The Millennium Bridge
This summer an elite group will descend upon London. To succeed, they'll need to draw on all their dedication and resources. And, if they're lucky, in the years to come they'll look back on their accomplishments and say, "I achieved the unimaginable in London during the summer of 2012."
Olympicc athletes? No, we're talking about the bold tourists who will brave London in the coming months. The city, crowded and expensive at the best of times, is about to see an influx that will make previous years look as tame as the Pan Am Games.
Still, anything worthwhile takes some effort. One of the great joys of the British capital is that tourists are so ubiquitous that they blend into the cityscape, allowing you to disappear if you want to. You can even learn to act like a local—if you plan properly. For every three-hour lineup at the London Eye, there's a quiet side street brimming with authentic shops. For every riotous crowd struggling to get into the British Museum, there's a small gallery showcasing modern masterpieces in an unpretentious setting.
The key is to start your training early. If you show up at a Heathrow taxi stand intending to make plans on the fly, you've already finished last. (For starters, book a car—it's much cheaper.) But if you're serious about success in London, we've developed a short training regimen that will help you own the town.
THE 25-MINUTE LONDON ARCHITECTURE WALK
London has no shortage of great architecture—but most people have a shortage of time. Hit the greats with this quickie tour.
Start at St. Paul's Cathedral, designed by original starchitect Sir Christopher Wren, and take a seven-minute pause to reflect on what was transpiring in your hometown in 1711 when he completed this awe-inspiring edifice.
Exit the cathedral and head south toward the Thames, following signs for the Tate Modern. Spot the massive steel air-intake valves adjacent to Paternoster Square, designed by up-and-coming sculptor and designer Thomas Heatherwick. Regard for two minutes.
Head five minutes down the road, where Sir Norman Foster's Millennium Bridge will come into view. Walk halfway across the bridge and stop. Look upriver to the east, and spend two minutes looking at the now-iconic "Gherkin", Sir Norman Foster's 30 St. Mary Axe (Calgarians can do a mental comparison to his downtown tower, the Bow).
Look to your right (three minutes) and the skyline will be dominated by Renzo Piano's striking Shard London Bridge, the city's newest skyscraper and the tallest building in the E.U. Proceed across the bridge (two minutes)—you now have four minutes (or as long as you'd like) to enjoy the world's best factory reno: Herzog and de Meuron's Tate Modern.
THE THREE HOUR LONDON DESIGN TOUR
Unlike Copenhagen or Milan, London doesn't have a singular design ethos. Some designers succeed with an Edwardian palette of chintz, some go for mid-century retro and some are an amalgam of every other country's great style. Start your tour on Oxford Street at the Selfridges pop-up shop that occupies the southwest corner of the massive department store. It changes frequently but will be a design riff on something surprising—it was books and printing presses a few months ago.
Head north on Marylebone High Street until you come across a trio of British design heavyweights. First up is the traditional kitchenware of Emma Bridgewater, heavy with Union Jacks and bold lettering. Across the street is the '50s-inspired playful fabric and housewares of Cath Kidston. Across the street again is Tricia Guild's emporium of modern fabric, bedding and furniture, Designer's Guild. None of these designers is cheap, but even with the exchange they're priced much better than in North America. Finally, at the end of the block looms the giant of English design: Sir Terence Conran's the Conran Shop. Imagine a three-storey emporium that's equal parts Herman Miller, Ikea and Design Within Reach and you're still only about halfway to understanding the impact Conran and his offspring have had on stylish living on this island.
TAKING A MARATHON NAP IN LONDON
No other city rivals London for the number of iconic hotels—Claridge's, the Dorchester, the Savoy—that are clustered in the relatively small enclaves of Mayfair and Belgravia. The challenge is first, making a choice, and second, not bankrupting yourself on the jaw-dropping rates many hotels charge—and that's when there's not an Olympics on. But, unlike in most cities, here your hotel can be equal parts history lesson, private club and place to sleep, so remind yourself of that when you're tackling the bill.
Classic Luxury Hotel For starters, please don't confuse the Ritz Hotel (from $478/night) with nouveau chain Ritz-Carlton: the former is the creation of the legendary hotelier Cesar Ritz, who more or less invented the concept of modern luxury lodging. Modern is a relative term here—they still have two full-time gilders on staff, who perpetually touch up the acres of gold trim throughout. And, if you want to wear your jeans you'll have to skip the dungarees-free lobby and go to your room through the back way. But if the goal is to be enveloped in a cloak of bygone luxury (while still having wifi), this Piccadilly landmark is the place. theritzlondon.com
London Boutique Hotel New York may have invented the boutique hotel, but London has embraced the concept with typical Brit vigour. There seems to be a new one opening every season (Belgraves by Thompson Hotels is the newest entry), but when the 41-room Halkin (from $260/night) opened 20 years ago, it had few peers. It still is one of the most understated hotels in town—all sleek muted beiges and soft lines and a perfect Belgravia location on Halkin Street. David Thompson's Nahm—arguably the greatest Thai restaurant outside of Thailand—is in the lobby. halkin.como.bz
Authentic British Service The Goring (from $503/night) may be the most authentically English hotel in town, with a discreet clientele who seem more like they've just left their estate in Kent than their dental practice in St. Louis. The service is proper—you'll have no waiters kneeling at your table introducing themselves, and gratuities seem a genuine surprise to most of the porters—but it's never stiff. Perhaps why Kate Middleton (also proper but not stuffy) and her family stayed here before her royal wedding. thegoring.com
Historic British Hotel The historic set of joined Mayfair townhouses that comprise Brown's (from $942/night) hosted everyone from Rudyard Kipling (he wrote The Jungle Book here) to Alexander Graham Bell (who made Great Britain's first phone call from here). So many were aghast when the whole operation underwent a massive modernization five years ago. Now that some time has passed, it's clear that the history is still there—it just now has some of the smartest and largest rooms in London to keep it company. brownshotel.com
Hidden London Gem No one comes to London dreaming of staying at an Intercontinental, but London Park Lane Intercontinental's combination of near-perfect location (at the nexus of Mayfair and Belgravia), phenomenal amenities (the club lounge has complimentary Courvoisier XO at the ready) and, if you're careful, excellent rates (from $284/night) makes this a gem hidden in plain sight. ichotelsgroup.com
A relatively subdued offering from St. John.
I once had a $96 continental breakfast at a top London hotel. I feasted on that story for years as the bellwether for the absurdity of dining out in London. But these days, the pound is dropping, the dollar rising and in the current economic climate, the competition for diners has lost any shred of English gentility. The result: you'll never eat better for less in London. It's still not cheap, but many top rooms are no more expensive than a nice dinner out in Vancouver or Calgary, and the quality is unsurpassed.
Reigning Champ Heston Blumenthal (of Fat Duck fame) is the most important chef in the country. His new spot in the Mandarin Oriental, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, channels the chef's magic through a series of centuries-old English recipes, and what could be a gimmick in the hands of a mere mortal become transcendent here. The meat fruit—a bizarre marriage of chicken liver, mouse and mandarin jelly—is the greatest starter I've ever had, hands down. Dinner for two, with wine, is a £200-bargain, but it's also a very difficult reservation to acquire—book now and consider going for lunch. dinnerbyheston.com
The art-laden dining room at Hix at the Albemarle.
Favourite Local Chef Mark Hix is the Tragically Hip of Brit chefs: huge in his homeland, largely unknown outside it. He has a string of excellent restaurants throughout London—including a new room at the Belgraves Hotel—but it's his Mayfair spot, Hix at the Albemarle, that's the winner. It features a set three-course meal for under £35, and you'll eat that meal surrounded by extraordinary contemporary art (I was seated under a Tracey Emin sculpture) that—in true English fashion—no one makes a big deal about. brownshotel.com/dining/hix-at-the-albemarle
Where Londoners Eat The answer to the perennial question, Where do Londoners eat?, is often local mini-chain Ottolenghi. There are small outposts in Kensington, Islington, Notting Hill and Belgravia. All channel the laid-back vibe of a friend who's a great cook and has just placed a few things on the table for lunch. Modern rustic food in a friendly setting. ottolenghi.co.uk
Nose-to-Tail Dining in London Fergus Henderson's original St. John restaurant single-handedly brought nose-to-tail eating to the forefront. His new spot, the St. John Hotel (attached to his new small hotel in Soho), succeeds because it's closer to the action than the original—and it eases off on the offal. There are still ears and tripe for those who want it, but braised beef cheeks and the like let the squeamish off the hook. stjohnhotellondon.com wl
PUB CRAWLING IN LONDON
Finding an Authentic British Pub Turns out you can't. They don't really exist in Central London anymore thanks to corporate ownership of pubs and sky-high real estate prices. The pub of your imagination—staffed by sage barkeeps, patronized by locals who play darts all day—is gonzo. But if you don't care about authenticity, there are plenty of good places to get a pint.
Great Pubs that Seem Authentic If You Squint
Wilton Arms Looks like Dickens designed it. thewiltonarms.co.uk
The Grenadier It's right behind Harvey Nichols, but impossible to find. beerintheevening.com
Great Pubs to Eat At in London
Pantechnicon Exactly what a gastropub should be: great food but never precious. thepantechnicon.com
Great Queen Street So popular you need to book ahead (which is not very pub-like), with great takes on classic English fare in Covent Garden.