Outstanding museums and art galleries, great bookstores and music shops, and brilliant eating – as long as you know where to find it – London has long been a place I’ve loved for a cultural and culinary escape, so here’s my Cool Travel Guide to London.
I know I’m back in London when I have blisters on my feet. It happens every time I return to the city. I hate the Tube, I don’t mind the buses, but I really just love to walk, and London is a very walkable city. One of my favourite walks is along the waterside promenade that skirts the Thames. I like to begin at Borough Market (ideally after lunch), then stroll along the river by the Millennium Bridge, the Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre, the London Eye – from where there great views of Westminster across the water – and, depending on where I’m staying, continue even farther. The views of the city skyline are stunning from the south side of the river. Once you’re done, head into the Tate Modern for some stunning art.
If you love eating and shopping, as well as seeing the city, then do Context’s London for Foodies tour, which takes you on a walking tour of central London, calling into gourmet shops and specialty food purveyors on the way. When my husband and I did the walk, our self-confessed foodie Phillipa Owen took us to delicious shops such as The Ginger Pig, La Fromagerie, Fish Works, Rococco Chocolates, Biggles Gourmet Sausages, the fragrant Algerian Coffee Stores, Italian deli Lina’s Stores, and Borough Market, where we finished the tour with cheese tasting at Neal’s Yard Dairy and espressos at Monmouth Coffee. Context also offer lots of other tours, on everything from art to history.
Whenever I travel I love to eat at restaurants that present the best renditions of or reinterpret their local or regional specialties. Fergus Henderson’s St John is the place for advocates of ‘nose to tail’ eating, that is, if you’re going to slaughter an animal, you should be eating as much of it as possible. Last time we were there we had chitterlings (intestines) and dandelion salad with capers, gherkins and caramelised shallots; roast bone marrow and parsley salad with sea salt; snail, sausage and chickpea stew; and ox heart and lentils. Appropriately located at Borough Market, Roast specialises in classical British cuisine based on seasonal produce. Think dishes like pea and ham soup with smoked ham hock; cold roast Welsh black beef fillet; spit roast Goosnargh chicken with lemon and thyme; and pot roast featherblade of beef with mashed potatoes and creamed horseradish. London’s oldest restaurant, Rules (pictured above), established in 1798, grow its game on their own farm, Lartington Estate, where they raise a rare and ancient breed of Belted Gallowy Beef purely on grass and hay. If they’re on the menu, try the brown Windsor soup with Welsh rarebit, and the roast loin of organic Berkshire Pork with sage and pine nut stuffing, buttered leaks and crackling. (See more of our London restaurant reviews here.)
I’m a big fan of cocktail bars and have been dying to get to sipping spots in London like the jazzy Nightjar, the speakeasy Evans Peel, and quirky Callooh Callay (from a Lewis Carroll rhyme), but every time my husband and I head to London we invariably end up heading to the local pubs. There’s something about British pubs that make me want to settle in with a pint and never leave – and the older the pub the better. I like The Mayflower (117 Rotherhithe Street), dating to the 18th century with wood panelling and old oak beams and brilliant Thames views from the upstairs room; The Victorian-era Princess Louise (208 High Holborn), near the British Museum (where you’ll often me when I’m in London), which has more wood panelling and beautiful old lamps; and the Dog Duck (18 Bateman Street), which has a rich literary history; and the cosy Queen’s Head (15 Denman Street) in Bloomsbury.
My husband and I will always rent apartments if we’re staying in a city for a week or longer, otherwise, we prefer boutique hotels. For booking London hotels I like to use www.londontown.com and I’ll always look for properties that are small, stylish or have some character, and are well located – and that doesn’t have to be slap-bang in the centre but could simply be on a good transport route. I love properties like the Zetter Townhouse, Blakes, and the Halkin Hotel, where you’ll find David Thompson’s Nahm restaurant.
Phoning: buy a SIM card upon arrival; they’re cheap and sold everywhere from pharmacies to local supermarkets, and are handy for making restaurant reservations and calling cabs. Getting around: buy an Oyster card and if you’re going to be in London for a week whack £20 on it – it can be used on the bus and tube and will save you loads of time queuing for tickets at train stations; pick up a Tube Map at the same time and figure out where the nearest station is to your accommodation – navigating the underground is overwhelming at first but becomes easier the more you do it, just try to avoid peak hour travel when it’s uncomfortably crowded.