London Is Always Changing--
And Always Charging For It
SUNDAY, JUNE 23, 2024 -- June has been bustin' out all over around London and the British capital adjusts as it always does: It hikes prices to obscene levels and congratulates itself for maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of endless waves of visitors.

This month began with travelers arriving for the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Then tens of thousands of baseball fans appeared--most decked out in Philadelphia Phillies red and white and New York Mets blue and orange--for the almost-annual MLB London Series at Stratford's London Stadium, the home of soccer's West Ham United. There were the World Naked Bike Ride participants and the climate protesters. Swifties arrived soon after and Taylor Swift fanatics travel in such great numbers that they warped hotel occupancy rates for days before and after her Wembley Stadium concerts. Wimbledon, the iconic tennis tournament, starts tomorrow. And all this is playing out against the backdrop of a snap election called by a desperate Prime Minister facing a potentially historic defeat after 14 years of Tory Party rule.

"We do adapt, don't we?" noted a clerk policing the card-payment-only aisles of the Waitrose market on the Kensington High Street. "You never know who you will meet any particular day or why they are in London. It's quite a multicultural [stew]. Almost no one here is really from London anymore."

Indeed. Over the course of a few days, I got a shave in a Turkish barber shop from a guy who emigrated from Syria. A garrulous Bulgarian national drove us to the first Phillies-Mets game. The Nigerian-born driver who took us back to our hotel delighted in diverting to his favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant so I could indulge my passion for jollof rice. A courtly Sikh gentleman in a fiery red dastar manned the Royal Post Office counter where I exchanged some outdated 20-pound notes. A Romanian-born fellow at the hotel front desk arranged to extend our stay.

And a Pakistani-born driver, who was hauling us to a Lebanese restaurant, extolled London's endless capacity to adapt this way: "Everyone gets along," he said simply. "I have more Indian friends here than Pakistani friends."

It's almost time for the annual summer meltdown at Heathrow Airport, when British Airways pushes far too many flyers and far too much luggage through its sprawling hub. In fairness, though, Heathrow has been less irksome since the installation of E-gates, which allow Americans and many others to pass through customs and immigration in an automated, photographed flash. Except, of course, when the E-gates fail, as they did last month. … Meanwhile, for reasons that British authorities have yet to explain, they abruptly reinstated the 100ml (3-ounce) rule for carry-ons. This month's move reverses the U.K.'s years-long drive to stop inspecting liquids at airports nationwide. Britain continues to insist you pull electronics out of your carry-ons, too. … Gatwick Airport is again viable for U.S. travelers since both JetBlue Airways and Norse Atlantic fly into London's Number Two aerodrome. … If you're jumping off to Europe from London, here's some good news: British Airways has launched a Thames River boat transfer to close-in London City Airport in the Docklands.

Even with the dollar relatively strong against the British pound (about $1.25), hotel rates in London are staggeringly high just now. Example: a twin-bedded room this week at the Hampton near Waterloo Station is nearly $450 a night. … Things won't be getting better any time soon, either. The city's newest hotels--London's first Peninsula and its second Mandarin Oriental--are priced in the stratosphere. The stately Peninsula in Belgravia is selling king-bedded, 540-square-foot rooms for around $1,900 a night. Meanwhile, the Mandarin Oriental in Mayfair is offering 355-square-foot rooms for about $1,700 a night. … If you're headed to London and you have hotel points, use them. A 320-square-foot room at the London Hilton Bankside--a favorite of Hilton regulars--can be had for 70,000 Honors points a night. If you're a Hyatt player, try the Andaz London Liverpool Street. It's available for 29,000 World of Hyatt points a night. If you're a Marriott player, the Courtyard London City Airport may be your best bet although rooms are smallish (about 250 square feet). It's available for 39,000 Bonvoy points nightly. … We were traveling with friends and needed a two-bedroom place, so we booked the sleek, sophisticated Monarch House Serviced Apartments. Fully equipped one-bedroom apartments are about 675 square feet and rent for about $500 a night based on a three-night minimum. Advance-purchase, two-bedroom units (about 850 square feet) sell for about the same price.

London is awash in upscale Italian joints, places that describe themselves as "modern European" and dozens (maybe hundreds) of pubs that have converted into casual restaurants. But why do any of those? You could eat three Indian meals a day and never experience all the variety. Start at Dishoom, a chain of dining rooms that fancy themselves as the Irani cafes that once boomed in Bombay. Food is fabulous, the atmosphere is fun without being silly and you may not have experienced this particular strain of Indian cuisine before. … Arabica in bustling Borough Market at the Southwark foot of London Bridge does very nice Lebanese and modern Israeli cooking. Avoid weekends, when the market is especially crowded and chaotic. … Sichuan Po Po does authentic renditions of Sichuan street food. Don't miss #16, the cumin lamb "burger." It's addictive. … If you want to follow me down the metaphoric rabbit hole of jollof rice and other West African dishes, the place my Uber driver took us to was Banke's Kitchen. It's off the tourist track, of course.

Turns out I wasn't alone catching COVID in London this month. At least three other JoeSentMe members say they were infected in London in the last 30 days or so. And there's been an uptick in hospitalizations due to several new variants of the stubborn disease. If you're headed to Britain soon, make sure you have the most recent COVID vaccine.