Wednesday, September 14, 2011

London Beyond the Werewolves: A Personal Travel Guide

I recently learned that my friend Wendy and her significant other will be going to London in late October for the first time.

Having been to the British capital on a half-dozen occasions--often at the tail of other European travels--and believing it to be, along with New York, the world's best tourist city, I offered to write this guide.

Although many of my recommendations will be fairly traditional for an initial London visit, they reflect not only my proclivities, but those I share with Wendy. We both love art, theater and rock 'n roll--here's a piece on "songs of London" I wrote for another friend's visit--and given the plethora of other options, are likely to skip the Natural History and Science museums, especially with easy access to great ones in Chicago.

I believe Wendy and her boyfriend will be spending roughly five days in London, which is plenty of time to see plenty, yet not nearly long enough to see everything of value. On my various visits, I've probably enjoyed 20 full days in London and haven't even gotten to all the things I'm suggesting for Wendy. And like New York, and even Chicago, London is a city where you could just pick any direction to walk--or a random Tube (subway) stop to exit--and discover untold pleasures, from the truly historic to the more modern and mundane, but no less enticing.

Before I get to a list of 20 things to see and do in London--and then some other options--here are a few websites that can be particularly valuable, before and even during the trip:
London Theatre Guide -
Official London Theatre Guide -
TKTS Discount Listings (booth in Leicester Square) -
London Walks (Great guided tours on various topics) -
London Underground (Tube) system -
London Eating -
(concert listings; great for any city anywhere) -
National Rail -
Cheap Continental Flights from London - and
Rick Steves - My favorite travel writer; on London and Great Britain
Top 10 London - A great travel guide, which Amazon lets you freely peruse
Currency Converter -
And as for other other tips that can prove quite helpful? Realize that the Tube can easily get you anywhere, is safe at all times (though wariness never hurts) and can easily save you over $100 getting to and from the airport. I haven't ever used an Oyster Card (multi-ride card for visitors) but it seems like it can be a good deal. Note that in terms of Tube "zones" only the airport will be in Zone 6; most other places tourists are likely to go will be in Zones 1 & 2.

Also, though they are ubiquitous to the point of being largely ignored by locals and repeat visitors, "Mind the Gap" and "Look Right" are two phrases that demand your attention and conscious thought. Anyone who's ridden a subway anywhere shouldn't have much difficulty minding the gap between the train and platform, but for American pedestrians, "Look Right" always seems perfectly quaint until the first time they're flattened by a bus coming from the right, not left, as they step into traffic. That's why it's written on the ground at every crosswalk; pay attention to it. And note that occasionally you're told to "Look Left."

OK, so here is a list of 20 things that I think Wendy, or anyone, might enjoy seeing and doing in London. Some of these things could take all day; others probably just call for a few photos. A few are really just areas to walk around, which as I referenced above, could be the bulk of a great trip to London. (Hyperlinks below are to the most helpful point of reference I could find.)

1. Big Ben / Houses of Parliament - Probably the quintessential London sight; I find Big Ben to be one of the most attractive man-made structures in the world. Non-UK residents are restricted from climbing the Clock Tower, but can attend parliamentary debates. I've never timed it right to do so.

2. Buckingham Palace / Changing of the Guard - Completely touristy and probably only essential once, but fun and interesting to see. There is no public entry to the palace after October 3, but the Changing of the Guard takes place at 11:30am, on even numbered days in October.

3. Tower of London - It's not really a tower, but an old fortress and castle dating back to the 11th century. I find it rather fascinating.

4. Tower Bridge - The most beautiful bridge in the world--and likely what the guy in Arizona thought he was buying in 1968. I've never gone to the exhibition inside, though I have walked across it.

5. National Gallery - I don't know that it's touted like the Louvre, Uffizi, Prado, Hermitage or Met, but the depth and breadth of its collection is as good as any I've any seen. And it's free. There's tons to see, but don't miss the roomful of Raphaels, Seurat's "Bathers at Asnieres" or some of many the great Reubens. Here's the museum's own guide to 30 of its highlights.

6. Westminster Abbey - Even if you don't care about royal weddings or funerals, the abbey is a must see for its design and all the famous souls who are buried within.

7. Theater - London's West End is the world's only rival to Broadway in New York. Shakespeare's open-air Globe Theater will be closed for shows by late-October, but knowing Wendy's preference for dramas over musicals, War Horse and The Kitchen look like well-reviewed possibilities. For star power, Driving Miss Daisy is featuring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. And in its 49th year, Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap is always fun.

8. St. Paul's Cathedral - A bit separated from most other tourist sites, Christopher Wren's masterpiece is worth the effort to get to it, and even the walk to the top of the dome.

9. Piccadilly Circus / Leicester Square / Covent Garden - As I've mentioned, London has lots of great areas to just stroll around, but this is where I'd start. You'll be at the heart of the theater district (and not coincidentally, something of London's Times Square). Begin at the Statue of Eros and head west on Coventry Street to Leicester Square, and be sure to walk to and through Covent Garden.

10. Abbey Road - It's not all that easy to get to (St. John's Wood tube stop, not one called Abbey Road which is nowhere near the studio), the famed crosswalk has long been re-painted, the intersection is often busy and treacherous, and the studio is never open to the public. But for Beatles fanatics, a trek here is essential. You might consider taking a Beatles tour, which takes you to Abbey Road, and/or other London rock tours. Or perhaps even a day trip to Liverpool, less than a 3-hour train ride away.

11. Churchill War Rooms - Formerly known as the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, I found this museum to offer tremendously interesting insight to the great Prime Minister and Britain's actions during World War II. (For Americans not heading to London anytime soon, you may be interested to note that a fabulous Churchill Museum exists--within a Christopher Wren-designed church--in Fulton, Missouri, not far from St. Louis.)

12. Tate Modern - London is filled with wonderful museums and the Tate Modern is one of the best collections of modern art in the world. Its location in a former power station is rather distinctive in its own right.

13. Hyde Park / Kensington Gardens / Marble Arch - Great cities have great parks and Hyde Park is one of the most famous anywhere. Look for Speakers' Corner near the northeast corner, the Serpentine lake and other sites of interest, including Kensington Gardens. Marble Arch is a monument, located near Speakers Corner, that will remind you of its Roman inspiration (and possibly the Washington Square Arch).

14. Shakespeare/Dickens Walk / Globe Theater - As I mentioned above, you won't be able to see a performance at the Globe, but can take a tour. And the guided London Walks tour on Shakespeare/Dickens is "not to be" missed, as it offers the best of times. It seems to operate on Wednesday and Sunday. Even if you don't go on a tour, try to get to The George, a medieval pub supposedly patronized by the Bard.

15. British Museum - I haven't been here since my first London visit in 1993, but it is one of the world's great museums. Home to the Rosetta Stone and much else.

16. Trafalgar Square / The Mall - Highlighted by Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square is one of London's great public spaces. It is essentially the "front yard" to the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Heading southwest from the square is "The Mall" which is actually a road that leads to Buckingham Palace.

17. Madame Tussauds - Kitschy as hell, but this is the original wax museum, dates back nearly 200 years old and can be not only fun, but somewhat informative as well.

18. Courtauld Gallery - A fabulous and relatively intimate art museum, highlighted by some sensational Van Goghs and this notable Manet.

19. Chinatown / Soho - Sadly, Lee Ho Fook's, sung about by Warren Zevon in "Werewolves of London" is no longer--I really did once get a big dish of beef chow mein--but Chinatown is worth a walkthrough and perhaps a meal. Soho is a larger district, still a bit tawdry, but not too risque. I'd basically stroll up Shaftsbury Avenue from Piccadilly Circus; Soho is to the north; Gerrard St., which intersects with Wardour St. just south of Shaftsbury, is the main stretch of Chinatown.

20. Baker Street - Although Sherlock Holmes no longer lives a 221B Baker Street, there is a plaque above the door, the above statue nearby and even a museum at his supposed residence. The Baker Street tube station is one of London's oldest and decorated with Sherlock. The area is quite charming even beyond the Holmes' connection and Madame Tussauds is right around the corner. I imagine it also inspired this song.

Other Museums

National Portrait Gallery

Wallace Collection - Another outstanding art museum, in an old mansion. Great pre-Impressionism French and Spanish.

Victoria & Albert Museum - World's largest museum of decorative arts and design

Tate Britain - Turner, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable, Bacon, etc.

Royal Academy of the Arts - Features an exhibit on Degas and the Ballet

British Library - The main location is St. Pancras. Used to be part of the British Museum, so current library building is much newer than you'd expect.

Natural History Museum - Admission is free, as it is for the...

Science Museum

Saatchi Gallery - A contemporary art gallery, with free admission

Jewel Tower - There are no jewels, but an exhibition on the history of Parliament (no word on Funkadelic) 

Charles Dickens Museum - Hope you didn't have great expectations, since this museum will be closed from September 19 to November 7. But after then, some may find Chuck's one-time home to offer a fine Twist.

The London Dungeon - A total tourist haunt, but may be fun in the spirit of Halloween. Offers discount tickets in combination with Madame Tussauds.

Snap Galleries - A rock 'n' roll photo gallery in the Piccadilly Arcade. I haven't been here, but they seem to have cool stuff.

Royal Residences (besides Buckingham Palace)

Kensington Palace - This one is within London, near the west end of Hyde Park; Wikipedia

Hampton Court Palace - Famed for its shrubbery "maze" this palace is southwest of London and requires taking a train from Waterloo Station; Wikipedia

Windsor Castle - To get here, take a train from Waterloo Station to Windsor. I've never visited the castle, but imagine it's pretty impressive if you're impressed by that kind of thing. Wikipedia

10 Downing Street - OK, this isn't really a royal residence, as it's the home of the Prime Minister. Although I've read that David Cameron actually lives at Number 11. But you can get a glimpse of if you walk south on Whitehall from Trafalgar Square. 

Quick Overviews

Double Decker Bus Tour - A bit pricey, but not a bad way to get to many of the sights in one fell swoop. Plus, I believe the regular double decker buses are largely obsolete, so a hop-on/hop-off tour bus may suffice in that regard.

London Eye - I've yet to go on this, as it's never really appealed to me, but Paolo lauds it.

Spectator Events besides Theater

Soccer Game - Chelsea, Arsenal, Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and Tottenham Hotspur are all London-based English Premier League teams. This is a league schedule for October. Perhaps if Wendy is still in London on Saturday, October 29th, she can catch Chelsea play Arsenal at Stamford Bridge stadium, though I imagine tickets aren't cheap.

Rock Concerts - Given England's great musical legacy, it could be fun to see a band in the capital, with something at Royal Albert Hall a real treat. is the best way to check who might be in town; I noticed that Wilco will be at the Roundhouse on October 28 & 29. Tickets here

Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club - Located in Soho, London premier jazz club has operated since 1959.

Football Game - No, not a soccer game, an NFL matchup between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium on October 23. Not sure if Wendy will be there by then, but I wish I was. Tickets here.  

Other London Walks of Note (see full schedule here)

The London of Oscar Wilde
Jack The Ripper Haunts
The Literary London Pub Walk
The Blitz
Rock & Roll London
The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour
Hidden London

Modern Buildings

The Shard - Designed by Renzo Piano, it will be the tallest building in the European Union. Still under construction but may be worth a look. Or hard to miss.

The Gherkin - Designed by Norman Foster and so nicknamed due to its pickle-like shape, it kind of looms over the Tower of London

2012 Olympics Site
- Most of the stadiums are pretty far along; not sure how easy it is to check any of them out, but it seems you can take the Tube to the Stratford station and walk around. London Walks also has an Olympics Walk

Neighborhoods not yet mentioned

Chelsea - Once was bohemian and later swinging, now seems largely upscale. Kings Road was the epicenter of its fashion district and the Sex Pistols were formed at Malcolm McLaren's SEX shop at 430 Kings Rd., but it's long gone.

Notting Hill - I've never been here, but I did see the movie. The area is said to be affluent & fashionable, but where isn't?

Oxford St. / Carnaby St. - Oxford is one of London's major streets and Carnaby, a 3-block pedestrianed stretch in Soho, was once the center of Swinging London


Harrods - Probably the most famous department store in London, with origins dating back to 1824

Savile Row - Famous for all its tailor shops. The Beatles' Let It Be rooftop concert took place atop 3 Savile Row.

Eating & Drinking

Pubs - There are supposedly over 7,000 pubs in London, offering a culture far different than typical American bars. Hanging out and chatting with locals in a pub should be part of any London visit. Here's a list of some of the more popular pubs.

Hard Rock Cafe - This was the chain's first location, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Indian Food - I don't remember too many thrilling meals in London, but know I got some great Indian food. Many options abound.

Gordon Ramsey - I've yet to splurge on a high-end meal in London, but hopefully will one day try one of the establishments of this popular TV chef


See Red - They may still seem somewhat ubiquitous and obvious, but be sure to acutely note the red double decker buses, phone booths and mail boxes, as these are things largely evaporating from London, and in basic essence, everywhere. Also enjoy the old style taxis.

OK, so this should probably provide a first-time visitor to London with abundant options of intriguing things to do, see and experience, though I imagine one could really do very little of this and still have a great time. Hopefully others who have enjoyed London as I have, or even more so, will weigh in with other tips and suggestions.

Have a great time, Wendy, and remember, Mind the Gap and (almost) always, Look Right.

In case anyone cares, I wrote a similar guide to San Francisco some months ago.

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