Having lived in five countries — my native Canada, France, England, Mexico and the U.S. — I have so many favorite places, a few of which (sob!) are now gone.
I travel as often as time and money allows, and am always torn between re-visiting old favorites and making new discoveries.
We’ve stayed several times in a rented apartment here, on the aptly-named Rue de Deux Ponts (the street of two bridges). The island sits in the Seine River, setting it physically apart from the bustle and noise of the rest of the city. The streets are narrow and short, and it’s overwhelmingly residential. One of our favorite restaurants, Les Fous de L’Île is on that street, about four doors away from a Parisian legend, the ice cream shop Berthillon, which offers amazing flavors.
I love how compact the island is, complete with its own bars, bakeries, hair salon, ancient church. Yet, within minutes, you’re back on Paris’ Left Bank or Right Bank, ready to roll.
Tucked away on a side street in un-glamorous midtown sits this terrific bit of Manhattan culinary history. The main dining room is long, dimly-lit, filled with tablecloth-covered tables and framed ephemera. The ceiling is the coolest part — lined with clay pipes wired to the ceiling. In business since 1885, the food is delicious and well worth a splurge. There’s a less-formal small dining room on one side and the bar area is also charming. You feel completely transported out of noisy, busy 2018.
I visit every time I get to London, even if I buy nothing.
It’s a store focused on luxury, but a very specific louche-aristo look, eccentric and confident. Even if you just go for a cuppa in their tearoom, check out the mock-Tudor building’s exquisite stained glass windows and light-filled central atrium.
The Grand Canyon
Ohhhhhh, you must go! No words can really do it justice. My only advice — you must hike down into the Canyon to experience it, and spend a full day if at all possible, watching the light and shadows shift minute by minute.
The Toronto Islands
What a joy these are! Jose and I got married on one of them, in a tiny wooden church surrounded by public parkland — and accompanied by (!) the mooing of cows from a nearby petting zoo. One of the islands is covered with tiny inhabited cottages, the most coveted real estate in the city — a challenge when, (as happened to me with a boyfriend) — you have a 3 a.m. nosebleed and the Harbor Police have to race across and get you to a hospital. They’re a great place to walk, bike, swim, relax and enjoy great views of the city at sunset. The ferry ride over is still one of my favorite things to do anywhere, any time.
Grand Central Terminal
It really is a cathedral, and sees more than 750,000 visitors every day — most of them commuters from suburban Westchester (north in New York) or Connecticut (northeast) traveling by train.
Built in 1913, it’s spectacular — a brilliant turquoise ceiling with gold-painted constellations and pin-point lights sparkling as stars; enormous gleaming metal hanging lamps, elegant brass-trimmed ticket booths, wide marble steps and floors.
It also offers many shops, great restaurants and bars, a terrific food market (check out Li-Lac chocolates for a chocolate Statue of Liberty) and the classic Oyster Bar downstairs.
The Coffee Mill
This legendary cafe, a fixture in Toronto for more than 50 years, closed in 2014. It opened in 1963, and, as a little girl, I loved sitting on one of its cafe chairs in the sunshine near a fountain. Later, in a nearby location, inside a small shopping center easily overlooked, it continued serving Hungarian specialties — strudel, goulash and the freshest rye bread anywhere. The booths were small and intimate and its owner always immaculate. On every trip back — and I left in 1986 — I stopped in for a coffee or a meal.
Oh, the 80s! A former laundromat on Toronto’s Queen Street became — from 1983 to 2002 — a fantastic bar and restaurant, with a lively rooftop scene perfect on a steamy summer’s evening. Here’s its history, and an excerpt:
Inviting in every possible way, the BamBoo was relaxed, warm, and far from slick. Random parts hinted at an industrial past, including the outdoor fountain built atop the remnants of the building’s original boiler. A narrow metal stairwell led up to the Treetop, a Jamaican style bar ‘n’ BBQ that opened on the club’s rooftop in summer of 1984, expanding the BamBoo’s legal capacity to 500.
“During the summer heat, there was nowhere you wanted to be other than the Treetop Lounge,” says [Toronto artist Barbara] Klunder. “Think rum drinks and burgers at brightly painted barstools or coffee tables under the night sky and the CN Tower.”
So grateful to stay with friends who live in an impossibly fab flat facing directly onto the Thames — as I write this, the only sounds are seagulls shrieking.
I took the bus a lot more this time than in previous visits, specifically the 188, (which terminates in elegant Russell Square, a block from the massive British Museum) and the C10 , which terminates in (!), the aptly-named Canada Water, (I’m Canadian.)
Traveling London by bus is fantastic for a few reasons:
— It’s a hectic, crowded city so buses get your weary body off busy streets
— The Tube has a lot of stairs and few escalators or elevators, and a lot of walking between stations and its many different lines, so if you’re tired or have mobility issues, the bus is much less tiring
— The views! The buses, as you likely know, are double-decker, so head upstairs, and if you’re lucky, grab the very front seat for amazing vistas of the city below
— Building details are much easier to see and photograph, as is the stunning skyline.
Here’s some of what I did on this visit (one of many) in London:
The Wallace Collection is a gob-smacking insight into accumulated, inter-generational aristocratic wealth, handed down from one marquess to another — room after room, (25 galleries in all), covered in jewel-colored damask silk — of paintings, sculptures, bronzes, armor, miniatures.
The collection is astonishing in its depth and breadth.
I loved their explanations of how armor was made and custom-fitted; you can even try on (!) some chain mail and helmets for a selfie.
I finally went to the British Museum, with a friend, to see a fantastic show about the later years — ages 60 to 90s — of one of my favorite artists, Hokusai; the show is on until August 18.
He’s one of the legendary Japanese woodblock artists and painters, whose image The Great Wave, remains instantly recognizable centuries later.
I loved this show, and appreciated the way his life was contextualized, with insightful quotes — in 1830 he was terrified of penury (what creative person can’t relate?!) — and the details about how he worked with and lived with his daughter, an accomplished artist in her own right.
Life in the late 1700s was every bit as challenging for this legendary artist as it still is today for so many of us.
Like most British museums, entrance to the collection — 8 million objects — is free.
I also dipped into the Victoria and Albert Museum, checking out their fantastic fashion display and some of their Islamic materials. It’s also huge, so plan accordingly.
While you might see the Tate, Tate Modern, The National Portrait Gallery, the Design Museum, the Imperial War Museum (whew!), the city also has smaller, more intimate spots. Two of my favorites are Freud’s house and Sir John Soane’s House.
If you end up on Oxford Street — filled with every major store imaginable — its crowds can easily overwhelm.
Duck instead into a narrow side street and you’ll find all sorts of lovely discoveries, like St. Christopher’s Place, filled with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. At Malini, I scored two terrific cotton cardigans (they came in every color) for 39 pounds each ($51 each.)
Try to make time to also check out quieter neighborhoods like Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Primrose Hill — each of which have gorgeous architecture, parks, shops and restaurants.
I got to know Primrose Hill because a relative lives in the area, on a square with every house-front painted the delicious pastels of sugared almonds. Regent’s Park is spectacular, and has wonderful views of the city from wide green hills.
London is a city that rewards slow, focused, observant walking.
I love these places…this trip, I went to Bermondsey Square, (held only on Fridays, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a great bacon and egg sandwich-maker on-site). I snagged a 16th century fragment of ceramic found in the muddy banks of the Thames, thanks to a terrific practice called mudlarking.
I also found a great little Art Deco rhinestone-studded rocket ship, also for 10 pounds — about $13.00.
Arrive as early as possible — 7 .a.m. — and bring lots of cash.
My usual haunts are Camden Passage and Alfie’s, and I’ve even brought home ceramic platters and jugs; (bubble wrap! hand luggage!)
If you want to ask for a lower price, do it gently, very politely and delicately: “What’s your best on this?” is a decent phrase to use. Do not think that disparaging an item will reduce the price — when it just pisses off the person who chose it and set it out for sale.
Even if you don’t buy, some vendors can be friendly and incredibly knowledgeable — I learned a lot more about early sterling silver from one man at Bermondsey while looking at his teaspoons and about 15th. century ceramics from the vendor selling mudlark shards.
Getting in and out of these three cities, and around them while staying there, can feel overwhelming. It’s not. Download whatever apps work best for you (I am not an apps person!) or, as I do, grab a few really good maps, including separate maps of the bus and subway systems. Study them in bright light at your leisure — i.e. not in the dark/wind/rain when you look like a gormless tourist inviting thieves to snatch your purse, backback, phone or suitcase.
In London and Paris, the lines have names; in Paris for the final destination, and in Paris they also have numbers. In NYC, they have numbers or letters — the L, the Q, the 4. The problem with NYC? Sometimes they go express and you’ll have to get out before the stop you had planned.
I was heartened in Paris and London to see sliding glass panels at some station platforms that open in concert with the train’s doors — which prevent the horror of suicide or homicide. In NYC, which has nothing so civilized, be careful.I can’t say this too strongly; people have been shoved onto the tracks and killed by mentally-ill people standing near them. Stand as far back as possible from the platform edge and be aware of who is near you.
Cabs cost a fortune in London, less so in Paris and are not terrible in New York. In NYC, you’ll see bright green cabs — they won’t stop for you if you’re in Manhattan as they are designated for the outer boroughs. You’ll also go crazy around 4:30 p.m. trying to hail a cab as that’s the time of shift change and many are racing to the garage.
Take the bus whenever possible. You’ll see so much more of the city and start to understand its geography. Buy a weekly transit pass in each city to save money and speed you up; in New York, you slide your Metrocard to enter the subway, dip it when entering a bus.
Remember that others work there and are weary/late/in a hurry. Don’t hog seats/space with your bags and packpack!
When walking do not, ever, walk slooooooooowly and in a large pack of bodies that spans the width of the sidewalk. It’s rude, dangerous and obstructive. Nor should you abruptly stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or stairs or the entrance to the subway. We’re in a hurry, dammit!
It’s too easy to assume your default setting of hotel/Air BnB/couchsurfing. How about house or apartment-sitting? A home exchange?
As I blogged here earlier, I spent my three Paris weeks in two people’s homes, both of them professional photographers and photo editors, (hence, great taste!) It was so much more relaxing for me to lounge away my mornings at the kitchen table or dining table, reading the paper or a book. I was able to spread my stuff out, do laundry, cook my own meals — and listen to music as loudly as seemed prudent.
In short, I felt truly at home in a foreign city. I loved food shopping, coming home with my baguette and gooey hunk of Reblochon (cheese) and some fresh figs for breakfast. I bought several sorts of loose tea and enjoyed it as well.
Unless I can afford a really lovely hotel, I’d rather rent a place.
A whole set of blog posts on its own!
If you love antiques as much as I do, you’ll quickly suss out the best vintage stores and flea markets in these three cities; in Paris, I scored a gorgeous fedora and 80s earrings at Eponyme in the 11th and was deeply disappointed by the sky-high prices at the flea market at Clignancourt. In Manhattan, check out the East Village — East 7th and East 9th — for lots of vintage and some great indie shops; I just discovered Haberdashery on East 9th. Heaven! It has one of the best-edited collections of serious vintage I’ve ever seen.
All three cities offer boatloads of style from smart, savvy retailers, whether the fabric department in London at Liberty (swoon) or the jewelry in Manhattan at Barney’s (bring a Brinks truck full of money.) Pick a cool/chic neighborhood and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring it, whether Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Marylebone High Street in London or the 6th or Marais in Paris.
Don’t forget — you can, (as I did twice on that trip) — box and ship home your new things from the local post office or a bunch of your less-needed clothes/shoes to make room/reduce weight in your suitcase; mine weighed just one pound below the limit when I returned!
These are three of the world’s most stylish cities. Sure you can schlub around in baggy pants and white sneakers and bright pink nylon, but you might as well wave a flag shouting “Tourist!”
Many of their residents take serious pride and pleasure in how they present themselves, whether the hipsters of Willamsburg or the Sloanies of London. In NYC, assume that wearing black makes for good native camouflage; women favor a good, fresh manicure (easily acquired in many affordable nail salons), and haircut, with polish in cool dark non-frosted shades or pale.
Parisian women, and men, are justifiably known for their style and it’s easy enough to fit in if that’s fun for you. Women rarely wear prints or leggings and many sport truly eye-catching accessories — an unusual hat, a terrific muffler, interesting shoes. I rarely saw anyone wearing high heels; cobblestone streets chew them up. Many men, of all ages, also wear mufflers or scarves to add a dash of color and texture. Look for unusual color combinations and flashes of wit — a lavender sock, a tangerine pair of gloves.
London men, especially, dress with care: narrow-toe, highly-polished leather shoes, narrow trousers, a great briefcase. Women dress more eccentrically and playfully there than in Paris or New York — all black in London and Paris just feels sad and lacks imagination, while the pom-pom-studded skirt I saw on the Tube in London would raise dubious eyebrows in much of New York.
Bring an umbrella to all three cities! In a month, (late December to late January), I faced a frigid low of 33 F to a high of almost 50. London was more humid. A small umbrella, (with a sealable Ziploc bag for when it’s soaked and you need to tuck it into your bag or backpack), is a must.
To stay warm, I’m a big fan of cashmere, even socks, mitts, scarf and/or hat. Light and silky, it’s super-warm but not bulky. Add a thin layer of polypro or silk beneath your clothes on the bitterest of days. Woolen tights aren’t easy to find in the U.S. but also make a big difference.
Eating and drinking
London will bankrupt you! I have little great advice other than…expect it and bring money. I save hard for my vacations and refuse to make myself miserable, so I mix up splurges, (a cup of tea at the Ritz in London [not the full tea!] for about $10) and a cocktail in their gob-smacking gorgeous bar for $30), with a quick cheap sandwich for lunch.
Keep in mind that museums and art galleries often have excellent dining facilities; I loved my lunch at Tate Modern,
Paris restaurants typically offer a plat du jour, always less costly than dinner. For about $15 to $20, you can enjoy a hot meal of two or even three courses. Wine can be a little as five euros a glass — about $7. Enjoy!
New York City has a terrifically wide array of options, from the hautest of elegant bars and restaurants to the usual national chains like Olive Garden, Friday’s, etc. The city excels at diners, old-school, all-service restaurants whose enormous laminated menus go on for pages. Few things make me as happy as settling in at the battered Formica counter, (look for a shelf or a hook beneath it to hang your purse or pack so no one can grab it and run), and eating there. Try Neil’s, at 70th and Lexington, or Veselka, on the Lower East Side, in business since 1954.
Whatever you do, flee midtown: boring, crowded, filled with tourists.
When you’re a visitor with limited time, it’s tempting to rush around all day and forget how tired, hungry and thirsty you’ll end up. Allow for a two-hour lunch or a glass of wine or an espresso sitting outdoors in a Paris cafe — which has heaters for the winter. Slow down.
And do not keeping staring into your bloody phone. Just….be there.
Read about your city!
These might be histories, or fiction or guidebooks. I always take my London A-Z, (a highly detailed set of maps), and my Plan de Paris, (ditto), both of which are small and slide into a pocket or purse easily.
There are, of course, dozens of great blogs written by savvy, stylish people living in each of these cities whose posts will be timely and give you all sorts of fun ideas; I like Small Dog Syndrome for London and Juliet in Paris (whose August 2014 posts about London were super-helpful and detailed.)
Pick up the local newspapers; in New York, compare the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News to get a real picture of this city’s diversity; in London, the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail; in Paris (if you read French), Le Monde, and Liberation. The letters to the editor, alone, offer some serious insights into what people all around you are thinking and care most about.
Yes, you can read online but don’t. Go old-school and savor it.
Gives you something to tuck under your arm, and look like you belong!
Today is my last day in London, after eight days. I head back to Paris for a final week of vacation — having reported three stories here in England in three tiring days — then return home to New York on January 19.
I am also relieved that the terror standoff in Paris has ended, although not at all sure there won’t be more mayhem there to come.
I’ve enjoyed my visit here in many ways.
Did I see all the famous sights? I did not…
My visit, typical of how I prefer to travel, combined some work and much socializing. I walked everywhere and ate some great meals. Did some shopping, buying everything from an Edwardian hatpin to a 1920s fragment of handwoven Ghanaian silk. (Yup, ecletic ‘r us.)
I saw one great and moving show, on til March 15, of photos showing the aftermath of war, at Tate Modern. I walked there the long way from the Underground, along Queen’s Walk beside the river, so I also discovered the gallery for the Royal Watercolor Society and caught a lovely show there of small works.
Enjoyed the market at Portobello and the one at Spitalfields. Had a terrific chicken Caesar at Fortnum & Mason and ogled their legendary food hampers and mountains of truffles.
I’ve gotten to know Cadence, author of the blog Small Dog Syndrome, and her husband Jeff, who so kindly welcomed me into their tiny flat. We had never met.It takes three cool people to share a small space graciously, and with a 30 year age difference between us.
I also finally met — five years after first reading her blog, Sunshine in London, about being a South African transplant to London — Ruth Bradnum Martin, who treated me to G & T’s at The Swan, a gorgeous restaurant next door to Shakespeare’s Globe theater. We sat with a stunning view, directly across the Thames, of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Fortnum & Mason, on Piccadilly Circus, is a London legend. Typical of how I roll, I arrived at their door by accident — famished after racing around town to do interviews for a story — and grouchy as hell. “Toilets, food,” I growled at a lovely clerk with a pale aqua name badge. Shona literally took me by the hand, into their tiny elevator, and delivered me personally to their ice-cream parlor (which also sells salad.) Salad, a bottle of water, a pot of mint tea and a raspberry macaron came to 26 pounds — about $40. Pricey, yes. Elegant, soothing and memorable, also.
Thanks to the helpful London blog posts from fellow blogger Juliet in Paris, I strolled Marylebone High Street and loved it. One of the tricky bits in following others’ advice when traveling is…do they share your taste? The minute she and I met (spending New Year’s Eve together in Paris, another blogger blind date!), I knew I could trust her travel judgment.
I visited Burlington Arcade for a story. My dears! My dears! It is guarded at either end by a be-cloaked watchman and is an array of costly elegance — all fine leather goods and jewelers and N. Peal cashmere and, my favorite, Penhaligon, whose fragrances are to die for. (Try my standby, Blenheim Bouquet, a man’s scent from 1903.)
Portobello Market. Crazy. Overwhelming. Goes on for miles. But if you like antiques, a must-do. I coveted a gorgeous set of emerald-green Georgian wine glasses and learned a lot about them from their dealer.
Borough Market.Go! This was by far one of my favorite experiences of the week. It is — yes, really — 1,000 years old and is a bustling madhouse of extraordinary food and drink. We bought chai tea, homemade Turkish delight, fruit and veg and cheese. There are more than 100 stalls and, yes, you can sit down and eat as well!
Spitalfields Market. This one sells new merchandise, a wide array of soaps, clothing, shoes, jewelry. It’s covered and surrounded by plenty of great restaurants; we ate at Giraffe.
St. Marylebone Church. One of the challenges of this trip is my left knee, which is severely arthritic and can get really painful and tired after a day of walking and stairs. Just in time for a needed rest, I found this gorgeous church and settled into its pews for some quiet contemplation. The organist was practicing. I read a book of names of those who lost relatives in WWI — one family lost 33 men. A plaque on one wall said simply “He did his duty.”
Liberty. I never fail to stop into this store, mostly to admire its quirky/elegant/bohemian choices of fabric, clothing, shoes and accessories.
The city is so huge and there are so many things to see and do. I’ve been here many times, so have seen some of its best already — Sir John Soane’s House, Freud’s house, the Imperial War Museum, The National Portrait Gallery.
Next time: The Wallace Collection, the V & A, The British Museum and possibly the Tate.
I’m not one for “tourist attractions” ; my favorite things to do are: walk, eat, shop, take photos, visit with friends. Slip down a narrow, crooked side street and discover something new and unexpected.
Even just sitting down with a pot of tea for a half hour or more offers a lovely, needed break from this crazy, overcrowded city.