Past, present and future – the city that has it all
Having it all is most definitely a good thing but it can also be a somewhat overwhelming – where to start? London has so much to offer, for all tastes, budgets and cultural persuasions. There is proper (grisly) history, statement buildings old and new, and world-class museums housed in jaw-dropping architecture. There are wonderful parks dotted, peacefully, throughout the city, markets galore, a thriving culinary scene spanning street food, fine dining and global cuisine that rivals any city in the world. It’s also a centre for fashion, art and music.
And running through it all is the river Thames – still the life blood of the city, flanked with culture at every turn. London is also very much a collection of distinct neighbourhoods, each with their own flavour and characteristics so we’d advise you to play pick and mix with all it has to offer. Then come back.
Hot right now . . .
Alison Taylor, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and shop this season.
Since art college Central Saint Martins took up residence in fountain-filled Granary Square in 2011, the area of King's Cross has been on the up. Coal Drops Yard (Stable Street, N1C 4AB; 020 3479 1795), is the latest development that brings together architecture, design, shopping, eating and drinking. Originally established in 1850 to handle the eight million tonnes of coal delivered to the capital each year, architects Heatherwick Studio have interwoven a contemporary design with the surviving structures.
Expect concept stores from the likes of Tom Dixon, Paul Smith and Cos, alongside independent British clothing brands. Finish up at the new outpost of the always-has-queues tapas restaurant Barrafina, or the exquisite Coal Office, serving up Israeli-meets-Mediterranean sharing plates in a world designed by Tom Dixon.
If Idris Elba opened a bar what would it be like? Wonder no longer because The Parrot, at The Waldorf Hilton (45 Aldwych; 020 7836 2400), is here: a tropical-themed cocktail bar (think palm trees and wicker chairs) and live music venue with DJ slots from the man himself.
48 hours in . . . London
Let’s start at the very beginning. The Tower of London (St Katharine's & Wapping; 020 3166 6000) takes you back to the London of William the Conqueror – it was around 1078 when he began work on a great stone palace with walls 15 feet thick. You can learn about the history, in a very entertaining way, from the Yeoman Warders (more commonly known as Beefeaters) who run tours, as well as still living within the walls of the castle. Yes, you will hear about torture, death and punishment but you can also view the British Crown Jewels and eat ice cream.
Once inside the fortress walls, it’s not what you would necessarily expect – a gentile mini-village in the heart of the City that’s perfect for a wander – with its own pub, village green, church and doctor. We recommend getting to the Tower for opening time and staying for a few hours, taking you to lunch. Note that if you get there ahead of the 9am opening time you may be ushered in early.
Exit the tower via the middle moat (or Traitor’s Gate, as it was affectionately known) and walk a short distance, riverside, to take in the stunning view of Tower Bridge (Tower Bridge Road; 020 7403 3761), before heading up the steps to walk over it.
Now for lunch. You have two options. The first is to keep walking down Tower Bridge Road (for approximately 15 minutes) to get pie and mash – and jellied eels if you’re feeling brave – from M. Manze (87 Tower Bridge Road; 020 7407 2985), the oldest (and resplendently tiled) pie and mash shop in London – serving since 1902.
Alternatively, you can grab food on the go at either (or both)Maltby Street and Borough Markets (8 Southwark Street; 020 7407 1002). Maltby is Borough’s grungier little sister and all about the latest street food in ramshackle pop-up spaces – go for toasties at The Cheese Truck, doughnuts from St John and gin from Little Bird. Borough is an institution and an absolute must-visit (even if you're just walking through) as it’s a real hub for diverse London. Note that Borough Market is open every day except Sunday; Maltby Street is open on Saturdays and Sundays.
For dinner, you have options aplenty in and around Borough such as Elliot’s Café (12 Stoney Street; 020 7403 7436), a modern local institution with locally sourced fish and meat dishes, or Roast (The Floral Hall, Stoney Street; 020 3006 6111), for spectacular roasts up in the roof of the market.
You are now in the same post code as Tate Modern gallery (Bankside; 020 7887 8888). Sitting on the river face to face with St Paul’s, the former power station has somehow, magically, held onto the special buzz that accompanied its arrival in 2000. Take advantage of the late opening hours (until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays) and getting a culture fix with the advantage of it not being as busy. Plus, you get the twinkly riverside walk at night taking in The Globe Theatre, too (21 New Globe Walk; 020 7902 1400).
If you’re still going, head for a botanical cocktail at fancy bar Dandelyan at the Sea Containers hotel (20 Upper Ground; 020 3747 1063), bang on the river. Last year it scooped the number one spot on the World's Best Bar list.
Start your day in leafy South Kensington for a whistle-stop tour of the major museums. You can access the big three – Natural History Museum (020 7942 5511), Science Museum (0333 241 4000) and V&A (020 7942 2489) – all via entrances on Exhibition Road. So, depending on your cultural persuasion, you could visit one, two or all three (three is pushing it but never say never). Plus it’s handy if you are in a group to make this your base for the morning and splinter off.
The V&A and Natural History Museum are both housed in breathtakingly beautiful buildings, which is a big part of the joy of visiting, and they really deliver with their permanent exhibits. Both museums offer tranquillity, too, with the Natural History Museum’s wildlife garden free to wander, and the Bonsai-lined Sackler Courtyard in the middle of the V&A the perfect spot for a pit-stop. Don’t miss the excellent shop at the V&A, especially if you’re hunting for quirky gifts.
Jump on the tube a few stops to Green Park to treat yourself to a long, wine-filled lunch at Hide (85 Piccadilly; 020 3146 8666), one of London’s most talked about restaurant openings of the last year. In the second-floor 'Above' restaurant, which overlooks Green Park, you can enjoy a beautifully prepared set lunch (reasonably priced for the calibre of food) - you might have cured meats served speared on feathers or chutney made at your table for the cheese course. If you’re feeling flush, opt for the tasting menu, with matching wine flights.
From here you are perfectly placed to have a stroll through Green Park and a mini Royal ‘gawping’ tour to have a peak at Buckingham Palace (020 7839 1377) and then along The Mall to head into St James’s via Charles and Camilla’s residence (St James’s Palace). This area is very much ‘old London’ and with its own distinct character.
Take in the gentleman’s shops along Jermyn Street and the upscale boutiques of the ornate Piccadilly and Burlington Arcades (51 Piccadilly; 020 7493 1764) – nip into French luxury confectioner Ladurée (71-72 Burlington Arcade; 020 7491 9155) for a macaroon, and don’t miss a visit to Royal Grocers Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly; 020 7734 8040), back on Piccadilly, for a look around the food hall (again, brilliant for gifts).
In keeping with the old-London vibes of the afternoon, book ahead to have a martini at Dukes Hotel, hidden away between Green Park and St James’s Street. Dukes is one of those vintage London hotels that reeks of history and high-class debauchery. Also, frequented back in the day by James Bond author Ian Fleming, the bar is said to be the inspiration for the classic line, 'shaken, not stirred'.
Continue the evening in Soho. It might not be quite the place of disrepute it once was but there’s still a whiff of hedonism in the air whatever day of the week you go. There are many drinking establishments to enjoy but we suggest starting in The French House (49 Dean Street; 020 7437 2477), a former Francis Bacon hangout where it bustles with smokers outside and is always crammed with characters inside, before heading for a negroni at Italian institution Bar Termini(7 Old Compton Street; 07860 945018) that is popular with local workers. Finally, finish your night at Milroy’s (3 Greek Street; 020 7734 2277) – it’s a whisky shop but behind the bookcase at the back you’ll find a secret cocktail bar. Very Soho.
Where to stay . . .
On a quiet road in Mayfair perpendicular to Selfridges on Oxford Street: The Beaumont is in a dream location for devoted shoppers and gallery lovers. This five-star hotel combines Art Deco-style interiors with Twenties panache, complemented by an immaculate service and a luxurious spa.
Doubles from £425. 8 Balderton Street; 020 7499 1001
It's all about fun at the Ham Yard, from Kit Kemp's signature cosy-cool interiors to the neon light-lined bowling alley and bar. As with the other seven Firmdale hotels, several colour schemes run across all grades of room, interpreted in cushions, curtains, walls and headboards.
Doubles from £310. One Ham Yard, Soho; 020 3642 2000
Myhotel Bloomsbury is well-priced urban conversion on the corner of a fine terrace, ideally placed for brainy London and fashionable Fitzrovia. An East-West theme is interpreted in cool style with clean lines and lots of black/brown and white, with touches of leather, suede and silk.
Doubles from 129. 11-13 Bayley Street; 0333 240 9094
What to bring home . . .
Anything from Fortnum & Mason’s (181 Piccadilly; 020 7734 8040) food hall – though posh jams and tea are pretty foolproof.
ATate Modern (Bankside; 020 7887 8888) mug, calendar or set of postcards – tasteful, arty and pleasing to even fussy recipients.
When to go . . .
London is always open, as the Mayor would say, but spring and summer are particularly appealing because you can make the most of the city’s many green spaces and partake in a festival or two. Days are long and Londoners really do cheer up at the first sight of sunshine and once there’s the opportunity to start drinking outside. There is no summer exodus like in Paris or Rome.
Spring and autumn are cooler, but can be crisp and sunny and great for wandering around. Winter is cold and often wet, with short days. You can always find a cosy pub with a fire, though. Central London is very festive at Christmas, with lots of lights, trees and opportunities for ice-skating.
September and February are London Fashion Week months, which means which means the city is buzzy – but so are the hotels. The Frieze Art Fair has turned October into an unofficial art month. The quietest time is post-Christmas to late March and the busiest is July/August, when school groups arrive.
Know before you go . . .
• London is huge so you will need and want to use public transport and/or taxis. You have a lot of options – the underground being the most obvious and probably most useful because you won’t get stuck in traffic like you can (and will) with the bus network and in a taxi. Head to tfl.gov.uk for all the information you could need, and to plan journeys, within the public transport network. You will need to purchase an oyster card (£5 deposit for the card itself) and top up at machines in stations or online. You can also use most debit or credit cards to tap at tube barriers and on the bus network.
• A good tip for getting around, and making the most of opportunities to walk and actually see something rather than be zooming under the city, is the Citymapper app. You can plug in where you want to go and it will give you all the options, from buses, to tubes, to walking and even how much it would cost you in an Uber.
• Black cabs are handy for short journeys because the drivers really know their way around the city (thanks to ‘The Knowledge’ they have to study for three years). You’re also likely to get some lively chat, plus it’s a black cab so pretty iconic as far as the London experience goes.
• The tube now runs throughout the night on Fridays and Saturdays (most main lines) and there is also an extensive night bus service (not for the fainthearted). Again, tfl.gov.uk has all the info.
• London bus tours (go to visitlondon.com for info on service providers) provide a unique opportunity to appreciate the full architectural splendour of London's streets and monuments. Tour guides offer historical background and interesting facts, with commentaries available in several languages. Some regular bus routes are good for sightseeing too – try routes 9, 14, 15 and 22.
• If you’re planning to visit lots of museums and galleries, good news – most of them are free for the permanent exhibitions. For big attractions like the Tower of London, London Eye and Sealife Centre etc it’s worth investing in a London Pass, which has good deals if you know you plan to do several of these kinds of activities.
• When it comes to eating out, you won’t be short of options. But be sure to check whether you need to book ahead because some of the ‘it’ restaurants get really busy. There are also a lot of trendy no reservation places, which attract lengthy queues. Do a bit of research to find out best times to visit.
• Tipping is appreciated but not always necessary in London. It is customary to leave a 10-15 per cent of the bill as a tip when eating out, though some restaurants add on a service charge instead. Most hotel bills also include a service charge, if it is not added it is customary to tip 10-15 per cent of the bill. People often tip porters but not every single person who helps you as per the US model. It is polite to tip 10-15 per cent of the taxi fare to black cabs and licensed minicabs.
Visitlondon.com is an excellent resource for info on all of the above and more.
Currency: Pound sterling
Telephone code: 00 44
Alison Taylor moved from Yorkshire to London 18 years ago and never looked back. She will mainly be found eating and drinking in East London, or grabbing dumplings in Chinatown and a taking wander through the reassuring madness of Soho.
Experience London with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels and tours in London, tried, tested and recommended by our London experts.