Until now, my time in London has always been an airport layover on my way somewhere else. It’s not that I was against London – I just wasn’t convinced it was my cup of tea (pun intended). Boy, was I wrong. Londontown is full of energy, creativity and history and I fell instantly in love … so much so that I now want to live there someday. Part of its charm is that there’s a little something for everyone – from the posh digs of SOHO to the hipster scene in Shoreditch to the up-and-coming grittiness of Islington to the quaint streets of Notting Hill. You could visit London a dozen times and not even begin to scratch the surface. The essentials for your stay — walking shoes, a healthy appetite, a flexible schedule and yeah, you should probably have an umbrella.
…where to crash and get some R&R
During a very low key post-New Years cocktail crawl, we stopped by this edgy boutique hotel to check out the rooftop. What we found was a hot tub in the bar. OK, interested. The hotel is 100% rock & roll with plush, red furnishings, metallic skull accents and art inspired by legends – Jimi Hendrix not Justin Bieber. The rooms look pretty spectacular and if I haven’t sold you yet, there’s a cinema in the basement.
I can’t take credit for this find, but Molly at This Yuppie Life is awesome when it comes to hotels. She has never steered me wrong, even though I would live in Islington and she would live in Kensington should either of us ever relocate to London. Boasting a contemporary design and four-poster beds, it’s a mixture of modern and classic glamour, but small enough to have that quaint charm. The neighborhood is just as cute as the hotel and will be sure to put you in a London state of mind.
Ace establishments are always located in THE coolest areas and this one is no exception. It’s smack dab in the middle of the city’s hipster neighborhood, complete with food trucks, Doc Martins, eclectic, international cuisine and you guessed it, coffee. Shoreditch was one of my favorite neighborhoods to explore (there was a dance video happening when I exited the Tube) and a room here won’t break the bank.
…where to chow down and then unbutton the top button
Duck & Waffle (Financial District)
This is where my friends and I coined #inpursuitofsauce. Why? Because the sauce on the Roasted Chicken was the best sauce I’ve ever tasted and I spent about two hours trying to figure out what was in it before my waiter mercifully gave me the recipe. You could go here for the view alone – it’s on the 40th floor – so it comes as a bonus that the food is incredible too. The hip destination is also open round the clock, so good to have in your back pocket should you have the late night munchies.
Caravan (King’s Cross)
Caravan was an awesome discovery for brunch, a serious coffee bar (takeout is available too if you don’t want to default to Starbucks) and a happening atmosphere that was full of neighborhood locals. Housed in a former grain warehouse, the surroundings are industrial with high ceilings, brick walls and eclectic furniture, while the feel is very communal, even though the tables aren’t. The menu isn’t your average – choose from a variety of baked goods, toasts from Cheddar & Onion Jam to Field Mushrooms and larger plates such as Coconut Bread, Teriyaki Crab Omelette or a Sweet Potato and Cumin Waffle.
Ottolenghi (Islington & Everywhere)
I’ve had my eye on eating here ever since I received the Jerusalem cookbook – I’m obsessed with the flavor combinations in his unique, Mediterranean cooking. There are super casual locations all over London, but I hit up Islington since this was my resting place and we needed a good takeout option for New Years Eve. The dishes were light enough so we still fit in our dresses and delicious enough to feel satisfied. Just dream with me about Roasted Aubergine with yogurt, honey, pistachio and mint, Yellow and Red Beetroot with orange blossom and buffalo ricotta and Miso Quail with Thai shallots and grapes.
Pizza East (Shoreditch)
Located in an old tea warehouse in uber-cool Shoreditch, Pizza East is a sexy, upscale spot owned by the Soho House team, so you know to expect greatness. The menu is inventive with mouthwatering wood-fire pizzas, rotating seasonal dishes, and stellar cocktails. The have a killer brunch offering as well.
The Glasshouse (Kew)
I get around the neighborhoods in London, if you haven’t caught on by now. I’m so glad that my friend lived out in Kew for this restaurant alone and the main reason is the insane cheese board offered as a dessert option. But in reality, every dish we had on the menu was jaw-droppingly good. Plus, it’s definitely a neighborhood restaurant (the kind with a Michelin star) since tourists don’t usually get out here. I’d recommend the tasting menu for 50 pounds, a bottle recommended by the sommelier and hello, the cheese board.
…where to drink up and get down
La Bodega Negra (SOHO)
Jen heard about this place from the doorman at her hotel, and the minute he said "and its located in an old sex shop" she basically ran straight there. Sure enough, it’s a storefront with neon "adults only" lights down into a cellar to find a rollicking good time with kick-ass street/beach style Mexican food. They play old school hip-hop and there's a great bar scene in the lounge area.
With two restaurants and three bars, it’s hard not to find something you like at this London destination to see and be seen. If you’re looking to make a night of it (like I did), start with a more casual dinner in The Gallery (hope you like pink!) and then head to the East Bar - a cozy, modern circular bar complete with DJ to keep the party going. Each bar and restaurant has its own unique design and feel, but for me, nothing beat the bathroom - a collection of futuristic pods with multi-color lighting.
Pig & Butcher (Islington)
I was determined to have my very own neighborhood pub, you know, the kind were I could grab a pint and converse with the locals. This was it! Within walking distance from our apartment, it was a great place to end the night and we brought attention to ourselves when my friend ordered a Bellini … at night. Turns out, it was the best move because we made friends with the bartender who happened to be a musician on a break from touring with Joss Stone. We practiced British and Southern accents (I’m Southern) and made fun of each other. Trip. Made. Oh, and the beer was awesome. Food too.
Rumpus Room (Southbank)
Located on the rooftop of the Mondrian London, this is the spot where my friends and I decided to ring in the New Year. Lush red booths and an heir of old sophistication give this a genuine 20’s vibe, making it a perfect spot for casual drinking with friends and enjoying good conversation. And when weather permits, it’s the perfect place to have a cocktail outside and enjoy sweeping views of The Thames and London skyline.
I JUST BOUGHT THESE PANTS
…where to nab the best threads
Liberty London (Soho)
During the holidays, the décor is magical and it’s hard not to get in the spirit at this quaint, one-of-a-kind department store, with an entire floor dedicated to the seasonal festivities. For me, the floral arrangements wowed and the winter hats were hard to resist - I love my little red hat and think of strolling around London every time I wear it.
There’s something about going into a Molton Brown store in London. To me, they have the absolute best scents (favorites are Orange & Bergamot and Wild Indigo), and my favorite part is that they’re just a tad cheaper in Londontown. Great gifts, too!
Old Spitalfields Market (Shoreditch)
For truly unique items with an edge that can only be found in Shoreditch, head to this covered market. A mix between flea market, department store and European food market, the unique finds range from bags to clothes to antiques, with the occasional pop-up shop. And when you’re ready to have a glass of wine, there are lots of great options for getting off your feet. I loved noshing at The Grocer.
Duke St. Emporium (Mayfair)
A destination when you are up for an experience, as opposed to a clothing mission. The beautiful building houses British brand favorite Jigsaw and their sister store The Shop at Bluebird. When you’re done with clothing and accessories, stop for some conversation and coffee at Fernandez & Wells and finish off your day being inspired by art & books, specifically curated for this location.
The grande dame of gourmet grocers, Fortnum & Mason is famously known as the market where "the queen shops" and after having visited, it's very easy to see why Her Majesty is so devoted. This multi-level luxury department store, located on Piccadilly, is just over 300 years old and is exquisite. Fortnum houses a tea salon, wine bar, numerous restaurants, an ice cream parlour, spa, and so much more.
ANTS IN YOUR PANTS
…what to do when you can’t sit still
Claridge’s Tea Time (Mayfair)
A traditional tea is an essential stop on your journey through London and nothing will make you feel more like part of the cast of Downton Abbey (the posh part) than this 5-star hotel. You’ll enjoy classic tea fare such as warm scones (with cream!), bite-size sandwiches and pastries, while you enjoy the best teas from around the world. I also like to have champagne – I bet no one is surprised here. Sittings start at 2:45.
There’s a reason there are so many talented British actors on the big screen. It is the birthplace of Shakespeare, afterall. So it would be silly not have a night at the theatre or opera if you have time during your stay. Get tickets before you go if there is a hot ticket in town, but it’s easy to book last minute if you are undecided. Make a night of it with an early or late dinner.
I’m fascinated by WWII and this did not disappoint. Here, you can visit the underground war rooms that housed Winston Churchill and his staff while the Germans continuously bombed London. Not only does the bunker turned museum give you insight into one of England’s most famous leaders, but it also gives you perspective into the plight of the English during this volatile time in history. A must-visit if you’re a history buff like me.
At first, I didn’t want to go inside, as there were droves of people wanting to enter during the holidays. But it’s spectacular from the outside and I was curious … and in the end, oh so glad I fought my disdain for large crowds at touristy places. While most people were reminiscing over the wedding of Will & Kate, I was dying over how many British monarchs were buried here – Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth the 1st to name only a couple.
Set above the River Thames, this is an iconic landmark that will remind you of days gone by. Not only is it great for those quintessential photos, but I love that you can walk across it and enjoy the amazing views. It leads the way to the Tower of London that houses the Crown Jewels – I didn’t take this tour but heard it’s amazing if you’re in a touristy mood. Even I have those days.
There are a lot of churches across Europe, but this one is unlike any other. I find most old churches, while beautiful, to be dark and dreary, while this one is more a bright magnificence that gives you a glimpse of heaven (at least that’s what I thought). After you’ve listened to the church bells on the steps, take the audio tour through the world-famous dome delicately adorned in white and gold where Martin Luther King, Jr. once gave a sermon. Then, go down into the crypt for a peek into history.
About a two-hour drive from London, the Cotwolds is an amazing weekend trip if you can swing it during your stay. (It’s also worth the journey on its own.) This is what I’d always pictured England to be – fields of wildflowers, rolling green hills and quaint cottages. It’s idyllic, romantic and peaceful, especially when you need a break from the city. For all my recommendations, refer to my Weekender on the Cotswolds.