by Tracy
Producer, Percy’s World Media

With preparation for London’s 2012 Summer Olympics in full swing, I thought it was time to pay tribute to this wonderful city — literally my home away from home.

So, you may be wondering, given the title of this post…is it possible to experience London in five hours?
Really?

Indeed, it is!

But you’ll surely be aching to come back for more!

While I was living and working in London not so long ago, a friend emailed me, saying he’d be in London (for his first time) for less than half a day during a quick stopover. The challenge was his idea.

Not one to turn down a good challenge, I immediately accepted. He would see all that London is and has to offer (more or less) in 5 hours!

THE CHALLENGE BEGINS…

We start on High Street Kensington, just outside at High Street Kensington Tube station. I lived in the area, and it happens to be a fantastic starting point for getting to know the city.

When my friend emerged from the station late, flustered and spewing forth apologies about train delays and misinterpreted transfers, I assured him that he was right on schedule on well on his way to being an honorary Londoner for a day! He had already ticked off the first essential London experience — delays. It’s just the way it is there. This isn’t Switzerland after all.

Next experience? Sticker shock. Out on Kensington High Street, surrounded by the likes of Marks & Spencer, French Connection and Dixon’s Electronics, it is hard to ignore the alarming prices — at least once converted to a foreign currency. Yet, we were not there to dwell on prices or alarming exchange rates. Instead, we found a caffeine fix at my favourite fuel stop (High Street Kensington’s Coffee Republic) and set out on our journey. (And the good news is the exchange rates have gotten much better for travelers since my friend’s visit, and are looking relatively good leading up to the Olympics!)

Our next stop was the bus shelter, where we willed the arrival of the C1 bus. Like waiting for late trains and standing in long coffee line-ups, waiting for a bus is an essential London experience. London buses are a thrill to ride — I especially love the hopping on and off — which more than compensates for any tardiness. And the bus “queue” is as authentic a London experience as sitting in one of its pubs. Sadly, our five hour time limit didn’t afford us time in a pub, though we would walk by and take pictures of many of them.

A few rounds of “spot the Smart Car” later (they truly are everywhere on London’s narrow roads), the C1 arrived. The C1′s route includes Earl’s Court, Knightsbridge, Chelsea, South Kensington, and Sloane Square. Posh London at its best! We kept our eyes out for the London’s rich and famous strolling its streets.

The C1 took us past Harrod’s, surely the world’s most opulent Department Store. More than 250,000 customers visit Harrod’s on any given day. It doesn’t take long to shed your pounds there — the currency, that is! Justin Timberlake once reportedly spent more than one million British pounds during a one hour visit to the store. It’s hardly shocking though, given all the store’s temptations in its 330 departments spread across over one million luxurious square feet!!

From Harrod’s, we finished our C1 tour and continued on to salute the Queen at Buckingham Palace, a short walk from the C1′s last stop (at Victoria Station). Perhaps the most fascinating feature of the palace, though, is its trademark “little red men.” Stiffer than can reasonably be imagined, and ant-like against the grandiose backdrop, these men dutifully guard the entrance. Most impressive is their uncanny ability to forever remain still and stare straight ahead amid the many ogling tourists. We tried desperately to make them laugh, or even twitch, bouncing around in front of them with our cameras. Nothing.

Still giggling about the guards, we strolled giddily toward Trafalgar Square. Big Ben was one of a few signature London sites I was unable to include on our short tour. However, halfway to Trafalgar Square, peaking out at us over the trees, we spotted Big Ben. A great Kodak moment.

We spent only a few minutes at Trafalgar Square, chuckling as tourists gawked at the mass congregation of pigeons and then we moved on to Piccadilly Circus. A quick few moments  of our own gawking at the famous intersection’s neon banner ads, and we were off again, charging towards Oxford Circus — London’s shopping street. But not without a quick stop at one of London’s ubiquitous EasyInternet cafes (the same company that operates the incredible low fare airline EasyJet) to send an email from central London. Another item ticked off of my list.

We hopped on a bus near The Ritz, getting off again at Tottenham (pronounce it very quickly/short to sound more local!) Court Road and Oxford Street to begin blending into the shopping and tourist masses. As well as being the location for such London shopping institutions as Selfridge’s and John Lewis, Oxford Street is also where you will find more souvenir stands than anywhere else in London. We found my friend a “mind the gap” fridge magnet along the way to Marble Arch, the entrance to Hyde Park. Yet another item ticked off.

At the corner of Hyde Park, Sunday’s quirky Speaker’s Corner was in full-swing. Perched atop soap boxes, Londoners voice their opinions on absolutely any topic, from hot dogs to taxes and sometimes even a bizarre blend of the two! After listening to a few of the corner’s more eccentric speakers, we carried on to Bayswater Road’s ecclectic art market that lines the fence bordering the road from Hyde Park.

Our five hour tour nearly complete, the last stop on the list was Clapham Junction, an up-and-coming section of the city filled with great restaurants just a quick tube ride south. And by this time, our stomachs were rioting with hunger. A self-described burger-holic, my friend could not leave London without sampling British beef so I had to take him to the best burger joint in town. Time Out Magazine calls Gourmet Burger Kitchen’s burgers the most gorgeous burgers in town. While these burgers are more expensive than anywhere else, the burgers are every bit gourmet and delicious. I personally recommend the Habanero burger — if you can handle the heat!

Our bellies filled, it was time for my friend to return to Paddington Station to catch the Heathrow Express. Back home, he now officially has the bragging rights to having experienced London in five hours…

Lost in the crowd — London’s Victoria Station.