London is one huge glorious blob of 7.56 million people from around the world who are linked together by dint of history and circumstance. In an ever-shifting sea of coexisting neighbourhoods, histories and cultural loyalties, generations of immigrants have shaped London, while they too have been shaped by the city’s collective soul.
What unites Londoners, what being a Londoner means, is being able to live life as you wish, so long as it causes no harm to others. London is about living in a global microcosm, being woven into its rich cultural and colonial history, and having so very very many things to do. London is not like the rest of Britain.
When visiting London, leave behind the Big Tourist conclaves, clichés and crowds, and experience London as Londoners do — or at least how this one does.
1. Love thy neighbourhood
Dip into the heartlands of London’s many communities and cultures. Savour their shops and markets, listen in on unknown languages, join their festivals, and most of all eat and drink in their restaurants, bars and cafés. Head up to Kingsland Road in Dalston, for example, for Turkish restaurants and shops (Turkish shopkeepers are the friendliest in London!), and wander into Ridley Road market (in the Hackney neighbourhood) beloved by its clientele for its vast selection of foodstuffs, including Caribbean and African specialities. Or aim for Edgware Road for a taste of Lebanon and the Middle East, or Peckham for a flavour of Nigeria, South Lambeth for a whiff of Portugal and Golders Green for Jewish culture. There’s a long list of possibilities, including Indian, of course. Brick Lane as celebrated as the Curry Capital of London, but it’s been spoilt by its success, suffering from hordes of tourists, city workers and restaurant touts. Aim elsewhere for Indian food.
2. Pretty city
One of the city’s most stunning views is of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich from the opposite side of the river, at Island Gardens, or better still from the river’s edge at low tide (access by the rowing club). On a golden summer’s evening with just the sound of lapping water for company, it’s perfection. For sweeping cityscape views go to Parliament Hill, Greenwich Park or Forest Hill (see it from the Horniman Museum’s gardens). Alternatively, look down on the streets below from The Monument (commemorating the 1666 Fire of London; admission adults £3, children £1; £1=Rs 68; www.the monument.info), or the exquisite Golden Gallery in St Paul’s Cathedral (admission adults £12.50, children £4.50; www.stpauls.co.uk). Brace yourself for the queues though. For an indulgence, eat on the 28th floor of the Park Lane Hilton (www.hilton.co.uk) in the Galvin restaurant. The panorama is spectacular, as is the food. Call ahead for cut-price deals and ensure you get a window table. There is also, of course, the view from the London Eye.
3. River’s edge
Explore the Wapping, Limehouse and Rotherhithe districts for fabulous views of the river as it dramatically sweeps around the Isle of Dogs, and be steeped in centuries of seafaring history. The docks closed in the 1960s, but much of the infrastructure remains. Certainly go to the ancient Mayflower pub (+44-0207-2374088) in Rotherhithe, and while sipping Greene King ale on the river terrace imagine the Pilgrim Fathers leaving from that same spot for America. Other recommended historic wharfside pubs include Captain Kidd (in Wapping High Street, 4805759) and Prospect of Whitby (which sporadically gets jam-packed when a tourist bus arrives; in Wapping Wall, 4811095). At low tide go beachcombing for fragments of London clay tobacco pipes, medieval roof tiles and other surprises washed up by the tide. Walk along a section of the Regent’s Canal towpath. As you descend from road-level down to the canal the noise and bustle of the streets are magically transformed into peace and picturesque tranquillity.
4. Urban fringe
Catch a train and trundle out to the London suburbs and countryside. Try Theydon Bois and relish the contrast between this sleepy enclave and the frenetic London station where you boarded. Visit nearby Epping Forest too. It’s one of the few ancient forests left in lowland Britain, and loaded with human history from iron-age earthworks to royal hunting grounds.
Take an excursion to Southall, London’s ‘Little India’. It’s so Indian that a local pub is even said to accept rupees, and its Broadway has become a shopping destination. In another mould is Richmond, an upmarket town straddling the Thames, bordered with royal parks and historic buildings, and a town centre packed with restaurants and bars.
Enjoy a day in London-on-sea, otherwise known as Brighton. Not a suburb of London at all, but London’s seaside playground.
5. Collector’s choice
London is crammed full of smaller off-the-beaten track museums devoted to everything from fans (the hand-held variety) to canals (www.canalmuseum.org.uk), from advertising to childhood, Dickens to docks, musical instruments to transport. Many have free admission.
The Horniman Museum (admission free except for special exhibitions; www.horniman.ac.uk) is a firm favourite. Recently refurbished, it houses an eccentric mix of anthropological artefacts, natural history, musical instruments, all collected by Victorian tea merchant Mr Horniman, plus an aquarium. Set in superb gardens, The Horniman is a place to hang out for a coffee and lunch. Even take a picnic.
Sir John Soane was another kleptomaniac. His collection is on show in the museum (admission free; www.soane.org) bearing his name. In fact, it’s his house and it’s jam-packed to the rafters with paintings, sculptures and antiquities, frozen in time from the moment he died in 1837. It’s a delight, a sort of pocket-sized British Museum.
6. Art and performances
Much of London’s sparkling arts scene happens outside the West End and mainstream venues. Check out neighbourhood arts and community centres, theatre pubs and street festivals. They often produce quality work, a friendly atmosphere, cheaper prices and, perhaps, the chance to mingle with the artists.
See what’s on, for example, at the Battersea Arts Centre (BACs; www.bac.org.uk), famous for cutting-edge new productions, or the Albany (www.thealbany.org.uk) in Deptford and Rich Mix (www.richmix.org.uk) in Bethnal Green, both well-rooted in their richly diverse local communities. Squeezed into a tiny old church is the lively Space (www.space.org.uk) in the Isle of Dogs, and Pembroke House (www.pembrokehouse.org.uk) in Southwark has high-class concerts and dance.
Definitely visit the extraordinary Wilton’s Music Hall (www.wiltons.org.uk), an unrestored 19th-century grand music hall, the world’s only survivor of its kind. It hosts music and theatre events, but you can drop in for a drink.
7. Eat, shop & drink
Authentic vestiges of an older London survive. Evoke Soho’s bohemian past by patronising French café Maison Bertaud (established 1871 in Greek Street; 0207-4376007), buying coffee at the Algerian Coffee Stores (1887; www.algcoffee.co.uk), or imbibing peppy espresso at Bar Italia (1949; www.baritaliasoho.co.uk).
Original working class Pie and Mash shops remain in business, such as G. Kelly in Bow (1937; www.gkellypieandmash.co.uk). The old Jewish East End is present in Rinkoff Bakeries (1911; www.rinkoffbakery.co.uk) which still bakes bagels and chola bread, as does the 24-hour Beigel Bake (0207-7290616) in Brick Lane, a celebrated lifeline for cabbies, insomniacs and night clubbers.
Experience an Italian restaurant from the 1950s by having breakfast or lunch at Pellicci’s (0207-7394873; closed on Sundays, open 6.30am-5pm) in Bethnal Green. A delicious time warp, it’s been run by the same family since 1900, and to their amusement the place has been accorded protected building status.
8. Bed to differ
If you want to avoid bland, corporate and predictable hotels, the new generation of arty designer hotels appearing in London’s East End are a good bet. They offer better value than the established alternative-designer hotels of central London, and the East End is one of London’s most fascinating areas.
The Boundary Hotel A Victorian warehouse-turned-hotel with rooms themed around art movements, and 50 works of art on display, many from the personal collection of Terence and Vicki Conran. Tariff: list price starts from £179. See www.theboundary.co.uk.
Rough Luxe Not in the East End but in similarly diverse King’s Cross. London’s most wackily bonkers designer place to stay. It goes for the ‘squatter’ look. Nine rooms, some with bathrooms. Tariff: from £177. See www.roughluxe.co.uk.
The Hoxton Lively and arty hotel that made its name by introducing headline-grabbing budget airline-style pricing. Rooms can be very cheap, like £1. Tariff: list price starts from £139, but book early and get deals for less than half of that. See www.hoxtonhotels.com.
Town Hall Hotel And Apartments This hotel has been superbly converted from an old Edwardian town hall, combining original features with contemporary design. Happily, the website often has cut-price deals, so check early and often if you’re planning to visit. Tariff: list price starts at £290. See www.townhallhotel.com.
40 Winks Unlike any other bed-and-breakfast. Designer David Carter lets out two guest rooms in his immaculately designed 18th-century four-storey townhouse. Design-buff guests are particularly appreciated. Tariff: £90 and £130. See www.40winks.org.
Home Stays Get an insider’s view of London by staying in a Londoner’s home. At Home in London (www.athomeinlondon.co.uk) has smart homes owned by professionals on its books. You could find stay options for as little as £28.
9. Under World
Try walking under the Thames for a strange subterranean experience; at night some would say it’s downright spooky. London has two old pedestrian foot tunnels under the river at Greenwich and Woolwich.
The world’s first ever under-river tunnel was under the Thames. When it opened in the mid-1800s it was hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and it immediately became a fashionable spectacle hosting feasts, circuses and festivals. Trains run through it now, but some of the original shafts can be seen from Wapping station (don’t take the lift). A tiny museum at Rotherhithe tells the story, and serves tea and cake.
Shunt Vaults (www.shunt.co.uk) at London Bridge has to be seen to be believed. Enormous, cavernous old bonded wine warehouses have been temporarily turned into a makeshift performance venue and bar. If you get the chance go there. It’s due to close forever at the end of 2010, to be replaced by a mundane shopping mall.
10. The New Line
Share our excitement over a new railway that’s breached borders by connecting East to South London. What was once known as the East London Line now runs from Dalston to West Croydon, and neatly links an array of the city’s most diverse elements, including many mentioned above.
So jump aboard our gleaming new train. Alight at Crystal Palace station to see the park, dinosaurs and the majestic ruins of Crystal Palace. Forest Hill station is near the Horniman Museum, and Rotherhithe station is adjacent to the riverside for the Mayflower pub and Brunel museum. Then through Brunel’s river-tunnel to Wapping station for more riverside history and pubs.
Whitechapel and Shadwell stations open on to London’s Sylheti community, Shoreditch gives way to the curious hipster landscape centred on Brick Lane, and at Hoxton you can snack on Vietnamese food. Crown your tour with Turkish tea and baklava in Dalston.