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eclectic, off-beat, restaurants, pubs, cultural, gardens, squares, museums, walks, shopping
I live on the southwest coast of England. When I moved here, I stupidly thought I was near London. I could have looked at a map and discovered that it was 150 miles away. Still, I visit when I have the time and money and have gradually discovered some hidden gems, places that many London residents have never heard about. London is an extremely expensive city, but I go to lots of places that are free or cheap.
I travel all over the city, and I usually buy a one-day bus pass, which is good value if you're going to take at least three journeys. You buy them at most bus stops, and they cost three-and a-half pounds. I also found the bus map that I picked up from Waterloo station to be crucial to a smooth itinerary.
Hardly anyone eats breakfast anymore. I mean a proper one. No one killed it off; it was more manslaughter than murder. I always eat breakfast when I travel. And I get a genuine English breakfast at Smiths of Smithfield. By that I mean an incredibly decadent vegetarian fry-up (eggs, veggie sausages, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, bubble, toast). A walking heart attack, I know, but it sets me up for the day. If I feel healthy, I order porridge or fresh fruit salad with muesli, yogurt and honey.
Naturally, like everything English, the history of Lincoln's Inn Fields is rich and dense. In 1683 Lord William Russell was publicly beheaded for his part in an assassination attempt on King Charles II. Partly designed by the famous English architect Inigo Jones, the largest public square in London is flanked by a collection of praiseworthy buildings including Sir John Soane's Museum.
I visit all kinds of museums in London, but I always recommend this one to visitors. Soane, an architect who lived from 1753 to 1837, collected all kinds of artifacts from around the world. One of the highlights is Hogarth's "Rake's Progress," on a hidden wall panel, which the attendant will open if you ask. There are so many pictures that many of them are hung like pages of a book.
Even though I'm not particularly ecclesiastically minded, I like to look inside this church. Simon Jenkins, author of "England's Thousand Best Churches," bestows four stars on St. Mary-le-Strand. The church is easy enough to recognize as you walk along the Strand because of its tall classical spire and because it's an island in the middle of the street. Jenkins calls it the finest 18th century church in London, and he praises the single-spaced interior with its hugely ornate plaster vault.
This ridiculously quaint pub is hidden away behind the High Court. Built in 1602, it was one of a handful of buildings in the area to survive the Great Fire in 1666. A changing selection of fresh seasonal dishes might include oysters, steak, herrings and Caesar salad. I often opt for a simple ploughman's lunch which is a thick piece of cheese (stilton or cheddar), pickle, a chunk of bread and butter. The beer is good too.
Oxford Street is London's Fifth Avenue but with more dash. For one thing you find a bigger variety of shops, and you can find clothes at every price point. I always check the stock at New Look or Dorothy Perkins for hot-off-the-catwalk styles that they practically give away. OK, I'm exaggerating, but you get the point. I could spend hours in the quintessential British department stores John Lewis and Selfridges. Both have fantastic sales on right now. Then there's Top Shop. Lots of models mix bits and pieces with designer stuff to create a one-off look.
I pause for a few minutes in the circa 1680 Soho Square. It's small and perfectly formed with a park and garden area at its center. Nearby is a charming half-timbered gardener's hut. Presumably the gardener is long gone. Not too far way is Hanover Square. In the early 1700s it was the fashionable place to live. Today most of the houses on the square were built at different periods. I head to Grosvenor Square, which is ringed with foreign embassies. The most prominent of which is the U.S. embassy as heavily fortified as a medieval castle under siege.
It's cramped and cavernous but the food and service at this restaurant behind Oxford Street can't be faulted. The inexpensive Thai cuisine with its flavorful fresh salads and fiery curries is succulent. Best of all (for me anyway) there's a dedicated vegetarian menu.
The American Bar is legendary and a wonderful place to end the evening. It opened in the late 1890s, and apparently the British cocktail was invented here in the 1920s. Some say this is the venue for the best cocktails in town. The art deco style and jazz pianist make you feel cosmopolitan even if you're from Gary, Indiana. But one caveat: Cocktails run around 13 pounds each. Added to that is a 5-pound cover after 8 p.m. if you're not staying at the hotel.
I always look for deals on the Internet, but sometimes the hotels are a little funky. I decided to splurge, and this time I chose the City Inn in Westminster. The views are, to use that hollow word, breathtaking, and it's only one block to the Thames. The rooms are posh, too.
This 4-1/2 acre market beside Southwark Cathedral attracts thousands. They come to scrutinize the huge displays of organic fruit, cakes and cheeses from all over the world. I see strange vegetables that I recognize but cannot identify. The stalls are only open on Friday and Saturday, and they're all run by farmers. The fragrant smells and flavors make me think more about food than I already do. But before I go prowling, I nip into the Monmouth Coffee Shop. This is one of those fun places that you might ignore if you didn't know what was inside. Here I choose from 16 varieties of coffee as well as croissants, baguettes and home-made jam.
The new Globe Theatre, which is 200 yards from the original site, is an authentic reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe. His plays are staged here every summer, and the performances normally receive rave reviews. But you can also take tours. They take place every 15-30 minutes except on matinee days. I have an abiding interest in costume collections, and this exhibition includes Elizabethan fabrics and armor.
Six years ago, this national gallery was carved out of a disused power station on the south bank of the Thames. It exhibits international work from the 1900s to the present. The interior is industrial drab, but I feel the energy as soon as I walk inside. At the heart of each wing is a large central hub. I start with Surrealism, move to Minimalism, proceed to Post-war abstraction in Europe and the U.S., and end up at the three linked movements of Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism. When I need a break, I'll nip down to the Tate Modern's Cafe and order chestnut mushroom cheese focaccia and lemon meringue tart to fortify myself.
I could spend a whole day just at the Tate Modern and Tate Britain. But if I don't have the time or inclination to visit them, I take the boat that shuttles between the two and offers a lovely cruise down the Thames. It leaves every 40 minutes during opening hours and also stops at the London Eye.
Now I slowly make my way across the Thames. The foot bridge links Victoria Embankment to South Bank and is often not too busy outside of rush hour. Along the way, I stop to savor the views of the boats below.
I slide through the Tudor and Stuart galleries, and try to imagine life back then. What amazes me is how modern the people look even if they are wearing funny clothes. Many visitors to the National Portrait Gallery don't know about its restaurant on the fifth floor. It has great views across Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Even if I'm not going to look at the excellent exhibits, I'll stop here for tea to sample dainty sandwiches that only the English can make. The bread is traditionally white, and the crust is cut away cleanly after the sandwich has been prepared. My favorite filling is creamy egg salad, and I always accompany it with a cup of the deliciously smoky Lapsong Souchong.
If you want to walk off all those carbs, you could cruise through Covent Garden Piazza. Once a flower, fruit and vegetable market, the area is now thriving with interesting clothing shops, restaurants and buskers.
Forget New York, London theatre is the best in the world. This year Alan Bennett won six Tony Awards for his "History Boys," one of the funniest plays I've ever seen. I try and read at least a couple of reviews of a play in the Independent or the Guardian. Tonight I'm off to see "Evita". I know, I know, some people think it's cheesy, but "Don't Cry for me Argentina" gets me every time. Unless it's a sell-out show, I buy my tickets at the half-price ticket booth at Leicester Square.
I finish my evening at the Covent Garden branch of this inexpensive chain of Turkish restaurants. Open until midnight, it's just right for after-theatre supper. I order a sampling of cold and hot mezes, which are made for sharing. The enclosed roof garden is charming if a little noisy sometimes.
Balans cafes are buzzy places with excellent omelettes, waffles and eggs florentine. I usually order blueberry pancakes, something I would never eat at home.
The gardens, surrounding a large restaurant, provide a panoramic view over west London. They were laid between 1936 and 1938 and are split into three parts: Tudor, Spanish and woodland. There are 100 species of trees, which seems incredible when you find out that the soil is, at most, three feet deep. Fountains, a stream and a flamingo make these gardens an urban oasis. I make sure to call ahead, because sometimes the gardens are booked for special events.
Now I'm an eclectic person, and I just adore military museums. My favorite is the Imperial War Museum, but the National Army Museum is full of all kinds of quirky displays such as the skeleton of Napolean's horse.
I take a leisurely stroll down Cheyne Walk (pronounced Chaynee). This short stretch is notable for its 18th century houses that display a great number of 'Blue Plaques' (denoting people and places of special interest.) In the 19th century lots of literary and artistic types were drawn to this area of Chelsea. Some of the distinguished residents included George Eliot, J.M.W. Turner and later T.S. Eliot and Mick Jagger.
I always have to remember that this walled garden is open only from 2 p.m. to 5 on Wednesday and 2 p.m. to 6 on Sunday. It is the second oldest botanical garden in Britain and was created in 1673 to study plants for medicinal purposes. Inside is the largest olive tree in Britain as well as other rare plants. I stop briefly to drink a cup of herbal tea in their cafe and immediately feel revived.
Here's the place for fusion food. It's open all day and therefore the right spot for a late lunch. I haven't had the nerve to try the brown rice, apple and miso porridge, but the shitake and sweetcorn fritters are pretty darn good.
It's not a teenage dance but a marvelous musical festival sponsored by the BBC every summer. Proms are concerts at the Royal Albert Hall where some of the audience stands in a "promenade" area of the hall. Many consider this the best position. There's room for over 1,000 to stand, for only 4 quid each, but they can only buy their ticket on the day of the performance. The Royal Albert Hall was originally conceived by Queen Victoria's husband Albert. He planned to create a grand auditorium based on the Roman amphitheatres. When the Beatles sang about how many seats it takes to fill the Albert Hall, they weren't kidding. The place holds 30,000. The crowd is informal and serious at the same time.
Modeled on Japan's ramen bars, this hugely popular chain has nearly 25 restaurants in London. The decor is minimalist, and diners eat at long shared tables. The bowls of subtly flavored noodles and the curry rice dishes are light, healthy and tasty. The food is inexpensive, and Wagamama doesn't close until 11 p.m.