Attention Anglophiles: Jingle bells and Santa Claus may cheer up the Christmas set, and Menorahs and Dreidels light things up for the Jews, but even more universal is the current fabulous dollar-to-pound exchange rate. Right now in jolly old London, sales signs are bringing holiday cheer to all denominations—secularists and believers alike. And with its grand shopping, holiday markets, shows, ice skating (at The Hampton Court Palace or Somerset House) attractions and nonstop nightlife, London is truly a winter wonderland for LGBTs these days. And at around $1.50 per £1, it’s a better deal than it’s been for at least a half-decade.
Arm yourself upon arrival with the latest issue of Time Out London magazine (http://timeout.com/london) for the week’s listings of special events, arts, queer happenings, and everything else new and now. London’s official tourism resource, VisitLondon, also boasts comprehensive “what’s on” listings and dedicated Christmas and New Years’ pages (http://visitlondon.com/events/Christmas), as does View London (http://www.viewlondon.co.uk). And don’t forget free queer nightlife bible QX Magazine (http://qxmagazine.com) for all things gay and bumping in the night – its website is updated every Tuesday evening and you can download full issues in Flash or pdf formats.
If you want to dash around London speedily, before you leave the U.S., order an Oyster card from Visit Britain (http://www.visitbritaindirect.com/en-us/detail.aspx?ProductCode=TV105) for use on London’s buses and Underground subway. You simply tap it on a round yellow sensor and the discounted cost of a ride (or all-day pass) is automatically deducted.
For tourists, there are numerous upsides to the “Credit Crunch,” as the UK financial crisis has been branded: “Credit Cruncher” retail sales, all-night happy hours at gay bars, and other incentives. That said, let’s start off with freebies. December 4th saw the lighting of Trafalgar Square’s giant Christmas tree – as usual, it’s an imported gift from Oslo, an annual show of thanks for Great Britain’s assistance to Norway during WWII – which will be lit up nightly through January 5th. Holiday lights and decorations line shopping strips Oxford Street, Bond Street, Regent Street, and Carnaby Street, arguably the best of the lot with a dozen giant floating snowman and thousands of glittering snowflakes overhead.
For fans of retail window displays gussied up with holiday scenes (or, in the case of NYC’s Barneys, snarky pop culture scenarios), head to shopping mecca around Oxford
Circus and Picadilly Circus. Oxford Street’s Selfridges & Co (400 Oxford Street; http://www.selfridges.com) is amongst the most fun, depicting Santa Claus in a number of twisted “More the Merrier” scenarios and settings including breakdancing, DJing, a beauty salon, ironing, and on a subway car. Debenham’s Department Store (334-348 Oxford Street; http://www.debenhams.com) just a few blocks away, is also quite playful with animated stuffed animals up to all sorts of hijinks, while Regent Street toyshop Hamleys (188-196 Regent Street; http://www.hamleys.com) typically inject cheeky fun within their windows.
On Bond Street, Tiffany & Co’s (25 Old Bond Street; http://uk.tiffany.com) small but gorgeous windows stand out thanks to richly colored, lit crystal sculptures. Knightsbridge’s iconic department store, Harrods (87-135 Brompton Road; http://www.harrods.com), adopted a Christmas theme of bling despite the Credit Crunchiness (Honey—if you’re shopping at Harrods, it’s irrelevant.), with glittering diamond-y glam window display scenes – one’s filled with inescapable High School Musical paraphernalia. Their annual sale, a massive affair, is typically announced with an outrageous display. In 2007, they unveiled a glass box containing a diamond-encrusted shoe with a live snake slithering about. 2009’s is sure to surprise/shock/amuse as well. Harrods’ food hall sells pretty tasty fresh mince pies – buttery crust with chopped nuts and fruit inside – but a gourmand’s department store of choice is Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly; http://www.fortnumandmason.com).
Want to bring yourself some Christmas pudding? Fortnum & Mason is the place. Besides Christmastime staples, chocolates, teas, and other British delights, you’ll find less traditional culinary gifts on the bottom level: A display dedicated to the offbeat Edible company (http://edible.com) is stocked with chocolate covered insects (!), like fried giant leafcutter ants, and IV-esque vials of scorpion-infused vodka, scorpion included. Considering how Christmas pudding is made (go on, Google it!) perhaps roasted Mopani Worms aren’t that intimidating.
While many of London’s famed markets have adopted Christmas themes and vendors – like Camden Town and Covent Garden’s Apple Market – the German-styled Cologne Market (http://www.xmas-markets.com) runs along the Southbank Centre (http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk) and London Eye through December 23rd. The London Eye is also offering uniquely Christmas rides through early January: enjoy mulled wine and mince pies while taking in the city views for £28 per person (you can also rent a private capsule and add champagne and other goodies to the package – see http://www.londoneye.com/SpecialOccasions/Christmas/Default.aspx), and/or take a 40-minute sightseeing cruise along the Thames with hot chocolate in hand.
The Southbank Centre’s calendar is chock full of holiday shows and performances, notably December 18-20th’s Sinderella (http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/all-events/productions/tiger-lillies-43348). A retelling of Cinderella with “alluring depravity,” this musical cabaret extravaganza stars Kiki & Herb’s Justin Bond and Grammy-nominated musical act the Tiger Lillies. Meanwhile, the one-off December 11th Twisted Christmas at the Barbican (http://www.barbican.org.uk/music/event-detail.asp?ID=7848) warps holiday tunes and carols compliments of Pulp frontsman Jarvis Cocker, Patrick Wolf and others.
If you missed cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard’s Stripped while it toured the USA, he’s taken up residence at the West End’s Lyric Theatre (Shaftesbury Avenue; for tickets call 0870 040 0081). Rowan Atkinson plays the un-Beany scoundrel Fagin in a massive new musical mounting of Dickens classic Oliver! (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; Tel: 0844 412 2955. http://www.oliverthemusical.com). And in Piaf (Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand; http://www.vaudeville-theatre.co.uk) Argentinean star Elena Rogers turns in a powerhouse performance as France’s little sparrow, Edith Piaf.
A fast-paced, racy trip through Piaf’s career and relationships – from a prostitute/street urchin resembling Valerie Solanis to the internationally renowned singer who died young – Piaf depicts the chanteuse as bawdy, trash-talking, perpetually man-starved, and a close friend with Marlene Dietrich. One of the show’s highlights entails the icons’ duet of “La Vie En Rose,” which ends with a Sapphic smooch. You’ll be in tears when Rogers belts out “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” at show’s end. If you visit the box office early, you might score the treasured first row “day seats” for £10 a pop.
For a blast to the Christmas past, some of it kitschy, the Geffrye Museum (Kingsland Rd; tel. 020 7739 9893; http://geffrye-museum.org.uk) presents recreations of 11 middle-class families’ Christmased-up living rooms from different eras. Pop art queens are certainly in luck this season. The Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road; tel. 871 663 2501; http://www.haywardgallery.org.uk) installed the astounding Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms exhibition through mid-January, and a bevy of UK-only Warhol goods have been licensed for the gift shop. After strolling through multimedia rooms filled with Factory films (Watch Blowjob! And Edie’s screen tests!), TV clips, photos, Interview magazines, and those famed Chicklet-shaped silver balloons, the gift shop is a trove of treasures. Pepe Jeans London have concocted an exclusive line of clothing – a T-shirt runs about £57 – while bags, books and other items run the gamut of budgets.
On the other side of the London Eye is The Dali Universe (County Hall Gallery, Riverside Building, County Hall; tel. 0870 744 7485; http://www.countyhallgallery.com), dedicated to the work of surrealist Salvador Dali, which includes more melting clocks than you can shake a elephant at. After perusing the galleries of everything Dali, including sculptures (like a telephone with a lobster handset), furniture, and erotic sketches, you can visit the sales area and splurge on a £16,800 “Triumphant Elephant” statue or £4,050 “Les Vitraux” lithograph.
The Tate Modern’s gift shop is also well worth a look for all manner of souvenir and cards. And the recently relocated Saatchi Gallery (Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road. http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk) is well worth a visit for its unique exhibitions. The gallery is currently showcasing works by emerging artists from America in ‘Abstract America, New Painting and Sculpture’. This exhibition will continue until 17th January 2010.
Fashionistas with future-forward instincts and gift shopping lists should check out the Laden Showroom (103 Brick Lane; tel: 020 7247 2431; http://www.ladenshowroom.co.uk), where over 50 young designers hawk their goods. The talent on display is consistently fresh – in fact, Laden has become a favorite destination for headhunters from hipster UK chains like Topshop (where you will see some of these folks’ wares months later for triple the price), and pop star celebs like Victoria Beckham and Pete Doherty.
Hungry? London is home to 45 Michelin Star-winning restaurants, second only to Paris, and most tout special Holiday menus. Celeb chefs Gordon Ramsay (who, as per recent tabloid reports, is a slutty scoundrel!) and Jamie Oliver (who’s hotter and we can only wish becomes a slutty scoundrel) have recently shifted the focus to classic British cooking with an emphasis on locally sourced, organic ingredients. Ramsay’s York & Albany (127-129 Parkway; tel: 020 7388 3344; http://www.gordonramsay.com) is a reasonably priced gastro-pub and quintessentially mod-Brit.
Indian food is another London institution, and despite its location off tourist trap Piccadilly Circus, Veeraswamy (99 Regent Street; tel. 020 7734 1401; http://www.veeraswamy.com) is one of the city’s most amazing Indian restaurants (and reportedly its oldest). Mint Leaf (Suffolk Place, Haymarket; tel. 020 7930 9020; http://www.mintleafrestaurant.com) also receives glowing recommendations, while one of London’s best Indian deals is Masala Zone (http://www.masalazone.com/), from the owners of Chutney Mary, Veeraswamy and Amaya. They have seven locations in London, and their Covent Garden location (48 Floral St.; 020 7379 0101) is massive, decorated with colorful puppets, and close to the Seven Dials shopping district (Fopp is great for CDs/DVDs) and way gay Old Compton Road.
If you haven’t yet sat in Santa’s lap, you’ll find big burly men happy to offer the opportunity at XXL (http://www.xxl-london.com), London’s twice weekly (Wed & Sat) bear, cub, chubby, musclebear and chaser party. XXL’s Saturday night is massive – pun intended – with thousands of big hairy men and their ridiculously cute fans occupying two rooms of dancing and music, a naughty den, and much more. It’s like a USA bear weekend every single Saturday night; December and New Year’s Eve promise plenty of special guests and twists. Meanwhile, London’s famed G-A-Y (http://www.g-a-y.co.uk) disco now resides at the former Heaven, and UK hookup website Gaydar opened a glowing, multi-level Soho bar/disco, Profile (56-57 Frith Street; http://www.profilesoho.com). Besides Time Out and QX, also check out Boyz magazine (http://www.boyz.co.uk) and/or its website for additional LGBT nightlife and events.
Tally ho-ho-ho now!