Even when the recession was at its bleakest, London remained a shopping kind of a town. The city is still stuffed to the gills with chic boutiques, grand department stores, quirkily traditional old men’s shops and market stalls that heave with books, with fascinators and with organic titbits you shouldn’t be nibbling but can’t resist even so soon after breakfast.
You do need to know where to look. If you stepped out on fabled Oxford Street from Tottenham Court Road underground station, you wouldn’t believe this was a consumer-savvy city. A cheaper-looking collection of shops can barely be imagined. You need to head west from Oxford Circus tube to get find London’s classic department stores.
Similarly, Covent Garden is routinely (not entirely fairly, in my view) avoided by locals who can’t square the enthusiasm of the crowds of tourists with the quality of shops on offer. Those locals are all skipping into the quieter streets and alleys to the north of the market - much less pressurised and a much better range of options.
Well known to tourists for its street entertainers and lovely covered market, Covent Garden is largely ignored by Londoners, but the arrival last year of Kabiri’s two floors of designer jewellery (The Piazza, 18 The Market, WC2E 8RB; 020 7240 1055; www.kabiri.co.uk) may be a sign that the solid but uninspiring chains have had their day.
This area has some of my favourite quirky London shops: Hope & Greenwood (1 Russell Street, WC2B 5JD; 020 7240 3314; www.hopeandgreenwood.co.uk) for old-fashioned sweets, the self-explanatory Bead Shop (21A Tower Street, WC2H 9NS; 020 7240 0931; www.beadshop.co.uk), the wonderful 1830s umbrella shop James Smith & Sons (53 New Oxford Street, WC1A 1BL; 020 7836 4731; www.james-smith.co.uk) and the irresistible cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy (17 Shorts Garden, WC2H 9UP; 020 7240 5700; www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk).
Fashion hounds will be happiest exploring the partly pedestrianised streets north of the market, around Monmouth Street and Neal Street, but gift shoppers should try Pollock’s (44 The Market, WC2E 8RF; 020 7379 7866; www.pollocks-coventgarden.co.uk), for traditional toys and Victorian card theatres, and the London Transport Museum (Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB; 020 7379 6344; www.ltmuseumshop.co.uk) - where else in the world could you find a handbag covered with seat material from a double decker bus?
The south end of Charing Cross Road has long been associated with booksellers, especially for second-hand and collectable items, but online price-cutting, rent rises and the buying power of the big chains have forced many closures. Some places remain - Any Amount of Books (no.56; 020 7836 3697; www.anyamountofbooks.com) is good for cheap and cheerful reading matter - and Quinto (020 7379 7669; quintobookshop.co.uk) at no.72. Check out the tiny old tobacconist G Smith & Sons (no.74) while you’re passing. It opened in the 1860s.
Cecil Court (www.cecilcourt.co.uk) is a delicious little enclave of odd antiquarian bookshops to the south, while to the north of Shaftesbury Avenue is London’s most expansive independent bookshop, Foyles (113-119 Charing Cross Road; 020 7437 5660; www.foyles.co.uk). In addition to a superb selection of books, there’s a great café (first floor) and carefully selected CDs in Ray’s Jazz (third floor). The café hosts readings and low-key gigs.
The alley beside Foyles leads through an arch into Soho. Berwick Street is still holding on to a few second-hand record and CD shops, as well as places selling dance vinyl. Further afield, music junkies should investigate the two Rough Trade shops (www.roughtrade.com; the Notting Hill original has been joined by a newer shop off Brick Lane) and Pure Groove (www.puregroove.co.uk) at Smithfield Market. Both host cracking in-store gigs.
London’s other key book destination is Bloomsbury, home to universities, the British Museum and the naughty writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Set. The London Review Bookshop (14 Bury Place, WC1A 2JL; 020 7269 9030; www.lrbshop.co.uk) has a sweet tearoom and well-chosen stock, but for second-hand volumes try Skoob (020 7278 8760; www.skoob.com), hidden in the back of the concrete Brunswick Shopping Centre, or Judd Street Books (82 Marchmont Street, WC1N 1AG; 020 7387 5333; www.juddbooks.com), a favourite of mine from when I used to walk this way to work.
Alongside the grand curve of Regent Street, there’s great shopping to be had in Soho, an area that’s no longer as seedy as it reputation suggests. The mock Tudor Liberty department store (Regent Street, W1B 5AH; 020 7734 1234; www.liberty.co.uk) is a must, combining the familiar swirly prints with great fashion and gifts. Just south, Carnaby Street, returning to its confident former self after a rather dull 1990s, and the three floors of Kingly Court (020 7333 8118; www.carnaby.co.uk) are now full of boutiques.
There’s a growing buzz about Regent Street (www.regentstreetonline.com): the arrival from the US of Anthropologie (no.158; 020 7529 9800; www.anthropologie.eu), with its mix of interior design and fashion, is part of a general shake-up of the retail options here.
Start from the new diagonal pedestrian crossing of Oxford Circus, which is right on top of the underground station. Regent Street curves away to the south. To the west are enduringly trendy Selfridges (no.400; 0800 123 400; www.selfridges.com) and dependable John Lewis (no.300; 020 7629 7711; www.johnlewis.com), two of London’s best department stores. On the junction itself, Topshop (020 7636 7700; www.topshop.com) is a magnet for fans of cheap fashion. Regular in-store events (live graffiti painting, gigs, special offers) keep the hordes piling in. And all around are chains to suit all pockets: Urban Outfitters, Uniqlo, Primark. Head east for the last of central London’s big record stores, HMV (www.hmv.co.uk), but don’t head on too far. By the time you get to the redevelopment works around Tottenham Court Road station you’ll be surprised you’re on the same street.
I’m a fan of Fortnum’s (181 Piccadilly, W1A 1ER; 020 7734 8040; www.fortnumandmason.co.uk) and the Burlington Arcade (020 7630 1411; www.burlington-arcade.co.uk) on Piccadilly, both of which manage to keep up to date without losing their traditional charm - check out the arcade’s beadles, here to enforce its arcane byelaws.
Even if you don’t have the funds for a personally crafted suit in rare tweed, the bespoke tailors of Savile Row - now joined, incongruously, by the cutting-edge fashion of b store (no.24A) and US chain store Abercrombie & Fitch (7 Burlington Gardens) - and the shirtmakers of Jermyn Street are essential stops if you’re trying to get the full picture of the London shopping scene. They’re north and south of the Royal Academy of Arts. On Jermyn Street, look for the rakish top hat sign outside Bates the Hatter (no.21A).
Mayfair has a reputation for being stuck in the past, but where there’s money, there’s also serious fashion. The butcher and candlestick-maker (well, cigar shop actually) on Mount Street, home also to the Connaught, have been joined by hip new fashion stores from Christian Louboutin, Marc Jacobs and Balenciaga, among others. And not far west of Savile Row, Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo’s six-storey concept store Dover Street Market (17-18 Dover Street, W1S 4LT; 020 7518 0680; www.doverstreetmarket.com) displays high-concept clothes and accessories in a rough urban interior.
On Marylebone High Street and Marylebone Lane there’s a great mix of new boutiques and generations-old places, as well as fine places to eat when you begin to flag - try deli-café La Fromagerie and historic Paul Rothe.
For antiques, keep heading north-west - Alfie’s in Church Street is a great browse.
The Brick Lane and Spitalfields area has more cool and interesting shops than you could explore in a lifetime, covering reclaimed furniture, gourmet teas, ukeleles and, above all, vintage clothes. It’s also probably the best bit of London for a market morning. Don't miss Cheshire Street and for vintage clothes, I’d add Beyond Retro (no.112; 020 7613 3636; www.beyondretro.com), handily close to the Carpenter’s Arms (no.73; 020 7739 6342; www.carpentersarmsfreehouse.com). I’d also suggest crossing Brick Lane to Sclater Street to check out the Brick Lane Thrift Store (no.68, E1 6HR; 020 7739 0242; www.theeastendthriftstore.com), which has loads of on-trend bargains.
The trendier part of Brick Lane is the section north of the Old Truman Brewery complex. Head south to investigate Bangladeshi sari shops, sweet stores and curry houses.
You won’t find the modern-day George Best or guitar-slinging latter-day punks on the King’s Road these days. High rents forced out most the adventurous shops and the young fashionable types moved elsewhere, but the shop in converted art deco garage Bluebird (no.350; 020 7351 3873; www.theshopatbluebird.com) stocks beautifully displayed fashion, accessories, design and furnishings. London's second branch of Anthropologie (nos.131-141; 020 7349 3110; www.anthropologie.eu) holds out the hope that shopping round here will get a bit livelier. Take a stroll through Chelsea’s genteel mews while you’re here, stopping at John Sandoe (10 Blacklands Terrace, SW3 2SR; 020 7589 9473; www.johnsandoe.com) for a superb range of books.
I don’t see much of interest among the fashion chains up Sloane Street, but Knightsbridge will be on many visitors’ itineraries for two reasons, both of them department stores: Harvey Nichols (109-125 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7RJ; 020 7235 5000; www.harveynichols.com) and entertainingly over-the-top Harrods (87-135 Brompton Road, SW1X 7XL; 020 7730 1234; www.harrods.com).
If I’m in the mood for browsing rather than people-watching, these are the areas I choose to visit.
East London has taken over from the west as the buzziest market zone. It’s partly an accident of geography: get to Liverpool Street station on a Sunday and you can hardly help yourself from being drawn through Spitalfields Market and up Brick Lane, the north end of which isn’t far from the lovely Columbia Road flower market.
I’d recommend you do the trip the other way round, though. Columbia Road is at its loveliest when the blooms are just laid out first thing in the morning, and it’s worth catching the many arty, crafty boutiques that now line the street before the throngs descend. Check out Ryantown, a shop full of intricate paper cuts.
You do want to see Brick Lane when the crowds are out. If the weather’s halfway good, it becomes a rolling party along the street - infuriating if you’re trying to get anywhere, but richly entertaining if you’ve enough time to go with the flow.
At the north end, you’ll still find a few blankets of tat rolled out, but towards and surrounding the Old Truman Brewery outdoor food stalls and fashion students selling their latest inspirations create a lively buzz. Turn off on to Hanbury Street or Fournier Street, though, and you’ll soon arrive at Spitalfields Market, with its twirly Victorian ironwork and less romantic, rather hard-edged modern development on the Liverpool Street station side. Gourmets should drop in on Tea Smith, on the north of the covered market, for delicious, rare, green, white and oolong teas, sipped at the counter or taken home as leaves.
Camden Market is another real tourist draw, so it tends to get bad press from Londoners, especially as they get a bit longer in the tooth. It’s actually made up of several markets, selling anything from slightly misspelt ‘designer’ t-shirts and plastic sunglasses to properly made craft items, hip trainers and fashionable clothes. Yes, this is the market where punk’s never dead and rave culture is yet to grow out of its neon dreadlocks, but there’s always a buzz about the place. Check out the northerly Stables Market/Horse Hospital sections for plenty of vintage finds.
There are some serious grumbles about the gentrification of Portobello Road Market, with stallholders displaced by redevelopment in what is these days a posh part of town. Still, the market retains its human touch, selling antiques and fashion among the ethnic food stalls.
A real success story has been the growth of foodie and farmers’ markets in London.
Borough Market, just south of London Bridge, is the most famous, easiest to get to and consequently extraordinarily busy on a Saturday. Try instead to visit on Friday or, best of all, Thursday. The produce is absolutely top-notch, with enough cakes, pastries and hot-food stalls to tempt visitors who don’t have access to a kitchen. Prices are high, however.
Late opening - many West End shops (Covent Garden, Soho, Oxford Street) open until 8pm on a Thursday. Around Knightsbridge, late opening is usually Wednesday.
Sunday opening - most London shops are open on a Sunday, but usually from around midday. Banks, however, are closed, most of them all day Saturday as well.
VAT - with a few exceptions (food, children’s clothing and books among them), goods have a Value Added Tax of 20% added to them. In shops, this is almost always included in the marked price. Some visitors from outside the European Union can claim this tax back - usually there are signs saying ‘Tax Free Shopping’ where applicable. Show your passport and, if you’re eligible, you can fill in a refund form with which to make your claim.