In our continuing coverage of elegant travel, today we bring you an article about enjoying classic London in the cold months of the year. With intense heat waves striking big cities more frequently in the summer, and many attractions indoors, visiting a large city such as London in the winter has distinct appeal. Think twinkling lights, mild temperatures and a plethora of charm. Here at the Gentleman’s Gazette, we consider elegant travel to include plenty of opportunity to exercise one’s wardrobe, eat fine food, experience interesting cultural attractions, and shop. Furthermore, elegant travel should allow one to set their own pace and be accessible to a range of budgets, tastes, and interests. Now on to London.
London is famously expensive, and accommodations are definitely the one of the biggest expenditures to consider. Famous hotels such as the Dorchester, the Lanesborough, the Goring Hotel and the St. James are opulent destinations in themselves and are well worth consideration if they suit your budget. After looking at numerous hotels, apartment rentals through companies like FlipKey, and smaller B&Bs or boutique hotels that we usually prefer, the options were all still pricey for the value. For many, the hotel is a key part of the travel experience, and while we agree, we tend to spend most of our time outside the hotel at museums and restaurants. Accommodations do need to be well located, comfortable, visually appealing, and as elegant as one’s budget will allow.
Luckily, one of our kind readers directed us to London Connection, an American firm based in Utah that owns a multitude of private properties in the core neighborhoods of London. The company has owned London properties for nearly 3 decades, and they offer a wide range of accommodations, including properties large enough to sleep 8 or more. This company offers a definite advantage for those wanting the comfort of a home, relative quiet, and a more “native” experience, while offering a range of choices under one roof. The service is also more personalized, and the staff helped direct us to a 2-bedroom, 2-bedroom Covent Garden flat that would comfortably house a couple and a friend in an energetic neighborhood close to London’s many famous sights for under $200 a night. Perfect for those that are happily self-guided (i.e. no concierge/front desk on the premises), the kitchen also allowed us to simplify some daily travel annoyances by being able to keep breakfast items, coffee, and snacks in the flat as well as do the occasional load of laundry. Reliable, uncongested WiFi was also a benefit.
Once we arrived in London, we were met by our pre-arranged driver (for an extra 55 pounds) and he took us directly to our flat. A London Connection staff member met us soon after and walked us through the flat. Other than feeling a little smaller than pictured, everything else looked exactly like the property listing showed. Once unpacked, we quickly realized that Covent Garden was packed with shops and restaurants within easy walking distance. In fact, distances between the sights and our flat were manageable to the point that we only took a cab on one occasion that week (and it wasn’t much faster than walking) and on some days, we were able to skip using the Tube entirely.
Overall, the London Connection accommodations offer much better value than many hotels or other B&B’s we could find, and the flats look much nicer. Although our flat was priced at just under $200 a night, London Connection also offers budget options for around $100 a night as well as luxury homes with 5 bedrooms for under $600 a night. At every price point, it seems like you get much more than a hotels or B&B offer, as long as the hands-off management approach works for you, all in addition to staying in prime locations in London. It definitely saved some time, stress, and money. Altogether, we would definitely recommend looking at their rates next time you’re in London.
Even if you haven’t been to London, the major sights are probably not difficult to name. Once you get settled it’s nice to first have an overview before deciding where to invest your time. Given about a week in a major city, we usually like to spend a day getting oriented with a self-guided walking tour, about three days visiting the sights, about two days shopping, and finally one day at a day trip destination, mixed and matched as needed depending on the mood, weather, and energy.
Since London offers so many ways to entertain, here are a few highlights. For museums, the British Museum could easily keep a history buff occupied for a full day or more. Collections spanning from ancient to modern offer a fascinating glimpse into how human culture has evolved over the centuries. For those interested in British history, tour ancient Roman collections for a true deep dive and then proceed to the impressive Greek and Egyptian collections for a taste of modern Britain’s exploratory obsessions. The National Portrait Gallery deserves no less attention, and it is especially enjoyable for those interested in both history and art. The museum offers an interesting means of putting famous names and faces together, including the only known portrait of Shakespeare and some impressive pieces of the royal family through the years. The Gallery is also positioned conveniently on Trafalgar Square, not far from the Thames. The Tate Modern, though more sparsely hung with art, is a perfect counterpoint to the often heavy, dense art found in other major museums. Happily, most major museums are free, but they are rather large. Because of their size, you can avoid museum burn out by visiting one per day, and mixing in other classic London sights such as the Tower of London, the London Bridge, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Parliament Square & Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, or the famous department stores or parks. As always, choose what interests you the most.
For an interesting day trip, consider Blenheim Palace. It’s a splendid English country estate that is the seat of the Duke of Marlborough, and the childhood home of Winston Churchill. Though some of the exhibits in the house are a bit dated, the palace offers a fascinating view into centuries of aristocratic English heritage, the ebbs and flows of fortunes (including the famous marriage of American Consuelo Vanderbilt with the Duke of Marlborough), and the lives of the upper classes. Enjoy the spectacular grounds, painting collections, and the sheer size of the property. Start the morning at Blenheim, enjoy high tea with a view of the fountains, and then spend the afternoon exploring the quaint villages of the nearby Cotswolds. Charming towns in this region feature still active high streets lined with 500 year old Tudor and thatch roof cottages built by virtue of a booming wool trade in centuries past.
My guess is that many of you will agree with the statement that a vacation without good food is not a good vacation at all. While I understand that many destinations, such as an isolated national park, simply don’t have the infrastructure or proximity to offer great food, an international destination like London should overwhelm you with noteworthy choices. That being said, England doesn’t have a good reputation for food, and while many say it is improving, our experience only confirmed it. Not wanting to miss out on a traditionally English experience, we did opt for an afternoon Champagne Tea, but even that left us unimpressed (aside from the raisin scones) and out forty pounds. We gave other classic British food a try to be fair, but we can only recommend that in London you enjoy the many, many other food options that aren’t British.
The food in London was a surprise. Not only were we spoiled for choice with many restaurants within easy walking distance of our flat, but the variety of international flavors to choose from was quite deep. Furthermore, food prices were rather reasonable compared to museum entry fees and accommodations. A few recommendations:
Dishoom is hard to praise enough. With a full house even at 10:30 at night, this popular modern cafe style Indian was intensely flavorful and neatly presented. Try the Chicken Ruby and you won’t be disappointed. Covent Garden.
Pierre Victoire is a small French cafe that serves impeccable cuisine de Francais in a homey atmosphere. Expect close quarters and brusque service but with food that doesn’t disappoint. Covent Garden.
Pearl Liang is a Chinese restaurant worth the jaunt. Offers a nice range of excellent Dim Sum, and the Szechuan Green Beans were an absolute highlight. Paddington.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon is the place to go if you like fine dining on a Michelin star level. Considering that it will take months to get a reservation at the Paris restaurant we were surprised that you could walk right in to the London outpost on a weekday, though I wouldn’t try that on a Saturday night. For a culinary experience extraordinaire, sit by the bar downstairs and watch how your food is prepared or for classic white table cloth dining, go upstairs.
If you fancy a drink in a quintessential British Upper Class environment, you can’t go wrong with the Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel. Currently, the hotel is undergoing renovation but it really is a splendid place to enjoy a gentlemanly drink! If you prefer a more modern ambiance, the Long Bar at the Sanderson Hotel is probably the right place for you. Expect to pay at least $20 for a standard drink but bear in mind that it is the experience that counts, not just the drink.
Vintage London Shopping
Shopping in London is an absolute delight for the classic men’s clothing enthusiast, especially considering that England is “home” to many classic garments, fabrics, and cuts. Shopping ranges from true bespoke tailoring on the inimitable Savile Row to vintage shopping in the Old Spitalfields market. Gentlemanly accessories such as hats, canes, cuff jewelry, hats, ties and pocket squares are all offered by a range of new, high-quality and vintage stores. Aside from fashion, antiques, food and home design are also wide ranging and readily available. Leave plenty of time to browse! Here is a selection of interesting shops and destinations.
Since Savile Row has been well covered on the web, I decided to explore a few paths less traveled by focusing on antiques and vintage goods. I met with Ray Frensham, a fellow clothes horse who was also featured in I am Dandy, and he graciously took some time to show me some of London’s hidden gems.
First, we began at the rather exotic Michael German Antiques shop, which specializes in vintage canes, arms and armor. It was a pleasure to chat with the staff and I was introduced to a number interesting walking canes. In Victorian times, a cane was a gentleman’s necessity and purely decorative. As such, it wasn’t unusual to own 50 or more canes – one for every occasion. Some of them were made of rare materials such as hand carved ivory, or precious metals, cloisonné enamel, rare woods such as ebony and even stones. Because they were basically a men’s accessory like cufflinks or a tie, Victorian gentleman had specific cane cases for travelling. Today, canes are mostly a collector’s item that can be found all over the world but I have never seen such a quality selection anywhere else. Apart from intricately carved handles and stunning craftsmanship, we could also admire a rather simple cane that belonged to the always elegant Jack Buchanan. If you wear white tie with gloves and boutonniere, you may want to top off your outfit with a beautiful cane. When off duty, it can be used for decoration in an umbrella stand. Now, if you are more interested in canes, I can only recommend the book Vertical Art, which is filled with exceptional photographs of over 400 canes. To preview a few pictures, click here.
Right next door to Michael German, we visited Hornets Kensington, a vintage shop with all kinds of interesting English garments and accessories that you will likely not find outside of England. Located at 2 & 4 Kensington Church Walk , London W8 4NB this little space is packed with clothes and on the wall you can see the alleged first Barbour Cape ever made, various memorabilia, boater hats, striped blazers and hunting tailcoats in “pink” (which looks in fact red). There you can find all kinds of jackets, tweed suits, morning coats top hats and tennis sweaters as well as all kinds of other accessories. It reminded me a lot of Rudolph Beaufays in Hamburg, Germany, but Hornets is considerably smaller.
Because of size limitations, they just opened another store that at 36b Kensington Church Street , London W8 4BX which is within 2 minutes walking distance. This store is packed with vintage men’s clothing just like the other store, which requires some digging. If you are in the area, definitely stop by and take a look.
From there we took the tube to visit David Saxby in Fulham. We wrote about them in the past and it seems like their vintage section is shrinking, while the selection of new clothes is growing. When we stopped by, David was present and we had a nice chat. One of his assistants had worked at Old England in Paris before and now moved to London – you could tell that he was very passionate about men’s clothing and that they want to provide you with a garment that suits you and makes you happy. Sadly, you won’t find this kind of store very often anymore.
One of the things you definitely have to visit while in London is flea markets. If you have any appreciation for antiques or vintage goods, you will love them. This time, we visited Old Spitalsfields Market where we had some Caribbean food for lunch and my wife found a beautiful fur coat for £95. I picked up a doeskin vest in camel for a few pounds. Also recommended are the Camden Passage Markets as well as Brighton & Lewes markets. If you are in town on Friday morning, definitely check out Bermondsey Antique Market, which is considered by many to be the number one antiques market in London.
More Vintage London
Of course, you will find all kinds of other stores in London, most of which offer fantastic products. Just think of Burlington Arcade or Piccadilly Arcade. You will find many antiques or vintage pieces. I suggest, you spend a day just strolling around London’s shopping streets and posh neighborhoods and you will come across all kinds of interesting and unique little stores. Of course, with rents being astronomically high, the items are sometimes very pricey but every once in a while you will find something inexpensive.
Keep a final few tips in mind. London’s damp, gloomy reputation has surely preceded it, so bring with shoes that can handle both the walking and the frequent rain. The sun also sets relatively early in the day in the winter, so concentrate outside experiences in the morning or early afternoon. Carrying an umbrella daily is a wise idea – the stereotype of the London business man with a suit and an umbrella exists for a reason! Buy a new SIM card for your phone. You can buy them at vending machines conveniently located at the exit of the airport terminal, so you can maintain a data connection for looking up attraction hours, public transportation routes, and restaurant reviews. Even if you plan on having your phone, don’t hesitate to buy a small city guide book. We’ve had good experiences with Top 10 books because they break chapters down into neighborhoods, among other reasons. Alternately, carry your tablet with you and connect with WiFi as it’s available. Since it’s Europe, carry a water bottle to avoid shelling out 2 pounds each time you’re thirsty.
What is your favorite spot or shop in London? What travel guides do you recommend and what are the best London restaurants in your opinion? Please let us know in the comments below!
Just in case you were wondering, this article was a collaborative effort of my wife, Teresa Schneider and I…