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Buckingham Palace, the Charles Dickens Museum, Hyde Park, the Tower of London, Kew Gardens, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, Wimbledon – these are just a few examples of the best of London.
It should be no surprise that a city 2,000 years old is an alphabetic mishmash of bedazzling things. But like a Dickensian novel, the best of London’s real character seeps out of the cracks that split its major travel attractions.
So let’s get going with this insider’s guide to the city:
Perfectly located for the shops of Covent Garden and the cinemas of Leicester Square, the Savoy was Marilyn Monroe’s London hotel of choice.
Book one of the hotel’s 267 luxury rooms and suites and savor either elegant Edwardian design or sleek Art Deco design.
The acclaimed Savoy Grill – in the hands of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay (do not expect the steaks to be as blue as his language) – can be expensive but is not overpriced.
The Savoy, 2 Savoy Court, Strand, London WC2R 0EZ, UK; +44 20 7836 4343
Charlotte Street Hotel
Situated in London’s media neighborhood just north of Soho, this former dental hospital now contains 52 individually designed rooms, including loft and penthouse suites. The huge, comfortable beds and trademark polished granite and oak bathrooms are suitably indulgent, and some rooms have luxuriously high ceilings.
If you can afford it, go for one of the split-level loft suites. Among other things they feature TVs in the bathroom.
Charlotte Street Hotel, 15-17 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 1RJ, UK; +44 20 7806 2000
This reasonably priced townhouse hotel was once the Bloomsbury home of artist John Everett Millais. It’s close to Euston Station, the British Museum and the shops of Oxford Street. Wi-Fi is available, and full English breakfast is included.
The Arosfa has only 15 rooms, so book early.
The Arosfa, 83 Gower St, Fitzrovia, London WC1E 6HJ, UK; +44 20 7636 2115
Located in a quiet area a short distance from the Barbican, St. Paul’s, Holborn and the City, the Rookery is characterized by open fires, Georgian detailing, wonky floors and bulging bookshelves. There’s an honesty bar downstairs, a tiny garden terrace for the summer, 33 double rooms and two singles.
All are as quirky as the building. Bedrooms are named after people who lived in the Dickensian buildings at some point over the past 250 years — including a disgraced preacher and a prostitute hanged for murder.
There’s no restaurant, but head down the road to the acclaimed St. John for some meaty, masculine English fare.
The Rookery, 12 Peter’s Lane, Farringdon, London EC1M 6DS, UK; +44 20 7336 0931.
This option could not be better located for the party crowd, bang in the middle of the capital’s most buzzing nightlife area. The Hoxton has been a big hit since it opened in 2006. (And there are now three Hoxton locations in London – the other two in Holborn and Southwark).
The hotel’s 210 rooms have parquet floors, large mirrors and industrial details.
The Hoxton, Shoreditch, 81 Great Eastern St, London EC2A 3HU England (and two other locations in London); +44 20 7550 1000
Just along from the Ritz Hotel, the Wolseley exudes history and style. Housed in a former car showroom and later a branch of Barclays bank, it has vaulted ceilings, polished marble, an art deco interior and the odd celebrity.
You’ll find lobsters, crabs, oysters and two types of caviar on the menu (along with some turf if you’re not in the mood for surf). Traditional English breakfast here is a must and so is booking ahead.
The Wolseley, 160 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EB England; +44 20 7499 6996
Head to the exclusive Mayfair area of London for dinner and you might expect to need a government bailout to settle your bill. Not so at Wild Honey.
Value is the theme in the wood-paneled dining room with favorites including smoked eel, roast saddle of rabbit and grilled Cornish gurnard (a fish from the Eastern Atlantic). The cheeseboard is excellent.
Wild Honey, 8 Pall Mall, St. James’s, London SW1Y 5NG, UK; +44 20 7389 7820
Some serious (London) Thai. Nestled within the underbelly of Soho, this is communal Thai dining in stylish, understated surroundings.
The no-booking policy means you can expect queues on Friday and Saturday nights, providing the perfect opportunity for people-watching (and Sohoites deserve some watching). For two people or solo diners, the wait should be no more than 15 minutes.
A delicious menu sampling: Bang-Kick Prawns, Yam Pak Crispy Duck Salad and Black Pepper Beef from the wok. Not in Soho? The chain has locations throughout London.
Busaba Eathai, 106-110 Wardour Street, London W1F OTR England; +44 20 7255 8686
In the middle of Mayfair, Lucknow 49 aims to “celebrate the heritage of the Mughal Empire” with Awadhi cuisine you’d find in the Indian city Lucknow.
The mouth-watering menu includes lentil-stuffed flatbread, galawat kawab (soft lamb patties flavored with more than 50 spices), murgh qorma (chicken thigh slow cooked in brown onion and cashew nut sauce) and for dessert, rasmalai (milk cakes served with mango).
The intimate space is made to feel like you’re dining in a home. It’s a good choice if you wish to explore nearby Hyde Park.
Lucknow 49, 49 Maddox St, Mayfair, London W1S 2PQ, UK; +44 20 7491 9191
Experimental Cocktail Club
You can ensure entry to this Chinatown speakeasy by e-mailing before 5 p.m. (email@example.com); phone bookings are not an option. However, the club does keep half its capacity for walk-in guests.
Cocktails here aren’t that experimental, but they’re excellent. The Havana is a house favorite.
You’ll find mirrored ceilings, ancient Parisian architecture, tiny couches, total intimacy and a £5 cover charge after 11 p.m.
The entry consists of a scruffy door, absolutely no signage and doormen with firmly held views on just about everything. Good luck.
Experimental Cocktail Club, 13A Gerrard St, London N1 8AY England; +44 20 7434 3559
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
No best of London experience is complete without a beer at one of its many historic pubs, and they don’t come much older or more historic than Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
Frequented by Mark Twain, Voltaire, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, the pub has been on this site since it was rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire of London. Charles Dickens, known to have been a regular of this higgledy-piggledy temple to serious drinking, referred to it in “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Expect to have to stoop, dive down cramped staircases and contend with sawdust-strewn floors as you move from room to room. The real draw? A pint of Sam Smith’s for a fraction of the price of beer in other London pubs.
And Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is just a 20-minute walk away on the south bank of the Thames.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet St, London England; +44 20 7353 6170
Cunningly named, the Booking Office sits on the site of the old booking hall of St. Pancras station and is found in the lobby of the refurbished St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel.
It’s a great place to enjoy a cocktail while admiring what is undoubtedly one of the architectural wonders of the capital – a magnificent red-brick Gothic masterpiece that was formerly the Midland Grand Hotel.
The cocktail menu lives up to the surroundings and shows a deep respect for the history (and abundance) of British drinking with sours, fizzes and cobblers.
The Booking Office, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel Euston Road, London NW1 2AR England; +44 (0)20 7841 3566
It’s dark, it’s dingy and the waiters shush you if you talk over the numbers. We like.
Ella, Miles and Curtis are just some of the greats to have graced Ronnie’s down the years. This seminal jazz club tucked away on Soho’s Frith Street is worth a visit even if you don’t like jazz. It’s jazz hands all-round if you do.
Tables are arranged in neat, tiered rows around a sunken stage, with luminous red lamps dotted around the dim room. Seats are priced according to the view and act. Cocktails are very much a club asset. Unfortunately they’ve stopped serving The Ellington, apparently a favorite of the Duke himself, but the choice is plentiful. Forget eating here – it’s not the main draw and largely a disappointment.
Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, 47 Frith St, London W1D 4HT England; +44 20 7439 0747
Hailed as the world’s best department store by many industry insiders, Selfridges dominates the west end of Oxford Street and is made up of six floors, four hectares of shopping space and two exhibition halls. Although second to Harrods in terms of size and celebrity, it’s less touristy, more cutting-edge and attracts a more discerning clientele. It’s high-end, high-octane and comes highly recommended.
You can stay the whole day, leave empty-handed and still feel like Julia Roberts in that scene from “Pretty Woman.” In any case, it contains numerous restaurants to keep your energy levels up while its personal shoppers can do the hard work for you.
Selfridges, 400 Oxford St, London W1A 1AB England; +44 800 123 400
London’s oldest market, dating to the 13th century, remains a busy place today. On the banks of the Thames just south of London Bridge, you’ll find beautifully displayed organic fruit and veg, cheese, cakes, bread, olive oil, fish, meat, beer, wine and chocolate. Go hungry, go early, sample everything and bring hard currency in case your vendor doesn’t take credit cards.
Borough Market, 8 Southwark St, London SE1 1TL England; +44 20 7407 1002
Columbia Road Flower Market
With thousands of flowers crammed into one noisy Victorian terraced street, London’s Columbia Road Flower Market – now lined with fancy boutiques – is a throwback to the old East End.
From 8 a.m. to 3-ish p.m. every Sunday, the flowers and plants up for sale are some of the best (and cheapest) around. Arrive early to avoid the crowds.
Columbia Road Flower Market, Columbia Road, London E2 7RG, UK
Views from Waterloo Bridge
Londoners bore visitors to death about how great the views are from Waterloo Bridge, but they have a point. Although it contends for the title of ugliest bridge in London, the views are inspiring.
On one hand are the Royal Festival Hall, Elizabeth Tower (popularly known as Big Ben), the Houses of Parliament and the BT Tower.
Looking in the other direction you can take in St. Paul’s, Canary Wharf, the Gherkin (as the rather phallic skyscraper properly called 30 St. Mary Axe is dubbed), the Oxo Tower and the Shard.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Christopher Wren’s masterpiece has squatted imposingly in the City of London for the past 300 years. It famously withstood the Blitz and has become something of a monument to the resilience of London.
Down in the crypt, you can check out the tombs of some of the nation’s greatest heroes including Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. You can also try out the acoustic quirks of the Whispering Gallery and continue the climb to the Golden Gallery for views across London. Take paid tours from Monday to Saturday. The cathedral reverts to its traditional role on Sunday, when it’s open to worshippers for free.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, London EC4M 8AD England; +44 20 7246 8350
Victoria and Albert Museum
It’s great for history fans. It’s great for art and design fans. And you’ll positively swoon if you like both. Thank Queen Victoria for this visual feast – she laid the foundation stone in 1899.
See a parade of styles – from Medieval and Rococo to Art Deco and Modernism – in a variety of arts: architecture, furniture, fashion, textiles, photography, sculpture, painting and more.
Come prepared with good footwear as the museum has 145 galleries.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL, UK; +44 20 7942 2000
This article was updated in August 2019, and CNN’s Forrest Brown contributed new material.