City Travel Guide: There’s More to London than the Olympics, Part One

- Rebecca Tay, a Canadian expat living in London, is a fashion writer and editor who has scribed for the likes of FASHION Magazine, ELLE Canada and Wallpaper.

With less than one month to go until the London 2012 Olympic Games, it’s near impossible not to get excited about everything that’s going on. Add to that the little pink signs in the underground guiding tourists toward key Olympic and London venues (I see the ones for Hyde Park and Horse Guards Parade, where beach volleyball will take place, on a now-daily basis) and I’m loving London more than ever.

In the spirit of helping out those traveling to London, either for the Games or—gasp!—for the first time, here are a few of my must-sees while you’re in town.

There were lots of threats of entire restaurants being booked out by national teams during Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games, but in reality, hardly any of them actually prevented me from eating where I wanted to. Hopefully, that’s the case for London too. For a lovely weekend brunch, you must head to Riding House Café. Just north of Oxford Circus in Fitzrovia, this brasserie has amazing ambience—think chatty and busy but not too loud and, most importantly, with lots of character—and delicious food. I also love its Tumblr-style website and am partial to the chorizo hash brown. For lunch, skip the kedgeree (although when in England, you must try this rice-and-smoked-fish dish) and opt instead for a selection of small plates, priced between £4 and £6 each.

It goes without saying that a trip to London, whether it’s your first or your fifteenth, requires a pop into the city’s department stores. Selfridges (closest tube stop: Bond Street), Liberty (just off Carnaby Street, another London landmark, though it’s only inhabited by big-name stores these days), and the Dover Street Market in Mayfair are my musts.

If you make it to Portobello Market—and really, you should, although it’s hard enough now navigating the streets, let alone during the Olympics—head a bit further east, right into the heart of Notting Hill, to pay a visit to Aimé. Stocking almost exclusively French labels, this is the best place in town to find Isabel Marant, both her Étoile and main lines (even the girls at Harvey Nichols think so, as I learned recently). Other brands available here include APC, Bensimon, Repetto, Iro, and Les Prairies de Paris.

Lastly, if you are heading to the official Olympic Park in Hackney, east London, make an appointment to swing by LN-CC, official name Late Night Chamelon Cafe. This store has been written about in virtually every magazine since it opened. Find brands Jil Sander, J.W. Anderson, Ancient Greek Sandals (my new, personal favorite sandal brand), Dries van Noten, Givenchy, Haider Ackerman, and Peter Pilotto there. It’s a relatively new addition to any visitor’s must-see list.

Awhile ago, we were warned that many of the theaters and venues in the West End (a.k.a. the theater district of London) would be closed for the duration of the Games; luckily, this looks to be a fallacy, though don’t be silly and book your tickets at the last minute. Critics have loved Roald Dahl’s Matilda, but there are plenty of other spectacular acts to see.

If a live show isn’t your thing, take to the Tate Modern for the first major U.K. exhibition of Damien Hirst’s work, running until September 9, 2012. It’ll be jam-packed, no doubt, but it’s an impressive show for critics and Hirst-lovers alike. Who wouldn’t want to see black flies swarming the head of a dead cow?

Not everyone considers waking up relatively early on a Sunday morning relaxing, but if you can will yourself to get to east London by around 10am, you can catch a few hours of the Columbia Road Flower Market. Sure, you aren’t likely to bring a window-box of pansies home with you, but your photos—even if only taken on Instagram—will be sure to impress. Want a different type of plant experience? Head to Kew Gardens in southwest London, if only to escape the buzz of all the city noise for a few hours.

Where to Stay:
Search London luxury hotel listings

Read more on London:
Daniel’s London Discoveries: Paxton & Whitfield
Fresh Picks: London Calling
Hotel Intel: The Race for 2012 Olympics Overnighters, London Hotel Properties Prepare

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