I took off from California to see the Rolling Stones' first 50th anniversary concert, the only one with a confirmed appearance by the band's original bassist, Bill Wyman, and along the way I discovered London at one of its most dazzling times of the year.
The Rolling Stones' kick off show at the mighty O2, a 20,000 seat indoor arena located at the edge of the city, happened to coincide with the start of the holiday season. I assumed that the land of figgy pudding and the Ghost of Christmas Past would be festive from November through the first week of January.
But I thought my days around the Stones' concert would involve an excursion to the edgy East End and a couple days at the British Music Experience, the interactive museum within the O2 complex that tracks the roots and cultural history of the major British rock 'n' roll movements.
Instead, the frothy excitement of London's holiday spirit all but hijacked my attention and lured me into different neighborhoods and activities. Many of the festivities continue through January 5, which is the twelfth day of Christmas. (Typically, the twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25 or December 26, which is Boxing Day.) Given that Christmas and New Year's land on a Tuesday this year, a four or five day trip to London is actually doable this holiday season. And it is worth the trip.
Urban Dazzlers: London has stationed extraordinary light and ornamental displays around town. These giant installations arch over streets, hang over major thoroughfares and border buildings, railings, walls, windows and just about anything nailed down, it seems. Each of the Twelve Days of Christmas, as described in the traditional folk tune, is illustrated on huge golden plaques bordered by massive illuminated sprigs of holly and suspended over Regent Street. Covent Garden is nearly a blur of illuminated color, especially around the central square. Pedestrians walk amid and through blue arches of light over South Molton. Marylebone, Oxford, Bond and other areas also are aglow with holiday bulbs.
My favorite installation, keeping with the major theme of the trip, is on Carnaby Street. The Rolling Stones set up a pop up shop there and overhead are huge disks with photos of Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ron and the band's trademark red lips and tongue logo. The street displays continue through Jan. 5 and they cost the price of a Tube ticket, if that. (Ok, I took a taxi back to the hotel.)
Some hotels, like the uniquely elegant Milestone, across from Kensington Palace, and the Stafford Hotel are ablaze with light. Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland, with its ice rink, 500 ice sculptures and 100,000 bulbs a blazing, offers a full immersion holiday experience, although some of the activities cost and some are free. And, of course, shops and department stores, most famously Harrods and Harvey Nichols, have fashioned their own sort of spectacle. The latter even throws a couple of New Year Eve parties on its second and fourth floors this year.
Holiday Theater: London is one of the foremost theatre destinations in the world. But of the plays and musicals currently occupying stages in the West End, "Constellations," which runs through Jan. 5 at Royal Court Theatre, has an inadvertent end of year spin. The two person play by Nick Payne lacks any hint of holiday trappings. No December/January setting. No heart-warming message. This is a play about string theory and parallel universes of different possible outcomes to human actions. This theme is carried out through an especially clever dramatic device that tells the story of a relationship. Seeing it at this time of year, "Constellations" encourages a reconsideration of what New Year's resolutions can really mean and how our choices -- made and not made -- shape our lives.
The Three Days of London's New Year: First there's New Year's Eve, with the free fireworks display on the South Bank of the River Thames, the hotels' and restaurants' special dinners and a myriad of club parties. Then, on New Year's Day, London hosts a parade with 10,000 performers from multiple countries. Then, comes the inevitable Detox Day.
One of the places to shed the excess is the ESPA at the relatively new Corinthia Hotel, which manages to be classic and chic at the same time. (Some of the Rolling Stones' entourage stayed here during the London shows.) The hotel boasts a magnificent location near Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and the River Thames. But its spa, occupying four floors, is hidden in the lower recesses of the building. It serves as a hermetic womb of healing waters and pools, body and facial treatments and a fitness room with personalized instruction and advice. This is a post-holiday haven and one of London's best places to recover from 2012 and reload for the New Year.
Letting a concert's location determine a travel itinerary is not typical-- unless you follow jam bands, of course. But participating in London's holiday revelry was an unexpected benefit to attending the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary show.
Let's see if the band takes the show on the road in 2013 and where those may lead.
For more information about travel to London, see Visit Britain.com.