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Off The Beaten Path In London

Upon returning from London a few months ago, I had shared a post summing up places to visit (click here to read) and I was asked why this city in particular left an imprint on my heart. No amount of storytelling will convey the charm of London and its eclecticism, however I dedicate this post to those who aren’t unlike me, literature buffs, music lovers and art connoisseurs who appreciate objects and places with soul.

Naji and I are huge detective buffs with Sherlock Holmes topping our list. Any fan of the TV series Sherlock will recognize Speedy’s Cafe as the local eatery right below the on screen version of 221 B Baker Street which in fact is located on Euston Street. I kid you not, we walked kilometers to reach the cafe on over 3 separate occasions and each time we found it to be closed, and as it wasn’t meant to be for us to have the recommended English breakfast inside, we had to be satisfied with a mere photo at the entrance step.

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Away from TV sets and on to the literary version, the Sherlock Holmes Museum on the actual Baker Street is a must see and brings the detective to life. Every item is recreated in this Victorian apartment down to the furniture and chemistry sets. There are a plethora of books and letters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, be prepared for the eeriest feeling after carefully examining all these intricate details.

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Make a stop at the souvenir shop on your way out, there are plenty of items you can pick up for reasonable prices. I got these, the plate was hubby’s choice and can be mounted on a wall or a stand, the book is obviously for my collection, and the print is for a very cool decor idea I am preparing at home.

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I’m a theater gal, take me to a show and I’ll melt! Unfortunately people don’t dress up to attend the theater anymore so it wasn’t the full experience I was hoping for, albeit slightly swankier than Broadway. I had to drag Naji to watch The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theater on Haymarket, and while he was dozing off, I was tearing up and so emotionally fulfilled. Taking photos is prohibited during the performance, I had to sneak this one during intermission with the broken chandelier on stage before I got a loud and embarrassing “no pictures”.

There are plenty of shows to see in London but make sure to reserve months in advance for good seats. I personally wanted to view the London Philharmonic but the dates of their performances didn’t overlap with my dates of travel. Madame Butterfly was another opera that was fully booked to my dismay.

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Bookworms rejoice, there are countless bookstores in London, but being so in denial about living in our century and passionate about the eras past, the ones that caught my eye and heart are the second hand bookshops. It was a sight for sore eyes, the worn out covers, the fading pages and the wonderful old book smell are what dreams are made of. You can get some good deals on used books, but at the same time the first editions of other books are steeply priced but so worth it and make for a thoughtful gift to literature fanatics such as myself. One particular shop is Skoob on Tavistock with a huge collection in the basement, and the ultimate destination is Charing Cross Street which is an entire street of quaint bookstores displaying their low priced deals outside, alongside music shops and everything your artistically inclined heart desires. Visit Foyles and Waterstones for contemporary bustling library vibes in case vintage is not your cup of tea, just make sure you clear out an entire day for book hunting.

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I got 3 second hand books and 3 discounted ones. Needless to say I am high on the mere knowledge that the former group belonged to someone else, which means they have been held, read and analyzed and I am about to dive into them also. One is a ‘Princess’ book from the early 1960s, inclusive of etiquette, recipes, home arrangement, how to host and much more, which I found to be an interesting purchase to see what it was like for young girls back then compared to now. The second book is style rules from the 1920s and includes everything from the essential wardrobe items to how a lady must carry herself. The third is a ripped apart early edition Joseph Conrad detective novel that I am thrilled to start reading. As for the new books, it goes without saying that I am interested in secret societies and mysteries and found they would be worth carrying in my luggage.

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I’m not into tours or pretty much anything guided, but Shakespeare’s Globe tour is not to be missed. It’s located on the bank-side of the Thames and I recommend walking past the markets and the busy streets to build up the anticipation by relating your experience to old London, where the docks were the trade center and where the workers would line up after their long day to attend Shakespeare’s plays. While waiting for the tour to begin, you can watch the actors rehearse but no cameras are allowed and complete silence is required because they use actual swords during combat, so focus is a must. My tour guide was enchanting and I have never listened so intently to anyone speak in my life, as she swayed me back to 1599 where the old theater was built (to which this theater is an exact replica), how it was built, theater technicalities, high society, and so much more until my head was filled not only with the Shakespearean knowledge that I already have, but with what life was like back then. For me in particular this storytelling was the cherry on top to the theater courses I took back in university, which then focused on designing sets, costumes and script, but now complete with facts, trivia and a mental tapestry of what I am left with after the tour of the globe. My tip is to check the schedule of the plays in advance because they host nights with minimal entry fees, and again the dates didn’t work for us during our stay.

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I would never miss the chance to take photos of Scotland Yard, so I was pretty much the only one posing in front of the building. It is in fact the metropolitan police station, but for me, it is Agatha Christie and all the detective stories I have read combined into one moment, one location. So allow me to have my Hercule Poirot moment while calling Inspector Japp!

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Head to Portobello Market while walking to Notting Hill and you’ll find another cluster of thrift shops. Our luck was fantastic because one particular shop was moving and held a massive sale on books, comics and music.

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Art on the streets and art in the museums, now that ladies and gentleman is what sets a city apart from the rest. I was in seventh heaven as I pranced along admiring the work of artists, their talents unleashed onto canvas. I also spent entire days in museums such as the National Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum which are free of charge to enter (along with the science and history museums) so you can walk in and out as you please and indulge in artwork.

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If you are anything like me and are into antique furniture and decorative items, then by all means clear out a few hours to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. I’m not a fan of sculpture and statues so I must admit I walked past that section onto the period collections and spent so much time admiring vases, cabinets and jewelry. Now if anyone can tell me where I can find a similar chair for the entrance of my home, I would appreciate it!

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Another bucket list moment for me was visiting the 17th century The George Inn, the sole reason being that Charles Dickens used to frequent this exact inn back in the 19th century, and mentioned this place in his book Little Dorrit. The interior is preserved, the flooring creaks and the wooden pillars are cracked which adds to its charm. The food in itself wasn’t to my liking, but around us there were a few regulars, elderly British gentlemen, which reinforces the idea that it isn’t a tourist attraction, but a mere forgotten gem close to the heart of literature lovers.

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I wasn’t going to leave London without seeing the bust of the queen of crime, my childhood (and adulthood) idol Agatha Christie. How it must be to live in her head and pick her brain, not for it being sinister, but for the truly awe inspiring plot lines, mysteries that can never be solved within the first few pages of a novel, and for details only a detective guru could coin. I literally ran around the few blocks surrounding this sculpture and could not for the life of me find it, and good luck for anyone who tries to ask for directions, because it is not of interest to many and perhaps has been passed by unnoticed. Needless to say I got my fix and my photo.

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I also had a lot of trouble finding the sculpture of Oscar Wilde on Adelaide Street because it is not a major attraction and yes, I looked like a madwoman talking to it and did get a lot of stares while sitting. The bronze piece is dubbed A Conversation With Oscar Wilde with a quote from his play “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”. His wit and genius was translated through the characters he created, and I truly believe that each sentence I read from his plays holds a universe of meaning and wisdom.

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I cannot begin to describe how much of a hippie heaven Camden Town is, beginning by the streets aligned with thrift shops passing by the food kiosks reaching the vintage market. Poor hubby sat patiently people watching while I was reclusive, sitting on the floor rummaging through dozens of boxes containing thousands of old prints, encyclopedia excerpts, second hand clothing and accessories to mention a few. The market and its surrounding is home to kitschy design shops perfect for decorating your home, and much more reasonably priced than other parts of London. I nabbed a few vintage scarves mostly dating from the 60s including a silk belt, and cannot wait to style and share them with you, but being a big fan of headpieces I’d wrap them around my hair and will attend my imaginary Woodstock festival when I head out.

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Some of the items I got from Camden market include a photo of Mount Tibidabo in Barcelona which dates back to 1920, and it is special because we had recently visited with our daughter (read about it here, here and here) and it was her absolute favorite destination. The photo on the right is from an old encyclopedia filled with plants types and imagery, and this popped out because purple is my favorite color and I plan to add it to the aforementioned decor idea I have planned.

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There is always something going on in London, and while as tourists it’s impossible to be able to see all the shows and collections displayed on certain occasions within the year, I would have loved to see the Pink Floyd tribute at the V&A museum, along with Alfred Hitchcock and Alice in Wonderland special showcases. I also got the chance to see Abbey Road from the bus but missed out on visiting the studio or at least stand in front of the door to channel The Beatles vibes.

If you do feel like shopping for some music memorabilia, the street leading to the Sherlock Holmes Museum is filled with such stores. I totally regret not buying the iconic poster of The Beatles crossing the street barefoot, as much as I regret buying the overpriced Pink Floyd T-Shirt which I later found for a steal at Primark. But hey, live and learn.

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This is the first trip that I separate from Naji while roaming around, for about 3 or 4 full days. While he went to science and military oriented museums, I camped out in bookshops, wandered anonymously around the streets, hypnotized by paintings in galleries. I would visit London again in a heartbeat just to breathe in the culture of this epicenter of music, art and literature.

To me it is a mesh of talent, of wise minds overlapping over time to create a city of ghosts and a lot of soul, to which I felt a connection. And for all of that and much more, a part of myself will always be in London.

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