Famous landmarks, picturesque picnic spots, fine-dining and a shopaholic's paradise…this is London for you!

A crisp blue sky smiled over London. It was the kind of day when you removed your jacket and moved around with your shirt sleeves rolled up. Yet, we found ourselves kitting up for deep winter- thick long coats with fur-rimmed hoods, boots, gloves… Our excuse? To get an exotic drink at what is literally the coolest bar in town- the Icebar, in the heart of London's plush Mayfair district. And since the Icebar is maintained at an icy temperature of minus 5 degrees at all times, the management graciously provided winter garments before we entered the frosty bar where everything including tables, stools, sculptures and even the glasses in which we were served our vodka (a true fire and ice experience included in the admission charge) were made from crystal ice imported from Sweden.

Yes, Icebar set the pace for our off-the-beaten-trail weekend in London where we spiked the familiar with something different and exotic. The result was a delightful cocktail that sparkled with endless possibilities. And believe it or not, we even took time out to relax in an enchanted wooded park.

Road most travelled

The adventure started out on a quiet note with a conventional city tour which helped put London into perspective. We drove past London's famous landmarks and iconic sites that seem to revel in the fact that they are rooted in dense history and legend. Hyde Park where many famous orators first found their public voice standing atop packing crates; Buckingham Palace where the Changing of the Guards is held every day from April to July and every other day the rest of the year, weather permitting; Trafalgar Square, where Admiral Nelson looks down upon cooing pigeons and couples; Fleet Street, still associated with the media even though most media houses have now moved their offices to the new dockyard area…

After brief stops at Parliament House, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey where the coronations, weddings and landmark events of the royal family take place, we set off to explore the London with a difference. And so we dropped in at Somerset House on the banks of the River Thames. The grand 18th century structure, which was built for the Royal Navy on the site of 16th century palace built by the brother of Jane Seymour (Henry VIII's third wife), had fallen upon hard times. Its sprawling courtyard served as a public parking lot. Then in 1977 the Somerset House Trust was established with the aim of making it a major new attraction and centre for culture and art.

The transformation was spectacular and today Somerset House offers visitors a full deck of activities and experiences. One of the highlights of the complex is the Gilbert Collection comprising 800 pieces of decorative art including gold and silver snuffboxes and probably the world's finest collection of 16th to 18th century Italian mosaics which display amazing skill by combining as many as 1,500 opaque pieces of glass per square inch to create detailed images.

After being wowed by what was once the private collection of Sir Arthur Gilbert, we stepped into the main courtyard of Somerset House where rows of dancing fountains greeted us. In winter the courtyard is converted into an ice rink that can accommodate up to 2,000 skaters a day. During the time of our visit, however, it served as a laidback open-air café.

During our visits to London, we often head for the West Piazza of Covent Garden Market where street performers entertain every afternoon. Good acts lure huge audiences and participation from roaring crowds. All the performers are licensed and have auditioned to perform here. If you are looking for excitement of a more intellectual or even the morbid kind, watch a trial at Old Bailey, one of the most famous criminal courts in the world. You can gaze at the proceedings from the public galleries from 10 am, Monday to Friday.

The next day was devoted primarily to shopping. Camden Market for some funky clothes and gifts from independent designers. Camden is a cool place to while away a few hours and has a happening night scene too. Later, we headed for the trendy Seven Dials district, said to be London's Hidden Village. We were accompanied by Gunter, from Belgium, who not only carried our bags but also helped us scout out

the best bargains in Seven Dials. Gunter was one of the four ‘hunky bag boys' whom we had booked in advance on the www.sevendials.co.uk/bagboys website to help us get the best of a district that positions itself as ‘the antidote to impersonal high street shopping.' (The bag boy service is complimentary but satisfied customers are free to tip them as they see fit) And when we met Gunter, who also doubles up as a professional dancer, he introduced himself as a minor Bollywood star who shared the big screen, admittedly briefly, with major stars in a few movies including “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.”

Solar connection

Seven Dials, not far from Covent Garden station, gets its name from the sundial clock tower which has a dial facing each of the seven streets that converge upon it. As we strolled down the streets, Gunter pointed out shops where movie and rock stars shop, including one from where singer Davie Bowie buys his flashy shirts.

But more than just shops and boutiques, Seven Dials has a funky mix of restaurants, pubs and stores that sell exotic goods from all over the world (one even hawks cyber candy). We ended our adventure at a food court that was surrounded by brightly painted (almost gaudy) shops and buildings: it was an ideal finale to be a colourful weekend adventure in a city where the old and familiar mesh nicely with the new and the outlandish.

Fact File

London is a great walking city and offers a number of things to do.

There are a number of tour companies that offer unlimited travel on hop-on-hop-off sightseeing buses for a period of 24 or 48 hours: an excellent way of taking in the sights and sounds of London while getting around the city. For more information

Contact: VisitBritain India:

Email: paramjit.bawa@visitbritain.org; tel: +91 124 4103281


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