Vast, bustling, overwhelming. London can be all of those things for a first-time visitor. But that’s all part of its charm. Follow Londoner FRANCESCA LYNAGH through the streets of The Big Smoke as she reveals her favourite local hangouts.
Emerging from Piccadilly Circus tube station for the first time, it’s normal to feel a little dazzled. There is frantic activity all around – music blaring from the speakers of street performers, big red buses roaring past, the bright lights of the billboards beating down on you. If you stand agape for too long your chances of being pick-pocketed increase, so first things first … coffee.
Wind your way through Theatreland towards Monmouth Street where you’ll find Monmouth Coffee serving the freshest of brews to be enjoyed perched on a little bench outside. While London certainly does do coffee well, the beverage it’s most famous for is London Dry Gin. The “Gin Craze” came about in the18th Century and became the vice of the poor. These days the City of London Distillery hosts guided tours and workshops to teach visitors more about the history of gin and how to make it. The best part is that you can even take a personalised bottle of gin home with you.
Londoners know that Soho is a great area for wining and dining – as long as you’re clued up. For a special night out, don your best outfit and book a table at Bob Bob Ricard. It has a luxury English-Russian menu and a “Press for Champagne” button on every table and is, in fact, famous for serving more Champagne than any other restaurant in the UK. Next month they’re opening up their sister restaurant, Bob Bob Cité, in London’s iconic “Cheesegrater” building right in the heart of the city.
At the end of the Victoria line lies Brixton – a diverse and trendy area that has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the last few years. You may not come across world-famous museums, art galleries and theatres there, but you will find some of London’s coolest local hangouts.
Vibrant street art covers the walls here; you just need to stroll around long enough in order to spot some of them. Much of the artwork was made by locals and funded by the council after the famous bloody riot of 1981. The world-famous David Bowie mural that became a public shrine for the singer is located on Tunstall Road.
Right around the corner from the tube station is Pop Brixton – a selection of brightly coloured shipping containers housing independent food and drink vendors where you can easily while away an evening munching on sourdough pizza and sipping on craft beer. A favourite restaurant among Brixton locals, Kricket, actually started life inside one of those Pop Brixton containers. Three years on and it’s found a home under the railway arches, serving up a delectable selection of modern-Indian inspired dishes to the coolest of crowds. The menu at this Brixton spot is constantly changing and acts as a testing station for the subsequent Kricket branches in Soho and White City. If you’re lucky enough to be there on a Sunday, be sure to check out their roast menu.
After that, you won’t have any trouble finding a drinking hole to carry on the night. But if you’re looking for something a little bit different, head to Gremio de Brixton – an intimate spot in the crypt of a church.
Now heading to the east side of London, where the locals are spoilt for choice when it comes to trendy hangouts. To work up an appetite before lunch, take a stroll through the delightful Columbia Road Flower Market. Aside from the oasis of gorgeous flowers lining the street, you’ll also discover a handful of independent shops, art galleries and delis. It’s a far cry from the intensity of Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, and you’ll feel like a local as you browse.
It would be a travesty to leave London without having a curry; it is after all Britain’s national dish. And Brick Lane, otherwise known as London’s curry mile, is where you need to go to find an authentic curry house. Don’t expect anything too swanky, just a selection of no-nonsense restaurants serving up creamy kormas and spicy vindaloos.
While central London has a lot going on with its karaoke booths and gay bars – Hackney, Haggerston and Dalston are bursting with trendy spots to enjoy a tipple or two. Mare Street Market is a large space offering everything you need for a great night out. Not only is there a restaurant, a bar, an antique store and a pop-up jewellery shop, there’s also a DJ spinning tunes at the far end of the vast space. Get a steaming hot sourdough pizza delivered to your table as you enjoy much cheaper drinks than you’d get anywhere more central.
WHEN TO GO
Anytime. You might hear that it rains all the time in the UK, but that’s not strictly true. Just be sure to bring a brolly with you to escape the April showers.
WHERE TO STAY
THE ACADEMY This newly refurbished small hotel in Bloomsbury is a well-located and stylish base for your trip to London. It only has 50 rooms and is close to the British Museum. Be sure to try a seasonal cocktail at the botanic-themed Alchemy bar. theacademyhotel.co.uk 21 Gower St, Fitzrovia
BANKSIDE On the other side of the river, this design-led hotel is right on the waterfront. It boasts elegantly finished rooms and a creative community space, just a stone’s throw from Tate Modern and Borough Market. Banksidehotel.com 2 Blackfriars Rd, Upper Ground
Thieves on mopeds have been causing trouble in the capital recently. They’ve been mounting pavements and snatching phones from people, so just don’t wave yours around too obviously. Watch out for pickpockets around tourist hotspots too.
A Zone 1 journey on the London Underground costs £2.40 using a contactless card.
Expect to pay over £5 for a pint.
WALK Try to spend as much time walking as possible; it’s the best way to discover hidden corners of London.
TUBE The Underground is pretty easy to navigate once you get your head around it. Don’t be afraid to ask people – Londoners are a friendly bunch, as long as your remember to stand on the right hand side of the tube escalators.
PUB GRUB f you want to be a true local, settle into a cosy pub for a Sunday roast with all the trimmings. Between Putney and Hammersmith Bridge you’ll find plenty of local spots. Neither The Crabtree or The Dove will disappoint.
Visit this website for a comprehensive list of things to do with kids in London
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