London – Where Old World Charm Meets the Delights of the Modern World
Oh! London, the city of my dreams! Nothing exudes old-world charm like London. Just thinking about the place makes my mind tingle – the glamour of the West End theatre, the breathtaking charm of a concert in Royal Albert Hall, the proud monuments everywhere, testament to the (once) vast British Empire, the decidedly English hat shops dotting the city, the cakes served with afternoon tea. The mind runs wild thinking about these delectable pieces of the experience that London is!
Husband and I managed to visit London for 5 days over the New Year’s last year. I had always dreamt of a white Christmas (anything white actually, since I had never seen snow!), and Christmas time in London promised to be the most dreamy thing one could imagine. We got just that, and so much more! We arrived right after Christmas, though, but the sights that regaled us were nothing short of magic – the massive Christmas trees, the beautiful lights, London looked like a fairyland!
We arrived on a Friday evening at the Heathrow Airport (a day after Christmas), doubling with excitement. We were greeted by chilly air, but we had expected that, and were appropriately dressed. We took the famous London cab to our hotel in Paddington. Now, we had done our research and made ourselves familiar with the train and tube routes in the city, but since it was our first day and we did have a tiring flight, we agreed to splurge on a cab this once! The cab also gave us the opportunity to gawk at the beautifully decked up city, a view that would have been lost on the train and underground tube routes, and I experience my first snowfall! There are few things that have taken on such magical proportions as seeing that first snowfall – extending my hand to catch these little balls of snow, falling inexplicably from an invisible spot in the sky. Having our mind almost bursting at its seams with the indescribably beautiful streets, we arrived at our hotel. Paddington is a charming area, replete with quaint British touches like classic house architectures, trees lined neatly et al. Our hotel was across a beautiful canal, which was lined with pretty houseboats and several cafes. The greenery and the peace were unbelievable, considering we were in the heart of the city! We settled into our room, had a quick meal in one of the cafes across the road, and crept into our blankets for a much needed sleep (we made sure we didn’t sleep before 10 in the night, to beat the jet-lag).
We woke up late the next day, and had breakfast in bed. It was a glorious English breakfast, albeit a vegetarian one. Sumptuous freshly baked breads, butter, baked beans, some fried oat bread, grilled tomatoes and much more, served with tea, gave us enough fuel to finally get up, take a shower and head out with our tryst with the beautiful London.
We took the (predictable) Hop On Hop Off tour of London to get a general idea of the city on our first day there (though we couldn’t enjoy the panoramic view on the open air top deck of the famous double-decker buses, as it was just too darn cold!). It was still worth the money (I think it was around 20 Pounds per person). We checked the major touristy destinations off our list – the royal and imposing Buckingham Palace (the home of Queen of England), the hauntingly beautiful Westminster Abbey (the church known for royal coronations, and also for royal weddings), the amazing Westminster palace (the seat for British Parliament, and once the home to British royalty), the ever popular Trafalgar Square, London Eye, Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. We also crossed the maddeningly busy Piccadilly Circus, which, I found was not really a circus but a crossing, with 7 roads converging here. It had HUGE digital hoardings, and was a very busy intersection, quite an iconic London sight! Since it was a hop on – hop off service, we got down at a couple of places. Our first stop was Buckingham Palace, the majestic residence of the Queen of England and her family. We arrived just in time for the Changing of the Guard ceremony, the popular ceremony where Queen’s guards march in their glorious uniforms, accompanied by a full army band. It was a Saturday morning, so not surprisingly, the place was very crowded. We did get to glimpse at the procession every now and then, but didn’t wait to see the whole 45 minutes of it. We debated on whether we wanted to go to The Queen’s Gallery, the queen’s personal collection of paintings and art pieces, but decided to come back on Monday, with lesser crowd. We boarded the bus again, and hopped off at Trafalgar Square. We bought tall glasses of hot chocolate and a sandwich from a street vendor, sat at the steps of the square, and admired the HUGE Christmas tree and myriad tourists walking past us. Trafalgar Square is a public arena, often the backstage for numerous import public events.
We took in many other sights, like the London Eye (where we decided to come back later), Big Ben (the huge clock tower right in the centre of the city), the famous Tower Bridge, resplendent on the cold winter afternoon, and finally got off at Soho, the fashionable London street. We had a Mediterranean lunch in a quaint little café overlooking the street. Soho is the bohemian capital of London – very chic, colourful and quirky. It was interesting to see the young, unusually colourful crowd go by, though I suspect that it being a weekend, the crowd was more outrageously dressed that usual! After the sumptuous meal, I dragged K to the famous Oxford Street, the most popular shopping destination in London. Post Christmas is a great time to shop in Europe, as shops tend sell all the stock they had piled on for Christmas at huge discounts. I read this little tip somewhere, and needless to say, I put myself to shopping with full gusto! “Shop till you drop” never rang truer to anyone! I even convinced K to buy a mini suitcase to carry the stuff around easily (it WAS on sale, after all, and we had allowance for another piece of luggage on our flight back). I especially liked the discounts on perfumes, and indulged on a few (ostensibly convincing K that these were gifts for friends). In all, I think I bought some fashionable pullovers, a sweater for K, a rich red woollen throw for home, some perfumes, a few articles of make-up, some chocolates, a toy set for a kid back home and a few dresses. I would have shopped more, had it not been for a fairly irritated K who insisted that I stop the madness! It was late evening when we started back for the hotel. The Oxford Street was suddenly lit up with Christmas lights, and all looked magical. I later found out that Oxford Street is famous for the Christmas lights, which in itself is a major tourist draw every season. We rounded up our day with a falafel wrap and an avocado sandwich (which I found surprisingly tasty) from a tube station as we headed back to our hotel. We slept like babies as soon as we hit our bed!
The next day was a Sunday, promising to be super crowded everywhere, so we decided to take things easy. We went down to our hotel’s intimate little restaurant for a late breakfast (daily breakfast buffet was a part of our package). We then went for a nice long walk along the canal, taking in the rich scene at every step! By the time we returned, it was almost noon. We got ready and headed out, towards Portobello road in Notting Hill (Yup, the place where the famous Julia Robert – Hugh Grant movie was shot). Portobello Road is a quirky street bazaar, with street vendors selling everything from clothes to footwear to antiques to music records to food. We had a lot of fun traversing through the area. The crowd here seemed more informal and friendly than the rest of the city, and we encountered quite a few street performers regaling everyone with music and dance. At the very end of the street, we discovered a very cute, family run mid-eastern restaurant. I have never had better pita pockets – before or since! The freshest of ingredients cooked right in front of you, served this with lemonade. It’s a pity I don’t remember the name of the place, though! We then went to Leicester Square, the mecca for theatre! Though we couldn’t get tickets for any live show since it was a weekend, it was just amazing walking around in the area. I had heard so much about it, and seen it in so many movies, that being actually present there felt unbelievable! We caught a stand up comic show, though, and it was brilliant! London has a thriving comic scene, with the largest number of live comic shows in the world! There were many bars with stand up comedy nights, and we chose one that wasn’t ridiculously expensive (I think we paid 8 pounds each for the show, plus 2 beverages of our choice each). The comedians on stage turned out to be simply marvellous! We had a late night reservation at this super fancy restaurant called Dabbous. The meal was a gift from my brother, who lived in London for a few years and this was his favourite restaurant, and it wasn’t hard to see why! The meal was not a usual affair, the menu was quirky, confusing even, but our hostess was a knowledgeable and patient one, and the food was superb. Every ingredient of every dish complemented each other perfectly, and the meal felt like a burst of flavours! All in all, it was a superb day, with great meals and a seriously funny show!
The next day, we headed to the British Museum first thing in the morning. We had heard that it was huge, and needed a lot of time even if we wanted to explore a fraction of it. I usually like to be lost in museums, exploring things at my own pace, and this is exactly what we did. We got ourselves audio guides and promised to meet each other at the entrance in 3 hours – a woefully short time to experience the museum, as I later found out. I saw the famous Rosetta Stone (a stone many many centuries old, discovered in Egypt, and instrumental in decoding the ancient Egyptian language), a mind boggling treasure collection called The Oxus Treasure from 5th century BC, and a vast collection of mummies on display, among other things. Lost in these sights, I didn’t even realise when the time was up and I had to go meet K! It was way past our lunch time, so we decided to lunch at the museum itself, at what is called The Great Court Restaurant. The food was simple and fresh, and the ambience impressive. We then headed to Mayfair to visit the famous wax statue museum, Madam Tussauds. On our way, we crossed a place called London Dungeon, a haunted house kind of place telling all the gory tales of London, from the great plague to Jack the ripper and so much more. We decided to forgo the wax museum for this high adrenaline place (yup, we are pretty kiddish that ways, a haunted house wins over wax statues for us!). The tour was for 2 hours, and it was definitely time (and money – about 20 pounds) well spent. The horrors of the history of London, the great famine, the reckless torture chambers, the black plague, everything was acted out in much gory detail. But the scariest part was in the end (I won’t spoil the surprise by mentioning it here though). We came out laughing ourselves silly! It was now time for the great theatre experience, without which, any trip to London would be incomplete. We had bought the tickets for a show the day before, and so we headed once to Leicester Square, and settled ourselves to watch a show called “We Will Rock You”, a brilliant musical inspired by the inimitable and supremely quirky music of The Queen. The experience was mind-boggling! A 100 different actors playing their part to perfection, acting, singing, dancing with a precision which was breathtaking.. We both are music aficionados (and great Queen fans), and hence had decided upon this show, and it turned out to be much better than our wildest expectations! We had dinner at one of the many restaurants that line the area, and called it a day.
We woke up the next day in very high spirits, the musical still very vivid in our minds. It being our last day in London, we had a super quick breakfast, got dressed (a little fancier today, since we would be out till after the clock struck midnight to bring in the new year) and headed out. We went to the famous riverside next to the Tower Bridge, and walked along the majestic Thames for a little while.
It was an interesting area, with many mammoth and curiously shaped buildings around and many art installations catching our eye. There was also a historic ship, called HMS Belfast, moored on the river. It had been extensively used during World War II and the Korean Was, among others. It is now permanently stationed on River Thames, and has been converted into a museum. Though we really did wanted to go on board, we decided against it as we had planned to go to Tower of London that day, and we simply didn’t have the time to do both. We also had to sacrifice our trip the Queen’s Gallery because of lack of time! Anyways, we strolled along the river, and crossed the amazing Tower Bridge, making sure we clicked many photos of this iconic structure enroute! The Tower Bridge led us to the Tower of London. From prison to palace, treasure vault to private zoo, the magnificent Tower of London has fulfilled many different roles down the centuries. One of Britain’s most iconic structures, this spectacular World Heritage Site offers hours of fascination for visitors curious about the country’s rich history. Inside the massive White Tower, built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, is the 17th-century Line of Kings with its remarkable displays of royal armaments and armour. Other things we saw were the famous Crown Jewels exhibition (including our very own Kohinoor diamond), the Beefeaters, the Royal Mint, and gruesome exhibits about the executions that took place on the grounds. The grounds, however, had been converted into a picturesque ice skating rink for the winters, and it looked charming in a very English way – children and adults skating gracefully on the dreamy white rink, with the majestic castle as a backdrop! We went next to the London Eye, a giant observation wheel (basically a giant-wheel that has little glass rooms instead of seats, and goes super slow, so you can have a panoramic view of London). We had purchased tickets online, so didn’t have to wait in the (huge) line to get them. The whole trip took about half an hour, and it was fun trying to recognise buildings from the observatory! We then headed to a seriously popular restaurant called Gymkhana (we had called a week in advance to book a table for two, and still only got the booking for the awkward 4 PM time slot). We had been encouraged by a lot of people to go here, even though we didn’t particularly want to go for Indian cuisine while in London, but we soon found out why everyone was so insistent! Karam Sethi, the owner of this restaurant, is somewhat of a legend in London. It is said that anything he touches, he turns into food fit for royalty! The menu was exceptionally experimental, with superbly balanced flavours, and tastes I had never experienced before. Gymkhana, London, I realised, was not just a restaurant, it was an experience!
After being gastronomically satiated, we made our way to The Royal Albert Hall, where we had booked tickets for a concert in Royal Albert Hall (we were supremely lucky as this was the first time in history of the hall that it had opened on 31st December). The concert was actually a live musical version of the movie “The Artist”. The concert was excellent, beautifully sung and enacted by all, but for me, the main charm of the experience was the venue itself. Corridors wrapped in rich velvet, box balcony seats (which we had chosen) creating an intimate space, the huge ceilings and the sheer fact that the venue had seen some of the most resounding concert in the history of London, had wrapped us in awe much before the music started! The concert was sublime, delicate and sophisticated, yet fun and boisterous! J
We came out, our minds in a tizzy, and found a starbucks to get a couple of sandwiches packed. We shared a glass of hot chocolate as we waited. I remember being really happy at that time. We had just had an experience which touched us to the core, were poised to go to the biggest New Year celebration in the town, and amidst all this, this was one quiet moment that we had allowed ourselves, a moment of love and contentment! Soon enough, it was time to head to Big Ben, where (it seemed) all of London had gathered to welcome the New Year. The atmosphere was electric! There were numerous DJs here and there belting out popular (even Bollywood) numbers, some people had gotten their guitar and were jamming, and mostly, people were dancing on the streets! London (actually most of Europe) allows consumption of alcohol in public places as long as you behave yourself. Thus, as the night progressed, the mood of the crowd kept getting jollier! Inhibitions were shed, dancing became more prominent, and as the clock struck midnight, the crowd erupted in cheers as one! There was some cracking firework that followed, beautifully timed and coordinated, and London welcomed the New Year with a resplendent sky, aglow from all the merriment happening near Big Ben! After much dancing and laughing, with huge smiles plastered on our face, we found our way back to our hotel in wee hours of the night!
After a sumptuous last breakfast in our hotel next morning, we packed our luggage and left for the airport, sensibly, by tube and a train this time!
London had been everything that I had dreamed of! The city was sophisticated and polished, and loud and boisterous, we experienced serious theatre and laugh out loud comedy, and so much more! Truly a land of art, London is etched in my memory as a kaleidoscope of culture!