Go in the winter. There are very few tourists and you won't be jammed in long lines and there's no waiting at restaurants. The Londoners we met were quite happy to see us and have us visiting their city. And, we had pretty good weather while we were there. It rained a few days, was clear for nearly 10 days, and then snowed! The locals were excited because they hadn't seen snow like since 1992. We saw snowmen that lasted for days.
If you are a little more spendy, you can hire the London Cab Tours. We didn't do this but we will definitely take this tour on our next trip to London. London Cab Tours are a group of qualified taxi drivers, who have taken the rigorous London Tour Guide tests and will take you on a tailor-made tour. You can ride with up to five passengers and split the cost. You'll see Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Albert Hall, Mayfair, and many other sites. You'll get to see parts of London where the buses don't go, and you'll get to see a lot more than you would on foot. Again, this is a great way to get an overview of the city. Be sure to take notes about where you want to visit again, whether it be a grand palace or a small museum. Minimum charge is £80 for two hours and drops to £30 per hour after the second hour (3 hours costs £90, 4 hours is £120, and so on).
Take a walking tour. We recommend Stepping Out.They offer several standard tours every day of the week, and special tours every month in addition. You can take Brothels, Bishops and The Bard, Crime & Punishment in Clerkenwell, Royal & Maritime Greenwich, Victorian London, The London Nobody Knows. The tours depart from easy to find spots all over downtown London, rain or shine, no matter how many people show up. You don't need a reservation. Just check their web site and choose your tour. We took the Literary London tour and learned about Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell. We heard about the Bloombury Set, whom Dorothy Parker described as "the group that lived on squares and loved in triangles."
Once you've done reconnaissance on the large parts of London, it's time to check out your favorite spots. Here we'll list ours:
Be sure to take a Beefeater Tour. The Beefeaters are part of the British Military, and they live in the Tower, protect it and give free tours. They make great guides. After welcoming the Americans back "home," ours recited the opening soliloquy of Shakespeare's "Richard III," pointing to the windows in the Tower where Richard III's nephews were being held. The term "beefeater" refers to the fact that this position was and is one of honor. In the old days, Tower guards were paid in beef, at a time when no one had meat. Today, a Beefeater must serve at least 22 years in the British military before becoming eligible for service. Our guide noted that even though another Beefeater requirement is to grow a beard, certainly this stipulation will be relaxed as more women become eligible to apply.
Harrod's or Harvey Nichols. We are not big shoppers, but we had to see what al' the hubbub around these two stores is all about. First, if you go in winter, you'll want to be there just after New Year's because every store in London has a sale. We went to Harrod's just to experience what a sale at a 15-acre store felt like. You'll probably need a map to find your way out. But it was fun! We marveled at all the inventory kept on the floor and at the lovely service we received in every department. When you need a break, Harrod's has 18 restaurants to choose from. We opted for the Santi Thai restaurant on the second floor, which offered really nice food.
British Museum. If you've entertained the idea of going on an archaeological research outing, The British Museum is just like a dig without all the dirt. Here you'll find treasures from all over the world, brought to Britain mostly at the time when the Sun Never Set on the Empire. You'll see extremely well-preserved mummies - the best I've seen. This was when I realized that mummification was an art and the departed were often wrapped in delicate chevron weaves - definitely not the toilet paper covered goons you've seen in movies. There's "Ginger," a commoner, buried in a shallow grave 5000 years ago, and so well preserved that you can see his red or "ginger" hair.
The British Museum is also home to the Elgin Marbles - not a big pile of agates, tiger eyes and steelies - but the remains of beautiful relief sculptures that once graced the Parthenon in Athens. You'll see the Rosetta Stone (and buy a jigsaw puzzle of it, if you like), and be sure to visit the wall reliefs of the Assyrian King's lion hunt. This was one of the King's jobs. Apparently it wasn't so much a hunt for sports sake as it was to keep the lion population in check, so they didn't eat too many people. In particular, you want to look at the exquisite representation of the chariots, which have spoked wheels. Later cultures lost and only much later regained the concept of spokes. The Oriental Galleries contain treasures from China and India, and the whole museum gives you a picture of human culture throughout the millennia.
Today the Museum is focusing on adding British artifacts including Anglo-Saxon tools and weapons, and ceremonial items from the Celtic period. You can rest your feet and warm your stomach at any of the four restaurants and cafes throughout the building.
We were fortunate enough to visit St. Paul's just as an organ recital was starting. St. Paul's hosts regular recitals on Sundays at 5 p.m. This young organist was Patrick Kabanda, a Ugandan who started his training while
Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian in Greenwich. If you love astronomy, you must visit the Royal Observatory. Here you'll see early telescopes, the cramped quarters and lowly lifestyle of the royal astronomers. You'll also get to see the Harrison Clocks, described in the recent book, "Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time", by Dava Sobel and the A&E miniseries by the same name. Amazingly, these 250+ year old clocks are still running and need no oiling or other maintenance.
You'll also see the place where the 0 degree meridian is located, noted by a stainless steel bar in the cobbled courtyard, and by a green laser that shoots out over the Thames.
Vertigo 42 at Tower 42 - Tower 42 is the highest building in England and provides a commanding view of downtown London. Our local friends said the views were better than those provided by the London Eye - the enormous Ferris wheel built to ring in the new millennium. Vertigo 42 has a limited bar menu, so eat before you go. You must make reservations for this very popular pub, because it only has about 25 seats. Be prepared to go through extensive security in the lobby. The IRA bombed Tower 42 twice while it was being built, and though the terrorism has subsided, you'll go through an airport-like security process, complete with baggage x-rays and a walk-through metal detector.
The Retox Bar - Corner Piazza/Russell Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2B 5HZ, Tel: 020 7240 5330. If California living is all about detoxification, this pub will reverse all that. Their extensive drink menu includes prescriptions for minimal, partial, or full retoxification. A trendy club aimed mostly at locals, you'll find yourself in good company if you like Euro-pop music and drinks that sneak up on you.
Gordon's Wine Pub - 47 Villiers St, London, WC2N 6NE, Tel: +44 20 7930 1408. Gordon's is one of the older pubs in London, located downstairs from the Embankment Tube Station. Gordon's serves local and international wines, plus homemade sherries and ports. The low, arched ceilings are reminiscent of an old wine cellar. If you are claustrophobic, this isn't the place for you. Perfect if you've ever wondered what a real wine cave looks and feels like.
Brits have the reputation for being less than great cooks, but Londoners have become are really great at appreciating the rest of the world's cooking. Apparently "going for a curry" has passed fish and chips as the most popular meal in England. As I mentioned earlier, we had terrific food at Harrod's Thai restaurant. We also ate very well at these establishments:
TAS Restaurant - www.tasrestaurant.com. Don't let the industrial feel of the Southwark neighborhood scare you off. It's an up-and-coming area near
Baltic - Also located in Southwark, where we were staying with friends, this friendly Polish restaurant and vodka bar serves everything Slavic. We liked the rocket and beet salad and the "shashlick", which is a Slavic version of a shishkabob. Be sure to ask for Evil Matt, the bartender. Tell him the Californians sent you and he's likely to send a free shot of vodka your way. http://www.balticrestaurant.co.uk/index2.asp,
The British Museum Court Restaurant - run by Digby Trout. http://www.digbytrout.co.uk/index2.htm. For a very civilized lunch, tea or dinner, head to the British Museum Court Restaurant. It's on the second level above the famous Reading Room. If you want a table that overlooks the Reading Room, be sure to make a reservation. They served a lovely eggplant/garlic soup, and a risotto rich enough to help you detox after being retoxed be called an antidote to the pub crawl.
Communicating with family and friends while you are visiting London couldn't be easier. You can check email at the dozens of easy InternetCafes. Just buy a credit slip at/from the kiosk in the entry. Then find a computer to work at and enter the number on the slip. The computer keeps track of how much time you have left. Be sure to log off or someone else could use the rest of your credit.
If you need a phone, getting a cell phone is much, much easier in England that in the US. Walk into any electronics store and buy the phone you want. I recommend Nokia phones because they are so easy to use and their menus are intuitive, and they are inexpensive, about $50. Then buy a Pay As You Go card. Ours was through O-2, the cell phone arm of British Telecom. The first minute is 30p (about 45 cents) and every minute after is 3-7p (5-10 cents) thereafter. You pay only for the minutes you use. When you need more minutes you can pop into any drug store, newsstand or telephone shop. You can also buy more minutes directly from O-2 over your phone with a credit card. The phones work in nearly every country except the U.S. We have found a similar, but less expensive service here at home with Virgin, www.virginmobileusa.com
Feature and photos by Cymber Quinn, San Francisco Correspondent.