London is a very special city to me, almost a home away from home. I've been there literally more times than I can count, and I know certain streets like the back of my hand. I love London's history and architecture but also how it is never the same city twice, how each time I visit I find new nooks and crannies to explore. This trip I made a point of seeing some of the bigger-name sights that had never before found their way onto my agenda, and also to soak up the atmosphere in the very cool East End neighborhood where I was staying. And of course to visit some old favorites too. You may find a full set of my vacation snapshots here.
1) British Museum
This is almost always my first stop post-arrival (after a meal at the Wagamama across the street), and I make a beeline for the bodhisattvas in the Asian galleries to tell them everything that's happened since the last time I visited. Then past the Rosetta Stone and the Babylonian gates and wall carvings to the Greek vases, where I stop to gaze upon Exekias's rendering of Achilles and Penthesilea, the warring pair with their eyes locked and falling in love at the moment he kills her. Then into the great gallery of the Parthenon marbles to find my favorite centaur...The list goes on and on. I think of the British Museum as "my" museum, and it's one of those places that doesn't necessarily flaunt its wares. You will find the most amazing Mesoamerican jade mask hidden behind a case at the back of the room, for example, rewarding those who take the time to look.
2) National Gallery
I had only been here before for special exhibits and had never taken the time to tour the galleries proper, so I basically wandered around for a couple hours in an art-bliss stupor. Just for starters: Van Gogh's sunflowers, Botticelli's gods and goddesses, van Eyck's tricky Arnolfini portrait, Velázquez's odalisque, a gorgeous mess of implied speed and light as only Turner could do. I also got a kick out of that sumptuous baroque fabric on the walls that gave the entire proceedings just a hint of the boudoir. Oh and did I mention Katharina Fritsch had a giant rooster (ahem, Cock) installed on the Fourth Plinth just outside, in Trafalgar Square?
3) Tower of London
Another "touristy" attraction I'd never visited, I underestimated how wowed I'd be by the sheer weight of history here. Past home to monarchs, current residence of the Crown Jewels, and of course all those beheadings (recounted with salacious detail on a must-do tour by an official Yeoman Warder). I also very much enjoyed mucking around in the medieval palace and trying to sidle up to the famous ravens.
4) East London
I could not have chosen a better base of operations than the glorious Town Hall Hotel (also home to one of the best meals I had this trip, at Nuno Mendes's Corner Room). From there I was easy striking distance to the Columbia Road flower market, bars like Queen of Hoxton with its rooftop WigWamBam and the innovative White Lyan, delicious cuisine both fancy (Boundary) and not (Brick Lane Beigel Bake, Leila's Shop), sublime vintage shopping on Cheshire Street, and London's version of Off the Grid at the Hawker House Street Feast. I also kept being drawn back to the picturesque Regent's Canal, lined as it is with ye olde houseboats and lovely places to grab a pint like the Dove Freehouse.
5) Houses of Parliament
My dear friend Marilyn works for MP Tom Brake (Deputy Leader of the House of Commons) and arranged for one of his interns to give me a private tour of the Houses, which totally ruled (thanks, Emily!!). We toodled through vast Westminster Hall and the chambers and got as close as you can get to Big Ben -- the foot of Elizabeth Tower is actually Parliament's designated smoking section. We capped it off with a look at the portraits of former PMs and MPs in Portcullis House and then lunch in the Parliamentary dining room where I got to meet some more of Mr. Brake's interns. Also thank you to the British taxpayers for subsidizing my veggie curry.
6) Tate Modern
Though the "other" Tate is actually the first museum I ever went to when I first arrived in London for my junior year abroad lo those many years ago, the Modern has since become my preferred stop, one of my favorite museums in the entire world for its Herzog and de Meuron architecture (omg the Turbine Hall), for the views across the Thames to St. Paul's from its seventh-floor cafe and restaurant, and of course for its collection. The first time I saw those Rothkos pictured above I sniffed at them, so obsessed was I at the time with the pre-Raphaelites, but now I weep in front of them. This visit they were hung in the same wing as a slideshow by my hero Allan Sekula (R.I.P.) and an entire room of Richter's vast silver smear paintings. It's like the curators knew I was coming.
7) Natural History Museum
Can you believe I'd never set foot in here? Some engineer's daughter I am. I did an excellent job of rectifying the situation this time, running rampant through the endless collections that include dinosaurs (hello, triceratops, my spirit animal) and dodos (!). The architecture of the original building is straight out of a fairy tale, with the outside encrusted with multitudes of animals instead of gargoyles. Contrast the original building with the spanking-new Darwin Centre, a glass-encased concrete cocoon where the work of taxonomy continues and visitors may learn about what scientists actually do. Yeah I was in heaven.
8) Ice skating at Somerset House
Christmas kinda gets me down at home, but in London it makes me feel all sparkly and twinkly. Probably because the Brits are not held back by Thanksgiving and put up the most incredible holiday displays, each one more elaborate than the last, and because there are warm alcoholic drinks wherever you turn. Every person I met said the most quintessential thing to do during the Christmas season was to go ice skating in the courtyard of Somerset House, and so I did. I didn't remember how long it had been since the last time I skated until I was physically on the ice, but it only took about fifteen seconds for my Dutch genes to kick in and then I was happily bopping along to adult grooves by Rinse FM DJs. In a very joyful coincidence: earlier in the evening I took the stairs from my Tube stop to get up to the rink and ran smack into a late viewing of the Isabella Blow exhibition at the House I thought I would surely miss. Inspiration all around.
9) Christmas at Kew Gardens
So another Christmas tradition in London is to walk an "illuminated trail," and I chose the one at Kew Gardens. I arrived in the afternoon and spent some lovely daylight hours exploring the magnificent grounds before night fell (at 4pm sheesh), but then the real magic started. I was led to a marked walkway that took me deep into wooded glades where Moroccan lanterns swayed from the branches and an evocative ambient soundtrack played. Soon I reached a clearing where a man in a tricorn hat stood next to a bubbling, smoking contraption and declared he was a member of the Royal Society of Plant Whisperers. After conversing with him and receiving some imaginative instructions I was off again on the path, stopping to "play" a stand of trees lit with of colored lights with other participants, to grab a waffle smothered in chocolate sauce, to toss a memory into a lake, to listen to the sound of cattails and other plants emanating out of a series of giant Victrolas, to stand in awe in front of a fire mandala arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence, to float a wish on a lily pond underneath a giant lit-up fabric flower, to watch the Kew Palm House pulse to a techno light show. Mind: officially blown.
10) Victoria & Albert Museum
Oh, the V&A, how I adore thee. Ostensibly dedicated to the decorative arts, this place is just as much of a colonial rummage sale as the British Museum, and again with treasures both delightful and bizarre around every turn. This time I lost about an hour just amongst the baubles in the Jewellery Gallery, and on the way there I found some immense panels by Edward Burne-Jones I had never seen before. The Islamic galleries, Tipu's Tiger, the Raphael Cartoons, the Cast Courts, the Fashion Room, the photography collection...there's really no other place like it. As an added bonus on this visit Chinese artist Xu Bing had transformed the pool in the outdoor courtyard into a landscape straight out of an ancient scroll painting augmented with a few of his own contemporary details.
11) Geffrye Museum
A hidden gem not far from where I was staying, the Geffrye is a converted 18th-century almshouse that takes you era-by-era through how locals would have lived and decorated their houses. Lucky me: the Museum had just transformed each of its eleven rooms for their Christmas Past exhibition, so I was able to see Victorian decorations, '60s toys seemingly just unwrapped, a festive modern loft, and lots lots more. Yet more luck: I was there on the day they open up one of the original almshouses to visitors, and got to see the rooms set up just as they would have been by residents back in the day. Domesticity through the centuries is surprisingly fascinating.
12) Westminster Abbey
Huzzah, now I've finally seen where Will and Kate got married. Just kidding. Really I was there to pay my respects in Poets Corner and have tea in the crypt.
...And I will end it there lest I ramble on forever, even though I haven't mentioned the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (and a special exhibition of Turner's seascapes), my first revolution on the London Eye, a morning with all the winter birds in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, my tour of Shakespeare's Globe, a performance of Jez Butterworth's Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre, beating jet lag with Catching Fire at the Barbican, and my many many wonderful city strolls. You'll just have to hit me up in person sometime.
I'm still feeling so refreshed and inspired from my London mini-break, even if my head is occasionally tilting sideways from the jet lag. I just posted a ton of pictures, which start on my flickr photostream here. Please enjoy!
-Mental soundtrack ---> The Kinks
-Flight over sandwiched between a cool UC Davis physics professor and a woman from San Diego who demanded explanations of both my liberal Christian theology and my vegetarianism
-Dangerously good shopping on the walk from the Hampstead tube stop to my guest-house
-Dropping my bags off and running straight to the British Museum
-Discussing Herzog's remake of Bad Lieutenant with the nice boys at Gosh! Comics
-Udon noodles with a sweet tamarind sauce, teppan-fried with egg, fried tofu, leeks and beansprouts topped with crushed roasted peanuts and a wedge of lime at Wagamama
-Yay Beard Papa now in London! Much more unfortunately, so is American Apparel.
-Wow High Street fashion looks like Nu Rave barfed on everyone. And you think Agyness Deyn is over-exposed in the States? Woo boy.
-Jumping straight into the disturbing art with Jake and Dinos Chapman's remake of Hell at White Cube
-Graffiti going seriously giant all the way up the outside walls of Tate Modern
-Tea and cookies on the seventh floor
-Street art scavenger hunt in Southwark - gotta catch 'em all!
-Across the Millennium Bridge and into the City, land of handsome well-suited types
-Pilgrimage to the foot of 30 St Mary Axe, aka Norman Foster's Gherkin
-Rain, interspersed with sun
-My room on the second floor at the Hampstead Village Guesthouse, complete with a shelf of books in Dutch, a kitty painting, and a view of more gorgeous Victorians across the street
-Slice of Margherita pizza and a lager near the London Eye
-Jacobean horror-play meets oontz oontz oontz in the National Theatre's production of Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, starring an incredible Rory Kinnear and featuring some of the best set and sound design I've ever experienced
-An art installation of sound-activated columns of shimmering light on the South Bank and a walk across Embankment Bridge cap off my first night in town quite nicely
-Mental soundtrack ---> The Troggs
-Apricot pastry from Louis Patisserie
-Morning constitutional among the overgrown gravestones and chirping birdies in Abney Park Cemetery
-Geeky monster fun from Tom Friedman at Gagosian
-Gravity defied, architectural interventions, and oh yes a damp paddle in a makeshift rowboat in the Psycho Buildings exhibition at the Hayward
-A crocheted coral reef
-Roasted pear, gorgonzola and radicchio sandwich + celeriac and apple salad + wasabi-dressed bean sprout and seaweed salad at Concrete
-Sara VanDerBeek's kaleidoscopic photographic universes at The Approach
-Highly personal time-lapse, young Bogota goths, and sewing up wounds in bus upholstery from Colombian photographers and artists at the Photographers' Gallery
-Caramel-coated shortbread + a vanilla chai latte
-The back garden of my guest-house
-Amazing veggie food and truly delightful company in the form of Ally and Mike at The Gate. My main course was mushroom duxelles & goat’s cheese rolled in thyme-infused potato, served on a bed of french beans with a white wine, cream & cep reduction, topped with deep-fried leek matchsticks. We also shared mind-bendingly good appetizer and dessert mezze platters. I will be fantasizing about that meal for months.
-Sucking down Oranjeboom and watching the Dutch soundly defeat the French 4-1 in their Euro Cup game at De Hems, surrounded by fellow roaring fans. Hup Holland!
-I could have continued drinking until last call without paying for a single beer myself, if you know what I'm sayin'
-Mental soundtrack ---> Tin Tin
-Roasted mushrooms, veggie sausages, baked beans, potato wedges, toast and scrambled free-range eggs at Giraffe
-A quiet moment in the newly-restored St Martin-in-the-Fields with Shirazeh Houshiary's beautiful new window
-Thomas Schütte's Model for a Hotel atop the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square
-The Edwardian grandeur of the Admiralty Arch, barely diminished by the hordes of tourists on their way to the Queen's birthday celebration
-Helen Frankenthaler's luminous color field paintings at Bernard Jacobson
-David Attenborough-curated illustrations of the natural world at the Queen's Gallery, including a page of cat drawings by Leonardo da Vinci that I wanted to steal right off the wall
-Watching a procession of 70 years of British military planes go right over my head. For the Queen, of course. Totally awesome, and also totally terrifying.
-Asparagus in butter sauce + a mushroom Wellington with aged cheddar, spinach and organic spelt at Inn the Park
-Michael Smith playing with ideas about students and study at Hales Gallery
-Gorgeous artists' books on display at the V&A, including Anselm Kiefer's weighty tomes. I'm only sad I wasn't allowed to flip through them.
-Tea by the fountain
-Meeting my guest-house's resident cat, aka The Monster
-Vegan Thai platter at Manna including tom kha gai, spring rolls and green papaya topped with fake duck. All this plus Mazzy Star, the Stone Roses, Velvet Underground, the Cure and Primal Scream playing as background music.
-The view from the top of Primrose Hill
-In Search of a Midnight Kiss breaking my heart in the best possible way at the Curzon Soho. Instantly one of my favorite movies ever, all witty banter and salty language and a killer soundtrack. And of course I'm going to adore a film about looking for love in LA.
-Last night in London sadness
-Mental soundtrack ---> Dodos
-Bus to Paddington, and then the magical Heathrow Express making itself well worth the splurge
-Giving in to temptation at the Smythson of Bond Street outpost at Heathrow. I blame the charming sales associate who saw me lingering and took his moment: "A small indulgence, madame?"
-Making it home relatively unscathed despite having to sit next to a posse of 19-year-olds from Fresno for the 11 hours back to SFO
I'll post pictures tomorrow night!