Sometimes the accommodation budget just won’t stretch to staying in a 5 star hotel but wherever you choose to stay there are many ways the best hotels can still be enjoyed without actually checking in.
My favourite way to enjoy a luxury hotel is with tea and fancy cakes. It’s a leisurely affair with the best venues offering as much tea as you can drink and as many cakes as you can devour. We may all look relaxed when taking afternoon tea but really we’re pacing ourselves so we can eat three times our body weight in clotted cream with scones. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Booking for afternoon tea means you’ll get the same service as guests who are staying at the hotel and will be made to feel just as special. Plus you won’t need to eat lunch or dinner that day so there’s a further saving.
Hotel bars can be incredibly glamorous places. Vista at The Trafalgar is a rooftop bar overlooking Trafalgar Square and is a great venue for sipping cocktails and watching the sun set. Bar 45 at 45 Park Lane is true class with its art deco styling and Richard Young photography adorning the walls including images of Gwen Stefani and Kate Moss. Plus you can enjoy Wolfgang Puck’s menu here whereas it’s often hard to get a table downstairs for dinner.
Duke’s is the place to go for expert martinis as James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, used to be a regular. The Beaufort Bar at The Savoy is theatrical glamour with nightly entertainment and a very good possibly you’ll see some celebrities.
Booking any meal at a luxury hotel’s restaurant is a saving on the room rate. Consider lunch instead of dinner for the best deals and check if there’s a set menu to save on the a la carte option. Depending on the hotel’s location, they may offer a pre-theatre menu which, again, will save on the standard dinner price. A set price two or three course menu in a quality restaurant can work out to be the same or even better value than going to a chain restaurant.
Many top name chefs are attached to luxury London hotel restaurants so these can be the best places to dine in town. And don’t forget breakfast is the most important meal of the day and it can feel like a real treat to start the day at a luxury venue.
(Image: © Laura Porter)
Most of the best hotels have a spa and many allow non-residents to book their services. The Ritz has a well-respected hairdresser and also has indulgent pampering days on offer. Brown’s has some well thought out day packages including a maternity offering and is a good place to have a manicure or pedicure. The Berkeley has day and half day memberships available and there’s a rooftop pool with views over Knightsbridge and Hyde Park.
Image: © Bex.Walton)
Some hotels have private screening rooms such as One Aldwych and they offer a dining and movie package called Martini Movies. You get to enjoy a meal in one of their restaurants then relax and see a film with a cocktail in your hand.
Other hotels have screening rooms and The Berkeley has had screening on its rooftop before so this is an idea to look out for.
(Image: © One Aldwych)
For a major world city, London is not short of green space. As well as the wonderful Royal Parks across London there are also other local parks across the city and one that is often overlooked, but is worth a visit, is Clissold Park in Stoke Newington. This 54 acre park is rarely too crowded to find your own piece of grass to sit and relax with a good book. I love the park because it has deer.
St Mary’s Church, Stoke Newington seen from Clissold Park deer enclosure.
The mansion house is the starting point for the story of Clissold Park. Clissold House, a Grade II listed building, dates back to the 1790s when it was built for Jonathan Hoare, a local Quaker merchant and anti-slavery campaigner. What we see as a public park today was essentially his front garden back then.
In 1811 the house passed into the ownership of the Crawshay family, one of whose daughters wed the Reverend Augustus Clissold so he became the owner and changed the name of the estate to Clissold Place. When he died in 1882, developers attempted to get planning permission but a campaign was successful to convince authorities to open it as a public park in 1889 and Clissold Park is now run by the local council.
2012 saw the completion is a major restoration and development project of the Georgian house, the park and its facilities. Clissold House is now an excellent cafe with period rooms that can be hired for private events.
Clissold Park Facilities
As well as Clissold House cafe, which is what brings many to the area, Clissold Park is a very green space with many varieties of trees. There’s an aviary and animal enclosures with deer, goats, rabbits and chickens which can all be viewed for free every day.
The Butterfly Dome has native and tropical butterflies and free tours run on Tuesdays at 2pm and Thursdays at 5pm. You don’t need to book in advance but do arrive on time.
The children’s play area is popular as is the summer paddling pool. There are also two ponds, named the Beckmere and the Runtzmere in honour of the two principal founders of the park.
Sports are popular here with football pitches, tennis courts and a wheels park. The restored Bowling Pavilion is now an education centre with an open-air classroom.
Clissold Park is popular with families. This family were enjoying watching the goats.
Address: Green Lanes, London N4 2EY / Stoke Newington Church Street, N16
Clissold Park Opening Times
The Park: Summer: Mon to Sun: 7.30am-9.30pm / Winter: Mon to Sun: 7.30am-4.30pm
Paddling Pool: Late May to early September: Tues/Wed/Fri/Sat/Sun and Bank Holidays: 11am-7pm (Closed Mondays and Thursdays for cleaning)
Cafe: Open daily, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 9am-7pm
Can you see the stag hiding in Clissold Park?
Tours of London have evolved from the standard walking tours and classic open-top sightseeing buses (although I do still love those) to many ways to see the sights or the hidden gems of London with a Guide in a new way.
London Duck Tours
In a 30-seater, bright yellow, converted, amphibious World War Two vehicle, the London Duck Tour can take you on the land and the river without leaving your seat.
The classic sightseeing tour starts from near the London Eye and lasts around 75 minutes, with 20-30 minutes on the river Thames as this vehicle can drive around the streets of London and then out onto the water as a boat.
You’ll pass all the big name sights such as Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament but you’ll travel in a whole new way. There’s an on-board tour guide who gives a live commentary. You won’t get wet but may get splashed when you go out onto the river so it’s always best to wear a jacket. (Image: © Laura Porter)
You can see a lot more of London by bike than a walking tour can cover. Tally Ho use vintage-styled British-built Pashley bicycles so you can be stylish while seeing the sights. The Central London tour takes around 2.5 hours and uses dedicated cycle lanes and quiet back streets with lots of stops to listen to the Guide and to take photos.
BrakeAway Bike Tours has themed tours including a Secret London tour that goes along river and canal-side paths as well as hidden passageways, back streets and a stop at a classic East End boozer (a pub!). (Image: © VBenedetti)
Ghost Bus Tours
If you’d like to try a bus tour but want something a bit different, how about the evening Ghost Bus Tour? The ‘Fright Bus’ is a classic London double decker but is black instead of red and you sit upstairs with railway style seats facing each other. The bus has been fitted with more effects but I won’t spoil things for you.
The tour is a theatrical production as well as a sightseeing tour and the on-board team play their roles well. You’ll see lots of popular sights at night such as St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey plus some less well-known locations too.
(Image: © Laura Porter)
Chocolate Walking Tours
If walking tours are more your kind of thing, why not try a chocolate tour to discover the best boutique chocolate shops in London. The tours run regularly and each shop is prepared for the tour group’s arrival so has chocolate knowledge, as well as sample chocolates, ready to share. Every tour starts with hot chocolate too and looks at the sights of London along the way. What chocoholic could refuse? (Image: © Nudge PR)
There are some people who just see the city differently and that makes them excellent Guides. The Unseen Tours are run by homeless and formerly homeless Guides who know these streets extremely well. There are five routes, and all end near a pub or cafe. The tours are entertaining, you see the sights and you get some anecdotes about street life while knowing that the money you pay goes towards helping someone truly improve their life. (Image: © Laura Porter)
Our avid London photographer Casper Bier – we know him as “KB”, has been wandering around Regents Park.
To see his full portfolio visit our gallery
Best of Stratford: What to do While You’re There
Ryan Deuter is an American writer living in London. He is the author of personal accounts of London in his blog Yankee In London and also reviews Spanish-language films while doing various freelance activities. You can follow him at @aYankInLDN
A resident neighbour of Stratford for the past two years, I have seen the city transform from an avoid-at-all-costs area to a tourist hotspot in the advent of the Olympic games. It is now common place that many visitors end up in this part of London to see the spectacular Stadium and explore Europe’s largest mall, the newly-built Westfields. While these venues offer many options to fill the day with, I set out to explore and find the dime a dozen venues that are often overlooked in this neck of the woods.
Enjoy a Turkish coffee in ambient settings
Beautiful thick doors adorned with golden painted Near East designs and clunky handles are a mark of quality rarely seen in East London. Welcome to Dar Marrakech, known for its Lebanese and Moroccan themed cuisine. It’s also an ideal place to pop into briefly for a “Turkish” coffee- a strong, spicy aromatic caffeine dream served with the poshest sugar holders you’ve ever seen. There is a cozy outdoor area for romantic evening meals or late night laughs. If that isn’t enough to catch a mellow, relaxed buzz, the Middle Eastern smoking delight of shisha is available in various mouth-watering flavours to puff away to- not recommended for competing athletes.
403 High Street, Stratford, London E15 4QZ www.darmarrakech.co.uk
Rock out like Iron Maiden
Carts & Horses
Alleged by staff to be the birth-place of Iron Maiden, this pub is quite a traditional British venue with pool tables, outdoor smoking area, booth seating for group meals, and pub quiz. Guitars and banjos ornament the walls behind a small stage where live acts perform on Friday and Saturday nights. Iron Maiden pictures and posters are ample throughout. Drinks specials include £9 beer pitchers, £1 “cheeky shots” or £9 “fishbowls”,a tasty yet horrendous concoction of spirits reputed for its migraine-causing attributes.
1 Maryland Point, Newham, London, E15 1PF www.cartandhorses.co.uk
Stratford’s Got Swagga
A recently converted cocktail bar and club from a Latin-themed venue, this is a place to go for a couple of drinks with the boys (or girls) on a Saturday night. Music is primarily deep house, tech house and small elements of dubstep; although there is an RnB room to bump and grind in as you feel necessary. Leather sofas, TVs, and a fancy bar are a recipe for an interesting time here. Cover charges are typical London of about £10, but come in a group with some pretty ladies and if you play your cards rights you might get a discount. Reported to sometimes have a 90% female occupancy, this is a place for the single lads to sport their chinos and brogues in a dress to impress joint.
27 Broadway, Stratford, London, E15 4BQ
Bring your “swagga”
A delicious, homemade assortment of decently priced food awaits in this quaint, Polish cafe. Be adventurous and order the Kompot, a traditional stewed fruit mixture of strawberry, cherry, cranberry and sugar. It’s a cold, refreshing beverage that will set you back just one pound. A good atmosphere with comfortable seating to escape populated areas.
The Grove 198, London, E15 1NS
Stratford Centre (A.K.A. old, less-attractive mall parallel Westfields)
While most attention will be focused on Westfields, an interesting fact remains that when the sun goes down the old mall actually transforms into an indoor roller-skating arena, enabling enthusiastic and nimble participants of the sport to glide around freely.
Recently back in operation after being officially occupied by Japanese Olympians for purposes of sports-related back massages, here is a venue with an array of theatre shows, art exhibitions, and orchestras. Zumba classes are also out there for all you exercise junkies looking to burn a few calories after a day of binge-eating or pub-crawling.
Theatre Square, London, E15 1BX www.stratford-circus.com
There is a market comprising of pop-up stalls selling close to everything, just behind the Stratford Centre. As an American native, I first discovered the phenomena of Caribbean meat patties in London, which are conveniently available here. This delectable dish is normally selling for next to nothing, and it’s a tasty alternative to the overpriced faux-gastronomy available in the adjacent super-mall. There’s also a coffee-cart called “Novello” present selling very potent blends of espresso shots to boost you up on your journey through the city.
Many international visitors arrive at London Victoria on the Gatwick Express, or come to the area to see Billy Elliot or Wicked at the theatre. London’s newest theatre, St James Theatre, is here too.
It’s a short walk to Buckingham Palace or to Parliament Square and Westminster Abbey in the other direction but many miss an enormous neo-Byzantine building, just off Victoria Street with red and white striped brickwork and a high campanile bell tower, that stands out against the concrete and glass office blocks and shops nearby.
Westminster Cathedral (not Westminster Abbey)
Westminster Cathedral is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and the Metropolitan Church and Cathedral of the Archbishop of Westminster. The building opened in 1903 although it wasn’t consecrated until 1910. Mass has been celebrated at this Cathedral by both Pope John Paul II (on 28 May 1982) and by Pope Benedict XVI (on 18 September 2010).
All are welcome to attend services and the 10.30am Mass is in Latin. Outside of services, visitors can go to the shop and cafe, and then stroll around and see the mosaics, marbles and side chapels, and there’s an audio guide to help. The interior is still, apparently, incomplete but the fourteen Stations of the Cross, by the sculptor Eric Gill, are world renowned. Do note, you shouldn’t take photos inside – this is a working church.
It’s not well-known that you can go up to the top of the bell tower to the viewing gallery at 64 metres (210 feet) above street level and you can look out across London in all directions. It’s rarely busy so you won’t queue to go up in the lift/elevator and you may well have time at the top to yourself. There’s no rush to come down so take a seat and enjoy the views. It can be a bit windy so you won’t want to stay all day but it’s a great place to slow down for a while. There is now a small fee to go up the Tower (£5 in 2012) but the sweeping views are a real treat and you should be able to spot Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Can you see St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye in the distance?
BT Tower in the centre and Buckingham Palace on the left
Southwark Cathedral in the middle of the view
When you come back down, there is also a ‘Treasures of Westminster Cathedral’ exhibition to see with a display of rare ecclesiastical objects and sacred relics (£5 fee).
Address: Clergy House, 42 Francis Street, London SW1P 1QW
Tower Viewing Gallery Opening Hours: Mon-Fri: 9.30am-5pm / Weekends: 9.30am-6pm
Cathedral Opening Hours: Mon-Sat: 7am-7pm / Sun: Closed
Official Website: www.westminstercathedral.org.uk
Visiting the Tower of London is a treat for all ages. The White Tower dates back to 1100 and seeing the Crown Jewels is always exciting but did you know that you can visit the Tower of London after hours for free?
The Ceremony of the Keys is a 700 year old tradition which is essentially about locking the tower but you know us Brits, we do like a ceremony and love tradition. The ceremony has been performed every night, without fail, even when a bomb fell on the Tower of London in September 1941 during the Second World War (it was just a little late than night).
The lantern that the Chief Yeoman Warder carries to light his way was presented to the Tower as a token of friendship by the Honourable Artillery Company in 1919.
The ceremony is only seven minutes long. A Yeoman Warder collects the 40-50 guests for the evening at 9.30pm and explains the ceremony before it happens. Photography is not allowed and these Beefeaters may look like actors but they have all served in the armed forces for over 20 years so I wouldn’t test their patience.
At 9.53pm precisely, the Chief Yeoman Warder starts his journey to lock the gates and is escorted by Foot Guards throughout the ceremony. They go through a ritual of saluting the Queen’s Keys and it all ends at 10pm when the Duty Drummer sounds his bugle.
All visitors are escorted to the exit by 10.05pm. Do be aware this means you won’t get to go inside any of the buildings and won’t see any of the displays and exhibitions, including the Crown Jewels, so you really should plan to come back and visit again in the morning.
How To Get Tickets
As mentioned at the start, all tickets are free but you have to apply by post and usually need to consider dates about two to three months in advance. You can check how far ahead they are booked up on the official website.
In your letter include all the names of who wants to visit and at least two dates you hope to attend. Every letter also needs a self-addressed envelope together with the requisite British postage stamps, or a minimum of two ‘Coupon-response international’. If you are applying from outside the UK you need to include International Reply Coupons and not local stamps.
Send your application to: Ceremony of the Keys Office, Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB Great Britain. If you have any queries you can call them on tel: +44 (0)20 3166 6278.