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London Calling
And Constantly Reinventing Itself

Another amazing view of London's skyline from the top of Victoria Tower
Another amazing view of London's skyline from the top of Victoria Tower


London's small "villages" have long since been absorbed into the vast metropolis, but many keep their very local feel. So today find out why Londoners find living in this great city worth all the hassle, expense and congestion.

Portobello Road's Saturday market, one of the largest in the world with a vibrant mix of stalls and shop units selling everything from tat to "collectables," first put Notting Hill on the tourist map. Before bargaining with the stallholders, eat an early brunch with the locals at Tom's Delicatessen, owned by Tom Conran, or brave the celebs at the Electric Brasserie.

Notting Hill was originally a real mix of grand houses next to streets of slums. The slums may have been gentrified, but Notting Hill keeps its left-of-center, local feel, mainly because the millionaires tend to be media and creative types who treat the area as a proper village. Many of the shops are still either one-offs or smaller designer names. Don't miss Books for Cooks where you can eat a casual lunch as well as browse old and new recipe books and books on food. Or for lunch, go to Bumpkin if you're with the family; otherwise The Ledbury specializes in seasonal, contemporary food.

For something completely different, take the Central line underground from Notting Hill to Bank station, then the overground Docklands Light Railway to stately Greenwich (Cutty Sark station) passing the Victorian terraces of Shadwell, the boats of Limehouse Basin and the gleaming glass mercantile temples of Docklands. Especially beloved by the Tudors, and the birthplace of Henry VIII in 1491, Mary Tudor in 1515 and Elizabeth I in 1533, Greenwich is spread out, making it the perfect antidote to a day in the crowded center. If you have time, take the boat from Westminster downriver; it takes around an hour and shows you London from a very different perspective.

The riverside setting is best viewed from the top of leafy Greenwich Park. Your first reward for the climb is the renovated Royal Observatory where you can stand on the Prime Meridian, straddling the eastern and western hemispheres, see where past Astonomer Royals have scanned the heavens and journey through space and time in the Planetarium. But remember that before, during and for some time after the Olympic Games, Greenwich park is shut off for the equestrian events.

Stretching down from the hilltop lies a complex of buildings. The small Queen's House was built by Inigo Jones in 1652 in what was then a startlingly modern neo-classical style. It forms the central part of the National Maritime Museum, showing Britain's relationship with the sea. Beyond that is the collection of World Heritage Site buildings: the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in two separate wings to give the Queen's House an uninterrupted view of the Thames. Don't miss the Chapel and the Painted Hall, a glorious dining hall covered in paintings by Sir James Thornhill, who was eventually paid by the yard and knighted by a cash-strapped monarch. Newly re-opened after a fire, the Cutty Sark takes you back to the days of the great clippers and their famous races to bring tea to England. The Trafalgar Tavern is the place for a pint on the terrace overlooking the Thames.

Viajante in the East End of London

London's love affair with the Thames has waxed and waned over the centuries; currently it is in full spate, so take advantage of the restaurants that now border the river. Moving east to west, the first restaurant complex is Butler's Wharf, with Butlers Wharf Chop House for the likes of game and dressed crab and the expensive Le Pont de la Tour for upmarket French food. The eighth-floor Oxo Tower Brasserie and Restaurant has stunning riverside views over to St. Paul's and downriver; and way out west in Hammersmith, The River Café is one of London's top Italian restaurants.

If you want to see the Olympic site, the best way is on a tour. Otherwise you can see a certain amount from the outside. You get there by taking the train or underground to Stratford, then walking through the new Westfield Shopping Centre, the largest of its kind in Europe. The surrounding neighborhoods still have a long way to go, but if you're in Stratford, you can have a meal and a pint at the King Edward VII, an old-fashioned pub.

If you have time, go to a different part of East London. Hackney, Hoxton and Shoreditch are now achingly trendy, where old warehouse buildings and shabby apartments stand next to popular clubs and restaurants. Columbia Road, full of small boutiques selling distressed garden gear, is at its best during the Sunday flower market, while Broadway Market on Saturdays has organic food and drink and a great atmosphere adding to the individual boutiques. Eat at Brawn, an outpost of Terroirs in St. Martin's Lane and majoring in offal as you'd expect from the name, or a little further afield at Bistrotheque in Bethnal Green near Victoria Park.

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* London skyline image courtesy of VisitBritain/James McCormick


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