It’s the capital of an empire that once claimed access to sunlight 24/7. So if London could talk, world leaders would stand up and listen. Instead, London draws you in with its unique history, culture and fascinating legends. Diana Kotwal singles out her seven most memorable experiences of London.
London is all about the drama. Pure, intense and several centuries’ worth. You could roam the streets for hours, wide-eyed with a bag of popcorn, and come away with enough legends, folktales, traditions and anecdotes to last over a dozen grand children’s bedtime stories. Whether it’s the truth behind the Jack the Ripper legacy, or the story of the short reign of Queen Anne of Boleyn, the now infamous wife of Henry the VIII, or a viewing of Wicked, one of London’s brilliantly staged musicals, this is the place to visit. But there’s so much more to England’s capital city than just stories. And here are my top seven picks.
1) Walk in the footsteps of Jack the ripper
I’ve watched the movies. I’ve read the books. I’ve even looked up the conspiracy theories online. But there’s nothing that comes close to walking the same streets, visiting the same pubs and clicking photographs next to the very spots where Ripper’s victims were found without their guts in place. An informed, articulate tour guide can take you on a journey of intrigue, mystery and spine-chilling terror, while you gasp in morbid fascination. A warning. Don’t eat before the tour. Although, you might not want any food at the end of it, either.
2) Cry your eyes out at some very impressive, glass-breaking, quality singing
If your only idea of a musical is a Disney production starring Zac Efron, you need a quick education and an even quicker visit to London’s famous West End region. Here, almost every street has a theatre, sometimes even two. And tickets are almost always sold out. But if you’re lucky and you get yourself a seat inside, you will find some beautiful music, top quality production and tunes that you’ll hum for the rest of the year. All-time favourites are Wicked, Billy Elliot, The Phantom of the Opera and Chicago. Just don’t do what I did, and try to hail a cab with your newly-discovered jazz hands.
3) Try to bring the Kohinoor back home
I would’ve succeeded too, if it weren’t for the heavy protection, bullet-proof glass, armed security and a moving, horizontal escalator that allows each tourist only five seconds of viewing per royal ornament. My visit to the Tower of London was one of the highlights of my trip. And with good reason too. It started with a witty Yeomen guard who doubled up as our tour guide. He narrated stories about executions, escapes, conspiracies and royal be-headings that went on within the Tower’s morose walls. He mentioned that the ghost of Anne Boleyn has been reportedly seen wandering the halls of the White Tower, clutching her head under her arm. Following which, he cheerfully asked if we could all kindly move on to the White Tower which housed the armouries museum. Funny guy. The last part of the Tower of London tour was a look at the crowned jewels. There was a dazzling display of crowns, tiaras, jewel-encrusted spectres, plates and swords. With so much bling here, it makes you wonder if Royalty ever listened to hip hop.
4) Indulge the art-loving, Oscar-award gawking nerd in you
I’m happy to admit that I’m a museum lover. In fact, it gives me immense pleasure to spend an afternoon or more visiting several centuries, while never leaving the building. London is bursting at the seams with museums of every kind. Even if you’re not a museum geek like I am, you should still get over to South Kensington. Here, you will find three museums within a stone’s throw of each other, the Victoria & Albert museum, The Museum of Natural History and the Science Museum. And they all offer free admission. But don’t leave without visiting the Victoria & Albert museum. You’ll find artefacts and sculptures from all over the world here. And most of it is incredible to look at. The Museum also has paid exhibitions from time to time. I was lucky enough to catch the Grace Kelly exhibit, which displayed her clothes, accessories and jewellery. But what really caught my eye, was her shiny, as-good-as-new Oscar which she won for ’The Country Girl’. The movie buff in me swooned for a good 15 minutes.
5) Do a little innocent, very appropriate, move-along-nothing-to-see here street walking
Rule number one. When it’s not raining, you should still carry an umbrella. London rain is unpredictable. But, if you go in summer, you can explore the entire city on your feet and miraculously never break into a sweat. I loved strolling down Notting Hill, with a cup of coffee in my hand. Although it was a bit disappointing when no Hugh Grant showed up to spill the cup’s contents on me. This is one of London’s posh areas, so I walked with my nose a little up in the air. There are quite a few designer stores here, if you’re eager to spend some serious cash. If not, head to Oxford street and walk around there. This is high street heaven, and you’ll find brand favourites like H&M, Topshop, Zara and Mango, all lined up for your spending pleasure. If you want to see London by night, head to Soho. This very stylish area is covered street to street with clubs, cafes and gay bars. I went bar hopping on foot, although it was more like, “Thank you for the beer. I’ll have the next one next door.”
6) Eat like the English do. (And the Chinese; and the Lebanese; and the Indians; and the French…)
My stomach is like the UN. It doesn’t discriminate against race, gender or flavour. The food in London is diverse, abundant and simply glorious. My checklist of what to eat went on for several volumes. First on the list, the ever famous fish and chips. These are available almost everywhere. Traditionally fried in beef drippings, these might not be so good for your cholesterol level, but your mouth really won’t care. You can also get them fried in vegetable oil, if you’re not a fan of heart medication. I also ate my way through piles of pork pies, bangers and mash, scones with clotted cream and jam, roast beef sandwiches, honeyed ham with baked potatoes and cucumber sandwiches. I did not have the heart or stomach to try the black pudding (also called blood sausage). Because, as carnivorous as I am, the thought of sampling congealed pig’s blood in the form of a sausage is enough to make me eat salads for the rest of my life.
When there was no more English food to feed me, I moved on to other nationalities. The sushi was incredible, and available on nearly every street corner. I even had some incredible paneer parathas and papdi chaat to satisfy my longing for a taste of home. London is a cornucopia of every conceivable cuisine. And I’m sure glad I packed my appetite for it.
7)Drink like an English fish
No one drinks like the English. They don’t even wait for a suitable excuse to do so. England won a match? England lost, but scored one goal? The team changed the length of their shorts by an inch? It doesn’t matter, beer flows all around like water from a broken tap. And I wasn’t about to leave England without knowing what’s what in an English pub. So I did a little research (and it was all very delicious). I started with lager, a light beer, a flavour I was most familiar with. Stout was another kind of light beer I could’ve tried, but I wasn’t about to pass out without trying a darker variety (the main difference between light and dark beer is the alcohol content, dark has more). I was most eager to sample Ale, a dark beer because I hadn’t read British folklore without hearing a thing or two about ‘Ye ol’ ale pint’. Then there’s tap beer, which comes from local microbreweries all over England and are shipped off in kegs to pubs that offer them on tap. My favourite? Strawberry beer (I’m a wuss). Served chilled, it was the perfect blend of fruit and alcohol. Wheat beer was also another interesting flavour to try.
If you’re not a beer drinker, you don’t necessarily have to be an outcast (although I wouldn’t exactly broadcast the information). All pubs serve regular spirits like rum, whisky and a second favourite to beer, single malt. I also fell in love with Pimms No 1, a gin-based punch with lots of fruit thrown in. It’s refreshing with just the right amount of buzz. And the best part of the experience? You’re a tourist, so your car keys are in another country!
No tour of London is complete without the touristy, hop-on hop-off bus tours. You can spot familiar sights like The Big Ben, The Parliament House, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abby, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. Since tour guides are often out-of-work stand-up comedians, you get a show within a show. Now if only they would serve some beer on the bus, they could be on to a really good thing!
Diana Kotwal loves travel and food, and finds that writing about the former is a good way to pay for the latter.
She’s visited several cities across the world, and brought back quite a few souvenirs (especially in the form of body fat), making her love handles the perfect ode to her two loves.
Diana has written for Lonely Planet, Mid-Day, Femina, Jade Magazine and Random House India.
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