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TPG Contributor Mitch Berman has lost track of how many trips he’s made to London, but his son, Kofi Lee-Berman, has not (six and counting). Here, they share their recent experiences in the UK’s vibrant historical capital — with text by Mitch and most of the photos by Kofi. Visit Mitch and Kofi’s photo blog and Kofi’s travel blog for more.
There are three great ways to survey London: take a boat trip on the Thames, use your Oyster Card to jump on a double-decker bus and ride it to the end of the line or elevate to the top of The Shard, the new tallest building in the European Union at 1,016 feet.
For £26 (~$37), The Shard offers a unique experience among the world’s skyscrapers, with several levels of observatory views, including an open-air platform on the 72nd floor — bring a coat, it’s cold up there this time of year! — and interactive telescopes that not only provide pop-up info on sights as you pan across them, but also offer alternative views of how they’ve looked through the centuries. An unadvertised special bonus feature is the bathrooms, or should I say private viewing cubicles? Just roll up the electric shades, and voila! — your loo with a view from the 68th floor.
London’s Southwark neighborhood is home to The Shard, Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern and thousand-year-old Southwark Cathedral. At the foot of the Cathedral you’ll find Borough Market, one of London’s most popular outdoor food markets.
We enjoyed a mouth-watering giant chocolate chip cookie for £2 (~$3) and delicious Ethiopian beef tibs with injera bread for £5 (~$7). Speaking of £5, that’s how much it costs to stand right up against the stage nearby at Shakespeare’s Globe, so close you can touch the actors (if they don’t touch you first, which they will). This has to be the single best deal in the world of performing arts.
Somerset House, on the Strand, features a 900 square meter courtyard enfolding a skating rink. While at Somerset, stop at the Courtauld Gallery and visit Suzon, the world-weary barmaid at the center of Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” painting.
Also on The Strand, check out Twinings’ original shop, serving tea since 1706, the historic Savoy Hotel and its small museum — for a real treat, stop and savor the superb afternoon tea in Thames Foyer at The Savoy. When paying, use a card that maximizes dining rewards. TPG recommends the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which gives you 2x the rewards for dining, over the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card (which gives you 2x the points for dining, but only at US restaurants). The Citi ThankYou Premier card also offers 2 ThankYou points per dollar spent on dining and entertainment that can be used flexibly with its transfer partners.
London may be a spread-out city, but its central area is very small. The Strand is within easy walking distance of Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden, home of fictional character Eliza Doolittle. At Covent Garden, we sampled Neal’s Yard Dairy’s prodigious variety of cheeses from small local farmers.
Next door, the brightly painted courtyard where Monty Python worked for a decade is home to the founding shop of Neal’s Yard Remedies, where you can whip up your own custom shower gel from a wide range of essential oils, paying by the drop.
Wander a little farther north and you’ll find Oxford Street, heaven for shopping masochists everywhere and the only way to see Lush’s new flagship store, a three-level extravaganza that’s more like a theme park than a shop. It’s worth a visit, whether for the massage area, the free cinema or just the friendly no-pressure UK salespeople — learn from them, Lush US!
London is home to a number of amazing and enormous museums — stop by the British Museum and check out the Rosetta Stone, its most popular attraction. View the Magna Carta, Gutenberg’s Bible and Beatles’ lyrics handwritten by the lads themselves at the British Library. Other museums you shouldn’t miss include the National Gallery, the Tate Modern and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The best part? They’re all free to enter.
Chinatown, located adjacent to Leicester Square, and the Soho area in general are throbbing with life around the clock. We enjoyed Vietnamese dishes at the chic and reasonable restaurant Viet Food, and it’s always fun to quaff an espresso or two (or four) at the venerable Bar Italia.
Nearby, St. Dunstan-in-the-East is a thousand-year-old church that was destroyed in the London Blitz at the beginning of WWII. Thirty years later, the overgrown ruins were reopened as a richly atmospheric public garden.
Tourists have been flocking for decades to Piccadilly Circus, London’s modest answer to Times Square. Defeated pedestrians heap up on the steps around the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain — some of them look like they’ve been moldering there since it was unveiled in 1893. We prefer to rest our feet at Pret A Manger, since there seems to be at least one on every block. Pret’s croissants in London — not in NYC, for some reason — are as good as any outside of France.
Walking along the banks of the Thames and crossing the bridges that span it are the quintessential things to do while you’re in London. From there you’ll get perfect views of Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, all within half a mile of each other.
Further down the North Bank, St. Paul’s Cathedral is by far the largest of more than 50 churches built by Sir Christopher Wren to replace those destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 — it even remained the tallest building in London until 1962. While views of St. Paul’s are excellent along much of the South Bank, the ideal approach to it is straight on, as seen from the all-pedestrian Millennium Bridge.
With its energy, diverse population and sheer nerve, this action-packed metropolis reminds me of my own city, New York — except that London is quite a bit prettier. I’ll keep coming back. As Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
How many times have you been to London and what are some of your favorite things to do there? Let us know in the comments, below.
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