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Something for everyone



"As night falls over East London, the Tower of London becomes a pool of darkness among the blazing glass cliffs of office blocks. Then, one by one, lights click on in the deep stone windows, as the residents of the medieval village in the heart of the city take back their haunted cobbled streets and courtyards," reports the Guardian newspaper.

Fact is, more than 100 people live inside the thousand-year-old enclave — staff as varied as the governor, yeoman or warders an in-house doctor, and their families.

And on Wednesday nights from November through March (excepting December), a yeoman will introduce visitors to gruesome sights — such as the Traitors' Gate and Scaffold Site — and accompanying stories, that make the Tower the U.K.'s most visited attraction.

Falling under the ever-more popular category of "scary event," this is one of many "twilight tours" held around Britain from Halloween through the winter months.

However on a September visit to London, I confined my investigation of the Tower to the view from the top of a touristy Big Bus (£29 for a day of travel).

Hardly exciting you say, but with many of London's facades and sidewalks clearly power-washed for the recent Queen's Jubilee and Olympics, a round-the-city bus tour, on a gorgeous autumn day, was a revelation. A city I've always thought of as (somewhat appealingly) dark and grimy, looked, for the first time, to be bright and light in colour. Newly glistening or refurbished stone or brick, brass or wrought iron, seemed to envelop London with a more southern hue. And the Tower of London, which I haven't entered for years, sprawled across my horizon like a picture-perfect fortress village.

Autumn through spring is, in my opinion, the only time to visit London. Millions of others think so too, because the city is always full of tourists. But in the off-seasons you do get the opportunity to slip, a little, into the everyday routine and rhythm of the city.

One way to get into London, I find, is to immerse oneself in the neighbourhood of your hotel. On this trip, it was Queensway and Bayswater Road, flush with Hyde Park, for me. While admittedly a hotel-saturated tourism nexus, with a strong Middle Eastern presence, the commercial district includes an enticing mix of family-run eateries, easy-going pubs, and Italian-inspired coffee spots.

A satisfactory hotel room (with bath, or at least shower) can be had for $200, even $100 a night, with a bit of online sleuthing. A huge advantage of this part of the city — apart from proximity to Hyde Park and Knightsbridge — is the easy access to the West End, the City, even East London, via the buses that ply Bayswater Road.

On this trip, I finally abandoned the Tube in favour of buses, and found the transition liberating. From the upper level you get a fine outlook. And the bus system — mapped and described in copious detail at every stop — works well. Just get on and flash your Oyster Card (with your pre-paid credit).

I also overcame years of fear of the big Ambassador taxis. They're not as expensive as I'd thought. I found drivers more than willing to carry my suitcase up hotel steps. One even wanted to return a tip. Unheard of, I thought.

My current interests lean to the visual, so I listed galleries to visit, including the Tate Britain (Turners and Constables, then Blake drawings) and the luscious Wallace Collection. As for the formidable National Gallery, I tackle it piece-meal—most recently concentrating on the medieval alter-pieces, then Dutch landscapes and Impressionists.

But art is, of course, just one of London's offerings: go to visitlondon.com, and, for example, choose one of 30 music categories, ranging from Acoustic to World Music. Hundreds of concerts are on at any one time. In all, 21, 122 "what's on" events are currently listed.

I also let my outdated "Eyewitness London" and photocopied pages from Simon Jenkin's "England's Thousand Best Churches," direct me to two remarkable smaller churches — both wedged into tight spaces off Threadneedle and Queen Victoria streets. St. Stephen Walbrook boasts an ultra-elegant interior designed by Christopher Wren; St. Mary Woolnoth is constrained by its triangular site just above Bank station, but with a perfect square interior and lantern dome by Wren's pupil, Nicholas Hawksmoor.

London is a shopper's heaven. Whatever your passion — and, on this trip, mine ran from CDs to woolens, there is no end of possibilities — from Knightsbridge, through Oxford and Regent streets to Covent Garden or Spitalfields Market, and myriad pockets in-between.

And then there are the year-round outdoor markets: Portobello, as vibrant as ever, the Borough Market — a foodie's paradise in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, Camden Lock, Bermondsey (antiques) or Brick Lane... and on it goes. Hardly scary places — except when you get home and get your credit card bill.