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Vacation London

Tourist Guide

London Calling
And Constantly Reinventing Itself

The changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace in London
The changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace


The City of London has always offered a stark contrast to the West End. Historically the money was spent in the West, but for centuries it was made here in the City, popularly known as the "Square Mile" where the merchants and artisans lived and worked. The City's medieval past is recalled in the small, hidden alleyways that disappear off Fleet Street, once the home of the major newspapers. A wooden gateway leads to the Temple, one of the great Inns of Court, founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Wandering around the cluster of buildings, courtyards and gardens is like stepping back four centuries. Wine Office Court leads to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, for centuries the place for a pie and a pint to characters like Dr. Samuel Johnson who wrote his famous dictionary at 17 Gough Square, which gives you a real sense of 18th-century London life.

Once the financial heart of London, the Square Mile now shares that honor with Docklands, and what was once a strictly business milieu is now lightened up with smart shopping areas like the Royal Exchange and the brand-new One New Change complex, hotels like Threadneedles and the delightfully period The Rookery, and restaurants such as 1 Lombard Street, which epitomizes the change; this former bank was transformed into a bar, all-day brasserie and smart dining venue. Vegetarians and meat-lovers alike will find plenty of options at Café Below, in the crypt of St. Mary-le-Bow.

From St. Paul's Cathedral walk south to Thames Street and the footbridge over the river to once grungy, now trendy Southwark and Bermondsey. A good riverside walk takes in Tate Modern, which showcases Britain's modern art collection in an imposing former power station; Shakespeare's Globe, an exact replica of the original Elizabethan theatre; and Borough Market — now London's green heart with its organic market open Thursday through Saturday. High-rise glass and steel structures battle it out with renovated warehouses set in cobbled streets making this a typical mix of the traditional and the newly cool.

Beautiful South Bank in the heart of London
Beautiful South Bank

Walk back over Tower Bridge, a masterpiece of Victorian engineering completed in 1894. The museum in the high level footbridge tells the story of the Bridge's construction and gives you not-to-be-missed views of the Thames and the Tower of London, the most perfect medieval fortress in Britain, begun by William the Conqueror in 1066.

Spitalfields near Liverpool Street station is another area that dramatically juxtaposes old and new. The splendid cast-iron Victorian market and surrounding Georgian streets were saved from development in the 1970s by a group of determined conservationists. If you're here on a Sunday or Monday, book a visit to Dennis Severs' House at 18 Folgate Street, a candle-lit "time capsule," and a powerful re-creation of the house of a family of 18th-century silk weavers from France. Spitalfields Market, a magnet on weekends, has been refurbished with new restaurants and shops, though leaving the central area with its mix of stalls and shops selling everything from New Age crystals to organic food. Nearby Brick Lane is the place for cheap Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani restaurants. Alternatively, go upmarket at Tayyabs on Fieldgate Street.

Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament is a London icon
Big Ben

London's relentless expansion has forced many quiet corners out of their time warp. Nearby Smithfield still functions as a wholesale meat market, waking up at 5 a.m. when the first trucks from all around Britain arrive, but now the restaurants, bars and clubs stay open into the small hours. Club Gascon celebrates south-west French cooking; the Dickensian Bleeding Heart Tavern is as romantic as its name. Moving north into trendy Clerkenwell, St. John is uncompromising in its emphasis on offal and top quality ingredients simply cooked, and Exmouth Market offers restaurants like the Spanish/North African Moro. If you're making your way back to the West End, try the Delaunay at the Aldwych, the new venture from the owners of The Wolseley.

Continue to Day 3


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* Buckingham Palace image courtesy of VisitBritain/Pavel Libra; South Bank image by VisitBritain/Britain on View

(Updated: 06/05/12 NW)

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