Most visitors to London spend the vast majority of their time in the West End and the City, where the history, pageantry, art and architecture of England, and of Britain, is centered. And since London is famously a collection of hundreds of little villages and neighborhoods, residents don't get around much, either. But there's a whole new world in the Docklands area of London, specifically on the Isle of Dogs, once chockablock with warehouses and shipping slips, so boring in olden days that even nearby Cockneys disdained going there.
Now the area foretells the London of the future, with masses of gleaming skyscrapers (many occupied by banks and insurance companies), Britain's tallest building (One Canada Place), acres of underground malls, a tangle of new highways, roads and rail lines, and the beginnings of a cultural life of its own. Canary Wharf, which one local assured me the neighbors pronounce can'ry wharf, in fact, doesn't at all resemble what visitors expect to find in historical London, but it certainly represents the reality of the present, for better or for worse. And just north of the Docklands, in the backwaters of the River Lee called the Bow Backs (not far from the Stratford neighborhood), is the site for the 2012 Olympic Games, so you will be hearing more about East London than ever in the coming few years. (Don't confuse this East End Stratford with Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, which is northwest of London and near Birmingham.)
One of the main reasons to base yourself in this part of London is the lower hotel rates, letting you live in luxurious style for about half or less what you would pay in the West End, hoteliers here claim, and my preliminary look at rates seem to confirm their statements. Rates at the very good Britannia International Hotel Docklands, for instance, start at just £65 ($123), and you get water views, too, for an extra £10 ($19), their website says. (It's just west of the Hilton.) See rates under Lodging, below, as well, which are for around £100 per room ($189). Forget about the Four Seasons, whose weekday website rates start at £340, weekend and holiday rates at £165 ($642 and $311, respectively).
You won't be any farther from the main tourist scenes than you would in some geographically closer spots around the Circle Line underground system, in fact. On the marvelous Jubilee Line, one of London's newer underground routes, it's only 15 minutes from Canary Wharf tube station to Green Park tube station, the park itself adjacent to Buckingham Palace, in the heart of the St. James's district, and the station a five-minute walk to Piccadilly Circus.
Befitting a new (and rich) neighborhood in England's capital, there's a bright new museum to tell the story of this area. The Museum in Docklands charges just £5 ($9) and the ticket is good for a year, entitling you to repeat visits. The fascinating story of London's docks is traced through the museum's three floors, from the late 18th century through the imperial period, World War II and to the present. One highlight: Sailor Town, an only-too-real recreation of the dark alleyways of the mid-19th-century East End (think Jack the Ripper). Docked in front of the museum, among other interesting craft, is the Havengore, a former Port of London survey vessel that carried Sir Winston Churchill's body along the Thames as part of his funeral in 1965. No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, at the head of North Dock, tel. 0870/444-3855; www.museumindocklands.org.uk.
The areas known as Shoreditch and Whitechapel, around Liverpool Street Station and north of the Docklands, are famous for their shopping opportunities in places such as the Petticoat Lane Market (which is on Middlesex Street), the Spitalfields Market (open daily) and the Brick Lane Market (Sundays only), all of which are busy year round. Art galleries, especially trendy ones, are scattered throughout Shoreditch and Hoxton Square (e.g. The White Cube), as well as on Kingsland Road
Also in the Liverpool Street Station area is the wonderful Museum of London, presenting the city's long history. One highlight is the splendid Lord Mayor's carriage. Located on London Wall, the museum charges no admission fee and is open daily except three days at Christmas and on January 1. Nearest tube stations are St. Paul's and the Barbican. Contact them at www.museumoflondon.org.uk.
Weird as it may seem, what is said to be the largest inner city farm in Europe is located here, called Mudchute Park & Farm, at the Mudchute station of the DLR, about halfway on the line between South Quay and Greenwich. Despite the llama, cows and pigs, the nature trail and the possibility of picnicking here, the only reason to visit, in my opinion, is to be able to say that you went to London to visit a farm. At the next station south, however, which is Island Gardens, you get a marvelous view south across the Thames to Greenwich, said to be unchanged since Canaletto made his famous painting (1751-54) from this vantage point. From here, you can then walk under the Thames to Greenwich or get back on the DLR and accomplish the same distance, and faster.
Shopping may be on your list of things to do in London, and if you are based on Canary Wharf, you could start with the 200 or more shops said to be here, mostly in underground malls. Some famous names include: Austin Reed, The Body Shop, Church's Shoes, Crabtree & Evelyn, Marks & Spencer Foods, and Thomas Pink.
The Hilton London Canary Wharf opened in mid 2006, conveniently located adjacent to the South Quay station of the Docklands Light Railway, just across South Dock by a pedestrian bridge from the Canary Wharf tube station (Jubilee Line) and the main complex of buildings and malls in the neighborhood. There are 283 rooms with all modern amenities, a restaurant and bar, small fitness room and concierge floors. They will meet you at the airport if you wish, and even lay on a helicopter (expensive) to save you time. Rooms start at £107.10 ($202), plus 17.5% VAT, and they have a $330 two-night Weekend Getaway Package for two that includes the room, daily breakfast, taxes and a three-course dinner at the hotel restaurant. The décor throughout is minimalist, save for a slate wall in the lobby imported from China. Contact them at tel. 020/3002-2300; email www.hilton.co.uk/canarywharf.
The London Marriott West India Quay Hotel is thoroughly modern, located very near the Museum in Docklands, and has been open since June 2004. With 301 rooms on 12 floors, the hotel also boasts two restaurants, bar, fitness room, etc. Double room from £99 ($187) plus 17.5% VAT. tel. 020/7093-1000; www.marriott.co.uk.
Dozens of restaurants and fast food outlets in the underground malls may entice you, with everything from Itsu and Wagamama (both pan-Asian/Japanese) to Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Two restaurants have their own buildings: Royal China (at West Ferry Circus, part of a small local chain) is said to be the best Chinese eatery in the neighborhood, reviewers praising the dim sum but bewailing the service. A typical dim sum item, minced pork dumpling with shrimps, costs £2.30 ($4.35). www.royalchinagroup.co.uk.
Dockmasters, in its own 1807 Georgian building on Hertsmere Road near the Museum in Docklands, is considered by some as perhaps the finest Indian restaurant in the area. Three-course lunch, Mon-Thu, only £14.95 ($28). Tel. 020/7345-0345; www.dockmasters.co.uk.
One of the glories of Stratford (not the Shakespeare one) is its Theatre Royal, where you can experience the theater in a way you never could in the West End. The closest approximation of what is presented here would be old-fashioned vaudeville in the United States. You will probably be in the company of a usually boisterous crowd, eager to show appreciation or displeasure with what's happening on stage. More information at tel. 020/8534-7374; www.stratfordeast.com. Alternatively, you can check out Lee Hurst's Backyard Comedy Club, which features stand-up routines from some of Britain's best. www.leehurst.com.
Getting to the Docklands
As mentioned above, the best way in from London's West End is the Jubilee Line of the Underground. You can also get here quickly on the DLR railway from Bank and Tower Gateway, where several underground lines connect. Finally, if you are flying into London from certain British and European airports, you can use an airline that lands you at London City Airport, also in the Docklands, a bit farther east than Canary Wharf. Naturally, you can get here by boat from the West End, too. Thames Clippers make the trip in 23 minutes, 30 times daily on workdays, 14 times on weekends, year round, they say. More information at www.thamesclippers.com.
Note that most prices in pounds sterling have been rounded out to nearest dollar, with an exchange rate of $1.88 to the pound at time of writing.
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