Know the neighbourhood to make the most of a London excursion
One of my favourite things about this, my favourite city, is the fact that it is composed of many diverse neighbourhoods, each with its own character, contributing to the allure of the British capital.
With all that London offers, it can be daunting for a visitor to choose an area for a base … should it be the traditional, staid West End or the hip, edgy East End, the older, established North Bank of the Thames or the more recently developed South Bank?
My latest trip found me staying in vastly different neighbourhoods.
MARYLEBONE — A LONDON VILLAGE WHERE TRADITIONAL MEETS TRENDY
Just to the north of the bustling shopping mecca of Oxford Street and south of Regent's Park, this lovely area has a definite "village-y" feel, and has been a favourite of fashionable Londoners since the 18th century.
In recent years, luminaries ranging from Sir Paul McCartney to former Prime Minister David Cameron have called its leafy lanes home.
It hasn't always been so genteel. It was once the location of Tyburn, where London's public hangings were held, and Marylebone Gardens, site of numerous duels. Not quite as lethal, but far from fashionable, were the "entertainments" held in the Gardens, among them bear-baiting and prize fights, engaged in by both men and women.
While today's entertainments aren't that colourful, they are also less hazardous to one's health. The marvellous Wallace Collection, home to one of Europe's finest repositories of art, is located in Hertford House in Manchester Square, and is a major draw to the area.
Spend a few hours browsing the stately rooms, which feature everything from paintings and porcelain to medieval arms and armor, and follow with lunch in the glass-enclosed cafe.
Wander down Marylebone High Street with its combination of elegant restaurants (try Orrerey with its rooftop Zen Garden), shops (Daunt Books, known equally for its Edwardian decor and marvellously curated collection of tomes) and historic sites (the village church where poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were married).
If you're a Sherlock Holmes fan, you can't miss his eponymous museum located at — where else — 221-B Baker Street. It re-creates the Victorian-era living quarters of Holmes and Dr. Watson, and has a number of tableaus from Arthur Conan Doyle's definitive works, including those of Holmes' most formidable adversaries — the Hound of the Baskervilles and Professor Moriarty.
Culture buffs will want to take in a performance at Wigmore Hall, an intimate concert hall for chamber music, said to have some of the best acoustics in Europe (BBC Radio broadcasts a weekly concert from the Hall). Also of note are the Renaissance style architecture and the beautiful mural above the stage.
My base for my Marylebone stay was the Doyle Collections' Marylebone Hotel, a 257-room property epitomizing the elegance and sophistication of this urban village. The hotel's contemporary style extends from the public spaces to its chic 108 Bar & Brasserie to the accommodations. To ratchet up the wow factor, book one of the three rooftop suites, each with a spacious deck featuring a fireplace and retractable glass roof for star-gazing.
A hallmark of the Doyle Collection is their incomparable service, and the first person you should make it a point to meet at the Marylebone is concierge Rahim Ismail. He will happily acquaint you with everything Marylebone has to offer, from Providores Restaurant, a popular brunch spot, to fashion brand L.K. Bennett, a favourite of the Duchess of Cambridge.
Rahim's picks for Marylebone must-dos:
1. The Wallace Collection
2. The Moxon Street Farmer's Market (Sundays from 10:00am to 2:00pm)
3. The sheer number of specialty shops, from La Fromagerie Cheese Shop to Aspinall of London, known for its quality leather goods.
Marylebone's hottest spot: The Chiltern Firehouse, located in a converted firehouse, is the current "in" spot and on any given evening, you can find A-list celebs at its three bars and restaurant. I only had time for a glass of champagne before my Wigmore Hall concert, but the restaurant, under the guidance of Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes, has garnered accolades. Warning: it can be problematic to get in as it's always packed, but be persistent. It's worth it.
BLOOMSBURY — TAKING IN LONDON'S LITERARY LANDSCAPE
Just north of Covent Garden and the Theatre District is Bloomsbury, an area that has come to be recognised as London's cultural and literary centre. At the heart of it all is the incomparable British Museum, established in 1753, as the world's first national public museum.
From its nucleus, based on the collection of physician Sir Hans Sloane, it has grown to include more than 8 million works, making it one of the largest and most comprehensive museums existing anywhere, attracting 6 million visitors a year. Among the most famous of those works are the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics; the Elgin Marbles, sculptures from Greece's Parthenon, and a relief illustrating an Assyrian lion hunt that dates to 650 B.C.
Knowing that most visitors with a limited amount of time to spend find the offerings overwhelming, the museum staff has designed one, two and three-hour tours aimed at hitting the highlights.
Bloomsbury is equally known for the number of intellectuals and literary figures who have called it home over the years, notably "Peter Pan" creator J.M. Barrie; novelist Charles Dickens; economist John Maynard Keynes; naturalist Charles Darwin; poet William Butler Yeats, and most famously, writer Virginia Woolf and her artist sister, Vanessa Bell.
A leisurely stroll through the beautiful squares that dot the area will reveal blue plaques indicating where these famous folk lived and loved, created and recreated.
In the center of all this is the Bloomsbury Hotel, a stunning Grade II-listed building designed in the Georgian style by Sir Edwin Lutyens, considered the greatest British architect of his era (the 1930s).
The Bloomsbury is undergoing an ambitious renovation project that will turn the lobby into an elongated bar that will be guests' first stop as they enter the hotel. Nothing says welcome like a gin and tonic. Other changes include upgrading the suites, and putting the final touches on the outdoor terrace that doubles as a movie theater during the summer.
Heading up the concierge team at the Bloomsbury is an engaging Irishman, Brian Murphy, who is only too happy to direct guests to his favourite neighbourhood haunts.
Brian's picks for the best of Bloomsbury:
1. Store Street for one-of-a-kind shopping in Georgian townhouses.
2. Charles Dickens House on Doughty Street where the author lived for 2 1/2 years. During that time, he was extremely busy siring two children and writing two books, "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas Nickleby."
3. The Lamb on Lamb's Conduit Street for a typical pub lunch of fish, chips and mushy peas or steak and ale pie. In their happier days, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes often stopped in for a pint.
Bloomsbury's Best Bet: Just around the corner from the Bloomsbury Hotel is the Dominion Theatre, where a revival of "An American in Paris" is currently running. Get your tickets early as the production has only recently opened and promises to be a smash hit.