Maybe you’ve lived in London for a while and are revisiting your old haunt (like me); or you’re just swinging by Londinium again for the fifth time because you happen to be in the region and you like London awfully much (like me). If you’ve been there and done most of that in the city, here’s our guide to a few extra things you could do if you’ve got a few short days here and have done the usual tourist sights.
But before we move on, let’s get one detail out of the way. This is not a shopaholic’s guide. Everyone else, come along….
WHERE TO GO:
Potterheads, set aside one day for the Warner Bros Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter. We spent an entire afternoon there, up close and on the set of the Harry Potter movies. With 10 years’ worth of original sets, props, costumes, drafts and drawings, you get all the behind-the-scenes secrets you want.
The tour starts off with you walking into the amazing dining hall of Hogworth’s (marvel, swoon, faint!), then on to see props big and small and fascinating, like the entrance to the Rusty Cauldron, the dining room of the Weasley house, the Hogworth common room, Snape’s potion room, even the house at Privet Lane, the room under the stairs and the Knight Bus (minus the talking head). It’s amazing to see the details of every prop, including the innocuous ones that are just small components of the set – for example, the labels of every bottle of potion on the shelves is handwritten, and the names on each of the 17,000 wand boxes at Olivander’s is unique.
The tour takes about three hours, and tickets are timed so you can’t just wander in anytime you like. With two cafes within the sprawling studio, you don’t have to worry about getting hungry. The studio is located about one hour out of central London, so unless you’re diving, the easiest way to do the tour is buy a ticket from Golden Tours which brings you, at fixed departure times, from their pick up point at the Colonnade Mall near London’s Victoria Station, to the studios and back. The coach ticket includes the entrance ticket to the studio timed to coincide with your arrival. No hassle, just loads of fun. We did the 10am departure which got us to the studio by 11.15am, with lots of time to shop for Potter souvenirs until entry time at noon. We could tell you more about the studio, but we’ll just spoil the fun.
Here’s a tip though: get to the pick-up point at Victoria about half an hour early to bag the good seats on the coach. After the tour, the coach brought us back to London around 5pm, with enough time to comfortably catch a musical in the evening.
If you love history like me, visit Kensington Palace after its major refurbishment, with three new, stunningly artistic exhibitions of the merry monarchs of England. We loved ‘Victoria Revealed’, a touching exhibition of the tender, romantic relationship between the grouchy looking, black-clad Queen and her husband Albert, all described in her own words, excerpts from her personal diary. See her wedding gown, insights into her own unhappy childhood, toys and clothes of her kids. We loved how she reminded her husband so very nicely that at the end of the day, she was the boss, and sighed at how she bid her beloved Albert goodbye when he died at only 42. It’s a beautiful exhibition not to be missed. Head to the Queen’s Apartments to see an almost surreal presentation of the end of the Stuart dynasty through the eyes and (imagined) dreams of Prince William who danced himself to death on his 11th birthday party, and hear the walls literally whisper with place gossip.
Finally explore the King’s State Apartments (above) and enjoy its interactive adventure game where you pretend you’re a newbie at the court of George I and II. Are you going to be conservative and safe, or flamboyant and bold and take risks? Head through the Presence Chamber, the Cuppola Room and further into the King’s chambers through cunning or trust at the king’s court. If you play the game right, you may find out the secret code and end up with a ‘royal appointment’, like my kid did. What a funky way to see history for you and older kids.
We hoped to see the fourth exhibit about the modern royals including the iconic Princess Di and her clothes – but it wasn’t opened yet when we were there, though it’s due later this summer. After the history lessons, take a retail break at the Palace shop, and trot down the garden to the Orangerie for a spot of lunch or tea with other blue-rinsed ladies. They offer a very British and polished if unimaginative menu, but just sitting in the elegant surrounds is nice enough. Entry to Kensington Gdns is £15 per adult, while kids go in free. You can buy the tickets online.
Yes, it is a usual tourist venue, but like every visit to Paris demands a drop-in at the Louvre, every drop-in to London requires a visit to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. They often have new works and admittedly, it’s just a place I love to go back to again and again. Not being particularly religious, I can’t say I’m all that crazed over the 13th century ecclesiastical works, but add on a few hundred years and the pictures become more appealing from the 1700s to early 20thC. It’s a joy to see them over and over again, and certainly not a place to hurry through. Give yourself time to gape and gawk at the works of the grand masters, and read the little explanatory labels that tell extraordinary stories of each of the paintings. After that, knock yourself out at the shop with its lovely range of postcards, posters and art books; or stop at their rather popular restaurant upstairs for a light meal. The food isn’t bad even if the service is a tad slow. Here’s a tip – there’s a perfect photo op looking outwards from the main terrace of the National Gallery. You get Trafalgar Square and Big Ben in a nice line…and look out for a fluttering Union Jack between the two landmarks. (Entry is free, but do donate a polite £4 per person to help the gallery upkeep the enjoyment.)
In summer, buskers hang around Trafalgar Square into the night. When we were there not long ago, tourists were dancing spontaneously to the sound of blues and jazz emanating from a sax into the night. It was really quite magical under the glow of the lamps and the darkened statues. Loved it!
While you’re in the vicinity, drop into the National Portrait Gallery next door. It’s fun and fascinating, seeing faces gaze out at you from centuries ago – kings, queens, famous people, people who have been beheaded…all sorts…and well into the 20th century with photograph portraits. Certain Friday nights offer sketching activities with wine, so if you’re in town over the weekend, check it out on the website. There are two shops in this gallery – one is the gallery shop itself with a nice collection of postcards and souvenirs based on the artworks, and in the basement next to the café, a lovely art bookstore with tomes for adults and kids. It’s a great spot for gifts and bookish indulgence.
Speaking of bookish delights, across the road from the National Gallery at the junction between Northampton Ave and The Strand is a large Waterstone’s bookstore with good coffee upstairs. The books include a great section of cookbooks, thrillers and crime, and classic and modern lit. Round the corner at the church St Martin in the Fields, pop into the shop in the basement next to Café in the Crypt for high quality souvenirs and gifts. The café runs jazz nights every Wednesdays with dinner, I think, so if that’s your kind of music, buy a ticket and spend an evening there.
In the evenings, we caught a couple of musicals – Rock of Ages, raunchy, funny and good fun with loads of 1980s rock anthems, at Garrick Theatre. Watch out for the theatre attendents who rock along with the music and attempt to hawk bottled beer with a swagger and rock ‘n roll attitude. Absolutely fun. Under 16s are not advised to attend, but they’ll let the kids in if accompanied by presumably responsible parents, so my kid got in without a hitch.
On the other end of the spectrum, we also saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which very recently opened, at the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. The special effects, sets and props for this family musical is quite amazing really, and it’s nice to see how the audience comprise of elderly people, dating couples and kids – a testimony to the lasting appeal of Roald Dahl. It was an enjoyable musical even if it didn’t knock my socks off, but if you have kids in tow, this is not to be missed. For a bit of grown up fun, buy a big glass of wine to bring into the theatre and have a very reasonably priced G&T waiting for you at intermission.
Where To Eat:
Call it gastro-fatigue, but we resolutely did not go on a Michelin hunt this time. It’s nice to totter around London and discover little cafes and deserving restaurants on your own. The traditional Sunday roast was rather nice albeit slow slow slow at Bumpkin at 102 Old Brompton Road. It’s a pretty, rustic restaurant with a pub in the front. The restaurant at the back serves nice trad Sunday roast (just over £19) with enormous crusty Yorkshire pudding and a tempting wine menu and knock out fish & chips. The beef was a bit stringy but the lamb was good. The considerable wine list and cocktail options were well priced.
We stumbled quite by accident onto the newly opened Jamie Oliver’s Union Jacks at Covent Garden which serves British fare, updated with a touch of Mediterranean influences. So new it was still working out its teething problems – a number of dishes and drinks had run out (!), the service was a bit sloppy even if they were all rather friendly and the tables were too cramped. But the food was really quite good: loved the chicken livers with toast, the fried mushrooms were a good beer bite, and the pizza we ordered, called The Banger, topped with British sausages (£13.75), was delicious. Prices were spot on. Three of us ate one pizza, three starters, four drinks and the bill came up to just over £50 though the cocktails were rather overpriced. (This is a good spot to eat just before heading to the theatres at Drury Lane – a three-minute walk away.)
Our last meal in London was at Italian restaurant Fratelli la Bufala (35-37 Villiers St, London WC2N 6ND) at Embankment. There are two in London – one at Shaftesbury Avenue and the second one here. I must say, for a quick, mid-market meal, it was very enjoyable. The Casertana pizza we had with broccoli rabe, sausage and mozarella had a lovely chewy fragrant pizza base and a rich, cheesy topping – a little salty perhaps but altogether really fun to eat. We had the most enormous classic tomato bruschettas ever, and a nice pinot grigio to wash it down before catching the long flight home. We were in a hurry, told them so and were in and out of the restaurant in 25 minutes. Perfect and service was suitably friendly.
Finally, I will admit that in these 3 days of revisiting old haunts and experiences, I managed to slip in one campy, cheesy meal down memory lane at Chinatown. My favourite old restaurant from student days is no longer there, so I slipped into a suitably old fashioned one – not Wong Kei please! – serving a suitably old fashioned menu. (Told the daughter it was the quintessential Singapore student experience when you’re a bit homesick and deprived of Asian food, and that it was cheesy experience she had to experience….in case she decided to study in London in future.) Amid the usual din and working round my rusty Cantonese, I ordered a shamelessly old fashioned menu I enjoyed lifetimes ago – Singapore noodles, Westlake beef broth and roast duck. The noodles were a little bland, the beef broth was oozing with corn flour and MSG and the roast duck drowning in oil…but it was a tiny, clandestine spot of delight. Loved it.
Where to stay:
Citadines Prestige Trafalgar Square is fantastically located at Trafalgar Square between Embankment and Charing Cross Tube. Both are within five minutes walk from the hotel while Leicester Square Tube is about 7 minutes walk away. Leicester Square, Soho, Covent Garden and many many theatres are easily walkable. While not superbly luxurious, it’s more than adequate, and the apart’hotel concept gives you a kitchenette and more space than most hotels in London. There are at least two 24-hour express supermarkets and three drugstores like Boots within five minutes’ walk. Service at the hotel is friendly and efficient and gives you if nothing else, free coffee in the lobby. From S$440 or HK$2730 a night.