Recently, I have had two Facebook "friends" I once knew in high school tell me they were planning on visiting London and asked me what they should do when in town. I fought the urge to tell them how the rest of the country is where the "real England" is and shared a few bits of pseudo-insider knowledge to save them from Big Ben or Buckingham Palace being the highlight of their London vacation.
Are any of my loyal(ish) readers are planning your first trip to the big city? Here's my take on a few things...
On the Beaten Track: Skip the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace - its a strange performance for the sake of tourists only, not a genuine exercise. Go ahead and do the Tower of London, take your photos of Big Ben and the Parliament Building, even take a ride on the London Eye if you're so inclined, but if you ask me the best thing on the beaten track is Tower Bridge. I LOVE Tower Bridge. Check here before you plan a visit and do your best to make sure you are there at a time when the bridge lifts. Eat some ice cream (there is always a Mr Whippy van around there no matter the weather) and watch the bridge do its thing.
Off the Beaten Track: You can pay your respects to Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher who argued in favour of worthy causes such as animal rights, separation of church and state, equal rights for women and decriminalization of homosexual acts. What's so interesting about yet another dead historical figure, you ask? Well, Mr Bentham's remains won't be found in a grave yard or a cathedral even, but on public display at University College London. Per his request, Bentham's body was dissected in a public lecture and his skeleton is now stuffed with hay, dressed in period clothing and displayed in a wooden cabinet. It even has been listed as "present, but not voting" at some University meetings. The display is known as the Auto Icon and can be visited at the end of the South Cloisters of the main building of UCL Monday-Friday from 7:30am - 6:00pm
Shopping: Go to Harrods, but skip all the shopping and head for the food hall - it's heaven (and the only reason to bother with Harrods). Do yourself a favour and also skip Oxford Street (unless you're going at Christmas time and are a big fan of Christmas lights) I'd suggest you spend your shopping time and money at Spitalfields Market instead. You will find the best gifts for family and friends and if you're haggling skills are better than mine (which doesn't take much), you can find some mega-bargains too. Oh and grab a bite to eat at Leon's while you're there - you will thank me, I promise!
Drinking: If you want to get dressed up and "be seen", Kensington Roof Garden is the place for you. If you are a bit more casual like me, head to Shoreditch and enjoy a sure-to-be-fantastic night at the Book Club (no reading required... as if I'd go if there was!). The Book Club has something for everyone's drinking tastes, but don't leave without trying one of the signature cocktails. Yum yum!
Staying: Here's where I can't help much since I am lucky enough to just go home at the end of the day, but the folks at easytobook.com would be happy to help you find a hotel in London. And no, you can't come stay with me!