Playing Tourist: My 24 Hours in London
London was my home many years ago, and while I loved to show off her grandeur, I soon grew tired of the crowds around Big Ben and Parliament. Only recently did I have the desire to play tourist again, and what I did with my 24 hours in London was pure magic.
A drive in from the waters near Portsmouth was filled with construction delays, but well worth it when I reached the bright lights of Oxford and Piccadilly Circus. Next, I headed to the Mandarin Oriental (MO) Hotel to check in, change, and head out for dinner. My room was the only suite with a balcony large enough to throw a big-time party – if only I had more warning, I could have made it happen!
The MO has a super location and a fun vibe but maintains the property’s great traditional façade and attitude. I tasted some killer late-night cocktails at the Mandarin Bar. The place was packed, but the service was great, and the barmen were quick on the draw at delivering their signature drinks. Breakfast was a huge assortment of British traditional dishes in a sunlit and contemporary space, with some international favorites added for the jet-lagged clientele.
Although my room was a bit worn from use (soon to be updated, I was assured), I loved the openness and light and airy feeling. The linens were fluffy and soft, and the bed was so comfortable that I hit the snooze button a couple of times. The bathrooms are updated with marble and have everything necessary for a gal to glam up properly. The room itself was enormous. There was a sitting area in front of the fireplace, a separate work area, and built-in closets galore, clearly overkill for my short stay but much appreciated. And, had I more time to visit, I would have spent at least a half a day in their award-winning spa.
Behind the hotel is London’s 350-acre Royal Hyde Park and adjoining 275 acres of Kensington Gardens. A quick walk through the parks reveals a plethora of leisure activities, like horseback riding, boating, tennis, swimming, and bird-watching, to name a few.
Various hop-on, hop-off bus tour stops surrounding the parks make it easy to pick up a tour at will and interrupt it whenever you want to spend more time exploring on foot. I chose a company that allowed me to not only see London via an open-deck red bus but also by water via a ferry.
First-time visitors will appreciate getting an overall view of London attractions like the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, the Marble Arch, and the gigantic London Eye Ferris wheel. The water cruise part of the tour gives visitors a unique vantage point for viewing Shakespeare’s Globe and the London Bridge.
After a full day of getting reacquainting with the city, it was time for an authentic Lebanese meal at one of my favorite places in Shepherd Market. Al Hamra boasts one of the largest menus of traditional Lebanese food. There are over fifty appetizers, both hot and cold, from which to choose. Westerners unfamiliar with the cuisine might be taken aback by the “salad” coming in a deconstructed form, but it’s delicious. A plate with whole carrots, tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers that patrons eat with their fingers, dipping into scrumptious hummus, is an old-world and family-style way to eat. The main dishes are a smorgasbord of meat and fish with exotic ingredients cooked over a charcoal grill. Lahem Meshwi Bil Foter, skewered lamb meat with mushrooms, is to die for, and for the adventurous eaters, the lamb’s liver in lemon juice is quite tasty.
The only thing left to do is visit a traditional British pub for a pint. Ye Grapes has been pulling pints since 1882. The original Victorian building façade and décor inside is a return to a bygone era, but it is also updated with flat screen televisions for watching rugby, football (soccer), and cricket matches. The party spills out onto the street until quiet hours for the neighborhood begin and moves back inside for a late-night rendezvous.
For a more upscale, business-type brew or crafty cocktail, try the American Bar at the Stafford Hotel. The place is full of nostalgia. Patrons have literally decorated the bar from top to bottom with memorabilia from around the world.
Is it possible to see all of London in 24 hours? Certainly not, but what you can experience in a short period will whet your appetite for a longer visit next time. London’s history through the landscape, food and drink is palpable.