Last year, London surpassed Paris as the world’s most-visited city, and one has to assume that many of those visitors were not first-timers.
Those London vets had already oohhed and aahhed over the crown jewels at the Tower of London, marveled at the splendor of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and tried their luck at making those inscrutable palace guards break into a smile. So what’s next?
Perhaps more than any city in the world, London has the ability to constantly surprise. Throughout the course of the year, I’ll take you to some of London’s most colorful areas for a deeper look at what makes them so fascinating.
First up is an area synonymous with luxury and elegance — where the shopping meccas of Old Bond and New Bond streets converge; where a dinner tab at Claridge’s or the Connaught can set you back a week’s wages (but where the people-watching is worth the price of admission), and where “putting on the Ritz” means more than checking into the luxe Piccadilly hotel.
Grab your passport (and your credit card.) Our first stop is ever-so-posh Mayfair.
Shepherd Market, sandwiched between bustling Piccadilly and elegant Curzon Street, is often described as the heart of Mayfair, and tourists happening upon it unaware might feel as if they have tumbled down Alice’s rabbit hole.
It retains something of the village feel it had in the 18th century, when a collection of alleyways radiated out from a central piazza. The area had an even earlier incarnation as a marketplace (hence the name) established by King James II in the 1680s, primarily for cattle-trading among the gentry.
Today, it’s a hodgepodge of small shops (you have to love a barber who would name his establishment Jack the Clipper), art galleries and restaurants offering cuisine ranging from Turkish (Sofra) to French (L’Artiste Muscle) to surely the oddest culinary combo, Polish/Mexican (L’Autre Polish-Mexican Bistro.)
To be part of the scene, go to Shepherd Market after work hours on weeknights, when nearby barristers, hedge fund managers and their trust-fund clientele converge, spilling out from popular pubs The King’s Arms and Ye Grapes.
If you exit Shepherd Market on the Curzon Street side, turning left will take you to Park Lane and Hyde Park, passing elegant 18th- and 19th-century buildings. One of the most elegant is Crockford’s, an oh-so-exclusive gambling club. You’ll know it by the crimson banner hanging above the door and the frock-coated doorman, who appears as unapproachable as those Buckingham Palace guards.
Going right on Curzon, you’ll arrive in Berkeley Square. You might not hear nightingales warbling, but you will see beautiful buildings lining the square.
Number 50, now home to an antiquarian bookseller, was known in the 19th century as London’s most haunted house, after a number of people who spent the night in an attic bedroom either died mysteriously or went insane.
If Number 50 gives you a chill, you can make it disappear at the Square’s newest hot spot: Sexy Fish. This glamorous Asian seafood restaurant and bar features over-the-top décor (the mermaid bar sculptures are by Damien Hurst, and the fish lamps suspended from the ceiling are by Frank Gehry); a private-function room boasts two of the world’s largest coral reef tanks, and a staggering whiskey collection includes the world’s largest offering of Japanese whiskeys.
A 10-minute walk across Piccadilly to St. James will take you to Spencer House, the London townhouse that once belonged to the ancestors of the late Princess Diana. Several rooms are open to the public, and their opulence is manifested in Roman murals and gilded palm trees.
Another spot whose opulence will thrill you is The Wolseley, just down from the Ritz Hotel. With the ambience of a 19th-century Viennese coffee house (cathedral ceilings, columns, chandeliers and ornate mirrors), it’s a perfect spot for breakfast before taking in an exhibition at the Royal Academy or shopping at Burlington Arcade and at Fortnum & Mason, the Queen’s favorite emporium.
When it comes to shopping, Mayfair practically wrote the book on it. The main thoroughfares of Old and New Bond Streets anchor the most exclusive shopping district in London, home to more Royal warrants (suppliers to the royal family) than anywhere else in the capital.
For the female of the species, there’s Cartier and Tiffany, Chanel and Dior; for the male, the gentlemanly splendor of Savile Row, where sartorial elegance is a byword.
The area also is home to Sotheby’s, the famed auction house where in 2010, Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s piece L’Homme Qui Marche commanded a record price for a sculpture sold at auction: $104.3 million.
Even if you’re not in the market for art, book a table for afternoon tea at Sotheby’s café; languidly fan yourself with a program, and act as if you haven’t found anything worth spending your money on.
Once you’ve sampled Mayfair’s charms, seek out its equally posh neighbor, Belgravia. Just south of Buckingham Palace, Belgravia is one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves, with grand terraces where imposing white stucco mansions overlook lush green squares.
Often described as “regal London dressed in its Sunday best,” Belgravia has been home not just to the fabulously rich but to the fabulously famous, with seemingly every other building boasting a blue plaque indicating that someone of note lived there.
Among those famous residents were composer Frédéric Chopin; actress Vivien Leigh; former prime ministers Benjamin Disraeli and Margaret Thatcher; novelist Ian Fleming, and two of the actors who portrayed his literary creation, Sean Connery and Roger Moore.
Belgravia’s glamorous mystique is enhanced by the presence of many foreign embassies, including those of Italy, Germany, Spain and Turkey. In an area this civilized, one can’t imagine anything but permanent détente.
If you’re looking for a Michelin-starred dining experience, book a table at the Halkin Hotel’s oddly named Ametsa Experience with Arzak Instruction. A mouthful, I know, but the only instruction involved is that of being led through a feast of Basque country dishes, prepared by Elena Arzak, the 2012 recipient of the Veuve Clicquot best female chef in the world award.
Other Mayfair-area restaurants definitely worth checking out include the legendary Dorchester Grill, which has undergone a renovation that has changed the look from that of an Edwardian-era gentlemen’s club to a 1930s-era glamor spot, complete with mirrors, chandeliers and caramel-colored leather banquettes.
Equally glamorous is Le Caprice, a sister restaurant to other London icons Scott’s, J. Sheeky and The Ivy. With its classic black-and-white interior, framed photos by renowned photographer David Bailey, and a pianist tickling the ivories, it’s hard not to imagine that you’re on a movie set.
As for Mayfair accommodations, the names Dorchester, Claridge’s, Connaught and Ritz say it all. If you’re looking for something a bit less intimidating but worthy of a Mayfair location, here are two suggestions: Metropolitan by COMO and the Beaumont.
The Metropolitan on Park Lane — a member of Singapore-based COMO, which has hotels from Miami to the Maldives — is sleek and contemporary, and the recent redesign, using natural colors of wheat, green and berry, succeeds in bringing neighboring Hyde Park into the 144 rooms. The Cosmopolitan is home to noted celeb hangouts the Met Bar and Nobu restaurant.
Having opened in 2014 in a historic building on a secluded garden square, the Art Deco Beaumont is a real find for the traveler. With 73 accommodations, an intimate bar and uncompromising service, it has the feel of a private club.
Try to book the suite on whose roof renowned sculptor Antony Gormley created a stunning piece of stainless steel and oak dubbed Room.
While you’re in a Mayfair frame of mind, enjoy an experience on the Belmond (formerly Orient Express) British Pullman train. This little sister to the Venice Simplon Orient Express offers a number of themed excursions ranging from murder mystery evenings to afternoon jaunts to some of England’s most glorious gardens.
Whatever itinerary you choose, you’ll travel in style in custom-designed carriages decorated with gleaming brass and Art Deco marquetry — a fittingly glamorous end to a tour of one of London’s most glamorous areas.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer and restaurant critic. Contact her at email@example.com.