London is one of the world’s most dynamic and cosmopolitan cities, despite the vicissitudes that have afflicted the financial world, on which its economy is heavily reliant. It is a place of pageantry and tradition, but also a fashion capital and a global center for contemporary art. The quality and variety of the city’s restaurants are astonishing, with recent years having seen a robust revival of authentic British cuisine. The period of the year to see the capital at its best is from mid-April, when the parks and squares burst into bloom, until mid-July and the conclusion of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
Midsummer also has its appeal, however, since this is the season when it’s possible to visit certain royal residences while their occupants are elsewhere. The State Rooms of Buckingham Palace are open from July 20 - September 29, 2019. If possible, book a quieter after-hours small-group tour, as the State Rooms are packed during regular visiting hours. We prefer the much more intimate Clarence House, formerly the residence of the Queen Mother and now home to Prince Charles, but it will be closed to visitors until August 2020.
Read the Harper Way London City Guide
A Growing Skyline
A quarter of a century ago, London had few high-rise buildings and St. Paul’s Cathedral was a dominant presence on the skyline, as it had been since the beginning of the 18th century. In the past 20 years, however, London’s financial district and certain sections of the South Bank have sprouted dozens of glass-and-steel towers. Renzo Piano’s The Shard, a 1,016-foot skyscraper, overlooks London Bridge. The Shard contains a Shangri-La hotel, plus an open-air observation deck on the 72nd floor, at a height of 802 feet.
An Exciting Art Scene
London’s art scene was revolutionized by the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, housed within the vast former Bankside Power Station. After a visit, I like to take the 15-minute trip along the Thames aboard the Tate Boat to Tate Britain, London’s principal collection of British art, which contains major works by Turner, Constable and Gainsborough, as well as those by contemporary masters such as Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. A major extension, which opened in 2016, offers 10 floors of gallery space dedicated to film, temporary installations and interactive performance art.
Visit the Royal Residences
It is possible to visit several royal residences when their occupants are elsewhere. Perhaps the most fascinating is Clarence House, home to the Prince of Wales. Small guided groups will be admitted from August 1-31, 2018 (Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays only). At nearby Buckingham Palace, the State Rooms will be open from July 21-September 30, 2018. Visitors may also stroll through part of the palace garden. Private guided tours are available.
Classical Music Performances
The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts — universally known as “The Proms” — are a summer season of classical music. This year, from July 13-September 8, more than 100 events are planned, a majority to be held in the Royal Albert Hall. Up to 1,400 tickets are sold each evening. At any season of the year, London stages chamber music recitals in a number of more intimate venues. One of my favorites is Wigmore Hall, a 15-minute walk from either Claridge’s or The Connaught. My other favorite setting for chamber music is St. John’s Smith Square, close to the Houses of Parliament.
Independent Book Shops
London remains a bookish city, and there are still quite a few surviving independent shops defying the ravenous maw of the internet. Among my favorites is Daunt Books (83 Marylebone High Street, W1U), which contains the finest selection of travel literature I have ever encountered, displayed in a historic shop with long oak galleries, graceful skylights and William Morris prints.
London’s parks form one of the city’s principal glories. Holland Park is centered on the ruins of Holland House, a Jacobean mansion partially destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1940. This now provides a backdrop for a wonderful summer opera festival. On warm evenings, I like to stroll over to The Boathouse in Hyde Park to rent a small rowing skiff and scull gently up the Serpentine past the Sackler Gallery to The Long Water in Kensington Gardens.
A Fascinating Museum
The excellent Sir John Soane’s Museum houses a remarkable private collection that includes classical sculptures and mosaics; paintings by Canaletto, Watteau and Howard; drawings by Chambers and Adam; and, improbably, the sarcophagus of pharaoh Seti I.
Smell Like James Bond
One of my favorite London shops is Floris (89 Jermyn Street, SW1Y), a bespoke perfume store and an invaluable source of gifts. Sometimes I indulge in the No. 89 aftershave, the preferred fragrance of James Bond.
The Perfect Martini
One of the world’s best martinis is served at DUKES Bar (35 St. James Place, SW1A). With the ritual care of a Zen tea master, Alessandro Palazzi creates a perfect dry cocktail adorned with a graceful curl of lemon peel.