Having recently launched our brand-new travel section and our sister Instagram feed, @designmilktravels, we are delighted to be running a series of travel guides in partnership with TUMI. And what collection of city guides would be complete without The Big Smoke – aka London?
I once overheard someone on a train out of London say that he felt like he’d seen it all – he’d spent a grand total of one day in the city! I lived in London for 12 years and have been commuting in and out for another five, and I still don’t feel like I’ve seen it all. It is, despite the best efforts of politicians and property developers, one of the most vibrant, diverse, and creative cities in the world. Trying to distil its best bits into anything less than an encyclopedia is a near impossible task, so what follows is a taster rather than a comprehensive overview, but I hope that you’ll use it as a jumping off point for further explorations, if not over 17 years, then at least for more than a day!
WHERE TO STAY
Greater London covers an area of 1,583 square kilometers, so the honest answer to the question of where to stay, is that it really depends where you need to be. We’ve included one hotel in central London’s Holborn; one in hipster central – East London; and one in up-and-coming Kennington, south of the river.
From the “shoebox” to the “roomy” there’s a bedroom to suit every budget at the Hoxton Hotel, Holborn. Don’t be confused by the name – the chain started in East London’s Hoxton and now has outposts in Holborn and Amsterdam with NYC, Paris, Southwark and Chicago all in the pipeline. This one is definitely on High Holborn, within easy reach of Oxford Street. The proprietors describe their approach to hospitality as “not just a bed for a night” and monthly events featuring local creatives, on-site restaurants, cafes, salons and coffee shops – and even an apartment you can hire for anything from a meeting to a party – all ensure you won’t ever need to leave.
If you liked the sound of that apartment, the newly opened Leman Locke might be more up your street. Combining the style and convenience of a boutique hotel with the ‘live like a local’ appeal of a serviced apartment, 168 studios and one-bedroom suites each comprise a bedroom, fitted kitchen and living area – all kitted out in an on-trend Scandinavian combo of pastel colors, pale wood and geometric patterns. They come in at almost double the size of a typical hotel room at 29 square meters, so you can live, work and play in them, rather than just having somewhere to lay your head. When you do need to get out, Treves & Hyde, on the first and ground floors, offers everything from healthy breakfasts to late night cocktails. Check out our Destination Design piece for more about Leman Locke.
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, head South of the River (even the cabbies go there now!) to The Tommyfield. Named after a market in the North of England that lays claim to Britain’s first fish and chip shop, this archetypal Victorian English pub is full of period features, serves a proper pint and, of course, has the classic British fish supper on the menu. But we’re still in the ‘where to stay’ section, so why am I talking about pubs? Well, it has recently opened six individually-styled boutique hotel rooms above the bar that are a world away from what you might expect from a British boozer. King-sized beds, Egyptian cotton bedlinen, Nespresso machines, black-out blinds and rain showers or roll-topped baths mean you can recover from your hangover in style.
WHERE TO SHOP
There are design stores big and small all over London, from British furniture stores like Terence Conran’s Habitat to tiny independents like Nook in Stoke Newington, so it’s been incredibly hard to narrow it down to just these recommendations, but there’s something quintessentially London about the three I’ve chosen.
Firstly and most importantly, you must go to the Aram Store in Covent Garden. Founded by Romanian-born Zeev Aram in 1964 to mutters of “Who needs this rubbish?” and “Why anyone would want to buy ‘hospital furniture’?” it is a mecca for modern design enthusiasts – now that the British have finally embraced modern design. Joined in the business by son Daniel and daughter Ruth, Aram continues to offer the mid-century design classics he launched with, alongside work by emerging talent they source from graduate design shows every year.
Don’t miss the home of British craft, The New Craftsmen. Realizing that people were increasingly buying on brand name alone without understanding the skills of the people behind the labels, founders Natalie Melton, Catherine Lock and Mark Henderson set out to reconnect materials, skills and making with what they call “real luxury.” Representing 75 contemporary British makers working across textiles, silverware, furniture, ceramics, jewelry, and glassware, they showcase and sell a carefully selected range of products, limited editions and exclusive collaborations.
Then head northeast to Clerkenwell for something completely different. Clerkenwell London (that’s the name of the shop as well as its location) defies categorization. Describing itself as “a new destination for the discovery of niche and established designers, creatives and artisans,” the 13,000 square foot space comprises not only a carefully curated shop stocking a stunning selection of home-wares, fashion, jewelry, stationery, art, music and literature, but also a bar and restaurant, a private dining room, a beauty salon, a ‘vinyl lounge’ and a ‘wine library.’ You could stay all day – and all night!
Okay, so I couldn’t narrow it down to just three. Aside from the two I sneaked into the introduction (you didn’t even notice, did you?!), I’ve just got to mention two more – if you’re a stationery addict like me, you can’t miss Present & Correct. The small but perfectly formed store stocks a perfectly styled selection of everything from vintage envelopes to the latest Hay notebooks. And while the new Design Museum has only been open a short time, its shop has been up and running. With everything arranged by color, it’s worth a visit for the Instagram opportunities alone.
ART AND ARCHITECTURE
London is a city steeped in history and culture – lift your eyes above street level in any part of the city and you’ll see incredible architecture; turn any corner and you’ll trip over art, culture and design. Get lost and explore the hidden gems, but whatever you do – don’t miss our top picks…
Despite a fear of heights, whenever my husband arrives in a new city, the first thing he does is heads straight for its tallest building. A quick walk around the viewing platform and he’s got his bearings, ready to take charge of our explorations. It’s a great way to get acquainted with a new place, and despite controversy over the hefty £30 price tag to gain entry to its privately-operated, 800-feet-high observation deck, there’s no escaping the fact that the Renzo-Piano-designed Shard is now the tallest building in London – and in fact in the UK. 360-degree views make it the only place you can see the whole of London from one place, so check it out.
Once you’ve got your bearings, take a stroll along the Southbank – home to the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery, British Film Institute (BFI), National Theatre and more Brutalist architecture than you can shake a concrete stick at. Once a series of industrial wharfs built on boggy marshland, the area’s transformation began with the construction of the Royal Festival Hall for the 1951 Festival of Britain. That said, even ten years ago, Londoners used to joke that the best thing about the Southbank was the view of the North bank. That’s all changed and it’s now one of the most vibrant areas of London, hosting 23 festivals and 5400 events annually, 50% of which are free for the 6.25 million people who visit every year. Go on a Friday for the street food market.
Keep walking all the way along the Southbank and you’ll end up at the Tate Modern. The new Switch House building, designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, opened in June 2016 and has increased the size of London’s leading (and my favorite) contemporary art gallery by 60%, enabling more temporary exhibitions and a free exhibition of the expanded permanent collection, 75% of which has been acquired since the gallery opened in 2000, and which now comprises a much more diverse collection of 800 works by more 300 artists from over 50 countries – plus half of the solo displays are now dedicated to female artists, which can only be a good thing.
Finally, no trip to London would be complete without a trip to the museum quarter, home to the National History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, more commonly known as ‘the V&A’. Founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the V&A is the world’s largest museum dedicated to decorative arts and design and its permanent collection contains more than 4.5 million objects! The 12.5-acre museum comprises 145 galleries, showing art and design artifacts spanning 5,000 years, from ancient times to the present day. If that sounds more than slightly overwhelming, I can highly recommend the free tours that run from the grand entrance several times a day – choose a general introductory tour, or hone in to a specific topic, such as Britain 1500-1900 or LGBTQ.
What did we miss? What are some of your favorite architectural landmarks, art galleries/museums, places to stay and shop in London?
This post is in partnership with TUMI. Our partners are hand-picked by the Design Milk team because they represent the best in design.