It's the time of year when the green and pleasant land becomes green and pleasant once more -- everything's bluebells, crocuses, daffodils and Easter bunnies -- this year, a royal wedding to boot. This is a great time to be in London, too, with the city undergoing some serious changes in the run-up to next year's Olympic Games. Sure, we wish that airfares were lower, but this might be a great time to use some frequent-flyer miles (like those earned with British Airway's 100,000-mile bonus offer). Here is a glimpse at what's what and what's now.
A Shoreditch Thing: Just steps from the dull as dishwater Financial District around Liverpool Street, Shoreditch is easily one of the coolest addresses in town, with just the right mix of flash and grit to please a broad selection of Londoners. And while it's a major draw for nightlife, Shoreditch is even more fun as a place to slip off the grid and waste a day. Start by hopping the beautiful new East London Line, a sleek new elevated train -- part of the Underground network --- that will make any New Yorker or Chicagoan green with envy. Take it over to Shoreditch High Street, then clip-clop down hip Redchurch Street to the Albion (2-4 Boundary St.; www.albioncaff.co.uk), a sleek, all-day café, part of the Conran empire but oddly authentic and cool. It's as perfect for Tuesday morning breakfast as it is for a lazy Sunday brunch. Lunchtimes belong to the Rochelle Canteen (www.arnoldandhenderson.com), a secret-ish spot for outstanding mod-Brit cooking in a disarmingly casual setting in a decommissioned school now inhabited by artists. Proprietress Margot Henderson is the wife of local food luminary Fergus Henderson, he of the expanding St. John restaurant empire -- you won't find any guidebook clutchers over here, though. Follow up with one of the city's best espressos at the tiny coffee bar located in the doorway of Present (140 Shoreditch High Street; www.present-london.com), a popular concept store in Shoreditch High Street catering to the hip young things that live nearby. Then maybe move into a little afternoon drinking; around here, you're certainly spoilt for choice, as the English say.
Return to Glory: Quick, what's the most incredible abandoned building in Central London? If you answered "George Gilbert Scott's crazy red brick Midland Grand Hotel up in front of St. Pancras Station," you would be right -- that is, if the question had been asked a few years ago. That's right -- when the Eurostar upped stakes and moved from Waterloo to the renovated St. Pancras station (now St. Pancras International) in 2007, it paved the way for the rebirth of the Victorian wedding cake-y Midland Grand Hotel, beautifully constructed in the 1870s and (tragically) shuttered in the 1980s. As of this month, the old girl is back; check in to the St. Pancras Renaissance London and make the convenient-to-all station your base of operations. Careful, though -- proximity to those speedier-than-ever trains to Paris may in fact lead to sneaking off to Paris. Good thing the travel time has been reduced to 2 hours and 15 minutes -- you can get there and back so fast, nobody will ever know.
Heston's in Town: For years now, everyone has been saying the food in London is better than it used to be, and that has usually been true. These days, though, things are on a whole new level --seems that what started as wishful thinking has become reality: This is a really great city in which to be eating right now. These days, there is so much to eat that it's hard to know where to start. Most locals, if they haven't already snagged one, are jonesing for a table at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, a sleek new 140-seater at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge. If you didn't know, Blumenthal is one of the top chefs in Europe right now, revered for his talent in marrying British tradition with the modern art of molecular gastronomy. Getting in to try the cooking can be tough, though they are open for lunch, too; if you strike out, take our advice: Book a good hotel and make your concierge do all the work. Of course, you could always hop out to nearby Reading; not far from the train station in the tiny village of Bray, Blumenthal's flagship restaurant, The Fat Duck, is as good as ever. Not that it's any easier to get in.
Hack into Hackney: Once mostly a must-miss for visitors, the East London borough of Hackney is easily now one of the city's hottest zones; get introduced on Saturdays with a visit to the lively Broadway Market (www.broadwaymarket.co.uk), London's hippest, sitting in a prime spot between Regent's Canal and leafy London Fields Park. Whether you come for the old-fashioned (jellied eels at F. Cooke!) or the new (artisanal coffees at Climpson & Sons), definitely make time for people watching. If the crowds get to you, duck into London Fields; up on the other side, on quiet Wilton Way, the small, unmarked cafe at No. 63 is one of the East End's coolest daytime hangouts; a local indie radio station sometimes broadcasts live from the front window.
Party in the Park: It may be spring now, but summer is just around the corner; that means excellent outdoor festivals all across the United Kingdom. But you don't need to trek out to Glastonbury or the Big Chill (though you certainly might like to) to get your mud-meets-music fix. Right here in London, there is the outstanding Lovebox festival (www.lovebox.net), held in Victoria Park, just a hairsbreadth from the growing Olympic Park out in East London. Lovebox takes place July 15-17 and features an excellently eclectic lineup from Snoop Dogg to Swedish club fave Robyn to the Scissor Sisters. If you miss that, not to worry -- the park gets even more indie with the Field Day festival (www.fielddayfestivals.com) on Aug. 8, featuring another great lineup that includes lots of indie acts, along with exemplary DJ types like Detroit techno heavy Carl Craig.
Bet on Bermondsey: Hate to break it to you, but the once un-missable Borough Market -- with its acres of tempting snacks, food shops, oyster bars, coffee bars, and fancy restaurants -- has become a bit of a must-miss. Why? Basically, because it turned into one of the top reasons to visit London, and as such, Borough Market has become a bit of a depressing tourist trap. These days, seems everyone there is a tourist. Accordingly, rents have shot up; the organic feel of the place is basically gone. Testy about the increased cost of doing business, some market icons are testing the waters elsewhere nearby; on Saturday mornings, the relatively hard-to-access Bermondsey area just east of Borough (which, if you didn't know, is right near the south end of London Bridge), is home to the Maltby Street Market (www.maltbystreet.com), which features baked goods from St. John, cheese from Neal's Yard, coffee from Monmouth, and other goodies -- right now, it's crowd free and very neighborhood-y. Much like Bermondsey itself. Worth the hike from the nearest Tube station, for certain. (And don't tell anyone.)
Visit the Little Museum that Could: Not everything worth seeing in London right now is a slog involving multiple train changes and lengthy walks. Some of the city's best-kept secrets are right under your nose in the middle of Touristville. We know people who have been to the city multiple times over a stretch of years that still haven't heard of, let alone stepped foot into the Courtauld Gallery, for example. Tucked inside the massive Somerset House complex, right off the noxious Strand strip on the edge of ticky-tacky Theatreland, the Courtauld is a jewel of a thing. Expect to see beautiful room after beautiful room, much of it dedicated to both Impressionist and Post-Impressionist classics. There's plenty more, too, from Medieval to Modern -- worth every penny of the admission price of about $10. (Go Mondays before 2pm, and you'll get in free.) Afterwards, reward yourself for doing something civilized by retiring across the street to the superbly grown-up bar in the lobby of the chic, still-got-it One Aldwych hotel, another stellar oasis from the hurly-burly that's right in the thick of it.
Let's Not Go Down the Pub: Speaking of civilized drinks, if you haven't been around town much lately, you may be surprised to find that cocktails are trumping beer as the tipple of choice for many a Londoner. That's right -- the land of lager and crisp packets has fallen hard for the same mixology crazy that has swept cities all across North America in recent years. While there are plenty of faux-speakeasies and sort-of-members-only shoeboxes that specialize in making people feel like they're more awesome than they actually are (before charging them an arm and a leg for a gimlet, of course), some of the city's best bartenders can be found at the much more democratic Hawksmoor (www.thehawksmoor.co.uk) in Covent Garden, a very good spot for classic cocktails that also happens to be a very good spot to eat dinner -- burgers at the bar or some of London's best steaks in the back dining room, take your pick. (Note: This is the second location of a very popular restaurant in East London's Spitalfields nabe -- you can't go wrong over there, either, whether thirsty or hungry or both.) If wine is more your thing, right now it is all about Brawn (www.brawn.co), an earnest but excellent bottles-and-charcuterie type place in the thick of Columbia Road, once known best for its Sunday morning flower markets but now home to all manner of hipness. If you don't feel like the trek out to Bethnal Green, their sister spot, the excellent (if a bit dowdy) Terroirs (www.terroirswinebar.com) wine bar is a true find just steps off touristy Trafalgar Square.
Canal Plus: Need to clear your head? For such a densely packed city, London has got an awful lot of space in which to unwind. And while the often rather industrial Regent's Canal may not possess the obvious appeal of, say, Primrose Hill or St. James Park, it certainly possesses a charm of its own. Snaking its way from bucolic Little Venice, right near Paddington station, on over to the Thames out near the Docklands area, the canal has become a popular commute route for London's growing number of cyclists. Bikes are definitely a great way to explore the miles of towpath -- not to mention the widely varying selection of neighborhoods you'll be cutting through en route. Rent a nifty, versatile folding bike from Velorevolution (www.velorution.biz/bike-hire) centrally located right in Soho; for five extra pounds, they will deliver the bike to your hotel.
Stay Up Late: If you haven't been to London lately and happen to be roaming the streets after midnight, you may be surprised to see actual bars and restaurants open and conducting business. Sometimes even past (gasp!) 2 o'clock in the morning. With the advent of 24-hour licensing laws, it is now possible not only to stay out way past midnight; sometimes, depending on the neighborhood, you can even get something to eat. How modern. Sure, the Tube still shuts down around midnight, but good night bus service and the usual preponderance of minicabs (any venue can help you get a number to call for pickup) make it easy to get out and stay out. Late. If you are staying in Central London, it is easy to get in on the fun; for example, slap down the after-11 p.m., five quid cover charge for late seating and enter Chinatown's low-profile but welcoming Experimental Cocktail Club (www.experimentalcocktailclublondon.com). A smart offshoot of a Paris hit, this tarted-up former dive with some serious talent behind the bar is open until 3 a.m., six days a week (closed Sundays).