Unlike many major capitals, London lacks wide, straight streets. The roads that twist through the city are lined with buildings dating back to the 18th century. They are so tightly-packed that their foundations prevent London’s underground rail network, affectionately known as ‘The Tube’, from following the streets close to the surface. Instead the rails are buried deeper underground than in most other capital cities meaning that the 1.3 billion travellers who use it every year miss the majesty of this royal city. The best way to see London is to take to the sky.
Most flights into London arrive into Heathrow on the west of the city, which is the busiest airport in Britain and Europe by traffic. On a clear day you can get your bearings before you even touch down, as planes tend to circle over London and follow the river Thames on descent. Pressing your face against the window, you can see the Thames snaking through the city and spot the skyscrapers towering over the Square Mile - London’s financial district in the east. The pyramid-shaped Shard is the easiest to see, as at 306 metres, it is Europe’s tallest building. As you descend, you might even catch a glimpse of the Queen’s official residence, Buckingham Palace, the biggest single building next to Hyde Park in West London.
After passing through customs your chauffeured car awaits to take you to The Savoy (+44 (0) 20 7836 4343; www.fairmont.com/savoy-london) on the Strand right in the middle of the city. The hotel opened in 1889 and is proud of its heritage. It is split into Art Deco and Edwardian sections, which are themed to the heydays of the hotel. The Art Deco rooms are filled with teak furniture and lined with sumptuous leather wallpaper – the Great Gatsby himself would be proud of its luxurious touches including soft leather holders for the television remote controls and bedside photos of famous guests from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan. After unpacking ask the concierge to make a reservation for 7pm at the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone (+44 (0) 20 7073 7676; www.chilternfirehouse.com). For now it’s time to explore the local area and the most well-known sights are all within walking distance.
Leiscter Square is action packed and perfect for shopping in London
Strolling down the Strand you hit Trafalgar Square, which is famous for its centrepiece Nelson’s Column. It commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and is crowned by a statue of British naval officer Horatio Nelson looking towards the Big Ben clock tower. Across the square from Big Ben you will find Westminster Abbey (+44 (0) 20 7222 5152; www.westminster-abbey.org), the 700-year-old building where Prince William and Kate Middleton got married in 2011. It is also the burial place of numerous important British figures, so look out for the graves of Sir Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens.
Walking back and through Trafalgar Square will take you to Leicester Square, an entertainment spot filled with cinemas, nightclubs and casinos. Some of London’s most renowned shops are next door on Regent Street. The flagship is Liberty’s (+44 (0) 207 734 1234; www.liberty.co.uk), a department store famed for its craft ware and graphic prints. It’s also a good place to get a blow-dry and manicure as it is home to an atelier of celebrity colourist Josh Wood (+44 (0) 20 3393 3358; www.joshwoodcolour.com).
Head back to the Savoy via Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly (+44 (0) 20 7734 8040; www.fortnumandmason.com ) to grab one of their famous hampers to snack on later. Then ask your driver to take you to the South Bank where street artists perform by the river. Forget the 135-metre tourist trap that is the London Eye observation wheel and instead make your way to Royal Festival Hall (+44 (0) 20 7960 4200; www.southbankcentre.co.uk/venues/royal-festival-hall ), Europe’s largest centre for the arts. More than 300 free events take place in its foyer every year but the main event is found by taking a lift to the top floor where a terrace gives perhaps the best view in London: a clean sweep down the Thames from the spires of the skyscrapers in the Square Mile all the way down to Buckingham Palace and beyond. Admire the view over lunch from Skylon restaurant (+44 (0) 20 7654 7800; www.skylon-restaurant.co.uk ) which has floor-to-ceiling windows and a three-course lunch menu featuring cauliflower soup, braised beef and ice cream.
Cascading fountains at The National Gallery in London
Time for your car to take you a little further afield to St Paul’s cathedral (+44 (0) 20 7246 8350; www.stpauls.co.uk) on the fringe of the financial district. Statues of silver dragons mark the entrance to the Square Mile and St Paul’s is one of its most prized assets. Climb steps up its historic dome to try its whispering gallery where ingenious acoustics allow sound to travel around its circumference.
St Paul’s is one of the most photographed landmarks in London but shots of it usually have other buildings in the frame. The best way to avoid that is to nip across the road to the One New Change (+44 (0) 20 7002 8900; www.onenewchange.com) shopping centre and head to Madison’s bar (+44 (0) 20 3693 5160; www.madisonlondon.net) on the roof. It has an uninterrupted view of the dome of St Paul’s and a wide tapas menu. Sipping a cocktail while admiring Christopher Wren’s stunning architecture is a calming experience. It perfectly prepares you for more retail therapy in the boutiques down below.
London is dotted with peaceful little parks and one can be found just north of St Paul’s. It is known as Postman’s Park because a sorting office used to stand across the road. A minute’s walk away is Christchurch Greyfriars, a rose garden laid out in the original floor plan of the nave which once stood there. Time to break open the hamper from Fortnum & Mason.
Ask your driver to take you back to the Savoy to drop off your swag. Then take a short stroll to the Thai Square Spa Covent Garden (+44(0) 20 7240 6090; www.thaisquarespa.com) for some pre-dinner decadence. The warm jacuzzis, fragrant bathrobes and soothing lighting will soon make you forget how much you shelled out in the shops.
Shopping at the Fortnum & Mason Food Hall will delight any foodie
Now it’s time for your driver to whisk you to the Chiltern Firehouse where that all-important date awaits. The restaurant is an event in itself and is the latest offering from hotel impresario André Balazs who owns the luxurious Chateau Marmont in Hollywood and the Mercer in New York. The former fire station re-opened in 2013 and unless you have the Savoy concierge’s black book, you will need to wait six moths to get a reservation. Customers include Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Gerard Butler, Lindsay Lohan and even Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. The Grade II listed Gothic Victorian building has high ceilings, large mirrors and a busy open kitchen.
Head to The View from The Shard (+44 (0) 344 499 7222; www.theviewfromtheshard.com) at the top of the 87-storey tower, arriving before darkness descends to take in the panorama and other landmarks for your next trip. For one last chance to get an up close and personal brush with London’s royalty, dance the night away at Prince Harry’s favourite nightclub Boujis (+44 (0) 20 7584 2000; www.boujis.com) or Mahiki (+44 (0) 20 7493 9529; www.mahiki.com) where Kate Middleton’s sister Pippa could be out in force with her entourage. Be warned: after all that high-flying, it could be hard to come back down to earth when your whirlwind adventure in London finally comes to a close.