It is one of the biggest, most interesting and most happening cities on earth. And with the Olympic Games returning, now's the ideal time to rediscover London in all its polish, pomp, grit and glory.
Author Joe Keohane Photography Richard James Taylor
DAY THREE | You wake at Blakes to find yourself buried in pillows — there must be 20 on your bed. The hotel was created in the late ’70s by actress-designer Anouska Hempel, making it one of the first hotels in the world to define itself as “boutique.” The décor is an eccentric, flamboyant blend of Asian and Victorian influences, a jumble of brooding reds and billowing whites. After disinterring yourself from the pillow situation, you head downstairs for a plate of “spicy Parsee” eggs — scrambled, with chili and coriander — and a dozen glasses of OJ.
Now you’re ready to face the day. You start by popping into the nearby Natural History Museum, a spectacular repository of natural wonders, including a world-class collection of dinosaur bones, before venturing into Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, a 625-acre swath of urban countryside that makes you regret not bringing a foxhound. You happen upon the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, which isn’t so much a fountain as a large oval sluice, but still, it’s not without impact. Near Diana’s sculpture is the Albert Memorial, erected by Queen Victoria in 1876 to honor her late husband. A towering confection of Gothic Revival spires and bejeweled detailing, it stands as a testament to grief gone berserk.
Having exited the gardens, you take a 15-minute stroll to the clutter of Portobello Market, where teens with fashion sense to burn buy old fob watches and T-shirts bearing designs by street artist Banksy. The market stretches for two miles, and you make it halfway, digging through stylish vintage clothes, crafts and antiques and pausing for the occasional snack, before finally running out of steam and hailing a taxi.
You arrive in Soho, a former den of iniquity that has upped its game. While there’s still the odd imaginative enterprise here, today it’s an adjunct to the theater district, a place to people-watch until curtain time. You’re doing Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre, but first you’ll have a jar at The Ship, another old rock ‘n’ roll haunt, which, according to lore, banned The Who’s Keith Moon for setting off a smoke bomb. While the clientele has since shifted from mad-drummer to creative-director, it remains a great little pub.
Sweeney Todd is a blast: catchy music, dark comedy, fake gore. Naturally, you follow this with a plate of duck hearts and snails at the hip St. John Hotel Restaurant, along with wood pigeon and rhubarb-sherry trifle.
It’s drizzly, and late, but the streets of London are filled with smart-dressed people having fun, as if an enormous party has been moved outside due to a fire drill. You start to hail a cab, and then stop yourself. There’s something about the way the Soho lights play on the pavement at your feet. It might be nice to walk for a while.
Hemispheres editor in chief JOE KEOHANE maintains that “Waterloo Sunset,” by The Kinks, is one of the best songs ever written.
POPULATION (2010 ESTIMATE): 7,825,200
VOLUNTEERS NEEDED TO STAFF THE OLYMPIC GAMES: 70,000
AREA, IN SQUARE MILES: 607
NUMBER OF STREETS: ≈5,000
YEARS IT TAKES TO MASTER “THE KNOWLEDGE” AND BECOME A LONDON TAXI DRIVER: 2-4
FEE FOR DRIVING INTO CENTRAL LONDON DURING RUSH HOUR: £10
PEOPLE ENTERING WATERLOO STATION EACH DAY DURING MORNING RUSH HOUR: ≈46,000
BASE TUBE FARE, ONE WAY (LESS IF YOU BUY A TRAVEL CARD): £4.30