scoffing until after November 8.
London, also like New York, is one of those cities that has a lot of tourists, but I never understand why the people who live in these cities complain about them so much. Of course there are plenty of tchotchke shops and weird souvenirs with Big Ben sexual innuendos, but there’s far too much city to be overwhelmed by it. The locals always outnumber the tourists and so does the money not associated with tourism; the inertia of the real city totally overwhelms anything else.
Covent Garden is the epitome of this. I love Covent Garden. It’s perpetually overcrowded and its world-renowned buskers are not really there for native Londoners, but there’s such a charm to this area that I don’t even care that the lines at Shake Shack clog the sidewalk and the Le Pain Quotidien masquerades as a quaint local bakery/café. An interesting fact I recently learned is that Covent Garden used to be the red light district and was a total den of sin for a few centuries until they cleaned it up in the early 20th century.
Unfortunately, it is currently the victim of a gruesome crime of modern art. I intentionally will not post any pictures of it so as not to encourage this behavior, sort of like how streakers at sporting events aren’t shown on TV. What’s happened is some idiot has wrapped tons of mirrors around the beautiful 19th century façade and is trying to make a statement about “reflection.” The website is worryingly vague about how long it will be there so if you’re traveling to London in the near future, brace yourself. Actually, I will share the picture because even the official website can’t make this look not horrible.
For all its museums and beautiful buildings and history, London’s ultimate strength lies in its parks. There’s probably a Buzzfeed quiz on the UK site about which London park you are and they do all have different personalities. It is perhaps not a very original pick but my vote goes to St. James Park. For most people, this is the utilitarian strip of green space that connects the Horse Guards to Buckingham Palace, within easy walking distance of Parliament. It is very practically located, but it’s also London’s best park. It’s not big and it’s often crowded, but you can always find a quiet corner and it has two of the best views of the city from its lone bridge; in one direction facing the London Eye and the Horse Guards, and Buckingham in the other.
If I have one piece of “insider’s” advice for London, it’s Hampstead. For a suburb that’s barely 20 minutes north by tube from central London, for most tourists it’s so far away it might as well be in Scotland. High Street in Hampstead does its best impression of a main street in a small English village and it’s not far off. Things are instantly calmer in Hampstead and it’s above the city, with a view down on the financial district that does make it feel like you’re a world away from London. For Americans, the term “heath” seems totally exotic, but what is essentially an overgrown and loosely tended park overwhelms the neighborhood and it’s a good place for a ramble, though it is very easy and almost compulsory to get lost. If you’re a literary person, John Keats’ house is up here and open to visitors.
The best part of Hampstead though, no matter what anyone tells you, is the Spaniards Inn. No one would every stumble across the Spaniards. It is truly a journey to get here and one would only find it if you knew what you were looking for. In my case, I happened upon it while I was a student in London on a wild goose chase of celebrity house stalking (I was merely an accomplice and not the perpetrator). Anyway, the Spaniards is just delightful in truly every way. When we first discovered this in the fall, it was the ultimate place to hole up on a cold afternoon around the dangerously open fireplace. They literally had a cauldron a la the witches in Macbeth with mulled wine. This time of year, they have what has to be one of London’s most majestic patios and a killer fish and chips. It is really a trek to get here; unless you wimp out and take the bus, it’s a 25 minute walk from the tube station, which is 15-25 minutes from a central London stop. But the journey is what makes it so appealing.
A close second in Hampstead is what I like to call Crepes vs. the World. The fact that this little crepe stand has the best crepes ever is really only part of the appeal. La Creperie de Hampstead is embroiled in the kind of dispute that could only happen in a posh London suburb. This has actually made local news. The fight is so ridiculous and is essentially a squatters’ rights debate between the crepe stand owner and the owner of the pub that the crepe stand is almost literally on top of. You can’t visit without noticing the flurry of passive aggressive notes and indignant petitions stuck up all over the little stand. The real point here is that the crepes here are incredible and you can see the place from the Hampstead tube stop, so it’s a must. The petty neighborhood drama is just an added bonus.
Other London advice: do not go to the London Eye. Not because it’s crowded or overpriced, but because the Shard is better. It is also ridiculously overpriced—£30 is truly highway robbery—but it is worth it. I didn’t go up this time around—our sucker study abroad program paid for our tickets a few years ago—but it’s arguably a better view of the city than the Eye and much less crowded. I also think it’s a nice addition to the skyline.
Near the base of the Shard is Borough Market, what has to be one of London’s most underrated attractions. During the week, it’s a better-than-average farmer’s market with predictably high-brow offerings, but on Saturday morning, this is truly a food paradise. The spread here will make every deli, every food truck convention, every food hall, and every other farmer’s market look pathetic by comparison. The usual suspects are all present, from pour-over coffee stands to heaps of seductively aromatic pastries and breads, in addition to every kind of global cuisine imaginable and quite possibly the best bagel sandwich in the world. Sit down, New York bagel snobs.
I took exactly one picture of the whole thing because I was so excited and overwhelmed by the tableau. The whole market is underneath the train tracks near London Bridge (not to be confused with Tower Bridge) and it has the kind of cool kids’ outdoor food market vibe you’d expect. It is without question a must-see in London and while it’s well-known among the local crowd, it’s not frequented by tourists. The thing I noticed most walking around was how many people seemed to be locals who’d brought visiting friends and family to the market and were delighting in showing off such a cool part of the city.
While you’re here, it’s worth exploring this section of the South Bank. The area near the Eye and Westminster Bridge is always a bit of a zoo, but further down, down river from Waterloo Bridge, the South Bank neighborhood is a very cool and an often overlooked part of the city. The views across the Thames are excellent and this time of year there’s a lot going on along the river walk—musicians, food trucks, people building sandcastle on the banks of the river, inexplicably. There’s an outdoor book store under Waterloo Bridge near the National Theatre, which has a great bar and outdoor patio. If you’re here in the winter, the German Christmas market has the absolute best cinnamon rolls and since Christmas in London begins in about mid-October, you have a generous window of time in which to visit. If you go a block in onto Stamford Street between Waterloo Station and the Shard, there are some great no-fuss bars and pubs that during the summer are pleasantly uncrowded, though beware the hordes of students during term.
So, Wimbledon or “the Fortnight” as it calls itself, perhaps the only sporting event in the world with such an ego.
In case you missed it, I lambasted the French Open last month and am ¾ of the way through my 2016 Grand Slam. Wimbledon is probably exactly as you’re imagining it. Daytime cocktail attire and sport jackets are not mandatory, but when even the groundskeepers are wearing crisp polos, you’d be deeply embarrassed to be dressed in anything less. I’m convinced they would institute an all-white dress code for guests as well if they thought they could get away with it. I actually ironed a dress I wore to Wimbledon, and an iron is such a foreign object to me that I had to Google how to do it properly. Such is the standard at the All England Club.
For all the nonsense that can make it seem stuffy, this is an event first and foremost about tennis. There are no live musicians around the grounds, no beer gardens, and no nonsense. If you’re not watching live tennis at one of the courts, you’re on the famous Henman Hill watching the monitors. There’s nothing else to do. You come for the tennis and if you screw around, the honorary military ushers will put you in your place. The only people in tennis more fearsome than them are the Italian and Jewish retirees who work the usher posts at the US Open. The Queen’s Navy is nothing compared to Lenny, the lifelong Yonkers resident who’s been working the US Open since the days of wooden racquets. As a point of comparison, I’m not even sure the French Open had ushers and the ones in Australia were usually drinking.
What I like about Wimbledon is that it hasn’t gotten so wrapped up in its own history that it can’t see what matters in 2016. Wimbledon is not the Wrigley Field of tennis. They’ve made all the important concessions to modernity—revamping the grounds, adding a roof and a video screen, making the stadium passageways bigger, selling edible food—but they’re not about to let it all go the way of mass commercialized sports. There are almost no sponsors’ logos in Centre Court. They don’t play music during changeovers or show ads or have a kiss cam. Players enter together and leave together, with no interviews or hitting of signed balls into the stadium. I can imagine a lot of sports fans would think this insane. You have to sit and be quiet and you can’t get up whenever you want and the crowd will actually shush you if you start acting like a hooligan, and you have to wear something besides a dirty t-shirt. For all the orderliness, there’s a reason Wimbledon is still the most hallowed ground in tennis. Because on the court, it’s the same game, with the same ups and downs and the same nail-biting, gut-wrenching, shock-inducing moments. I’ve been to a lot of tennis tournaments in a lot of different venues and no crowd is as into it as the crowd at Wimbledon. They cheer and clap the loudest even while holding full size bottles of champagne and “chalices” of Stella Artois.
The town of Wimbledon is similar to Hampstead. It’s a 20-minute ride from Waterloo but is channeling a kind of Cotswolds-y vibe. During the rest of the year, it’s very quiet and Wimbledon Common is like a British Norman Rockwell painting, with puppies and ducks and children and people in wellies engaging in civilized playful behavior. During the tournament, things are of course a bit more hectic, but much less so than I was expecting. This is tennis, not soccer, so it’s hardly as if jersey-clad drunkards are ransacking the village after a big win or loss, but the chaos is so well maintained, so British in its orderliness, that if you showed up here and didn’t know the tennis was on, you might only realize it based on the advertisements in shop windows.
I could write endlessly about London and there are hundreds of things I recommend that I didn’t do on this particular visit. A selection:
- The Abbey Road crosswalk is surprisingly cool; given that there are literally hundreds of crosswalks like this all over London, I was amazed by how much this one really stood out. London has also installed a guy out there permanently to make sure tourists don’t get flattened by the traffic, as they inevitably look the wrong way, and to help you get the perfect shot.
- Churchill War Rooms: they never stop being cool. I walked past on this trip and there was a line (!), which I’d never seen before, but the series of Churchill’s underground war bunkers is so fascinating. I’ve been twice and would happily go again
- Liberty: unlike any other department store in the city. You don’t have to be shopping for anything to make a visit worth it. It was originally built as a department store in the nineteenth century and it hasn’t aged a day, though the merchandise and the price tags are fully in the 21st century.
- Restaurants with a view: the Mondrian Hotel and the OXO Tower both have great bars with views over the Thames of St. Paul’s and the financial district. It’s only open on the weekends, but the Portrait Restaurant on top of the National Portrait Gallery is also great. It’s a standard issue nice restaurant but with a strong power lunch bent, so it’s more efficient than stuffy. The view of Big Bean and Trafalgar Square is excellent and the night I was there, there was literally a double rainbow over the city, which is impossible to capture in any kind of moving way in a picture, but the whole restaurant was going nuts over it. You can also head to the fifth floor café at the Waterstones on Piccadilly. Barbecoa is a great steakhouse with awesome views of St. Paul’s. If you’re feeling glamorous, Harvey Nichols fifth floor terrace at the Knightsbridge store is the place for outrageously expensive food and drink.
- British Library: the building is the kind of 70’s Brutalist nightmare that makes you want to cry, but they have an amazing collection of documents that seemingly no one knows about so it’s always empty. When you enter, turn left for the Treasures of the British Library room, where they have mountains of original manuscripts: a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of the Magna Carta, notebooks and original manuscripts from the likes of Da Vinci, Shakespeare, and practically every British author you’ve ever heard of, to say nothing of their collection of Beatles liner notes and letters from the royal family. Arguably the most impressive collection of anything in London and no one seems to pay attention to it.
- Prince Charles Cinema: this is a total wild card. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a bigger piece of crap movie theatre but that’s the whole point. It is in the middle of Leicester Square, the cesspit of London, but draws a mostly local crowd. I saw a way too enthusiastic live show of Rocky Horror Picture Show here once, but they always have an interesting line-up of totally random movies—Jurassic Park was another fun showing. I didn’t stop in this time around, but they had on a sing-a-long version of The Sound of Music one night.
- Notting Hill and Portobello Road: not even once. Hugh Grant is not here
- Kings Cross Station: the Platform 9 ¾ trolley is undeniably fun. On the topic of Harry Potter, if you are not a joyless person and have even a mild interest in the Harry Potter movies, the Studio Tour is absolutely worth it. It is a journey to get to the studio lot out in Zone 9, London speak for the middle of nowhere, but it is so damn cool. I really can’t overhype it. We all truly gasped upon entering the room with the model of the grounds of Hogwarts. You do absolutely have to buy tickets in advance, so don’t forget or you’ll be properly furious when you get all the way out there.
- Tea at The Savoy: is it cliche? Absolutely. But it’s the best.
Obviously I have a lot of thoughts about London so if you are actually planning a trip there and want more recommendations, I would be more than happy to oblige.
So the next few weeks will be a pretty comprehensive tour of the UK, beginning first in the south and working north into the upper regions in Scotland. Next up is Brighton.