LONDON >> Every evening, groups of tourists gather on London Bridge to take pictures of the skyline and then walk to Tower Bridge along the river Thames. For the world’s third-most visited city, it’s one of the few signs that visitors have kept coming during lockdowns that have sapped the capital’s energy.
From the popular lookout, you can see a bit of the city’s past, with historic landmarks like the Tower of London, the glistening skyscrapers of the present, and maybe its future: Beneath the buildings, bars and restaurants are quiet, with empty seats that highlight the hospitality industry’s struggles. Public health precautions remain tight, with indoor dining limited to parties of six that can be socially distanced; even in pubs, it’s still off-limits to order a drink at the bar.
While it won’t last forever, the blight will stick around for a few more weeks. On June 14, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was pushing back plans to lift England’s coronavirus restrictions for four weeks — maybe more, if the strong surge of infections currently predicted doesn’t taper off. A week later, the U.K. reported the most new cases of the virus since the start of February.
With luck, Brits will be able to partake in all sorts of indoor and outdoor gatherings — including large events, performances, and even partying at nightclubs — by July 19. The government is hoping to use the intervening time to significantly increase the proportion of U.K. adults who have had two jabs of the vaccine — currently just below 57%.
In the meantime, a traffic light system for visitors has been introduced, allowing visitors from green-list countries, such as Australia or Singapore, to enter sans quarantine, so long as they can show two negative COVID-19 tests: one taken before flying in and another two days after landing.
Travelers from the U.S. and other countries on the amber list face an additional requirement: a 10-day quarantine, even for the vaccinated set. (The government has been diligent about ensuring compliance via daily phone calls.)
Don’t even bother trying to come from a red-list country unless you’re British or Irish or have residence rights in the U.K.
Unlike other European capitals, London is taking longer to reawaken from its 2020 slumber. Many still avoid public transport, leaving Central London without its daily commuters and exacerbating the shortage of visitors throughout the city. The ripple effect is massive: Tourism accounted for as many as 1 in 7 jobs before the pandemic and contributed almost 12% of the city’s gross domestic product.
Which is all to say: Expect a city that’s fundamentally changed whenever you make your return.
The number of people visiting restaurants, shopping centers, museums, cinemas and other retail and recreation activities is still about a third below what it was before COVID-19, data compiled by Google show. On a recent Sunday, the number of seated diners was running at 71% of 2019 levels, according to Opentable.
That’s taken a big toll on restaurants and forced the closure of some beloved spots. Among them is Le Caprice, reputedly Princess Diana’s favorite restaurant, where last month moss was growing on the awnings.
Take a midday stroll through Mayfair, and you’ll see some empty tables amid the hedge funders and private equity investors gathering for power lunches. The gaps have led such legendary restaurants as Le Gavroche to open only for dinner.
According to the Bloomberg Pret Index, which uses coffee and sandwich sales at Pret A Manger Ltd. stores as a proxy for consumer traffic in various areas around the U.K., such neighborhoods as the Oxford Street area and Marylebone in London’s West End, are slowly gaining traction, while the city remains pin-drop quiet. Brixton, one of London’s buzziest districts, has been drawing crowds to its bars and restaurants.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Takeout became the norm for many during lockdown, helping restaurants survive the pandemic. Near Borough Market, the longest line for delivery pickups is at McDonald’s, but the various restaurants and stalls there were already well adapted with outdoor tables and plenty of grab-and-go options like slow-roasted pork sandwiches from Hobbs. Many others embraced a meal-kit strategy offering restaurant ingredients to be cooked at home, from Michelin-starred Core by Clare Smyth, which can come to £350 ($490) for two, to Passayunk Avenue, delivering Philadelphia-inspired cheesesteaks and hoagies.
Visitors staying in apartment rentals can enjoy such idiosyncratic pandemic perks to create a truly private London dining experience.
And while unpredictable London weather has often limited the value of rooftop and outdoor dining spaces, they’re a valuable commodity after a very rainy spring, especially for classics like the River Cafe — with its white-tablecloth settings on the Thames — and flower-filled restaurants by Petersham Nurseries. Another silver lining is the Euro 2020 football tournament. The English team’s progress through the first round has provided a fillip to the hospitality sector, helping to fill pubs. There’s a football village by Tower Bridge for those keen to watch the games and grab a pizza.
At all of these spots, the remaining restrictions are likely familiar to many: Checking in includes collecting information for contact tracing, and indoor seating is restricted to groups of six or two households of any size.
London is slowly emerging from the pandemic. Here are a few ideas for how to spend your days, depending on whether you’re still COVID-cautious or ready to party like it’s 2019.
If you’re COVID-wary: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is a good option for those worried about being indoors. “Romeo & Juliet” is playing until July 24, and tickets start at 25 pounds (about $34.50). “Anansi the Spider,” a good option for kids, will then begin its run, with tickets prices at just 10 pounds (about $13.80).
A large number of elite art museums around the city have also joined forces to create Art of London AR Gallery, an app that unlocks art-themed walking trails around the city; each point of interest is a QR code that, when scanned, turns into an augmented reality masterpiece.
If you need a gentle reentry: Museums are drawing visitors, but booking is essential. Plenty of free spots were available last week at the British Museum, the most popular free attraction in England. Inside, it was busy as people walked through exhibits of everything from Egyptian mummies to Greek sculptures and African antiquities.
The Tate Modern was fully booked on the same day. An exhibition of more than 200 Auguste Rodin works, focusing on his sculptures with plaster, will be on display until November, while two of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms can be experienced until June 2022. All visitors must have a timed ticket that has been booked in advance. Demand will vary, depending on the day.
If you want to pretend the pandemic never happened: Camp Bestival in Dorset is expected to go ahead from July 29 to Aug. 1, featuring the throwback sounds of Fatboy Slim, Groove Armada, Kelis and the Sugarhill Gang. There’s a pirate sandpit for the kids and silent yoga will be an option for those who suddenly realize the sound system’s a bit too loud.
Many are hiring cars instead of public transport; Transport for London, the city’s subway manager, suffered from a massive drop in income when people began working from home. That’s made its service a bit less regular, though it’s still far better than that of New York in terms of frequency.
Cycling has become more popular during lockdown, with recreational riders taking advantage of the fewer Lance Armstrong wannabes on the roads, because people are working from home. Take in some great views by cycling from the Tower of London to the Houses of Parliament and on to St James’ Park. Daily bike rental from the many Santander Cycles stations around town is 2 pounds (a little less than $3) for rides up to 30 minutes.
Day trips and overnight hotel stays are allowed, meaning it’s easy to get around and see the many Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty within easy reach of the capital. While trains are running, local transport for the Cotswolds is poor, and you should consider an auto hire. The number of people holidaying at home means the cost of rentals has more than doubled in some parts of the country, the Guardian reported last week.
Follow the rules if you don’t want dirty looks from the locals. Mask wearing is mandatory on transit and in stores, unless you have a medical exemption; it has improved, but flouting of regulations is widespread.
Be patient in hospitality venues: Many have new workers, so service may take longer than normal. It will take time to restore standards.
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