Unlike many major capitals London lacks wide, straight streets. They twist through the city and are lined with buildings dating back hundreds of years. 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 417 million travellers who used it last year missed the majesty of this royal city. If the sky is cloudless when you’re coming in to land you’ll see it in all its glory.
Most flights into London arrive into Heathrow to the west of the city, which is Europe’s busiest airport. 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 1,000ft, it is Europe’s tallest building. As the descent begins you might even catch a glimpse of the queen’s official residence, Buckingham Palace, which is identifiable for being the biggest single building next to the sprawling Hyde Park in west London.
After passing through customs grab a taxi to the Ham Yard hotel (+44 (0)20 3642 2000; www.firmdalehotels.com). It’s right in the middle of the action but could be a world away. Sitting on a peaceful square behind the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly Circus, the hotel has a style which would suit a country house. There’s an ornate stone fireplace in the lobby, comfy sofas in the conservatory and a charming roof garden with a fountain and vegetable patch. The homely style continues in the bedrooms as walls are lined with pages from old-fashioned cookbooks, the lights look like oil lamps and the bed has a deep padded headboard. It is so big that you could comfortably sleep in it width ways. To recover from the flight, fill up the tub in the cavernous marble bathroom and soak whilst watching the TV which is set into the wall opposite. Before heading out, ask the concierge to make a reservation for 19.00 at the Chiltern Firehouse (+44(0)20 7073 7676; www.chilternfirehouse.com). It’s the hippest place in town.
It’s time to explore the local area and many of the most well-known sights are all within walking distance. The world-famous Trafalgar Square is just ten minutes away on foot and is where you will find 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 British luminaries so look out for the graves of Sir Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens.
Walking back to the hotel will take you through Leicester Square, an entertainment spot filled with cinemas, night clubs and casinos. Keep an eye out for a red carpet and paparazzi in front of the Odeon cinema which is often home to world premières. Then grab a selfie in front of the statue of the winged archer in the middle of neighbouring Piccadilly Circus which is London’s equivalent of Times Square, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Time for lunch in the Ham Yard restaurant which serves three-courses including a duck and rabbit terrine, roasted aubergine and a lemon tart. Painted organ pipes separate the tables whilst lights appear to hang from straw hats which are actually made from recycled bottles. For a quintessentially English experience follow it up with afternoon tea and scones in the library and admire the intricate crystal chandelier in the shape of a galleon. Before heading back out, spend some time admiring the objets d’art in the hotel. A miniature helter skelter holding oranges winds from the ceiling of the bar to a juicer on the counter and 135 clocks hang on a wall in the lobby telling the time in giant numbers which are formed from their hands aligning.
Some of London’s most renowned shops are a short stroll away 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. Drop your swag off at the hotel and get a car to the South Bank where street artists perform by the river. Forget the 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. You don’t even have to pay as access to the terrace is free.
Ask reception at the South Bank to hail you a cab 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 mall 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 whilst admiring Christopher Wren’s stunning architecture is a calming experience and gets you in the mood for dinner.
Order a cab at Madison’s to whisk you to the Chiltern Firehouse where that all-important dinner date awaits. The restaurant is an event in itself and is one of the latest offerings 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 Ham Yard concierge’s black book, you will need to wait six months to get a reservation. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding guests partied here after their nuptials and regular guests include Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Gerard Butler, Lindsay Lohan. The Grade II listed Gothic Victorian building has high ceilings, large mirrors and a busy open kitchen.
On sundown head to The View from The Shard (+44(0)344 499 7222; www.theviewfromtheshard.com) at the top of the 87-storey tower. Make sure you get there before darkness descends to take in a view of everything within a 40-mile radius. Then watch as the sun sinks and the city’s skyscrapers light up the night. It’s a good way to look out for landmarks you need to see on your next trip. For one last chance to get up close and personal with London’s royalty, dance the night away at Prince Harry’s favourite nightclub Boujis (+44(0)20 7584 2000; www.boujis.com). Be warned: after all that high-flying, it could be hard to come back down to earth when your whirlwind trip to London finally comes to a close.