To the casual observer, London may present itself as a capital wedded to traditional and, at times, perplexing institutions, particularly over the past year, with Britain’s rotating cast of prime ministers and the choreographed schedule of mourning after Queen Elizabeth II’s death. In actuality, London is a complex knot of old and new. And trying to conquer it in one weekend is an almost impossible task. This itinerary – which traverses an 1800s wine bar loved by a new generation, a night out in South London’s Caribbean heart, centuries of British art under one roof and riverside strolls – is here to help you unlock some of the city’s sprawling, youthful and diverse nature.
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4pm: Walk the Queen’s Walk
This year, images from the South Bank of the River Thames were beamed around the world as mourners waited in a dizzyingly long line — known in Britain simply as “The Queue” — to see the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II lying in state. Stroll down the Queen’s Walk, where the mourners lined up for hours. Take the riverside route that stretches from Tower Bridge to the Golden Jubilee Bridges. The walk is touristy, yes, but it is also pleasant. Most of all, it’s an exercise in efficiency: In addition to views of the Thames, highlights of the hourlong walk include the HMS Belfast, London Bridge, the Clink Prison Museum, Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theater and the British Film Institute.
5:30pm: Grab an early drink
Cross over to Victoria Embankment to find Gordon’s, which is thought to be London’s oldest wine bar. Established in 1890, this bar may be lovingly called “London’s worst-kept secret,” but an early drink here is a great scene setter for the night, and it improves your chances of getting in before the crowds. Sit inside the cosy wine cellar, where the lights are dim and the decor is suitably old-timey. You can also grab a seat outside, at tables right next to Victoria Embankment Gardens; Britons love an alfresco drink, whatever the season. A glass of wine is unlikely to cost more than 15 pounds (S$24.24).
8pm: Eat something new
In the past two years, London’s Chinatown has experienced closures of decades-old, well-loved establishments. The area still has a lot to offer visitors, however. Four Seasons on Gerrard Street is a reliable favorite (be sure to order a portion of the boneless roast duck, 16.80 pounds), or check out fellow stalwart Cafe TPT to enjoy some honey-roasted pork (8 pounds). For something new, the Thai-Chinese restaurant Speedboat Bar opened this year and has an energetic, colorful atmosphere. Order the spicy prawn ceviche (12 pounds) to start; the beef tongue and tendon curry (14 pounds) is a worthy choice for a main.
11pm: Head to a comedy show
Round out the night with some laughs at the Top Secret Comedy Club in Covent Garden. There are few aesthetic frills at this treasured venue, but it hosts some of the best comedy in the country and serves drinks at prices rarely seen in the West End (pints start at 3 pounds; wine at 3.30 pounds). On some nights, the club teases audiences with a secret “celebrity guest” on its lineup – usually a well-known comedian testing out material before a tour. Tickets for the “late late” show, the final of the night, are about 10 pounds each. (Tickets usually sell out, so book ahead.)
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10am: Have ‘the full English’
The full English breakfast elicits a strength of feeling among Britons. (Its price is often used as a litmus test for the nation’s economic health.) And it has an almost medicinal quality. A busy day ahead? Nursing a hangover? There’s no salve like it. Go to E Pellicci, a 122-year-old cafe (caff) in London’s East End with an intense sense of community and an old-school feel. It has wooden art deco paneling from the 1940s and is listed with English Heritage, a charity that manages historical sites. The “Classic Set” (10.40 pounds) has all the makings of a perfect fry-up – toast, sausage, egg, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and beans – while the “Have the Lot” (13.80 pounds) adds black pudding and hash browns. (There’s also a vegetarian option.) Hit an ATM beforehand; it’s cash only.
12:30p.m: Get a literature fix
Bloomsbury is the heart of literary London – it was once home to Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens, whose former home on Doughty Street is open to visitors – and there is no better place in the city to shop for books. Visit Gay’s the Word, a small but mighty bookshop founded in 1979 by the Gay Icebreakers, a socialist group. There are badges for sale and a display of protest pins belonging to gay activist Paud Hegerty, a former manager of the shop. Other highlights in the area are secondhand bookshops Skoob Books and Judd Books. A 15-minute walk away is the bookshop of The London Review of Books. It has a beloved cafe where you can pore over your spoils with coffee and cake.
3:30pm: Soak up British art
There are few better places to visualise Britain’s grappling with old and new than Tate Britain in Millbank. (It is one of two Tate museums in London; Tate Modern has an international and contemporary remit.) There is a free exhibit of works dating to the Tudor period, and you can view art by John Everett Millais and William Hogarth. The museum is also home to the world’s largest free display of work by painter Joseph Mallord William Turner – the eponym of Britain’s Turner Prize. Another free highlight is the display Sixty Years: The Unfinished Conversation, through spring, which features works by Black photographers such as Bandele Ajetunmobi and Ajamu and Caribbean artists such as Donald Locke.
7pm: Eat in Brixton
Three stops on the tube will take you to a neighbourhood that is seldom included in guides, but that encapsulates what makes the city hum: Its immigrant communities. Brixton is one of the beating hearts of Black London, with an integral Caribbean community that’s thriving despite gentrification pressures. (Learn more history at the Black Cultural Archives, which is open until 6pm on Saturdays.) Pull up a bench at Fish, Wings & Tings, a popular stop for jerk chicken with rice and peas and coleslaw (14 pounds), along with a blaring soundtrack outside Brixton Village market. Or head up the road to Negril, a small and understated Caribbean restaurant on Brixton Hill, where a side dish of salt fish fritters with lime mayo and hot sauce is a must.
9pm: Lose yourself in the beat
Brixton’s music scene is just as vibrant as its culinary offerings. (Fun fact: David Bowie was born and spent some of his childhood here.) Buskers perform outside the tube station, and songs such as Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue and the Clash’s Guns of Brixton nod to the area. After dinner, go to Effra Street’s Hootananny, a music venue in a converted Victorian pub with an impressive beer garden out front. It has DJ sets, and its live music calendar runs the cultural gamut, from nights of traditional Balkan music to Colombian folk and reggae.
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10am: Shop and snack
Brick Lane has one of the largest Bangladeshi communities in London, the best curry houses in the city and plenty of street art. Start at Rajmahal Sweets for a snack of sweet jalebi or savory samosas before heading to Brick Lane Vintage Market, a thrifters paradise in a sprawling basement with hundreds of stalls to explore. Trips can be overwhelming yet productive. Atika is a vintage department store with an amazing selection of art prints, ceramics, jewelry and books. Around the corner, the Black-owned Jen’s Plants and Florist sells beautiful dried flowers that can be packed away in your holdall. Also check out nearby Spitalfields Market, where you can find eclectic vintage curios that will make perfect gifts for those back home.
Noon: Settle in for a roast
The Sunday roast, much like the fry-up, is a national institution. The Old Queens Head pub in Islington, with its club nights and live music, feels like the preserve of the young and hip during the week, but Sundays are a change of pace. Settle upstairs for a choice of roasted meats, including chicken and leg of lamb, as well as a vegan option in the chestnut and mushroom Wellington; all come with the trimmings (13.50 to 15.95 pounds). For something more upmarket, try the Quality Chop House in Farringdon for a three-course roast (39 pounds). If it’s available, order the Capezzana olive-oil ice cream for dessert. This option is for the preplanner: Sunday reservations get snapped up weeks in advance.
2pm: Stroll by Regent’s Canal
Walk off your roast along Regent’s Canal, which stretches to a length of almost nine miles. Tackle a portion by starting at Canalside Square, a seven-minute walk from the Old Queens Head pub, and stroll in the direction of Haggerston. The walk is beautiful and leisurely, with kitschy canalboats often lining the waterway. For a walk of around 30 to 40 minutes, exit the canal walkway at the East London neighborhood London Fields, which contains the excellent Broadway Market and a gorgeous park. Grab pastries from the market and sit in the park for a scenic and peaceful end to a lively weekend.
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Tate Britain is a museum in Millbank that charts centuries of art created in Britain.
E Pellicci is a 122-year-old traditional “caff” in East London.
Gay’s the Word, established in 1979, is considered London’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore.
Brick Lane Vintage Market is a subterranean thrifters bazaar, selling vintage and independently made clothing and accessories.
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WHERE TO EAT
Gordon’s Wine Bar, established in 1890 and thought to be London’s oldest wine bar, is next to Victoria Embankment Gardens.
Cafe TPT and Four Seasons are beloved restaurants in Chinatown, in the West End, known for their roast meats.
Speedboat Bar is a new Thai-Chinese fusion restaurant and bar in Chinatown.
Fish, Wings & Tings is a South London restaurant serving Caribbean cuisine in Brixton Village market.
Negril is a small Caribbean restaurant on Brixton Hill.
The Old Queens Head is a pub in Islington, in North London, serving a hearty Sunday roast.
The Quality Chop House is a modern British restaurant in Farringdon, in Central London, with an impressive Sunday set menu.
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WHERE TO STAY
London’s outpost of The Standard is sleek and stylish with a perfect location – it’s a two-minute walk from King’s Cross Station and a short train ride into Central London. A double room hovers around 349 pounds a night.
For those seeking amazing views of the Thames, Sea Containers on the South Bank is an excellent option. A double room starts at 261 pounds a night.
The Zetter Townhouse, a 13-room Georgian town house in Clerkenwell, is full of charm and eccentric decor. Rooms start from 249 pounds a night.
For those on a budget, rooms at the trendy Mama Shelter in Shoreditch start at around 100 pounds a night, while Assembly in Covent Garden puts you at the center of the city without breaking the bank (rooms start at 100 pounds).
Shoreditch in East London can be ridiculously hip, but it is a perfect, slightly off-the-beaten-track location for short-term rentals. Marylebone is also a good option for those who want to be closer to the center of town.
By Desiree Ibekwe © The New York Times Company
The article originally appeared in The New York Times.