Your Long Weekend in LondonApril 13, 2016
In 2014, GIC held its first conference in London and we can’t wait to return on June 3rd. London continues to find itself at the top of the list of popular global destinations for business and leisure travelers alike. Its competitive yet approachable atmosphere offers something for everyone; theatergoers, history buffs, culture vultures, fashionistas, and foodies.
London is home to many of the world’s most iconic and treasured attractions; all of which are certainly worth a walk-by to snap your selfie to post on Instagram for posterity. These include the Tower Bridge/Tower of London, St. Pauls Cathedral (which is steps away from our conference venue), the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben, and of course, Buckingham Palace with the Changing of the Guard, which is admittedly tough to see unless you have four hours to kill waiting at the gates, while scores of tourists close in on your surroundings, and yet, you’re still waiting. This trip in June will be my fourth visit to London and I feel comfortable sharing that in my two attempts to see the previously mentioned colorful spectacle of British pageantry, both resulted in disappointment, and one in early onset frostbite during a cold snap in late March ‘13.
In addition to its many famous landmarks, London offers a slew of museums and galleries including the world famous British Museum (see: Rosetta Stone), the imposing and impressive Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert Museum dedicated to design, where in 2013, I was lucky enough to spend an entire night at the incomparable David Bowie Is… exhibit where I poured over every costume and prop and marveled at each picture, video and little scribbled lyric at this outstanding compilation of Bowie’s work. Always a budget-friendly option, many of London’s museums require no admission fee, leaving you with no excuse as to why you missed out on Cleopatra’s mummy in between pub visits.
A few years ago, (ok, ten) I went to visit my sister, Molly, while she spent a college semester abroad in London. It was my first time and while I implored her to bring me to many of the aforementioned attractions, it was nearing the end of her three month stint and having already squired our mother and several other friends about town to see the exact same things a few weeks prior, she did not share my enthusiasm in being a super-tourist. But, when it came to the culinary exploration, Molly knew I meant business and she did not let me down. Yes, we found our requisite fish & chips and pints of London Pride, but some of my best food-oriented memories happened in the Food Halls and Outdoor Markets (and even a late-night visit to a street-vendor sausage cart).
London’s luxury department stores including Harrod’s, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges (having recently gained notoriety thought the PBS drama, Mr. Selfridge), will swallow you for the entire day if you let them. Each with floor upon floor of designer labels, cosmetics, housewares and souvenirs, I suggest you leave these all behind, locate the floor with the words ‘food hall’ and just enjoy being in the presence of gourmet delights as far as the eye can see. Harrod’s alone boasts 26 restaurants (from an ice cream parlor to an oyster bar and truly everything in between) in addition to their perfectly appointed food hall containing a boulangerie, charcuterie, fromagerie, butcher, and confectionary. Buy your souvenirs here. The tea is beautifully boxed and its weight is luggage-friendly. Across the street from Harrod’s is Harvey Nichols, whose food hall has one of my favorite treats for lunch, Yo! Sushi. Each table has built-in sparking and still water spouts and for added convenience, beside you is a conveyor belt lined with assorted Japanese dishes passing by for you to grab and enjoy. They also offer all-you-can-drink miso soup (read: early onset frostbite) and a funky color-coded pricing structure that allows the servers to tally your bill according to the color of the dishes you chose from the moving maki belt.
Looking for something less deluxe but still delicious? Choose one of London’s many open air markets and enjoy a leisurely stroll among a maze of vendors selling an assortment of clothes, crafts, antiques, and of course, food. London has an impressive selection of markets–Borough Market, Covent Garden, Old Spitalfield, Portobello, Camden Lock – and all throughout different neighborhoods. So if you’re at a nearby museum and losing steam, check your guide book to see what market may be right around the corner.
If I have to narrow it down, I’d go with Old Spitalfield or Borough. The former, dating back to 1876 and most popular on Sundays, has a great compilation of shopping and eating. So, while I wandered with a donut the size of a frisbee in each hand, Molly could barter nearby on some fine leather goods for our mom. But back to the donuts. If you’ve read any one of my blogs, you might may realize that I end up buying more food than anything else while I am traveling. This allows me to literally savor each moment (memory) of traveling abroad. The latter, Borough Market, is even older with its history dating back to the 13th century traders who set up on what is now Borough High Street. Here, you’ll find more food than goods, which makes it a great place for lunch. The market has a lot to offer, but for lunch, there is even more. I would like to turn your attention to my preferred vendor, the cheese melters at Kappacasein. Approach the stall and you’ll see the mongers closely monitoring the giant half-wheels of Swiss raclette propped up against an open flame. From there, the slightly scorched cheese is scraped onto a plate of boiled potatoes, baby gherkins and onions. Simple. Rustic. Amazing.
A trip to the UK would not be complete without participating in the ceremonial afternoon tea. We have Anna, Duchess of Bedford to thank, for in the 1800’s, lunch was not born yet and Anna, in her discomfort and hunger, decided it was tea time. Steeped in tradition (pun intended), the afternoon tea can be an unforgettable experience. There are dozens of tea salons offering versions from the high-brow to the low-key of this celebration of clotted cream and cucumber sandwiches. In 2014, for my birthday, Molly treated me to, quite possibly, the finest one of all: The Berkeley London Prêt-à-Portea. We had tea in stunning ceramic pots; we had champagne in crystal flutes; we had a ball. I could describe each perfect pastry, fashionably influenced by the latest runway trends, in detail but without a visit of your own, these words would do the beauty of the experience no justice.
In June, I plan to take tea at the famous Fortnum and Mason in their Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, reveal the best Indian cuisine in the city and see what other British delights I can uncover before we take off to Helsinki. After all, when GIC returns to London in 2017, I’ll need to have something to blog about.
Other London favorites:
100 Club: There’s a lot of fun to be had in the basement of this jazz establishment that opened in 1942. This hole in the wall venue has showcased an impressive catalogue of artists including Muddy Waters, BB King, The Who, The Clash, and the Rolling Stones, but just going for the lively house band is a great time.
Wagamama: Curious about that random red star you keep spotting throughout the city? Stop into any one of these Japanese noodle houses for a fun and delicious meal at a franchise that started 20 years ago in Bloomsbury.
GBK: Sometimes, only a good burger will do–and the Gourmet Burger Kitchen will not disappoint. Maybe you need a milkshake with a shot of Jager, too. Go for it, no one is looking.