In any other year I would probably be in London today. It’s my favorite place to visit pre-Christmas and take the lit up city in while the rest of America stuffs itself with turkey. But, it’s a Covid world and you are probably not planning to travel anywhere soon. Think of this guide as an exercise in catharsis, and not only for me. Perhaps you’ll read it and it will inspire you to visit London whenever you can travel again.
I love London. I LOVE London to pieces. What I love about London specifically is its sense of history, the reverence for it that imbues the city, from its architecture to the blue plaques commemorating residency of historic figures, to the seals of royal family approval proudly displayed on facades of some businesses. There is something assuring – a sense of continuity with the past – and endearing in that for a New Yorker. New York has little sense of history – by and large we bulldoze the old in favor of the new and don’t think much about it. You can’t buy a book in New York in a shop that’s been there for two hundred years. You can in London.
Nevertheless, the pervading historicism does not preclude London from feeling like a global hive of modern activity that it is. I find this balance striking – London is a city where you can run around in a frenzy of Oxford street but also turn a corner and take respite in a park that feels yours. Also, they have a functioning subway system.
Unlike New York, London is much more spread out – a collection of villages that feel unique. For the reasons I’ve outlined above I will for the most part concentrate on central London. London is the one city in which I groan when a friend inevitably sets an appointment in the hipster East End. I have enough of that in New York, I want to tell them. I don’t need to see the overpriced, sterilized Shoreditch – I have Williamsburg for that. What I want to see is what we don’t have in New York – an elderly gentleman in a top coat, a bowler hat, and New Balance sneakers on a Mayfair corner, breakfast at the Wolseley, the groaning of the wooden steps at the Hatchards book store, or the soft light streaming from the skylight at Daunt Books.
Therefore, the first part of this guide imagines two walks: first, a meandering stroll from Regents Park down to London’s center. In reality that walk will probably take you two days. The second walk is centered around a handful of museums. That is followed by random things all over the place worth checking out.
WALK I (CENTRAL LONDON)
I recommend starting your walk from the top of the Primrose Hill, more precisely from the house where Friedrich Engels lived. There is a cafe next door to it, so you can grab a coffee to go (or “take away” as they say here) and head down the hill, cross a road and continue down the hill and on through Regents Park (which I prefer to Hyde Park, to be honest). You’ll want to aim your exit from the bottom of the park onto the Marylebone High Street. Your first stop should be the Conran Shop – an idiosyncratic interior design / gift store that’s pretty well curated. Sure, it tends to err on the side of Wallpaper magazine and beige cashmere – it knows its audience well – but you can still find a good gem for your home (true story – I bought my Rega record player on a whim there). In any case, it’s an institution and worth visiting.
If you are hungry by then, the Austrian restaurant Fischer’s offers a wonderful throwback in time – the one time I dined there I was the only person under fifty, which was pretty wonderful to be honest. If not, continue down Marylebone High until you hit Daunt Books. This Edwardian shop’s decor is one of the best – all oak wood and wonderful ornate windows. It originally specialized in travel literature and many books are still ordered by region (so you won’t find Dostoyevsky next to Dante).
The rest of the Marylebone High Street is what you’d expect – a host of little shops for the well-to-do, but its architecture is charming. If you are feeling fancy and have more stomach than I do for glossy-looking people you can detour to the Chiltern Firehouse, a former fire station turned into a posh hotel by Andre Balazs, of the Chateau Marmont and the Standard Hotel fame, and have a drink or lunch there.
Chiltern Firehouse or not, make sure to stop in at Perfumer H. Founded by Lyn Harris, of the Miller Harris fame, it’s one of the best independent perfumeries today, offering fantastic ready-to-wear and custom scents. Their candles are killer, too, and you can bring the handblown glass vessel back for a refill. The boutique’s mid-century decor is a gift in its own right.
From Perfumer H, make sure you pop down for coffee / snack / drink to the Zetter Townhouse. It’s a small hotel – and would be my hotel of choice if I were to stay in one in London – with a wonderfully charming (charming will be the word I use a lot in this guide) parlor downstairs. In any case, you will need something that contains either caffeine or alcohol before you hit Selfridges. But hit it you must, since it’s the only department store worth visiting in London / England / Europe. Not only is it the most fashion forward of them all – in the men’s designer department you’ll find Rick Owens, TheSoloist, Undercover, and Boris Bidjan Saberi once you run through the fuccboi sections gantlet (hey, it’s a department store after all), and in the women’s the most comprehensive Sacai buy outside of Tokyo – it also has a forward-looking fragrance section as well as a nice bookshop (it’s the only stockist left for my favorite literature publisher, Folio Society books)
Exit Selfridges onto Oxford Street and cross as soon as possible onto the other side to avoid the aforementioned consumer hell. And it is hell – imagine Broadway between Houston and Canal on a Saturday afternoon and multiply by four. But no worries, you’ll be rewarded soon by some of the most charming streets in all of London. Walk down to Mount Street and walk its entire length until the Connaught Hotel (doesn’t get more London than this), taking in the Queen Anne revival style architecture and more fancy shops (lots of fancy shops in London, trust me). Double-back and through an easy to miss entrance to the Mount Street Gardens. Take a breather there, it’s worth it, and then come out to the South Audley street where you’ll hit the Rick Owens boutique.
You may have little money left after the visit to Rick Owens, but perhaps enough for a shaving cream. A note on male grooming – London is still a place that caters to gentlemen of a certain level of taste. Forget all the hipster crap you know and all their faux traditionalism – the best stuff is in London and that’s where I shop for all my shaving needs. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years, and doing it well. So, continue onto Curzon St, and at Number 9 enter the original branch of Geo F. Trumper that’s been in business since 1875 (fun fact, that’s what Dries Van Noten uses himself and sells in all of his stores along with the clothes). The shop itself is a time machine that will transport you to the year of the brand’s founding. You can buy everything from a shaving cream to a brush gift set (to – no joke – a walking stick), and even get a traditional shave (by appointment) if you are feeling fancy. As far as products, I am particularly partial to their Eucris range – the entire world should smell like that as far as I am concerned.
After satisfying your grooming needs, continue through Berkeley Square, Burton Lane and Burton Street until you hit New (which quickly turns into Old) Bond Street. Though if you fancy an art detour, I highly suggest checking out what’s on in the blue chip art galleries of the area – Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and the newly opened Saatchi and Yates.
New / Old Bond Street is your regular Fifth Avenue, with all the fancy-fancy shops. It’s worth a stroll for the architecture and the shop windows. Make a right onto it and walk a few blocks until Vigo Street, make a left and see if there is a good exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts, stroll past and hit the Saville Row. Here you come to the center of the Earth as far as suit-making is concerned. And even though you won’t be getting a custom-made suit, I invite you to just stroll it. It’s an incredible feeling to know that there are still artisans making bespoke suits in this plastic world of ours. Just take it in and be happy it exists. Double back to the Royal Academy and stroll through the Burlington Arcade. A word on arcades – something we don’t have in New York, so absolutely a must to experience – they are basically little lovely tunnels of small shops. There used to be many more of them and Walter Benjamin dedicated a goddamn 900-page book to those of Paris, so you better visit.
At the other end of the Burlington arcade you will emerge onto the Picaddilly and behold the great Fortnum & Mason. And yes, it’s a cliche, but for a reason, so buy some tea and jam to take home, or some Christmas ornaments if you are in season. Next to Fortnum’s, which supplies tea to the Queen, is my other favorite bookstore, Hatchards, which supplies books for the Queen and has been in business since 1797. And if it’s good enough for the Queen, it’s good enough for you.
ST. JAMES / HAYMARKET
Loop around Fortnum’s and you will end up on Jermyn Street. This is another lovely London lane known for its shirtmakers. What you’ll want though is another grooming shop, Taylor of Old Bond St (est. 1854). You will want their Luxury Aftershave Cream for Sensitive Skin. It’s divine. Also, if you didn’t have enough time to pop into the Geo F. Trumper in Mayfair, they have a branch here as well, just a much humbler one.
At the end of Jermyn St, cross over Haymarket and make a right and you’ll hit the London branch of Dover Street Market. I imagine you are well familiar with the concept – this branch is my favorite out of all I’ve been to, and the only stockist for Paul Harnden in London.
From Dover Street Market you can make your way up to SoHo through the theater district. If you are immune to crowds, you can walk though Piccadilly Circus, though I prefer the back lanes. A long long time ago in a galaxy far away SoHo was cool. Now, just like in New York, it’s mostly an outdoor shopping mall. If you are feeling like more shopping, you can pop into Machine-A. It’s mostly fashion hipster stuff that seems to be curated by London’s fashion students, but you may find an occasional gem in there.
There are a couple of excellent places to eat there. The first one is Flat Iron. Let me stress that you are not allowed to leave London without eating at Flat Iron (unless you are vegan). The lines are long (they have other, less crowded locations), so what you do is get there before you get too hungry, put your name and number on a list and go have a pint at a pub around the corner.
If you are feeling more upscale, then I suggest Nopi, the restaurant from the Israeli chef wizard Yotam Ottolenghi. The food is absolutely outstanding.
This concludes your tour of Central London.
WALK II (MUSEUMS)
In reality you won’t be able to hit all of the museums at once, so you may also want to do this one over a two-day period.
Tate Modern – I know you know, but, you know… it’s a must and I suggest you start your morning here by taking whatever mode of public transportation you can (I prefer the bus). In addition to a fantastic permanent collection of modern art, there is a phenomenal bookshop, a good restaurant, and a great observation deck.
Cross the river back to the north shore via the Millennium bridge (for the nerds and parents with small children – that’s the one that was blown up by the Death Eaters in the 6th Harry Potter film).
Loop around the St. Paul cathedral (go in if you don’t mind paying 20 quid) and continue onto Ludgate Hill, which turns into Fleet Street, which turns into the Strand. You will probably be hungry by then, so treat yourself to fish and chips and a pint at the Punch Tavern, named in honor of the staff of the iconic and iconoclastic London satire magazine, who would hit the pub after (and during) their workday in its mid-19th Century heyday.
After being fortified, continue on Fleet street until you pass the stunning Gothic architecture Royal Courts. Here you have two choices. If you are feeling full of energy, you can head into Lincoln Inn’s Fields in Holborn for the two museums below, or you can continue onto the Strand.
The Hunterian – this absolute gem of a museum attached to the Royal College of Surgeons of England was supposed to reopen after an extensive renovation in 2020, but we all know how that went. It is now slated to reopen late 2022, so make a mental note. The museum has an astounding collection of vintage surgical instruments, anatomical models, and other cabinet-of-curiosities fare.
Sir John Soane’s Museum – in Lincoln’s Inn Fileds, a stone throw away from the Hunterian is a small museum based on the private collection of Sir John Soane, the British architect who died in 1837. Soane was a living testament that even in 18th Century England a person of talent and passionate curiosity could move up in the world. The son of a bricklayer, he showed aptitude and diligence and was awarded the Gold Medal for Architecture at the Royal Academy, where he later taught. An avid collector of painting, drawings, and objects, he left quite a treasure chest in his house that was turned into a museum. It’s not as impressive as the Hunterian, but still very much worth a visit.
If you choose not to detour, then check out the following.
180 The Strand – This is a new space, close to the Somerset House that’s a bit younger and trendier. Worth a visit if there is a good exhibit, but keep walking on if not.
Somerset House – just another palace turned into a museum, you know, no big deal (in London). The lovely courtyard is a major draw where you can have a coffee outside in the summer or go ice-skating in the winter. There is a decent cafe and a Rizzoli book shop attached.
The Barbican – this cultural center housed in a sprawling brutalist complex has it all – a museum, a symphony, a theater, and a cinema. The architecture is as much of a draw as the cultural program, and I highly recommend taking their architectural tour.
The Wellcome Collection – another gem of a museum that was formed on the basis of a private collection of a former pharmacist entrepreneur who collected everything from surgical instruments to Napoleon’s hairbrush. This is the one place where you can see Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” without pretty much anyone standing next to you. How this is possible, I have no idea, but this is one of the biggest gifts a museum has ever bestowed on yours truly.
FOOD / DRINK
The first time I went to London in 2001 the food was still notoriously dreadful. Since then London has undergone a complete food renaissance and is one of the best cities to eat in the world. Below is a smattering of my favorite places.
High on the list of things I would never do in New York but would in London is going to a pub. If the word conjures up the horrible Manhattan Irish pubs with bad food, worse people, and too many TV screens, I understand, but trust me, pubs in London are (or at least can be) nothing of the sort. English is a drinking culture and the pub is the great equalizer in a country where class divisions are still very much alive. Everyone goes to the pub, from the smartly dressed Chelsea bourgeoise to the Shoreditch hipsters to the working class.
Do some research, but If you find a proper historical pub, you will be transformed back in time – they are beautiful inside and out. Second, more often than not the food will be great, on par with many restaurants. And I’m down for a plate of fish and chips or bangers and mash any time.
In addition to the Punch Tavern mentioned above one of my favorites is the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead. Founded in 16th Century and reportedly frequented by Charles Dickens. Go for the Sunday roast if you can get a table. It’s very much worth the travel.
RESTAURANTS / CAFES
OTTOLENGHI – The Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi is no longer a best-kept secret, and neither are his mini-chain of cafes and his NOPI restaurant (also mentioned above). But they are still damn good. My favorite branch is in Islington (the neighborhood equivalent of Carroll Gardens) with its long communal table. Not all cafes have seating, or in some it’s extremely limited, so go off-hours or on a nice day where you can take the take-out to a park.
THE PALOMAR – Continuing with the Israeli theme, this is one of my favorite places to eat in London. The Mediterranean flavors just burst in your mouth. Reservations are a must, or do the London thing – put your name on the list, go have a pint somewhere around the corner and they’ll eventually squeeze you in at the counter.
THE WOLSELEY – This is a London institution that was born in 2003, when London’s food was still bad. Done in the Parisian Grand Cafe style, its decor is epic. The painter Lucian Freud had his own table there, so, yeah.
KITTY FISHER’S – Located in a charming Mayfair lane, this charming restaurant with totally charming service dishes out utterly charming modern British food. Did I mention how charming the whole thing is? Go!
POLLEN STREET SOCIAL – If you want to go proper upscale gourmand and drop a not insignificant amount of money, this has been one of the best meals of my life and a place where I discovered that the English cheeses are every bit as good as the French.
NOBLE ROT – located in the historic hotbed of intellectual activity, this wine bar serves fantastic food in an intimate setting. Enough said. There’s also a branch in SoHo, if you want to be a bit more central.
BERNERS TAVERN – My go-to brunch spot. Come for the stunning dining room inside the Edition hotel, and leave with a belly full of stellar shakshuka. Maintain philosophical distance from the rest of the patrons and remember that you can’t have it all.
FLAT IRON – see the SoHo section, but it has quite a few branches. A MUST!!!
BLUE MOUNTAIN SCHOOL – The sprawling four-floor complex in Shoreditch that began as Hostem is quite an experience – a clothing store with huge selections of Geoffrey B. Small and m.a.+, an art gallery, and a top-floor private dining restaurant, and a dedicated space for Perfumer H, should you not make it to their central London boutique.
ARTWORDS – a small and well-curated art book shop that’s certainly worth a visit.
THE LIBRARY – In case you want to buy Carol Christian Poell in London, this is it. Also, around the corner is a better branch of the aforementioned Conran Shop housed in a former Michelin tire building, which is certainly worth a look for its somewhere in-between Art Deco and Art Nouveau style.
OYSTER CARD – The best way to take advantage of London’s excellent public transport is to buy the Oyster card instead of paying the fare each time.
TAKE THE BUS – New Yorkers never take the bus because a New York bus is its own special kind of hell, of slow-moving hell. Not so in London. The double-deckers have their own dedicated lanes and the stops are spread out, so you can zoom through pretty quick. Plus, it’s a fantastic way to experience the city.
TAKE THE UNDERGROUND – Above and beyond the shitty New York subway. Yes, it will be crowded, but the next train will come in three minutes.
TAKE THE HEATHROW EXPRESS – If you are landing in Heathrow, take the express train into town. Expensive, but so worth it. It will get you to central London in 15 minutes.
MUSEUMS ARE FREE – Most major London museums are free. You just walk right in. The special exhibits you will have to pay for, but you can see the permanent collections for free. It’s fabulous.