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Guide to the Best of Britain
Written by Jason Oliver Nixon with Lucy Fitzgerald
Produced by Jenny Bradley
London has served as a melting pot of arts, literature, food, and fashion for centuries, but the city underwent a serious makeover in recent years. In preparation for the 2012 Summer Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, it was transformed into a spiffy international hotspot with cutting-edge public transportation, loads of contemporary hotels, haute design boutiques, and a kaleidoscope of new restaurants that wow with their modern cuisine. The historical city still thrives, though: Tucked-away byways, quaint pubs, and sumptuous gardens harmonize with the city’s more contemporary attractions, blending old London with new. Today, London is brimming with sights and activities that will excite and awe, earning its long-standing title of the world’s most fashionable locale.
London is a city of villages that have been cobbled together and absorbed into the metropolis over time, so each neighborhood has an individual character. And, unlike New York, say, where a visitor probably wouldn’t travel from Manhattan to Queens and onward to Brooklyn, London is all about zipping between neighborhoods and the quantum leaps of style and sensibility that accompany a trip from Notting Hill to Soho and on to Knightsbridge.
The Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace is an extravagant display no visitor should miss. Once per day during the summer months, the Queen’s Guard (a company of soldiers who protect Buckingham Palace as well as other royal residences) exchanges duty with the first-shift Guard while marching to brilliant fanfare. The ceremony is typically performed in the late morning, so be sure to arrive early to get the best vantage point. You can even download an app to locate and learn more about Changing the Guard, complete with a checklist to identify the five regiments of footguards. For more information, visit www.royal.gov.uk.
National Garden Scheme
The city is home to stunning green spaces, with Hyde Park, Green Park, and St. James’s Park topping the list. But don’t overlook The Regent’s Park with its Queen Mary’s Gardens and Open Air Theatre, where classic plays are performed during the summer months. Tucked-away Holland Park pleases with its romantic Holland House ruins, peacocks, and British Saddleback pigs busily rooting away to restore an overgrown meadow. And flower fans will want to visit Sunday morning’s Columbia Road Market in the East End to browse the endless array of greenery for sale and enjoy the charming shops and cafes that line the surrounding alleys and courtyards.
For assistance finding the perfect garden to visit, check out Britain’s National Garden Scheme. Every year, NGS publishes the “Yellow Book,” with over 3,700 gardens listed nationwide. Most are privately owned and only open a few times per year, but nearly all of the proceeds benefit charities. With a tradition of opening gardens of “quality, character, and interest,” the NGS is the perfect tool to plan your British garden tour.
So named in 1819 because of its circular shape, Piccadilly Circus is a road junction in London’s West End. The area also serves as a bustling public space, with major shopping destinations and tourists sights such as the Shaftesbury Memorial fountain and the underground Criterion Theatre. The area is such an excellent place for people-watching; a common phrase in the UK for a place or situation extremely busy with people is referred to as a “Piccadilly Circus.”
London hotels are bespoke gems, ranging from the grand and historic to contemporary classics loaded with Brit-wit brilliance. For a taste of all things royal, The Goring will tempt with its proximity to Buckingham Palace. Plus, this is where Kate Middleton and her family stayed before the royal wedding. (They booked the top-floor Royal Apartment.)
Pictured above is the Haymarket Hotel’s swimming pool and lounge. The swimming pool spans sixty feet with dramatic lighting overhead. The long pewter bar is the perfect place to sip a cocktail poolside and rest your weary traveler’s feet.
The Corinthia Hotel
The Corinthia is a fine example of the fashionable hostelry that’s hit town, and it’s worth a visit even if you aren’t savoring the gorgeous guest rooms. Steps from the Prime Minister’s pad at 10 Downing Street, the Corinthia is an exemplary modern luxury hotel, with vast public rooms and lobbies which take full advantage of the natural light as well as the cityscape outside.
The Corinthia Hotel Lobby
Wander through the sprawling public spaces—including the arresting Northall restaurant—and stop for an English Tea Punch cocktail in the chic and intimate Bassoon Bar lounge.
Claridge’s and The Connaught in Mayfair shine brighter than ever, thanks to their clever tweaks on tradition. Claridge’s is considered the Art Deco jewel of London, with much of its interior refurbished in the 1920s by renowned designers. Be sure to visit Claridge’s Bar for its decadent cocktails and tangible glamour.
The Langham is another grande dame that has been remarkably refurbished. Pop into the hotel’s David Collins-crafted Artesian bar for a crash course in chinoiserie chic or a treatment at the Chuan Spa.
Another design-minded Firmdale hotel is the relaxed, courtyard-facing Number Sixteen in South Kensington. Equipped with forty-one guest rooms and a sunny conservatory, this hotel is perfect for the traveler looking to find luxury and comfort in a bustling city.
Number Sixteen Afternoon Tea
The hotel’s luxurious, sun-drenched garden is the ideal place for that classic English tradition of afternoon tea. The menu includes a sophisticated selection of teas from around the world, as well as bubbly champagne, finger sandwiches, and decadent sweets.
Numerous historic homes are open to visitors within the confines of London—from Spencer House, situated cheek-by-jowl with Green Park, to Apsley House and Syon Park. An especial standout is the recently restored Leighton House in Holland Park. Crafted by Victorian painter Frederick Leighton, the brick home-cum-studio boasts a period exterior, but step inside and enter a far-flung fantasy that mixes Oriental influences with glorious tilework, peacock hues, and burbling fountains. The home’s Arab Hall, housing more than 1,000 Islamic tiles culled from Damascus, is especially breathtaking.
Windsor Castle, rich with history, is the former residence of British monarchs since being built by Henry I in the eleventh century. It stands as the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. The Queen still uses the estate as a weekend home, but tourists can visit the State Apartments, St. George’s Chapel, and the curious Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, an aristocratic palace in miniature. For details on admission, visit royalcollection.org.uk.
The EDF Energy London Eye opened in March 2000, symbolizing a new, modern Britain. Overlooking central London (and even as far as Windsor Castle on a clear day), the Eye is the perfect way to sightsee from your seat. Each of the 32 capsules rotates once every thirty minutes, making this attraction both relaxing and awe-inspiring.
After this tour from the sky, visit one of London’s more than 240 museums—many of which are free. Top of the list are the National Gallery, the lavishly overhauled Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, the Wallace Collection, the Tate Britain and Tate Modern, and the National Portrait Gallery. But don’t forget such gems as the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, the Wellcome Collection, and the Garden Museum.
For a true London experience, a visit to Borough Market is in order. Get lost among the produce stalls, the bakers and butchers, and sample some of the vendors’ fares for a real taste of “London’s Oldest Fruit and Veg Market.”
While England may be better known for its fish and chips than its grilled cheese sandwiches, Bill Ogglethorpe, owner of Kappacasein Dairy, might be the man to change all that. Hawking his toasted cheese sandwiches from a stall at London’s Borough Market for the past 12 years, Ogglethorpe’s mouthwatering grilled concoctions have become a bit of a cult favorite with locals and tourists alike. The Montgomery cheddar, the leeks, the minced onions and garlic (and probably a secret ingredient or two) melted to perfection and served on sourdough—it just might be the world’s best toasted cheese sandwich.
Food & Shopping
Foodies will lap up the splendor of Fortnum & Mason: Oh, the jams, the picnic hampers, the cheeses, and the Fountain Restaurant! And don’t miss Selfridges, with its ever-changing pop-up shops and super-cool vibe, all housed within a building designed by American architect Daniel Burnham.
Still think of London as offering the drab fare for which it was once infamous? Shed your preconceived notions. As chef Heston Blumenthal of Dinner and The Fat Duck puts it: “London is the best place in the world to eat right now.” Blumenthal’s new restaurant, Dinner, is inspired by traditional British gastronomy, and was recently recognized as one of the top ten World’s Best Restaurants by the 2012 San Pellegrino Awards.
For another exquisite dining option, the Wolseley has become the go-to cafe for the smart set and is perfect for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or cocktails. But reserve well in advance. For something buzzier, sample the latest from the Wolseley team at The Delaunay, which serves an all-day menu in a clubby setting just off The Strand. The old standbys are as classically cool as ever—from Rules Restaurant and The Ivy to J. Sheekey—but don’t overlook newcomers like Dinner, Arbutus, The Ledbury, St. John Bar and Restaurant, and Hawksmoor Seven Dials. If you seek the pub experience, settle in at the 17th-century George Inn on the south bank, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese near St. Paul’s Cathedral, or The Scarsdale in Kensington.
A must-visit stretch of shopping is Pimlico Road, where you can savor fine food and furnishings: Daylesford Organic (for the ideal all-day café), Linley (wood-crafted furnishings from David Linley), and Nicholas Haslam (a treasure trove in Holbein Place, courtesy of the über-designer). While you’re in the area, don’t miss Westbourne Grove, another great shopping street, for sensational flowers from Wild at Heart, stationery, and leather goods from Smythson of Bond Street, and lunch at Tom’s Deli.
Liberty of London
London boasts a fabulous array of department stores, too, that truly surprise, delight, and astonish. Harrods is as glitzy and glam as ever (take a peek at the eye-popping food hall, and purchase rainbow-hued macaroons at Ladurée), but we suggest you kick off your department store tour at Liberty of London. Housed within a mock-Tudor building just off refurbished Regent Street, Liberty is pure eye candy: There’s everything for the home—including bolts of Liberty’s signature floral fabrics as well as boutiques selling the likes of Josef Frank pillows and Arts & Crafts-era furniture—plus avant-garde fashion, accessories, and beauty products.
Osborne & Little
Fabric aficionados should hightail it to Peter Jones on Sloane Square for its broad selection of textiles available only to the trade in America (think Zoffany and Romo). Plus, they have a gorgeous selection of graphic wallpapers from such U.K. designers as Lizzie Allen and Georgia Horton.
Osborne & Little’s UK showroom on King’s Road is another must-see for fans of unique fabrics, wall coverings, and upholstery.
The Conran Shop
The city also boasts tucked-away byways that overflow with one-off boutiques and charming cafes. Top of the list is Marylebone High Street, a gem that sits but steps from Oxford Street and its hordes of high-street shoppers. Browse the wares at the Button Queen and The Conran Shop in the iconic Michelin House building before lunching on informal Spanish-fusion fare at The Providores.
Also on shopper-friendly Marylebone High Street is Designers Guild, a fabric and wallpaper company founded by interior designer Tricia Guild. Here you will find hundreds of custom fabrics, upholstery, and furniture collections by designers worldwide. And don’t miss Elizabeth Street for the likes of Mungo & Maud bespoke dog and cat accessories and Philip Treacy’s whimsical, spun-sugar millinery.
Outside of London
So while central London is home to many of the top visitor sights—The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace—be certain to look farther afield. Purchase a multiday pass for the easy-to-navigate Underground, and set out to explore. Notting Hill has charming, leafy streets punctuated with shops and cafes and hosts Saturday’s Portobello Road antiques market, while Bankside houses the Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre, the bustling Borough Market, and the Design Museum. East London has undergone a renaissance in the past decade, too, and Spitalfields now showcases its glistening eponymous market, bursting with colorful shops and restaurants.
To make your British experience truly valuable, visit the countless destinations beyond the city of London. Here are a few to get you started:
1. Durham Cathedral: A stunning example of Romanesque architecture, this Norman structure is a World Heritage site.
2. Snowdon: The highest point in England and Wales at 3,560 feet, Snowdon is located in Snowdonia National Park.
3. Stonehenge: Another World Heritage site, this megalith monument (and mecca for tourists) is one of the world’s most famous.
4. Windsor Castle: The largest occupied castle in the world, Windsor Castle is an official residence of The Queen.
5. Hampton Court: Said to be Henry VIII’s favorite residence, this palace is a don’t-miss for history buffs and design enthusiasts.
6. Chiswick House: A neo-Palladian villa constructed by the Earl of Burlington in 1729. http://chgt.org.uk/
7. Portobello Road: Set aside an entire Saturday morning to browse the stalls and shops of Notting Hill’s Portobello Road antiques markets.
8. Marylebone High Street: Browse the wares at the Button Queen, The Conran Shop, and Designers Guild before lunching on Spanish-fusion fare at The Providores.
9 The Conran Shop: This revered design shop’s Chelsea venue is located in the iconic Michelin House building.
10. Covent Garden markets: Shop, eat, and enjoy street performers in this historic market.
11. Borough Market: London’s most renowned food market.
12 Tate Modern: This former power station on the Thames now houses premier modern art. A Damien Hirst exhibition runs through September 9.
13. Olympic Park: Home of the 2012 Olympic Games.
14 The Shard: Designed by architect Renzo Piano, The Shard will be the tallest building in Western Europe when complete.
15. Dover: This major ferry port is famous for its white chalk cliffs.
16. Brighton: A seaside resort in East Sussex, Brighton is home to the Royal Pavilion—designed by John Nash and built 1815–22 for the Prince Regent.