48 hours in: London
Published 16/01/2010 | 05:00
With world-class shopping, diverse restaurants and great riverside attractions, the English capital has plenty to offer, writes Simon Calder
Why go now?
The biggest city in the European Union and cultural hub par excellence, London in 2010 offers plenty of new developments and hidden gems to discover. The winter sales are still on and there are plenty of places to warm up during your exploration.
Get your bearings
The centre of London is surprisingly compact and walkable. Almost everything in this 48 Hours is within a mile of Charing Cross (1), on the edge of Trafalgar Square. It is linked by the Hungerford Bridge (2) to the South Bank, whose most notable landmark is the London Eye (3), which is rapidly becoming the tourism heart of London -- though this title is also claimed by Covent Garden's lively piazza (4).
The Tube and bus network are reasonably reliable, but to avoid punitive fares you should invest in an Oyster stored-value card (from Tube stations or online at bit.ly/Oyster Shop) and load it with enough cash for your stay; there is no expiry date.
The impressive new Sanctum Soho Hotel (5) at 20 Warwick Street (00044 207 292 6100; sanctumsoho. com) opened last summer just a minute's walk from busy Regent Street, yet is a haven on the edge of Soho. It boasts extravagant colours and textures, and the baths are works of art. And while rooms with a view are in short supply in central London, the Sanctum Soho has a roof with a view -- and a Jacuzzi. A double room costs £370 (€412), excluding breakfast, though specials are often available.
For the price of a night at the Sanctum Soho, you could stay three-and-a-half weeks at the Generator (6), a former police hostel that is now Europe's biggest backpacker hostel. It is tucked away in a cul-de-sac at 37 Tavistock Place (0044 207 388 7666; generatorhostels.com). A bed in an eight or 12-person dorm costs £15 (€16.70), including "all you can eat" breakfast and bed linen. Smaller dorms, including some women-only rooms, and doubles are also available.
Between the two extremes, London has an increasing number of budget hotels. When you're tired in London, choose a favourite haunt of Dr Johnson: the Bankside Premier Inn (7) at 34 Park Street (0044 870 990 6402; premierinn.com). The front of the complex, overlooking the Thames, is the Anchor pub, whose present manifestation dates from the 17th century. Rooms are priced at around £139 (€155), excluding breakfast.
Take a view
The Art Deco structure known as the Oxo Tower (8) was designed by the stock-cube manufacturer to circumvent advertising rules. Its top floor, the eighth, is now occupied by an upmarket brasserie and an expensive restaurant. But between the two is a free public viewing gallery, open until 10pm daily. It provides a spectacular view of the City of London to the north and east, and the West End.
Take a hike
The South Bank riverside walkway that stretches from London Bridge to Lambeth Bridge has been closed at Blackfriars and requires a tricky detour to access Tate Modern and other attractions to the east. So, instead, head west from the Oxo Tower, calling in at the Royal National Theatre (9) or the National Film Theatre (10), which has an excellent café. Then change levels and climb the staircase to the Hayward Gallery (10). Wander into the Royal Festival Hall (11), which often has free entertainment in the ballroom, then descend to the riverside. This part of the walk along the South Bank is part of the Jubilee Walkway, celebrating 25 years of Queen Elizabeth II. Here it meets the Jubilee Bridge, marking 50 years of her reign -- better known as the Hungerford Bridge (2).
The stretch beyond here is usually lined with street entertainers. Just beyond the London Eye (3), climb the stairs and you can walk right through the middle of County Hall (12), the former home of London government. When you emerge on the other side, turn right to walk along to the east end of Westminster Bridge and cross the road, from where 'bendy bus' 12 or 453 will take you to the stop just beyond Piccadilly Circus.
Lunch on the run
Heddon Street (13), hidden from most of the shoppers on Regent Street, is well worth visiting: lunch options range from French and Italian to a vegetarian place where you pay by weight (the food's, not yours), at a rate of £18 (€20) per kilogram. But for something exotic, try Momo (0044 207 434 4040) at number 25. It offers exotic Moroccan specialities, from falafel to pigeon. An express lunch, comprising a kofte wrap and a mint tea, costs £7.50 (€8.34) including tip; or stay longer and try a shisha pipe.
For years, the curve of Regent Street was occupied by airline offices, so you could buy a ticket to anywhere in the world. Today, the world has come to Regent Street, in the shape of the National Geographic Store (14) at numbers 83-97 (0044 207 025 6960; nglondonstore.co.uk).
It's well worth exploring this global emporium, full of furniture, fabrics and art crafted in the developing world. You can also buy all kinds of gear for going to extremes, then try it on in an in-store refrigerator. An infra-red camera shows where warmth is escaping.
Continue to whet your travel appetite at the world's biggest map and travel guide store: Stanfords (15) at 12-14 Long Acre (0044 207 836 1321; stanfords.co.uk).
Travel just south of the river, to the closest Waterloo has to a high street: Lower Marsh, close to the Old Vic. If you think a mojito is a malevolent disease-bearing insect, either you've spent too long at Cubana (16) or you haven't spent long enough here (48 Lower Marsh; 0044 207 928 8778). This is London's original Cuban bar. It has a happy hour from 5pm-6.30pm daily, except Sundays (plus late-night salsa, Wednesday-Saturday).
Dining with the locals
Stay in Cubana for tapas and Cuban dishes that taste better than those in Havana, or walk diagonally across the road to one of the little-known South Bank gems, Marie's Café (90 Lower Marsh; 020 7928 1050) -- a bring-your-own-wine venue that is a cheerful café by day and a good, inexpensive Thai restaurant by night. Open 8am-10pm daily, except Sundays. With starter, main, corkage and tip you should have change from £10 (€11.11).
Sunday morning: go to church
Start at St Paul's (17) -- not the one with the dome, but the Inigo Jones church in Covent Garden, dating from 1633. Known as the Actors' Church, with memorials to Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward and Michael Redgrave, it is an oasis of calm in the middle of this hyperactive area. The main façade is now the back of the church, because the architect was instructed by the Bishop of London to move the altar from the west to the east.
Take a ride
From St Paul's (17) in Covent Garden, walk south to the Strand and catch an historic monument to St Paul's Cathedral (18). The relic in question is the Routemaster bus, which still runs on a couple of routes. You want the 15 towards the Tower of London. It is classed as a 'heritage route', but normal fares apply. As you enjoy the view from the top deck, remember that these were the workhorses for the capital for half a century.
A walk in the park
London is dotted with lovely little parks, usually denoting locations that were once graveyards. The one just north of St Paul's belongs to St Botolph's, still a functioning church, but it is known as Postman's Park (19) because a sorting office used to stand across the road. Peruse the GF Watts Memorial Wall, full of heroic deeds with tragic conclusions.
A minute away is a Christopher Wren church, Christchurch Greyfriars (20) -- or at least it was until the Second World War. It has been resurrected with a rose garden laid out in the original floor plan of the nave.
Out to brunch
Take the Central Line of the Tube, or bus 25, to Bond Street station (21). From here, meander north along Marylebone Lane to Le Relais de Venise (22) at number 120 (0044 207 486 0878; relaisdevenise.com). On a Sunday, simplicity is all -- and here there's only one item on the menu: green salad followed by steak frites, with a second helping if you feel like one (you will). With a bottle of house wine, and service, you pay £30 (€33.36) for two. Get here early (from 12.30pm at weekends, noon on weekdays) to avoid the queue; no advance booking. It is also an evening favourite (open from 6pm, Saturdays from 6.30pm). Alternatively, Ecco (23) (the Express Coffee Company) at 186 Drury Lane (0044 207 404 3555) serves big pizzas for small change (£3.50/€3.89). Open 7am-6pm on Sundays.
If you are in Marylebone, don't miss the Wallace Collection (24). It occupies Hertford House, an historic townhouse in the middle of Manchester Square (00044 207 563 9500; www.wallacecollection.org), and opens 10am-5pm daily, admission free. The 25 sumptuous rooms are notable for some fine French 18th-century art and, until January 24, an exhibition of 25 works by Damien Hirst, entitled No Love Lost (also free).
If you make the short trip to South Kensington, the Natural History Museum (25) is a joy to behold. Three months ago the landmark Darwin Centre opened to the public, allowing visitors to "explore world-class science in action in a dramatic new public space". Book in advance for a timed slot via 0044 207 942 5000 or nhm.ac.uk. It opens 10am-5.50pm daily, admission free.
The icing on the cake
Have a drink at St Pancras station (26), the most beautiful in the world. Take in the beauties of the Barlow Shed, see the expresses to Paris come and go (weather permitting!) and have a final drink at the Champagne Bar or the Betjeman Arms.