Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Five Cool Things About London

There are more than five cool things about London, of course - as well as uncool things, like congestion and cost - as this great city offers so many things to savor. Among them:

1. Black cabs. London has the world's best taxis, the old-school, roomy, sturdy, handsome black cabs that navigate the capital, especially central London. With room enough for five passengers, including luggage, and two nifty pull-down seats to go with a three-person couch, they are incredibly spacious. And London may have the world's best cab drivers. They aren't as polite as Tokyo's white-gloved cabbies, but they are funny and they really know the city. Even in the age of GPS, most drivers of black cabs have memorized the maze of streets in this sprawling city and take you almost anyhwere you want to go without consulting a map or, worse, asking you how in blazes to find your destination. They are a capital service for a capital city.

2. World-class food. London and the UK generally, have a lingering reputation for bad food. The reputation is undeserved. London may be the most internationalized city in the world and as such, it has everything, though often at significant cost. Used to be the only reliably good food was Indian. No longer. Gastro-pubs and chefs specializing in modern British cuisine have restocked Blighty's larder. And if you know where you are going, you can even save money. I recommend the Pret A Manger sandwich and salad shops that operate on every other street corner in central London. For five pounds or less, you can eat fresh, tasty, healthful fast food - a real deal. If you don't eat well in London, it's no one's fault but your own.

3. History. I like New York a lot, but I've never understood the reflexive boast of Americans and some others that New York is - all together now - "the Greatest City in the World.'' No it isn't. This is true mostly for people who don't travel the world. As my friend and fellow travel writer Patti Nickell points out, London has everything New York has, plus 2,000 years of history. Wake up, Americans. Especially you, New Yorkers.

4. Free museums. The finest museums in town - meaning some of the finest in the world - often carry free general admission. You will indeed pay to see the temporary, mega-exhibitions by name-brand artists like Rembrandt or Picasso, but the extensive permanent collections of leading museums, usually no. This is another good way to avoid spending a fortune in London, which you can do if you're not careful. But you definitely don't have to.

5. Hidden gems. The metropolis is loaded with them and many of these, too, are free. Central London is walkable - again, costs nothing - and places such as Green Park, St. James's Park, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Regent Park are finely made for browsing and exploring. And, again, there's all that history, often best experienced on foot. In the Seven Dials area, tucked between Covent Garden and Soho, is a historic blue marker on the wall of a building that once served as home to the comic geniuses of Monty Python. In a hidden courtyard near Buckingham Palace, just outside the 51 Buckingham Gate Hotel, is a gorgeous outdoor frieze depicting Shakespeare's characters; just look up, and there it is in all its glory.

It's London's rich cultural layers and manifold opportunities for discovery, more than anything, that make London my favorite city in the Western World.

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