London

LONDON CALLING: The timing has never been better to visit one of the world's hottest destination cities

2013-04-04T03:00:00Z 2013-04-09T11:58:04Z LONDON CALLING: The timing has never been better to visit one of the world's hottest destination citiesMatt Erickson nwitimes.com
April 04, 2013 3:00 am  • 

Walk across Westminster Bridge toward the Houses of Parliament, then listen to Big Ben chime the hour.

Wait shoulder to shoulder with the masses to watch the famed changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

Stand in the middle of Trafalgar Square or Piccadilly Circus, spin around and make a panorama in your head.

Marvel at the majesty of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, which has been this city's icon for more than 300 years.

There are thousands of ways to do London, and they're probably all the right way.

Give some credit to the 2012 Olympic Games. Give some credit to the newest James Bond flick. Give some credit to the vintage and retro-hip "Keep Calm and ..." messages you now see everywhere. London has always been a fashionable spot, but perhaps never so much as right now.

Like all of the world's major cities, London is not short on iconic landmarks. To visit, especially for the first time, and not take as many of them in as possible, would be a mistake – even knowing doing them all might not be possible.

Some of the most brilliant views of a brilliant city can bee seen from the London Eye, a towering Ferris wheel that sits on the River Thames and formerly the tallest of its kind in the world. The cars hold upwards of 25 people and from the uppermost points, you'll have panoramic views of the city. It's also the most popular tourist attraction in the United Kingdom – so you won't be alone waiting in line for it.

Just across the Thames on the Westminster Bridge is perhaps the most famous structure in the history of England – Big Ben, along with the Palace of Westminster, which houses England's government. "Big Ben" actually is just the bell; it sits in what official is Elizabeth Tower, renamed for Queen Elizabeth II. Before you walk across the bridge, though, wide-angle photos of it all are a must from the banks looking across the Thames.

From Big Ben, it's an easy and pleasurable walk to hit up London icons like Westminster Abbey, which gives St. Paul's a run for its money as England's most famous church. If looking at cool buildings is your thing, it remains one of the preeminent examples of Gothic architecture in the world. And if you just want to be in the footsteps of history, it's the royal wedding site of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, as well as Queen Elizabeth II to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947.  

It's hard to say no to watching the proceedings at Buckingham Palace, or walking past the home of the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. Walk through St. James's Park, which has the fame of New York's Central Park, but with perhaps twice the charm. It's cozily between the palace and the Horse Guards Parade, where there's a daily changing of the guard on display in the parade ground – a stunning example of British pomp and splendor.

The Tower of London and Tower Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, the West End theater district, Trafalgar Square, Chinatown, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, museums galore like Victoria & Albert's, double-decker sightseeing buses and the classic red phone booths, shopping at landmark department stores like Harrods … they all need to be done.

But there are two ways to have a more authentically London near-local experience. And the first will help you accomplish hitting many sites on your to-do list. You have to head Underground – the London subway system, or as the locals call it, "The Tube."

The sheer size of London's Underground can be positively daunting and even confusing if it you let it be. But some of my most cherished first-visit memories come from hurrying down staircases or escalators to catch the next Northern Line train at Embankment to Tottenham Court Road to change to the Central Line out to Notting Hill. 

Buy an "Oyster Card," load it up and start riding to hit the spots on your list. You'll quickly see that the Underground is one great big site to explore, itself. From the subway advertising posters to the different styles of tile on the walls, each stop is unique. Of personal before-you-die-ness for me was taking the tube to the St. John's Wood stop and walking a few blocks to the zebra crossing – where The Beatles strolled for one of the most famous album covers of all time: "Abbey Road."

But for my money, my favorite part of the London experience is hitting any number of open-air markets. There are markets that specialize in antiques and collectibles. There are those that have a more alternative bent. There are some that resemble the best and the worst of a typical American flea market. And, of course, if you want to spend three hours sampling cuisine of every kind before finally deciding on your meal, only to realize you're already full, there are some great food markets.

Portobello Road Market will have you checking out some high-end antiques (on Saturdays), clothes and, no doubt, the perfect unique souvenir to take home from your trip. You also can see Notting Hill of Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant movie fame.

Camden Market is worth a visit, though depending on your tastes you might feel out of place. The word "counterculture" comes to mind, and you'll see more than a few punk rock kids and plenty of knockoff t-shirts, purses and headphones. But some of the food stalls are great for some mid-shop snacking.

Of particular note, though, is Borough Market, near London Bridge. Think of a dried meat or cheese, and it's there. Sweets of any kind. Wild game. Meat pies. Breads and pastries. It's all there for locals to take home for that night, but there are dozens upon dozens of stalls there to make it for you for in-market dining.

Hit all the sites in the guidebooks that you can. But you'll be fascinated at just how much of a local you'll feel like if you take the tube a few stops and get a "spot of supper" at an open market. 

In the grand scheme of must-see destinations in any lifetime, London hangs out in the upper echelons of any list, patiently waiting for you – probably sipping tea and eating a biscuit.

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