LONDON — London is the world's most popular travel destination, according to a recent survey released by Visit Britain, the nation's tourism marketing entity. With 2,000 years of well- preserved history and a reputation for cool, the British capital is hard to resist.
We continue our London tour with two of its most fascinating areas.
This area southwest of Hyde Park allegedly got its name in the year 1141, when a group of knights escorted Queen Matilda across a bridge over the River Westbourne, a small tributary of the Thames. Had the area been in the Middle Ages what it is today, her husband, King Henry I, might have had them escort her right back.
Knightsbridge is now the best place in London to max out your credit card. Names like Dior, Prada, Chanel, Armani, Gucci and Christian Louboutin are enough to give fashion lovers palpitations.
Even with this star power, most shoppers come to Knightsbridge for a gander at two of the world's iconic department stores, Harvey Nichols and the legendary Harrods — both as much museums as high-priced shopping emporiums.
Harvey Nic's has seven floors dedicated to high fashion and one to food and drink. On the fifth floor, you can sip a grand cru in the champagne bar; dine casually in the brasserie; or have a gourmet meal in Season Restaurant, where the menu and décor change with every season.
If Harvey Nichols is stunning, Harrods is mind-boggling. Arguably the world's most famous department store, it is always full of gawkers snapping pictures of everything from the Egyptian gallery to the wildly extravagant Food Halls.
Opened on its current site in 1849, Harrods covers 5 acres and has 330 departments. Among its 26 food outlets are the Caviar House Seafood and Oyster Bar; Caffee Florian, an 18th-century Venetian-style coffee house; and a Disney Café.
Harrods' store windows are known for dazzling displays, and it even has its own bank where you can purchase gold. You can't, however, look like a slob while doing it. The store has a dress code not just for employees but for shoppers. If you're wearing a muscle shirt or sporting a Mohawk, you will be asked, politely, to leave.
A few blocks from Harrods is charming Beauchamp Place, with one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants. Ogle the designs of Bruce Oldfield; poke around the stacks at the antiquarian Map House; join Russian emigres for vodka and balalaika music at Borscht 'n' Tears; or book a table at San Lorenzo, a favorite haunt of the late Princess Diana.
Where to stay: The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park is action central — across the street from Harvey Nichols, a few blocks from Harrods, and Hyde Park at its back door. Rooms and suites are decorated in classic English style, and the spa offers full-day packages.
Finding a Michelin-star chef in a London hotel is hardly an oddity, but finding two is unusual. The Mandarin has acclaimed English chef Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, Dinner by Heston, and Daniel Boulud's more casual Bar Boulud. During a recent trip I tried the latter; it was packed to the gills, with hopeful diners (those without a reservation) queuing in hopes of snagging a table. (66 Knightsbridge. Mandarinoriental.com/ london.)
Where to drink: What is a London afternoon without a spot of tea? Pop into the Egerton House Hotel, where ea is served in the cozy lounge (opt for the Floral Tea), then stick around for one of head barman Antonio Pizzuto's classic martinis. (17-19 Egerton Terrace. Redcarnationhotels.com/egertonhousehotel.)
This area has so much to offer it's hard to know where to start. Should it be a tour of Kensington Palace, home of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, followed by an amble along the Serpentine lake in Kensington Gardens? Perhaps a visit to the Museum of Natural History, with its imposing Gothic façade, or a concert in the spectacular Royal Albert Hall? Or just a leisurely morning in one of the area's many sidewalk cafés.
Where to stay: The Milestone Hotel occupies several Victorian townhouses overlooking Kensington Palace and Gardens. Its 44 rooms, 12 suites and six apartments are design and décor works of art. Enjoy tea in the cozy drawing room, lunch in the glass-enclosed conservatory overlooking the herb garden and dinner in the clubby Cheneston's Restaurant. The Milestone routinely cleans up in Conde Nast Traveler's and Travel + Leisure's People's Choice Awards. (1 Kensington Court. Milestonehotel.com.)
Must-see: If the British Museum is the heart of Bloomsbury, the Victoria & Albert is the soul of Kensington. The world's largest decorative arts museum, the V&A has 145 galleries containing art, architecture, fashion, jewelry, paintings and sculpture spanning 5,000 years. Whether you gravitate to medieval or modernism, baroque or art deco, you'll find it here.
From the Dale Chihuly sculpture in the main rotunda to the large pool in the central courtyard, the V&A is one of London's style icons. (Cromwell Road. www.vam.ac.uk.)
Hidden gem: Just off Kensington High Street on Derry Street is a nondescript building you would walk right by — unless you knew what awaited you 100 feet above street level.
The Derry Roof Gardens are divided into three areas: the Spanish Garden, whose palm trees, fountains and colonnades are modeled after Spain's Alhambra; the Tudor Garden, scented with lavender, lilies and roses; and the Woodland Garden, where pink flamingos cavort on the grassy banks of a stream. The gardens are free but might be closed for special events. (Derry Street. Roofgardens.virgin.com.)