Host of the 2012 Olympic Games, there’s plenty to celebrate in the UK capital this year. Crossing the city from east to west and north to south, Emma Love shows you the highlights
Photograhy by Ming Tang-Evans; Massimo Borchi/4 Corners Images; Björn Dahlem, Oli Scarf/Getty Images; George Apostolidis; Daniel Lynch/Eyevine
In London, location is everything. And Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, which overlooks the designer shops of Knightsbridge on one side and Hyde Park, one of London’s most beautiful green spaces on the other, gets top marks for its perfect position. Take a leisurely breakfast on the terrace as horses from the Household Cavalry trot past on their morning ride around the park; at more than 350 acres, it’s easy to forget that you are in the middle of a capital city. The park adjoins Kensington Gardens, the setting for the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Palace, and avenues of elegant, formal flowerbeds.
Head south from the hotel and, after a 15-minute stroll, you’ll find yourself in the heart of Chelsea, one of London’s most upmarket districts and home to high-flyers and socialites. ‘Chelsea was at the heart of the swinging Sixties, but then it became a rather more staid part of town. Now, the bar and club scene is catching up with east and central London,’ says local entrepreneur and Pippa Middleton’s ex Charlie Gilkes. ‘The area benefits from some of the best residential property in the city, with some fantastic garden squares, shops and restaurants.’
For culture, the first stop should be contemporary art venue the Saatchi Gallery, which often puts on group exhibitions focusing on a particular genre or country (new German or Chinese art, for example). Just behind it, the Royal Hospital hosts the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show at the end of May, and on the King’s Road you’ll find a smattering of one-off fashion boutiques and smart interiors destinations.
The Shop at Bluebird is a warehouse-like space full of designer labels for men and women, coffee-table tomes, vintage furniture and vinyl records, while a few streets away, in Fulham, the iconic Michelin building houses The Conran Shop. Founded by Sir Terence Conran, it’s a sprawling homeware complex selling classic designs such as the Egg chair and Chesterfield sofa. More notable design shops, such as Mint, a great source of witty, one-off pieces, can be found near Brompton Road.
Looping back up to South Kensington and Knightsbridge, the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum are all next-door neighbours. You could easily spend several days absorbed in each one. The V&A covers a myriad of periods, from Art Deco to Renaissance, and last year it opened a new Photographs Gallery to showcase highlights from its extensive collection. Pop into the V&A Reading Rooms, which not only sells over 1,000 art and design books, novellas, graphic novels and biographies, but also doubles up as a relaxing spot for a quick coffee and snack, if your energy levels need topping up. Children, in particular, will love the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, which are both packed with interactive exhibits and fascinating collections that explore everything from the development of aviation to dinosaurs.
Veer north across Hyde Park to a very different enclave that comprises Notting Hill and Westbourne Grove. The area’s famous Portobello Market runs the length of Portobello Road every Friday and Saturday, bringing with it huge, heaving crowds. Go on Friday for vintage fashion; Saturday is mostly antiques. The other well-known landmark in the neighbourhood is the Electric, one of the oldest working cinemas in London, next door to the Electric Brasserie. It has comfy leather seats and the bonus of a bar, so you can watch the latest film releases with a glass of wine to hand.
For a quieter look around Westbourne Grove, leave your visit until mid-week. Many residents here have a moneyed, European air and this is reflected in the independent designer shops that line the length of the street. Heidi Klein is a one-stop holiday-wear shop, Toast is a British clothing company with a cult following, and jeweller Pippa Small creates bespoke pieces with unusual stones. ‘I love working and living around Portobello Road because it’s so vibrant and pretty,’ says Small. ‘The tall white buildings are noble and elegant and Westbourne Grove is very glamorous. It has a wonderful mix of regular stallholders, as well as tourists and designers who comb the market on a Friday for vintage finds and inspiration.’ When it comes to food, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Mediterranean-inspired Ottolenghi makes delicious salads (think roasted Romano peppers, buffalo mozzarella and rocket), while local favourite Tom’s Deli is a cafe and grocery store in one.