There's something new to see during every visit to England's capital

Contributing Travel WriterJanuary 19, 2014 

During the 18th century, Samuel Johnson wrote, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life ... for there is in London all that life affords." Those words still hold true.

When I first started going to London, it was enough to stay on the north bank of the Thames. Today, if you don't go to the South Bank, you will miss the London Eye, the Globe Theatre, Borough Market, Vinopolis wine museum, the London Aquarium and a host of other attractions.

It also used to be that the West End held all of the allure. Not any longer. Since the 2012 Olympics, more visitors have discovered the quirky charms of the city's East End.

With every trip to London, I find something new. But still, it's nice to be surrounded by the familiar areas I know well and love.

Here are suggestions for areas to visit when planning a trip across the Pond.

Covent Garden and the Theater District

Theater in London's West End is confined primarily to the area around Covent Garden. Known as the place where Henry Higgins discovered Eliza Doolittle selling flowers, Covent Garden is a nonstop entertainment venue. Mimes and jugglers perform in the Italian-style piazza, and impromptu opera and classical music concerts are held under the glass roof of the main market.

Shopping options range from high-end British designers to souvenir stores stocked with the ubiquitous "Keep Calm and (fill in the blank)" merchandise (my favorite: "Keep Calm and Marry Harry"). Restaurants run the gamut from burgers to Bengali, and there are some 60 pubs for quenching a thirst.

Surrounding Covent Garden are many of London's 52 major theaters, offering everything from blockbuster hits The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King to the world's longest-running production, Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, now in its 62nd year.

Must-see: Somerset House, an imposing neo classical building on the Thames, was once a Tudor palace, home to the powerful Duke of Somerset. Today, it is one of London's premier arts and cultural centers, home to the prestigious Courtauld Gallery, Embankment Galleries, and since 2009, London Fashion Week. Somerset House provides a dazzling backdrop for the fashionistas, with 55 dancing fountains in the piazza-style courtyard. In winter, the courtyard morphs into a spectacular ice-skating rink. (Strand, near Lancaster Place. Somersethouse.org.uk.)

Where to stay: One Aldwych is a stylish hotel with 105 rooms, a sybaritic spa, two restaurants (Axis and Indigo) and a lobby bar that is one of the most happening places in the capital, a favorite of visiting celebs and supermodels. (1 Aldwych. Onealdwych.com.)

Where to party: Talk about adaptive reuse of space. Next to One Aldwych in what was once an underground men's restroom is Zero Aldwych, a smoky little bar offering cabaret, jazz and classic cocktails. Entering the bar, also called CellarDoor, from street level is like wandering into another dimension. (Cellardoor.biz.)

Bloomsbury

What Covent Garden is to London theater, Bloomsbury is to its literati. The area was developed during the 17th and 18th centuries around a series of squares, much as Savannah, Ga., was. Ten of these garden squares remain; they are at their loveliest in the spring when daffodils, tulips and lilacs bloom.

The early 1900s brought the Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals. Free thinkers such as economist John Maynard Keynes and writers E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and, most famously, Virginia Woolf, held informal salons in one another's homes. This cemented Bloomsbury's reputation as London's intellectual heart, particularly as it is also the location of the University of London's main campus and what is arguably the world's greatest museum, The British Museum.

Must-see: Often referred to as "the world's attic," The British Museum was the first museum to open to the public, in 1759. Today, its 8 million works from six continents are on display for free.

Don't count on making this a quick stop. The first two times I went, I never got past the Egyptian Gallery, with the largest collection of mummies outside Egypt. There are two schools of thought regarding the museum's incomparable treasures — that they were acquired through British imperialism and should be returned to their native countries, and that those native countries would not have cared for them nearly as well as the British have.

Whatever your feelings, no place on Earth has so many treasures under one roof — among them the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, a decorated column from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, and the Standard of Ur from ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). The Louvre has I.M. Pei's modern glass-pyramid addition, but The British Museum counters with the glass roof of the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court.

Known for its blockbuster exhibitions, the museum's offerings this year include Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia (through March 23) and The Vikings Are Coming (March 6 to June 22). (Great Russell Street. Britishmuseum.org.)

Where to stay: Just across from The British Museum, The Montague on the Gardens, a the boutique hotel, has 88 rooms, 11 suites and one apartment, all individually decorated. The Blue Door Bistro is a great place for lunch or dinner, and the hotel's private garden is the site of special activities — from American-style barbecues in the summer to a re-created ski lodge in the winter. The concierge will provide you with a list of his 10 favorite pieces at The British Museum, and give you directions to the Charles Dickens Museum and The Cartoon Museum, both just a few minutes' walk from the hotel. (15 Montague Street. Montaguehotel.com.)

Mayfair

If London's Mayfair district was on a monopoly board and you landed on it, it would be game over. Mayfair is one of the world's most expensive areas, home to Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern oil sheikhs and the occasional British aristocrat who likes to hang out in one of the area's many private gentlemen's clubs.

Mayfair is bounded by Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the east, Piccadilly and Green Park to the south, and Park Lane and Hyde Park to the west. With the exception of the Royal Academy of Art on Piccadilly, Mayfair is devoted less to the chasing of culture than the pursuit of pleasure.

Shopping here means Old and New Bond Streets and Savile Row, home to the world's best tailors. A meal at Le Gavroche or Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester hotel will equal a month's car payment, and elegant private casinos (visitors may get temporary memberships) will make you think of James Bond sipping his shaken martini.

Must-see: Sandwiched between Piccadilly and Curzon Streets, Shepherd's Market got its name from a market held here during the 17th and 18th centuries. It still maintains a village atmosphere. Just around the corner on picturesque Half Moon Street is where author P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster lived with his faithful manservant, Jeeves.

If you're feeling flush, book a table at nearby Mirabelle Restaurant, where the famous clientele has ranged from Winston Churchill to Johnny Depp, who reportedly once dropped about $18,000 on a bottle of Romanée-Conti burgundy. You'll be happy to know that you can drink a lot cheaper at two of the Market's pubs, Ye Grapes and The King's Arms.

Where to stay: Mayfair has no shortage of world-famous hotels, including Claridge's, The Dorchester and The Connaught, but I love Hotel 41, part of the Red Carnation Collection hotel group. Although not technically in Mayfair, it is just on the edge — across from Buckingham Palace's Royal Mews. No hotel in London is more glamorous. Its 30 rooms are glossy black and white, with vases of red carnations providing the only color. For the ultimate experience, book the Conservatory Suite, whose glass roof opens to the heavens. (41 Buckingham Palace Road. 41hotel.com.)

Where to eat: Mayfair restaurants are rife with Michelin stars, but for Sunday brunch I like Restaurant 34, just off Grosvenor Square, near the American Embassy. 34 is a welcoming oasis with banquettes of burnt orange, a whimsical contemporary art collection, and a weekend brunch menu featuring dishes such as Cornish fish soup with saffron mayonnaise, twice-baked cheddar soufflé and lobster macaroni with truffles. (34 Grosvenor Square, with its entrance on South Audley Street. 34-restaurant.co.uk.)

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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