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After eight years, I was back. I had last called on London in 2003 for 100 days during a college semester. Terrorist attacks, a winning Olympic bid and new recycling laws had left their indelible mark on city and psyche during the intervening years, and yet my surface experience as a tourist seemed largely untouched — except that now I had sterling to spend on a proper pub pint instead of a 99p can of Speckled Hen from the local Sainsbury.

Speakers’ Corner, a Sunday institution that celebrates “free speech,” belongs in the British Museum. The setting, the crowds, the English nationalist talking about the dilution of her breed, have all been cast in marble. I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I turned away from the eugenics nonsense to see the same American preacher in a cowboy hat and U.S.A. flag shirt climb his ladder and begin, with a sly smile, to warn listeners of the dangers of “evilution.” Eight years had passed, but the anti-evilutionist and xenophobe’s spouts were still preserved in amber. As was the crowd’s response: unabashed mockery or visceral rancor for the racist; good-natured ribbing for the always-smiling preacher man.

speakers corner london

Some recollections seemed preordained. My lady and I had lunch at Cafe Below, located in the 11th-century crypt of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, a Christopher Wren-designed building that was mostly destroyed during the Blitz — except for the crypt. As we walked down the stairs, I remembered a passing comment from our 6’3″ bearded professor, who took our class there for a lecture. “Oh, they have a wonderful cafe in the crypt,” I could hear him muttering in his slightly grizzled voice. Dining on local farm-sourced lamb burger and a pint of pear cider, I had to agree.

I headed back to Portobello Road for the mobbed Saturday market of antiques, sundresses, bric-a-brac, and food vendors hawking German fast food, crepes and Turkish stew in steaming mega-woks. I had lunch again at the Grain Shop, a vegetarian spot where you can fill a tin with multicolored salads, stews and stir-fries for about four quid. Just as in ’03, I followed my somewhat healthy vegetarian lunch with a second course of spicy Bavarian sausage with sauerkraut and mustard.

portobello road london

Also on the dining front were the ever-present takeaway paninis, a cheap lunch eaten hot-pressed or cold. But I couldn’t find my favorite sandwich spot from 2003, a purveyor of an addictive salad with roast ham, mature cheddar, hard-boiled egg, pickles and mayo. I’d been waiting eight years for that sandwich. The loss was hard to bear.

Even thoughtless moments triggered memory flashes. At my first busy crosswalk, I recalled how cab drivers seemed to speed up if they sensed the slightest intention to cross.

On Tube platforms, the once ubiquitous Cadbury machines had vanished. The emergency phones, should you need to report a sugar crash, remained. I may have splurged on an 80p chocolate three times in three months in 2003, but I could taste the absence of fruit and nut during pre-train idling.

I remembered hurrying down Tottenham Court Road, a central artery clogged with electronics and home furnishing stores, and chain cafes like Nero, Pret a Manger and Starbucks. Not much had changed, including my closely guarded opinion of it as the worst street in Central London.

Finally, at night, I remembered how the streets buzzed after football matches. On the evening after Brazil beat Scotland 2-0, the kilted army marched from pub to pub belting out victory songs. Perhaps they stopped watching before the players had left the pitch. I suppose only giving up two goals to Brazil is a victory.

big ben london

Have you ever revisited a place after a long absence? What changed and what stayed the same? Tell us below.

– written by Dan Askin

old crown london London is full of free things to do. A bunch of world-class museums, such as the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, offer free admission. There’s no charge to watch cheeky orators embarrass themselves and others in front of large crowds at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. And it’s free to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

Travelers to London can also enjoy complimentary comedy shows in the heart of the city, which I accidentally discovered on a trip earlier this week.

Searching the Web for something budget-friendly and fun to do on a weekday night, I came across an online listing for “The Ideas Factory,” a free comedy show at a bar in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. On a whim, I showed up at the bar (Old Crown on 33 New Oxford Street), and was directed to a small room upstairs. It was a tiny, dimly lit space with two beat-up couches and some folding chairs. There were just three or four people standing about drinking beer. The place looked like a sad and poorly attended party hosted by college students in a studio apartment — no stage, no audience and no microphone; this didn’t seem promising.

Despite my unease, I stayed, expecting a mediocre show at best, and an embarrassing flop ending in violence at worst. Yet the show was brilliant. The comedians, who hammed it up just inches from a tiny group of roughly 10 people, were polished, professional and delightfully clever. Performers included Matthew Highton, Paul Duncan McGarrity and Jay Cowle, established British comedians who also do standup at the “real” comedy clubs — you know, the ones that charge admission.

During a break in the show, I asked one of the performers why he bothered to appear at a free show in such a dark and diminutive room above a bar. He explained that this kind of intimate performance is common in London, where comedians arrange small events for the purpose of testing new material in front of an audience.

Spending the evening as a comic guinea pig in London was an unforgettable experience. To find free comedy shows in London, check out Time Out London (www.TimeOut.com/London).

– written by Caroline Costello

london Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: British Airways rarely runs airfare sales — in fact, the airline slashes prices on economy-class flights only a few times per year. But luckily for travelers heading to England’s capital city, British Airways recently published a spate of cut-rate spring fares to London, including roundtrip flights for as little as $380 plus taxes and fees. Expect taxes to amount to roughly $200 roundtrip. The cheapest total price we found with this sale was $570.97 roundtrip including taxes and fees for a midweek nonstop flight from New York to London in March — an economical price for a trip across the pond.

It’s not difficult to unearth the cheapest possible flight for your London vacation. British Airways’ convenient rate calendar allows travelers to clearly see on which days the least expensive fares are available.

The Catch:
Travel dates are limited, as the absolute lowest fares are only offered on a few select dates. Plus, the British Airways sale page states that “Prices and availability are updated every 24 hours,” which means that your window of opportunity to book these low fares could be rather limited.

The Competition: Lufthansa is currently offering reduced fares to Europe, which include flights to London for as little as $209 each way plus taxes and fees for travel this spring.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Airfare Deals.

–written by Caroline Costello

milestone hotel It’s not a royal wedding without some kind of commemorative plate set. Or a vinyl Kate Middleton doll (the Franklin Mint is working on one, enticing collectors with the glitter of limited availability — only 5,000 will be made). Keep an eye out for souvenir royal wedding condoms too, which are already for sale in England.

Luxury hotels certainly aren’t above cashing in on the big event along with nearly everyone else in the British Isles. The Milestone Hotel, a posh five-star London property overlooking Kensington Palace, is offering a four-night Royal Occasion package that includes a set of fine English bone china commemorative plates and mugs, crafted by Royal Worcester. Package prices start at 2,418 pounds (that’s about $3,894 as of this posting) for two people staying in a superior queen room between April 24 and May 3. Here’s what’s included:

– Four nights’ accommodations

– Daily English breakfast

– A royal Champagne afternoon tea

– A seven-course meal prepared by the hotel’s chef

– Two tickets to Kensington Palace

– Luxury car transfers from London Heathrow Airport

– And, most importantly, that commemorative plate set

Add-ons range from a Champagne sabrage (that’s when a bottle of Champagne is ceremoniously opened with a knife or a sword) to an elegant picnic in Hyde Park. I’m no luxury traveler, but any package that includes a guy hacking at a Champagne bottle with a sword is something to consider. Plus, the painful price of nearly $3,900 isn’t quite as paralyzing once you realize the package covers two people staying for four nights in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Excuse me while I try to think of a clever way to scare up four grand. In the meantime, tell us: Would you book a luxury package in London for the royal wedding — or will you just stick with a few commemorative plates and some souvenir condoms?

–written by Caroline Costello

win a trip to london from monogramsWe’re celebrating our 20th anniversary — and we want you to celebrate with us! That’s why we’re giving away a free trip for two to London from Monograms. The vacation includes roundtrip airfare from the United States, three nights in London, airport transfers in London, daily breakfast and a sightseeing tour, plus free time to explore the city on your own.

But a trip to London is just one of many fantastic prizes. We’re marking 20 years with 20 days of giveaways, including a NOOKcolor e-reader from Barnes & Noble as well as 20 IndependentTraveler.com T-shirts. You can enter once a day through February 14. The more entries you submit, the more chances you have to win! Click here to enter.

(Sorry, international readers: for legal reasons, we can only open the giveaway to residents of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.)

For more festivities, including a slideshow featuring the highlights of two decades of travel, check out our 20th Anniversary page.

And now we want to hear from you. Which trip of your own stands out the most from the past 20 years — your honeymoon, a once-in-a-lifetime African safari, your first glimpse of the Great Wall of China? Post your favorite travel memory in the comments below.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

london houses of parliamentWhich destination would you choose as the best in the world?

It’s a tough question for any globetrotter, but travel agents across the world came together to vote on just that in the 2010 World Travel Awards, announced yesterday. London took the title of the World’s Leading Destination for the fourth time in six years (other recent winners have included Dubai, Las Vegas and Orlando — though how the Mouse beat out cities like Paris and Rome in 2006 is a mystery to me).

In addition to selecting a “leading destination,” the annual awards highlight the cream of the crop in a heap of other categories including airlines, hotels, cruise lines, tourist boards and more.

To no one’s surprise, the fee-happy U.S.-based airlines were barely represented in the “world’s leading” list — Etihad Airways took top honors for the best overall airline, while Cathay Pacific earned a nod for its economy-class experience (Virgin Atlantic won for business class and Etihad racked up another trophy for first class). However, there was one lonely U.S. airline on the list: Frontier, which beat out JetBlue and several other discounters for the title of the world’s best low-cost carrier.

Given the perennial complaints about the lack of comprehensive train transportation in the U.S., I was a little shocked to see Amtrak take top honors as the World’s Leading Rail Service — beating out Eurostar, which had won the award every previous year since 1998. Dare we hope this means that U.S. train travel is on the rise?

Other highlights from the list: InterContinental Hotels & Resorts was named the world’s best hotel brand, Royal Caribbean ruled the seas as the top cruise line and the self-proclaimed “seven-star” Burj Al Arab in Dubai took the “best hotel” crown for the sixth year in a row. Click the link above to see the full (and lengthy) list of winners.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

street performer In the same way that a great meal of sausage, sauerkraut and local altbier can be the focal point of a trip to Berlin, the talented guy with the sax and hat on the French Quarter sidewalk can create a powerful imprint from which the rest of a travel memory can build.

We’ve all seen the diminutive Incan flutists who, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, are sent to proselytize the reverb-filled sound of the Andes. But what about those artists who seem to have no twin, those street performers who take the man-and-guitar concept somewhere new and bizarre? Here are a few of my favorites:

London, England. My head was in a rag-y Metro paper during the busy red line Tube rush. A stubbly pair, one with a guitar, stepped onto the train. Without fanfare, they begin singing in a melodious staccato chant: “If you can’t shave in the public toilet, where can you shave?” After a second of confusion, the car’s commuters were a-grin. I was somewhat suspicious, as the duo wielded a clarity of voice and harmony you might not expect from people used to shearing in a public loo — but it was two minutes well spent either way.

Key West, Florida. Mallory Square is known for sunsets and street performers. I’ve seen your typical magicians, sword swallowers and fire-eaters — but I’ve also watched a man eating a shopping cart piece by piece (or displaying an uncanny knack for sleight of hand) and a talkative chap riding a painful-looking 30-foot-high unicycle while juggling. The most memorable performance was the Movin’ Melvin show.

Melvin appeared with a flat wooden mat for dancin’ on and one of those giant Utz pretzel drums full of dollars. Melvin started tap dancing. Then Melvin stopped, looked at the audience with a smile and said, “People say, ‘Melvin, can you move faster?!'” The crowd repeated the call. Then shouted Melvin, “Now watch me now!” And he moved faster than previously. The whole crowd got involved, and the line, delivered louder and louder in unison, became, “Melvin, can you move faster?!” The climax came when Melvin could no longer move faster.

New Orleans, Louisiana. In a town where it seems that every third resident has some sort of crazy talent, differentiation is key for street performers. Puppet master Valentino Georgievski, whose show features puppet versions of famous musicians singing and dancing, understands this well. I caught his show on a recent trip to the Big Easy. Sax-playing puppets got down on one knee while growling out that high note. A James Brown-looking puppet in a gray suit fell into a split during the break-down of “The Big Payback.” Another puppet stalked the mic in between the lines of “Low Rider,” a favorite move of more fleshy lead singers. It was all very soulful stuff, and it was just as much fun to watch the puppet master, who grooved along behind his marionettes.

Your turn: What street performer left an indelible mark on your brain?

–written by Dan Askin