London City Guide

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Every so often, someone you know says something of such intense, highly focused stupidity that you feel comfortable discounting everything they tell you from that point forward for the rest of your days.

I have an investment banker acquaintance of mine who makes a lot more money than me while traveling a great deal less. He recently went on a business trip that took him through Paris, Prague and London. When evaluating the trip, he said he loved the first two cities, but he thought London lacked the “wow” factor.

With that, I was able to check him off my intellectual Christmas card list forever.

A much wiser man, Dr. Samuel Johnson, famously wrote, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Indeed, there is no metropolitan area on Earth that packs more said “wow factor” than London. It’s the governmental, economic and cultural capitol of the UK and unquestionably one of the planet’s greatest cities. For most visitors heading to Europe, it serves as a gateway city and their introduction to a European way of life. (Don’t say that to the Brits, or they might exile you to the Continent where you’ll be forced to deal exclusively with the French.)

It’s a metropolis of constant evolution, endless cultural diversity and more attractions than anyone could visit in a lifetime. The city also packs a blend of high energy social and artistic activity uniquely blended with a casual, mellow atmosphere. The city’s aura tells you, “This city stood here for 2,000 years. It will stand here while you visit, live, age and pass. You’re not as eternal as London, so you might as well enjoy everything we have around here while you can.”

In short, London entertains and educates while it humbles you.

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Endless, Evolving History

With the possible exception of Rome, there is no western city with more easily accessible history than the British Capitol. The Tower of London is probably the city’s most popular history-themed attraction. It’s (a sprawling, medieval castle on the Thames that’s served as everything from a palace to a prison to a zoo). Now, it’s the well-guarded home of Crown Jewels exhibit reinvented in 2012 for the Summer Olympics.

It’s easy to get lost in the enormity of London history as days blow by visiting Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the Houses of Parliament, The Cutty Sark and Buckingham Palace. While you stroll between these major points on the map, keep your eyes open. London is dotted with unmistakable blue markers pointing out a myriad of notable residences and other spots where world famous folks lived, worked and died. On a single stroll, I found markers for H.G. Wells, Sir Isaac Newton and Frederick Chopin. Compare that to the ancestral populace of your neighborhood.

Hotels: Keep It Dark

You can spend a fortune on a London hotel room, with many top shelf joints in the heart of the city claiming £1,000 per night and getting it. We’ll assume you are looking for a little more of a break while enjoying a comfortable stay. The simple fact in London is you’ll be visiting one of the most vibrant cities imaginable, and you’re not going to be staying in the room a great deal. Once the lights are out and you’re in bed, a £1K suite serves the same purpose as a £75 room.

For comfortable, friendly and affordable rooms, check out The Z Hotel, Piccadilly. It’s very small, with rooms to match. But, it feels brand new, is exceptionally clean and boasts a cooperative staff. If you want to spend a bit more and gravitate more to the Marlybone and Baker Street neighborhoods, try the 10 Manchester Street. Finally, if you’re willing to spend some cash for that classic, sophisticated British feel in a friendly and intimate space, I recommend The Draycott Hotel off Sloane Square.

Related: Toronto City Guide

Where Theater Thrives

Sorry, New York. I know you like to think of yourself as the Theater Capitol of the World, but London was doing it first — and they do it best. The two cross-Atlantic neighbors take turns introducing major plays — which eventually jump the water and end up playing in the opposite number after a successful run. Recent examples include the South Park boys’ Book of Mormon (which killed it in NYC before dominating the West End) and Matilda (which is still selling out in London after invading the American Tony Awards).

However, London sheds some of that smug New York pomposity with its theater productions and presents major stars appearing as popular characters in internationally famous works — all in small, affordable, even intimate theater spaces. It’s not impossible for a visitor to London to enjoy a decent dinner in Leicester Square or Soho and casually decide an open night will allow them to catch Helen Mirren, Jonathan Pryce or Ian McKellen in the early house — all without breaking the budget.

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World’s Leading Museums

Whether examining categories of art, popular culture or history, you might be able to take the museums of London and find better examples of each genre somewhere else in the world. For example, the Louvre is probably a finer classical art museum than London’s National Gallery. The overall collection of the Smithsonian might pack a bigger inventory than the historic British Museum. But, no city in the world presents more outstanding museums on a wider variety of subjects than London.

That British Museum holds the greatest collection of Egyptian antiquities imaginable. It also claims the world famous Rosetta Stone and The Elgin Marbles (the remaining artistic artifacts of the Parthenon). Meanwhile, The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square holds such classic works as Constable’s Hay Wain and Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, amongst others. The most amazing aspect of both legendary museums are they’re free.

Meanwhile, the collection at the Tate Modern south of the river rivals New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The National History Museum features some of the most important artifacts in scientific history, including some of Charles Darwin’s original notebooks and fossils that proved evolution by demonstrating how birds had their roots in reptiles. Finally, the Victoria and Albert Museum specializes in decorative arts from interior design to furniture and fashion.

Citywide Sports

While rugby is always a strong second option, soccer/football is king in London. The NFL is slowly making inroads into London, but it’s going to take the local some time to get used to a sport in which things actually happen.

For those uninitiated into UK football, London offers the extraordinary chance to see 13 professional soccer teams, including heavyweights such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspurs, Crystal Palace and West Ham United. The fact is difficult for some American sports fans to grasp as it’s the equivalent of having six or so major franchises of the same sport in the same town. Imagine the Packers, Bears, Vikings, Steelers, Ravens and Browns operating out of one city — or the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Brewers,

Mind the Gap

London is a walking city. That’s partly because the ancient, narrow streets can make driving difficult, but mainly because the city is hostile to the car to reduce congestion. It’s £10 per day to drive a car into London with Congestion Tax, so most commuters and tourists rely on the city’s outstanding public transportation systems.

The Tube or London Underground is king for the city’s 13 million+ residents and the constant flow of tourists moving alongside them each day. Its multiple lines and iconic, easily read map allow a visitor to get to any key attraction inside 20-30 minutes max. Be sure to snag a free, reloadable Oyster Card for easy, tap in and tap out travel.

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Let’s Take This Outside

For a city not known for its outstanding or reliable weather, London sports a variety of beautiful outdoor markets that flourish year round. The Borough Market in Southwark – just south of the Thames and a reasonable walk from Tower Bridge – offers everything from local cheeses and roast meat to handmade breads and fresh ice cream. The Borough is celebrating its 1,000 year anniversary. Yes, you read that right. While your town might celebrate a local hardware store that’s been selling hammers for 50 years, there have been merchants working at Borough for 10 centuries.

If you have a lady with you on your journeys, don’t mess the Columbia Road Flower Market on the city’s near east side, not too far from the trendy Shoreditch neighborhood. If you hit the sprawling stretch of bloom-stuffed street at the right time of day, every bunch and bouquet drops to £5.

Eating Quick, Healthy, Cheap

There are more internationally renowned restaurants by world famous chefs in London than I could possibly list here. Any traveler could find them online or via luxury media as each new five star, Michelin Star rated hotspot rules the buzz about town for weeks after it opens.

I’m going to assume you’re not looking to drop £500 on dinner, especially if you head to the UK via the U.S. and have to brave an exchange rate that often flirts with $2.00 = £1. There’s a couple simple tricks to eating cheap, but well in London. They’re called Wagamama and Nando’s.

The former is a Japanese Noodle House with locations every six feet throughout the city. The fresh and healthy dishes come out quick without punishing your credit card. While it may not be the best Ramen I’ve ever had, Wagamama locations always provide consistent quality. Nando’s is an African themed roast chicken chain that took London by storm with its fresh meat and sides, all prepared with variable levels of spice.

Of course, when desperate, you can take advantage of our global corporate society as every major U.S. chain resides in the British capitol from McDonald’s to Pizza Hut to KFC. There’s even some excitement about Taco Bell considering reentering the UK. That sounds like depressing news to many Americans, but it’s a big deal to a major city hard up for fast Mexican food.

I didn’t expect Taco Bell to work its way into a London City Guide, but there it is. The city is just that worldly.

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Of course, all of this only scraps the surface of a city like London. There are full on travel books that can’t touch on every aspect of the capitol, so there’s not way to introduce visitors to the town in detail in a thousand plus words. But, that means the traveler can explore the city for himself or herself and discover how he or she finds and responds to the endless facets of London.

We leave you with an edition gallery of images from a city where it’s remarkably difficult to take a bad photograph.