Big Ben chimes 5 a.m., and while London sleeps, squadrons of jumbo jets just in from “the States” are disgorging bleary-eyed Yanks armed with the latest edition of “Let’s Go Britain.”
It’s summertime and the Americans are back. Despite that little tiff back in 1776, these days we’re bonkers over Britain. London has been the top trans-Atlantic destination of American tourists for several years running.
Whether you’re on a first jaunt “across the pond” or an annual pilgrimage to Harrods, London this summer reveals new and renewed pleasures.
There’s Queen Elizabeth I’s underwear at Westminster Abbey, a new jewel museum at the Tower of London, grand gardens at Hampton Court and a working replica of Shakespeare’s 17th-century theater.
Beyond the royal treasure houses and gilded palaces are London’s smaller treats: fashionable shops in chic neighborhoods, great new restaurants and colorful pubs.
Trends change faster than the tides on the Thames. Balti cooking from Pakistan is in. Wine bars are out. The slightly gritty Camden Town neighborhood is hot, while once hyper-trendy Chelsea, derided as “too ‘80s,” is not.
No matter what the calendar says, summer in the United States runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. London’s summer season is harder to peg, but a good bracket is the end of the Chelsea Flower Show on May 26 to the Summer Bank Holiday on Aug. 28.
Here’s a guide to the ins and outs, the hots and colds, the new and the classic. Whether a pence-pinching trekker or a pound-heavy jet-setter, there’s something for every taste. Remember that essayist Samuel Johnson, in a more sexist age, ruminated that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
For information on events, prices and how to get tickets, call the British Tourist Authority at (800) 462-2748.
Some of London’s most famous buildings are emerging freshly scrubbed from recent restorations.
At the Tower of London, the oldest castle in London, the crowns and scepters of British kings and queens are on display in a new Jewel House. Old-timers (anyone who came before this year) remember the long lines, sweltering rooms and the quick-peek-move-along ambiance of the old exhibition hall.
The larger, airier Jewel House allows visitors to linger longer over the gem-encrusted haberdashery, such as the fur-fringed Imperial Crown and the Black Prince’s ruby.
The Tower also features a new recreation of the 13th-century throne room of King Edward I, its walls covered with lances and shields.
Around the bend of the Thames River at Westminster Abbey, a $40 million restoration of the chapel where Britain’s kings and queens are crowned is nearing completion.
Visitors also can be royal Peeping Toms and see the corset and drawers worn by Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.
Elizabeth often could be found at Hampton Court Palace, a favorite spot of her father, Henry VIII, since the days when he was lopping off the head of her mother, Anne Boleyn.
The restoration of Hampton Court’s Privy Garden to its Renaissance-era formal grid pattern was unveiled July 7. Already completed is a re-creation of the castle’s Tudor Kitchen, shown as it appeared in 1542 for Henry VIII’s Feast of St. John the Baptist banquet.
Kettles are placed around a roaring fire, surrounded by faux carcasses of rabbits, lambs and roasting peacocks.
London has 40 theaters in the West End alone, and a few are even running something other than Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.
Summer in Britain brings out the latest retoolings of the Bard’s classics. The Royal Shakespeare Company is performing “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” “Twelfth Night” and “Measure for Measure” at London’s Barbican Center.
A reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the dream of the late American actor Sam Wanamaker, opened its doors this summer near the original Globe’s site on the south side of the Thames River.
The West End theaters are full of the usual collection of musicals and hoary old comedies (“No Sex Please, We’re British”). For something with at least a tinge of old England, try Jonathan Pryce in a revival of the darkly Dickensian musical “Oliver!” at the Palladium.
Music and Dance
Summer in London is a hodgepodge of musical tastes, from the 100th anniversary of the “Proms” to a former Soviet showcase ballet company.
The highlight is the low-budget classical musical series known as The Proms - the popular name of the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Promenade Concert series at the Royal Albert Hall. Standing-room tickets start as low as $5. If your wallet or feet can’t stand the strain, tune in to the live simulcasts by BBC 3 radio.
The Nordic set will dominate the summer dance card in London. Russians are coming to the London Coliseum with a series of performances by the Kirov Ballet, including Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” during a five-week run in July and August. Then comes the Royal Danish Ballet (Aug. 31-Sept. 1).
The Royal Academy of Art’s big summer show is “From Manet to Gauguin,” through Oct. 8, featuring 60 paintings by the 18th-century French greats.
Contemporary art buffs with a few quid (slang for pounds) in their pockets can shop for the latest in painting and sculpture at the 227th Summer Exhibition at the Academy of Arts, through Aug. 13.
The recently renovated Imperial War Museum offers an outstanding overview of World War II, including a special show on “London at War.” The museum is on the south bank of the Thames in the former Bedlam lunatic asylum.
If you think you’ve got a great set of dishes, check out some 250 pieces of the Frog Service, the former dinnerware of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. It’s on loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum for its special exhibition, “The Genius of Wedgewood,” through Sept. 17. The Russians will hardly miss the stuff, since the full service runs to 952 pieces.
Tip: If you are a big museum ogler, buy the London White Card, a three- or seven-day pass to 13 museums and galleries. The price is $21 for three days, $35 for seven days.
Long derided as an epicurean wasteland, London has shed its boiled-beef-and-potatoes image to register as one of the culinary capitals of Europe.
London this year tripled its number of Michelin three-star restaurants with the addition of Marco Pierre White’s The Restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel and Nico Landenis’ Chez Nico. They join La Tante Claire.
Beyond the haute is the hot cuisine. Two of the most talked about restaurants this spring are Quaglino’s, the ultrapopular “modern British” restaurant best known for its fish, and Wagamama, the Japanese noodle bar near the British Museum that’s rare for its all no-smoking dining room.
For budgeters, the advice is “eat empire” - the ethnic foods of Britain’s former colonies in India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia and the British West Indies.
Brits have gone bonkers for balti - a cuisine imported from Pakistan via the ethnic communities in Birmingham and the Midlands. Almost every Indian restaurant is offering at least a few balti items on their tandoor-dominated menus, just as chicken tikka masala became the craze about five years ago.
Cooked in an iron wok, balti dishes have a cleaner, sharper, less oily taste than some Indian dishes. Another feature imported from Birmingham is the monstrous “family nan” - a pancake-flat bread about as large as a garbage-can lid.
The best balti restaurants, such as Balti Hut and Lahore House, are outside of London center. But a few good balti houses have popped up in the tourist-traveled areas, notably Sitar Balti Restaurant on the Strand and Sartaj near Covent Garden.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO BEFORE YOU GO: Try to find a bookstore that carries Time Out London magazine’s guides, “London Visitors Guide 1995” and “Eating & Drinking Guide 1995.” Two good guidebooks are “London’s Best Kept Secrets” by Mike Michaelson and “London Access” by Richard Saul Wurman. Don’t worry if you can’t find them. They are everywhere in London and you can grab them at any quality bookstore and some newsstands. TRAVEL DOCUMENTS: Britain requires a U.S. passport. A visa is not required for short tourist visits. INFORMATION: British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176, (800) 462-2748.