One of the single greatest museums in the world, the British Museum houses collections that date from the prehistoric to the modern—in sum, the works of mankind. The Egyptian rooms are famous for their mummies and the eventual key to deciphering hieroglyphics, the Rosetta Stone. Then there are the controversial Elgin Marbles, stolen from the Parthenon, and countless other Greek and Roman antiquities. The leathery, ancient Lindow Man, preserved for centuries in a Cheshire bog after having been ritually slaughtered, and the treasures from the seventh-century Sutton Hoo royal burial grounds are also here. If you only have a few minutes to spare, trot in to see the 2000 addition—Sir Norman Foster's spectacular two-acre interior Great Court with its glass-grid roof. The museum is free, though special exhibitions are not.
The queen's London pied-à-terre is not the most beautiful of palaces, but it's big. Most of the year, all you can do is peer through the iron railings at the guards in busbies—those silly two-foot-tall black fur hats—and check the flagpole to see whether Brenda, as Private Eye calls her, is at home (the standard only flies when she's in residence). But from late July to September, even commoners can enter those gates. The Throne Room, Picture Gallery, Ballroom, and 16 other state rooms are open, as is (a bit of) the south side of the unbelievably huge palace gardens. The Royal Mews, with working stables and display of fancy state vehicles, is just around the corner and also worthy of a visit, as is the Queen's Gallery.
Camden and Islington
Head straight for Camden Town if you're in your early twenties and on the lookout for leather—take that how you will, it's all here. The weekend markets by the tube station and further up the high street in Camden Lock are seething with humanity and lined with bars and music venues. To the east, in high contrast, is largely Georgian Islington, with its neighborhood restaurants and independent boutiques for the well-to-do. And its Saturday market, Camden Passage, to the east of Islington Green, is all about antiques. The Almeida Theater here is consistently great (Almeida Street, Islington, N1; 44-207-359-4404; www.almeida.co.uk).
Clerkenwell and Finsbury
The medieval Knights of St. John gave way—over a few centuries—to the new denizens of the hot restaurants and bars of St. John Street: designers and architects, stylists and photographers, and so forth, as far as the eye can see. Apart from Wapping and some other dockside areas, this is the only part of the city where factory and warehouse loft conversions abound, giving it all a distinct modern vibe. Groovy shops merge into Smithfield, the meat market, and hence to what used to be called, not un-snobbishly, the East End. The latter is now better known as the hipster hangouts of Hoxton and Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Whitechapel, and Bethnal Green.
The area where a fruit-and-vegetable wholesale market once stood—and where Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins—is now one of the most touristy parts of London. Even so, the Piazza and adjacent Jubilee Market are not unpleasant at all with their array of upper-end high-street stores and market stalls that now sell crafts and clothes instead of cabbages and roses. South of the Piazza is where you find most of the West End theaters; while the Royal Opera House, which was expanded in 1999, is to the north (Bow Street, Covent Garden, WC2, 44-207-304-4000, www.royaloperahouse.org.uk). Plus, the little area around Endell and Monmouth streets and "Seven Dials" (look for the sundial monument just south of Shaftesbury Avenue) is great for hip clothes shops.
The only truly new neighborhood in London is Canary Wharf, a complex of offices and shopping malls centered around the city's tallest building, César Pelli's One Canada Square. There are few clues that this used to be a blighted area, part of the Isle of Dogs (a peninsula and former dockyards)—Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was filmed here after the demolition, before the building began. Take the Jubilee Line to Canary Wharf station (a modern cathedral-like structure designed by Sir Norman Foster), wander down to the river, and spot newspaper editors over lunch—The Independent newspaper offices are nearby, although The Telegraph, which anchored the area since the late 1980s, returned to central London in September 2006. Get a good view of this futuristic neighborhood as you leave aboard the elevated monorail, the Docklands Light Rail, which winds its way between the buildings back to central London (www.tfl.gov.uk/dlr).
Skip the dreary Design Museum at Shad Thames on the river and head farther east to the row of 18th-century almshouses that contain what its fans believe to be the best museum of everyday life anywhere. In a series of English domestic interiors from 1600 to the present—a trendy loft apartment!—the museum showcases ordinary middle-class life, albeit in slightly Martha-ized versions. The rooms extend into a contemporary wing and then continue outside in a sequence of period gardens. It is, in short, the perfect day out for real-estate addicts and shelter-mag subscribers, especially since the place is located in the midst of East End hipness—Spitalfields and Shoreditch (plus, the Columbia Road Flower Market is nearby on Sundays).
Bamford & Sons
First and foremost, Bamford & Sons is a shop for the boys. The clothing is classic casual; think crisp linen shirts, bleached cotton suits, cashmere V-necks (a Jude Law favorite), and mini-me versions of the men's collection for junior. A recent revamp of the top floor made way for elegant silks, cashmere vests, and jewelry for the missus, plus a small line of cashmere baby clothes for sensitive-skinned offspring. Bamford & Sons also has a knack for getting first dibs on the sexiest little gadgets, such as the Toshiba Libretto—one of the world's smallest personal computers—and a fine selection of vintage watches, including Tag Heuers from the 1970s. What with the nonchalantly cool interior, and foods from the Daylesford Organic Cafe in the basement, you'll soon realize that you're buying a lifestyle—and you thought you only needed a cashmere sweater.
Dover Street Market
Not a market at all, Rei Kawakubo's 13,000-square-foot West End store is where, as the Comme des Garçons visionary said when it opened in fall 2004, "various creators from various fields gather together and encounter each other in an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos." Most of these fields are—surprise, surprise—fashion-related, although you can also pick up a taxidermy squirrel or ferret skull by Emma Hawkins, or furniture by Jean Prouvé or Hedi Slimane. Azzedine Alaïa, Alber Elbaz, Junya Watanabe, Raf Simons, cult jeweler Judy Blame, and the L.A. superior-vintage dealer Decades are among Kawakubo's handpicked creators. Chandelier-lit plywood shelves, galvanized-steel floors, Porta-Potty fitting rooms, and a corrugated-iron-roofed cash register add to the industrial-style chaos. Despite the scrappy aesthetic, prices are top dollar, but the fourth-floor Rose Bakery is good for a post-browsing snack, complete with rooftop views.
A nonfashion boutique loved by the design cognoscenti (Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Sir Terence Conran, Nicole Kidman, Donna Karan), Egg is still a semisecret even though it opened in 1993—perhaps due to its location on a residential cobbled street. The eye of owner Maureen Doherty is behind everything from the clothes to the French antiques to the fascinating jewelry and objets. The look is very hard to categorize, yet is all of a piece, and people either adore it or don't get it—nothing in between. In early 2005, Italian Daniela Gregis, took over the main clothing line—think floaty but crisp, comfortable but sharp pieces in the best linens, cottons, and silks. The second line, made by Tibetans whom Doherty met through the Dalai Lama, transcends time and fashion. There's also a men's store across the street.
Grays Antique Market,
In this labyrinth of over 200 tiny antique shops crammed full of collectibles and curiosities, you'll rub shoulders with serious collectors in search of a first-edition book, designers seeking inspiration on the racks of vintage clothes, and antique-jewelry aficionados in their element, browsing the huge range of sparklers. Bennie Gray—the man responsible for the equally beguiling Alfies Antique Market in Marylebone, known for its 100-plus stalls brimming with Art Deco, silver, furniture, and vintage clothing—opened Grays in 1977 (13–25 Church St., NW8; 44-207-723-6066; www.alfiesantiques.com). Originally the HQ of a water-closet manufacturer, the restored 19th-century red-sandstone building pays homage to its aqueous origins by channeling the Tyburn River (a tributary to the Thames which, oddly enough, runs through the building's basement) into an indoor trickling stream complete with arched oriental bridges and goldfish.
The No. 1 fashion store, with the No. 1 cosmetics floor, Harvey Nic's is practically a cult. All the established, and many emerging, designers—women's and men's—are represented in eight flawlessly edited floors. A sampling of labels includes Dries Van Noten, Luella, Derek Lam, Matthew Williamson, Marni, Melissa Odabash, Pringle, Proenza Schouler, Roland Mouret, Thakoon, and Zac Posen—plus a Jimmy Choo boutique. Fifth Floor, the perennially trendy bar-café-restaurant, was an early entry in the destination-restaurant-in-a-shop craze. There's also a Wagamama noodle bar in the basement.
Kirsten Goss's small jewelry shop is tucked away behind the busy shopping neighborhood of High Street Kensington, but it's well worth the detour. Goss, who studied jewelry design and gemology in her native South Africa, combines semiprecious stones, Swarovski crystal, and the odd bit of antique silver to create sparkling clusters of color; blues and turquoise in her current Marina collection, and deep reds and pinks in her Carmen rings, necklaces, and charm bracelets. Showcase pieces, used in magazine shoots as well as an exhibition at London's fashion week, are also on display. One creation, multiple strands of crystals and antique Yemen silver, meant to be slung loosely around the waist and shoulder, illustrates the brilliance of her bespoke pieces.
A department store of two parts—the more eye-catching of which is Tudor House, built in 1924—this enterprise dates to 1875, when Arthur Lasenby Liberty opened his diminutive Regent Street shop to sell fabric and objets d'art from the Far East. From seller of exotic curiosities, Liberty became a trendsetter, contributing to the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements throughout the 1890s. Today, it continues to showcase new designers, be it cutting-edge fashion by Alexander McQueen, iconic furniture by Vitra, and more-routine items, such as bags, books, bikinis, or even chaise lounges decked out in Liberty's famous Art Deco fabrics. Taste this good comes at a price, however, and while a purchase might please your interior designer, it's just as likely to make your accountant cringe.
Markets are a vibrant part of shopping in London, and have been since medieval times. If you can handle the rough-and-tumble crowds, you'll find bargains, original clothes, and jewelry from young designers, vintage pieces, housewares, organic food, and much more. The weekend tends to be the best time to visit, when the number of stalls swells considerably. There are far too many to mention or visit in one trip, but the following five are a good bet.
The neighborhood's high quota of artistic residents is reflected in its covered market, best known for organic food, vintage and new clothing by young designers, crafts, and knickknacks. There's a fashion market on Thursday (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Tube: Shoreditch, Liverpool Street, or Aldgate East
Nearby to Spitalfields, in the Old Truman Brewery just off Brick Lane, vendors sell arty gifts, vintage and new clothing, and jewelry, with some vintage pieces thrown in for good measure. There's also a wide range of ethnic food stalls (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
Tube: Shoreditch, Liverpool Street, or Aldgate East
Portobello Road Market:
Vendors sell everything from antiques and vintage records to new clothes and organic produce from the 2,000 stalls at this Notting Hill mainstay. The busiest, but best, day is Saturday (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
Tube: Notting Hill Gate or Ladbroke Grove
Camden Lock Market:
Actually a number of separate indoor and outdoor bazaars lining Regent's Canal, Camden Lock Market has become increasingly touristy in recent years. Even so, it's worth a visit for the frenetic atmosphere, if not the crafts, antiques, and club gear (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
Tube: Camden Town or Chalk Farm Road
There's been a market in this south London suburb since the 1700s. Today, the main courtyard hosts a covered market for new arts and crafts, as well as food stalls on weekends. (Visit on a Thursday or Friday for antiques.) Another antiques market is located next door to the Greenwich cinema, and a flea market across from the Ibis Hotel sells records, furniture, clothing, and textiles. (Times vary, approximately 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday.)
Tube/DLR: Cutty Sark
London is a veritable utopia for excitement junkies, culture fiends, and those who—simply put—like to party. Virginia Woolf once wrote of London, "I step out upon a tawny-colored magic carpet … and get carried into beauty without raising a finger. The nights are amazing, with all the white porticoes and broad silent avenues. And people pop in and out, lightly, divertingly, like rabbits."
Most who visit London will, like Woolf, be mesmerized by the city's energy, which reveals itself in layers. Whether you prefer a romantic evening at the opera, rhythm and blues with fine French food, the gritty guitar riffs of East London, a pint and gourmet pizza at a local gastropub, or swanky cocktails and sushi at London's sexiest lair, the U.K. capital is sure to feed your fancy.
Admiral Codrington Bar
Named after a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, this smart pub was once the most popular meeting place for the upwardly mobile of Sloane Square (Lady Diana Spencer is said to have been a regular in her teaching days). The "Admiral Cod," as it's known, now houses a modern restaurant where excellent English fare is served at lunch and dinnertime (treat yourself to a delicious raspberry soufflé to finish). Activity at the island bar centers on the wine list; well-off Chelsea residents pack the bare wood interior on weekend evenings.
Anchor & Hope Bar
One of London's most popular gastropubs, the Anchor & Hope doesn't take reservations (except for Sunday lunch), meaning queuing would-be diners snake around the red-walled, wooden-floored pub, kept happy by some good real ales and a fine wine list as they wait for hours for a table. The food is old-fashioned English (think salt cod, tripe, and chips) with a few modern twists.
The Cat's Back Bar
A few minutes' walk from the river at Putney Bridge, a short Tube ride into zone 2 from Central London, this is probably one of the most imaginative and cheery pubs in London; eclectic paintings plaster the walls, and the candlelighted interior gives the place a welcoming and homey feel. The newly opened restaurant upstairs supports local artists. The place goes crazy in the evenings when live music is played, from folk to African beats, with relaxed and friendly locals merrily singing away while having a pint or two. There's also a little beer garden at the back.
The Cow Bar
Guinness and oysters are a specialty in this friendly, unpretentious, Irish pub right near Portobello Road. They also sell Cuban cigars, though you can't smoke in the bar. The food is excellent, with dishes like fish stews and casseroles of autumn mutton, as is the service, and the atmosphere is warm, welcoming, and always buzzing.
Friendly Society Bar
This haute moderne hot spot hops with activity almost any night of the week; the basement feels a bit like something out of Star Trek with its white-leather pod seats. The place is known for being gay yet female-friendly.
Owned by the well-respected St. Peter's Brewery from Suffolk, the Jerusalem Tavern is one-of-a-kind, small and endearingly eccentric. Ancient Delft-style tiles meld with wood and concrete in a converted watchmaker and jeweler's shop dating back to the 18th century. The beer, both bottled and on tap, is some of the best available anywhere in London. It's often busy, especially after work.
This pub in well-to-do Parson's Green has a superb menu with a beer or wine chosen to match each dish. Open early for weekend brunch, the "Sloaney Pony" (named for its wealthy Sloane Square clientele) is enormously popular and a place to find many a Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley look-alike. In the summer delicious barbecues are rustled up on the patio. The manager is an expert on cask-conditioned ale, with as many as eight (and 40 beers) on tap, and there are more than 75 wines.
Heaven Dance Club
With by far the best light show on any London dance floor, Heaven is unpretentious, loud, and huge, with a labyrinth of rooms, bars, and live-music parlors. Friday and Saturday nights there's a gay comedy night (£10 in advance, 7-10 PM). If you go to just one club, Heaven should be it.
O2 Academy Brixton
This legendary Brixton venue has seen it all—mods and rockers, hippies and punks. Despite a capacity for almost 5,000 people, this refurbished Victorian hall with original art deco fixtures retains a clublike charm; it has plenty of bars and upstairs seating.
Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho
One of the capital's most ubiquitous pizza chains also runs a great Soho jazz venue. The dimly lighted restaurant hosts top-quality international jazz acts every night. The Italian-style thin-crust pizzas are good, too, though on the small side.
You'll find many things in London hotels: luxury, extraordinary service, and incredible views. But one thing you'll look long and hard for is a bargain. Rooms have traditionally been expensive, and the wild swings of the exchange rate make it hard to predict just how much you'll end up paying. Meanwhile, the London hotel market is focusing on luxury, luxury, luxury. Five-star hotels close, renovate, and reopen with increased prices at a dizzying pace. If it's any consolation, London does luxury better than just about any city, so you'll get your money's worth.
For those on more moderate budgets, the situation is in transition. The city is still struggling to develop a solid base of moderately priced high-quality hotels. Two places that have opened in recent years—the Hoxton and Guesthouse West—are great options in this category. The Hoxton even has special online sales that bring room rates down to an astonishing £1 per night. A newly attractive alternative are hotels in the Premier and Millennium chains, which offer sleek, modern rooms, lots of modern conveniences, and sales that frequently bring room prices well below £100 a night. The Best Western Premier Shaftesbury Kensington and Millennium Gloucester are both good examples.
At the budget level, small bed-and-breakfasts still dominate, although most are quite battered and basic. An alternative to that is the easyHotel chain, with its tiny, bright orange "pod" rooms. There's also the more sophisticated (and more expensive) base2stay, which falls somewhere between budget and not so much. And even at the very bottom of the price scale, accommodations can be unexpectedly trendy—just look at the slick simplicity of the Generator hostel.