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eye on London

If you are tired of London you are tired of Life

-Dr. Johnson

Ask Londoners or tourists to name some London icons, as the Tourist Board did a few years ago, and both groups come up with remarkably similar lists. Buckingham Palace, double-decker buses, Big Ben and the British Museum are all mentioned. If you’ve never visited London before, of course, you won’t want to miss its most famous attractions. But even if you’re a first-timer, why not see them from a new angle, one that shows this great world city in all its complexity and diversity and  that is as popular with Londoners as it with visitors?

Iconic London

Big Ben, silhouetted against the sky, is London’s most familiar sight. Technically, the name doesn’t refer to the famous Westminster clock at all but to the bronze bell inside it. To see Big Ben, along with the rest of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and most of London, from an altogether different perspective, take a ride on London’s newest icon-the London Eye. The gigantic observation wheel rises 135 meters above the Thames’ South Bank (about as high as a 40-sotry building). Controversial when first proposed for the Millennium, it’s now London’s favorite visitor attraction. From the top, Buckingham Palace stands out against a forest of royal parks. Rent binoculars in the tickets hall, and you might also make out the thousands waiting for the Changing of the Guard. Those with a bit more “nous” (rhymes with “house”- Londonese for common sense) stroll up the road to the Horse Guards Parade. There, at the Palace of Whitehall, the ceremony of the Queen’s Life Guards offers more regalia and a better view. Mounted officers in red uniforms and plumed helmets have been performing the daily ritual since 1660.

London’s best museums

If you think going to museums is a rainy-day activity, it’s a good thing London has wet weather. The gallery at the Courtauld Institute of Art (free before 2 p.m. on Mondays) is small, but crammed with familiar paintings by van Gogh, Cezanne, Manter, Seurat, Picasso and Gauguin. But familiarity is the last thing you should expect at the Tate Modern on the South Bank. The work of such “Brit Pack” conceptual artists as Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread may challenge your very definition of art.

The cool, echoing chamber of the British Museum are bursting with delights for history buffs-the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles that once graced the Parthenon in Athens, and more. The Victoria & Albert Museum is a vast storehouse of applied and decorative arts. A Dale Chihuly chandelier in the entrance dome-16 feet of sparking green and blue glass tendrils and balls heralds the museum’s National Glass Collection. The rest of the 6,000-piece collection, just one among hundreds of tempting exhibits, includes everything from prehistoric and medieval pieces to the latest modern art glass.

Cultural London

The commercial theaters clustered in the West End are only a small part of the arts scene. Londoners like the barbican complex for unusual ensembles and challenging world theater, and the Royal National Theatre for high-quality repertory theater. For something completely different, cross the river and join the “groundlings” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Founded by the late American actor/director Sam Wanamaker, this faithful reconstruction, near the site of the original, has its own company to stage the Bard’s plays in the open air. Seats under the thatched canopy are booked months in advance, but the tickets to mill about in front of the stage like a regular Elizabethan are usually available. Between seasons, the theater and exhibition tour are worth a visit.

Overall, the menu of arts is remarkable. There are 13 classical orchestras and ensemble, two major opera com- panies, dozens of jazz and world music venues. The Proms- a series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, featuring visiting artists from all over is one of the great traditions of British summertime. With the exception of the hottest tick ets in town and seats at the Royal Opera Covent Garden, tickets for most performances can be had at normal box-office prices on the day. Half-price tickets for West End productions are also available from the Society of West End Theaters’ TKTS Kiosk in Leicester Square.

Shopping in cool Britannia

Fashionistas head for Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, just down the road from that London institution, Harrods. Among the department stores Liberty remains a cherished favorite among shoppers out for originality and quality. The store’s reputation for craftsmanship dates from its founding in the late 19th century.

London’s fashion school graduates head straight to the East End to set up shop where the wildest fringes of fashion can currently be found. A changing feast of little shops, specializing in everything from handmade shoes and hats to “deconstructed” tailoring men’s suits tuned inside out and turned into women’s clothing can be sampled in the streets and lanes between the Brick Lane and Spitalfields Markets. Like the markets, most are open only on Sundays.

Among London’s many markets, the foodie paradise of Borough Market is currently the place to shop for French, Italian and English cheeses (Stinking Bishop, anyone?), artisan breads, exotic fruits and vegetables, and gourmet goodies from all over the world. Go for lunch; eat and drink your way around the stalls, then buy some handmade Indian condiments from Mrs. Bassa, or Spanish sauces from Brindisa, to take home.3

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