TRAVEL: Doing London right
How to visit the big city in style, even though you are paying in rand
Perhaps you have a memory of the beginning of time, when the rand was actually stronger than the pound. However, years of feeling like poor cousins of the UK are now our reality, and past experiences of having coughed up billions for an espresso at R24 to the pound have been seared into our minds and wallets.
Nevertheless, while the rest of the world basks in the rosy light of Cyril’s new dawn and our currency clings to a more pleasing rate of around R16.50/£, we’re going to make the most of a touch of light travel to London.
Sure, you’re probably not going to book yourself into the presidential suite at the Dorchester for a two-week loll-about. Nor are you going to drop it like a Russian oligarch in Belgravia’s swag boutiques. That shouldn’t mean you can’t experience the best and coolest that the Big Smoke has to offer. Hitting the high streets and stocking up on the likes of Uniqlo jerseys and Deciem beauty products aside, here are our picks of the best places to stay at, eat at and visit if you’re stopping by in the next few months.
Where to stay
We have two thoughts on staying in London. One is to go old-school and central. The other is to go east — to the hipster hotspots of Shoreditch and Hoxton. They’re grittier and trendier. If you’re set on ensconcing yourself in the former and its hub of theatres and department stores, we’d suggest you look at the bijou jewels operated by Firmdale Hotels. Don’t be surprised if you bump into a celeb at one of these boutique babies. The hotels are all decorated by Kit Kemp, who’s a designer and co-owner, and so all sport her trademark style of mad patterns and colours. Try the Covent Garden Hotel, which is just off the Seven Dials. Or the nearby Haymarket Hotel.
Our favourites in the Shoreditch area are "budget boutique" The Ace Hotel, with its reception area crowded by cool kids working away on MacBooks, and the adjoining bar, club and restaurant that are adored by those in the know. Down the drag and diagonally opposite Aldgate East tube station is the new Leman Locke. This chic high rise offers mini-apartments at exceptional rates. They come complete with tiny kitchens, and higher rooms offer spectacular views over The City. Not up to cooking? There’s the much lauded Treves & Hyde bar and restaurant downstairs.
Where to eat
Banish thoughts of London being all about greasy pub food, kebab stores and overboiled Brussels sprouts. Today it is the epicentre of the food universe. Everywhere you turn there is somewhere marvellous to eat.
And we’re not just talking about the celeb spots. Rather, it’s all about relaxed food to share with friends. Take the Polpo restaurants, for example. They’re at six cozy spots across London that offer Venetian-style fare. Order a carafe of wine (smaller than a bottle, good to share between two people and more friendly on the SA pocket) and perhaps some mushroom and truffle arancini or lamb meatballs.
The Dishoom outlets do a similar thing, also across the city, but with Indian food. Order bowls of biryani and dhal and spicy okra fries. Add raita and cabbage, pomegranate and mayo slaw for something fresh. You can’t book for dinner, so go early to avoid insane queues.
El Pastór also does small plates, this time Mexican. It’s tucked down a street at London’s epicurean home, Borough Market. We came unstuck over mushroom, caramelised onion and Oaxaca cheese tacos, followed by their confit pork equivalents.
Then there’s Oklava in Shoreditch, which does modern Turkish food. Chef Selin Kiazim, a finalist in the BBC television series Great British Menu, offers pides (flat breads) to be eaten along with chilli roast cauliflower and zucchini, feta and mint fritters.
And the best of the many small meals? We reckon it’s at The Barbary in Covent Garden. As the name suggests, it’s inspired by the food of the Barbary Coast (a term used to describe the land of the Berber people from the 16th to 19th centuries). In modern terms that’s more or less the coast between Morocco and Israel. Think seasonal dishes like Ashkenazi chicken livers (heavenly), cuttlefish, lamb cutlets and fennel fattoush. It’s not cheap, but if you’re going to splurge, it should be here.
It’s also worth noting that the biggest trend in terms of London food has to be the rise of veganism. You can get pure veggie stuff at every restaurant, corner shop and stall, and sandwich stalwart Pret A Manger has an entirely vegan sub-brand of stores called Veggie Pret.
What to visit
Samuel Johnson said in 1777: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." Now, 240 years on, the writer would still say the same. Visit the theatre, walk yourself to a standstill, go to museums and talks. There is never a dull moment.
We’d make for the Tate Britain to see All Too Human, a spectacular retrospective of 20th-century British painting that includes staggering works by the likes of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Euan Uglow. It’s on till the end of August. Across the Thames, at the Tate Modern, you’ll be lucky to catch Picasso 1932 — Love, Fame, Tragedy. The show chronicles the work produced by the master in that one pivotal year.
For beauty of a different kind, might we suggest London’s gardens? If you’ve never been to Kew — the Royal Botanic Gardens to the west of the city — you are missing out. This beautifully tended bastion of flora and botanical research features plants from all over the world. There’s a spectacular, humid Victorian greenhouse filled with palms, an alpine greenhouse for mountainous plants and the Princess of Wales Conservatory that’s teeming with big and small beauties from biomes across the planet.
For a garden of smaller proportions, try the Chelsea Physic Garden. It’s nestled in the chichi suburb and is a space that was developed in the 17th century as a place to grow plants used by apothecaries. It still displays things grown to heal and help.
On the other side of the visual spectrum is London’s street art and graffiti. Wheatpastes, stickers, tags and throw-ups abound. The area around Spitalfields, Hoxton and Brick Lane is where mystery man (or is it woman?) Banksy started working his or her particular brand of magic. We’d meander the streets, coffee in hand, and see what we came across. Or for more focused engagement, we would take a guided walking tour, like those offered by Shoreditch Street Art Tours.
That’s sure to give you a different perspective on what you see.