The London Dungeon In the bowels of London Bridge Station this famous waxwork museum of torture focuses on the dark side of life. As such it can paint an artificially grim portrait of London: Jack the Ripper is small fry by today's serial killer standards. Stocks, executions, torture machines, rats, plague are the main crowd attractions. The queues stretch right up Duke St Hill for at least 100 metres, unemployed actors in 'period' costume and ghoulish make-up keep them amused while they're waiting. Life in London was undoubtedly hard for the poor or those who for some reason were ostracised by society, worth remembering as you go round, for example, Hampton Court which paints an equally biased view of a rosy Olde England. Their recently opened Paris branch for some reason claims it's the original - we suspect branches will be spring up everywhere. There a restaurant inside and sometimes nightclubs are held there. Their very atmospheric website gives you a flavour of the place.
Madame Tussaud's Most large towns have waxworks museums, and this is just another one, albeit much bigger. It's a big crowd puller - the queues can be horrendous - but you can pre-book a ticket online and walk jauntily by the unfortunates if you wish. Has worked hard over the years to achieve a semi-official status, like the Guinness book of records. Have your photo taken next to Charles , the artist formally known as Prince (if the crowd will part for long enough), or the artist formerly known as Prince (or whatever he calls himself today). Also on the site is the planetarium, which is much like all other planetaria, only more so. We think there are much better things to do in London, especially considering the steep admission price - thousands disagree. It's on the Marylebone Road, 100 yards from Baker Street tube, and conveniently close to Sherlock Holmes' alleged residence which maintains a small 'Museum' - visit only if you're a diehard fan. Recently tourists have taken to having their photo taken by the horrible statue of Sherlock Holmes outside Baker Street tube. If you get that stuffy feeling after Tussaud's walk 400 yards north to Regent's Park - and beyond to Primrose Hill for a great view over London. On the weekend it's an easy walk right through to Camden Market.
London Eye A huge modern version of Vienna's Prater ferris wheel which dominates the river skyline opposite Parliament. Queues were horrendous, but the new ticketing system has improved things markedly. The capsules can get very hot in sunny weather - you can book a whole capsule if you wish. Take a telephoto lens if you want to get good photos from the top - London is a big, big city.
Our favourite natural vantage points are at the top of Greenwich Hill - near the Ranger's House or the Observatory there which are much more atmospheric as the sun slices, Bunuel fashion, down the city skyscrapers. Another good vantage point is Parliament Hill, on Hampstead Heath or Primrose Hill in Regent's Park. As far as the wheel goes make sure there's good weather before you go up as it's a really depressing ride when it's rainy and overcast. Nb Usually closed for annual maintenance at the end of January/beginning of February, but this can shift so check their website.
London Aquarium If it's just fish you're after then the aquarium in County Hall (vide infra) has great atmosphere and is quite beautiful, with its Easter Island statues immersed in a multi-story pool. Well designed and well put together, it's not very 'London' but more a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city - that is if there are no school parties around.
Rock Circus Somewhat tacky waxwork museum in the Trocadero at Piccadilly Circus. Popular with Swedish school parties, it tells the story of rock and pop, debatably a British invention, and Punk which unquestionably is. Slightly decrepit animatronics and a few original artifacts. Part of the Tussauds Group.
Visitors to the original Hard Rock Cafe at the opposite end of Piccadilly seem more impressed - that started collecting rock memorabilia before it became fashionable and has a good collection. The burgers are among the best in London and the price reasonable - though there are often queues to get in. Jimmy Hendrix's guitar is on the wall.
He used to live in London, in Brook Street, curiously in a House right next door to where Handel used to live, and the aficionados of the two musicians have been slugging it out ever since plans for a new museum of rock there. Should really be on a par as a pilgrimage site with Jim Morrison's grave in Paris, but inexplicably isn't. And the 'Sticky Fingers' restaurant is owned by a former Rolling Stone and has some memorabilia. If you want to catch real rock stars on a night out, visit Ronnie Scott's jazz club when the Charlie Watts Nonet is playing: a very star-studded audience. Marc Bolan's nemesis, a tree in Barnes, has frequent visitors too. Strangely enough most of these sixties and seventies bands are back on the road, see our Music page for more details.
London vies with Broadway as the home of the musical and there is much interbreeding between the two. Andrew Lloyd Webber's star seems finally to be falling with the advent of the Elton John/Tim Rice team, but his shows linger on, like the Queen Mother did, just as colourful, just as doddery, but still much loved. Most of the top musicals are 'Sold Out' but you can queue for day tickets - get there early and be prepared for a long line of Monika Lewinsky lookalikes.
Many critics have now echoed the line that 'Cats' should be taken to the vets and be put down (and it was) - this is idiopathic of the long running musicals such as Les Mis and also the long running plays (like The Mousetrap.) They were innovative/good with the first cast but now the actors who created the roles have long gone and we're down to the twentieth cast. The rave reviews on the boards outside, unless they name names, refer to the original production....which may have been decades ago. Sadly there's no real way to find out whether the current cast of a show is good other than by asking around at the Half Price Ticket Office in Leicester Square, or outside another theatre.
If we had to recommend one musical it would be 'Blood Brothers' at the Phoenix on Charing Cross Road, largely because the story is very lifelike (we know Liverpool and it's really like that) but also because it avoids the trumped-up theatricality of 'Miss Saigon' and has had to be good, with competition from the Lloyd Webbers. However we've heard reports that many Americans can't understand it and that it's not escapist enough for those reared on Disney.
One recent trend we do not approve of is the Musical Starter Kit - take a handful of already known songs and try to fit a plot around them - where this can work (eg in Mamma Mia) it's often no better than a concert and often worse. Another trend we do approve of is smaller theatres' with musical bent such as The Bridewell, The Donmar Warehouse or The Jermyn St Theatre (see the Listings Guides for what's on) who have promoted new writing as well as mining a rich seam of Sondheimesque masterpieces.