Gourmet Traveller's insider guide to London
When in London
One city, a thousand ways to enjoy it. We asked London insiders – including some of the city’s top chefs – to name the best ways to enjoy the British capital.
Boris Johnson, mayor of London
The best view in London? The view from my office window (I’m based in City Hall on the banks of the River Thames). It takes in the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Canary Wharf and the giant treble clef that is the Orbit visitor attraction in the Olympic Park. There’s no better view in the world.
Favourite London landmark? The most iconic new landmark of modern times is the Shard, the pyramid-shaped skyscraper in Southwark. It’s a huge engineering feat, and a symbol of how London is powering its way out of the global recession.
Best book about London? Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World by… Boris Johnson. It contains a number of historical figures whom I greatly admire – and is available from all good bookshops.
Favourite restaurant? Pasha, a Turkish restaurant in Upper Street, Islington, close to where I live. It’s great hideout for me and my wife. In fact, why on earth have I mentioned it?
Favourite British snack? The humble chocolate digestive biscuit, which is all about consistency and reliability; it does what it says on the packet.
The perfect London day? An early morning jog in Highbury Fields in north London is a wonderful way to start the day, followed by a picnic in Primrose Hill – I never get bored of its stupendous view over the city. Then a visit to the British Museum, a wonderful mecca which offers an unparalleled collection of historic artefacts and gems.
Best thing about living in London? We’ve got more museums than Paris, twice as many bookshops as New York City and more green space than any other European city.
Tip for tourists? Seek out a full English breakfast at one of the amazing family-run so-called greasy-spoon cafés that have existed in this city for generations.
Best way of getting around? My flagship cycle-hire scheme [dubbed the Boris bikes], of course. There are more than 5000 bikes dotted around London: it’s the perfect way to see the sights – and work off those full English breakfasts at the same time.
Favourite hidden gem? Across the river from City Hall is a wonderfully preserved stretch of Roman wall, dating back to 200AD. Here you can marvel at the ingenuity of our Roman forebears, who built Londinium and helped shape our great city.
Heston Blumenthal, chef, Dinner and The Fat Duck
London is probably one of the best cities in the world in which to eat, with a great diversity in the restaurants. Classics such as The Wolseley and the new Delaunay offer a quintessentially British experience – extra special for breakfasts and late brunches. Also, the big salt-beef sandwiches down Brick Lane – you couldn’t find better in New York. The Maltby Street market on Saturday mornings is a great mixture of stalls and small producers under the railway arches, but go early – it’s over about midday. Go to shop or just for a taste and the enjoyment of it. Every time I go to Roka on Charlotte Street, and I have been so, so many times, it’s just so good. Great tasting dishes every time. I go to the big sister Zuma too: the sushi there is incredible.
Fish and chips: now the thing is, you don’t want fish and chips to be too posh. The chip shop experience is very important. Kerbisher & Malt on the Shepherds Bush Road gets it. It takes the very essence of a chippy and just makes it so much better. No little sachets of tartare sauce. Instead, there’s big pots of freshly made stuff and great batter. You’ve got to have good fish and chips when you come to London.
Finally: The River Café. To understand London you need to get near the Thames, and The River Café is a classic: amazing food, great service and a fantastic location. Long lunches in the summer are a must.
Kit Kemp, hotelier and interior designer, Firmdale Hotels
I love the café at the Serpentine in Hyde Park as I like to watch the swimmers in the morning. For shopping, I go to Ledbury Road and Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill as it’s filled with lots of interesting individual shops (I love Temperley and Matches). I love small galleries such as the CAA [Contemporary Applied Arts] in Percy Street, where I curated an exhibition called A Living Space.
It was all about commissioning art and craft for the home. I also love the Thackeray Gallery in Kensington. I like to walk through the London parks in the morning; I love how they all join up. You can start at Kensington Gardens, walk to Hyde Park then Green Park, and continue on to St James’s Park.
Rowley Leigh, chef proprietor, Le Café Anglais
Chiswick House: a beautiful neo-Palladian villa in West London, designed by the Earl of Burlington and set in one of the nicest parks in London. It gives a true, historic flavour of English family life.
The Wallace Collection: a quiet and peaceful art collection where you really get a sense of the personality behind the various objects on display. It is held within a very beautiful house in the centre of London, but feels
far from the madding crowd.
Damas Gate: I live in Shepherd’s Bush where there is a large Muslim community. This family-run food store sells a great range of Syrian food. It’s a great place to experience London’s different ethnic and cultural communities through their food.
Melanie Brown, entertainer and television presenter
I just was in London earlier this year and I didn’t realise how much I actually miss it. I love, love, love London. When I was just there, I caught the Tube which is a really fun way to get around and sometimes a lot quicker than driving. When I have my kids with me, a visit to London Zoo in Regent’s Park is just one of those things you have to do, plus we love going to the West End and seeing the new theatre productions. Summer is always a great time to be in London and this is when I truly miss it. Everyone is hanging out outside, doing the pub thing, people are sunbathing in the beautiful parks, and London is buzzing and alive.
Tom Aikens, chef, Tom Aikens Restaurant
My favourite bar in London is the Connaught. It has great cocktails and amazing, well-trained staff, and it’s always so nice to just drop in as everyone is so friendly. Petersham Nurseries is a unique setting for a restaurant in London. It’s in the middle of a greenhouse among many beautiful cut flowers and shrubs. For shopping, Elizabeth Street in Belgravia has an abundance of shops, cafés and restaurants, and feels like you are in the middle of a local village in the countryside.
My favourite location just to pass the time has to be Somerset House, with amazing views over the Thames and within walking distance of Covent Garden (plus Tom’s Kitchen and Tom’s Deli nearby).
Nick Jones, founder, Soho House Group
Barrafina, Soho: one of my favourite restaurants in London. Excellent tapas freshly prepared in front of you which is worth the wait in the queue.
The Cow, Westbourne Park Road: nothing beats a pint at The Cow; it’s a great London pub, minus the sticky carpet and fruit machine. Borough Market: I love this market. It’s full of great producers and despite being a big tourist attraction, it still somehow feels like an authentic London secret. I don’t get there as often as I’d like to, but whenever I do, it’s great inspiration for new menus.
Richard Corrigan, chef, Corrigan’s Mayfair
Hyde Park: I love its great expanse. You get this vast vista of nature, and all around it, buildings and the hum of traffic. It’s country and town together. And then to cap it all, a horse – if not several – canters by. It’s a thrill and so very English.
The Evelyn Grace Academy: great buildings are like great paintings – at times they almost gobble you up. I’m currently working on a project with architect Zaha Hadid, and this school, like her MAXXI museum in Rome, is breathtaking. She wraps life into a structure with a wholeness that just leaves me gasping.
Angelus: a really, really good neighbourhood restaurant from Thierry Tomasin who was for years the sommelier at Le Gavroche. Great food, a lovely interior tucked away in a small street in Bayswater, and, as you might reasonably expect, a great wine list. It’s what a good restaurant should be: real, inviting and comfortable.
Richard Branson, founder, Virgin Group
Dinner with the family and friends at Halepi Restaurant, Bayswater. We have shared many a fun-filled night at this lovely little restaurant.
Watching a sporting event: tennis at Wimbledon, rugby at Twickenham. I’m a keen sports fan and love the atmosphere generated at these events: mingling with the crowd, maybe having a cheeky beer or Pimm’s.
Walking along the Portobello Road: the local area of Notting Hill holds such fond memories; My wife Joan worked in a sign shop just off the Portobello Road when I met her.
Spending time on our family house boat, Duende, which is moored on the Regent’s Canal in Little Venice. The boat doubled up as my office and home when Virgin was just starting out.
Christiane Amanpour, anchor and reporter, ABC News and CNN
The things I love about London? The light. England is not known for its blazing year-round sunshine, but on some days the light in London is spectacular, especially when it’s darting through scudding white clouds, brightening the white terraced houses and making the green grass in Hyde Park even greener. I love this electric scenery as I ride my bike, and enjoy it all the more for its rarity.
The Anglesea Arms is my favourite gastropub. It’s where my sisters and brother-in-law go often; it’s in their ‘hood and now we make it our family-lunch destination of choice. Delicious food and friendly service. Cosy in winter with crackling woodfires and in summer a superb terrace.
The Notting Hill Farmers’ Market has been a must ever since my son was born in 2000. The beef lady, the pork and sausage man, and the stall for apple juice and all things apple are my favourites.
The Gate Picturehouse and the Coronet cinema are small but beautifully formed and have spectacular interiors, especially those restored ceilings. And I love that they’re independent and not in shopping malls.
Paul Smith, designer
I rarely have any free time but when I do I like to visit the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a great place to lose an afternoon. I also love to walk in Holland Park; you see rabbits and peacocks roaming around and you can really imagine you’re in the countryside.
Ashley Palmer-Watts, chef, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Drinks at the Zetter Townhouse for a quintessential old eccentric English experience, with very creative drinks. For dinner, my favourite haunts are Bistrot Bruno Loubet, or Shochu Lounge.
Tom and Ruth Chapman, joint CEOs, Matches boutiques
There are so many excellent museums and galleries in London it’s hard to know where to begin, so start at the V&A and see their new Ballgowns exhibition, celebrating British glamour since 1950. Also try to get to both Tate galleries, the National Portrait Gallery, White Cube, Whitechapel Gallery and the Saatchi Gallery. And a great use of a few hours is to wander the galleries around Cork Street.
See London from the river. Start in Richmond, get off at Tower Bridge, the most spectacular of London’s bridges, walk into the city and search out the greatest collection of English churches designed by Christopher Wren (including St Paul’s Cathedral) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (including Christ Church Spitalfields) after the fire of London. Reboard and head to Greenwich for a whitebait supper, as Dickens wrote about, at The Trafalgar Tavern.
You can go to a different market every day of the week: Grays antique market weekdays; Camden Passage for books on Wednesdays; Old Spitalfields Market for antiques on Thursdays; Portobello on Fridays; Borough Market on Saturdays for the best British produce.
Phil Howard, chef, The Square
The River Café: still offering one of the all-round great London eating experiences. Mount Street Gardens: a little gem of tranquillity tucked away in the heart of Mayfair behind London’s oldest butcher, Allens of Mayfair. A stroll along Southbank and crossing the Thames on the “wobbly bridge”, the Millennium Bridge. Nowhere else makes you feel quite like you are in London as much as this. The view of St Paul’s is staggering. Lunch at The Sun Inn pub in Barnes. So close to the concrete jungle but actually sitting beside the village pond of lost-in-time Barnes.
Steven McRae, principal artist, The Royal Ballet
London really is a land of opportunities; anything is possible. My wife and I regularly re-inspire ourselves by spending a relaxed afternoon walking down Bond Street, London’s street of luxury. If you want to finish your afternoon off in true British fashion, stop by Paul Smith, by far my favourite designer.
Bruno Loubet, chef, Bistrot Bruno Loubet
Spitalfields and Brick Lane: I love the vibe in this part of London. There’s lots to explore with many independent cafés and eateries. Brick Lane market on Sunday is a must. It’s chaotic and unique.
St Bartholomew the Great: just five minutes’ walk from Bistrot Bruno Loubet is one of London’s oldest churches, founded in 1123. St Barts is absolutely beautiful, with a fascinating history, and has appeared in many famous films including Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shakespeare in Love.
Tavola, Westbourne Grove: a small shop and deli. Alastair Little is of course a legend; he changed the face of modern British cooking. Tavola is a little gem and you must visit if you go to Notting Hill.
Brawn, Columbia Road: easygoing food with an excellent biodynamic wine list, and on Sundays there’s the bonus of the famous flower market on its doorstep.
Mourad Mazouz, restaurateur, Sketch and Momo
My favourite restaurant is Iberica in Great Portland Street; I love the atmosphere, and the tapas are the best in London. It was my local when I used to live around the corner and I still drive across town to visit. Great value and very relaxed.
As far as bars go I tend to always be in my own at Sketch. Although it’s in the West End of London, I consciously priced it like a bar in East London to attract a cooler crowd. DJs late into the night set the pace. If I need to be inspired, I will visit 69 Colebrooke Row, the bar with no name created by cocktail genius Tony Conigliaro. He does for drinks what Heston does for food. It’s very discreet and off the beaten track.
I love visiting Primrose Hill with the kids. It’s an unstructured park with an amazing view. And Alfies Antique Market is the place I pop to of a Saturday: superb antiques, and there’s a great street market next door.
Bella Pollen, author
All Saints Road in Notting Hill was once known for reggae clubs and loose joints. Then The Sugar Club restaurant opened, and virtually overnight the street was transformed into a serious food destination. Now, an artisan bakery called The Tin Shed is continuing the tradition of the place with the handiwork of award-winning baker Julian Sciascia. His fat, beautiful loaves are a must on my breakfast table and they will be on yours too.
Marco Pierre White, chef
I’ve lived in London for 30 years, and when you live here you can forget how beautiful it is. But when my friends come from Australia or America, I take them out and show them some of the great buildings. London is filled with institutional buildings – the architecture is magnificent. I love the Tower of London and Number One London, which was the home of the Duke of Wellington; even the ironwork in the Harrods building is dreamy. Spitalfields flower market is amazing, as is walking along the cobblestones of Covent Garden.
Fergus Henderson, chef, St John
Sweetings Restaurant, Queen Victoria Street, a place only open for lunch: it started as a wet fish shop so the surfaces have the tolerance to deal with the rigours of a good lunch.
Quo Vadis, Dean Street: Jeremy Lee has come back to Soho (yes!) to join Eddie and Sam Hart as the chef of Quo Vadis, with much merriment and fortunately no talk of sports at all. An oasis among establishments advertising “live sports shown here”.
Gordon’s Wine Bar, Villiers Street: a more cellar-like, damp and dripping place you could not find. Once ensconced in your vault, a bottle of wine to sustain you, anything could be happening outside – World War III, let alone the Olympics.
The Walnut Tree, Abergavenny: I know this is not in London but I would suggest that outside of London this is the best place to be. Where better to go to sample Shaun Hill’s delicious food? His cooking delights and makes sense. So leave London and go west rather than east.
My secret hope is that we get the Russian ladies’ shot-put team stopping at the St John Hotel. Just imagine the breakfasts.
Jacob Kenedy, chef, Bocca di Lupo
Moro and Morito: Moro is where I cut my teeth, became a chef, became a man. It remains to this day one of London’s best, as well as most enjoyable, places not only to eat but simply to be. It is a must for anyone new to London. Morito is their newer, adjacent tapas bar, and just as lovely.
The Hunterian Museum: this collection of medical and anatomical specimens in glass bottles dates from the Royal College of Surgeons’ acquisition of John Hunter’s collection at the end of the 18th century, but the display is thoroughly modern and stunning. It’s centred on a two-storey glass atrium lined with pickled appendages and critters that feels rather church-like. Entry is free and it’s nice and small – doesn’t take hours to go round.
Hampstead Heath (on a sunny day): be sure to pack a picnic blanket to lie on, a good number of beers or bottles of Prosecco, and clothes you can sunbathe in. Nobody gets as excited as the Brits when there is sunshine (we don’t get so much, you see) and the celebratory feeling is tangible, and exhilarating.
Laura Bailey, model and writer
I just asked a big ragtag gang of kids aged from three to 11 for their top London Olympics traveller tips and here’s what they yelled out, excitedly, competitively, all at once: “Battersea Adventure Playground, pizza at Pizza East Portobello, gelati at Dri Dri on Portobello Road, milkshakes at Lucky Seven Diner, Billy Elliot on stage, row boats on the Serpentine, open-top buses, and bicycling or skateboarding through Hyde Park.” If I could get a word in edgeways I’d suggest a gentle Saturday morning meander through Columbia Road and Broadway Market followed by a moreish Moorish feast at Moro in Exmouth Market.
Brett Graham, chef-patron, The Ledbury and The Harwood Arms
One of my favourite ways to enjoy London is to go for a long walk in Richmond Park with Winston (my pug) on a crisp, sunny autumn day when the leaves are all crunchy, followed by a venison Scotch egg and half a pint at The Harwood Arms in Fulham. Okay, it’s my place, but still, the Scotch eggs are very good. Another favourite place is Hampton Court Palace. I love taking visitors there for a real step back in time.
Jason Atherton, chef, Pollen Street Social
I like to hang out at The Arts Club on Dover Street for drinks and dancing. For burgers, I would definitely go to Meat Liquor. My favourite new venue is Quo Vadis in Soho – Jeremy Lee is a genius and is doing wonderful things there at the moment. Finally, if I had to choose a local place, it would be Chez Bruce in Wandsworth.
Russell Norman, restaurateur, Polpo, Spuntino and Mishkin’s
I love London’s markets and would urge you to visit at least one of these three: Borough Market is our premier food hub and positively teems with fresh produce and eager foodies every Saturday morning from eight. It’s evocatively situated beneath the railway viaducts that bring the commuter trains into London Bridge station and it’s a feast for the eyes and for the stomach. Portobello Road is also held on a Saturday morning and is worth a visit if, like me, you are interested in antiques, vintage clothing and general junk. If you’re lucky enough to have good weather on a Sunday morning, head to Columbia Road market in East London: a beautiful street of flowers and plants lined with interesting shops and cafés. It’s a joyful and uplifting place with plenty of surprises.
Marc Newson, designer
London favourites? St James’s Park. Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair. Berry Bros & Rudd wine merchants. John Lobb for handmade bespoke shoes. Sautter for cigars.
Rupert Sanderson, shoe designer
The best way to experience London is by bike. Nowhere is more than half an hour away. You’re fit, see and hear everything and feel part of the heartbeat of the most exciting city on earth.
Kathy Lette, author
My favourite walk is down the Thames, past Emmeline Pankhurst’s statue, to the old Tate. Cross Lambeth Bridge and walk back up past the Globe theatre to the new Tate. Zip across the Millennium pedestrian bridge to St Paul’s and take the trek to the top, past the Whispering Gallery, to discover the best view in London. I also enjoy lunch at The Prospect of Whitby and The Grapes (now owned by Ian McKellen), not far from Canary Wharf. These are two of the oldest pubs in London. And book theatre tickets to anything that’s on at the Donmar, the National, the Almeida and The Old Vic. Theatrical satisfaction guaranteed.
Elizabeth Bell, head of corporate communications, Royal Opera House
To escape the crowds during the Olympics, there’s nowhere better than Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanic garden. It’s an inspiring place of beauty, and the new Garden of Edible and Useful Plants has just opened.
Anya Hindmarch, fashion designer
The Royal Academy of Arts is a must. Beg, borrow or steal to get into the life-drawing room at the Royal Academy Schools. This is a well-kept secret but should be experienced by everyone.
The Secret Cinema is always a thrill and makes watching a movie an other-worldly experience. Buy your ticket and take a chance as the film, location and dress code are kept a secret until the last minute.
Rent a bike in Battersea Park at London Recumbents on a Saturday morning and have a hot chocolate afterwards.
Go to The Rock & Sole Plaice, one of London’s oldest surviving fish and chip shops. It was established in 1871 and is still bustling. Wrap up warm and eat outside under coloured lights strung from the trees.
COMPILED BY FRANCES HIBBARD, ANTHEA LOUCAS, PAT NOURSE & MONIQUE LANE PHOTOGRAPHY GETTY IMAGES
This article is from the June 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.