Mr. Harper, the Andrew Harper Travel Office, the Harper Alliance, Travel Partners and some of our London hoteliers provide insight as to why a visit to this global city never disappoints.
If Samuel Johnson lived in London today, he no doubt would put an exclamation point on his famous observation that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." Modern London is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city on the cutting edge of art, fashion, theater, architecture and culture. London never sits still, and each visit to the British capital results in discovery of something new and different. Yet, the more London changes, the more it embraces its history and traditions, remaining comfortable and welcoming to first-time and seasoned visitors alike. With the upcoming royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, as well as the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, London will be showcasing its dynamic past, present and future.
What recent changes in and around London do you think a traveler would find most noticeable?
Mr. Harper: Frankly, I have been astounded to find London so little changed. Despite its economy being heavily reliant on The City financial district, the restaurants are still bursting, and the prices (of just about everything) every bit as ludicrous as before. Of course, the financial crisis had its victims, but you'd never know that from the mood on the streets. London has all of its pre-crash energy and prosperity (whereas Paris seems very subdued these days). One noticeable change is an increasing number of tall buildings in The City and at Canary Wharf. Stand at the northern end of Waterloo Bridge - the best view in London - and you will see small forests of glass and steel towers, including The Shard (aka London Bridge Tower), Renzo Piano's elegant 1,017-foot office building scheduled for completion in May 2012. There will be a public viewing gallery on the 72nd floor, which, they say, will draw two million visitors a year.
Harper Alliance: Account Manager for Europe, Colin Housley, says, "You cannot miss the blue Barclays bicycles - sometimes called 'Boris's bikes' after London's mayor. You can rent the bikes from docking stations in parks, on city streets and near most of central London's popular destinations."
Harper Alliance Partners: Interest in premier league soccer matches - particularly from U.S. travelers - also has increased, says Darren Muylders, concierge at The Athenaeum Hotel and Apartments. Meanwhile, Melisa Novick, The Halkin's regional director for sales, the Americas, recommends the cutting-edge experience of reenergized East London, which is being reshaped by development related to the Olympics, the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras and the new city airport.
Mr. Harper: Indeed, Mr. Harper notes that once-gritty districts such as Clerkenwell now have fine restaurants and trendy galleries - and even passable hotels, such as The Zetter.
What London experience never disappoints you?
Mr. Harper: Walking in the parks. I learned from a recent article in Vanity Fair that J.D. Salinger was particularly fond of Regent's Park. Every visitor will likely have a favorite. I think mine is Kensington Gardens, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon in spring, when the floral borders are at their most colorful. I like to join the Londoners and their children at the Round Pond close to Kensington Palace, and then stroll down the hill to the Serpentine, admiring the Henry Moore sculpture along the way. But then I also love to leave the urban civility of St James's and, crossing The Mall, make a leisurely circuit of St. James's Park. You often hear a military band in the distance and catch a glimpse of the scarlet guardsmen's tunics through the trees. In high summer, I make my way up to Hampstead and wander on the Heath next to Kenwood House (which has a wonderful collection of Turners and Gainsboroughs, should you tire of the great outdoors). And in the evening, after an early dinner in Notting Hill, I go over to Holland Park for the outdoor opera at the Holland Park Theatre. This year, they are mounting new productions of "Rigoletto," "Don Pasquale" and "The Marriage of Figaro." Perhaps I will see you there!
Harper Alliance Partners: Novick says you can't go wrong with the many museums and galleries throughout London - most of which are free and offer the best in history and art. Performances at the Royal Opera House and Sadler's Wells Theatre also are favorites. Frank Laino, head concierge at The Stafford London by Kempinski, adds that Westminster Abbey - "the most breathtaking place in the capital" - is always popular. The Cabinet War Rooms are Muylders' favorite London experience.
Andrew Harper Travel Office: European Team Leader Bonnie Minutillo says an out-of-hours tour of the Tower of London for a private viewing of the Crown Jewels is a must-do.
What would be on your agenda for the perfect London day? Does this agenda change with the seasons?
Mr. Harper: My agendas definitely change with the seasons. In summer, I could take a stroll through one of the garden squares in Kensington or Chelsea, or wander down the Thames from Westminster Bridge to the Tate Modern, before crossing Norman Foster's pedestrian bridge to the North Bank for the incomparable view of St. Paul's. I might have a fish lunch at Scott's in Mount Street, or Wiltons in Jermyn Street and then visit one of the smaller museums. The Wallace Collection is a favorite, as is Leighton House. Then a taxi over to one of my favorite bookshops - Daunt - on Marylebone High street. The Royal Opera in Covent Garden is wonderful on a summer evening, when the crowds spill out into the Piazza. But the small music venues such as St. John's, Smith Square; and the Wigmore Hall are enchanting. In winter, I like to live the cliché and do my Christmas shopping at Harrods, followed by roast pheasant or game pie at Rules, and a turn around the skating rink at Somerset House.
Andrew Harper Travel Office: Team Leader Rob Frisch suggests attending "evensong" at Westminster Abbey. "The abbey feels especially atmospheric in the early evening, when the lighting is low and the music of the boys' choir echoes off the ancient stones. It's a totally different experience from visiting during the day, when tourists crowd the church," he says.
Harper Alliance Partners: On a clear day, Laino says, a climb up the steps of the dome of St. Paul's to the Whispering Gallery will reward you with one of the finest views in all of London. For another fantastic view, Novick suggests having lunch at the OXO Tower, followed by a performance at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, just a short walk down the South Bank. Near the Globe you'll find the Tate Modern, where you can catch a riverboat up the Thames to the Tate Britain. Or, stop in and hear the debates at Parliament (when it is in session). A stroll through a park or garden is essential in the spring, when "the daffodils and tulips in the Royal Parks particularly light up the city," Novick says. Muylders notes that the run up to Christmas brings a special vibe, with holiday lights throughout the city, festively decorated shops and streets, ice rinks, seasonal theater shows, and special dinners and events.
Harper Alliance: Housley echoes Muylders' fondness for the Christmas holiday season, and suggests the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.
What are some quintessentially British things to see and do in London?
Mr. Harper: London is arguably the world's most cosmopolitan city—even more so than New York. But you can still find "quintessentially British" in the clubland of St. James's and in the arcades off Piccadilly. Have breakfast at Claridge's, and there are still ladies in remarkable hats who might conceivably be the Duchess of Devonshire. But for the most part, the English (London version) are a different breed these days and the traditional Brit is becoming something of an endangered species.
Harper Alliance Partners: Laino suggests visiting the Cabinet War Rooms, where "Winston Churchill's perfectly preserved headquarters offer an insight into Britain's finest hour." For gentlemen, he recommends a wet shave at Truefitt & Hill, barbers to British royalty, while Muylders suggests a suit tailored to measure in Savile Row. Taking afternoon tea, such as at historic English department store Fortnum & Mason, remains a traditional experience, Laino says.
How is a visit to the city ideal for families with small children?
Mr. Harper: Children love the tourist sights such as the Changing of the Guard and the Tower of London (including the Crown Jewels). The London Eye generally meets with approval among the under 12s, as do the boats on the Thames that run from Westminster Pier down to Greenwich. And every child should sit on top of the No. 11 bus, which goes the whole way across the center of the city from Fulham to Liverpool Street.
Harper Alliance Partners: London's museums are consistent family favorites, says Novick, who recommends the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, and the family programs at the Museum of Childhood and Horniman Museum. Minutillo adds that children enjoy the overnight stays and ghost-hunting offered by some museums, as well. And Laino suggests stadium tours or simply feeding the ducks and pelicans in the Royal Parks. "This always brings smiles to children's faces," he says.
How about romantic excursions?
Harper Alliance: The London Eye's Cupid's Capsule - a private pod for two - offers an intimate view of the city, Muylders says.
Andrew Harper Travel Office: Minutillo suggests going to a ballet, taking a helicopter excursion over London and having a Thames private lunch for two. Drinks along the South Bank at sunset, as the twinkle lights in the trees come to life, followed by dinner at an intimate restaurant with gourmand cuisine, also are ideal choices for couples, says Novick. Or, escape the noise and crowds of the city with a leisurely stroll or a picnic in one of London's parks. "London's parks are its lungs," Laino says. Muylders says Richmond Park is the perfect place for tranquil walks, while Novick says Parliament Hill at Hampstead Heath offers romantic, unparalleled views and a complete sense of escapism.
Note: Both the Olympics and the upcoming royal wedding have led to increased inquiries and bookings at London hotels. Harper Alliance staff recommends making reservations as soon as possible if you are interested in visiting London at these times. Also, London's infrastructure and transportation system is undergoing extensive upgrades in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, resulting in increased traffic delays and diversions citywide. Check with transportation providers before traveling around the city.