Being back in London after a two-year hiatus felt triumphant: jolly taxi drivers (delighted to have well-tipping Americans back), exuberant restaurant staff (equally delighted to have tip-happy Americans back), and the din of rowdy pub-goers toasting one another in the streets. Sure, the passenger locator forms and testing required to enter the country are time-consuming. But once nestled in the charming wood-paneled drawing-room by the fire, nibbling scones at Brown’s Hotel, the fuss is forgotten.
A shopping victory is always a jet-lag buster, so I immediately headed to Gray’s, an antique market showcasing glorious vintage jewelry. A handful of fashion-themed museum exhibitions were on my to-do list, too, namely, Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at the Victoria and Albert Museum which examines how Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and sequel Through the Looking-Glass have inspired fashion along with the film, ballet, and art; and Bags: Inside Out which showcases how a utilitarian accessory evolved from rucksacks, and despatch boxes to status bags (Louis Vuitton steamer trunks are divine!). Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960’s Counterculture at the Fashion & Textile Museum was also fascinating. Featuring more than 100 ensembles from designers like Hung On You, Granny Takes A Trip, Apple Tailoring, and Dandie Fashions—plus outfits worn by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix—the show underscores how London’s gender-bending shop windows in the 1960s contributed to a seismic shift in fashion.
Royal Style in the Making sheds light on the design process behind royal couture commissions. Including sketches, fabric, and photos from design ateliers like Madame Handley-Seymour, Sassoon, the Emanuels, and Hartnell, standouts include: a rare toile from the 1937 coronation gown of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and Princess Diana’s puffy ivory wedding dress. Sadly, I didn’t make it to Shoephoria at the Fashion Museum in Bath. With footwear spanning four centuries (think: a pair of red-velvet mules from the 1690s, shoes belonging to Queen Victoria, and Kanye West-designed Yeezy trainers), I’m sure it would have been fabulous.
A visit to Churchill War Rooms had been an experience I’d wanted to tackle for decades. To avoid crowds and tap into behind-the-scenes access, I connected with Noteworthy, a company known for private access to popular attractions. Owner Nicola Butler whizzed me through the crowded entrance straight to the wartime bunker where I went inside (an offering not available to the general public) and met with the museum’s Director Emeritus, who allowed me to sit in Churchill’s chair (thrilling!), examine the scrambler phones, and enter the “Map Room” where each move of the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and the British Army was meticulously recorded. Noteworthy can also organize insider experiences with Changing of the Guards, the Crown Jewels, and hidden areas of the London Underground including filming locations of James Bond’s Skyfall.
On the food and cocktail front, the buzziest restaurants are Sessions Arts Club, a theatrical eatery in a revamped 18th-century courthouse, Lyle’s for contemporary British fare in a former Lipton tea warehouse, street style Thai food at KILN, and KOL for Nordic-spiked Mexican food. The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel is grabbing headlines for its installation of Shannon Tebay, the first American head bartender in 161 years. And over at Artesian at The Langham, the new female bartenders Lorenza Pezetta and Giulia Cuccurallo are shaking things up with out-of-the-box drinks including a “connections” menu focused on wellness and sustainability. For an old-school wine tasting, book an experience in the historic caves of Berry Brothers in St. James.
Light displays are a thing of art. During the holidays, there are immersive installations at Kew Gardens, sparkling angels on Regent Street, shimmering neon butterflies on Carnaby Street, and a 60-foot Christmas tree plus mistletoe chandeliers and oodles of twinkly lights festooning Covent Garden. Traditional Christmas markets seem to be on every corner, along with pop-up dining experiences such as Coppa Club’s igloos at Tower Bridge and a similar, snow globe-style set up at Jimmy’s Winter Lodge on the Thames.
Where You'll Stay
The Club's two-bedroom luxury suites at Taj 51 Buckingham Gate are steps from Buckingham Palace and come staffed with trained butlers ready to deliver valet service and freshly-ironed newspapers. Dine like the Queen herself at the Michelin-starred Quilon and unwind at the award-winning Jiva Spa.
NOTE: Given the ever-changing restrictions and guidelines, use VisitBritain’s Know Before You Go page, which outlines the current situation and guidelines in real-time.