Classic London: a weekend guide


By Emine Saner

Photography by Ultraforma/Getty Images

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June 2016

London has layers of history, world-class museums and some of the most recognizable sights in the world, familiar from films and literature. It’s a huge city, but first-time visitors needn’t venture far from the centre, which is easy enough to get around. With a bit of careful planning, it’s possible to pack a lot in to make the most of 48 hours in the capital.

Friday

Evening - Make your escape

British Airways operates daily, worldwide flights to three of London’s major airports – Heathrow, Gatwick and London City – so you’re bound to a find a flight time that suits you.

As it’s your first time in the city, you’ll want a fairly central location for easy access to the iconic sights. The Langham, just north of Oxford Street, offers pure classic luxury – its Palm Court restaurant kicked off the tradition of formal high teas, after all. A more affordable option is the Rembrandt in Kensington, which is situated opposite the V&A and is a short stroll from Harrods.

Play ‘I spy…’ with London landmarks as you walk over the Golden Jubilee bridges – you’ll be able to tick off the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye and St Paul’s Cathedral

Once you’re checked in, make the most of your first evening by walking over one of the two parallel Golden Jubilee bridges, and play ‘I spy…’ with London landmarks as you go – you’ll be able to tick off the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye and St Paul’s Cathedral. On the south side of the River Thames, head for the Royal Festival Hall – if you can get there before 19:00 you might catch the tail end of a free concert. Go up to the second floor to the glamorous mid-century modern inspired Skylon restaurant and enjoy a signature Skylon cocktail – muddled grapes, ginger, Ciroc vodka, wild apple liqueur, lime and apple juice – with a view.

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  • The National Gallery, London

    Get arty

    The National Gallery was established in 1824 and is the seventh most visited museum in the world. The gallery is and has always been free to visit and some of the works of art on show include paintings by Turner, Constable and Cézanne.

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  • Beefeaters at the Tower of London © Arthur Tilley/Getty Images

    A history lesson

    The White Tower is the oldest part of the Tower of London, built during Norman times. The Tower was once a prison and before Elizabeth I became queen, she was imprisoned here by her half-sister, Queen Mary I. It's now home to the Crown Jewels, which are on display for visitors.

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  • Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ at the Tate Modern

20:00 – Late Tate

Walk along the south bank to Tate Modern. It stays open late on Fridays and Saturdays (the last admission is 21:15), so it’s a good time to see the museum’s gems – don’t miss Picasso’s Weeping Woman – without having to elbow people out of the way.

21:30 – Fish supper

Having worked up an appetite, treat yourself to Friday night classic fish and chips and a pint of London Pride at the Anchor pub by the river, a five-minute walk from Tate Modern. The pub has been cleaned up a bit (too much, some locals might say) but it still reeks of history – in 1666, the diarist Samuel Pepys is said to have watched the Great Fire of London raging across the river from a pub on this site. Its current incarnation is newer: a mere 250 years old.

Saturday

08:45 – Tower power

Get to the Tower of London just before it opens at 09:00 and head straight for the Crown Jewels – you might get them all to yourself. The big crowds descend later in the morning, but the first hour is still relatively peaceful. Join a Yeoman Warder (also known as Beefeaters) tour, which start every 30 minutes, and look out for the ravens, the historic guardians of the ancient castle.

12:30 – Escape by river

Zip across the Thames on a 90-minute round-trip river cruise from Tower Pier to Westminster, taking in even more iconic landmarks, while you enjoy a traditional afternoon tea.

14:00 – High life

Walk over London Bridge – not to be confused with Tower Bridge and discover Borough Market, a foodie paradise of artisan market stalls. After you’ve had your fill, whizz up to the top of western Europe’s tallest building and enjoy an unparalleled view of London from the Shard’s viewing platform, a dizzying 800 feet above the city.

  • Covent Garden by night © Shomos Uddin/Getty Images

    Did you know… ?

    There has been some kind of market in Covent Garden since the 1600s. It acted as London’s central fruit and vegetable market until 1974, when it moved to Nine Elms. The current market building was built in the 1830s by architect Charles Fowler.

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15:00 – Garden delights

Jump on the 521 bus to Aldwych – it will take you past St Paul’s Cathedral – then walk up to Covent Garden. Spend some time wandering the quaint streets and ornate market hall before walking west down Long Acre to Leicester Square to see if you can pick up last-minute cheap theatre tickets at the TKTS booth on the south side of the square.

17:00 – Art attack

From here, it’s a short walk to the National Gallery. You could spend weeks here, but this is a flying visit so pick up the Essential Audio Tour of 80 artistic highlights, including Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Have a cup of tea and a cake in the beautiful café to keep you going, before you take your seats at a West End show.

21:30 – Post-theatre plates

J Sheekey, a fish and seafood restaurant tucked away on a little street near Leicester Square, is the unofficial canteen for London’s stage stars. Its pre-theatre slots are renowned for their slick service to get you to curtain up on time, but go after the show and you may be dining with actors straight out of the stage door – but you’ll need to book ahead. The main restaurant is gloriously timeless, with wood paneled walls and crisp white tablecloths, but a seat at the bar (or in the adjacent less formal Oyster Bar) is better for people-watching.

  • Cornish fish stew at J Sheekey
  • The Wolseley

    Grand designs

    The building that now houses The Wolseley started its life as a car showroom in 1921, before it was transformed into a bank. Its stately interior is now the setting for one of the most acclaimed restaurants in London.

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  • Afternoon tea at The Savoy Hotel

    The British custom of afternoon tea dates back to 1840 and was invented to satisfy hunger between lunch and dinner. Though there are many variations, afternoon tea usually consists of small finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and cakes.

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Sunday

08:00 – Breakfast of kings

One of the best times to see London is early on a Sunday morning, when the streets are empty of traffic and the city feels fresh and clean – definitely worth sacrificing a lie-in for. Head to The Wolseley for eggs Benedict or a basket of freshly-baked pastries in the glittering Viennese-style grand café – easily the most glamorous breakfast in town.

09:15 – Visit the Queen

Book the first slot of the day to see the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace. The Queen’s London home is a few minutes’ walk from The Wolseley through Green Park – and if you’re early, take a turn around beautiful St James’s Park over the road. Make sure you take note of which flag is flying – if it’s the Royal Standard, it means the Queen is in. Time it right and you should emerge from the palace just in time for the changing of the guard ceremony, which usually takes place at 11:30 every day during the summer and every other day the rest of the year.

13:00 – Lunch at Dinner

It can take weeks to get an evening reservation at Heston Blumenthal’s Michelin-starred restaurant Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, but it’s much easier to get a table at lunch. Blumenthal’s menu is historic and British, with dishes inspired by recipes going back hundreds of years. It could well turn out to be the priciest lunch you’ve ever had – starters from £17, and main courses around £38 – but also the most exciting.

For a much more affordable option, the café at the Victoria & Albert museum is said to be the oldest museum café in the world and serves snacks and more substantial meals in three beautiful rooms, or the stunning courtyard garden in summer.

15:00 – Angelic voices

Most tourists take the full tour of Westminster Abbey but a different way to experience one of the world’s most important and historic churches – the site of every coronation since 1066, burial place of many kings and queens, and notable figures such as Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens – is to attend the Evensong service. You won’t get to see a great deal of the building (you’re ushered in and out again afterwards) but listening to one of the world’s best choirs sing exquisite choral music in this setting is something you will always remember.

16:00 – Clock work

You should emerge in time to hear Big Ben strike four. There’s time to wander through Parliament Square, past statues of Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, and take in views of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (or the Elizabeth Tower, to give it its proper name – Big Ben is the nickname of the bell).

17:30 – Jam or cream… or both?

After a packed weekend, you’ll be ready for a rest. Finish off the weekend with a pre-flight afternoon tea. The Savoy is known for its impeccable finger sandwiches, classic scones with jam and clotted cream, and some of the finest cakes in town – all served under the beautiful glass domed roof of the Thames Foyer. Booking is recommended, and don’t wear trainers or sportswear. But’s worth it for a classic British ending to a classic London weekend.