Host of the 2012 Olympic Games, there’s plenty to celebrate in the UK capital this year. Crossing the city from east to west and north to south, our correspondent shows you the highlights
Portobello Road in Notting Hill, with its elegant white villas
Climb the 528 steps to the Golden Gallery at the top of St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1710
In London, location is everything. And Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, which overlooks the designer shops of Knightsbridge on one side and Hyde Park, one of London’s most beautiful green spaces on the other, gets top marks for its perfect position. Take a leisurely breakfast on the terrace as horses from the Household Cavalry trot past on their morning ride around the park; at more than 350 acres, it’s easy to forget that you are in the middle of a capital city. The park adjoins Kensington Gardens, the setting for the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Palace, and avenues of elegant, formal flowerbeds.
Head south from the hotel and, after a 15-minute stroll, you’ll find yourself in the heart of Chelsea, one of London’s most upmarket districts and home to high-flyers and socialites. ‘Chelsea was at the heart of the swinging Sixties, but then it became a rather more staid part of town. Now, the bar and club scene is catching up with east and central London,’ says local entrepreneur and Pippa Middleton’s ex Charlie Gilkes. ‘The area benefits from some of the best residential property in the city, with some fantastic garden squares, shops and restaurants.’
The Household Cavalry passing Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London
For culture, the first stop should be contemporary art venue the Saatchi Gallery, which often puts on group exhibitions focusing on a particular genre or country (new German or Chinese art, for example). Just behind it, the Royal Hospital hosts the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show at the end of May, and on the King’s Road you’ll find a smattering of one-off fashion boutiques and smart interiors destinations.
The Shop at Bluebird is a warehouse-like space full of designer labels for men and women, coffee-table tomes, vintage furniture and vinyl records, while a few streets away, in Fulham, the iconic Michelin building houses The Conran Shop. Founded by Sir Terence Conran, it’s a sprawling homeware complex selling classic designs such as the Egg chair and Chesterfield sofa. More notable design shops, such as Mint, a great source of witty, one-off pieces, can be found near Brompton Road.
The Royal Albert Hall, a popular venue for opera, ballet and concerts
Looping back up to South Kensington and Knightsbridge, the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum are all next-door neighbours. You could easily spend several days absorbed in each one. The V&A covers a myriad of periods, from Art Deco to Renaissance, and last year it opened a new Photographs Gallery to showcase highlights from its extensive collection. Pop into the V&A Reading Rooms, which not only sells over 1,000 art and design books, novellas, graphic novels and biographies, but also doubles up as a relaxing spot for a quick coffee and snack, if your energy levels need topping up. Children, in particular, will love the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, which are both packed with interactive exhibits and fascinating collections that explore everything from the development of aviation to dinosaurs.
Savile Row in Mayfair, a street renowned for its tailors
Veer north across Hyde Park to a very different enclave that comprises Notting Hill and Westbourne Grove. The area’s famous Portobello Market runs the length of Portobello Road every Friday and Saturday, bringing with it huge, heaving crowds. Go on Friday for vintage fashion; Saturday is mostly antiques. The other well-known landmark in the neighbourhood is the Electric, one of the oldest working cinemas in London, next door to the Electric Brasserie. It has comfy leather seats and the bonus of a bar, so you can watch the latest film releases with a glass of wine to hand.
View modern art at Tate Modern in a building overlooking the Thames
For a quieter look around Westbourne Grove, leave your visit until mid-week. Many residents here have a moneyed, European air and this is reflected in the independent designer shops that line the length of the street. Heidi Klein is a one-stop holiday-wear shop, Toast is a British clothing company with a cult following, and jeweller Pippa Small creates bespoke pieces with unusual stones. ‘I love working and living around Portobello Road because it’s so vibrant and pretty,’ says Small. ‘The tall white buildings are noble and elegant and Westbourne Grove is very glamorous. It has a wonderful mix of regular stallholders, as well as tourists and designers who comb the market on a Friday for vintage finds and inspiration.’ When it comes to food, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Mediterranean-inspired Ottolenghi makes delicious salads (think roasted Romano peppers, buffalo mozzarella and rocket), while local favourite Tom’s Deli is a cafe and grocery store in one.
Visit the V&A museum for well-curated art and design exhibitions
Next, make the short journey into the West End, the capital’s biggest shopping and cultural hub. Visit the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden for a lunchtime performance, or head to Trafalgar Square for the National Gallery’s impressive collection of western European paintings. If you come between June and September, don’t miss the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘BT Road to 2012 project’, a photographic exhibition of portraits taken by leading photographers as part of the London 2012 Festival. Dip into the key shopping streets, too: in Mayfair, Savile Row has top-notch tailors and Bond Street is home to the best in luxury brands including fashion houses Mulberry, Chanel and Prada, jewellers Chopard, Cartier and Leviev, and Her Majesty’s stationers Smythson. If you’re feeling peckish, the Mount Street Deli is the place for a light lunch.
Cross the bridge to Tate Modern, housed in an old power station
Garden design at the Chelsea Flower Show
Near the chaos of Oxford Street, yet seemingly a world away, you’ll find Marylebone High Street and Marylebone Lane. Soak up the atmosphere in stores such as VV Rouleaux, which sells more gorgeous ribbons, tassels and trimmings than you can imagine; French Sole, a shoe shop specialising in ballet pumps; and Daunt Books, an original Edwardian bookshop and something of a local institution. Brett Wolstencroft, who has been managing the bookshop for 22 years, has seen Marylebone develop into one of London’s prime shopping destinations. ‘It’s become more chi-chi, with lots of lovely boutiques. And although it’s so central, it genuinely retains a village atmosphere. Customers are well-heeled local residents who have lived around here for years, as well as Londoners from further afield.’
Tower Bridge on the River Thames
Tucked away, off the high street, La Fromagerie can be smelt long before you go through the doors. It’s a cheese shop and tasting cafe, with up to 200 British and European farmhouse cheeses on sale. Stop for a bite to eat here at one of the communal tables in the wine section, or walk five minutes down the road to the restaurant in the Wallace Collection. A gem of a historic house, it’s packed full of old master paintings and has a heavenly courtyard cafe with a glass roof.
Bibendum restaurant in the iconic Michelin building
At the top of the high street lies Regent’s Park, another vast green space (the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in the summer is a hot ticket), with Primrose Hill to the north. Thanks to the likes of the original ‘Primrose Hill set’ – among them Jude Law and Kate Moss – this neighbourhood has always had a cool kudos together with a villagey vibe. There are a handful of boutiques, while cafes and restaurants with outdoor tables, like Greek restaurant Lemonia (always packed with locals), spill onto the street. Further north, Hampstead Village, which has leafy Hampstead Heath on its doorstep, has a similar feel. Further into town, Sadler’s Wells, in Islington, is the go-to venue to see dance in all its forms, from contemporary and flamenco to modern ballet.
Contemporary sculpture in the Saatchi Gallery
Journey eastwards and you’ll hit the hip shopping area of Shoreditch, a hangout of the arty, media crowd. Some parts of it are relatively scruffy, but these can easily be avoided. For shopping, zone in on Redchurch Street and its quirky shops (fashion store Aubin & Wills has a cinema in the basement, run in association with members’ club Shoreditch House) and, for food, try the Albion, Terence Conran’s all-day cafe and bakery.
Relax after a day’s sightseeing in the vitality pool at The Spa at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London
For Emily Chalmers, Shoreditch resident and owner of interiors shop Caravan, it’s the residents that make the neighbourhood special. ‘Shoreditch has a certain energy that embraces every walk of life, from art and music to fashion, and there are some real individuals here. There’s a constant underlying feeling of creative opportunity and enterprise. I think the history of the area has given it an unusual internal strength, so that doesn’t get knocked too easily by the big corporations,’ she says.
If you happen to be there on a Sunday, join the locals at Columbia Road Flower Market. There are vintage furniture and fashion shops, art galleries and one-off gems such as paper-cut artist Rob Ryan’s Ryantown, which sells whimsical, poetic prints. Another market-must within walking distance is Spitalfields, near Liverpool Street. Go on a Sunday and you’ll find unique clothes and accessories by independent designers (Thursday is mostly antiques and vintage). For a dose of culture, take a trip to the gritty environs of Whitechapel and the Whitechapel Gallery, which has a changing exhibition schedule of contemporary and 20th-century art. And to understand the real spirit of east London, wander along the canals by Victoria Park.
From oysters to venison burgers, Borough Market, south of the city, is the perfect destination for foodies
This is, of course, a stone’s throw from the Olympic Stadium, where, in July, the Olympic Flame will culminate after travelling through each of the city’s 33 boroughs. In fact, if you happen to visit in the build-up to the Olympics, all round town you’ll be wowed by cultural happenings. There will be pop-up readings of Shakespeare sonnets and speeches as part of the World Shakespeare Festival; the London stage première of Dr Dee, written and co-performed by Damon Albarn at the English National Opera; a major Yoko Ono retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery; and Olympic posters by the likes of Tracey Emin, Fiona Banner and Rachel Whiteread on show at Tate Britain, a gallery with an extensive collection of Turners.
Visit in the build-up to the Olympics and you’ll be wowed by cultural happenings
Back in the fast-paced financial area of the city, you’ll be impressed by St Paul’s Cathedral, one of London’s major landmarks. Venture inside, climbing the stairs of the distinctive dome, and pass through the Whispering Gallery (whisper against its walls and the sound can be heard on the other side) to the Golden Gallery, which runs around the highest point. Back outside, cross the Millenium Bridge to Tate Modern, housed in an old power station. The gallery’s collection contains international modern art from 1900 to the present day and, each year, an artist is commissioned to make a work for its Turbine Hall; Berlin-based Tino Sehgal has the space from July.
From Tate Modern, you have two choices: walk east along the river and you’ll arrive at Borough Market, the most renowned food market in the capital, or walk west along the Southbank for cultural offerings. If you opt for east and the market (best early on a Saturday morning), you’ll find more than 120 food stalls run by artisanal producers, organic farmers, bakers and gourmet food importers selling everything from chutney to oysters. Recently, the market has faced fierce competition from food traders on nearby Maltby Street in Bermondsey. Visit both: Borough for Westcountry Venison’s burgers and Brindisa’s chorizo and rocket rolls; Maltby Street for a creamy custard doughnut from St John Bakery. If you decide to head west, you could catch an afternoon film screening at the British Film Institute or a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, or pop into an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, watch a play at the National Theatre, or take a ride in the London Eye for a birds’-eye view of the whole city.
The Olympic Stadium for the 2012 Games in east London
In the evening, wend your way back to Knightsbridge. The Royal Albert Hall is a prestigious concert venue, whose May highlights include a gala with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. You can also book tickets for the tiny Royal Court Theatre, which is known for supporting emerging playwrights.
Alternatively, spend your evening relaxing in style at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London. A visit to The Spa for the Deep Sleep body treatment will leave you feeling blissfully serene. Or end the day tucking into bistro dishes at the hotel’s Bar Boulud, London, or feasting on historic gastronomic food with a modern twist at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. What better way to round off a day in this most vibrant of capital cities?