Little Black Book to London

By | Category: Travel destinations

The low-down on where to eat, stay and play in London, this Yuletide

Times are tricky. We’re still recovering from a certain shock US election and Brexit is going nowhere fast. But among all that, London still has plenty to bring us joy – particularly at this time of year. Make no mistake: the capital is fabulous all year round but there’s something undeniably special about the city come Christmas. No other part of the country does festive with such panache, owing to attractions such as Harrods’ annual show stopping window display, magical markets and postcard-perfect al fresco ice skating rinks. Of course with so much on offer, choosing where to eat, stay and play can be confusing.

With this in mind we asked lovers of London, Kaye Holland and John Bosco – who co-founded  Talk of the Town, a dynamic walking tour company that aims to provide locals and visitors alike with the inside track on the London scene – to open their address books and share some of their favourite spots around the British capital.

Culture vulture
London’s museums are a must, but leave the British Museum, V&A et al to first timers and look to lesser known gems such as the Dennis Severs’ House. Situated a stone’s throw from Spitalfields Market, Dennis Severs’ serves as more than just a time capsule: it’s both a breathtaking and an intimate portrait of the lives of a family of Huguenot silk-weavers from 1724 to the dawn of the 20th Century. As you follow their fortunes through the generations, the sights, smells and sounds of the house truly take you into their lives.
Other standouts include  The Sir John Soane’s Museum – the historic house, museum and library of distinguished 19th century architect Sir John Soane – and Dr Johnson’s House, a charming 300-year-old townhouse, nestled amongst a maze of courts and alleys in the historic City of London.
On the theatre front, if you haven’t already booked booked to watch the award winning Book of Mormon or snapped up tickets to see Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl at The Savoy Theatre, forget it. It may be be possible to obtain tickets with little notice in other cities, but that’s not the case when it comes to the capital’s West End. Instead wander to Wilton’s Music Hall – one of London’s earliest and most loved music halls, that’s recently completed a £2.5 million renovation while losing none of its rustic charm – for your theatre fix. Or stop in for a swing dance class, history tour, or perhaps just a drink.

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That said if another glass of  mulled wine is more than your credit card (not to mention your liver) can take, why not try an evening with the stars on for size? Whether you’re into arty flicks, subtitled shenanigans or Hollywood blockbusters, there’s a seat in the dark with your name on it in London. We recommend the Ritzy Cinema – easily one of the best cinemas south of the river. In addition to five screens, the cinema boasts a bar and upstairs cafe which always has something interesting going on from live music to exhibitions. Alternatively you can’t go wrong with a trip to Curzon Soho with its quality new releases, larger than average seats and damned fine basement bar. Staying central, the National Film Theatre takes film buff geekiness to a whole new level with its regular seasons and festivals, musing clientele and riverside location, while the ICA has a rocking late bar.
Pricier than your average popcorn and flick mission but well worth the splurge, we’ll watch anything for a night out at Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema or Hampstead’s Everyman. We’re talking boozing while you watch, proper food and swank as you like sofas. Take a date and shell out with a smile this Yuletide/ However if your purse strings are suffering, fret not. The Prince Charles Cinema shows a wide range of films and loads of blockbusters (usually a month or so after other cinemas) at prices that will leave more than enough change for a tub of popcorn.

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Top Shops
Shopping in London is truly a 365 day event- even Christmas Day sees its share of shops open. If you can’t find something here, it probably doesn’t exist.
For unique, independent shopping, skip Oxford Street and Regent Street and check out the newly cool Carnaby district – especially Kingly Court, a haven of cutting edge boutiques and quirky stalls together with a handful of cafes and bars. Close by lies the beautiful Burlington Arcade where you can stop off or a shoeshine  – or to shop for a vintage Rolex or some designer threads. Just don’t whistle while you’re there… whistling (and singing, for that matter) were outlawed in the 1800s when ‘industrious women’ living above the arcade would whistle as a way of alerting the pickpockets below that police were approaching. Top-hat wearing Beadles – the ornate arcade’s own private police force – enforce the ban today.
We also suggest shopping up a storm at a market. London’s markets are treasure chests full of knick knacks, clothes, food, drink and household goods as well as being a delightful slice of city life. If you only have time for one market, pop to Portobello. Despite the area’s increasing fame and gentrification, a Saturday outing here is still rewarding mainly because of the market’s glorious diversity, This is really several markets rolled into one: antiques, jewellery, coins, paintings, silverware and other collectibles at the top end (Sat only), a fruit and veg market further down (Mon-Sat) and clothes (secondhand and by young designers), jewellery, records and books under the Westway (Fri-Sun). See www.portobelloc.co.uk for more.

After dark
London has fallen hard for the speakeasy trend. Consequently you’ll find speakeasy (the word was first coined in the US during the prohibition era, when the sale of alcohol was generally illegal from 1920 to 1933) bars across the capital but our current favourite  hideaway bar is arguably Evans & Peel Detective Agency. Located on the cusp of zone two but less than a five minute stumble from Earls Court tube station– the first London station to install escalators in 1911 – this is where Londoners head when they want to pretend it’s Prohibition time in the 1920s.
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For something swankier, head to One New Change’s terrace (which serves up spectacular views of the London skyline) where you’ll find the fabulous Madison. The restaurant gets rave reviews for its generously portioned British fare, but we prefer the more fun tapas bar where the emphasis is on small plates that lend well to sharing with friends (the sesame flat breads are to die for). Of course you can just drink here: the cocktails are top notch.

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More of a coffee fiend? You’re in luck for, despite the fact that London is traditionally renowned for tea drinkers, the friendly bubble of coffee perking  can now be heard all across the capital. Bar Italia – a Soho institution that has witnessed many fascinating glimpses of passing theatrical life – gets our vote. Situated opposite Ronnie Scotts, it’s loved as much for the stories it could tell, as it is for its authentic Italian coffee.

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Best bites
For lunch on the run head to Brixton Market. Food has been part of Brixton’s pleasures for the past six years or so, when empty market stalls were leased for free in Brixton Village to encourage new restaurateurs. The result? The original Caribbean cookware stalls (Brixton has always been the place to get your plantain fix) have been joined by boutiques and bakeries, delightful delis (Rosie’s), artisan coffee shops (Federation Coffee), Mexican (Casa Morita) and Thai (KaoSarn, 020 7095 8922) joints and half the fun is taking a chance on any place you like the look of. Our pick? Yum-d- an authentic and affordable Thai dining spot.
Alternatively – if the weather is playing ball – pick up some food in Borough Market, then cross the River Thames and enjoy a picnic in the grounds of St Dunstans in the East (an ancient church that was severely damaged during the Great Fire  and later damaged during the Blitz). It’s by far and away the most beautiful public garden in the City.
For something more formal, check out Jeremy King and Chris Corbin’s restaurant empire. Corbin and King are the dynamic duo responsible for The Wolseley, The Delaunay, Brasserie Zedel and Fischer’s to name but a few. We have to say though that we’re not very faithful when it comes to restaurants and rarely return to the same place twice. Rather we’re always forcing our friends to schlepp across town and  try the latest, greatest opening… Consult the Evening Standard and Time Out for the low-down on the latest hot spots.

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Sport & outdoor
The football season is in full swing. Pick up a paper, turn on the TV and football, like taxes and death, can’t be avoided – especially in the capital which is home to no fewer than five Premier League football clubs.
If you can’t score tickets to Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal et al, try West Ham or Kaye’s team Watford – every so often, tickets do go on general sale. What’s more, tickets are  much cheaper while the passion is just as prevalent.

troy-deeney
Of course, the trip every true soccer fan must make is to Wembley  The national football stadium was recently voted the UK’s most iconic venue ahead of Wimbledon and Wales’ Millennium Stadium, according to a survey by Stubhub. And for good reason: the 90,000 capacity stadium, is renowned around the world for its iconic, 134m high arch that towers over the North stand, and has hosted some of football’s biggest spectacles: think 78 FA Cup Finals – including England’s World Cup Final win over West Germany in 1966 – 258 England senior internationals, 40 League Cup Finals, six European Cup Finals and Euro 96.
The excellent 75 minute Wembley Stadium tour takes you behind-the-scenes of what, footballing legend Pele, once called “the cathedral of football, the capital of football and the heart of football”.
If you’re not much of a spectator, get fit while gliding gracefully around one of the capital’s seasonal outdoor ice rinks. It really is rather special being able to skate in the open air in the heart of London. Which is London’s most magical rink?  We have a soft sport for Somerset House’s fairytale setting: the beautiful 18th century courtyard space is illuminated at night by special lighting. However if kids are in tow, try the Natural History Museum where your little ones can practise their moves in a mini ‘kid friendly’ rink before whirling around the Christmas tree in the 1,000 sqm main rink. When you’ve finished skating, nip into the Natural History Museum for a history lesson en famille…
A Bambi on ice? Why not walk off all the mince pies you’ve consumed by ambling along Regents Canal. We recommend grabbing a coffee in Ralston and then strolling from the river all the way to Camden.

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Sleepover
We’re all about Airbnb – the San Francisco online marketplace which allows people to rent their homes or rooms to short-term visitors. It’s a characterful, affordable alternative to staying in an overpriced bland, beige hotel room. More than that, Airbnb can also help you meet Londoners and bring you closer to the local culture.
However if you are a hotel person, look to the luxurious Rosewood London. It’s not cheap (prices are as high as the Shard) but if you’re going to make the trip of a lifetime, you might as well do it in style! The hotel (which opened in October 2013) is housed in a beautiful 1914 Belle Epoque building that was once the headquarters of Pearl Assurance. Every conceivable luxury and comfort has been thought of – it really is impossible to exaggerate the glories of this place. Another favourite ‘five star’ hotel is 45 Park Lane  The Dorchester’s sexy little sister. On arrival, expect to be assigned an attentive host – 45 Park Lane’s answer to a traditional receptionist or concierge – and shown to your accommodation: expect contemporary art deco style interiors – think rich dark materials, contrasting with light colours and sensual textures – designed by New York-based designer Thierry Despont. Technology is seamlessly woven into the experience: everything – from the curtains to the lights and enormous Bang & Olufsen flat-screen TVs (that turn toward you) – is controlled from a touch screen phone. Marble bathrooms, meanwhile, are vast with a wonderful walk-in rain shower and a large sunken bath that’s hard to resist – as are the array of Aromatherapy Asprey products…

Kaye and John are the co-founders – together with David Blundell – of Talk of the Town London, an award winning (Historic Tour Operator of the Year 2017, Luxury Travel Guides) company specialising in entertaining tours of the capital). Tickets for Talk of the Town’s special, seasonal ‘Christmas Unwrapped’ tour on Thursday 22 & Friday 23 December at 7pm are on now on sale. London lovers can look forward to approximately two hours of Yuletide history, lots of lovely Christmas stories – told in true Talk of the Town fashion – carol singing, mulled wine and more for just £15 (or £12 concession). What’s not to like? So get your debit cards ready folks & click here: http://talkofthetownlondon.com/our-tours/

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