Depending on your postcode perspective, London can appear to be the new melting pot for millionaires. In places where property prices read like international telephone numbers — Belgravia, Kensington and Mayfair among them — residents treat the capital merely as another one of their global addresses, a place to bed down and do business alongside the likes of Moscow, New York and Mumbai.
Some grumble this second-home culture creates a ghost town akin to the quainter Cornish villages in wintertime but it all depends on where you stand. The boundaries of upper class London are fast spreading out from the traditional western enclaves to mark all areas of the city’s map.
Today, the hottest of London’s private member’s clubs, for example, cater to the digital denizens of Tech City, an area that stretches from Old Street’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ east through Shoreditch, to Stratford. Occupants of these eastern ‘hoods’ retain a certain traditional urban grunge aesthetic but this, as investors know, is the new-look for digitally powered, moneyed London. A stroll through Shoreditch will reveal an established social elite lurking in indie coffee houses and propping up the bookshelves in determinedly quirky galleries where young fashionistas mingle with suited City boys.
The Olympics, of course, did much to propel this easterly momentum and spanking new five-star hotels now line the water around the Docklands. And in summer, the rooftops of these Thames-facing tourist addresses are the best place to kick back and take in the capital’s ever-skywards creeping view. The Boundary, one of East London’s pioneering rooftop restaurants, has very sensibly added a pergola to its terrace for summer 2013. Another towering Shoreditch terrace is found at the Golden Bee, which comes with lounge seats and a fire-pit for those summer nights, while Hackney’s growing rooftop scene includes the urban eco-oasis that is the Dalston Roof Park.
But if you like your London views to be a little less hipster, put away those fatigued 1980s legwarmers, pop your Prada on and head west. The twin terraces surrounding Argyll Street’s Aqua restaurants have VIP views across Mayfair and Soho, while the Radio Bar, at the ME London hotel on the Strand, I’d wager, offers the best five-star views in town. From this vantage point, you can scan all the London icons from the comfort of your cushioned seat, Big Ben to the Shard, the Royal Opera House to the Houses of Parliament, while drinking cocktails until the wee small hours.
See & Do
The Victoria and Albert Museum: Currently offering the hottest ticket in town: David Bowie Is (until 11 August). Even if you can’t get into the V&A’s regularly sold-out temporary shows, its vast permanent collection of art and design is essential viewing, especially during a Friday Late, when you can sip a glass of fizz under a Chihuly chandelier with live classical music accompanying your arts viewing. www.vam.ac.uk
Museum of London Docklands: An atmospheric East End address telling the story of London’s port trading history, this museum also has innovative temporary exhibits. Coming up: Estuary, contemporary photography exploring the outer reaches of the Thames where river meets sea (until 27 October); and London’s Lost Jewels, uncovering the Cheapside Hoard, an extraordinary cache of 16th-century gems (11 October – 27 April 2014). www.museumoflondon.org.uk
Hyde Park: Have a stroll around Hyde Park and don’t miss the new Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, this year designed by award-winning Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto. Taking the baton from past architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and the late Oscar Niemeyer, Fujimoto has transformed the front of the Serpentine into a semi-transparent, nest-like structure. www.serpentinegallery.org
Natural History Museum: Adults and kids alike love this museum, set in the cathedral-like 19th-century Waterhouse Building. Its natural world photography exhibits are always eye boggling. Currently showing: the world premier of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s show, Genesis (to 8 September). www.nhm.ac.uk
Walking Tour: Book with Urban Gentry to get under the skin of the capital. The Hip Neighbourhoods tour spends three hours exploring London’s most fashionable villages, with stop-offs tailored to your interests. From £165 for up to five people. www.urbangentry.com
The Berkeley: Have a high-fashion high tea at the Berkeley. Its ‘Prêt-à-portea’ cakes are inspired by designs from Oscar de la Renta, Alexander McQueen and Prada, presented, of course, on Paul Smith fine china. www.the-berkeley.co.uk
Royal Opera House: More than a decade after the Royal Opera House’s £213m renovation project was completed, it is still, we think, London’s most exquisite arts venue. A ballet or opera here is a must, regardless of your taste for high arts, as are pre-show drinks. Opt for bubbles in the opulent Paul Hamlyn Hall Champagne Bar or, on sunny days, a cocktail and views over Covent Garden Piazza on the Amphitheatre Terrace. www.roh.org.uk
London Eye: Populist it may be but the London Eye remains the city’s best bird’s eye experience by far. But don’t fraternise with the backpack-wearing masses — book a private capsule for an exclusive check-in, priority boarding, a 30-minute ride and space for you and up to 24 guests. From £500. www.londoneye.com
West: Home to Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Whole Foods, Knightsbridge and Kensington are high-shopping hubs. A short walk north brings you to Notting Hill and Westbourne Grove for independent designers such as celebrated young jeweller, Lauren Adriana, who has a new salon on Colville Mews. www.laurenadriana.com
Market meanderings: Marylebone High Street offers the best of young British interiors designers, artfully designed patisseries and retro fashionistas’ favourite, Alfie’s Antiques Market. www.marylebonevillage.com
Designer labels: Bond Street and nearby South Molton Street, which also has fine independent galleries. www.mayfair-london.co.uk
East: Arguably London’s most exciting shopping district Shoreditch and the area around Spitalfields Market is the place to find one-offs: from quirky high fashion to conceptual art and an alarming number of kitsch taxidermy wall hangings. www.spitalfields.co.uk www.madeinshoreditch.co.uk
Like a Local
Travel smart: Black cabs are useful but you will almost always find, even when in a rush, London’s compact centre is best navigated as the locals do: by foot, tube or ‘Boris Bike’ cycle hire scheme. And don’t forget to factor in a jaunt on one of London’s fabulous Routemaster buses, such as the sightseeing-friendly number 9, which runs from Kensington to Trafalgar Square. And remember: have Oyster Card, will travel more efficiently. www.tfl.gov.uk
Pack a pocket-sized A-Z guide: With an included tube map. Google maps? Sure, but it’s almost guaranteed wi-fi will drop out when you most need it.
It doesn’t all have to be urban: Give yourself a pampering break from the metropolis at one of the capital’s private health clubs. Set in 27 leafy west London acres, The Park Club has a medi-spa, various pools (including a heated outdoor pool), gym, saunas, all-weather tennis courts and a lovely terrace restaurant. www.theparkclub.co.uk
£ Dean Street Town House: An arty, budget Soho bolt-hole, Dean Street Town House is the former home of British painter, Hogarth. Bigger rooms come with dramatic four posters and free-standing tubs. Doubles from around £200 a night. 69/71 Dean Street, London W1D 3SE. T: 020 7434 1775. www.deanstreettownhouse.com
££ Café Royal: The newly revamped Café Royal is currently the hottest place to bed down in town. The venue where bohemia collided with high society has been revived at the hands of Sir David Chipperfield, architect of such esteemed art house as Berlin’s Neues Museum. Doubles from £450 a night.
68 Regent Street, London, W1B 4DY. T: 020 7406 3333. www.hotelcaferoyal.com
£££ Bulgari Hotel: This latest hotel offshoot of the Italian jewellery house has lashings of marble and Bulgari products. Don’t miss the chance to luxuriate in the elegant pool and spa. Doubles from £850 a night. 171 Knightsbridge, SW7 1DW. T: 020 7151 1010. www.bulgarihotels.com
£ The Hawksmoor: Art deco interiors, high-sheen parquet floors, impeccable service and excellent food — the latest branch of The Hawksmoor, off Regent Street, adds fish to its menu but the steaks, with sauces like bone marrow gravy and anchovy hollandaise, are the main event. 5a Air Street, London, W1J 0AD.
T: 020 7406 3980. www.thehawksmoor.com
££ Aqua Shard: Dine among the stars, at least the astronomical ones; it remains to be seen whether Aqua Shard, the new modern-British restaurant at the top of the pointy tower, will draw a fashionable crowd. With Liberty print banquettes and sky-scraping views, it looks promising. Level 31/32, The Shard, London Bridge Street, London SE1 9SY. www.the-shard.com/restaurants
£££ Dinner by Heston Blumenthal: Old British recipes from Medieval to Victorian are revived and reworked to ensure this chef’s permanent ranking in the top 10 of the world’s best restaurant polls. Mandarin Oriental, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA. T: 020 7201 3833. www.dinnerbyheston.com
Classy: Head to Bentley’s for an early glass of Champagne and a platter of fortifying oysters. 11-15 Swallow Street, London W1B 4DG. T: 020 7734 4756. www.bentleys.org
Vintage: The Zetter Townhouse is the best spot for old-fashioned cocktails and shabby-chic luxury. With a list created by Tony Conigliaro of Islington’s teeny, pioneering 69 Colebrooke Row, your palate is guaranteed a treat. Try the Twinkle: it will put one in your eye. 49-50 St John’s Square, London EC1V 4JJ. T: 020 7324 4545. www.thezettertownhouse.com
Views: While the sun is still shining, don’t miss a trip up to the roof terrace at the new ME by Melia. The panorama takes in pretty much the entire central expanse of the Thames. 336-337 The Strand, London WC2R 1HA. T: 0845 601 8980. www.melondonuk.com
Glitzy: Aura is ‘the’ Mayfair address if you want to flash the labels, moves and, above all, the cash. It’s a members’ club, so find someone in the know or ring up to apply for the ‘house guest list’. 48-49 St James’s Street, London SW1A 1JT. T: 020 7499 9999. www.auramayfair.com
With the UK’s high-speed rail lines grinding into action and London at the centre of this expanding network, train transport is by far the best way to access the capital. And if you can arrive at King’s Cross St Pancras, you’re in line for a very elegant start to your London visit indeed.
If you must fly, London has five main airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, London City, and Luton. London City, the most central, is favoured by business types and serves a decent number of UK destinations. Gatwick, Luton and Stansted host most of the low-cost carriers, while Heathrow is the busiest. If you’re chartering a plane, the old RAF hubs of Biggin Hill and Northolt offer a fabulously vintage approach to the city; Farnborough is arguably the most stylish private jet terminal but it’s a bit of a schlepp (40 miles) from the city centre. London Heliport in Battersea has helicopter transfers between the city and most of the above airports. www.batterseahelicopter.com
A taxi may seem the best approach but apart from in the dead of night, trains and tube offer the quickest links. More info on express airport trains and transport links at: www.tfl.gov.uk/gettingaround/2558.aspx
If you don’t want to walk — the best way of navigating and indeed enjoying the capital — then buy yourself an Oyster card and make the most of London’s amazingly comprehensive bus/Tube/Overground network. It’s the most time/cost efficient way to navigate the capital by far, even if locals love to moan about it.
London’s metered black hackney cabs are usually in plentiful supply but if you’re stuck, ring Zingo and the nearest one will find you. T: 0870 070 0700.
When to go
Any time of year but summer is the best time for city parks and there’s great winter shopping.
Published in the National Geographic Traveller – Luxury 2013 special issue