With the eyes of the world on London this summer Jane Egginton takes a look at some of the city’s ultimate experiences.
London is one of those cities that everyone wants to visit – not just once in a lifetime but again and again. With the Diamond Jubilee and Olympic and Paralympic Games on the capital’s calendar for 2012, London is very much in the spotlight this season. If you only have time for a short visit it makes sense to focus on the city’s most iconic sights and its very finest offerings in terms of dining and entertaining. What follows is very much a personal, hand-picked selection but one that very deliberately will appeal to all ages.
I always recommend that any trip to London should begin at the River Thames. This is London at its best and I still get a thrill standing on one of its many ancient bridges and admiring the cityscape stretched out before me. For a bird’s eye view, though, jump on the London Eye, the capital’s very own big wheel and the largest of its kind in the world. Sit in one of the space age see-through pods atop the 135m-tall structure and watch the city – quite literally – revolve around you on your 30-minute ‘trip’ and drink in the spectacular view, which offers the perfect introduction to the city.
Jump off the ‘Eye’ and aboard one of the many vessels that ply the historic waterway that is the Thames. Although you could choose a lunchtime cruises or a luxury tour, I suggest a simple, unadulterated boat trip. The London Eye does a 40-minute sightseeing cruise along the river Thames, with specialist guides providing commentary for key sights. One of my favourite options, though, is the fun London Duck Tours, on funky yellow amphibious boats. I have only just learnt that these unique vessels are part of British history as they were used to take troops ashore for the D-Day landings.
If you wanted to make a day of it, you could carry on all the way to Richmond. In which case, don’t miss the superlative Bingham, right on the river, with delicious food and charming service. You may find yourself enjoying it so much that you want to stay the night in one of the desirable rooms. Otherwise, for a classic British lunch, dinner or just cocktails, I suggest a visit to the newly refurbished Boyd’s just off Trafalgar Square. By the way, The Wolseley is a wonderful London institution in the grand European style, where there is never a bad time to eat.
No one will want to miss a visit to the London Sealife Aquarium, with its thousands of creatures in over two million liters of water and new Explore Shark Reef Encounter. I have been here several occasions with my family and we never seem to tire of the touch pools – which each time bring a new surprise – the exciting diving displays and the fascinating interactive feeding. You can even go behind the scenes on special tours here.
A day out in London wouldn’t be complete without that quintessential British Experience: afternoon tea. One of my favourites is on offer at the divine Brown’s Hotel, reputedly the oldest hotel in London. Here, you can enjoy five-starkluxury in Mayfair away from the usual tourist crowds. Brown’s deserves an extra mention for its attention to smaller guests and its inspired Five-Star Kids programme. Little visitors get a number of gifts, which could be a personalised copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which was written in one of the hotel’s suites. Other offerings include junior bath time accessories, their own teddy bear and a bespoke room service menu which includes cookies and milk. Over 13s are not left out and little ones even get their own spa treatments fr/m twinkle toes to Teen Facial Glow. It is all too cute for words.
Dukes Hotel is another magnificent London spot where, on top of afternoon tea, you can enjoy a classic martini or have dinner in the acclaimed restaurant, THIRTY SIX. It is even possible to partake in a traditional afternoon tea designed just for children at The Montcalm: ‘Teddy’s Tea Time’ here includes a complimentary Montcalm teddy bear to take home.
A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without a royal visit. There are many palaces to choose from but if I had to pick just one regal experience, it would be the Tower of London. The Crown Jewels will of course dazzle you, and the magnificent ravens are a sight to behold, but unexpected sights include the White Tower, one of the most important historic buildings in the world, which currently houses ‘Power House’, a fascinating exhibition about the national institutions created at the Tower of London.
In fact, it is worth bearing in mind that many of London’s hotels offer much more than just a place to stay. I visit the Corinthia, just moments from Downing Street for its old school elegance and the capital’s largest spa. The Langham has been offering its sublime service to international visitors and locals alike, whether its in its spa, restaurant or opulent cocktail bar. The Victorian townhouse and gentlemen’s club that is St James Hotel and Club is the kind of place you could stay all day, for spa treatments, eating experiences and general pampering.
Grosvenor House is a real quintessential London hotel. Found on one of the city’s most prestigious streets, it has a high class, historic pedigree that reaches back 350 years. Le Méridien Piccadilly is of a similar ilk. This landmark offering represents culture, art and fashion in the heartbeat of London: Piccadilly Circus. What was one of the most fashionable areas of the city after the Restoration, Piccadily today is still one of London’s most desirable locales, where killer cocktails at Longitude 0°8 are once tried, never forgotten.
Highly regarded new kids on the block have heralded a new era for London’s luxury hotels – a move hardly thought possible a few years ago. Hilton is a highly contemporary offering that also offers a superb location that gives really good access to many of the city’s most popular attractions. From here it’s a short walk to the iconic St Paul’s Cathedral – or Tower of London of course. Its spectacular rooftop Skylounge overlooking The Tower of London and Tower Bridge could have been transplanted from Manhattan and gives what I would say are the best views of any London bar.
With any luck you might, like me, feel like an excited and school kid on arrival at the Hogwartian St Pancras Renaissance Hotel for the first time, where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed here and the location certainly worked some kind of magic on me even before I visited the sublime subterranean spa. The Booking Office bar and restaurant located in the original ticket office is the place to go for a classic British Gin Fizz. And should you have one too many at the atmospheric bar, you could always stay the night.
London wouldn’t be London without a show. There are plenty of old favorites to choose from such as The Mousetrap, Mamma Mia and the more recent War Horse to choose from. Consider too the latest London musical to be showered with crit)cal acclaim: Matilda (certainly not just for children). Here I can give you a bit of insider information about getting tickets for the city’s much loved shows.
Get Into London Theatre offers the opportunity to get into a top London show between 21st June and 9th September from just £10. Andkthroughout August Kids Week is offering anyone under 16 the chance to go free (when accompanied by a paying adult) to popular shows such as The Wizard of Oz, Shrek the Musical, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
Everybody knows that London probably does pop-ups better than any other city and this summer sees a bumper crop. London’s Pleasure Gardens draws on the city’s rich tradition of creating communal space where people from every walk of life in the 17th and 19th centuries could meet and enjoy music and cultural events, as well as walking, drinking and flirting. Mozart, Hogwarth and Dickens were all fans. This summer this quintessential British experience will be recreated in a pop up playground for all to enjoy.
Also popping up will be the one thing that London is really missing: a beach. A great swathe of sand will appear in the form of The Beach London, which will be the largest man made Beach in Europe and a first for London. Other lucky host cities, such as New York, Paris and Berlin have been lucky enough to see pop up beaches. Now (from June this year) Londoners can take it easy by the Thames, relaxing with sand between their toes, a drink in their hand and a view of the capital’s spectacular skyline.