Raising the roof: London climbs higher with new skyscrapers, Harry Potter and cool hotels
If you thought the Olympics changed London, the crowning achievements are still to come.
Towers are sprouting in the old City of London, amping the once modest skyline to heights never thought possible. Londoners feel better saddling their skyscrapers with diminishing nicknames, and the formerly dominant “Gherkin” (30 St. Mary Axe, 591 feet tall) is being elbowed aside by the hulking “Walkie-Talkie” (20 Fenchurch St., 525 feet) and the wedge-shaped “Cheese Grater” (Leadenhall Building, 737 feet). More than two dozen more towers, many 500 feet tall or higher, are in the pipeline.
Nothing will dwarf the Shard, Europe’s tallest skyscraper (800 feet), now open for business at London Bridge. The price of its observation deck (£30 day of, book ahead to save £5, theviewfromtheshard.com) is repellant, but the view is unmatched. Point a “digital telescope” in the distance, and an attached screen will show you the same scene at a different time of day. The same viewfinders also diss rival developments, tackily pointing out that St George’s Wharf across town “has twice won the accolade of ‘Worst Building in the World.’” Though the novelty of the Shard is stealing its business, the London Eye (londoneye.com ) remains the richer experience (and it costs a third less).
The city’s most popular new family outing is Warner Bros. Studio Tour London’s The Making of Harry Potter, a DVD extra reborn as a £29 attraction (worth it) on the lot where the movies were shot (wbstudiotour.co.uk). It seems that every prop, set, prosthetic, wig and wand were lovingly saved for this polished, informative and exhaustive walk-though feast. Fans could spend hours grazing the bounty, from the students’ dining hall to Dumbledore’s roost to the Ministry of Magic. The finale, an astoundingly intricate 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts Castle used for aerial shots, is 50 feet across and takes up an arena-size room lit to simulate day and night. The tour is also the only place outside of Orlando where you can taste Butterbeer — but not the frozen variety. The Brits don’t understand slushies.
Harry Potter is an easy 15-minute train ride from Euston station — and not, as in the books, from King’s Cross, where an independent Harry Potter-themed souvenir shop has opened to milk tourists hunting for Platform 9 3/4. Get your picture under a pretend sign for £8.
The entire Olympic area, now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, is a dusty construction zone again. The massive swimming pavilion is being shaved smaller, the basketball arena dismantled and offered to Rio for 2016 (no luck so far), and the Olympic Stadium being measured for a retractable tensile roof in preparation for occupancy by the West Ham soccer team.
Music promoters, including the Yahoo! Wireless and Hard Rock Calling festivals, are flocking out of central London after last July’s concert heresy, when authorities literally pulled the plug on Bruce Springsteen after he broke a prudish 10:30 p.m. curfew in Hyde Park. On June 30, Bruce debuts in the less urban Olympic Park, and this time he’ll keep rocking for as long as he wants.
The West End is rocking, too. Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, M and Q respectively from “Skyfall,” headline “Peter and Alice,” about a meeting of the real-life inspirations for Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Helen Mirren reprises her QE2 for “The Audience,” and Tony winner Heather Headley gets audiences to their feet (a London rarity) in the musical version of “The Bodyguard.” By the summer, the long-dreamed-of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” finally premieres at one of the city’s biggest houses, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. For the latest on West End shows and all of London’s events and hotel deals hit London’s official site, visitlondon.com.
If there’s a phrase to typify the hotel newbies, it’s frugal savvy. The funky Dutch boutiquer CitizenM, just south of the Tate Modern, arrived last July with kiosk check-ins and an ever-buzzy lobby stocked with classic Penguin paperbacks. Rooms feature enormous platform beds and Samsung Galaxies that control everything from the TV to gentle wake-up alerts integrated with the lighting system. At £135, accommodations aren’t much more than a B&B’s (citizenm.com).
Likewise, as it prepares to open an extravagant flagship property (with a bowling alley!) off Piccadilly Circus, the estimable Firmdale Hotels has returned to its townhouse roots with Marylebone’s Dorset Square Hotel (from £195, firmdalehotels.com). In 1985, it was the springboard property for Tim and Kit Kemp’s wildly successful hotel empire (which now includes the Crosby Street Hotel here in New York). The couple recently reacquired the property and gave it an adorable makeover themed on cricket and root vegetables (it works), just in time to appear in Kit’s new interior-design coffee-table book, “A Living Space.”
In the City, the Conran-designed, 80-room South Place Hotel is an arty new building featuring, most unusually for Europe, huge bathrooms with showers the size of queen beds. But this hotel is about a lot more than serenity: Its experienced restaurant group poached chef Tony Fleming from the still-marvelous One Aldwych hotel, and its multiple bars draw financial district 30-somethings deep into the night. On weekends, rooms are as low as £185 (southplacehotel.com ).
Covent Garden, too, is being improved, and as leases come up, chain restaurants and stores are being asked to leave as fresher names, such as London’s first outpost of Keith McNally’s Balthazar, move in.
But London’s hottest culinary trend looks outside, to Peru. Coya (coyarestaurant.com), in Mayfair, packs hipster crowds with its Josper oven-cooked meat delicacies and a private, £600-a-year club upstairs, while Ceviche (cevicheuk.com), on Frith Street in Soho, serves the cheerfully casual end of the spectrum. Its menu imports dozens of exotic ingredients available only in South America and twists them into mouth-watering, affordable tasting portions (wasabi seabass ceviche, paiche fish steamed in banana leaf). Owner Martin Morales has been so successful at introducing Peruvian flavors that his place is where the chefs go on their nights off, and he has a cookbook that comes out in June.
All that, and one last debut: Princess Kate is due to give birth to the throne’s heir in July. Proving that although upheaval is afoot in London, the city remains in thrall with tradition.
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