- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

LONDON — Catching my first glimpse of London from the air would have been easy because I had a window seat for my flight from New York, but sleeping pills knocked me out just six hours earlier, and I didn’t wake until landing at Heathrow.

Sacrificing that airborne glimpse for sleep was a good trade-off, though. A scheduling conflict had reduced my planned week in the United Kingdom to just 48 hours in London, and I wanted to get my nap before landing.

I arrived at the home of a friend, Martin Haigh, about 2 p.m. local time, changed clothes, grabbed a sweater, and we were off.

In one weekend, we explored everything from Camden Market and Chinatown to the British Museum and the British Library.

We also ate an offensively large amount of Lebanese, Indian, Thai and Italian food, not to mention sushi, and drank several cappuccinos. I crossed the city many times over — first on the plane, then in trains, in the subway, by cabs and on a double-decker bus — and I walked a lot.

“I’ve never been to so many things in such a short amount of time,” Martin said on my second night, between bites of a prawn-and-scallop risotto. We were savoring a rare moment of downtime. “It’s been like a competition.”

To see London in two days, you must have one of two things: an energetic guide very familiar with the city — someone like Martin, who was raised there, is preferable — or a solid plan. I definitely had the Londoner, but the plan was a work in progress, mainly because I had refused to purchase a guidebook.

Instead, I had polled friends and acquaintances for recommendations on where to go. The result was not always perfect; I missed Westminster Abbey by one hour because I didn’t realize that it’s closed after 2:45 p.m. Saturday and all day Sunday. I also missed out on top nightspots; trendy clubs require far-in-advance reservations for dinner or even drinks.

However, most of my other must-sees worked out splendidly, starting with the British Airways London Eye, an oversized Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames. We entered London via Waterloo Station on the South Bank and went straightaway to inquire about evening tickets for it.

At 450 feet tall, it is the city’s fourth-tallest structure and provides a view that stretches for miles if you are lucky enough to be there, as I was, without fog.

The Eye and the rest of the South Bank easily made the “top five things to do” list for my whirlwind tour.

A perfect half-day can be spent there, strolling the south side of the Thames, with its museums and galleries, including the remarkable architecture of the Tate Modern — linked to St. Paul’s Cathedral by the new millennium footbridge.

Walk north and you might catch skateboarders “ollying” over trash cans — flipping their boards into the air and landing on them — outside the Royal National Theatre.

Cross Westminster Bridge and take in London’s famous landmarks: Parliament, the prime minister’s home at 10 Downing St., Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. Then continue to Buckingham Palace. Even though you likely have seen all of these iconic buildings in photographs, postcards and films, they are striking in person. Also, because much of London is flat, I was able to do all of this touring wearing heels.

Shopping was No. 2 on my list. I am not a particularly enthusiastic shopper, but I enjoy owning a few choice items, which in London means handmade shirts and suits.

My male banker friends had strong opinions on where to buy these items, but to help me avoid spending a lot of money and time on a fitting, a friend recommended an excellent ready-made alternative in the shirts sold at Hilditch & Key.

The Brits are discreet and do not broadcast celebrity information as readily as do salespeople in New York’s Soho, where a friend of mine recently purchased a top and was told Britney Spears had just bought the same item.

However, I did figure out that while I was in Hilditch & Key’s two-room shop at 73 Jermyn St., so was tennis great Ilie Nastase. After asking a few questions, I managed to pry from the sales staff the fact that the Duke of Kent had shopped there two days earlier and that the Duke of Wellington, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Bill Clinton all own Hilditch & Key clothing.

Oddly, my most cherished finds were the opposite of London’s bespoke clothing: 1970s Adidas zippered warm-up jackets from the city’s hip vintage stores.

“These jackets have been popular for as long as I can remember,” said Tony Nesbitt of Hideout Classics, where designer Paul Smith and filmmaker Paul Yates shop. Talk-show host Ruby Wax was perched on a stoop outside the store when Martin and I entered.

“It’s a classic top,” Mr. Nesbitt added. “Anything Adidas has got a really good look.”

I bought three.

The vintage stores are located along and near Portobello Road in Notting Hill; the neighborhood came in at No. 3 on my list. Admittedly, there is a sappy romantic comedy of the same name, but do not be deterred. With its outdoor market, large white town houses and gently curved streets, Notting Hill reminds me of a subdued cross between Barcelona and San Francisco — except for the Porsches, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces that seem to line the streets.

No. 4 on my list required the least amount of effort: indulging in alcohol during the day. I felt it was my duty to sit in a pub with its fan humming quietly above the bar, reading the sports pages and getting a light buzz from my Fueller’s London Pride Ale. In hindsight, I wish I had had another.

My final “must-do” was a tie between eating Indian curry on Brick Lane or taking a trip to the British Museum. The choice was difficult; many of my friends learned to love Indian food on Brick Lane, whereas the British Museum is almost too obvious. Still, as Martin told me, the Brits have “nicked art from around the world. You’ve got to see it.” So I did, and so should you.

The museum is enormous and crowded and can feel overwhelming — but so what? It’s crowded for a reason. Its holdings include the Rosetta Stone, with its famous hieroglyphics, part of the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt, and the controversial Parthenon Marbles, the 2,500-year-old frieze acquired by Lord Elgin in 1811 and demanded back by modern Greece.

As for Brick Lane, Martin insists that a really good curry can be consumed only at Indian restaurants decorated with thick wallpaper and carpeting — something about authenticity.

His strange theory proved accurate: The floral wallpaper and Kelly green carpeting at Standard Balti House at 71 Brick Lane was the perfect setting for our many yummy and reasonably priced dishes, including king prawn, vegetable samosas, chicken patia, and, of course, Kingfisher beers.

When my quick excursion was over, I felt more as if I had spent a weekend in Boston than in a foreign country, partly because there was no language barrier.

The most enjoyable part of the trip, however, was finding out that London actually is a manageable 48-hour getaway from New York. I am eager to return to explore it further.

• • •

Flights from Washington to London take about seven hours. If you depart in the evening, New York time, you arrive in the morning, London time.

Bensons MapGuides of London lists hours and addresses of must-sees along with its maps.

If you’re headed into London center from Heathrow, take the Heathrow Express train, a 15-minute trip that leaves Heathrow four times an hour to London’s Paddington Station.

Also, remember that the Tube — London’s subway system — shuts down after midnight. Check out www.thetube.com for information on service.

The London Eye is less crowded in the evenings because many people don’t realize it’s usually open until 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

For more information: www.visitbritain.com or call 800/462-2748.

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