By Donna Manz
My favorite world capital, London, is incredibly diverse.
It is stately, a bastion of world power, sophisticated yet gentle-in-demeanor, possesses majestic architecture and is museum heaven.
It’s also an ultimate live theatre destination. In London’s West End, you can see the likes of Helen Mirren and David Suchet for a fraction of what you would pay for Broadway seats.
The Right Hotels, In the Right Places
But the West End is more than theatre and, as much as I love taking in a production whenever I’m in London, I also love lodging in the West End.
That provides me the opportunity to sample global cuisine strutting its stuff in the British capital, shop along some of Europe’s grandest and most iconic streets, peek into small shops that sell British and Scottish goods, and just walk around. I’m always energized by its vibrant, pulsating character.
Although the West End appears spread out on a London map, it really is quite compact and very walkable. I usually explain to friends or clients that the West End embraces Oxford, Regent and Bond streets; the spectacular British Museum through Covent Garden; the pedestrian-friendly, high-octane Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus; right down to the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square.
I usually stay at either end of the West end – the Montague on the Gardens, adjacent to the British Museum and about 10-15 minutes to Covent Garden, or the Hilton Park Lane at main entrance to Hyde Park. The latter is only a10-minute walk to Marble Arch and Oxford Street in one direction and a 10-minute walk to Piccadilly Circus in the opposite.
A Restaurant Discovery
On my most recent trip to London in early April I feasted on Indian meals almost every day. I went to a different restaurant each time, alternating between lunches and suppers (well, I had to be sure I ate Italian while I was there).
I arrived at Heathrow from Washington, D.C. mid-morning and my room at The Montague on the Gardens, a most Brit-ish hotel that was once a manor house, was not yet available to me. To make the best use of my time, around noon I set out on Great Russell Street going past the British Museum towards Oxford Street. I had only gone about a block past the museum when Malabar Junction, a bright and cheery Indian restaurant, caught my attention.
Malabar Junction is unlike the stereotypical Indian restaurant. A soaring skylight sent rays of sunshine into the light-colored dining room. It’s not inexpensive but I thoroughly enjoyed a curry dish I had never tasted before.
The closest Tube stop to Malabar Junction is Tottenham Court Road station but if you take that route you miss the high-octane energy of Covent Garden and the West End. Start instead from Leicester Square and stroll through Covent Garden until you get to Great Russell Street. You’ll pass theatres, other restaurants, casinos, and tacky souvenir shops along the way and have plenty of fun.
A Second Discovery
One rainy evening, my two friends and I were making our way back from Leicester Square to our hotel adjacent to the British Museum – not a long walk if you do not get lost. We did though, since I could not find my landmarks and, so, we ended up going around in a maze.
That’s how we found Giovanni’s, an Italian restaurant dating back to the 1940s. The founder’s grandson, Count Pino Ragona, who now owns the restaurant is quite a character. His robust personality adds depth to the ambiance.
The dishes were ample, and the pasta dishes brought back memories of Italy. We looked over the photos of famous personalities hung on the wall and Count Pino sat and chatted with us for an hour.
West End’s Celebrated Theater
Live theatre prices are much less expensive in the West End than they are on Broadway and the productions are every bit as good if not better.
For the kind of comedic theatre only the Brits can offer, go to Piccadilly Circus and see “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” It was originally a movie, a heavy, dramatic spy drama set in World War II.
In this take, however, only four actors take on all the roles, occasionally appearing in multiple roles simultaneously. It was one of the most fun evenings I ever had at a live performance.
I never did make it to the theatre in April, although I had my heart set on seeing “Jersey Boys.” Since I’m planning a short trip to London in September the play now tops my to-do list.
Perhaps then I’ll also pay a vist to Carnaby Street where I must admit (although I’m dating myself) that I actually shopped in the late 1960s, at the height of the British Invasion (as they called it in the U.S.). . It’s more mainstream now but if you’re a child of the sixties or seventies, it’s worth a visit. (I bought an authentic Mary Quant dress and to this day, I rue throwing it out since it’s worth a fortune now.)
Although London’s popular Oyster card, which admits you to public transportation, is more economical than using Black Cabs, you miss out on London life if you are traveling underground. Walk or taxi but only take the Tube if you are staying in the Kensington area.
A word of caution: stay away from mini-cabs. Drivers are not licensed guides and frequently have no idea where the heck your destination is. Black-Cab drivers are licensed city guides, under the strict authority of the City of London. They are well trained in London history and can pinpoint any street or tourist attraction.
I am often asked why I return to London so often. People say, “you’re a travel agent. You probably already know everything about London.” The thing is, despite the great number of visits I’ve made to London, I still know very little about her.
The next time you visit London, wander around the little streets, dead-ending in a small courtyard that houses a pedestrian square or church. Take a quick museum break, maybe viewing the mummies in the British Museum. London’s national museums, like our national museums, are free.
Explore London when the flowers are in-bloom but don’t discount December, when the town sparkles and glows, and great evergreen trees stand sentry.
Now that I reflect on it, I think Christmastime is my favorite London season.
If you go: