Afternoon tea. The Changing of the Guards. Film Africa Festival. World-class theatre. Big Ben. Notting Hill Carnival. London is a city full of rich traditions and iconic buildings.
Every year, millions of Americans head to the other side of the pond for a taste of British culture. But there is much more brimming underneath the surface of this European city, due in large part to London’s diverse immigrant population and melding of new and old world traditions. At Lib-rary, for example, the time old tradition of afternoon tea gets remixed with Caribbean flair: papaya scones are topped with guava preserves, passion fruit sandwiches are enjoyed with Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. In Brixton, African vendors sell brightly colored skirts against the backdrop of century old buildings. Everywhere, life pushes forward, tinged with the cultural influence of its inhabitants.
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If you are considering a visit, be sure to experience the tried and true London of royal tradition and fancies, but also the heart of local London-- neighborhoods brimming with West Indian, Arab and African culture. There are more than 300 languages spoken in London, which is more than any other city in the world. The immensity of that number alone makes it a playground for cultural immersion and inspiration.
WHAT TO DO
There are endless things to do and see in London, including Big Ben, the London Eye, a stroll along the Thames River and a visit to some of the world’s best museums. For more personalized local experiences, Portobello Market in West London is a shopper’s dream come true. In the heart of London’s most diverse neighborhood, Lounge Brixton is perfect for people watching and a glass of wine with friends. For late night tunes, Lib-rary offers creative Caribbean dishes from Dub Plates and a rotating selection of local DJ’s. BCA Brixton seeks to preserve the history of people of African and Caribbean descent in Britain. There is an extensive archive of photographs, letters and diaries on the premises.
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WHERE TO EAT
Have a sweet tooth? Chocolate aficionados will relish in the selections at Black-owned Dark Sugars. Gin and lime, sea salt caramel and champagne truffle are just a few of their chocolate selections.
Langham Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea is ubiquitous in London, but for a traditional afternoon with all of the proper fixings, look no further than the Langham Hotel. The 150 year old tradition lives on here with 30 tea blends, finger sandwiches, beautifully decorated pastries, scones with clotted cream and, of course, a little French bubbly to set the tone.
London has perhaps some of the best Indian food in the world, and a tried and true classic is Bombay Brasserie. Creamy chicken tikka masala matched with perfectly soft naan bread is a must, and don’t forget to wash it down with their classic chili mojito.
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Perfect for a date night or girl’s night out, Coya London serves up flavorful Peruvian tapas in a sleek and lively environment. Do not miss a sampling of their impressive ceviche and anticucho (skewered grilled meat) list. Then there’s the Chilean sea bass: subtle, tender and ever so memorable. There’s a reason Coya was voted Zagat as one of the hottest restaurants in the world by Zagat.
If French food tickles your fancy, prepare to be amused in the best possible way with every bite at Brasserie Chavot. The Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant creates the best of contemporary French cooking in an unassuming brasserie environment. Heavy on the butter and even heavier on the flavor, every dish is a delight to the senses, including the deep fried soft shell crab with whipped aioli and a beef stew so tender that a fork is optional. An added bonus? The sommelier’s fierce passion and knowledge of wines around the world. Before or after dinner, a cocktail at the classic Polo Bar is quintessential London. Do not miss the Mayfair Gold cocktail, which includes gin shaken with elderflower, lemon and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, topped with Moet Brut.
Perfect for a good afternoon lunch, Cucina Asellina offers fresh Italian fare in a non-pretentious setting. Located in the ME London hotel, diners can people watch while sharing small dishes like pizza, polenta chips with rosemary salt and wild mushroom risotto.
Mango Room is a London favorite for Caribbean food and fun. While there are just as many flavorful, local spots in Brixton, Mango Room is a good option for sit down dining with some flair. Try the curry goat or jerk chicken. They also have great vegetarian options.
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WHERE TO STAY
If heaven had a spa, it would look like the one at Corinthia Hotel. ESPA life is an experience for the senses unlike any other and includes an indoor swimming pool, amphitheater sauna, marble heated loungers and private sleeping pods. More five star luxury can be found in the Executive King Room; a haven that includes a marble bathtub with a built in TV and a separate living area just as plush as the bedroom. For dining options, Massimo provides fresh Italian food paired with wines from around the world. Chef Andrea Cinno’s take on pasta and simple, fresh ingredients, is worth a visit alone to the hotel.
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
If you want classic luxury, look no further than the Mandarin Oriental. Situated directly across the street from beautiful Hyde Park in the city’s lux Knightsbridge district, London’s Mandarin Oriental fuses the best of British sensibility with sleek design for the discerning traveler. Burger lovers will rejoice in Bar Boulud’s innovative take on an American classic. For special occasions, any of the rooms or suites will make for a memorable stay. Do not miss the 17-meter indoor swimming pool.
Located in the heart of Covent Garden, One Aldwych is a luxury boutique hotel with top-notch service in an intimate setting. The sparkling lobby is a central point of social activity, including the not to be missed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory inspired afternoon tea. Golden eggs filled with mango cheesecake, “candy floss” and caramel chocolate milk are just a few of the options that will satiate your inner child. For relaxation, the spa offers a variety of excellent treatments, gym and sauna to melt away your jetlag blues.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Public transportation in London is easily accessible and relatively seamless for commuting. Upon arrival, make it a point to purchase an Oyster Card, which is the easiest and most economical way to get around the city. For access to some of London’s most well known attractions, the London Pass sightseeing card allows visitors the ability to visit sites without having to wait in line to buy a ticket.
BEST WAY TO GET THERE
For flights from the U.S., British airline Virgin Atlantic is a trans-Atlantic favorite. VA offers a number of daily non-stop flights from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. For extra legroom and more personalized space and service, try their Premium Economy - perfect for working travelers and still relatively cost efficient. If you want to make your trip memorable before you even arrive, Upper Class is an experience any traveler will not soon forget. Ever dreamed of a bar where you could sit and have a cocktail…30,000 feet in the air? On Virgin Atlantic it can happen. And after a few of those said cocktails, you might just wake up and suddenly be in London. Or so I’ve been told…
For more general information on how to plan your trip to London, visit www.visitlondon.com.
Kristin Braswell is a travel writer based in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @crushglobal