Thursday, January 21, 2010

London : Things to Do

London: The City (Part 1)
London: The City (Part 2)
London: The City (Part 3)

In this article, I will just like to put together as much of my knowledge as I can in one place, to help someone who really wants to enjoy London fully get a good head start! Have spent hours exploring the city, I hope have put my time to good use:).

Shopping in London

Oxford Street and Kensington High Street are two of the popular high streets for shopping, selling all the big brands and full of people at all times. Personally though, I prefer Kensington High Street, as the crowds are always less there while Oxford Street turns out to be a bit more touristy.

There are a couple of big and famous stores like Harrods (in Knightsbridge), and Selfridges (in Oxford Street) where you can shop, or at least browse through. Primark is a new store that has opened in Oxford Street, which again sells clothes at quite a huge discount. Another shop to visit for sure, is Lush. It’s a shop selling handmade cosmetics and started by an ex-Body Shop employee.

Bond Street is another street which runs diagonally from Oxford Street, and is world famous for its tailors and other customized tailoring. I never explored it, but have heard its good.

Regent street has some big names and branded stuff which may interest some. Personally, of course, it was too expensive for me! Hamleys on Regent Street, is a must visit for people with kids, and even for adults actually. Takes you back to your childhood days:).
At Piccadilly Circus, Lilywhites is a store where you get sports stuff at throwaway prices (actually at prices difficult to imagine in London).

There are a lot of weekend markets also in different parts of London which are famous. Of them Portobello market in Notting Hill is famous for its antiques, Spitalfields market in the city, selling anything and everything and Covent Garden selling handicrafts and flowers and vegetables are good places to explore if you have some spare time and patience. Carnaby Street off Regent Street is famous for small shops selling trinkets. The Borough weekend market and Camden weekend markets also offer a lot in terms of different and cheap goods, as well as lots of good food to eat!

If you want to do Indian masala shopping, the best place to buy all you want are Southhall and Wembley outside Central London but they might be a bit far to go. Other options are Drummond Street in Central London (near Euston Square) or East Ham in East London.

Partying in London

Leicester Square and the nearby areas of Piccadilly, Soho and Green Park is where most of the partying happens in London. Haven’t been to many clubs actually, as I am not a fan of English music, but these areas are best place to hangout. Just land-up there and figure out which of the clubs to go to.

Tiger Tiger is one of the famous clubs in London and is located at Piccadilly Circus. It has three floors, each playing different music. Other famous names I have heard of are China White, Movida, Buddha Bar, Ministry of Sound etc. I don't know where these are situated though, but guess if you are a party animal, you can find these out! Notting Hill is also famous for its party places, lots of them there. Again never went there, so don’t know any particular places.

I actually prefer Hindi music to dance to and there are a decent number of options for that in London. Soho Spice in Soho plays Indian music on Friday nights. Bar Bollywood on Dover Street near the Ritz plays Hindi and Punjabi every night. Kuch Kuch nights are also held in Chancery Lane on the last Saturdays of the month and plays good Hindi music. CRY also regularly holds parties on festivals like Holi, Diwali and Independence Day every year, where lot of Indian junta turns up for cultural events, Indian food as well as desi music. Asha parties, another Indian NGOs organizing Hindi music nights to raise money for charity is also becoming popular nowadays.

Theatre in London

Plays abound in the city, from musicals (most famous of them being Phantom of the Opera, the Lion King, Les Miserables and Mamma Mia) to comedies to cult plays to innovative new theatre techniques being tried, it’s all there. You can catch some celebrities on the stage too, if you are interested in them, as once in a while in the launch of a new play, a celebrity will be performing (I never did that though heard about plays with Kevin Spacey and Daniel Radcliffe performing there). Also, there are lots of smaller plays also happening all year round if you are feeling lucky and want to try out something new.

Two comedy plays I would suggest would be Producers and 39 Steps. I was laughing throughout both of them. Another good drama was Woman in Black, based on quite a different technique of theatre, with two people playing multiple characters. The areas where most of the plays are staged is Leicester Square, Holborn and Tottenham Court Road, and around the Shaftesbury Avenue.

One Shakespearean play definitely needs to be seen at the Shakespeare Globe theatre at South Thames, though you will need to take a dictionary along:). And one play should be seen at Regents Park which are organised in the summer in the open air. These two are not to be missed.

In the Leicester Square area there are multiple options to see stand-up comedy shows. The Comedy Store is one of the more famous ones, located in the bye-lanes of the Square, where stand-up comedians perform everyday and entertain huge crowds. On Wednesdays, the theme is innovation, and it’s something on the lines of “Whose Lines is it Anyways”. It’s really fun to watch it all live. As a warning, the stand-up comedies do get slightly offensive, so watch it with caution.

Cultural activities

London is a hotbed for concerts and shows of artists of all kinds, Indian and foreign, rock or classical artists, you can see them here. Just remember that it is important to book the tickets in advance as they get sold off very fast. I saw some shows like Guns and Roses, Bryan Adams, Live Earth Concert, Birju Maharaj and Ghulam Ali there. The major venues for such performances are the Albert Hall, Wembley Stadium, Barbican centre and National Theatre. I also saw the Circus de Soleil and Africa Africa shows during the time there. They were marvelous and amazing to watch, and the experience stays with you for a long time!

If you are interested in operas and ballet, this is the best chance to see as much as you can. The Royal Opera House has regular opera and ballet performances. From my experience, if you want to enjoy the opera, you need to be able to appreciate the nuances of singing and music; somehow it did not appeal to me too much. And to enjoy ballet, you need to be able to appreciate dance. I loved it completely and miss it a lot now. I saw two ballet performances there: the Swan Lake and well as La Bayedere.

Just keep checking regularly to see the latest shows happening in the city if you don’t want to miss them. The posters on the tube also are very informative in this regard. Its imperative to book them in advance though (again)!

Sports activities

London is a hotbed for a variety of sporting events. For tennis, you have the Wimbledon in the summer every year. The tickets though difficult to get, can be bought on the day of the game by camping overnight outside the ticket office!!! Seriously!! In fact its quite popular, and lot of people do this, camp outside overnight, have a party all night and buy the tickets early in the morning.

The Oval and Lords are located within London for cricket fans, and its a pleasure to watch a cricket match in either of these stadiums. On certain days, you can also take a tour of Lords, where the guide takes you through the history of cricket at Lords; the original seat and birthplace of cricket. They take you through the museum too, with lots of history there to see and hear!

If you are a football fan, London is the place for you. You have a lot of company!! Brits are completely mad about football. You can always watch a match in a pub, where opposite team fans would be together and cheering for their own teams. Just be careful though, if you are supporting the team whose fans are in a minority, you can be in trouble!

One place you should definitely watch a game at is the newly built Arsenal Emirates stadium. It’s a huge modern looking stadium in the Arsenal county and has a huge capacity. You should definitely watch a big game there, to actually see the fervor and passion that English football fans have for teams. When you see an entire stadium singing songs supporting their players, it’s quite an experience. The Wembley Stadium is also a nice place to watch some games.

If you are lucky the Tour de France may also happen in London (it did in 2007 for sure!!) and then there was the F1 racing in Silverstone to go to. Not sure if they still have it though!

The London Marathon happens in April, and is quite an event. Thousands running, and many more cheering them. The first day I had been in London ever, the Marathon was happening outside my window, and I had gone to watch. Think I will always remember it:).

Other activities

You can learn Indian dance or music instruments at a Dance and Music centre in Earl's Court. The teacher there are apparently very traditional and very learned, just like the teachers you would have in India.

There is an artificial rock climbing centre, in North London where you can go and practice rock climbing if you are in the mood for some strenuous exercise.

During winters, you should definitely try ice skating at the multiple skating rinks that open up everywhere in the city. In front of the Natural History Museum, the Tower of London etc and supposedly the most pretty of all, at the Somerset House. They are all fun locations with a Christmas fair setup there, selling all types of wares just next to the rink, hymns and Christmas carols playing out loud and everything lighted up. Its more than just ice skating, it’s the enjoyment of the entire festive air all around.

There are a couple of carnivals that keep happening regularly in London. One of the more famous ones is the Notting Hill Carnival which happens on the August long weekend. Three days of dancing and drinking and eating and having fun! Processions with music and people dressed up in weird costumes! There were a couple of more festivals we attended, South Thames being one. Just keep checking on the net, something is always on!! Also on New Years you have fireworks at the Thames, good to see once!

The libraries in every council are free, if you pay your council tax. They are very well stocked, and you should definitely get a membership card if you are fond of reading. Very close to the house mostly, so convenient too!

There are many theme based walks conducted in central London for tourists. They are good fun, like the haunted walk taking you through the haunted places in London, Jack the ripper walk taking you through the history of all his victims etc. You can browse through all the options, and decide which walk you want to take.

There are many museums in London, and most of them are free. They are good to spend hours reading about the history of England, as well as the world. Notable among these, would be the Natural History Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum (both in Kensington), the British Museum (Holborn), National Gallery (Trafalgar Square), Tate Modern and Oxo (South Thames) and the Greenwich Museums.

Festivals, Indian and foreign

There are two major temples in London, one is in Wembley: A Jain temple where Hindu festivals are celebrated and one is an ISKON temple in Oxford Street. The Wembley temple has celebrations on major festivals, like Diwali, Shivratri etc. On Diwali, they have some major fireworks near the ground. Also, the ISKON temple is quite active, and you would even see some of the Hare Rama Hare Krishna devotees singing devotional songs, and taking out small small processions in Leicester Square.

On Durga Pooja, you have “Durga ji ki sthapana” by the Bengalis somewhere near Warren Street. On Diwali, Holi etc, you may have some celebrations at Trafalgar square, some events by CRY and Asha as well as certainly celebrations in Southall.

During Christmas, the whole city is decorated. You have stalls and rides setup everywhere, the Oxford Street and Regent Street are decorated with lights on the trees, as well as the sales are on. In Leicester street itself, you will have rides and games for children and carol singing.

Eating in London

Indian :

Chelsea has a couple of good Indian restaurants, famous among them being Chutney Mary. Great food, expensive though.

For Indian food, one must-do is the Lahore Kebab House in East London. Tasty chicken and the yoghurt there is worth dying for. Its quite a favorite among all offices in the City. Also the dal makhni at East is East is something you can only get in India.

Woodlands in Leicester Square has very good chole bhature. Punjab on Holborn has authentic Indian foods. Masala Zone with multiple branches across the city has one of the best chats available in London. The main course isnt as great there though.

Tiffin Bites isn’t the best food, but freely available, and packing is good to eat for lunch at office. Chor Bizarre in Green Park and Gaylords near Oxford Street again have good tasty Indian food, but slightly expensive. Kerala in Oxford Street has tasty food from God's own country. East Ham is famous for Sarvana Bhavan, never tried it though!

Most of the places in London which supposedly sell Indian food are actually Bangladeshi restaurants and the food though ok, will not appeal to the native Indian. As a tip, a sureshot way to know whether its an Indian or a Bangladeshi place is to check whether the place serves 'motor poneer' or not! If its "matar paneer' its Indian, else Bangladeshi.


Couple of chains in and around London which serve amazing food. For tapas, go to La Tasca. Awesome food! For spicy chicken, Nandos with the Peri Peri sauce is a must! For Mexican, would definitely suggest Las Iguanas, South of Thames on the opposite side of embankment, and also Tex Mex in Notting Hill Gate. Both have awesome ambience and good spicy food.

Junk food:

Near the City, couple of shops to pick up really tasty lunch is Wrap it Up and there is this Brazilian chicken place which serves one of the most tasty and spicy chickens ever had for lunch.

Near Bond Street, when you just come out of the station, is this waffle place serving amazing banana and choco waffles.

For ice creams you should definitely try Haagen Daaz. Amazing flavours, and there is this one Haagen Daz shop in Leicester Square, which for one is open till 1:30 am (good when you are done with partying!). Plus they have these amazing desserts there, really something worth dying for, especially the chocolates;-)!!

Other places for eating out:

Just when you get out of Bond Street, if you take a tiny street inside, there is the Christophers Place, where there are couple of good eating places in the open. For random good eating places, try out Westbourne grove, lots of places all around, and of course, Covent Garden and the nearby areas.

London Pubs are everywhere, and all look the same, the atmosphere always jolly:).
The typical English pub has the green black colouring, with a warm feeling. People crowd to pubs every evening, drinking beer and catching up on the gossip. And the only food they serve is fish and chips!

In one of the parallel roads to Leicester Squaure, is Chinatown, lined on both sides by restaurants with all Oriental cuisines, Chinese, Japanese, Korean etc. The food is terrific, of all the times I have randomly entered into any of the restaurants there, the food has always been very good. You should definitely try that sometime.

Starbucks abound everywhere in the city, and even on opposite sides of the road. English tea is a must, its really helpful in the cold English winters.

One place I would definitely suggest to visit is Aisa De Cuba, it has this amazing ambience and very very tasty food too.

The kind of cuisines available in London, its very varied. It's a good idea to keep trying out new stuff. We tried a lot of the Middle Eastern cuisines, Ethiopian, Mexican, Texan, French, Spanish, Japanese etc. Always good to experiment, and more often than not, the experiments turn out successful:)

Architecture in London

The architecture in central London is breathtaking. Old Victorian huge buildings, in brown and white and all stone. The city has managed to retain the old architecture style till now. You come across parks all the way, churches, old historical sites. The roads are lined by trees, especially the smaller ones. As I said, the best way to enjoy London is on foot, explore its intricacies, and with pavements everywhere, its not too tough to do that either!

Travel in London

The moment you are in London, buy the Oyster card. That’s the way to travel the city. Buses abound in London and are a very good way to see the city if you have time. The typical famous red buses are great to travel in especially during summers, and if you can sit on the top deck of a double-decker, its even more fun and gives a better view. The tube gets a lot of brickbats for breaking down sometimes, but is very helpful to reach anywhere within time. Get the tube map when you get into the city, and use it everywhere. The Oyster works on the bus as well as the train, so that’s efficient.

Also, the tube shuts down after 1, so then you may need to take the bus or cabs after that time. The London cabs though cute are quite expensive. Try calling one of the mini cabs in the city, they are much cheaper than the London cabs. You should definitely go in the ferry on the Thames, for the view as well as the history of the city.

There are many airports in London, Heathrow being the major international airport with five terminals. The rest, Luton, Stansted and Gatwick are about an hour away, and more common for low cost airlines, mostly to nearer places within Europe. The City airport is located close to Canary Wharf, and flies to only a few places like Switzerland, Amsterdam etc. The low cost airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet are always a good steal.

Weather in London

Weather in London is highly unpredictable. Winters are cold, with short days. Rain is rampant throughout the year. Always have an overcoat with you, will always need it. As well as the umbrella! It did not snow much in London when I was there, though now its become part of the yearly season cycle. The summers are perfect though, cool and green; worth the long and dreary winters I guess:).

1 comment:

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