Five things a first-time visitor to London should do

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Five things a first-time visitor to London should do

William Smook
The River Thames and Westminster Bridge, with the Palace of Westminster and Houses of Parliament.
COME HITHER The River Thames and Westminster Bridge, with the Palace of Westminster and Houses of Parliament.
Image: PIXABAY

London is a city of about 8.7 million people with its roots in Roman Britain and – Brexit deliberations aside – it’s still the economic powerhouse of Europe.

The legendary writer and thinker Samuel Johnson famously said that when you’re tired of London you are tired of life. But until you’re familiar with its excellent public transport system London can feel a little overwhelming with its throngs of commuters and its vast sprawl.

The trick, says Sue Petrie, British Airways’ commercial manager for Southern Africa, is to choose just a few activities at a time, both in and around the mighty city, rather than trying to do everything at once. And unless you’re determined to see, say, every example of Mesopotamian pottery on display in the city, that you mix and match your activities.

Getting in: London has excellent transport access. If you’re flying from South Africa, you will arrive at either Heathrow or Gatwick. The latter has recently been linked by a direct British Airways flight from Cape Town three times weekly.

Gatwick is no mere local airport. In 2016, some 43.1 million passengers arrived or departed from there on than 275,000 flights. And the heart of London is just 35 minutes away by train to London Bridge – pretty much the same time as it would take you to get from Heathrow on the London Underground.

The refurbished lounge at Gatwick airport.
REST UP The refurbished lounge at Gatwick airport.
Image: SUPPLIED

Get your bearings over a cuppa: there’s no shortage of coffeeshops – independent or franchises – and many have a comfy couch. For something with a relaxed ambience, some good reading material and fine java, try the Holborn Grind at The Hoxton, Holborn, a design-focused open house hotel in an area the locals call Midtown. It’s close to Covent Garden, Oxford Street and Bloomsbury and on the well-served 55 bus route and the Picadilly tube.

If you prefer your coffee as a takeaway while you stroll, there are plenty of shops offering retail therapy nearby, and green spaces. Stroll further afield and you’ll reach the embankments on the Thames, with superb views of the city and its skylines. www.thehoxton.com/london/holborn/hotels

Holborn Grind at The Hoxton.
COFFEE SOCIETY Holborn Grind at The Hoxton.
Image: GRIND.CO.UK

Take a journey into the past: London has a wealth of museums, many of which you can visit free - such as the Imperial War Museum (Lambeth Road, London SE1), one of the organisation’s five museums in the UK. Apart from the quality and quantity of the exhibits, part of the museum’s strength is in how it tells stories through objects and multimedia material. www.iwm.org.uk/

The main hall of the Imperial War Museum.
HALL STORIES The main hall of the Imperial War Museum.
Image: SUPPLIED

There’s also the Victoria and Albert Museum, regarded as the world’s leading museum of art and design.Its upcoming exhibition Ocean Liners: Speed & Style, which opens on February 3, looks at the heyday of ocean liners – in their day, the epitome of luxury travel – through the prism of design: fashion, furniture and the engineering of the ships themselves. The exhibition examines the cultural impact of the sudden emergence of fast, safe trans-ocean crossing. www.vam.ac.uk

The Victoria and Alfred Museum which houses a permanent collection of more than 4.5 million objects.
GRAND DESIGN The Victoria and Alfred Museum which houses a permanent collection of more than 4.5 million objects.
Image: PIXABAY

High tea with a view: Standing nearly 310m tall, the Shard is one of tallest, most recognisable buildings in London. Tea at Ting restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel on the 35th level of the building offers jawdropping views as far as 65km across the city, with the Thames River and St Paul’s Cathedral immediately below. You have a choice of English or Asian fare, and a selection of more than 30 teas.

Inside tip: do visit the toilets while you’re there. Apart from say, the Darth Vader’s private suite in the Death Star, it’s hard to imagine any loo with views this spectacular. www.ting-shangri-la.com/afternoon-tea/

The view from the Shard of London at sunset.
HIGHLIGHTS The view from the Shard of London at sunset.
Image: SUPPLIED

Take in a show: If you’re even remotely a fan of live music, do your utmost to get seats at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, at the epicentre of jazz and blues since 1959 and an essential pilgrimage for music aficionados. The intimate supper club is lined with pictures of the luminaries who’ve performed there, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Elkie Brooks, Tom Waits, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea and hundreds of others, and the proprietors are absolutely meticulous about their devotion to good live music. www.ronniescotts.co.uk 

If you prefer musicals to jazz, the West End will spoil you for choice, with evergreens like Les Misérables, Mamma Mia!, Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and Annie, and newcomers like The Book of Mormon, Wicked, and Kinky Boots. 

Then head for your hotel and get some sleep. Because today was just a taster and you have many exciting days ahead of you.

- Smook was a guest of British Airways