You can't help but feel that the sun never set on the British Empire when you're in the heart of London. Stroll down a street in the smart neighborhood of Mayfair or shop in the gentlemanly section of St. James's, and you can almost believe that Queen Victoria still reigns, that the war in South Africa rages on and that gas-lighted theaters throughout the city stage Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas.
Such images of the past seem more real in many ways than today's "Cool Britannia" with its vapid celebrities, pointless music, ridiculous art and a painfully politically correct government.
For many Americans, no place on earth is like England, particularly London. For them, the metropolis remains the great city of Europe, and if it weren't for New York, London would be the greatest city on earth. Its grandeur, sophistication and style cannot be rivaled. Its history is too strong to be overshadowed by popular culture. Its soul reinforces the special relationship we have with the British. This is why millions of Americans visit Great Britain each year and nearly all go to London for at least part of their trip. It's why I spend more than a month each year there.
I lived in London for close to 12 years before moving to Italy about three years ago, and with each return visit, my appreciation for the city grows. I now realize that it's better to be a tourist in London than a resident. A visitor doesn't have to be distracted with the day-to-day struggles of a Londoner. A visitor can appreciate the best of the city without worrying about the bad weather, the poor public transportation system, the decrepit National Health Service, the sorry state of education, and just about any other malaise afflicting the country, including foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease. Instead, the most worrisome decision for a visitor is deciding which store, museum or restaurant to frequent or whether to go to the theater, opera or cinema. It's how the well-heeled in London used to be, when London, as one scholar described it, was "the heart of the empire."
Today's London, particularly the West End, offers everything a modern empire builder could hope for, from the best hotels and restaurants to fabulous shops and entertainment. It's hard to think of any other place on the globe with a higher concentration of world-class establishments with the sole purpose of offering the best possible quality, whether it's being pampered at Claridge's hotel, selecting a tasteful shirt or tie at Hilditch & Key, or buying a box of fine Cuban cigars from Davidoff. It's all so very civilized and wonderfully genteel.
If I had to choose my favorite part of London, it would be St. James's. For a man, there are few better places on earth. This small, elite section of London encompasses some of the best in art, architecture, cigars, cinema, fashion, fly-fishing, food, literature, restaurants, wine, and just about anything else a man of impeccable taste could yearn for. For the cigar aficionado, St. James's is home to three of the best cigar shops in the world -- Davidoff, Dunhill and James J. Fox & Robert Lewis. In addition, Christie's auction rooms are just around the corner, and twice a year they sell an amazing selection of rare, aged cigars.
One of the nicest ways to spend an afternoon is window-shopping down Jermyn Street in St. James's. Jermyn Street is a street of dreams and road of riches. If money is not a question, then the answer to your desires is here. I usually start at the end of the road at Davidoff. I buy a cigar and light up before making my way down the street. With the first step out from the glass doors of Davidoff, the city engulfs you with its many sounds, smells and sights. Your ears fill with the sounds of rattling diesel engines, squeaking brakes of impatient delivery vans, and shattering roars of crazed couriers' motorcycles. The moist air is a strange cocktail of burning diesel from double-decker buses combined with the roasted coffee from nearby cafés and the wet stonework of century-old buildings. Before your eyes are buildings of every shape and style -- Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and modern -- a potpourri of architectural delight.
Walk down the street to Tricker's, a shoe cobbler with slippers fit for a prince. A few doors down are Turnbull & Asser and Hilditch & Key, both shirtmakers with the finest taste and design. Dunhill with its lockers full of aged cigars is a short distance away across the street, while next door is the Fortnam & Mason department store with a food hall beckoning you to buy a tasty treat. An antiques shop, an art gallery and another men's store beckon as well.
A few months ago, I ran into an English friend on Jermyn Street and we began to speak about life in London. We talked of the bad weather, the traffic and the pollution. The cost of living, he said, continues to be ridiculously high. And to make things worse, he added, his business was suffering due to the downturn in the economy. Yet, with all the negatives, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and said, "Nonetheless, you can still find the best of everything in London."