Insight Guides: Pocket London - APA (2016)

WHAT TO DO

London has some of the greatest theatres in the world and is at the cutting edge of fashion, music and the arts. For up-to-the-minute entertainment listings consult the weekly events magazine Time Out (www.timeout.com/london) or the newspapers Metro (http://metro.co.uk) and The Evening Standard (www.standard.co.uk), all three free and available at Tube and train stations as well as online. The weekend newspapers usually also include a listings guide – The Guide, which comes with Saturday’s Guardian, is pretty comprehensive.

SHOPPING

With more than 25,000 shops, London is a consumerist heaven, and it is no surprise that people flock here from all over the world just to spend, spend, spend. However specialised your retail needs, you can be sure that somewhere in this sprawling city there is a shop that can meet them. Unlike many other European capitals, Sundays and summer holidays are not sacred; London is a year-round shopping destination.

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Shop in style at Liberty

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Shopping streets and districts

While the size of the city makes it impossible to cover it in a week, from a shopper’s point of view London is relatively easy to navigate. The city is loosely divided into shopping districts, each offering its own experience. The underground is usually the quickest means of getting from area to area, while the bus system is excellent but less easy to navigate. Distances between some streets, such as Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, Regent Street and Bond Street, are short enough to walk.

Oxford Street is the capital’s main shopping thoroughfare, packed from end to end with hundreds of stores. West of Oxford Circus are a collection of large department stores, including upmarket Selfridges, John Lewis, House of Fraser, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer. All the main high-street chains have shops here, including enormous flagship branches of Topshop and Nike (near Oxford Circus) and Primark (near Marble Arch).

The shops on Regent Street range from upmarket high-street chains such as All Saints, Anthropologie, COS, Reiss and Superdry to designer brands including Burberry and Jaegar. It is home to Hamleys (Britain’s largest toy shop), the Apple Store, London institution Liberty and, on Lower Regent Street, sports emporium Lillywhites.

Tottenham Court Road is dominated by electronics and home stores. Charing Cross Road, while no longer the preserve of second-hand and antiquarian bookshops it once was, is still home to the bookworm’s favourite Foyles, whose flagship store is housed in the former home of Central St Martins College of Art and Design.

Covent Garden is one of London’s most popular retail areas, with shops ranging from high-street and cutting-edge fashion boutiques to quirky specialists selling everything from teapots to kites. Although Soho has never quite lost its seedy image, between the sex shops are fine delicatessens as well as some great fashion boutiques selling hip urbanwear.

In the Piccadilly area (the southern end of Regent Street), you’ll find the upmarket grocer’s Fortnum & Mason, notable for its gorgeous window displays, as well as some of London’s oldest shops, many of which hold royal warrants to supply the Queen and her family with goods. Nearby Jermyn Street specialises in menswear. Old Bond Street and New Bond Street, in Mayfair, offer a vast choice of designer labels. Savile Row, again in Mayfair, specialises in bespoke tailoring, and Cork Street, with its numerous galleries, is an art-lover’s dream.

Even in the mainstream West End there are unusual enclaves lined with boutiques and galleries, such as St Christopher’s Place. On villagey Marylebone High Street, gourmet food shops jostle with upmarket boutiques and several stylish homeware stores, including the branch of the Conran Shop that sparked regeneration along this strip.

The City now has its own shopping centre, One New Change, which offers stunning views of St Paul’s Cathedral from its 6th floor terrace.

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The Art Nouveau food hall at Harrods

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

For those wanting the best of European and international designer fashions, Knightsbridge, home to the high-class department stores Harrods and Harvey Nichols, has the highest concentration of such shops. Haute couture names from Armani to Yves Saint Laurent sit next to established British designers.

Although the King’s Road is no longer as trendy as in its sixties heyday, shoppers still flock to it for its concentration of upmarket chain stores, small boutiques and the Peter Jones department store on Sloane Square. Kensington Church Street is a favourite destination for antiques lovers. Notting Hill, home of Portobello market, also has many fashionable boutiques.

Further west, Shepherd’s Bush has become one of London’s premier shopping destinations since the opening of Westfield London. Alongside its high-street stores are numerous restaurants and The Village, a mall-within-a-mall housing premium brands including Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Far to the east, by the Olympic Village (opened 2012), is the vast Westfield Stratford City (opened 2011). In terms of area, it is the largest urban shopping centre in the European Union.

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A stylish boutique in Mayfair’s trendy Dover Street Market

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Markets

London has markets to suit all tastes. On Sundays, historic covered Spitalfields, near Liverpool Street, is a great place to spot up-and-coming talent, as fashion and accessory designers run many of the stalls. The market has an organic food section too. Also on Sunday, nearby cobbled Columbia Road is busy with stalls selling every type of cut flower and houseplant imaginable; this fashionable area is also dotted with independent boutiques selling hip fashions, homewares and gourmet organic produce.

With six heaving indoor and outdoor markets, Camden is the place to go for arts and crafts, furnishings and alternative fashion. In the west, iconic, colourful Portobello Road is renowned for its antiques but also sells fashions, food and bric-a-brac – Saturday morning is the best time to go.

South of the river, trendy Borough Market is a foodie heaven, with stalls ranging from the Spanish Brindisa to the resolutely British Ginger Pig and from Kappacasein (a cheese lover’s heaven) to the health-conscious Total Organic Juice Bar and Elsey & Bent grocers. Vibrant Brixton, meanwhile, is home to Europe’s largest Caribbean food market.

ENTERTAINMENT

Whether you are after theatre, opera, clubs or pubs, there is no shortage of entertainment in London.

Theatre

London’s theatrical history goes back to a playhouse opened at Shoreditch in 1576 by James Burbage, son of a carpenter and travelling player. Nowadays, London’s theatres – staging comedies, musicals and dramas – are concentrated in the West End. To buy discounted same-day tickets for West End shows, visit the ‘tkts’ booth in Leicester Square (www.tkts.co.uk; Mon–Sat 9am–7pm, Sun 11am–4.30pm).

Other theatres include the National Theatre at the South­bank Centre (for more information, click here; tel: 020-7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk), which stages innovative productions of the classics, some excellent modern pieces and the occasional rousing musical revival. The Old Vic (for more information, click here; tel: 0844-871 7628; www.oldvictheatre.com) specialises in revivals of the classics, while the nearby Young Vic (for more information, click here; tel: 020-7922 2922; www.youngvic.org) leans towards more recent, experimental theatre. Chelsea’s Royal Court Theatre (Sloane Square; tel: 020-7565 5000; www.royalcourttheatre.com) is famous for cutting-edge drama, and the buzzy café downstairs is a lovely place for a bite to eat or a drink, whether you are watching a show or not. Shakespeare’s Globe (for more information, click here; tel: 020-7401 9919; www.shakespearesglobe.com), on Bankside, stages works by the Bard and his contemporaries.

In addition to the West End theatres there are dozens of fine suburban playhouses and multiple fringe venues, championing new, experimental works. In summer outdoor theatre is popular, too, in venues such as Regent’s Park; check the local listings for details.

Musical theatre continues to be enormously popular, and the quality is generally high. Some shows are fairly permanently based at their theatres, such as the longest-running musical in the West End, Les Misérables at the Queen’s Theatre (51 Shaftesbury Avenue; tel: 0844 482 5160; www.lesmis.com), and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gothic masterpiece, Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre, (Haymarket; tel: 0844 412 2707; www.thephantomoftheopera.com). Other shows and exports from Broadway, like Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre (Aldwych; tel: 0844 482 5115; www.mamma-mia.com) and Wicked at the Apollo Victoria (17 Wilton Road; tel: 0844 826 8000; www.wickedthemusical.co.uk), have also made their mark.

Music, opera and ballet

Top concert venues include the Royal Festival Hall (for more information, click here; tel: 0844-875 0073), with its improved acoustics, and the Barbican (for more information, click here; tel: 020-7638 8891), home of the London Symphony Orchestra; the Royal Albert Hall (for more information, click here; tel: 0845-401 5045) hosts the summer BBC Promenade Concerts (the ‘Proms’), while the Wigmore Hall (for more information, click here; tel: 020-7935 2141) does chamber recitals. Lunchtime concerts are held in churches including Westminster’s St John’s, Smith Square (tel: 020-7222 1061) and St Martin-in-the-Fields (for more information, click here; tel: 020-7766 1100) and Piccadilly’s St James’s (for more information, click here; tel: 020-7381 0441).

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The London Coliseum

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

London’s main venues for opera are Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House (for more information, click here; tel: 020-7304 4000), where ballet is also performed, and the Coliseum, commonly called the ENO (tel: 020-7845 9300; www.eno.org), as it’s the home of the English National Opera (performances in English), in St Martin’s Lane. For modern dance, try the capital’s leading venue, Sadler’s Wells Theatre (for more information, click here; tel: 0844-412 4300).

Jazz venues include Ronnie Scott’s (47 Frith Street, tel: 020-7439 0747; www.ronniescotts.co.uk), Jazz Café (5 Parkway, Camden, tel: 020-7485 6834) and the Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho (10 Dean Street; tel: 0845-602 7017; www.pizzaexpresslive.com).

London is one of the best places to catch live music in any number of contemporary genres. The big-name venue of the moment is The O2 (Peninsula Square, Greenwich; tel: 0844-856 0202; www.theo2.co.uk), a 23,000-capacity arena housed in the former Millennium Dome. Other popular venues include the Art Deco O2 Academy Brixton (211 Stockwell Road; tel: 0844-477 2000), the more intimate O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (Shepherd’s Bush Green, tel: 0844-477 2000; www.o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk) and the Roundhouse (Chalk Farm Road, Camden; tel: 0844-482 8008; www.roundhouse.org.uk).

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Heading out for a night on the town in Soho

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Nightlife

London is a great place to party, with hundreds of bars and clubs offering an eclectic range of music to a diverse clientele. Soho has long been central to London’s mainstream nightlife, and still has plenty of great bars, though it is usually best to steer clear of Leicester Square. Try Bar Soho (23–25 Old Compton Street; www.barsoho.co.uk), a fun spot in the thick of the action; unpretentious, lively cocktail bar B@1 (20 Great Windmill Street; www.beatone.co.uk), and Guanabara (Parker Street; www.guanabara.co.uk), a fabulous Brazilian-themed space near Covent Garden. Madame JoJo’s (8–10 Brewer Street; www.madamejojos.com) is a Soho institution hosting regular club nights, the highlight of which is the Kitsch Cabaret show on Saturday night.

Shoreditch and Hoxton (near Old Street tube station) draw trendy crowds. At Cargo (83 Rivington Street; www.cargo-­london.com), live bands, DJs and a great café vie for space; 93 Feet East (Truman Brewery, 150 Brick Lane; www.93feeteast.co.uk) has a relaxed vibe with music ranging from indie to hip-hop to retro; while 333 Mother (333 Old Street; www.333mother.com) is a Hoxton stalwart offering highly eclectic music.

The rich, royal, famous and upwardly mobile like to party in the exclusive clubs of Mayfair and Kensington. Boujis (www.boujis.com), directly opposite South Kensington tube station, and Polynesian-themed Mahiki (1 Dover Street; www.mahiki.com) are favourite haunts.

Camden is the place to go for indie and rock music, with gorgeous, if faded, KOKO (1a Camden High Street; www.koko.uk.com) and sweaty basement venue The Underworld (174 Camden High Street; www.theunderworldcamden.co.uk) leading the way.

Brixton has a range of partying options as diverse as the area itself, including the Dogstar (http://dogstarbrixton.com), a dance bar at 389 Coldharbour Lane.

Dotted across town, superclubs such as Fabric (77a Charterhouse Street, Farringdon; www.fabriclondon.com) and Ministry of Sound (103 Gaunt Street, Elephant and Castle; www.ministryofsound.com) attract top international DJs.

For the gay scene, Soho and Vauxhall are your best bet, with endless bars and diverse clubs ranging from Heaven (The Arches, Villiers Street, Charing Cross; www.heavennightclub-london.com), home to the legendary G-A-Y club nights, to Fire (South Lambeth Road, Vauxhall; www.fire­london.net), serving up house and electro beats with plenty of flesh on show.

Most clubs don’t get going until midnight; some run all night. The Night Tube has made getting home easier for clubbers, although this only runs on Fridays and Saturday nights. On other days, your only options are an expensive taxi or a night bus.

SPORTS

Londoners have always been a sporty breed. For those looking to stretch their legs, there is horse riding and boating in Hyde Park, swimming at Hampstead Heath and rowing on the Thames. Many of London’s parks offer public tennis courts.

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Taking a dip on Hampstead Heath

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

The football season runs from August to May, with matches usually held on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The top London clubs are: Arsenal (Emirates Stadium; tel: 020-7619 5003; www.arsenal.com), Chelsea (Stamford Bridge; tel: 0871-984 1955; www.chelseafc.com) and Tottenham Hotspur (White Hart Lane; tel: 0844-499 5000; www.tottenhamhotspur.com). Wembley Stadium (tel: 0844-980 8001; www.­wembleystadium.com) hosts the FA Cup final and national games, as well as concerts. Rugby is played from September to April/May. Major Rugby Union games are played at Twickenham (tel: 020-871 222 2120; www.rfu.com/twickenhamstadium). Cricket is played in summer at the Oval (Kennington, SE11; tel: 0844-375 1845; www.kiaoval.com) and Lord’s (St John’s Wood, NW8; tel: 020-7616 8500; www.lord.org). Buy tickets well in advance for Test Matches.

Wimbledon is the venue for the famous two-week annual tennis championship in June/July. Seats for Centre Court and Courts 1 and 2 should be reserved six months in advance. However, you can queue on the day for outside court tickets, and you may be able to buy cheap returns in the afternoon. For information contact the All England Tennis Club (tel: 020-8944 1066; www.wimbledon.org).

2012 Olympics

In July 2005, London surprised itself by winning its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Considered a great success, the games saw long-­neglected parts of east London transformed to house the main stadia and Olympic Village. The main Olympic Park, now called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, was set amidst newly created parkland in Stratford and included the Olympic Stadium, Aquatics Centre, Velopark and Basketball Arena. Various other events took place around London, including beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade, equestrian events in Greenwich Park, gymnastics in the O2 Arena, football at Wembley, tennis at Wimbledon and open-water swimming in the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

One of London’s most famous sporting events is the Easter University Boat Race, during which rowers from Oxford and Cambridge universities race along the Thames from Putney to Mortlake. The London Marathon in April attracts the top athletes from around the world, as well as almost 35,000 other runners, many in outlandish costumes for charity.

CHILDREN

London’s parks and attractions guarantee youngsters a fun time. The Princess Diana Playground, in Kensington Gardens, has a huge wooden pirate ship and wonderful Peter Pan-inspired playground. In nearby Hyde Park is the Diana Memorial Fountain, where kids can dip their toes in. Animal-loving kids will enjoy a visit to London Zoo (for more information, click here) or the Sea Life London Aquarium (for more information, click here; look out for 2-for-1 offers with train tickets), while celebrity-spotters should visit Madame Tussaud’s (for more information, click here).

Children can clamber over the old buses and trams and play on pretend vehicles at the London Transport Museum (for more information, click here), while the Natural History Museum (for more information, click here) is home to the ever-popular dinosaur skeletons and a robotic T-Rex. The Science Museum (for more information, click here) has the interactive Garden play space in the basement plus the Pattern Pod and Launchpod. The Tower of London (for more information, click here) enlivens history thanks to Beefeaters with traditional costumes and stories to tell.

London has two toy museums. The V&A Mus­eum of Child­hood (Cambridge Heath Road; tel: 020-8983 5200; daily 10am–5.45pm; free) in Bethnal Green is the largest public collection of dolls’ houses, games and puppets on view in the world and has plenty of space for little children to roam. On a smaller scale is Fitzrovia’s Pollock’s Toy Museum (Scala Street; www.pollockstoymuseum.com; Mon–Fri 10am–5pm).

For toys to take home as gifts, shop at the vast Hamleys in Regent Street. Harrods is also fun for children and even has a pets’ department. A ride on the London Eye (for more information, click here) is an exciting half an hour for older children.

CALENDAR OF EVENTS

January New Year’s Day: London parade.

February Chinese New Year: celebrations in Soho’s Chinatown (centring on Gerrard Street), including traditional lion dances.

March/April Oxford versus Cambridge University Boat Race: the mighty institutions battle it out on the Thames from Putney to Mortlake.

April London Marathon (second or third Sun): the world’s largest marathon, with over 30,000 runners raising huge sums for charity.

May Chelsea Flower Show (third or fourth week): the most prestigious annual gardening exhibition in the world.

June Royal Ascot Races: horse races where the upper classes show off their new hats. Trooping the Colour (Sat nearest June 11): the Queen inspects the troops at her official birthday parade. All England Lawn Tennis Championships (late June/early July): the world’s greatest tennis players compete for the Wimbledon title.

July–September Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, known as the ‘Proms’: classical concerts for eight weeks at the Royal Albert Hall.

August Notting Hill Carnival (bank holiday weekend): huge Caribbean street party around Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road.

September Great River Race (Sat in early to mid-Sept): hundreds of traditional boats race from Richmond to Greenwich.

October Trafalgar Day Parade (Sun nearest Oct 21): celebrates Lord Nelson’s sea victory over Napoleon.

November State Opening of Parliament: watch the Queen and royal procession en route to re-open Parliament after the summer recess. Lord Mayor’s Show (second Sat): a popular pageant of carnival floats and the newly elected Lord Mayor in procession from the Guildhall to the Law Courts. Guy Fawkes’ Day (Nov 5): fireworks displays and bonfires across the city, commemorating the failed attempt to blow up Parliament. Christmas lights switched on in Oxford and Regent streets.

December Trafalgar Square is decorated with a huge Christmas tree, presented every year by the people of Oslo. New Year’s Eve: celebrations in Trafalgar Square and by the Thames.