Thursday, Oct. 02, 2008


There is no shortage of tourist staples: Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Marble Arch, Big Ben, the iconic red double-decker bus. (London Mayor Boris Johnson, a shambling, shock-haired media celebrity and tourist attraction in his own right, got rid of the city's articulated single-decker buses, which he considered a menace to cyclists — Johnson is often seen weaving toward City Hall on his bicycle.) But London's appeal doesn't lie only in its architectural and cultural treasures. This is also the best people-watching city in the world. Its 7.5 million residents — some born within its boundaries, others irresistibly drawn to it — are deliriously motley, speaking more than 300 languages among them. If you've got just 24 hours, here are 10 unmissable places to observe Londoners in their natural habitat.

1. Tate Modern

Many Britons regard high culture with suspicion. Yet this gallery devoted to modern art effortlessly pulls in the punters and locals as well as the tourists, and ranks among London's most-visited attractions. Part of its appeal is the building itself, fashioned by architects Herzog and De Meuron from a vast disused power station on the Thames's south bank. In addition to blockbuster exhibits and live events, the gallery invites a prominent artist every year to transform its cavernous turbine hall: Chinese artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei blanketed the space with 100 million hand-sculpted and painted porcelain sunflower seeds in 2010; British artist Tacita Dean paid homage to 35mm filmmaking in 2011 with her 11-minute loop of grainy, flickering images projected onto a towering screen at the rear of the hall.

It would be easy to spend the entire day in the gallery, but you might want to get out and walk around the neighborhood: Enter foodie heaven in nearby Borough Market, where the delis and restaurants are open all week and a farmer's market operates Friday and Saturday. Directly across the river from the Tate is St Paul's Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren's most celebrated building. To get there you cross the £18.2 million Millennium Bridge, a suspension footbridge completed in 2000, which quickly gained the sobriquet the "Wobbly Bridge." (They've since fixed the wobble.)

2. Marylebone Stroll

What's the nattiest neighborhood in London? Not leafy Notting Hill, which lost its claim to cool after Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts frolicked through it in the eponymous 1999 rom-com. And not fashionable Hoxton or Shoreditch, even with their spiky-haired, skinny-jeans-clad tribes of cool kids. They're all worth a look, but the real cool resides in Marylebone, an area so confident of its charms that it doesn't need to broadcast them.

Lying north of the glossy Selfridges department store and south of Regent's Park, Marylebone (pronounced mar-le-bone) is an affluent, strollable residential district of white terraced Georgian and Edwardian townhouses, the grandest of which are still single-family. It's also home to the Wallace Collection, where the girl with the billowing skirts in Jean-Honoré Fragonard's The Swing remains as seductive as when France's dirty old master painted her in 1767. The main shopping drag is Marylebone High Street, but the whole area is packed with fabulous shops and restaurants: Come here for everything from haute couture and baby clothes to organic butchery and extravagant cakes. There's also a specialist travel bookshop called Daunt Books that's worth a detour just for its Edwardian fixtures and fittings.

3. The London Eye

Yes, it's a giant ferris wheel, and, yes, it's for tourists — but it's a worth a spin. Once you've boarded your glass-sided capsule — each capsule holds 25 people — it will be a half-hour before you get back down. Creeping along at 0.6 miles (0.9 km) per hour, it's an excruciatingly slow flight, as a trip on the London Eye is called, but from the top of the 443-foot (135-m) wheel you'll be rewarded with gloriously unimpeded views over London. At night, take one of the special "champagne flights," and you'll find yourself in one of the capital's best bars. Continue a scenic theme with dinner and drinks at Skylon, a dimly lit lounge and restaurant overlooking the Thames with floor-to-ceiling windows.

4. Inns of Court

You might easily overlook the small arched entrance to Middle Temple, one of the four remaining Inns of Court, which are responsible for training all of Britain's barristers. The Inns were first established in the 14th century and housed in large, walled compounds; today, judges and barristers still work, study and sometimes live in these enchanted precincts. Beyond the gates of Middle Temple (locked overnight and on weekends), on the south side of the Strand where it morphs into Fleet Street, lies a time capsule. Step into the Elizabethan banqueting house, Middle Temple Hall. It's a real-life Hogwarts, but twice as magical.

5. J. Sheekey

If you like your dinner with a side order of celebrity, head to one of Caprice Holdings' restaurants: Le Caprice, a sleek art deco brasserie just behind the Ritz hotel, the Ivy or J. Sheekey; the latter two are in London's theaterland. Their clientele rosters read like the guest list for a charity gala thrown by Bono and Angelina Jolie. When famed London restaurateurs Jeremy King and Chris Corbin left Caprice Holdings in 2002, the celebritocracy had a minor heart attack — wherever would they get their Spotted Dick (a traditional steamed pudding with syrup) now? But to their great relief, this trio of eateries — along their new sibling, the refurbished Scott's restaurant in Mayfair — still have the edge over the competition, serving simple seafood and game dishes, perfectly executed and perfectly served. The most intimate of the bunch is J. Sheekey, a fish restaurant with leather banquettes, paneled walls and an impressive art collection. (King and Corbin went on to open The Wolseley and the now-shuttered St. Alban.)

6. Kensington Gardens

Londoners of a certain age will tell you that Germans shaped their city. They're right, but the Blitz wasn't the only thing that left its mark on London. In 1728, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, the German-born wife of King George II, commissioned works to the southern swath of Hyde Park — later redesignated Kensington Gardens — creating the Serpentine, an artificial lake, and landscaping the surrounding lawns and walkways. (A stately circuit of these ornamental waters will take you 40 minutes, and you can swim at the Serpentine Lido from May to September.) Queen Caroline lived in Kensington Palace, on the western edge of the park, which has been home to assorted members of the extended royal family and household, but will, of course, forever be associated with its most iconic resident, Princess Diana. Kensington Gardens is studded with shrines to the late Princess, including a fountain dedicated to her memory by the Queen in 2004.

7. Berry Bros. & Rudd

The poet Lord Byron was just one of many patrons of Berry Bros. & Rudd who submitted to a public weighing on one of the shop's giant coffee scales. "Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter/Sermons and soda water the day after," wrote Byron. Britain's oldest wine merchant and sometime coffee seller set up shop here on St James's Street in 1698, and remains one of the world's leading purveyors of fine wine. Despite its pedigree, it's not snobbish. Staff happily expound on the virtues of the cheaper wines and spirits they sell, alongside the rarest vintages. If you can't get to the original shop, there are branches in Dublin, Hong Kong and Shanghai, as well as a factory outlet in Basingstoke, south of London.

8. The Royal Court Theatre

The roll call of playwrights championed by the Royal Court is long and distinguished — John Osborne, Edward Bond, Joe Orton, Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Sam Shepard — not least by their propensity for tackling controversial themes and subjects. Dedicated to new and innovative work, audiences at this two-theater venue in Sloane Square first saw transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter strut his stuff at the 1973 premier of The Rocky Horror Show, and winced in 1995 at the late playwright Sarah Kane's scandalous debut, Blasted, which was decried by critics for its graphic brutality — only to be hailed at its 2001 revival by some of those same critics as a profound and disturbing work. More recently, the theater has debuted Mike Bartlett's satire, Love, Love Love, which follows the journey of the Baby Boomer generation from the tumultuous 1960s to the harsh realities of the present, and Bola Agbajie's Belong, profiling a Nigerian politician in London struggling to define his identity.

9. Smithfield Pub Crawl

London is far from being a 24-hour city. Alcohol licensing laws were relaxed in 2003, but finding a late-night drink still requires ingenuity. There is one part of city, however, that doesn't sleep: Smithfield. The neighborhood is home to a historic meat market, which operates in ornate Victorian halls weekdays from 4 a.m. to noon — and many of the local pubs and cafes open early to serve pints and hefty fry-ups to the market workers.

Start your evening at Ye Olde Mitre, an 18th-century pub in the jewelry district adjacent to Smithfield; then, head east through Ely Place to the market, on the way passing St Etheldreda's the oldest Catholic church in England. Taste the wines of southwestern France at the Cellar Gascon bar and Comptoir Gascon restaurant; their posh sister, Club Gascon, has bagged a Michelin star for its exceptional cooking. The Fox and Anchor boasts the tastiest scotch eggs in the country — and keenly priced accommodations. Catch a nap in one of the designer rooms above the bar or go straight back out to dance off the calories at the so-hip-it-hurts nightclub Fabric. You may want to refuel at Kurz & Lang, a tiny joint selling German bratwurst and beers; it's open until 11:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and never closes on Friday and Saturday.

Before daybreak, try The Hope for your early morning pint, and Ferrari's Snack Bar for an artery-clogging full English breakfast. Just what the doctor didn't order.

10. Barfly and Roundhouse

If you get claustrophobic at the Hollywood Bowl or Madison Square Garden, then neither of the live music venues I'm about to recommend is for you. The Barfly, above a pub in Camden, is tiny, but that doesn't stop punters from piling through the doors and turning the whole room into a mosh pit. It's a regular staging post for new bands tipped for greatness: Oasis and Coldplay both performed here. But don't let that deter you; other alumni include Blur and the Young Knives. Across the road, the Roundhouse shows it knows the meaning of eclectic, with a program that includes big-name musicians, left-field comedians and even circus acts, in a converted 19th-century steam-engine repair shed.