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Insider Guide: Best of London
By Chris Newlands, for CNN
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(CNN)Buckingham Palace, the Dickens Museum, Hyde Park, a Hitchcock walking tour, Kew Gardens, Shakespeare's Globe Theater, St. Paul's cathedral, the Thames, Wimbledon -- these are just a few examples of the best of London.
It should be no surprise that a city 2,000 years old is an alphabetic mishmash of things to gawp at.
But like a Dickensian novel, the best of London's real character seeps out of the cracks that split its major attractions.
Yes, London is the world's financial capital (along with New York), yes it's Europe's cultural hub and, yes, more than 300 languages are spoken within its perimeter.
But we don't care about any of that, mate.
Transport links have been improved, hotels have had facelifts and restaurants have been refitted.
London looks better as a result and now -- before the dust and grime settle down again -- is a great time to visit the city.
Hotels this quaint go for £351 per night.
It came a year late and £100 million over budget, but in October 2010 one of the world's most legendary hotels opened its doors after a rumored £200 million facelift.
Unlike some facelifts, however, the results for this old lady --- now owned by an Arab sheikh and run by Canadians --- are impressive.
Perfectly located for the shops of Covent Garden and the cinemas of Leicester Square, it was Marilyn Monroe's London hotel of choice and, if you can stretch to the £400-plus nightly fee, it can to become yours.
The acclaimed Savoy Grill -- now in the hands of acerbic celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay (do not expect the steaks to be as blue as his language) -- can be expensive, but is not overpriced.
Tip: rooms 328, 428, 528, 628 enjoy river views but entry-level prices.
Charlotte Street Hotel
Situated in London's media neighborhood just north of Soho, this former dental hospital now contains 52 individually designed rooms, including loft and penthouse suites.
The huge, comfortable beds and trademark polished granite and oak bathrooms are suitably indulgent, and some rooms have luxuriously high ceilings.
Tip: if you can afford it, go for one of the split-level loft suites.
Among other things they feature TVs in the bathroom.
This reasonably priced townhouse hotel was once the Bloomsbury home of artist John Everett Millais.
It's close to Euston Station, the British Museum and the shops of Oxford Street. Wi-Fi is available and breakfast is included.
Tip: Arosfa has only 15 rooms, so book early.
Located in a quiet area a short distance from the Barbican, St. Paul's, Holborn and the City, the Rookery is characterized by open fires, Georgian detailing, wonky floors and bulging bookshelves.
There's an honesty bar downstairs, a tiny garden terrace for the summer, 33 double rooms and two singles.
All are as quirky as the building.
Bedrooms are named after people who lived in the Dickensian buildings at some point over the last 250 years --- including a disgraced preacher and a prostitute hanged for murder.
Tip: there's no restaurant, the perfect reason to head down the road to the acclaimed St. John for some meaty, masculine English fare.
A pound for a room? Take a dozen and still have change for a show.
A pound for a room?
Take a dozen and still have change for a show.
This smart budget option could not be better located, bang in the middle of the capital's most buzzing nightlife area.
The Hoxton has been a big hit since it opened in 2006, not least for its famed £1 rooms, which it sells throughout the year.
A word of warning: during the last sale, 500 rooms were booked in less than 10 minutes.
There are no mini-bars, suites, or turndown service, but you do get complimentary Wi-Fi, a banana, yogurt and orange juice for breakfast and one hour of free calls each day to anywhere except "Costa Fortune," according to the management.
Tip: when Pret A Manger sandwich shop entrepreneur Sinclair Beecham opened this 205-room hotel, he used the no‑frills airline approach to setting room rates -- the earlier you book, the less you pay.
Just along from the Ritz Hotel, the Wolseley exudes history and style.
Housed in a former car showroom, and later a branch of Barclays bank, it has vaulted ceilings, polished marble, an art deco interior and the odd celebrity.
Poached native lobster, Cornish crab, two types of caviar and three kinds of oyster decorate the menu.
Harden's has tipped The Wolseley as an excellent business restaurant, but the look and feel is anything but stuffy, so leave the laptop in the office.
Traditional English breakfast here is a must and, with a reported 1,000 covers each day, so is booking ahead.
Head to the exclusive Mayfair area of London for dinner and you might expect to need a government bailout to settle your bill.
Not so at Wild Honey.
Value is the theme in the wood-paneled dining room with favorites including crisp ox tongue and slow-cooked venison.
The Saturday lunch menu will set you back £29, as does the a la carte.
The cheeseboard is excellent.
Great location, excellent service.
Aurora on Lexington Street is small, intimate and has excellent service.
The walls are painted a bohemian blood red with the interior dark, cozy and unpretentious.
The modern European menu is as equally unfussy and changes each month.
There are two sittings, one at 7:15 p.m. and the other at 9:15 p.m. --- opt for the latter and you can finish off at one of the many late-night bars of Soho, London's boozy and sometimes seedy entertainment quarter.
Tables on the ground floor enjoy a better ambiance than those downstairs.
Some serious (London) Thai.
Some serious (London) Thai.
Nestled within the underbelly of Soho, this is communal Thai dining in stylish, understated surroundings.
The no-booking policy means you can expect queues on Friday and Saturday nights, providing the perfect opportunity for people-watching (and Sohoites deserve some watching).
For groups of two or less, the wait should be no more than 15 minutes.
There are no starters or desserts, just mains and sides, but they're excellent.
The tom yam talay, green papaya salad and morning glory are particularly hard to decline.
Service, unfortunately, can be hit-and-miss.
Right behind the Tate Modern museum, this is one more than two dozen Leon eateries in London and arguably the best.
It's the ultimate credit-crunch restaurant, comprising healthy eating, ethically sourced fast-food and rock-bottom prices.
Dishes are fresh, simple and seasonal.
They include a range of wraps, superfood salads, soups and hot meals --- the Moroccan meatballs and the chili chicken are great.
Lunchtimes can be busy with office workers from the Blue Fin building rubbing shoulders with journalists from the nearby Financial Times.
Experimental Cocktail Club
The only way to ensure entry to this Chinatown speakeasy is to e-mail before 5 p.m. (email@example.com); phone bookings are not an option.
Cocktails here aren't that experimental, but they're excellent and come in at around £10.
The Havana is a house favorite.
You'll find mirrored ceilings, ancient Parisian architecture, tiny couches, total intimacy and a £5 cover charge after 11 p.m.
Check out the loos, which sport flamingo wallpaper.
The entry consists of a scruffy door, absolutely no signage and doormen with firmly held views on just about everything.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
No best of London experience is complete without a beer at one of its many historic pubs and they don't come much older or more historic than Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
Frequented by Mark Twain, Voltaire, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, the pub has been on this site since it was rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire of London.
Charles Dickens, known to have been a regular of this higgledy-piggledy temple to serious drinking, referred to it in "A Tale of Two Cities."
Expect to have to stoop, dive down cramped staircases and contend with sawdust-strewn floors as you move from room to room.
The real draw?
A pint of Sam Smith's for a fraction of the price of beer in other London pubs.
Perfect spot for a pre-railride cocktail.
Cunningly named, the Booking Office sits on the site of the old booking hall of St. Pancras station and is found in the lobby of the refurbished St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel.
It's a great place to enjoy a cocktail while admiring what is undoubtedly one of the architectural wonders of the capital -- a magnificent red-brick Gothic masterpiece that was formerly the Midland Grand Hotel.
The Midland Grand closed almost 80 years ago and only narrowly avoided demolition.
It was reopened in 2011 after a seemingly never-ending £150-million refit.
The cocktail menu lives up to the surroundings and shows a deep respect for the history (and abundance) of British drinking with sours, fizzes and cobblers.
It's dark, it's dingy and the waiters shush you if you talk over the numbers.
Ella, Miles and Curtis are just some of the greats to have graced Ronnie's down the years.
This seminal jazz club tucked away on Soho's Frith Street is worth a visit even if you don't like jazz.
It's jazz hands all-round if you do.
Tables are arranged in neat, tiered rows around a sunken stage, with luminous red lamps dotted around the dim room.
Seats are priced according to the view and act.
Cocktails are very much a club asset.
Unfortunately they've stopped serving The Ellington, apparently a favorite of the Duke himself, but the choice is plentiful.
Forget eating here -- it's not the main draw and largely a disappointment.
Hailed as the world's best department store by many industry insiders, Selfridges dominates the west end of Oxford Street and is made up of six floors, four hectares of shopping space and two exhibition halls.
Although second to Harrods in terms of size and celebrity, it's less touristy, more cutting-edge and attracts a more discerning clientele.
It's high-end, high-octane and comes highly recommended.
You can stay the whole day, leave empty-handed and still feel like Julia Roberts in that scene from "Pretty Woman."
In any case, it contains 10 restaurants to keep your energy levels up while its personal shoppers can do the hard work for you.
London's oldest market --- dating to the 13th century --- is also its busiest.
On the banks of the Thames just south of London Bridge, you'll find beautifully displayed organic fruit and veg, cheese, cakes, bread, olive oil, fish, meat, beer, wine and chocolate.
Go hungry, go early, sample everything and bring cash -- few stallholders accept credit cards.
Columbia Road Flower Market
Not recommended for hay feverites.
With thousands of flowers crammed into one noisy Victorian terraced street, London's Columbia Road Flower Market -- now lined with fancy boutiques -- is a throwback to the old East End.
From 8 a.m.-2 p.m. every Sunday, the flowers and plants up for sale are some of the best (and cheapest) around.
Arrive early to avoid the crowds. Blooming marvelous.
Views from Waterloo Bridge
Londoners bore visitors to death about how great the views are from Waterloo Bridge, but they have a point.
Although it contends for the title of ugliest bridge in London, the views are inspiring, and you can save yourself the money it costs to ride the London Eye (and the one-hour wait) and head here.
On one hand are the Royal Festival Hall, Elizabeth Tower (as Big Ben has been renamed to commemorate the queen's Diamond Jubilee), the Houses of Parliament and the BT Tower.
Looking in the other direction you can take in the views of St. Paul's, Canary Wharf, the Gherkin (as the rather phallic skyscraper properly called 30 St. Mary Axe is dubbed), the Oxo Tower and the recently completed Shard, which cost £450 million to build and at 310 meters is the tallest building in the European Union.
The views after dark are especially good.
St. Paul's Cathedral
Christopher Wren's masterpiece has squatted imposingly in the City of London for the past 300 years.
It famously withstood the Blitz and has become something of a monument to the resilience of London.
Down in the crypt you can check out the tombs of some of the nation's greatest heroes including Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.
You can also try out the acoustic quirks of the Whispering Gallery and continue the climb to the Golden Gallery for views across London.
Tickets cost £18 from Monday to Saturday. The cathedral reverts to its traditional role on Sunday, when it's open to worshippers for free.
Taking on London in one weekend is like eating soup with chopsticks. You haven't got a chance.
But if you insist on trying to devour the monster in one short sitting, here's a suggested hit list.
1. Arty start
After an early breakfast at one of the many stalls of Borough Market (see review), take the short walk beside the river to the Tate Modern.
Damien Hirst's art -- tanked up in the Tate.
London's most visited (it's free) and innovative gallery, Tate Modern is housed in a former power station with the space itself as much of an attraction as the collections.
The interior is a glorious, unpretentious playground of modern art, as appealing to children and amateurs as it is to adults and art experts.
Permanent collections include works by Matisse, Rothko and Andy Warhol, as well as the best of contemporary British art.
If you get bored, you can wander along the South Bank to find the Royal Festival Hall, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, The Hayward art gallery, The Royal National Theatre and the London Film Museum.
Plus a gaggle of performance artists who could be break dancing or impersonating Charlie Chaplin.
Soho is perfect for an early dinner -- Aurora and Busaba Eathai are strong contenders (see reviews) --- and one of many shows in Theatreland.
Theatreland is the largest theater district in the world.
It's bordered by The Strand to the south, Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west and Kingsway to the east with its heart being Shaftesbury Avenue, home to six theaters.
No trip to London is complete without catching a show, but show business can be an expensive business, so head to the half-price (for performances that day) ticket booth in Leicester Square.
It opens at 9 a.m. but queues form much earlier.
3. Tower trail
So that's what nearly 3,000 diamonds look like.
Day two begins with breakfast at the Wolseley (see review) and a trip east to the Tower of London.
So that's what nearly 3,000 diamonds look like.
For a thousand years the Tower of London, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has protected, threatened, imprisoned and occasionally executed the people of London.
Luckily, these days it serves only to entertain and educate them.
The biggest draw is the crown jewels. The Imperial State Crown alone is made up of 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and five rubies -- basically very bling.
The medieval palace, Traitors' Gate, the Yeomen Warders ("Beefeaters") and the ravens add to the atmosphere.
Legend says Britain and the Tower will fall if the six ravens ever leave.
Best to get there before that happens.
4. Park up
Weather dependent (yes, it sometimes rains in London) the rest of the day could be best spent in Hyde Park --- one of the capital's lungs.
But if the weather beats you, nearby Exhibition Road can offer cover in the form of the Science Museum, The Natural History Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Entrance is free, although charges are sometimes levied for special exhibitions and events.
Hyde Park is one of the greatest city parks in the world.
It has been open to the public since 1637, covers 142 hectares and contains more than 4,000 trees, a large lake, a meadow, ornamental flower gardens and two restaurants.
Monuments include The Serpentine Bridge, the Joy of Life fountain, the Achilles statue and the Diana Memorial Fountain.
Swimming races are staged in the Serpentine on Saturday morning and Christmas Day.
Open from 5 a.m. to midnight all year round.
5. Bike with Boris
Hardy visitors can join the dots of a London visit on a "Boris bike."
Set up in July 2010, the public bicycle sharing scheme is modeled on Montreal's.
The bikes, referred to as "Boris bikes" because rumbustious, larger-than-life mayor Boris Johnson launched the scheme, can be picked up at any one of 315 docking stations dotted around central London.
They're designed for short trips and, so while the first 30 minutes are free, a two-and-a-half-hour trip will cost £10.