Archive for February, 2009

Love sights hate tourists: Views of London

Stylised version of iconic London landmarks

Stylised version of iconic London landmarks

C speaking here. I find London’s skyline breathtaking, every single time I see it.  I challenge you to find a more eclectic mix of architecture – and here’s some tips on the best way to get a good view.

The Famous: The London Eye

from the London Eye website

from the London Eye website

As with many now-iconic structures throughout London, the London Eye was originally strongly resisted. If someone told you a giant Ferris wheel was going to be erected just across from the Houses of Parliament directly on the Thames, you’d be pretty upset too, right? British Airways pushed ahead with the project anyway, and this big revolving wheel is now in so many pictures and movies I imagine most Londoners would be really sad to see it go. Funny story (that may be apocryphal!): a rival airline had its headquarters in the building directly across from the site where the London Eye was being built, right on the river.  Once the wheel was completely assembled flat on the ground, they tried to pull it upright and disastrously it didn’t work as planned and came crashing back down to the ground. The next day, the rival airline had unveiled an enormous banner out of all its windows that proclaimed: BRITISH AIRWAYS CAN’T GET IT UP

All that aside, I found my (one and only) actual ride on the London Eye very, very disappointing. First off, you queue for ages to buy tickets that cost GBP 15.50! Then you’re crammed in a little bubble with tons of other people (the website helpfully states 25), who all promptly jostle to get a small bit of window space, and then you slowly complete a full circle. Forty-five minutes later, you’ve probably got a slightly plastic-y picture of the Houses of Parliament and a strong desire to get out of that confined space.  Many tourists do consider a ride on the London Eye essential to their trip – yeah, it is unique and kind of cool. But here’s a few other suggestions – I recommend you just visit it and take pictures OF it.

Recommendation: Climb St. Paul’s Cathedral

view from dome

view from dome

Every other European city you visit, the first thing you do generally is locate the giant cathedral in the middle of the city and climb up to the very top. Why in the world isn’t this people’s first impulse in London? St. Paul’s Cathedral is as London as it gets – there’s been a cathedral of this name on the site for 1400 years, the current structure by Sir Christopher Wren rose out of the ashes of the great fire in 1675, miraculously survived the blitz in WWII to be a massive symbol of hope for the British, and for a long time was the tallest building in all of London – nothing was allowed to be higher than its spire. Still firmly one of the most recognizable and beautiful buildings in the skyline, it remains the best-placed and best-designed building to ascend for true London views. Though still relatively pricey at GBP 8.50 for students and 11 for adults, believe me, it is WELL WORTH IT. First off, the entrance fee grants you at least an hour of wandering around the main body of the cathedral itself, which is stunning and hands down my favorite cathedral in Europe (and I really, really love cathedrals and old churches…). Don’t miss the bizarre/disturbing/beautiful memorial (depending on your perspective) carved wooden structure at the rear of the church dedicated to the Americans who lost their lives in WWII.  Then, locate the entrance to the stairway – it’s slightly hidden and sadly there are visitors who don’t even realize you can climb the dome.

It’s a multi-staged hike. The first bit will get you up to an internal viewing gallery that looks down on the gorgeous interior you’ve just been wandering around. Be sure to station yourself and a friend 180 degrees from each other and whisper along the side of the walls – it’s a classic whispering gallery.

The next set of stairs takes you to the first of two external viewing galleries, open to the elements. Your impulse will be to hang around here and take a billion pictures/stare lost in thought over the city – but know that there is another higher gallery with lower railings, where you’ll be able to get much better pictures.  That said, this level is amazing. Suddenly after huffing up a bunch of stairs you find yourself taking in 360 degree views of London, from the traditional centre of the city itself.


The last climb to the highest gallery is – well, it’s a bit scary. The stairs are open grate style, so just look up and focus on getting to the top – don’t think too much about it or you might get a little bit motion dizzy. Also, try not to wear a skirt, as for this bit it’s just a bunch of people below you staring up through the see through stairs and therefore straight up your skirt…! This happened to C on the first time she climbed St. Paul’s…oops.

The final view gallery is incredible. You’ll be stunned by how beautiful and diverse this city and its architecture are. You’ll probably also be struck by how much construction there is – London is booming, and constantly in flux.

Then, after your descent, go down into the crypt, view the famous graves and a nice cup of tea in the decent crypt café.

El Cheapo version: Tate Modern viewing gallery

Building with the smokestake is the Tate Modern

Building with the smokestack is the Tate Modern

If you just prefer to take pictures of the outside of St. Paul’s or an unable to climb stairs, cross the millennium bridge between St. Paul’s and the south bank – it’s an entirely pedestrian bridge. Make sure you turn around when you get to the south bank – the bridge frames St. Paul’s perfectly and it’s a nice photo spot. Then, enter the Tate Modern art gallery (the giant old factory building – probably the best re-use of building space ever).  It’s FREE. Go to the  4th floor, where there is a glassed in viewing gallery and also a viewing balcony. You’ll be right on the river and high enough to get great views left and right. The Tate Modern itself is also well worth a wander through – whether you love modern art or just get a giant giggle out of it. The café here is also excellent – I’ve had one of the best tea and scone afternoon breaks ever at their nice little restaurant.

El Cheapo version 2: Any London bridge

We recommend:

From Tower Bridge, you get nice views of all the main stuff at once, because it’s so far east. Downside: you don’t get pictures of the bridge itself, and it is the famous pretty one. Plus: you can actually climb up the towers for a small fee. We’ve never actually done that but hope to soon and will report back.

From Waterloo bridge, you get a nice mix of almost half and half – half the city one way, including the gherkin, St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge, the OXO building, Tate Modern, Somerset house etc. The other half of the city the other side – Parliament, London Eye, etc.


The Boss in Hyde Park

If you haven’t heard The Boss (aka Bruce Springsteen) will be playing not only Glastonbury this year but also headlining the Hyde Park Festival–Hard Rock Calling Festival on 28 June.  The Boss will be supported by another great American live band–Dave Matthews Band.  You can get tickets on presale starting tomorrow 12 Feb  if you are already registered on Live Nation.  Get ready for some Glory Days!!!!!!!  I’m buying my ticket tomorrow.  Check out Glastonbury here, the Hard Rock Calling Festival in Hyde Park here, the Boss here and finally Dave Matthews here.  Tickets are only 45 pounds—unfortunately though Glastonbury already sold out.  In the meantime enjoy this youtube video of Bruce and the E Street band as The Boss slides crotch first into the camera at the Superbowl.  For full videos of the half time show click here and here.

I’m hoping for the live version of Atlantic City!

The Boss

Hard Rock Calling

Mem & Laz: A Bellydancing Birthday

A few weeks ago was A’s birthday and to celebrate a group of us went out to dinner to this Mediterranean place called Mem & Laz off of Upper Street in Angel. Let’s just say A got more than just dinner.

Mem & Laz

If you have never been to Upper Street or not familiar with the area there are quite a few restaurants to choose from–everything from the usual chains (i.e. Masala Zone, Nando’s, Pizza Express and even Weatherspoons) to the cute back corner spots to the higher end restaurants. Whatever your mood Upper Street in Angel can cater to any international food craving. Mem & Laz fits into the category of the back corner spot with amazing amounts of charm and character. It’s located right off Upper Street about a five-ten minute walk north from Angel tube station on Theberton St.

8 Theberton Street N1 0QX


Mem & Laz was actually recommended by one of our flatmates who went there one night with her parents and loved the atmosphere and the food. The restaurant is spread over two floors packed in with tables to accommodate the line of people waiting out the door. Luckily C and I went a few days in advance to reserve a table for the busy Saturday night, which I would highly recommend since it seems the place is always busy no matter what night of the week it is–which is another indicator that the place is a champion.

Turkish Lamps

Inside the walls are covered with Turkish antiques and the ceiling has the most fascinating collection of Turkish lamps. The menu has plenty of choices to suit any preference with plenty of vegetarian and vegan friendly dishes as well as plenty of lamb, beef, chicken and seafood dishes for the meat-lovers like C and I. I had the special lamb kofte stuffed with cheese with a side salad of mixed Mediterranean vegetables and a side of mash. I would go back and probably order the same thing because it was so good. I’ve also heard the stuffed peppers are a restaurant hit, too. The dinner servings are plenty but if you are really hungry I would recommend going for one of the many starters or one of the amazing desserts. For drinks, there is a decent selection of wines, beers and spirits. We actually ordered an amazing bottle of tempranillo for only £12 (see picture).

Our Wine

So getting back to the birthday story, one of our friends got the waitress to bring up a free piece of cheesecake for me and even said to the waitress “don’t sing or anything because that would make A really embarrassed.” Well, they brought up the cake with the candle (even the Owner joined in—really sweet man who will come around and talk to your table, just look for him he will be making the rounds in the restaurant) and then they broke out into the typical birthday singing getting the entire second floor singing and clapping along. At this point I could handle the onslaught of public attention while thinking my time in the spotlight was coming to a very near end. Oh how I was wrong, what came next totally surprised me and probably everyone dining. They turned up the music and started asking for a belly dance! In my previous 24 years I have never been subjected to or even seen public humiliation via forced birthday dancing. However, with the great atmosphere and the friendly encouragement of everyone at Mem and Laz, I along with my friend who initiated the birthday trauma stood up and shook it a bit. This was also captured on video and no, this will never be posted.

It was actually a really great time and I can’t remember ever having so much fun at a restaurant. Now, our friends who went there with us want to go back for their birthday just to get a little belly dancing action and I suggest you do it too. So yeah, Mem & Laz you’re awesome and we will definitely be back.

Quick hit: london recommendations by the trendy

Or at least that’s how it feels from the look of  this slick/pretty website

Stumbled across this recently and am still enjoying it – they have maps of unique and interesting places to visit in cities around the world. The London one is pretty decent – a good mix of obvious and more difficult suss out yourself hip things. I don’t agree with everything they recommend – the White Lion Pub in their Covent Garden section, for example, is always so mobbed with people I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole when I lived around there – but all in all pretty cool.

Word of warning: this is definitely aimed towards those who have a bit of cash for shopping and eating, but they list a lot of gems so check it out.


Black Cab Sessions


So, if you enjoy raw and live music from up and coming artists along with streets scenes from London then check out this website. It’s the black cab sessions. These guys film artists singing a song a two in the back of a black cab as they drive around London town. The best part is to find places and streets you’ve walked down. It couldn’t get much better unless they manage to fit a band in a red telephone booth. Also, check out the video of the British band the Kooks since they drive through Angel and Islington and almost drive pass our flat! If Black Cab Sessions tickle your fancy, then also check out Blogotheque. It is the same idea of recording live music from bands in what they call take away shows; however, these are not specifically based in London but more in flats and streets in Paris and Los Angeles—still great none-the-less. The Beirut take away show is a classic and you can see the Kooks as well.

Steam Train at Kings Cross!

If you’re going to be around Kings Cross station today you should check out the steam train coming in from Darlington at 13.47.  It’s the first steam train built in over 5 decades and it is something you should not miss even if you aren’t a train enthusiast or a 5 year old boy.

Quick hit: walking site for London

The best way to see, experience, and ‘get’ London is to walk this city – as far and to as many random corners as you can. Also, if you haven’t noticed from today’s snowfall, the minute there is any problem London’s transport network gets pretty snarled up – and things are a lot closer than they may appear on the map. Chances are, if you’re in study-abroad accommodation, you’re in a pretty central location anyway – try walking to get anywhere. It’s often faster, cheaper, and a hell of a lot more fun that rocking along in a tube carriage for an hour, seeing nothing but a strange guy across from you who hasn’t showered in a few days or that annoying couple making-out or reading the London Paper/Metro over someone’s shoulder.

And the best way to figure out how to walk somewhere, besides peering at your London A – Z, is walkit. I’ve found this site a tad touchy, but it’s still pretty awesome – stick to as simple addresses as you can when typing in your ‘to’ and ‘from’ – full postcodes definitely work the best. And always select ‘less busy’! if the above link doesn’t work.

Happy walking! Trust me, even in February it’s totally worth it. Perhaps not in the sleet forcasted for Thursday and Friday this week, but most other times, go for it.

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February 2009
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