City of blinding lights offers difference experience with each visit

LONDON could be forgiven for resting on its laurels.

City of blinding lights offers difference experience with each visit

In the space of a year, after all, we’ve seen a royal wedding, a stonking great Olympic Games, a golden jubilee, the Tube’s 150th birthday, the birth of Prince George Alexander Louis, and the opening of the EU’s tallest building (The Shard).

Phew. With a hit list like that, any other city would be happy to sit back and listen to the collective sound of its cash registers chiming. Ker-ching!

But London is not any other city. The UK capital is a churning, frenetic place. It’s been around for millennia, but still bursts with the energy of a three-year old. It has its red buses and royal palaces, its Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, but it’s also teeming with cutting-edge art, fashion, markets, shops and tunes. With eight million citizens, 300 languages and countless neighbourhoods, it couldn’t stand still even if it wanted to.

That’s why, no matter how often you’ve visited, it’s always worth going back. There’s forever something new in London. Like New York or Berlin, it’s almost as if it’s impossible to visit the same city twice. And that’s a fantastically refreshing thing.

Did you know London has several outdoor swimming pools and lidos? I didn’t. But needs must, and as summer heatwaves bear down on the city, locals and tourists alike have been seeking out the open-air oases at Tooting Bec, London Fields (where the American Paralympic swim team trained in 2012) and Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lido.

Tooting Bec lido (tootingbeclido.co.uk; £6.20/€7.22) is the largest outdoor pool in the UK, and made a cameo appearance in one of Brad Pitt’s boxing scenes in Snatch (2000). It opens to the public from May to Sept and, weird and all as it feels to swim outdoors in one of the world’s most visited cities, this hasn’t exactly been a normal summer…

Another place to cool down is the Café in the Crypt, squirrelled away in the 18th century crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields (stmartin-in-the-fields.org). The historic church is best-known for its choral and chamber music — lunchtime shows are free, and evening performances often take place by candlelight — but what lies beneath is just as interesting. Homemade fare runs right through breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Afternoon tea, with scones, clotted cream, jam, double-chocolate fudge cake, cherry cake and tea or coffee, has to be one of the best deals in the city at £5.95/€6.80pp.

Take high tea at The Ritz, by contrast, and you’ll pay £45/€51.50pp.

St Martin’s is in Trafalgar Square, where another local secret lies virtually unnoticed in the National Gallery (nationalgallery.org.uk; free). Everybody knows the gallery itself, but few visitors — not to mention Londoners — know about Room A, a storage facility that opens to the public on Wednesday afternoons only. It’s closed till 2014, but chalk it down… amongst the 800 works are treasures by Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Raphael.

Not many people think of London as a family-friendly city break, but there are ways and means of making it affordable. The National Gallery does free family workshops for kids aged five -11, for instance, as does The British Museum (britishmuseum.org), and the Tate Modern (tate.org.uk), in the shape of creative open studios every weekend.

Aug also ushers in Kids Week (kidsweek.co.uk), a theatre community initiative allowing children aged 16 or under to see shows for free, as long as they’re accompanied by a paying adult. The ‘week’ extends throughout the month, and going to press, Mama Mia!, Billy Elliot and The Sound of Music were amongst the shows for which tickets were available.

Another city surprise takes place on Friday, Aug 30, in the shape of a bat walk through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park (royalparks.org.uk; £8/€9.31 and £9.15/€10.65 U8s free). Guided by the Royal Parks Foundation education team, the walk takes place at night and uses bat detectors to help make echolocation calls audible to the human ear… owls may be spotted too.

Speaking of detective work, one of London’s best small museums is found at 221B Baker Street. Along with No.7 Eccles Street or 24 Charing Cross Road, this must be one of the most famous addresses in fiction, a thin little Victorian house whose front door opens to reveal the Sherlock Holmes Museum (sherlock-holmes.co.uk; £8/€9.15).

The detail is delicious. I stepped past an old costumed bobby at the door.Creaking floorboards led through several stories crammed with Victoriana. In the study, a pipe rack, chaise longue and writing bureau overlooked Baker Street.

Not that Holmes actually lived here (he was fictional, remember?) but the layout perfectly evokes his first-floor apartment, and the building did in fact serve as a lodging house from 1860 to 1934.

Let the atmosphere wash over you, and you can imagine hansom cabs clip-clopping through foggy nights and even the cloak-and-dagger presence of Professor Moriarty…

In Conan Doyle’s novels, several adventures begin with clients writing to the famous detective, and fans still continue the tradition, it seems. “I have heard that some of the lads of London help you from time to time in solving crimes,” writes one five-year-old boy from Florida. “I would like to let you know that I also am at your service.”

After inhabiting the world of Conan Doyle’s characters, I skulked over to Fleet Street to inhabit one of his former drinking holes, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub (Wine Office Court, 145 Fleet Street). “Rebuilt 1667” says the sign, giving some idea of its vintage. The warren of rooms here contains walls so black you’d almost walk into them.

This is old-school. The pub has seen 15 monarchs come and go, and it’s easy to imagine locals quaffing as London burned, as Jack the Ripper terrorised Whitehall, as the Olympics came and went in 1948 and 2012. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens even describes Charles Darnay venturing “…up a covered way, into a tavern... where [he] was soon recruiting his strength with a good plain dinner and good wine.”

That’s what I love about London. One minute, you’re chucking back Lemon Drop cocktails at sultry new arrivals like 5CC (5cc-london.com). The next, you’re staring at the Crown Jewels, or drinking in an alehouse in the shadow of St. Paul’s.

The only thing resting on laurels here are the visitors.

Flights

There are direct flights to London from Cork, Dublin, Ireland West and Shannon with Ryanair (Ryanair.com), Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and CityJet (cityjet.com).

Getting around

Public transport is the quickest and cheapest way of getting around central London. A day ticket on the Tube costs from £8.80/€10.10 and allows unlimited travel within Zones 1 and 2, where the vast majority of attractions are found. Taxis are expensive.

Where to stay

Visit London (visitlondon.com) has a handy accommodation page. Lastminute.com has flights from Cork with two nights in a 4-star from Aug 25-26 from €326pp.

View from the Shard

The Shard’s viewing platform offers a 40-mile panorama over the city. It also offers a £24.95/€28.60pp entry fee. Which is more eye-watering? See theviewfromtheshard.com.

Notting Hill Carnival

Perhaps London’s most vibrant summer event, the Notting Hill Carnival takes place over the UK bank holiday weekend (Aug 25-26). It’s the largest street festival in Europe, awash with Calypso music, Carribean food and colourful floats. See thenottinghillcarnival.com.

Further information

If you’re interested in big hits like the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey then you could save money by picking up a London Pass (londonpass.com; £47/€54 for one day, £64/€73 for two). Discounts and fast-pass access are also a feature.

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