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
PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICHARD JAMES TAYLOR
WITH THE OLYMPIC GAMES starting up later this month, the world’s eyes will turn to London. That is, if they ever turned away to begin with. The biggest city in Europe and the former capital of a vast empire, London offers in equal measure cutting-edge culture and a history so pervasive it’s almost impossible to comprehend.
Founded by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago, London (née Londinium) endured plagues, invasions, wars, fires and other forms of upheaval and unpleasantness on its journey to become the capital of England, the center of the British Empire and, more recently, a global trendsetter in literature, music and fashion.
Today the city is vibrant, a financial powerhouse even amid an economically shaken European Union — but from the stately parks of Kensington to the bohemian haunts of the East End, the wide and low megalopolis affectionately known as “The Smoke” has lost none of the inimitable contrasts that have long defined it. It remains, as ever, London.
DAY ONE | The first thing you notice, waking up on a pleasantly foggy Saturday morning in London, is that the bathroom in your suite at the storied and newly renovated local institution, The Savoy, is bigger than most people’s yards. This isn’t just any suite: It’s the Noel Coward Suite, named for the legendary playwright, composer and bon vivant who lived in this very hotel after his flat was destroyed by German bombs in 1941. In addition to said bathroom, the suite has a large bedroom and living room overlooking the Thames, plus a full collection of Coward books (sample quip: “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise”) and art. You spend some time lounging on the couch in your robe, reading the man’s letters while idly sipping the tea and eating the oranges the butler brought up.
After a suitable amount of post-sleep repose, you head downstairs and stroll east along the Thames to Borough Market, a dauntingly convoluted outdoor labyrinth of food stalls that attracts hordes of hungry gourmands every weekend. As one such patron puts it upon entering, “Ooh, this place is evil.” Indeed, over a couple of hours you fall prey to its enticements, consuming the following: a jam doughnut, stuffed grape leaves, two empanadas, some potted wood pigeon, olives with sun-dried tomatoes and garlic, a paving stone-size brownie, two cups of coffee, a cup of olive leaf tea and, as a digestive, a beechwood-smoked sausage. And with that last bit, your stomach goes from upset to resigned.
Managing to remain upright, you trundle westward along the river and make for the Tate Modern. Set in an old power plant and accessed via blacked-out sliding doors leading into the disorientingly dark Turbine Hall, the art museum is embarking on a major expansion, but even in its present form it’s one of the greats. A swing through the current Damien Hirst exhibit inspires questions of whether the painter of spots and slicer of sharks is a genius or a more cynical Warhol, and a look at Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags, a kitschy Venus statue standing amid a pile of laundry, prompts a Scottish visitor to quip, “That woman ain’t done the cleanin’, ‘as she?”
You hop on the Tube at Waterloo station and emerge at Victoria. A short walk brings you to The Goring, the stately hotel near Buckingham Palace where you’ll be having afternoon tea. When weather permits, it’s served on the terrace overlooking the lovely hotel gardens. Holding the belief that one should always order the thing that’s named after the establishment serving it, you call for the invigorating Goring blend, an assam darjeeling, and settle in for an hour’s worth of scones, jam, clotted cream, finger sandwiches and sweets. It’s a genuine oasis.
Hoping to maintain that calm, you take a long amble along the Mall, between the Buckingham Palace gardens and St. James’ Park, and turn up Charing Cross Road to peruse the bookshops. Then you stroll into tony Mayfair for dinner at the celebrated Babbo. Taking a corner seat in the tasteful, cozy room lined with the owner’s family photos, you proceed to devour the meatballs with burrata cheese, exemplary homemade artichoke ravioli in mint butter, and spicy green beans. After all that, your only option is bed. Well, a taxi ride, then a round of cocktails at the American Bar at The Savoy. Then one more. Then bed.