If there’s one place that epitomises everything I love about my city it’s the banks of the Thames, where historic architecture and modern day design sit cheek by jowl.
Start at the Houses of Parliament, salute Big Ben, cross Westminster Bridge and aim for the London Eye, our supersized Ferris wheel. Amble east along the Thames path and you find yourself caught between the South Bank’s 1960s Brutalism — as seen in the bold concrete of the National Theatre — and one the world’s most impressive riverscapes.
Savour food stalls and street performers under the OXO Tower; pause at Gabriel’s Wharf to look to the other side of the river to Temple Church, the 12th-century seat of the Knights Templar.
For twinkling evening river views head up to the Rumpus Room at the Mondrian hotel in Sea Containers House and toast a beautifully lit St Paul’s Cathedral. By day, climb to the top floors of the Tate Modern, Sir Gilbert Scott’s monolithic brick power station refashioned as a contemporary art gallery. A row of original Tudor bankside houses and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre make for a fitting ‘best of British’ finale.
And if all that’s not enough, here are nine more reasons to love London:
1. It’s a megalopolis made up lots of villages
This 30-mile-wide city is actually a patchwork of multicultural neighbourhoods. Just over a decade ago, the guide books didn’t steer you further than the Barbican Centre; today, exploring East London’s enclaves is a must.
I love Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, a charming lane where you’ll find some of the most forward-thinking homeware brands, such as Labour and Wait, and fashion labels including Huntergather and Hostem (moving to 28 Old Nichol St, E2 in February).
2. Eat your way around the world in a day
In a city that once had a bad reputation for food, you can’t move for exotic street-market flavours and inventive haute cuisine, as well as the basics served with effortless cool. My dream day of dining would start with tea and toast at Rochelle Canteen, off Arnold Circus in Shoreditch; then I’d get a health kick — an avocado and spirulina Ninja Turtle smoothie sprinkled with chia seeds — from the Good Life Eatery in Chelsea or Marylebone.
I’d lunch on pho soup at one of the Vietnamese cafés on Kingsland Road, scoff posh cakes in Sketch’s eccentric tea room in Conduit St, pick at chichetti in Polpo, then eat the vegetarian deliciousness at Mildreds in Soho, leaving lots of room for dessert at the chef’s table at Parlour in Kensal Green (where you don headphones to listen to a dramatic soundtrack).
Finally, my late-night snack would be just-baked bagels from Brick Lane’s 24-hour Beigel Bake.
3. Fashion frontrunners abound
From Beau Brummell’s dandy Regency days to today’s avant-garde Saint Martins graduates, London has always been a world-leading creator and purveyor of fashion. Even if you’re not in the market for expensive threads, Dover Street Market, at its new Haymarket location, is a spectacle worth seeing for its in-your-face art installations alone. And the on-trend cheap chic of Topshop’s flagship store at Oxford Circus is still hard to beat.
4. Tat and treasures await
An easy-to-navigate traditional street market of secondhand bargains and crafts, Chatsworth Market in Clapton is a refreshingly un-trendy, twee or touristy option. Portobello Road on a Friday looks just as it did in the 1999 film Notting Hill
, and a good rummage will reward you with ace vintage clothes and jewellery. Then sidestep the Union Jack tat and head to Golborne Road to browse Kokon to Zai and Les Couilles des Chiens for an eccentric mix of furniture and curios.
Food lovers are advised to brave Borough Market super early, or better yet, head to Bermondsey’s Maltby Street to find artisanal suppliers.
5. Free galleries and cultural hubs aplenty
I love the Serpentine Gallery — it’s so nice to amble through the royal park of Kensington Gardens with the promise of a show by a contemporary heavyweight at the end of your walk. The Pavilion is also worth a peek in summer to assess that year’s temporary construction.
Meanwhile, independent publisher of photography and contemporary art, Trolley Books and TJ Boulting, at 59 Riding House Street, are located in a remarkable Georgian building, in which cutting-edge exhibitions are hosted downstairs.
6. Quirky ‘secret’ museums
Dennis Severs’ House at 18 Folgate Street is a time machine. This atmospheric living museum in a Huguenot silk weavers’ house is a candlelit still life that transports you back to the 17th and 18th centuries over three floors — and it’s only a skip from Liverpool Street station.
7. Hidden gardens to discover
Postman’s Park near St Paul’s Cathedral and the Barbican is a churchyard where painter George Frederic Watts started his Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in 1887. Tiled plaques tell the stories of ordinary people who lost their lives while saving others, and they make a heart-stirring read. If you’ve seen Patrick Marber’s Closer
, it’s also the setting for the start of the play and the film.
8. Superlative coffee and cocktails
For a caffeine kick, Monmouth Street’s mothership in Covent Garden is a winner for its bonanza of roasted beans, while the Noble Espresso baristas in King’s Cross are happy to educate you on how to make the best brew. For its old-fashioned importer interiors, H R Higgins (Coffee-man) in Mayfair is a beautiful speciality shop.
If you’re looking for imaginative boozy mixology, try 69 Colebrooke Row in Clerkenwell and Experimental Cocktail Club in Chinatown, or its newer outpost on Curtain Road in Shoreditch.
9. Feed your mind
Listen and learn from edifying and entertaining authors reading from their books or sharing their thoughts. Sign up for talks hosted by School of Life, 5×15, Books for Breakfast or Damian Barr’s Literary Salon,
which are often held in interesting venues.
The March issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) is on sale now.