“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” wrote Samuel Johnson nearly 250 years ago -even then, there was so much to do in this thrilling, cosmopolitan city that he thought it was impossible that anyone would ever want to leave.
London is a city that has it all: ancient remains and state-of-the-art, design-heavy skyscrapers; world-class art galleries and theaters that stage famous plays and top-notch musicals; shopping that runs the gamut from designer brands to street style; and some seriously impressive museums. Though I was born in London and lived here for a long time, this city never fails to astonish me with surprises in its cultural and social scenes.
I start my day at Victoria, one of London’s great vintage train stations, and walk through two of London’s most palatial neighborhoods: Belgravia, with its leafy squares surrounded by cream-stoned mansions, and Knightsbridge, where the streets are crammed with designer brands. At the corner where Sloane Street meets Knightsbridge itself sits Harvey Nichols, one of London’s most famous department stores. Another thing to catch your eye around London is that people look as chic as if they’re from fashion magazines. Whether at a famous store or an ordinary shop, you can always find yourself a special design clothing in this city.
Leaving the glittering stores behind, I head for Hyde Park up ahead. This is the most beautiful of the city’s green areas –the land is owned by the royal family, or, effectively, the Queen. You can explore something different at every park. Regent’s Park has a zoo in it, and St James’ Park runs from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square. Richmond Park, out in West London, is famous for its wild deer, who’ve lived there since 1637. Meanwhile, Hyde Park is as green and big as to include an art gallery, a lake with a population of swans, and enough greenery to cocoon you from the city. I weave between huge oak and chestnut trees, watching squirrels scuttle around the bushes, onto the main paths, which I share with joggers and walkers. In the Kensington Garden across Royal Albert Hall is a golden statue of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who sits under a canopy stretching tall into the sky. Further on, hundreds of swans gather on the Serpentine, a lake so huge it resembles a river. Nearby is the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and beyond that is the stately brick façade of Kensington Palace. With the grand architecture that runs alongside it –including the Baglioni Hotel, one of my favorite places to stay in the capital– Hyde Park feels like a microcosm of London, a city I am enamored with.
Past the tennis courts, past the sandy paddock where the Queen’s Household Calvary soldiers exercise their horses every morning. Past the Serpentine Gallery which hosts a retrospective on Emma Kunz, a Swiss modern artist, until May 19. Outside the park is the Royal Albert Hall, a gargantuan circular concert hall, preparing for new programs. Concerts this spring include Gypsy Kings, Joe Bonamasa, and Eric Clapton while, in summer, the city will enliven with the Proms Music Festival, daily classical music concerts that run from July to September. It’s worth pairing an evening at the Royal Albert Hall with another night at one of the West End’s famous musicals. Shaftesbury Avenue is awash with them, all world-class productions in theaters that date back to Victorian times, often moving here from Broadway. Must-sees include Les Miserables at the Queen’s Theater and Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theater. The hottest ticket of all is Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, 15 minutes from Shaftesbury Avenue.
At the end of my pleasant tour around the city on the first day, I head for The Goat, a restaurant near the park, and order fish and chips, the trademark of British cuisine. I am uplifted by the harmony of this duo, topped with a slice of apple pie.
Next day, I continue exploring the museums and historical landmarks in London. This time, I begin my tour not on foot, but with the subway that successfully connects the districts with a meticulous urban planning. I get off at Charing Cross station. Trafalgar Square is best known for the towering Nelson’s Column surrounded by four monumental bronze lions, but it’s the National Gallery, which sits quietly behind it, that I love best. If you’re interested in history, you can spend an entire day at a museum in London. I walk in at the Sainsbury Wing –the modern addition, to the left of the main building– and climb the stairs to find myself taken back in time to the Italian Renaissance. There’s Venus and Mars reclining together, painted by talented Botticelli; a Duccio here, a Pisanello there. Every room is full of wonder. It’s so intense that I like to take it in bite-size chunks –Renaissance today, Impressionists tomorrow. As with the British Museum, it’s worth spreading your visits over several days, so it’s less overwhelming. For a more interesting visit, I love the London Mithraeum near the Bank of England, a nearly 2,000-year-old underground place of worship that was restored last year as part of the modern Bloomberg SPACE area in the City of London.
In fact, one of London’s triumphs is the way it melds its historic heritage with the modern. Across London Bridge from the Mithraeum is The Shard –a triangular glass skyscraper that towers over the city. From here you can see the Tower of London and Tower Bridge on one side, and St Paul’s Cathedral on the other. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, the building is the tallest structure in London with a height of 310 meters. There’s also a 360-degree viewing deck open to the public, but I prefer a classic British afternoon tea at TĪNG, located on the 35th floor of the Shangri La Hotel. The sandwiches, scones and cakes are up to their five-star surroundings. The Shangri La has three excellent restaurants in addition to TĪNG. Next time, I tell myself, I’ll return for dinner. TĪNG's dinner menu includes roe deer, beef tartare, and a spiced winter trifle for dessert. And of course, it’s all accompanied by a view of the city and the glittering Thames River.
On my way back, I come to realize that London has not lost its vivacity despite the time. This two-day tour helps me realize what Samuel Johnson really meant. This city instills life in people.