London's Bloomsbury area has been home to great writers and thinkers and is still the place to enjoy museums, bookshops and galleries.
Bloomsbury is the thinking traveller's delight
Mahatma Gandhi sits cross-legged in the heart of a flower-filled garden in Bloomsbury, with a candle at his feet flickering in a gentle breeze. Passers-by often stop to gaze at the statue, unveiled in 1968, designed by sculptor Fredda Brilliant, the centrepiece of the fine gardens in Tavistock Square. Nearby, there is a plaque commemorating the victims of the London bombings of 2005. There is a cherry tree planted in memory of the victims of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. There is a blue plaque announcing that Charles Dickens lived here. There is a bust of Virginia Woolf.
Visitors to Bloomsbury can spend many thought-provoking hours marvelling at such layers of history, which are visible all around in the landscape and architecture. Bloomsbury is a must-visit on a trip to London and also has a rich fusion of both cultural and culinary pleasures. With an abundance of free exhibitions, galleries and lectures, there is a fountain of knowledge for the tourist, too.
If there is a stillness and repose about its statues, Bloomsbury is also a place of movers and shakers. Some place names lend themselves to "movements" and Bloomsbury is one of them with its eponymous Bloomsbury Set, whose most famous member was Virginia Woolf. Other renowned residents include Woolf's sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, Dickens, Charles Darwin, William Butler Yeats and even Bob Marley, who lived here for a short spell.
Fittingly, there are museums commemorating an illustrious and pioneering history, ranging from the Charles Dickens Museum (www.dickensmuseum.com) showcasing the writers's life and literature, the Foundling Museum (www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk), Britain's original home for abandoned children and London's first public art gallery, and of course the capacious British Museum (www.britishmuseum.org) which is the majestic centre of the area; beneath its vast arches are thousands of years of human thought and artefacts. Inside is the Paul Hamlyn Library, which is a sheer joy.
As a writer, I often burn the midnight oil in the British Library (well, until its 8pm closing time) on the outskirts of the area, which is a must-see, also gloriously free to visit are many of its wonderful exhibitions which often showcase not only British but also international history. If Bloomsbury is haunted with ghosts of the past, it also has an eye very much on the future.
It is said that Darwin dreamt up the theory of natural selection in Bloomsbury. On a good day, when the sun is rising over the Gandhi statue, birds are singing in the gardens, and the smell of coffee filters from a cafe, Bloomsbury seems to have some of the best qualities.
A comfortable bed
At the high end, the historic Hotel Russell (www.londonrussellhotel.co.uk; 00 44 20 7837 6470) stands majestically opposite Russell Square Gardens. Pulling the well-heeled punters is Virginia Woolf's Bar and Bistro, The Tempus Bar with its old-world feel of burgundy-coloured sofas, soft lighting, impeccable service and extortionate prices. Double rooms start from £191 (Dh1,136) including taxes.
The Royal National Hotel (www.imperialhotels.co.uk/royal-national; 00 44 20 7278 7871) has one of the area's best kept secrets: the Blooms pizza cafe, with complimentary Wi-Fi with the purchase of a pizza or drink, comfy sofas, and plenty of room since its upstairs is often half empty. It is open from 6.30am until 11pm. Double rooms start from £99 (Dh589) including breakfast and taxes.
Situated on the edge of leafy Bedford Square, Myhotel (www.myhotel.com; 00 44 20 3004 6000) is a refreshing taste of the hip in the heart of the historic. "Heaven they say is in the detail", says Andy Thrasyvoulou, founder of myhotels, and there are plenty of enjoyable details to linger over at this hotel, which is built on the principle of "where east meets west" - from the boldly colourful design to facilities including the full body massage in the jinja treatment room. The hotel is juxtaposed on one side by the brand new "Central" (www.centralworking.com) which all hotel guests can use for free, and on the other side by the stylish Merkaba bar offering meals including pan-fried sea-bass and Asian salad. Double rooms start from £185 (Dh1,104) including taxes.
Bloomsbury is also a magnet for young international backpackers, and has youth hostels such as the colourful The Generator (www.generatorhostels.com/en/london/ 37 Tavistock Place) where prices start from £15 (Dh89), including breakfast and taxes.
Find your feet
The garden squares filled with whitewashed houses and wide streets offer space for thought. Start at the Gandhi statue and stroll through the beautiful parks and gardens, including the Russell Square Gardens, where the Bloomsbury Set would dream up their masterpieces. Linger along the broad, tree-lined squares and crescents and watch out for plaques on the buildings as you pass. On a clear day there is enough to see along the way to walk all the way to the West End. If you'd like to give your feet a rest, take one of the open-top sight-seeing buses and see the area from a little higher than ground level.
Meet the locals
The area has a diverse cultural mix; at once quintessentially English and yet cosmopolitan and international. The London Review Cake Shop at 14 Bury Place (www.lrbshop.co.uk/cakeshop; 00 44 20 7268 9030) is a great place not only to eat delicious cakes but also to make friends. Its counters are piled high with delicacies galore and its tables with learned journals; sip frothy hot chocolate and relax in the heart of Bloomsbury with a good book or a new friend. The Gallery Cafe at the British Museum is a great place to chat with the person next to you, who might be from anywhere in the world.
Book a table
In Bloomsbury it's possible to find a taste of the international. There is Italian at the world-famous Carluccios at the Brunswick Centre (00 44 871 971 4958) or the delicious tastes of Il Fornello at 150 Southampton Row (00 44 870 971 7840). Also at the Brunswick Centre, try world cuisine at Giraffe (00 44 871 971 4736). For dessert try out The Pancake Cafe at 28 Museum Street. And don't forget a traditional English breakfast or tea, which can be found in the cafes along the streets.
Leave plenty of room in your suitcase as the area is a treasure trove of secondhand bookshops, including Skoob Books (www.skoob.com; 00 44 20 7278 8760) and Judd Books (www.juddbooks.com; 00 44 20 7387 5333). The Brunswick Centre will cater for your needs with everything in walking distance and at weekends out come the market stalls with food, sweets and more books for sale.
What to avoid
The overpriced, gimmicky souvenirs.
The exhibitions at the British Museum (current exhibitions include "Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World" until July 17 and "Australia Landscape" until October 16). A short walk from here you'll find hidden gems including the urban nature reserve of Camley Street Natural Park (www.wildlondon.org.uk/naturereserves/camleystreetnaturalpark/tabid/124/default.aspx; 00 44 20 7833 2311) which is open from 10am to 5pm, seven days a week. Spend a blissful afternoon with the birds and butterflies amid two acres of green space in the very heart of the city.