London is huge in size and in
stature; a true world hub with so much to offer the only problem is knowing
where to start. You could spend a lifetime getting to grips with the capital of
England–and some people do just that–but for the holidaying visitor there are a
few must-sees–plus a little insider information as an added bonus.
No better place to start, then,
than the City of London–also known as the square mile that used to comprise the
ancient, walled city itself. It houses the stock exchange and is a major
financial centre and, funnily enough, best visited during the week when the
shops and restaurants are bustling with visitors. Key sights of the Central London
area are St. Paul’s Cathedral, Bank of England (complete with excellent
museum), Old Bailey and the Christopher Wren-designed Monument. Nearby, albeit
technically in Tower Hamlets, is Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, a
900-year-old icon which was founded by William the Conqueror in 1066 and
features the fabulous Ceremony of the Keys, every night at 10pm when the tower
is locked up.
In the central area the largest
arts centre in Europe–Barbican Centre–will provide contemporary and classic
arts and performances, whilst the absolutely comprehensive Museum of London
traces the city’s development over its 2,000 year history. Like many of the
museums it’s free to get in although special exhibitions may attract an
additional charge, and of course there’s also the obligatory gift shop.
Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Soho
The place to see and be seen in
theatre land, along with Leicester Square. Take your pick from a multitude of
performance options from the English National Opera or Royal Opera House to
Shaftesbury Theatre, Noel Coward Theatre and Drury Lane. It’s fair to say that
there’s something for everybody to be found here.
Shopping-wise, the wise shoppers
head toward the branch of Oxfam Originals–less a thrift shop these days than a
top-notch vintage clothing store.
Neighbouring Soho is best described
as ‘colourful’; once the sleazy centre of a dodgy sex industry, it’s been
completely revamped over the last three decades and is considered the centre of
media operations in the city.
That said, Soho’s left-field
streets comprise a treasure trove of small, independent shops, fashion stores
and best of all some absolutely wonderful smaller record stores catering to all
genres, particularly dance music. Carnaby Street itself might have long since
turned into a limp tourist-trap, but try Stromboli’s Circus for a decent
vintage store full of true retro gear. It must be said that the prices are
firmly contemporary, though. Soho’s also one of the capital’s centres for the
gay scene. For eats, there are a multitude of options including Quo Vadis, once
owned by enfant terrible chef Marco Pierre White. It’s considered a very good
British restaurant, if you can envisage such a strange beast.
Bloomsbury and Camden Town
Literary and musical treats await
here. Bloomsbury is the location of the unsurpassable British Museum, Charles
Dickens Museum, and the magnificent British Library, not forgetting the
Georgian loveliness of Bedford Square, the best preserved example of that
architecture in the capital. Interestingly, Bloomsbury has an absolute stack of
bookshops–possibly due to its proximity to the University College of London.
For the same reasons, it’s very possible to find affordable eats in this area.
Camden Town is the traditional
centre of alternative lifestyles in London. It’s colourful, funky and full of
quite extraordinary markets and a huge amount of truly interesting shops
selling everything from piercings to didgeridoos. Camden is also where you can
find some of London’s best small venues, including the Barfly, where most of
the UK’s indie and rock bands have played at one time or another in their early
days, including the likes of Radiohead. Away from the punks, hippies, head
shops and dance-heads, there’s also the Jewish Museum on Albert Street which
has recently been renovated and extended.
Needless to say, Camden also tends
to attract those on the margins of what constitutes legal commerce but a little
bit of common sense will root out the fake Rolex dealers and dodgy DVDs.
Insider info: best charity stores
London can be a little pricey, even
with the current favourable exchange rate. Luckily, there’s a long tradition of
charity shops (thrift shops) in the UK and the capital of England is no
exception. Try British Red Cross in upmarket Chelsea and the sister shop in
Victoria, Crusaid in Pimlico and Cancer Research UK in Islington for starters.
A little less obviously chic but certainly comprehensive is the Salvation Army
store in Princes Street, Oxford Circus–two floors of magic.
Best of the bunch might well be
Marie Curie in affluent Richmond–this is notable for its stock of designer
labels. Given the inhabitants of the area, like Chelsea, are likely to be
bringing in six or seven-figure salaries, their donations are often still in
the original packaging. Just don’t tell anybody about these hidden gems and
you’ll be grand.