London City Guide Part One – Where to Stay
London is undoubtedly one of my favorite destinations and I have visited this city more times than I can recall. It is a cosmopolitan destination that is very easy to get to from the East Coast of the US and it has famously been said that “when a man has grown tired of London then he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life has to offer.” I have to say that I whole-heartedly agree! I first visited London as a child with my parents and it was my first international trip. My brother and I climbed all around the Tower of London and marveled at Westminster Cathedral. It was a truly fantastic experience and I highly recommend London as a destination both to those traveling with children and without. Public transportation is clean, efficient and easy to use. London is also very walkable and I highly recommend walking when you can simply because there is so much to see! You never know what you might happen upon in a city that has stood for over 2,000 years!
Some Hotels Will Have Quiet Courtyards and Gardens to Enjoy
The area that I most highly recommend is St. James’. While St. James’ is a small area, it truly has a fantastic location. There is a good selection of lovely hotels just off of main roads so they are nice and quiet – many have beautiful little courtyards that make you feel as though you are in a much more private place than right in the middle of London! You are also within a short walk of nearly all the major sites in London. Walk five or ten minutes and you will see Buckingham Palace, Admiralty Arch, Westminster Cathedral, The Palace of Westminster (commonly called the Houses of Parliament), St. Margaret’s Church, the London Eye, London Aquarium, Whitehall, and many more. At the end of Whitehall is Trafalgar Square which marks the beginning of the West End Theater District so you also have an easy walk to the theaters. St. James’ is a delightful, quiet area with many options for sightseeing and lovely hotels to boot. You also have several Royal Parks on your doorstep including St. James’ Park (grab an ice cream and a bench with a view of Buckingham Palace or the famous white pelicans) and across the road there is Green Park which leads up to Hyde Park on one corner and the Ritz on the other. Once you cross the road towards Hyde Park (head past Apsley House) you will be in Mayfair - probably one of the most instantly recognizable place names in London. Some of the most famous luxury hotels in the city line the western edge of Mayfair overlooking Hyde Park. While many of the Georgian mansions for which the area is so famous have been converted in to embassies, Mayfair has retained its exclusive look and feel. Head over to Bond Street for some of London's most desirable shopping. Formed as a retail center in the late 1700s, Bond Street is today one of the most expensive and sought after strips of real estate in Europe. If you cannot find exactly what you are looking for in St. James’ then try Westminster, it is immediately adjacent and while it tends to be a bit more commercial – there are many nice places to stay here a well. In the evenings take a stroll down along The Embankment – it will be much quieter then and you can appreciate the beauty of the city lit up at night. There are also a number of monuments along the way to stop and pay a visit to including an Ancient Egyptian obelisk – many still show the damage done to them from bombs during the Blitz. They serve as a moving reminder that not so long ago we could not so peacefully walk along the Thames as we do now.
The City is always open for business
The City is the financial center of London and as such it tends to cater towards the professional traveler. It is, however, a worthy destination as well since it features a great many places that you might want to visit on your trip and may be a bit quieter after the work day is over (though don’t always count on it.) In case you are wondering, The City refers to the roughly square mile walled Roman city of Londinium from which the modern city of London has spread. As you walk into The City you will see its entrance marked by dragons holding a shield emblazoned with the cross of St. George. The City is where you will find St. Paul’s Cathedral – an impressive and beautiful building worth a good visit. Be sure you make the climb to the top of the dome- the view is more than worth it! You can also visit for Evensong and hear the choir singing - a special experience indeed. It is also very lovely to visit for Christmas or New Years services. In the City you are an easy walk to The Tower of London which is also where you can see the Crown Jewels (as long as they aren’t being used that day). Another place to visit is The Monument erected in memory of the Great Fire of 1666 which destroyed much of London and is why you do not have very many medieval sites in London . At the same time, the rebuilding of London after the fire is why there are so many gorgeous Christopher Wren churches scattered across the city. Take the quick walk across London Bridge and head down into the Borough Market for some wonderful food from all across the country. You will certainly smell the food wafting up towards you as you approach. My personal favorite for a quick and satisfying lunch is a Hog Sandwich from the Roast Hog. If you are in town during cooler weather then I certainly wouldn’t pass up a chance to grab some hot mulled cider or wine to warm your hands as you peruse the shops. At this point you will also be right by the base of London’s newest skyscraper – The Shard. While its appearance and location has divided opinions, it does feature several restaurants with fantastic views across the city as well as a hotel. You could pay to go up just for the view but why not pay for dinner in a restaurant instead and enjoy the view as a bonus? While the City is not as easily walkable to the West End for theater it is easily connected via the Tube and black cabs are always a reliable way to get around. So if your show runs late and it looks difficult to get a table at one of the post theater spots – head back to The City and go to Heron Tower. On the 40th floor of this distinctive building is Duck and Waffle. This place features great views across the city (the glass elevator on the way up certainly doesn’t disappoint) and bonus – is open 24/7! Is it 3 am and you’re feeling a bit jetlagged? Head for Duck and Waffle. They have a slightly different late night menu but honestly it really is wonderful to be able to get good food in a fantastic location any time of day. While their website will quite often claim that there are no reservations available, just show up at the door. The guys working there will say that you can’t go up without a reservation so just say you only want to see the view. They will then let you up and you can put your name in for a table while you enjoy the view from the bar. And they will always have an available table after a few minutes. I have done this numerous times and every time after about 5 minutes they come over and say one has suddenly opened up! Perfect.
The Royal Albert Hall is Just Off of Hyde Park
Kensington and Chelsea are packed full of lovely places to stay in London as well. Here you will have the large glamorous hotels as well as the pretty little hotels that the area has become known for. These are usually one or several Victorian homes on a quiet square or crescent that have been lovingly adapted into the sort of unassuming hotels that can be so lovely. The areas are quiet and residential – although they are home to some of the wealthiest people in the country. Don’t be surprised to see several million pounds worth of cars parked on the side of nearly every street you wander down. Eaton Place, for example, has been home to Sean Connery (lived in number 7, of course) as well as Rex Harrison, Sarah, Duchess of York and many more. There are a number of nice little squares with a small patch of trees or a garden in the middle and little cafes around the edges. If you are looking to experience London like a (well-heeled) local, then Kensington and Chelsea would be a very nice option. Cozy, luxurious hotels that feel like home abound, and the people watching is certainly worth it as well. Don’t be surprised when the staff at your hotels greets you by name, the English take hospitality quite seriously and will go out of their way to make your stay all that you ever wanted it to be, and more. Kensington is also very accessible to a number of attractions such as the Royal Albert Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Harrods. One of the more famous parts of Kensington and Chelsea is Belgravia, an area known for some of the most luxurious hotels in London - and is one of the wealthiest districts in the world. This glamorous and expensive part of town backs right up to Buckingham Palace and is well known for beautiful hotels, wonderful restaurants, and luxury shopping. While many of the best hotels will have a driver available, Belgravia is another very walkable part of town and is still very close to the main attractions in London – it is just right on the other side of St. James’ and Westminster. Your walk to the sites will only be marginally longer (except for Buckingham Palace) or you could always take public transport since, as I mentioned before, it is clean, convenient and very easy to understand. There are also some really lovely spots for food from trendy gastro pubs to Michelin-starred fine dining. The pretty little tree-lined squares are very inviting after a day exploring the city although often the best hotels in Belgravia will have a private garden or courtyard for you to enjoy.
The University of Greenwich Has Been Featured in Many Films
So, have you been to London a dozen times and want a slightly different experience this time around? I know exactly how you feel. Even though my go-to is St. James’, there are times when Greenwich calls my name. Greenwich is further south along the Thames and is easily accessible with public transport. Although if you are heading to Greenwich I always opt for the Thames Clipper! Believe it or not, the Clippers are part of the public transport so if you have an Oyster card – and I highly recommend that you do – you get a discount on the fare. It is so much fun to take a boat and see London from a completely different vantage point – the water! Depending on where you get on you will have the opportunity to see many of the sites from the deck of a Thames Clipper and it is always cool to pass under Tower Bridge at night when it is all lit up. You arrive in Greenwich right by two of the main attractions – the recently re-opened Cutty Sark as well as the University of Greenwich. The Cutty Sark is worth a visit for sure as they have done a wonderful job with the new museum. Children and adults alike are sure to enjoy, especially because they have the entire ship mounted in the air above you! You can walk all through the ship itself but be sure to visit the museum and café which is located underneath! From the outside it is not immediately apparent that it is suspended since it appears to be sitting on a glass bubble made to look like it is riding blue ocean waves. But once you get inside you realize that glass ‘bubble’ is actually the roof! Next door you are sure to recognize the University of Greenwich since it has featured in quite a lot of movies over the past few years from Thor to the Kings Speech and many others. You should also make a point of visiting the Painted Gallery and the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at the Old Royal Naval College. Both of these are truly spectacular to behold. The Painted Gallery is especially impressive when the day is growing dim as the paintings are up lit by lamplight that gives the whole place an otherworldly feel. A short walk (uphill) will bring you to the Greenwich Observatory where Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was created. They mark the Prime Meridian and everyone enjoys getting their picture taken with a foot on both sides. At night it is very cool to see the green light beam coming across the sky from the Observatory that also marks the Prime Meridian. Greenwich is a more laid back destination and since it is a bit further out from the city, it is certainly worth a visit for a change of pace and to experience its lovely pubs and restaurants.
See somewhere that looks interesting to you? Have questions about an area I did not cover? Send me an email or give a call! I am always happy to answer any questions!