What's Up in London
By Rick Steves
|Royal Guard to out-of-bounds hotdog purveyor: "We are not amused, my good man."|
London is livelier than ever! London's new glassy, egg-shaped City Hall - just across the Thames from the Tower of London - is open to tourists, with an observation deck (nicknamed "London's Living Room"), a Visitors' Center, and a 30-foot by 50-foot aerial photo of the city you can walk on. The Tate Gallery of Modern Art and the sleek pedestrian bridge - leading from St. Paul's Cathedral across the Thames to the museum's doorstep - is a must-see. The London Eye Millennium Wheel (the world's largest Ferris wheel) looks great on the skyline - giving the Halls of Parliament and Big Ben a curiously circus-like ambiance.
Just returning from London, however, I'm still high on the city. Considering the great sights, easy public transportation, and cheap off-season airfares, London works brilliantly as a one week winter getaway.
The city is booming with lots of new buildings. This 2000-year-old-town is so littered with Roman ruins that when a London builder finds Roman antiquities he doesn't stop work. He simply documents the finds, moves the artifacts to a museum, and builds on. If you're asking, "Why did the Romans build their cities underground?" a trip to the creative and entertaining London Museum is a must.
Called "The City," the one-square-mile site of Roman London is London's financial district today. "Old Bailey," the criminal court, still welcomes curious sightseers when the court is in session (Monday-Friday 10:30-13:00, 14:00-16:30, no kids under 14, tel. 020/7248-3277). This is a fun chance to see lawyers in little blond wigs speak legalese with a British accent.
While pubs are still strong, the new phenomenon is coffee shops. Starbucks and its competitors have sprouted up all over town, providing cushy and social watering holes with comfy chairs, easy WCs, and £1.50 lattes. The #1 legal drug for 2005 is caffeine rather than alcohol and locals prefer their clean and modern ambiance rather than ye olde and smoky.
Eating olde English makes sense in the countryside. (And remember: mustard with mutton is the sign of a glutton.) But in London, eat ethnic or new English. While tourists pack the famous old-time pubs, locals prefer the modern, efficient chains. Browns and All Bar One chain restaurants are feeding mobs of Londoners good food at good prices with simple English decor, longer serving hours, and none of the fake charm.
London's South Bank, formerly the "wrong side of the Thames," is now being spiffed up. Blockbuster stops include the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, Shakespeare's Globe Theater (cheap theater through the summer, performed the way the Bard intended it), Imperial War Museum, London Eye Ferris wheel, and slick Waterloo train station (departure point for the 3-hour Eurostar train that zips you under the English Channel to Paris). But beware: Some gimmicky South Bank sights - such as the London Dungeon and Winston Churchill's Britain at War Exhibit - sound legit but are just moneymaking scams.
London in the winter is for Londoners. The half-price theater ticket booth is flush with choices of great plays. While theaters don't discount directly, many will sell a cheap £10 ticket and "upgrade" it for free if asked. Off-season, London's world-class museums are nearly empty. For the first time in my life, I spent quality time all alone with the crown jewels.