The weekend packages are tempting, so isn’t it time to take another look at London? This time you might want to check out the less-traveled as well as the guidebook standards of Great Britain’s most vibrant city.
For an eye-popping start and presuming you have no acrophobia, try the London Eye. Picture large glass eggs lying horizontally, each holding 25 passengers, including you. These rise gently and slowly four hundred feet into the air, and if the skies are clear, offer a panoramic view of the Gothic houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the Tower Bridge and just about everything else within 25 miles. At night, the view from the top of the world in this latter-day Ferris-wheel is all radiance and dazzle. The ride takes thirty minutes, but the wait in line to get aboard is much longer, so you might want to book ahead through www.ba-londoneye.com or your travel agent.
Getting to the Eye is fun if you travel by boat. These “Riverliners” glide along the twists and turns of the Thames, making stops every twenty or thirty minutes. One does not need to sign up for the entire two and a half hour sight-seeing trip, but may disembark as one would a bus. The London Eye stop is at Waterloo Pier, the boats leave every thirty minutes or so and are partially enclosed, mindful of English weather. The Tate Boat, which travels between the Tate Britain and Tate Modern museums also stops at the London Eye. It’s so convenient to the museums, you might want to make a stop at each. At the Tate Britain you’ll see the best of British art (Gainsborough, Turner, Hockney, Moore and so on) and at the Tate Modern, pay homage to our own Edward Hopper. The comprehensive exhibit –around seventy works–opens there May 27th and stays through September.
While there, grab some fish and chips at the airy café built as part of a recent two-story glass addition. On a sunny day the light streams through not only the restaurant but also the museum top to bottom. Here and there are lounges with sofas and balconies with views of the river and the city beyond it. It’s an inviting atmosphere for visitors who might want to take a bit of relaxation with their culture.
More art, of the sort that people call “Cool” or “They must be kidding!” depending on the point of view, is at the aptly named White Cube gallery. This is in Hoxton, an area of London that is young and cutting edge, and has inspired the “Hoxton fin”, a hairdo characterized by close-shaves at the side of the head and a standing brush pointing towards heaven at its center. Some might characterize Hoxton as still somewhat industrial, but new restaurants and boutiques are springing up. Hoxton Square, a small park, is at its center.
Very nearby is Brick Lane, a historic street characterized by brick-façade buildings, graffiti and a lively street life. It was originally populated by French Huguenots, later, at the turn of the 20th century, Jewish immigrants. As they prospered and moved to the suburbs, they were replaced by Bangladeshi and other Asian newcomers. Restaurants have opened here one after another and it’s a good place to eat an inexpensive ethnic meal or shop at the many boutiques. They have names like “Junky” or “Vision” or no names at all. Ad hoc designer outlets come and go and real bargains may be found here. Keep your eyes open for Princelet Street around the corner from Brick Lane, and check out the dilapidated building at number 19. Erected in the18th Century, it housed three centuries of immigrants. Now it’s a small museum, open to the public on occasional Sunday afternoons.
A wide alleyway that also cuts into Brick Lane, Dray Walk, is lined with outdoor picnic tables. On weekends, here are the strollers and bikes, the throngs of young people dining al fresco. Straight ahead is Spitalfield Market, a huge covered tent under which crafts, homemade bakery items, silver, posters, you-name-it, are sold. The market is open Sundays only, but surrounded by proper shops open all week. Although there are exceptions, these will appeal to customers whose idea of antiques do not reach further back than the 20th Century.
A quieter afternoon stroll might be along Charing Cross Road, famous not for visual arts but for its small bookshops, every one properly dusty and atmospheric. Shipley’s emphasis is art and design, Alhoda is for Middle Eastern Muslim books, the Charing X Cross Bookshop is famous for bargains. For any book in its basement, you pay only £ 1 and the stock is periodically overhauled. Next door is the Francis Edwards Antiquarian Book Shop; at Henry Porder Books, books are “bought and sold.” In keeping with its old-fashioned image, Charing Cross Road is also home to C.Smith and Sons. This little “noted snuff shop” has a sign on the door: “Thank you for smoking,” and inside are lighters, cigars , pipes and ashtrays. It’s all a walk down memory lane.
Time for tea? Find the historic Mountbatten Hotel nearby, built in 1904 and refurbished in 1985, when it was renamed for Earl Mountbatten of Burma. It’s a mix of today and tradition and a good choice for a typical cuppa complete with scones and tea sandwiches. From here you’ll want to proceed to Covent Garden, with its markets, theatre, arts and history. It’s just three blocks away.
Where to stay in London? If you’re interested in theatre, best choice is the Hampshire on Leicester Square. Want access to the financial district? Try the May Fair on Stratton Street. The five-star Heathrow is near the airport. For proximity to shopping, stay at the Radisson Edwardian Berkshire on Oxford Street. All these hotels are rated four or five star, and are included in the “Let Loose in London” weekend package.