Forget trying to fit the whole of London in to a weekend. Instead, think small to get the most out of your city break
There’s no point trying to ‘do’ London in a weekend. Tea at the Ritz, the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, a tour of the Tower, a whirl on the London Eye, taking in a show in the West End... It all gets a bit too much and, quite frankly, it’s all been done before.
Faced with the task of exploring such a mind-bogglingly sprawling (and mind-bendingly busy) city in a weekend, the best option may be to scale down and stick to one area. Like Carnaby Street, which winds right through London’s beating heart, just a few steps from the posh shops of Regent Street and the bargains of Oxford Street (sharpen your elbows before venturing into the lawless den of greed that is Primark)..
By day, the area could be a particularly well-populated village, thanks to its cobbled streets, pretty window baskets and rows of independent shops. In fact, that is something the area is keen to promote – Carnaby as a village, rather than a street that hasn’t truly been swinging since the Sixties. Although not far from the baying and braying crowds, it does feel like a friendlier and more peaceful London. So book yourself into a posh hotel and enjoy London without the hassle – cramming in as much pampering, partying and shopping as possible. Here’s how to experience the very best of the Big Smoke – without it getting in your eyes.
Book yourself in to the Courthouse Hotel - London. A grand hideaway right on the edge of all Carnaby has to offer, this old magistrates court retains many original features: you can dine in the old courtroom or sip a cocktail behind iron bars. John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Oscar Wilde all had their cases held here. For an extra treat, make use of the Sanook Spa in the basement, exclusive to hotel guests. Book in for a luxury chocolate facial or simply enjoy use of the fab pool. Rooms start at £270. (19-21 Great Marlborough Street)
Carnaby’s cobbles are prettily lined with dozens of quirky independent retailers, as well as the usual London institutions like Liberty. Check out J Shoes on Lowndes Court – luxurious and ultra-comfy shoes accessible even to those who are not so well-heeled. Good stops for gifts and souvenirs include Octopus for random lovely things and David and Goliath for statement tees emblazoned with slogans like ‘cupcakes kill’. There are also favourites like American Apparel.
Canela: for pared-down café comfort at its best, check out this Portuguese joint for nibbles like croquettes and paninis, plus a cheeky glass of vino or two, before hitting the shops again. (1 Newburgh Street)
Zebrano: perfect for a big brunch to refuel after a night out – or a great place to start another one. (14-16 Ganton Street)
Neal’s Yard Remedies: you might have seen the products, packaged in the trademark blue glass and smelling like heaven, but the therapy rooms upstairs remain a fabulous secret to many. Treatments range from sports massage and chiropody to deep tissue massage, with essential oils specially blended to suit your needs. Despite the shop’s proximity to the bustle of Soho, the rooms wrap you up in peace and luxury, so you will feel a million miles away. (12 Fouberts Place)
Benja Royal Thai restaurant: enjoy traditional Thai food served as it should be. Big plates and bowls of curries, Pad Thai noodles and delicately flavoured sea bass are set in the middle of the table to share. The ingredients are so fresh and the flavour combinations so exact, you wish food always tasted this good. The restaurant is spread over three floors, from the red-hued basement cocktail bar, Naga, to the dining areas intricately decorated in green, turquoise and yellow. (17 Beak Street)
La Trouvaille: a tasty little restaurant that could charm the legs off a frog, and proves that not much can beat French food at its best. Every dish feels like a rare treat and – from the tender mutton to the chocolate fondant bursting with melted sauce – it is. Throw in the futuristic clear plastic chairs (which seem to strangely match the otherwise rustic feel) and the charismatic staff, and this is real destination dining. Amazing, then, that you can enjoy a three-course meal for just £33 – or £18.50 for lunch. (12A Newburgh Street)
Red Soho: as the name suggests, this New York-inspired cocktail bar has cherry-hued leather sofas and the low lighting of a burlesque dancer’s boudoir. The impressive drinks menu has something to tempt even the fussiest. Perfect for a sophisticated treat before dinner or a big night out. (5-6 Kingly Street)
24:London: round off your London break in true VIP style by hanging out with the, ahem, other celebs and all-round beautiful people. This venue housed super-club Attica until recently, but has since been revamped almost totally in different shades of white, from the walls to the hanging fabric and fibre optic lights. (24 Kingly Street)