Review: Hilton London Tower Bridge

18 02 2009

We stayed at the Hilton London Tower Bridge for 5 nights on our visit to London in November.  This Hilton is located on the South Bank of London and is primarily a business hotel.  However, it can be a good alternative for visitors who do not want to pay Central London prices and still stay in a very nice hotel that is close enough.  

Despite being across the river from Central London, the Hilton London Tower Bridge proved to be a very convenient location primarily because it is only two short blocks away from the London Bridge tube/railway/bus station.   The London Bridge station is only one railway stop away from Charing Cross / Trafalgar Square and one tube stop from Bank Station in the business district (“the city”).  In addition, there is a Marks & Spencer mini mart in the same square as the hotel, which is really convenient for breakfast foods, newspapers, snacks, and some groceries.  The area felt safe and I was comfortable walking to and from the station by myself.

Check-in was easy and all the staff we interacted with were friendly and helpful.  

 

The actual accomodations were stylish and comfortable.  The room was moderately sized by London standards and included all the expected amenities, such as high speed internet (for sale in 24 hour increments) and a flat screen TV.  

 

The bathroom was chic and clean and included both a shower and a tub.  After staying at a variety of places overseas, I no longer take this for granted!  Shower pressure was excellent.

Overall we had a very nice stay at the Hilton London Tower Bridge and I would recommend it.  The hotel does not have much character nor is it particularly London-y but its rates are usually reasonable for this class of accommondation.  

I have listed more transportation details below.  London has an extremely useful transit website at http://www.tfl.gov.uk/ , which has maps, updates, a trip planner, and other information.  I used it frequently and would highly recommend checking it out.  The London Bridge station is large and complicated, but basically the tube station is on the 1st floor and the rail station is on the 2nd floor.  You can buy tickets from ticket windows or machines and the employees at the station are very helpful.  Generally, an Oyster card is worth it but note that it doesn’t cover railway tickets.

To Trafalgar Square:

From London Bridge Railway Station (2nd Floor), take the Southern towards Charing Cross.  After crossing the Thames River, alight at Charing Cross, which is at the SW end of Trafalgar Square.  Incidentally, Charing Cross station is just one short block from Embankment station, which is on the Circle and District Lines that go around all the sights in Central London.

To Bank/Monument:

From London Bridge Tube Station, take the Northern line North (end of line differs by train, but any one going North will work) for one stop.  Disembark at Bank/Monument.





London at Night

13 02 2009

One of the questions many travelers have is what to do in London at night.  After a certain hour, most shops, landmarks, and museums are closed.  Although we didn’t get to do it this time around, my suggestion is to see the theatre!  (Notice I didn’t say theater. )  Besides the experience of seeing a play in London, many famous actors who may not do it anywhere else like to stretch their talent in London.  There are plenty of shows at Covent Garden to choose from, and even last minute half price tickets.  The official half price tickets booth is called TKTS and is located at the bottom of Leicester Square.  Be sure to check out the TKTS booth before 7 PM Monday through Saturday and 3 PM on Sundays.  Beware of imitators.    


Piccadilly Circus at night.

Besides the theater, there are dozens of restaurants of all sorts to sample.  From gastropubs to authentic Indian and Pakistani restaurants, to gourmet cuisine, London has it all.  Check out Time Out London and Zagat for recommendations.  After dinner, bars, clubs, and pubs await those who want to extend their night out.


Big Ben at night makes me think of Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.

Well, this is the end of my series of posts on London.  While this time I focused on seeing the landmarks and using tours for day trips, this is by no means the only way to see London.  In fact, I am really looking forward to going back to London without the pressure of the must-sees.  I cannot wait to come back and explore the neighborhoods I didn’t get to see by foot.  There are museums to see, theater to enjoy, dozens of beautiful castles calling my name, and of course more tea and crumpets for me to consume.





Food Halls Around the World

11 02 2009

Whenever I am shopping while abroad, I inevitably find myself in a food hall. At the most basic level, a food hall is any indoor area that offers a variety of food for sampling and purchasing. They are often found in department stores, but can also operate independently.  A food hall is more than an indoor market or run of the mill mall food court, however.  A food hall is above all an exhibition of local and international artisinal food.


Harrod’s famous food hall
 
The most famous food hall in the world is arguably Harrod’s in London. While for many destinations I end up in a food hall by coincidence, Harrod’s Food Hall was a must-see for me even before my arrival in London. Harrod’s was founded in 1834 as a wholesale grocery with a specialty in tea.


Harrod’s has some of the fanciest groceries I have ever seen.


There are lots of stands to try out at Harrod’s Food Hall.

After arriving at Harrod’s, I bypassed all other departments and made a beeline for the food hall. There’s better shopping in the United States. I was here for the food hall. I was not disappointed. In room after themed room, attractive gourmet food was presented to me, the shopper, for my perusal. If you want seafood, there is an entire room dedicated to these delicious creatures under the sea.


You can eat fresh oysters in the seafood room at Harrod’s food hall.

Need gifts for loved ones? Harrod’s has quite a selection of packaged ready to gift gourmet food items. Perhaps some proper English tea would delight your grandmother, or lemon cookies for your best friend, or Turkish Delight for your unsuspecting brother!


Food gifts at Harrod’s


Indulge your sweet tooth at Harrod’s.

Before heading out, be sure to view the over the top escalators at Harrod’s. The escalators have an ancient Egyptian theme to honor the heritage of Mohamed al Fayed, the current owner of the department store. The escalator bay is also where you can find Princess Diana’s and Dodi al Fayed’s memorial.


The Egyptian decor is historically listed to protect against their removal and alteration.


Yep, that’s the actual face of Mohamed al Fayed on the Sphinx.

Despite Harrod’s fame, to many English residents the designation of best department store for gourmet food would belong to Fortnum & Mason, which has held royal warrants for 150 years. Harrod’s also holds some royal warrants, but Fortnum & Mason is more closely associated with British royalty and the peerage.


The circular stairway at Fortnum & Mason decorated for Christmas.

Although we had heard of Fortnum & Mason, it was by chance that we stumbled upon this establishment while shopping near Piccadilly Circus. I thought we had entered my version of department store heaven. Exquisitely decorated for Christmas, Fortnum and Mason offered all kinds of British foodstuffs, from minced pies to jars of ribbon candy to traditional china. Fortnum & Mason is most well known for its teas and luxury picnic hampers.


A selection of Fortnum and Mason’s gourmet products with its signature turquoise label on display.

Fortnum & Mason’s food hall is not to be missed for foodies the world over!


Inside Fortnum and Mason during the Christmas season.

These two luxurious food halls reminded me of my visit to the highly regarded Alois Dallmayr in Munich, Germany.  The Dallmayr is a famous luxury delicatessen and food hall that has served European royalty since the 17th century.  You can read about our day in Munich and see some more photos of Dallmayr here.  

 
Alois Dallmayr plaque proclaiming its status as a royal purveyor.


Window display at Alois Dallmayr.


Inside Alois Dallmayr delicatessen.

Inspired by these elaborate European food halls, the Japanese created their own twist on the concept with depachikas, department store basement food halls. Similar to the Harrod’s concept, depachikas seek to create a high end retail experience, but for food. Only the best brands are offered, from sushi to desserts to mochi to tea and other delicacies. However, depachikas have a larger selection of freshly prepared takeaway meals for shoppers. Many professional stop by and pick up bento boxes for lunch and dinner on a daily basis. Another major difference is that Japanese department stores often directly rent out the spaces on the store floor to bakeries and food businesses. As a result, the salespeople of these kiosks do not necessarily work for the department store. These businesses of course have to pass a rigorous test of quality and name. A third distinction is that Japanese food halls tend to emphasize trendy food over more traditional flavors.  You can read all about the depachika craze in this Food and Wine magazine article.  

The Dessert comes First blog has an excellent post on food in Japan, including an entire section on depachikas with fantastic pictures.  Here is the link to that specific post.  I have included two of her photos below for reference. 

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Photo of depachika by Desserts comes First

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Photo of depachika store display by Desserts comes First

I have visited the depachika in person at Isetan in Tokyo and Kaohsiung.  You can read my entire post about the Isetan department store in Kaohsiung here. These basement food halls are one of my favorite places to just relax and eat. I wish the US had places like these – I would be there every night!


One of the stores within a store in the basement food hall at Isetan in Kaohsiung.


A bakery in the basement food hall at Isetan





Tower of London and Anne Boleyn

21 01 2009

In preparation for this particular London trip, I read Phillipa Gregory’s novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, to get myself in the right frame of mind for seeing historic London.  Although historical fiction is often far from fact, it helps bring history and old intrigues alive.  As is apparent from the title of the novel, The Other Boleyn Girl  is the story of the two popular Boleyn sisters, Mary and Anne, who charmed Henry VIII as mistress and wife, respectively, before their family’s dramatic fall from power after Anne is executed for treason at the Tower of London.  The Boleyn legacy lived on, however, through Anne’s daughter, who eventually became Queen Elizabeth I.  


As usual, it was cloudy on the day we visited the Tower of London.

The Tower of London is one of England’s most famous landmarks because of its turbulent and bloody history.  Henry VIII was just one of many English rulers who used this fortification, although he is arguably the most famous infamous.  While the innermost White Tower was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, the Tower of London as it stands today is quite a large complex of buildings and fortifications built over several hundred years. There is even a moat, although it is dry now. Our tourguide indicated, however, that there is a rumor that the city of London may fill the moat for the 2012 Olympics.


The old moat at the Tower of London is now filled with grass.

When the moat was still in operation in the middle ages, it connected directly to the River Thames. In fact, most prisoners entered the Tower of London by boat through Traitor’s Gate, which leads into St. Thomas’s tower. Princess Elizabeth herself was brought into the Tower complex via this entrance after her half sister Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) sent her here as a prisoner. Elizabeth was treated well in the Tower despite being a prisoner, however, because she was next in line for the throne after Mary.


Traitor’s Gate

The Tower of London has served over the years as a royal residence, fortress, and most famously as a political prison for high status individuals and royalty. In addition, the Tower was the actual site where the most important executions were performed. As a result, a tour of this landmark is quite gruesome. This makes sense, as the Tower was the site of involuntary confinement, political intrique, torture and execution.

Famous involuntary guests of the Tower included Kings of Scotland, Wales, and France, several princes of England, even supposed Kings of England, and of course Queen Elizabeth before she was queen. The succession of the throne of England was always in flux because there were often several heirs, which made everyone involved paranoid. As a result, whoever ended up in power would often lock up their enemies, especially if they were siblings who could usurp their power.

The Tower also hosted non-royal prisoners, including Thomas More.  More was a former friend of Henry VIII who was executed after he refused to sign a document making Henry VIII head of the Church of England. Another prisoner of the Tower was Sir Walter Raleigh, who was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Raleigh was sent to the Tower after he secretly married one of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting without permission. Fortunately Raleigh and his wife and family were able to live in the Tower in comfort, as the crime he committed was not treasonous. Raleigh was later imprisoned again under James I, however, and beheaded for invading a Spanish city in the New World.

At the center of the Tower is the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex. Today, it is a fine example of Norman architecture and houses an exhibition of arms and armor. Honestly, I found this part of the tour a little boring. The most interesting part was an exhibit of Henry VIII’s armor, which showcased just how rotund this king was in his middle age.


The White Tower


View from the White Tower. Notice London’s new city hall, dubbed “Lord Vader’s Helmet” for obvious reasons.


Henry VIII’s Battle Armor

What I found far more interesting were the spooky interiors and staircases in the White Tower.


Norman Chapel inside the White Tower


Staircase in the White Tower

Once we got back outside, we saw much more interesting sights. First, we viewed the Royal Crown Jewels. No photos were allowed inside, of course. I considered this a must-see though! My favorite was Queen Victoria’s little crown.


Building housing the British Crown Jewels, as seen from the White Tower.


Guarding the Crown Jewels

After the jewels, we visited the courtyard where executions were carried out.  Only the most important prisoners of the highest status were executed here.  You knew you had “made it” in society if you died here.  As the queen of England, Anne Boleyn was executed here and buried in the church on the perimeter of the courtyard.  We didn’t go in the church, however, because you have to pay extra.


Execution site with the church in the background.

Medieval buildings surrounded the other side of the courtyard. The building in the corner was built for Anne Boleyn as her wedding present from Henry VIII. Nowadays, the yeoman warders live in these buildings. It’s a little known fact that people still live in the Tower of London. The church is also still used regularly.


Anne Boleyn’s residence

The Tower of London is easily accessible by Tube (Stop: Tower Hill) and is one of the major stops on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours.  We toured the Tower complex with London Walks, meeting at Tower Hill.  Our tourguide was very good, telling us both the history and lore surrounding this fortress.

While Anne Boleyn’s story is riveting, it also demonstrated quite dramatically how much power the English rulers had before the 20th century.  The mood and whim of the king could literally mean life or death for you, even if you are his wife.  Henry VIII went from being madly in love with Anne, even restructuring religious power in England so that he could marry her, to wanting to behead her when she was unable to produce a son.  Although walking in her footsteps on my visit to the Tower of London was exciting, I am glad that I did not have to live her life, even if she was queen.





Walking Old London

16 01 2009

One of the many ways to enjoy London is to go on a guided walk.  This way, you get to see the city at walking speed with a knowledgeable guide without wasting time getting lost.  A walking tour takes you through all the nooks and crannies in London, of which there are many.  Even if you have already seen a particular part of London, these tours can uncover yet another layer of this complex city.

On our first full day, we decided to take the Old London: the Medieval to Georgian walking tour with Hilary of London Walks. The tour was first rate and our guide was excellent.  Hilary led us on a loop concentrating on the area know as “the city,” the original city of London before it subsumed Westminster and other neighboring areas. 

The first stop of our walking tour was this Roman wall that was surrounded by modern buildings. Did you know that modern London is built right on top of old Roman Londoninium? If you look over the railing you see in the photo below, you can look down 14 feet to the bottom of the Roman street.  As a result, every building project in London needs to stop immediately if after breaking ground the workers find any historic objects until their significance can be ascertained.  This wall was sitting right next to a high rise hotel.  We would never have found this especially choice section of the wall without Hilary.

 
A remnant of old Londinium is surrounded by modern London.

The next stop on our walk was St. Olave’s Church, a tiny medieval church that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Charles Dickens was so inspired by the grinning skulls over the churchyard entrance that he included it in his literary collection “Uncommercial Traveler,” calling it St. Ghastly Grim.

 
St. Olave’s Church, a medieval country church in the big city of London.

St. Olave’s was also the church regularly attended by the essayist Samuel Pepes, famed for his encrypted private diary chronicling first hand the happenings of the Restoration period, including Great Fire of London.


Samuel Pepes and our tourguide Hilary.

Most of medieval London was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, including 87 parish churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The fire itself started at Thomas the baker’s house on Pudding Lane and through a combination of wind conditions, poor decisionmaking by the lord mayor, and ineffective medieval firefighting techniques, a small flame became a conflagration that decimated the city.

 
The Great Fire of London began on Pudding Lane and ended on Pye Corner. Was it a dessert conspiracy?
 
There are several competing stories about how the fire started, but somehow Thomas the baker was not held responsible in any of them.  Instead, the blame was placed on the French and the Catholics.   What was not uncertain, however, was the fact that the Great Fire changed the course of London’s architectural history.  Among other things, flammable building materials such as wood and straw were prohibited thereafter in the city.  The Great Fire also propelled the career of the architect Sir Christopher Wren to the greatest heights.  Wren was the architect commissioned to design nearly all the parish churches destroyed by the fire, including his crowning glory, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

 
Monument to the Great Fire of London, commissioned by Charles II and designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. The tube stop is named after it, and it is currently being restored to its full glory.

After speaking about the Great Fire, Hilary led us through a series of beautiful Wren designed churches that finally culminated in his most famous work, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

We walked through this beautiful ruined Wren Church that was transformed into a peaceful garden in the middle of the city.

In between Wren churches, we saw some wonderful examples of modern London architecture.


A modern interpretation of Gothic architecture.


Incidentally, this building was used as Cruella de Ville’s base in the 101 Dalmations movie.


KFC Telephone Booth


A London street built after the Great Fire.

We saw several churches that demonstrated key developments of Wren’s design style, from the simpler church built for a poorer parish to St. Stephen Walbrook, Wren’s own parish church and said to be one of his finest creations.  While plain looking from the outside, the interior of St. Stephen Walbrook is said to be one of the most perfect buildings in the world.  The dome was the one originally designed for St. Paul’s Cathedral.

 
The dome at St. Stephen Walbrook.


Interior of St. Stephen Walbrook, Sir Christopher Wren’s own parish church.


Henry Moore’s modern stone altar in St. Stephen Walbrook.


Another interior shot of St. Stephen Walbrook.

After seeing the churches Wren “practiced on” we were finally led to his greatest creation, St. Paul’s Cathedral.  But first we walked through some pretty side streets.


This is so clean!


Pheasants in the window of a butcher shop.

Our tour ended with this wonderful view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. 


St. Paul’s Cathedral

Since it was around 4:30 PM at this point, Hilary suggested to the group that we stop for some tea at a local shop and then go to Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which starts at 5 PM on weekdays.  We took her suggestion and had the most perfect ending to our walking tour.  


St. Paul’s Cathedral at twilight.

Evensong at St. Paul’s was simply divine.  Hearing the angelic voices of the choir in the most magnificent cathedral I’ve ever seen made it one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  In my opinion, St. Paul’s is more beautiful than the Notre Dame or Canterbury Cathedral, although they are also splendid.  Admittance to evensong is free.  If you choose to attend the entire service, you can sit near the front past the ushers.  If you only have time to listen for a few minutes, you have the option of staying near the back of the cathedral.  I believe the service lasts about one hour.

I highly recommend London Walks, a tour company that employs certified Blue Badge guides to take you on a myriad of different themed walks for only 7 pounds each.  This company has specialized tours by neighborhood and theme, from the Beatles to Literary Bloomsbury to Old London history to Jack the Ripper night tours.  They even have wallet friendly Explorer Days that take you on day trips outside the city, supplying you with guides but saving money by using public transportation and trains.  We took two of these walking tours, and they were both great.  We thought Hilary was the best tourguide for our entire trip.





London, England, U.K.

14 01 2009

London, England is quite possibly my favorite city in the world.  For me, it has just the right combination of history, culture, architecture, lore and good public transportation.  Where else do finance types get to have their after work drinks in the same gloomy pub that was frequented by Charles Dickens and has been around since the 1500s?  In what other city can you find the most beautiful cathedral in the world built by the venerable Sir Christopher Wren?  And what other country has spawned so many literary classics and wonderful authors, from Jane Austen to J.K. Rowling to Neil Gaiman to Diana Wynne Jones?  Not to mention the fantastic television programs!

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon this group in Trafalgar Square! These actors were promoting Monty Python’s new DVD box set.


No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

As you may be able to tell from the photo above, I was in London this past November for about a week.  Although I have previously been to this historic city, it was over 10 years ago when I was a clueless student.  In that trip, I had done the typical touristy London in 2 days tour, where our school group sailed through all the major sites in one day on a bus, my friend was pickpocketed in Oxford, we trudged through a museum with no background, and it rained every day.  That is not how to do London and its environs and I do not recommend it.  


My first glimpse of Big Ben from Trafalgar Square.

What I do recommend is to take at least 3-4 days to really see London.  Even with one week, we felt we did not have nearly enough time to do everything we wanted.  I do feel that we were able to do the city a little more justice this time though.  We were able to just walk around Central London and explore, which is really the only way to get to know any city.  We still participated in tours and did the major landmarks, of course, but we did it on our terms, took our time, and had frequent breaks for tea.  It did rain, but it didn’t hold us back!


Big Ben is really beautiful up close.


Westminster Abbey


Covent Garden

I love how in London almost everyone calls you “love,” speaks with interesting accents, and likes to take tea and scones at 4 PM.  


Having a mini cream tea at TEA.

The fish and chips and Indian/Pakistani food are divine, and in fact the culinary world has improved immeasurably in the last decade.


Restaurants on Brick Lane, London’s Little India.


The best Pakistani food I’ve ever had in my life was at LaHore.

Lahore Kebab House is on Umberton Street right off Commercial Rd. The tube stop is Aldgate East.  The immediate area is deserted at night, so make sure you know where you are going before starting out!

When you travel on your own schedule, you can stop at places like this Cornish Pasty Bakehouse on a whim. Yummy!


One of several interesting things to see on Fleet Street.

I love the side streets of this old city.  I wish I could have walked down every interesting side street I saw.


Side street off Whitehall.


Side street in the Old City of London.


This quaint street is straight out of a movie.

In some places, it’s not difficult to imagine London in the middle ages, when rats and the Black Death reigned.


Anne Boleyn’s residence in the Tower of London complex.


A shop on Fleet Street.  We didn’t see any demon barbers though.

And where else can you stumble on the most surreal scenes? On one of our last nights, we were walking towards St. Paul’s Cathedral when we saw this eerily beautiful carnival.

 
St. Paul’s Cathedral


A carnival next to St. Paul’s Cathedral

In London, it’s as if every street name, street corner, and building has some historic or literary significance.  Since this is the city where so many things originated, this should be unsurprising. I cannot help being amazed, however, when I am standing in the tube stations of Richard Mayhew’s adventures in London Below, or listening to the angelic voices at Evensong in St. Paul’s Cathedral, or gazing at the London Eye, where the Nestene Consciousness took up residence in Doctor Who, or standing in the place where Anne Boleyn triumphed and fell in her quest for the throne.  I suppose for me the best part of London is that it stirs my imagination and brings to life so many novels and history lessons I’ve loved.








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