The Olympics may have rolled out of town, but London is still on a crazy high, with bonhomie and goodwill everywhere. And what better time to enjoy it than in winter – London’s crisp and sparkling element? We don’t have Dickensian fogs these days but, away from the bright lights, there’s still a twinkling Victorian charm, from mulled wine and hot chestnuts to quirky galleries and museums, from strolls through the majestic Royal parks to some of the most fantastical ice rinks ever, from delightful tea shops to some of the creakiest, most welcoming old pubs you’ll find anywhere. We’ve selected some choice insider delights. Join the hurlyburly, and make them your own.
First things first – you’ll need a substantial breakfast to keep you going in the winter chill. A little-known wonder is The Regency (17-19 Regency Street, Westminster). Established in 1946, it looks retro but is authentic, brilliant and cheap, a classy greasy spoon with tiled walls, gingham curtains and formica tables. Plate after plate of comfort food, orders all yelled in the earth-shattering basso of the owner, Marco: ‘One egg on toast, mushrooms, tomatoes and * bubble*!’ It’s on a beautiful street, too. No dawdling at tables (gets busy), and they close midday on Saturday. Up in delightful Hampstead, Ginger & White (4a-5a Perrins Court) is a cute neighbourhood café. Small and simple, it has a massive communal table inside and smaller ones outside; kids are encouraged to draw on pads provided. Rich, nutty coffee, fruit crumble muffins, toasted sourdough, and each boiled egg comes with its own woolly hat.
For a more soignée start, The Riding House Café (43-51 Great Titchfield Street) is the kind of place Don Draper might eat breakfast. Impossibly hip, with shining chrome, red banquette seating and standard lamps, it offers everything from fluffy pancakes and Eggs Royale to a chorizo hash brown, porridge – hey, even a Bloody Mary if you had a wild night. If you’re south of the river, Royal Teas (76 Royal Hill, Greenwich) is a vegetarian cafe on one of London’s prettiest streets where the owner makes everything before your eyes in a teeny kitchen (try the Veggie Breakfast with halloumi and roast tomatoes). And in the raffish East End, grab a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel from Brick Lane Beigel Bake (159 Brick Lane): open 24 hours, and hipsters and cabbies queue for the hot moist bagels that melt in your mouth.
Suitably fortified, wrap your scarf around your neck and stride forth to the beauties of London’s parks. The wildest is Hampstead Heath, 790 acres of rolling ancient woodlands, hills and ponds. In sunshine, crunching over the leaves here (or flying a kite) is heaven. If the weather’s too blustery, seek sanctuary in Hampstead village itself, a fairy-tale enclave on a hill. Though designer shops are taking over from many of the idiosyncratic originals, there is still an air of literary, bohemian glamour – this has long been the home of writers, composers and intellectuals – and in winter it’s quaintly inviting. More centrally, Hyde Park, once a royal hunting ground, stretches for 350 acres, and the winding Serpentine lake boasts an astonishing variety of ducks, geese and swans, many of whom are specifically winter visitors. You can also horse ride here, along five miles of sun-dappled bridleways. Hyde Park Stables (hydeparkstables.com) offer accompanied rides on ponies chosen for their friendly temperaments.
An evocative adventure might be Highgate Cemetery (Swain’s Lane, Highgate), replete with Victorian stone angels, resting place of everyone from Karl Marx and Christina Rossetti to Lucien Freud. An intriguing location rich in history, architecture and romance, winter is its season. Regular tours available. If something livelier is what you’re after, hire a blue ‘Boris Bike’ (actually the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme) from one of the many docking stations. On a nice day, it’s one of the best ways to warm up and see the city, but avoid the central area’s congestion. Instead, take the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs, pick up your steed and investigate the clearly-signposted river path. You’ll pass cormorants drying their wings beside the Thames, the shiny New York-style tower blocks of Canary Wharf, chef Gordon Ramsay’s riverside restaurant The Narrow, and the cobbled Georgian terraces of Narrow Street. You can follow the path all the way to the docking station by Tower Bridge.
… Or culture?
For unusual museums, London can’t be beaten. The Sherlock Holmes Museum (221b Baker Street, of course), home of the fictional detective, is a fantasmagorical step into another era. Climb up twisting stairs to the study where Holmes and Watson solved many two-pipe problems; you can even sit in Holmes’s chair by the fireside as eccentric guides tell you amazing stories. Equally captivating is Dennis Severs’ House (18 Folgate Street). Created by artist Severs, the house is exactly as its 18th century Huguenot owners might have left it; in fact, it appears they haven’t quite gone. As you pass through the candlelit house, you catch their voices in another room, smell the dinner they were eating, hear a canary sing and a floorboard squeak. Moving and atmospheric. For something stellar, hop on the speedy Thames Clipper to Greenwich. Walk up through Greenwich Park, one of London’s loveliest, to the magical spires of the Royal Observatory on the hill. In a series of 17th century rooms, discover how we learned to navigate, then see stars at the Planetarium. When you come out, cross the international date line, then look at the “unbelievable” view, all of London spread before you.
London is in the grip of a cake obsession, so you’ll be falling over tea shops. For something heartening, try Soho’s Secret Tea Room, accessed via a twisting staircase halfway along the bar of the Coach & Horses pub (29 Greek Street, Soho). Upstairs, soothed by the sounds of 1940s jazz and boogie-woogie, choose from 16 leaf teas and a preposterous array of cakes, everything served in an endearing assortment of mismatched china. Immensely cosy as rain pitterpatters on the window. Or go ritzier at the Reform Social and Grill (8-14 Mandeville Place, Marylebone). Modelled on an old-fashioned gentleman’s club, it’s all dark wood and intimate low lights. Ask for the afternoon tea and you’re led to a series of sofas upholstered in tweedy pinstripe where you sink deliciously into the big, soft cushions. Vintage Afternoon Tea includes scones with clotted cream, blueberry and almond cake, teas from Darjeeling to White Peony and, erm, the 50 Shades of Earl Grey cocktail.
Ice with that?
Early evening, as dusk falls, is the perfect time to ice skate in London. The most glamorous location is Somerset House (somersethouse.org.uk), which gives over its neo-Georgian courtyard to a giant rink floodlit in glowing blues and sugar-plum pinks. Tom’s Skate Lounge, right by the rink, supplies hot chocolate, festive mulled wine, mince pies and hot soup. And check out the ultra-cool Club Nights, when DJs from the UK’s hottest festivals take to the rink-side decks. Or skate just steps from dinosaurs at the gothic fantasy of
the Natural History Museum (Cromwell Road, South Kensington), which has a T. Rex-sized rink, smaller one for tots, Victorian fairground carousel and hot chocolate with marshmallows.