24 Hours On The Dark Streets Of London

london streetsWalking near London’s 16th-century St. John’s Gate in the city’s East End, I was looking for an old pub called the Jerusalem Tavern early on a misty Saturday night when a young woman in a skin-tight miniskirt approached me with a question. I was about to apologize and say, “I’m not from around here,” when she pointed to her friend, who was wearing a dress with deep slits practically up to her waist on both sides, and said in a distinctive Cockney accent, “What do you suppose she’d be good for?”

She extended her right thumb and said, “I think a snog,” released the index finger while saying, “a wife,” and then flipped down the third, suggesting a possibility that rhymes with truck. I had just arrived in town after a sleepless night spent on a plane, followed by a layover in Germany and another flight west to London necessitated by the vicissitudes of using miles for reward travel, and I could barely process their accents or what was being asked. As I gave them a confused look, she repeated the question as her friend turned and looked away, horrified.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe all three?”

Samuel Johnson delivered the famous line “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” when America was but a year old. He’s still right. I’ve been visiting London intermittently for 25 years and there are always serendipitous encounters and new discoveries to be made. The city is always changing, always evolving and you need to keep going back to see what you’ve missed. On a recent six-day trip to London to cover Wimbledon, I had 24 hours to kick around town before the tournament started. I’d seen many of London’s most famous sights before so I set out to break new ground in one of my favorite cities.

Saturday

6 p.m. Bosphorus Kebabs in South Kensington

I’m always on the lookout for cheap eats in London and this place is a find. There are just a few tables, and you might have to wait, but the intimate setting gives you a chance to listen to the regulars bantering with the cooks.

“C’ah mon mate, don’t be stingy wit tha doh-nah, oh-roight now, that’s wot I’m talkin’ bowt,” said one obnoxious bloke, who’d clearly started drinking early on a Saturday.

I had the spicy Adana kebab, which was outstanding and came with rice, salad and bread for £6, a bargain by any measure in this pricey megacity.

7:30 p.m. Jerusalem Tavern

There are at least 7,000 pubs in London so to recommend just one is almost perverse. But a surprising number of London pubs offer just mass-produced beer and no craft beers, so even though there are pubs on nearly every block, it’s not always as easy to find good beer as you might expect. The Jerusalem Tavern is operated by London’s St. Peter’s Brewery, so it has great beer, plus atmosphere in spades.

It’s a tiny little place, with just three rooms and a row of wooden casks behind the bar. The tavern has occupied different sites in the neighborhood since the 14th century and the present building dates to 1720, though it’s only been a pub since the 1990s. I had a tasty pint of St. Peter’s Brewery Pale Ale and enjoyed something you never find in an American bar: quiet. No music, no TV, just the hum of quiet conversation.

9 p.m. A Stroll Through Shoreditch in London’s East End

London’s East End, once home to Jack-the-Ripper, has historically been the city’s gritty, working class underbelly. But in recent years, Shoreditch and other East End hoods have been transformed into the creative hub of the British capital. On the second longest day of the year it was still light out after 9 p.m. and swarms of fashionably dressed young people were lined up outside Cargo, a bar/restaurant with thumping dance music, while over at a bar called Kick on Shoreditch High Street, guys in French Maid costumes sang drinking songs and toasted each other on the veranda.

Shoreditch is filled with bars, restaurants, music venues and galleries, but it’s also a neighborhood that rewards aimless wandering, particularly on buzzing streets like Curtain road, near Rivington street, Bash street and Hoxton Square.

Sunday

8 a.m. Hyde Park

I like to start the morning with a long walk in a pretty green space and in London, Hyde Park is a serene and scenic place to start the day with a little exercise. Henry VIII appropriated this chunk of land in 1536 from the monks of Westminster Abbey to hunt deer and the place has been open to the public since the early 1600s.

I visited London for the first time as a 16-year-old and one of the few things I remember about the trip was a Sunday morning visit to Speaker’s Corner, where Londoners of all stripes can stand up on top of a milk crate and speak their minds. I was thrilled to learn the term “wanker” and various other bits of slang, much to my parent’s chagrin, so I was eager to experience the spectacle again after all these years. But alas, the speakers don’t get fired up until later in the morning, so if you want to take in speaker’s corner, stop by on Sunday afternoon.

11 a.m. Sung Eucharist at St. Paul’s Cathedral

Cross London’s Millennium Footbridge at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning and you’ll be beckoned into St. Paul’s by the glorious chiming bells. The smell of roasting nuts fills the air as you cross the bridge, and even an atheist could enjoy the splendor of this magnificent cathedral, designed by St. Christopher Wren in 1675 on the site where a cathedral was first opened in 604. Stick around for the 11:15 a.m. Sung Eucharist to get the full experience of this magisterial place, which was the tallest building in London until the 1960s.

12:00 p.m. Tate Modern

Even if you don’t like modern art, walk back across the Milennium Footbridge after your visit to St. Paul’s and check out the sixth-floor café of this museum for spectacular views of the cathedral and the city. You can visit the permanent exhibits for free and the gift shop is also a great place to stock up on souvenirs. The highlight of my visit was an exhibit featuring the works of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, but I found many of the other exhibits best left for the Sprockets crowd.

1:30 p.m. Bánh mì Time

Take the tube to Goodge street and then walk west on Goodge between Charlotte and Cleveland streets to find this outdoor stand selling freshly grilled mouth-watering bánh mì sandwiches (beef, pork and chicken) £5.

2 p.m. Dickensian London

Walk up Cleveland Street, north of Goodge, to check out Charles Dickens’s first London home, now an apartment with six buzzers sandwiched in between Indian and Greek restaurants. (Look for the blue plaque.) And just one block north, check out the workhouse that gave him the inspiration for “Oliver Twist” across from the King and Queen Pub.

Then head east to the fascinating Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, where Dickens lived from 1837-9, writing “Oliver Twist” and “Nicholas Nickelby” in his mid-20s. Seek out American novelist Jennifer Emerson, an American writer who volunteers at the museum. She can tell you all about Dickens’s troubled childhood, complicated love life and nomadic tendencies. (Look for more on the Dickens Museum on Gadling soon.)

4 p.m. Camden Lock Market

Camden is a shopper’s paradise but the Camden Lock Market is also a great place for budget ethnic dining. The problem is choosing what to eat. I was temped by Portuguese cakes, fish and chips, Dutch pancakes, Polish kielbasa, Peruvian ceviche and Argentine burgers before I decided on a Pakistani chicken curry roti, which was outstanding. Don’t miss having a cup of the organic Ethiopian coffee; Ethiopian sisters Eden and Mercy roast the beans in a tiny little pan over a burner and they’ll tell you all about their coffee.

“People think coffee comes from Italy!” said Eden. “No! It comes from Ethiopia!”

Grab your cup of coffee and wind up with the day with a long ramble through the labyrinth of market stalls and then take a nice walk along Regent’s canal to burn off the calories.

WHERE TO STAY

On each of my previous visits to London, I stayed in hotels, but this time, I rented an apartment on Nevern Square, a stone’s throw from the Earl’s Court Tube stop via Trip Advisor’s Flipkey website. Hotel rooms tend to be small and expensive in London, and apartments aren’t cheap either, but at least you can stretch out a bit. For about the price of a mid-range hotel, I had a beautiful one-bedroom apartment that was fully equipped with a kitchen and a washing machine. Even better, the management company included use of a local iPhone, with free data, local calls and texting. It’s a beautiful neighborhood of handsome brick row houses, gardens and squares, handy and central for seeing all the sights, not to mention Wimbledon.