Kindly contributed by Jason Cochran, award-winning travel journalist, editor-in-chief of Frommers.com and author of two recently released guidebooks in Frommer's new EasyGuide series, Walt Disney World and Orlando and London. If you haven't seen one of these new lightweight guides, full of practical, easy to absorb information, you're bound to miss out on some important attractions, authentic experiences and expert advice.
London has a reputation for history, but in truth, it’s dug under, restored, renovated, catalogued and overturned so routinely that you’re unlikely to find a mote of dust left there by John Major, let alone King John. London’s attitude is modern, not stuffy. In today’s London, teeth are straight and white, food swings with an Asian twang and history now rests mostly in books and in imagination.
No, what London really does is tradition—and lots of it. Rome may be the Eternal City, but London is an incessant reinvention that clusters around a few inviolable essentials. With the exception of some dearly protected, centrally located spots steeped in tradition— pubs, churches, mansions, banks and of course, lawyers’ offices—behind closed doors and beyond the center, most of London is refurbished between epochs the way the West End’s playhouses change sets between shows. London’s streets are the perfect metaphor for the city as a whole. If we were able to speed up time, we would see buildings rise and fall along them in quick succession. But the routes between those ephemeral structures have barely shifted since the Romans and Medievals first beat them. Tourists tend to huddle in the center of the sprawl but you don’t have to go too far back in time to realize that London itself is a contemporary notion. It’s really an amalgam of villages that wound up pressed together as the population grew. The best way to get a feel for the shift in energy and ethic between the various villages is to walk those old streets—and to keep walking long after the point at which you wonder if you should head back from the Tube stop you just left. Don’t worry. There’ll be another train station somewhere ahead of you, and if you have an Oyster card with money on it, you can get back to home back easily enough.
Very soon, your eyes are opened to the village-ness of London. How quickly her mood can shift in just a few blocks! Cross over the Millennium Bridge from the prosperity of St Paul’s to the cobbled lane of Clink Street, just now recovering from its long tenure as a wharf for laborers and the poor. Amble from the village-like center of Greenwich, through a historic river tunnel, and among the luxury lofts on the Isle of Dogs that were built on old shipping yards for entitled Canary Wharf bankers. Watch the standard of luxury advance from the Georgian brickwork of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia to the stately and self-contained avenues of Marylebone to the impersonal sweep of Victorian townhouse developments of Bayswater. The Tube is an engineering marvel and worthy of exploration on its own, but it’s a trickster. Tourists dart into one Westminster wormhole and come out another, paying £4 a pop for the luxury. They see the stitches but miss the tapestry. Some of my favorite days in London have nothing to do with its museums (best in the world), restaurants (top of the game) and grande dame hotels (no city does them better, and in greater quantity). No, the best days are the ones when I start walking with no plan at all. Just walk and open your eyes.
That’s how you create the indelible vision, obsessively invoked by Monet, of greeting dawn on the Thames as the boats begin to stir. Or of surveying the city with the yuppies and purebred dogs on Primrose Hill. Or of drinking yourself into a progressive sense of gratitude and discovery by ambling from pub to pub near the canals that slice quietly through Islington or Limehouse. Vauxhall to Brixton. Stratford to West Ham—the time-frozen, velvet-rope universe of Historic Royal Palaces and English Heritage gives way to the messier reality of an ever-changing city that inspired the rest of the world with its restlessness. As you cross successive high streets and pass through immigrant clusters that weren’t there a generation ago, you finally see that London is, in fact, a historical city that constantly amends its history. Yet one tradition remains above all: London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Walk, and its miracle solidifies. London’s true engine has had little to do with kings, queens, or high tea, but with a harmonious haphazardness that most cities could never contain without collapsing. A city like London can never be truly grasped until you have learned to join the dots and see it as a whole, the way the ancients saw mere constellations and immortalized them by speaking their stories out loud.