Did the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games get you daydreaming? Wouldn’t it be fun to clear your schedule for a few days, send the pooch off to a petsitter and join in the festivities.
Then you should know this: The last-minute airline fares aren’t horrible. In fact, they’re far more reasonable than they were earlier this summer.
So…go! London is a flat-out great city, and I’m here to tell you how to make the most of your spontaneous sojourn.
Last summer my family and I took a good, long vacation — almost a sabbatical — and spent a solid five weeks in the English capital. We were like extended-stay-motel Londoners, not exactly residents but more than tourists.
Because of this experience I feel like I have the right to offer you this incredibly opinionated guide to what you should skip, and what you should see instead.
Skip Camden Market, go to Spitalfields
On a non-Olympic weekend, the northern London street market draws more than 100,000 visitors for its village of street stalls, carts and storefronts selling punk fashion, spangled shirts, cheap leather goods and all manner of doodads. From the moment you leave the train station and join the roiling river of flesh, you feel like a herd animal. Honestly, a wildebeest would find Camden Market claustrophobic. Yet, I dutifully took my teenage daughters there and said no to plastic go-go boots, a Sex Pistols T-shirt and a pedicure that involved sticking one’s feet into a tub of skin-eating fish.
Spitalfields is a former produce market that has been redeveloped into a covered “Traders Market” filled with more than a hundred vendors set up like a grand checkerboard — many with elaborate dividers, decor and changing rooms. Our kids did manage to get some good deals on clothing they deemed stylish, while I slipped off to look at wine, gourmet food and cigar shops around the periphery of the structure and on neighboring streets.
The best part is this: Spitalfields is your gateway to the East End — the historically poor neighborhood that has welcomed successive generations of Irish, Jewish and Bangladeshi immigrants. Keep walking east and you’ll fall upon the Old Truman Brewery (www.trumanbrewery.com), a 17th century building that now serves as a mixed-use locus of funk, with all kinds of stalls, shops, open-air restaurants and office space for creative folks involved in fashion, design and information technology. It is bordered by Brick Lane a long, narrow thoroughfare where you can watch your wife spend more than an hour in a shoe store (as I did) or eat in any one of the dozens of curry houses.
As tempting as the chicken korma may be, I would instead suggest you wend your way back toward Spitalfields, where you’ll find St. John Bread and Wine — my favorite of Fergus Henderson’s three famous nose-to-tail dining establishments around the city. Here the focus is on the small plates of food you need to get going — a bacon sandwich for breakfast, a slice of seed cake with a glass of madeira for elevenses (you’re on vacation!) or a fine selection of shareable plates for supper. Don’t miss the crisp blood cake topped with a sunny side up duck egg. I mean it.
Skip Covent Garden, go to Brixton Village
Covent Garden, a former Victorian market hall, sits in the center of a spacious piazza, and it has become everyone’s idea of the don’t-miss shopping/dining/busker watching experience of central London. It’s the place that sucks tourists in, like a vortex.
The architecture is indeed impressive, but you’ll soon find yourself sitting on a dirty cobblestone watching a guy on stilts while you eat expensive ice cream under the beating sun. That, or shuffling through chain shops you’ll recognize from every upscale shopping mall you’ve ever visited. (Free WiFi at the Apple Store counts as the one plus.)
Brixton, the South London neighborhood that’s a short tube ride across the Thames, feels like an unspoiled treat. Caribbean and African immigrants give the neighborhood a distinctive flavor (you don’t see Ghanian restaurants every day). But the neighborhood welcomes all comers, resulting in the most eye-popping array of international shops and restaurants you could imagine. At its heart is the Brixton Market (brixtonmarket.net), a maze of covered street arcades where you want to spent a little time shopping (I tried in vain to think of a friend with a baby who would benefit from a onesie with a picture of the Smiths on it) and a whole lot of time eating.
There was one place that served duck eggs in every dish, another that served Caribbean fried fish. We ate at a five-table Thai spot called KaoSarn (2 and 96, Brixton Village Market, Coldharbour Lane, tel: 020 7095 8922) where everything tasted fresh and homemade in a way I’ve never experienced in a Thai restaurant. Then we followed that meal with seriously amazing banoffie (banana toffee) gelato at Lab G. The Ritzy Picturehouse (www.picturehouses.co.uk) just outside Brixton Village had an on-site cafe and a great lineup of movies playing.
Skip the London Eye, go to Oxo Tower
Of all the stupid touristy things we did in London, none seemed as big a wash as that silly ferris wheel. It’s expensive and you’ll need to brave Disney World on spring break lines to get to your berth. Then you find out that smoggy, endless London doesn’t offer a particularly attractive aerial view.
So here’s what you do instead. Start your day at Borough Market — one of Europe’s great food markets, where the scores of semi-covered stalls running higgledy piggledy through twisty side streets and funky old buildings are guaranteed to enchant. After holding ostrich eggs, learning about meat pies and sampling cheeses right from the cheesemonger’s knife at the great Neal’s Yard Dairy (www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk), we found ourselves stuffing our faces full of seafood green curry and Iberico ham, then washing that down with raw oysters and toffee cake.
After this feast, we waddled out and found our way to the Riverside Walk along the South Bank. Properly fortified, we had enough energy to drag our kids through every floor of the Tate Modern. Continuing westward along the river, we came across the landmark Oxo Tower — now a mixed-use residential and commercial development. The top floor has a tremendous bar, where you can snag an outdoor seat, have a drink and a nibble, and get an aerial view for free.
Skip Harrods, go to Fortnum and Mason
Harrods, the iconic Knightsbridge department store, has a reputation among food tourists as a destination for its plethora of restaurants and its basement food hall. May I be so bold to say the restaurants seem a bit trendy and the food hall, while very nice, is not markedly nicer than similar food halls in other department stores? Shall I duck to avoid the day-old crumpets being thrown at my head?
See for yourself, but don’t miss the dowdy-yet-lovable Fortnum & Mason store in Piccadilly. This 300-year-old institution looks like a set from “Mary Poppins” with shiny balustrades, burgundy carpeting and statues of liveried footmen. It’s all about food here, from a perfectly nice food hall in the basement, to a selection of china and glassware to — here’s where things get interesting — an amazing selection of preserves, cookies, cakes, candies, looseleaf teas and all other treats you need for teatime. The marmalades alone will make you weak-kneed. A year later I’m savoring the last of my “dark lime” marmalade as well as my elderflower and gooseberry preserves. I delighted a few friends with lemon-gin jelly.
Before you leave, make sure to get tea or lunch in one of the restaurants. How about Welsh rarebit, a duo of scones with Somerset clotted cream, strawberry preserves and your choice of tea?
“When can we come back?” my daughter asked sweetly, her mouth still full of scone.
Now don’t you want some of that?
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog