Not since the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana has London been in such a matrimonial tizzy. • After all, the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton next month is not just a another royal shindig, it's the union of Britain's future king with a commoner. So the hawkers are out in force. • Stores are stocking up on souvenir mugs, loving cups, china sets and other doodads bearing the likenesses of the couple. One company is offering replicas of Kate's engagement ring (originally Diana's) for $99. Britain's Royal Mint has issued a new 5 pound coin, available in silver or gold, bearing perfectly awful portraits of the couple.
Operators here and abroad are offering royal wedding tours complete with flights, hotels and escorted visits to London spots associated with the couple. Booking agency Orbitz says London hotel bookings are up 40 percent for the wedding weekend, with room rates around $170 a night, though Orbitz's Jeanenne Touratore says there are still deals to be had. Complicating the equation is that Easter comes just five days before the wedding. Of course, visitors won't get to attend the actual April 29 ceremony unless they are among the fortunate 1,900 invitees. But they should be able to get a glimpse of the bride and groom as they each make their way to Westminster Abbey, where they will be married.
While Kate won't ride in a glass coach, as Diana did on her wedding day, she will travel by car to Westminster. After the ceremony, the newlyweds will ride together to Buckingham Palace for a spot of tea with the queen and feasting with William's father, Prince Charles.
Best spots to view the royal processions are between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, along the Mall, Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall and Parliament Square. One probably needs to get a viewing spot early, as the crowds are expected to be huge. A periscope might be a good idea. So would having a hotel within walking distance of Westminster or Buckingham.
Fascination with things royal will be just one facet of a visit to London in late April. Visitors will want to experience more of this great city, and not just such standard points of interest as the Tower of London, the Changing of the Guard and Piccadilly Circus.
With that in mind, here are some less obvious places to visit in London or within an hour or two by train. For more information on Britain, London and the royal wedding, go to visitbritain.com.
Churchill War Rooms
Under 3 feet of concrete beneath the Treasury building on Whitehall in London are the Churchill War Rooms, which housed the British government command center in World War II and provide a fascinating look at how Britain managed the war. Then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill met with his war Cabinet and chiefs of staff in the Cabinet Room. He had a bed (and a chamber pot) in a small room next to the Map Room, whose walls are covered with large-scale maps of the theaters of war. He made encoded telephone calls to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt from the small Transatlantic Telephone Room. A few years ago, a Churchill Museum was created in the complex. It traces Churchill's life from childhood through his storied escape from a South African prisoner of war camp in 1899 to his "finest hour'' as leader of wartime Britain.
The Royal Mews
The British love pomp, and there's a lot of it here where state vehicles are kept. Visitors can see horse-drawn carriages and motor cars that are used for coronations, state visits, royal weddings, the state opening of Parliament and official engagements. Also housed in the Mews is the gold state coach last used by Queen Elizabeth II during her Golden Jubilee in 2002. There is talk that it might take William and Kate to Buckingham Palace after their wedding.
Tributes to the late beloved Princess Diana dot the London landscape. She lived in Kensington Palace, which is open to visitors. A current exhibition there, "The Enchanted Palace,'' centers on fashions and displays two dresses worn by Diana as well as contemporary and other historic fashions. Kensington Gardens is the home also of the Diana Memorial Playground, whose Peter Pan design reflects her love of children. One can also retrace Diana's life on the Diana Memorial Walk, a 7-mile route with 89 plaques that takes one through four London parks with sites associated with her life. There's a Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, and the iconic Harrods department store displays photos of Diana and Dodi Fayed and the engagement ring Dodi purchased the day before the two died in a 1997 Paris car crash, as well as a bronze statue of the pair dancing on a beach. Dodi's father owned Harrods until 2010.
Shopping in style
Shoppers can always visit big London department stores like Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges and Marks & Spencer. But London also has some distinguished old shops that have dealt in a single product for decades. Their service is personal and gracious, their goods top drawer. Both Floris and Penhaligon's carry a variety of perfumes. You'll find 300 kinds of cheeses at Paxton and Whitfield. John Lobb has been fitting boots and shoes on London's elite for decades, James Lock provides headwear for both ladies and gentlemen. Burberry will outfit you with elegant rainwear, Gieves & Hawkes is the most renowned tailor on Savile Row, and wines and whiskeys await at Berry Bros. & Rudd, maker of Cutty Sark scotch, which has been in business since 1698.
London is readying the site where thousands of athletes will compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Opened just last month at Olympic Park in east London is the stunning new 6,000-seat, $152 million velodrome. Nearing completion are the 80,000-seat main stadium, the aquatics center, and basketball and handball arenas. You can get a panoramic view of the site for free from the View Tube, an observation platform with a cafe, or take an official walking tour. Tours take about two hours and take guests to the athletes' village and the main sports venues. It leaves from tube station Bromley-by-Bow. Tickets are 9 pounds adult, 6 pounds children.
Time literally begins in this London suburb, easily reached by regular boat or train service from central London. Greenwich Mean Time is the standard by which every clock in the world is set. You can tour the hilltop observatory, where such famous scientists as John Flamsteed, Edmond Halley, William Herschel, Isaac Newton and James Bradley worked. Greenwich is also the place where east meets west: The Prime Meridian, 0 degrees longitude, runs straight through the observatory. Straddle the metal line that marks the meridian and you'll have one foot in the Western Hemisphere, one in the Eastern. On the town's Thames riverfront, two historic vessels are visitable: the famous Cutty Sark clipper sailing ship and the Gipsy Moth IV, in which Sir Francis Chichester sailed alone around the world.
On the English Channel coast an hour by train south of London lies one of the most remarkable residences in the world, Brighton's Royal Pavilion. Built by George IV, its minarets and onion domes look more like an Asian fantasy than an English monarch's home — a royal excess if there ever was one. Set in the walls of the reception corridor are carved Chinese figures fitted with movable heads that would bob to the king's guests. An enormous silver-winged dragon hangs from the dome of the banqueting room. The red and gold music room is decorated with gilded serpents and dragons. Also of interest in this coastal resort: the Palace Pier, with an amusement arcade and numerous stalls selling beachy foods and goods; the Lanes, in the heart of Old Town with charming little shops and pubs; and the city's twittens and cat creeps — flights of steps connecting different levels.
Jay Clarke, the former longtime travel editor of the Miami Herald, is a freelance writer based in Coral Gables.