Visit London for the holidays

During the holidays, Oxford Street takes on an even more festive air than usual.

During the holidays, Oxford Street takes on an even more festive air than usual.

Cheerful, storybook tales fill store windows. Colorful lights twinkle above shoppers seeking perfect presents. Friends meet for afternoon tea. Tea? Yes, we’re talking about London where friends and business associates chat over a good pot of tea and some mini sandwiches and sweets.

London is a fun destination any time of year but it dresses up even nicer for the holidays so don’t limit a visit here to summer vacation. In December, the weather is pretty much like New York or Chicago. Wrap a scarf around the neck. Don the earmuffs.  And come enjoy the sights.

A good place to drop the suitcase (large enough to bring back clothes for you and presents for others) is the Marriott Park Lane. Standing proud at the north end of Park Lane at Oxford Street and the Marble Arch, the hotel periodically runs really good package deals and is perfectly placed to take the tube, bus, cut across Hyde Park or shop Selfridges, Marks & Spencer and the many new stores opened in 2012.

The Marriott Park Lane is across from Hyde Park at the Marble Arch entrance.

The Marriott Park Lane is across from Hyde Park at the Marble Arch entrance.

Its Champs-Élysées style exterior belies its boutique-style hotel interior. The lobby is tiny but the staff are wonderful.

Its 140 Park Lane Restaurant serves up nicely plated and yummy scallops, lamb chops and seasonal dishes. The hotel is also a short walk to the Marlborough Head Pub for fish and chips.

When ready to go exploring, pick up a day pass for the bus or tube. Taxis run on a meter which means that with traffic as bad as Chicago and New York you are paying to sit in long stop-light lines.

Hopefully you didn’t pack all the clothes you need. Bershka recently opened on Oxford with great jeans and tops. Marks & Spencer always has a good sale on men’s clothing and Selfridges is more than a department store, it is about special events, browsing and dining.

Shoppers stop to see what storybook tales Harrods has in its windows this year.

Shoppers stop to see what storybook tales Harrods has in its windows this year.

Then, at the south end of Hyde Park in the Knightsbridge area there is Herrods for its food rooms, art rooms, Egyptian stairway, fairytale windows and everything else. Of course there is also Fortnum & Mason for fabulous foods and Camden Passage Antique Market for quaint shops.

But good as the shopping is, London is also about museums. This is the place to go to Madam Tussauds to admire lifelike celebs or the National Gallery to admire its Rembrandts.

Indeed, for a different lunch experience known to locals but not tourists, eat in a crypt. Before you head into the National Gallery which is in Trafalgar Square  go across the street to the St. Martin in the Fields Church and downstairs to its crypt. The Café in the Crypt serves reasonably-priced, good food.

The church is known for its free lunch-time concertsthat are most weekdays around 1 p.m. but check the schedule and for its exceptional evening, candlelight concerts (tickets needed).

The London Millennium Bridge connects St. Paul's Cathedral on the north side of the Thames with the Tate Modern on the south bank.

The London Millennium Bridge connects St. Paul’s Cathedral on the north side of the Thames with the Tate Modern on the south bank.

For an experience in contrasts, take the tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. After exploring the impressive Nave, go out the back way to a path between buildings that leads to the London Millennium Bridge.

It is a pedestrian suspension bridge that crosses the Thames to the London Borough of Southwark and the Tate Modern, the UK’s famed modern art museum.  The museum is housed in the Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron starkly-designed conversion of the former Bankside Power Station.

A restaurant on Level 6 has wonderful views of St. Paul and London but is pricy. For reasonably priced, casual food, opt for the riverside Café on the main level.

If you go next fall, try to fit in Kenwood House. A beautiful, graceful villa operated by English Heritage on Hampton Heath in the north area of London, Kenwood has a fine art collection that includes Gainsboroughs, van Dykes, a Vermeer and a Rembrandt. Temporarily closed for restoration, Kenwood reopens late fall 2013. If in London before the manor reopens, the grounds are worth a visit. Because it is the highest point in the area, there is a fine view of London.

Selfridges lights up for the holidays outside and in.

Selfridges lights up for the holidays outside and in.

There are many more things to do and places to visit and shows to see than mentioned here so a word of warning is in order. You will find that no matter how many days and places you have planned for your London visit, it won’t be enough. This is a town to return to again and again.

Photos by Jodie Jacobs

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