A Whirlwind Weekend in London
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
"You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
-- Samuel Johnson
I first met London as a student at the London School of Economics. Since then, no large city has so transfixed my psyche save for Paris.
And why not? London has everything -- classic English culture, a multi-cultural population, amazing food, landmarks everywhere, and a rich history. If you can't find something to love, no matter your predilections, you might wonder whether you are a touch curmudgeonly.
Leaving on a Jet Plane
Last November, my family and I were whisked off to London on a private jet to celebrate a friend's birthday.
Good grief, I had to re-read that. I never thought I would make such a statement, but there you have it. It was very posh and, let's be frank, will likely never be repeated in my lifetime.
We arrived at midnight east coast time and shaking off the jet lag cobwebs was a wee bit more challenging than usual. But London is worth it and I pushed through. Plus, my daughter wanted to shop on Oxford Street.
Mayfair: Green Elegance
Because London has it all, you're forced to choose some bite size pieces for a long weekend. We were staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in Mayfair, so after our shopping spree, I began there.
Mayfair is a lovely slice of London in the West End bordered by Oxford Street, Regent Street, Picadilly, and Park Lane. Mayfair is quiet, immaculate, and synonymous with luxury. While you can find high end shopping there, what I love the most is the parks, squares, and gardens. The Mount Street Gardens are the loveliest, and have a long line of benches for you to plop down and people watch.
I picked up food at the Mount Street Deli and ate in nearby Grosvenor Square. The statue of FDR looked like a pigeon breeding ground.
The Murdery Phantom of the Opera
That afternoon, the more culturally minded among our celebratory group took in a matinee performance of the Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theater in Piccadilly. Phantom is the reigning champ for longest running show, and is based on the Victorian potboiler by Gaston Leroux.
By today's politically correct standards, Phantom may seem a bit dated or patriachal. But I cannot resist a lush high Gothic romance, even if the titular hero is a bit murdery.
While Phantom is undoubtedly bloated with melodramatic moments, my favorite scene is still the Phantom escaping into his watery underground kingdom with the heroine Christine huddled in a boat.
Phantom is the ultimate cultural escapism, and I am an avid fan of escapism. Yet, the practical side of me wonders where he got a horse and does he have a humidifier.
That night, we dined at our quintessentially British hotel on Park Lane with quintessentially British waiters hovering over us. Then, completely switching gears, we left for the pubs to continue celebrating with beer and cheesy french fries. Pubs have hit rather a hard time in London, but there are still a few good boozers, especially in Mayfair.
The next day, my family's attention was happily on Chelsea soccer and I was able to traverse the city solo. I adore exploring a city on foot while soaking up the atmosphere and history pouring from the buildings and historical sites. It was a long hike. All the better, I needed to work off some calories.
Although it may not seem like it, you really can walk everywhere in London. If you tire or are in a hurry to get somewhere, hop on the tube or hail a classic London black cab.
"I've been walking about London for the last thirty years, and I find something fresh in it every day." -- historian Walter Besant Christian
The South Thames Walk
Starting on Park Lane, I strolled through Green Park, St. James Park and Westminster, crossing over to the South Thames River Walk with my goal being the Tower of London.
I was lucky; it was remarkably blue skied and balmy. London is usually a gloomy rain fest in November, and I was duly equipped with an umbrella. I couldn't wait to see the Tower, a UNESCO site that I hadn't visited since college.
The Tower of London
If you are a history buff, this is the place in London to go. The Tower is history. It has served as a royal palace, a fortress, a prison, a mint, a military storehouse, a treasury, home to the Crown Jewels, an armory, a public records office, a royal observatory and a royal zoo.
You will be blissfully immersed in the various successions of the Edwards, the Richards, and the Henrys. The Tower Bridge, one of London's most defining landmarks, was the first bridge built over the Thames.
I arrived around 11:00 am and happily walked right in as it was off season (in season you can wait up to 2 hours). I loathe queues, so I had as a precaution purchased tickets online in advance. It saves you several pounds to use this method. The Tower is also free with the London Pass.
Yeoman Warden Tour
I began with the 45 minute free Yeoman Warden tour, which begins hourly and which most people rave about. These ceremonial guards are great storytellers and bring a touch of drama and theatrics to the place. With booming voices and bawdy jokes, they will gleefully regale you with delicious sinister bits about torture, beheadings, and executions.
Self-Guided Tour of the Tower
After listening to the Yeoman Warden introductions with the tour group, I decided to skip the rest. I am typically happy with an audio guide (5 quid) and signage.
Most visitors seemed besotted with the Crown Jewels. To me, they are beautiful in their extravagance, but somewhat boring. Be prepared to wait in a long queue if you are not there off season.
Instead, I preferred immersing myself in the medieval architecture and history. The infamous Norman castle is almost a 1000 years old, after all, with towers, battlements, and a palace.
For aficionados of true crime cold cases, it is the site of the greatest unsolved murder mystery in English history -- the disappearance of the sons of King Edward IV in 1483. Aside from loving a teeming gothic romance like Phantom, I love a good medieval mystery.
A Murder Mystery: The Princes in the Tower
The two princes, Edward V and Richard, were imprisoned in the Tower by their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). The young princes mysteriously disappeared (everyone agrees they were whacked) and Richard was declared king.
Having read Alison Weir and various other accounts of the tale, I searched out the spot where the possible remains of the two Plantagenet princes were found in the White Tower's spiral stairway. There is a also room dedicated to them in the Upper Chamber of the gruesomely named Bloody Tower.
I am of the minority view that Richard III was not their murderer, despite him being the chief suspect and having an obvious motive to kill the princes. (That is clearly the subject for a different article.)
I was at the relatively tourist free Tower for approximately 3 hours; less time would be a rush, especially in season. You could ideally spend the whole day there, meandering and poking through the exhibits.
North Thames Walk
On the way home, I walked north of the Thames, stopping first at the world famous St. Paul's Cathedral. Admission is free on Sunday if you are there to "worship" and so I uncharacteristically decided to worship. The church has been looted, burned, destroyed -- a colorful history.
The exterior, of course, features Christopher Wren's magnificent dome inspired by St. Peters in Rome. The interior is quite beautiful as well, especially the high altar in marble and gilded wood. There is a ban on taking interior photos, though I suspect this rule is honored more in the breach.
And then I walked past and admired the Royal Courts of Justice on Fleet Street with its ornate rippling facade of gothic towers. The Victorian era gothic structure is beautiful, cathedral like, and imposing -- no lawyer could resist it.
Fleet Street, you say skeptically? Why yes! Get a London "hidden gems" walking guide and you can happily discover historical things you never knew existed in that part of London.
But I didn't have time to re-visit them at that moment. I needed to prepare for that evening's bacchanalia.
So I taxied back to the Intercontinental in an attempt to appear presentable after a 10 mile hike.
Then it was time for cocktails and dinner at the grand art deco Beaumont Hotel on a quiet square in Mayfair. There, 24 of us souls indulged and chatted until it was time to venture on to another pub who identity is now long forgotten. (My steel trap of a brain is a bit rusty at the hinges.)
It proved to be a somewhat difficult late evening. A high heeled compatriot broke her ankle on a darkly lit pub stairway and was in a wheelchair the next morning. Another soul was beset with insidious food poisoning. Most were decidedly hungover.
Such is the cost of feverishly celebrating birthdays in over the top style when you are a "mature" traveler.
Churchill War Rooms
I grudgingly awoke the next morning after a few hours of sleep, groggy and somewhat worse for wear. I reached for coffee, tried to shake off tissuey residue, and got ready to visit my most coveted destination of the weekend: the labyrinthian underground bunker that is the Churchill War Rooms, made famous by the movie The Darkest Hour.
Can you tell yet that I like history?
The museum is on the Clive steps of King Charles Street in Westminster. We arrived 20 minutes before the opening time of 9:30 am without pre-purchased tickets. The wait in mid-November was negligible, but filled with a short lived downpour when we were foolishly umbrella-less.
"Early rain and the pavement's glistening," sang Noël Coward, "all Park Lane in a shimmering gown."
"We Shall Fight on the Beaches"
The exhibits are immersive and expansive; I would recommend no less than 2 hours. You can hear excerpts of rousing Churchill speeches and first hand accounts of life during WWII. A highlight is a huge 15 meter touchscreen table that chronicles Churchill's life and the timeline of the war. By touching the screen, you can open documents, photos, and film clips.
Alhough the Tower of London and the Churchill War Rooms were my preferred historical destinations this particular visit, I strolled by the Queen's official residence, Buckingham Palace, daily.
The Victoria statue and the wrought iron gates are lovely, but otherwise it's just a celebrity culture pit stop. The changing of the guards is a yawn -- an elaborate, precisely-timed game of tag -- in one door and out the other. Your time is generally better spent elsewhere.
And since it was a weekend celebrating the 100 year Armistice of WWI, there was pomp and circumstance aplenty. Horses and parades blocked and closed down streets. Most of London was wearing a red poppy on their lapels in tribute to the veterans of WWI.
And then we were whisked off ... until the next whirlwind weekend or geographical cure comes our way, no doubt of a vastly more plebeian variety.
Practical Information for London:
Mount Street Gardens:
Address: Mount St, Mayfair, London W1K 2TH, UK
Hours: 7:00 am-7:00 pm
Phone: +44 20 7641 2390
Tube: Eye Park Corner or Green Park
Tower of London:
Address: St Katharine's & Wapping, London EC3N 4AB, UK
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 09:00-16:30, Sunday-Monday: 10:00-16:30
Tickets: online info, walk up tickets beginning March 1, 2019: Adult £27.50; Child £13.10
Phone: +44 844 482 7777
Tube: Tower Hill or London Bridge