Traveling to places I’ve already visited isn’t something I often choose to do since there are so many parts of the world I’ve never been to and want to see. But there are a few destinations that I love returning to. London is one of them.
The advantage of visiting again is that you no longer have to play the tourist. Without the whole business of sightseeing, you can really experience a place. No fretting over what you need to see and what you might miss. No rushing, no fighting off selfie-sticks, no waiting on long lines surrounded by other tourists. You can relax and feel the pulse of the city. You can afford to get lost, turning down a small street not in your guidebook.
You never know where you might discover a great little restaurant or a chocolate shop.
London is notorious for its dismal wet weather but I’ve always been lucky on my trips, starting with my first visit in the ’90s. This time was no exception. Having left cold and gray New York in the morning, I was thrilled to arrive at Paddington Station on a warm spring evening. That’s one of the great things about London—it takes only 15 minutes on the Heathrow Express to get from the airport to the center of town.
I was pleased with my choice to fly during the day instead of losing a night’s sleep on the plane, which usually only compounds my jet lag. And it wasn’t a wasted day—I’d worked for most of the flight.
I checked into my hotel near Hyde Park, dropped off my suitcase and walked out, anxious to stretch my legs and enjoy the evening. The sidewalks were packed with people, drinking and talking outside the pubs. The thrill of being abroad—the foreign façades, the red telephone booths (cliché, I know), the big black cabs and double-decker buses—was heightened by the elation of spring.
I love going to London for a long weekend. It might not be as romantic as, say, Paris, or Rome, but it has one major advantage. While people speak funny, I still understand what they are saying. Except for the occasional blunder, referring to my ‘pants’ which apparently stands for ‘underwear,’ I mange all right. I can go to the theater and I can eavesdrop on the people around me in the cafes or on the sidewalks, in the shops or on the tube. It’s harder to get a sense for a culture without listening in on its conversations.
London’s Parks and Gardens
Spring hadn’t even started in New York, the trees still bare with only the suggestion of buds on their branches, so I was thrilled to find London in full bloom. I enjoyed five sunny days with temperatures in the 60s and, on my last day, even mid 70s.
I spent pretty much the entire first day of my trip in Hyde Park. My first stop was Kensington Palace. I’d already visited the museum on one of my earlier trips, so I bypassed the long line of people waiting to get in and went straight to the coffee shop downstairs. I took my cappuccino and claimed a table in the lovely garden. The thrill of sitting outside for the first time after a long winter and feeling the sun on your face is intoxicating. I took my time sipping my cappuccino and basking in the sunshine, people watching.
At the Serpentine Gallery, about a 15-minute walk through the park, I met up with a dear friend who’d moved to London years earlier. She’d warned me in advance about the warm weather, telling me to bring flip flops. Together, we strolled the paths and alleyways for hours, stopping for lunch and then tea at different places in the park.
TIP: When in London do as the Londoners do:
Afternoon Tea is a British tradition, introduced in the early 1840s. Today, Afternoon Tea is an occasional indulgence enjoyed with a group of friends, often celebrating a special event (birthday, wedding or baby shower).It’s served around 4 p.m. along with sandwiches, scones, pastries and cakes. It doesn’t get more royal than sipping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches at The Orangery in Hyde Park, next door to Kensington Palace.
During my visit I tried to enjoy being outside as much as possible. I wasn’t alone. Londoners seemed to take full advantage of the good weather. The garden in Soho Square was packed with people picnicking, drinking beer or simply basking in the sun, every time I walked by.
My partner, Willy, joined me on Thursday evening. This trip to London was special because we were celebrating his birthday on Saturday. We began the day with a long walk through Regents Park. Crowns of pink, red and white blossoms topped the trees; tulips of all colors bloomed in the gardens; birds sang; water gurgled melodically in the fountains. Unsurprisingly, the place was teaming with people, enjoying their Saturday. Dogs and barefoot children ran on the grass fields. Mothers pushed baby strollers. Couples huddled on benches or suntanned on blankets. The blue sky seemed enormous. Unlike Central Park, which is bookended by tall buildings on all sides, the edge of this park was lined with extravagant mansions that didn’t cut the vistas short.
The Theater—London’s West End
Willy and I see plenty of great theater in New York. Still, catching a play or two while in London is always a unique experience. Many of the theaters are historic and beautiful and so far we’ve loved most of what we’ve seen there. One of our recent favorites was Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” at the Apollo Theater.
On my first trip to London, in the mid 90s, my friends warned me that if I wanted to eat well, I should stick to steak houses and Indian places. Since then things have changed dramatically and I usually find great restaurants with trendy ambiance and great food. On this last trip, we had a phenomenal dinner at a first-rate Italian restaurant, Latium (see photo) and enjoyed Peruvian cuisine at Pisqu. We celebrated Willy’s birthday with a lunch at Dean Street Townhouse, serving delicious, modern British dishes, and a post-theater dinner at Oscar in the Charlotte Hotel, a happening bar and restaurant, offering chic ambience and great food.
TIP: London’s Pubs
There seems to be a pub on every London corner and they all seem the same to my uninitiated eye. But the thing I find most fascinating is the pack of revelers that spill outside each pub, filling the sidewalk. You know, you’re NOT in Manhattan, when you see the crowd drinking and smoking on the sidewalk at lunch on Friday. If we’re lucky to get out of the office to grab lunch in New York, we usually gobble it in record time or eat it at our desks. And certainly don’t start the drinking until the evening.
The Art Scene
I’m not an expert but as someone who enjoys art, I find London a great place to pop in and see a few new exhibits or walk through the museums. This time, because of the beautiful weather, I only made a quick trip to the new Design Museum in Kensington and the Serpentine Galleries in Hyde Park, but saw enough to know that I’d like to go back.
I look forward to my next long weekend in London. Maybe in the fall.