Dear Friends & Travelers,
During my teenage I spent at least 1 month every summer in the UK. At the end of the school year, provided that I had brought home the GPA that they thought was deserving of a reward, I would pack my suitcase and get on a plane to Yorkshire/London/Dublin etc and return in August. Why would I leave the Amalfi Coast in the summer, no less, for the English moody weather? Well for English classes of course! In one month time I would get the “full immersion” that would allow me to master the language every day more even if I lived in Italy for the remaining 11 months. I was always a nerdy, risk averse kid and my parents trusted that I would not get in trouble. So before I fell in love with New York I had a crush on the land of Queen Lizzie the Second.
London was the trampoline for my jump across the pond! With the Olympics around the corner and crowds of tourists about to invade the city, I want to provide my readers with some advice from local experts. I have many friends in London and have been there many time, so this CityProfile comes from different sources that will be appropriately credited below. I would like to thank my experts and promise them plenty of eggplant parmigiana and tiramisu’, whenever they come visit the orange kitchen!
London Survival Kit
The best way to go from the airport to London is public transportation. Trust me I know.
During a recent trip many roads are closed because of work carried out after the Queen’s jubilee and before the Olympics. No matter how good my cab driver was (and London cabdrivers are the BEST of their category) getting to my hotel was a real nightmare and incredibly expensive. Get the train at Heathrow and arrive at Paddington station comfortably and for a very small price. Subway is the way to go, because on the map distances can be deceiving and if you want to save some strength to actually go out at night (and not fall asleep like a loser, which is what I usually do) you need to be proficient in the use of your Oyster card (the London Metrocard). Getting around by subway can be expensive too, so buy a day pass for 7 pounds or a weekly pass and you will save some serious money. On the other hand you will stop hating the transportation system in NYC when you “only” have to shell $104 for a monthly Metrocard.
AVOID Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Regent Street and Oxford Circus at all costs.
They may be picturesque but they are so crowded that you can barely walk on the sidewalk. I am not trying to be snobbish (well maybe just a little bit) and I have nothing against transfer students, as I was one of them after all, but if you are reading the blog you probably deserve to walk around in Seven Dials, Mayfair, Soho and South Kensington, instead.
Also AVOID shopping at chain stores. What do you think you will find at H&M, Zara & Topshop that you cannot find in the US? You deserve to shop elsewhere are go home with something REALLY British instead.
When you go to a restaurant, remember that TIPS & GRATUITIES (in the amount of 12%) are already included in the bill, unless noted otherwise. When in doubt, ask the waiter
WHERE TO STAY
That is where you need to plan ahead. If you haven’t got a place to stay by now you might as well avoid the Olympics altogether because whatever you find will be VERY expensive. If you are planning to visit London in the fall, then read on. The hospitality in London is amazing, much like in New York and Paris, with the added value that the city sees so many Middle and Far Eastern visitors every year and they are willing to spend a pretty penny on lavish accommodation. So the prices are fairly high even for pretty average accommodation. I asked my friend Tilda Rowley to suggest alternatives for my readers. “Unless you can afford the Claridge, the Savoy, the Dorchester or anything that belongs to top hotelier Sir Terence Conran, you should check out the Thistle or Guoman hotels or opt for a serviced apartment. I usually suggest theapartments.co.uk,onefinestay.co.uk, no5maddoxstreet.com
WHERE TO EAT
The first time I visited London, I was shocked to discover that British Food is really not as awful as they say. I had heard horror stories about the underwhelming taste of some dishes with dubious names. The Brits are foodies too and their traditional dishes (when they are prepared by expert hands) are delicious, you just have to know where to eat well depensing on your budget. An immigrant city, London has been colonized by several cuisines: Indian, Thai, Japanese, Turkish, Italian. Some food trends, originated in London, were eventually exported to the US and the rest of Europe and are very successful also outside of Albion
Let’s start with Breakfast: Pret-a-manger, the famous sandwich shop that you can now find at every corner of New York City, was born in London and is still going strong and so is Caffe’ Nero. Their success was due to the new approach to fast food. Fast & Healthy is still the mantra of many new food chains in Londinium. My coworkers in London tell me that if you are in the mood for baguette and croissant, you should try Paul Boulangerie and EAT as they have the best breakfast pastries along with the traditional staple Le Pain Quotidien. But the crown for the healthiest breakfast actually goes to POD, an organic, vegan-friendly chain with many locations throughout the City and commercial area of the East End. Their quinoa pots with cacao and pistachio are to die for and so is their scrambled eggs platter. There, I also had a healthy lunch of salmon and avocado for extra Omega 3. I sure hope they plan on exporting POD to New York because I will be the first in line when they open.
For Lunch on a budget you can follow the tradition of Pret and Caffe’ Nero that are located all over or opt for something more fun like Wagamama and Wasabi. The first one is the perfect noodle joint that used to be nested in Covent Garden and was recently turned into chain that delivers delicious and consistent noodles for few pounds. The second is an Asian fusion joint that serves rolls and bento boxes along with Thai and Vietnamese dishes. It is cheap, clean and tastes good. My friend Daniela Martino suggests Carluccio’s near Covent Garden: you can grab some Italian dishes to go or have lunch upstairs in the sunlit and brightly colored dining room. If you are in the West End (Kensington or Notting Hill) and hungry for some Italian flavors, you may want to try Ottolenghi, the catering company/restaurant my friend Tilda Rowley (see above) uses for the parties she throws at her fabulous Kensington flat. She tells me the flourless chocolate cake it to die for!
I would also suggest lunch at LEON, with several locations throughout the city, a great “fast & healthy” restaurant focused on organic ingredient and with quirky and retro rad décor. My friend who suggested LEON is a banker who loves their food but also thought the financing of the restaurant was a really cool idea: when LEON opens a new branch, they post a bond solicitation on their website and gather funding from customers and patrons, not from the banks. The day they open a LEON restaurant in NY, I will buy some bonds and then join the line to grab some of their phenomenal dishes.
There are so many excellent restaurants for Dinner that I had to heavily edit the list because the post would have been way too long. For example novelist Charles Finch suggested Clos Maggiore in Covent Garden and any curry house on Brick Lane. During my last trip to London I lucked out: my old friend Spencer Compton decided it was time to pay back all the eggplant parm he got from me in the past 12 years and he took me to some of his favorite spots.
We had a dinner worthy of the South of France at Aubaine, including the best roasted fennels in the world. We also dined with his crazy banker friends (let’s not name names but they are a wild bunch) at HIX having what I can only define as British Tapas. With Tilda, I had 2 great meals, one at Polpo, an Italian tapas stop in Soho and the other atMoro a great Turkish restaurant where everything was so flavorful and skillfully cooked and the scene was really fun. Finally I had a great Mexican meal at Wahaca, in Covent Garden – who knew that you could find great Mexican food in London too?
Tea at Fortnum & Mason is a great experience that I strongly recommend especially because the desserts served with a strong cup of Earl Gray are second to none. If you are looking for a Brunch spot, I hear Cecconi in Mayfair is a great, albeit quite institutional, place to grab your eggs benedit fix.
Spencer Compton’s tips on fine dining: “If you haven’t got the time to dine at the Fat Duck you can get the Heston Blumenthan experience at Dinner by Heston, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Fine dining comes with a price and you will need appropriate clothes and to make a reservation a couple of months prior to your outing. Italian fine dining can be found at Locanda Locatelli for a steep price and a slightly snobbish atmosphere but solid Northern food. “
Tilda Rowley’s tips on drinks and people watching: “Nowadays gaining access to the Shoreditch House Rooftop is quite difficult if you are not a member. During the English summer there is nothing better than having a drink on a rooftop. On the East End you can try the Rooftop of the Boundary Hotel. The bar on top of Conran’s hotel is a great scene especially during the week after work. On the West End, there is Richard Branson’s Roof Gardens, but you will have to charm your way through the strict door policy. Batting lashes at the gatekeeper will open the door to a wonderful bar with a club ambiance and great drinks!”
WHAT TO BUY
London like most capitals is a shop-a-holic’s dream, as Sophie Kinsella will gladly tell you. Aside from a trip to Fortnum & Mason to buy your favorite tea and great assortments of biscuits (i.e. cookies), London is perfect for the fashion oriented and for the nerds alike. I can usually be found at Waterstone, the largest bookshop chain in the UK, grabbing books that have not been published in the US (more on that in an upcoming post). But my favorite store is Books for Cooks a crazy bookstore that only sells cookbooks I discovered courtesy of Tilda Rowley.
In 1999 my favorite department store was Harvey Nichols. I would shop for hours and then grab a drink on the 5th floor. Sadly in recent years HN seems to have become an overcrowded amusement park. Today, the new shining star of one stop shopping in London is Selfridges. The layout and style of the department store is young and fun, the selection is less institutional than Harrods (which is still unbeatable during sales season) and the overall experience is similar to Colette in Paris, which is definitely a plus.
Since you are in London you might as well check out British designers, right? No use in buying French or Italian in London (unless you find a really GREAT deal), you should at least window shop at the headquarters of brands that made London one of the fashion capitals of the world. For sophisticated and fun bags, check outAnya Hidmarch and Lulu Guiness. For shoemakers that help petite women like me, you should check out Jimmy Choo, Nicholas Kirkwood andCharlotte Olympia. For menswear that will break the bank while making you look like James Bond, head to Jermin Street, where even window shopping makes you feel taller and more charming. For womenswear, aside from Paul Smith you should check out Jenny Packham because she makes the most decorated yet classy dresses to foster your inner princess. Great underpinnings shall be found at Myla and Rigby & Peller or at my beloved l’Agent Provocateur. The Brits are very good at making beauty products. While in London I stocked up on products from Cowshed and Eve Lom.
WHAT TO DO
I assume you will be watching the Olympics, right? And you will also see the traditional attractions, hoping to see Queen Lizzie, Will, Kate or (my favorite) Camilla. Should the athletic efforts tire you, should the queen be should you need some other activity other than eating and shopping to pass the time (those are my favorite and usually sufficient to spend my time), here are my suggestions.
Museums are free of charge in London, and you should take advantage of these great resources. The British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are my favorite but I head the Victoria & Albert is great too.
Tower watching is a fairly recent activity in London, and involves admiring the new skyline of the city. London was celebrated for small buildings and coblestones, and the skyscrapers were the symbol of other capitals of the world. Things have changed in the past 50 years. While Victorian architecture still constitutes the majority of the buildings, there are some modern skyscrapers to interrupt the otherwise uniform skyline. The best way to go tower watching is with a Thames Cruise. It is a relaxing activity if you have been shopping and walking around too much and you catch a glimpse of a more futuristic London.
That’s it, folks! But if you have more tips or suggestions feel free to post them below in the comment section.