Destination – London
It is impossible to recommend the best of London, the immense choice being part of its unique charm, but unless you prefer the seclusion of a deserted island you will find that whoever you are and whatever you like to do, you can be sure to find it in London. I have lived in London since I was 18, and I?ve experienced life in the North, the South, the East and the West, ending up settling in the West ? and when I get the rare chance to spend a weekend in London, this is my blueprint for the perfect two day break.
There is a real pleasure in finishing work early on a Friday (to be bettered only by taking it off entirely) and spending the day shopping – secure
in the knowledge that you are avoiding the inevitable Saturday crowds. Take the tube to Bond Street and walk down South Molton Street popping into Browns and the other high end stores, and then cut through Conduit Street and into Dover Street market where the boutiques provide the perfect balance of designer brands and emerging labels. Similarly Carnaby Street has an increasing number of independent pop-up stores that embrace the one-off creations coming from the fresh influx of talented new designers. From here you can choose to carry on shopping, heading into the newly regenerated Regent Street or Oxford Street, or you may prefer to simply head home, ready to prepare yourself for an early start to the weekend.
Now more sophisticated and less grimy than it used to be Soho is an absolute must for anyone visiting London
A Friday night spent in Soho is a great reminder of my earlier days in London, and over recent years Soho has undergone something of a transformation. Now more sophisticated and less grimy than it used to be, Soho is an absolute must for anyone visiting London. It really is a true expression of the capital ? its explosive atmosphere and fusion of cultures comes at you with a distinction owned by Soho. Shoreditch, Islington and Chelsea are all great little pockets of London, and each has its own distinct personality which typifies its residents, but in Soho you will find all walks of life crammed shoulder to shoulder in its bars, clubs and restaurants united by its spirit as the preeminent destination of ‘play’ in London.
Polpo on Beak Street is one of my favourite places to start my Friday night. Created by Russell Norman after his first visit to Venice in the 1980s, it embraces the Venetian passion for food. Delicious Italian dishes showcase simple, fresh ingredients, made from whatever was fresh at the market that day, and whilst the upstairs restaurant has a few cramped tables for up to 40 or 50 diners, I bypass the restaurant queue and head straight to the downstairs Campari bar. Here the expert bartenders mix some fabulous cocktails (not all Campari based) accompanied by some Venetian style tapas known as Cicheti ? small plates of simple traditional recipes that make wonderful early evening bar snacks. In the same vein, the cocktails are inexpensive, generous and perfectly prepared, setting the tone for a lively night ahead. Wait for a table upstairs or head to any of the sister Polpo restaurants ? or if you have planned ahead and reserved a table, another of my favourites has to be Hix. Well renowned and for good reason, Hix showcases Mark Hix?s daily changing menus of seasonal British food and brings a real sense of occasion to your evening. The interiors are simple but incredibly tasteful, the walls being a gallery of modern British contemporary talent. After dinner, head down to the late night cocktail bar Mark?s – the laid back, gentlemen’s club style interior, is a pleasure for anyone who appreciates an environment where time is taken to do things properly. The Chesterfields, smokey mirrors and lighting compliment the ceremony of cocktails ? each expertly prepared and served in fitting glassware, designed to expose the 20th century London meets New York style cocktail bar. The quality of Hix continues at Bobby?s Bar at Bob Bob Ricard where a 1930’s art deco style lends an upmarket opulence and superb cocktails are washed down with plates of Russian style Zakuski. Check out the daily changing aperitif, and the house Pink Rhubarb Gin & Tonic is an absolute must-try.
Nights in Soho can go on for as long as you can, and depending on your mood you can choose to try the number of late night jazz bars, my favourite being Jazz After Dark on Greek Street. Open until the very small hours, Jazz After Dark is everything it should be ? small, dimly lit with the occasional flash of neon, intimate, and playing great music. If jazz isn?t your thing, there is enough happening in Soho to fulfil all tastes, so don?t feel the need to curtail your evening ? turning the nearest corner often presents an alternative worth exploring.
Sometimes you will find a bargain, but sometimes you won?t, and the best finds are those made with no expectation, just the child-like sensation of rummaging through your mother?s wardrobe and finding something that catches your eye.
Notting Hill on a Saturday requires energy and the right frame of mind, but if you weren?t up too late on Friday night, it?s a great way to spend the day. In recent years Notting Hill has sadly seen an influx of bigger chain shops and cafes, but there are still a number of local independents that make Notting Hill extremely special. My first stop of the day is Café Respiro, a true Italian café where the coffee is made and served as it should be ? with no frills, just excellent quality. Shelves are laden with olive oils and pastas for stocking up your cupboards, and the walls are a true expression of the owner?s individual style, giving space to much loved DVD covers and posters of Italian film. The music selection is always excellent and in perfect complement to the seriously good and simple food. Whether it is the yogurt and fruit, the salads, or the cooked dishes, everything packs a serious punch of flavour. Even the humblest
dish becomes a treat when drizzled with their olive oil, and portions are of sensible size with no nonsense thrown in.
Having refuelled after a cappuccino, head off towards Portobello. Don?t be in a hurry and don?t plan on buying anything in particular, just enjoy being able to wander. Portobello?s increasing clothes and jewellery stalls are tailored towards tourists, but when you get towards the Westway there are a number of vintage stores selling everything from vinyl LPs to Hermes. Sometimes you will find a bargain, but sometimes you won?t, and the best finds are those made with no expectation, just the child-like sensation of rummaging through your mother?s wardrobe and finding something that catches your eye. Do be prepared to haggle as the stall-holders will expect it, but don?t go too far, stall prices are rising and everyone has to eat!
After a busy day at Portobello you deserve a drink. Montgomery Place provides a grown up and sophisticated start to the evening with 1 or 2 of their expertly mixed cocktails ? particularly the killer Bloody Mary (virgin only if you must). There is also a great selection of bar nibbles and sharing plates if you fancy it, but for a change of scene, or if it?s getting really busy, Notting Hill has a number of low key dinner options which are perfect after a hectic day out.
Ripe Tomato is the local, rustic Italian ? a small and lively basic Italian, with an unbeatable atmosphere. The food won?t be the most intricate you?ve ever tasted, but the laid back staff and cosy environment can be the perfect antidote to a day spent on your feet. Do remember to take cash ? it?s strictly no credit cards.
Tom Conran?s The Cow is another good choice ? you may need to book on a Saturday, but you can sometimes grab a table in the bar. Managing to present the style of a London bistro with the warmth of a traditional local, the food here really is superb. Start with a pint of prawns, shared with a bottle of crisp dry white, moving on to crab linguine, or even a pie and a bottle of stout ? whatever you like, you will find it done to the very best here, and with the most infectiously relaxed attitude. The Cow has been a firm favourite with the locals for years and on sunny days the crowd stretching outside will reach as far as The Westbourne on Westbourne Park Villas, merging into an amalgam of happy west London regulars.
After dinner head to Portobello Star somewhere you may not have noticed as you wandered about earlier in the day, but coming alive by night. The cocktail list is extensive and the obliging bartenders will always make you whatever you might want, just make sure you?re in a lively mood and happy to join in with the best the atmosphere can throw at you. Moving on again, The Paradise by way of Kensal Green is a great late night haunt and this Saturday 12th May is The Paradise Show, featuring resident DJ Ali B and a west London crowd that might include a few recognisable faces.
After the past 2 days, you?ll be in need of a quiet and relaxing Sunday, best spent meandering along the South Bank. The world?s largest single run arts centre, the South Bank is home to an unending number of free exhibitions, festivals, theatres and markets, meaning you need never have to plan ahead ? just turn up and you are sure to find something to appeal. The South Bank Book Market is somewhere to while away the hours browsing its unique collection of second hand and vintage books, and even non-art lovers are just in time to catch the last of David Shrigley?s ?Brain Activity? a collection of witty and humorous drawings, photos and installations showing at the Hayward Gallery until 13th May. Even in London?s inevitable wet weather, the South Banks has an upbeat ambience, and being the home of British Film at the National Film Theatre, it provides the ideal place to cocoon yourself enjoying one of its art house films. Grab a beer from the NFI canteen and wander at will amongst the entire complex stopping when something catches your eye. Then either wander further along the South Bank passing the great selection of new bars and restaurants reaching as afar as Borough Market
and on towards the Globe, crossing over Southwark Bridge to get to Trafalgar Square and on to the National Portrait Gallery to catch the Lucian Freud exhibition until 27th May, or on to Piccadilly to see the Johan Zoffany exhibition on until 10th June.
Finish the day with afternoon tea or early supper at The Wolseley. Reopened in 2003, the Wolseley?s grand interior of staircases, pillars and archways was originally built as a showcase for the British Wolseley car company, and now perfectly captures the café scene of the grand European tradition. The menu answers every whim, serving a variety of dishes throughout the day. You can enjoy scones and cream teas while your partner has steak frites, and the constantly buzzing atmosphere makes the Wolseley deserving of its cult status.
If you?re visiting London for the weekend you can fly directly into TAG Farnborough Airport and stay at Aviator. A frequent train service into London Waterloo can have you in the capital within 35 minutes, and across into west London within the hour.
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