Same-same but delightfully different, the British capital is making the most of its “new” normal. Here, Steve McKenna shares all the best things to do in London during your next visit.
At first glance, London hasn’t changed that much. It’s still a whirl of red double-decker buses and honking black cabs, a storied pub on almost every corner, people hurrying for the Tube (and still following escalator etiquette by standing to the right). But look a little closer and the city has evolved.
From Hackney to Chelsea, Camden Market to Clapham, neighbourhoods look different. Planters and parklets bursting with green shoots have prettied up the place, blocking off traffic and enclosing restaurant seating that spills out onto newly widened footpaths; the lilt of multilingual chatter and clinking glasses fills the air.
“There’s definitely been more of a staycation vibe,” says Rosalee Bate, an Australian who’s lived in London since 2011. “The city was very quiet at times but people are filtering back and the positives are cafés and restaurants putting extra seating outside and food stalls popping up in car parks. It’s created a buzz – there’s more of a community spirit with people able to hang out and wander more freely.”
Brick Lane, the hustly-bustly East London strip that snakes between Whitechapel and Shoreditch, has a renewed pedestrian-friendly ambience. There’s still the tempting aroma of the 24-hour Beigel Shop, the eclectic markets, bars and street art but vehicles are now banned from sections of the one-kilometre-long thoroughfare at weekends and on Thursday and Friday evenings. The result? Licence to mill about among the buskers and the burgeoning alfresco scene, perhaps stopping for a fragrant South-Asian bite and a spot of people-watching at tables that now flank the neon-lit BYO curry houses.
Where Brick Lane meets Osborn Street, sleek new bistro-pub-boutique-hotel The Buxton has a street-level terrace where punters savour craft beers, natural wines and modern British dishes made with herbs and veg grown in its rooftop garden (think Tamworth Pork Chop, Spring Greens, Pink Fir Potatoes).
Of course, nothing will change London’s unpredictable weather but not to worry: forward-thinking establishments have invested in everything from awnings, umbrellas, blankets and hot-water bottles to tents and heated, covered terraces. There’s even a firepit at Two Tribes Campfire, a cool King’s Cross brewery venue that combines inventive ales and barbecue feasts with DJ sets and gigs.
At Sabine, a cocktail bar and “secret garden” that opened above London’s historic centre in May, the majestic dome of St Paul’s Cathedral seems so close you can almost touch it. With an open terrace and conservatory with a retractable roof, this seventh-floor spot is among many lofty venues tapping into Londoners’ lust for rooftop mingling – a pre-pandemic trend accelerated by the demand for fresh air and social distancing.
Other draws are the brunch hangout London Bridge Rooftop, which caps a six-storey Brutalist block near The Shard, and Skylight Peckham, the latest top-floor gathering place in that vibrant South London district. On a clear day, be there for sunset and see skyscrapers and landmarks illuminated against a pink sky.
London was named the world’s first National Park City in 2019 so locals weren’t short of outdoor options during restrictions. As well as picnicking in Hyde Park, cycling past roaming deer in Richmond Park or stomping through Hampstead Heath’s woodlands, nature-seeking urbanites were drawn to the city’s waterways.
“Because so much indoor entertainment was closed, people were forced to discover new outdoor adventures,” says Madoc Threipland, whose company Secret Adventures leads kayaking and canoeing trips along the rivers and canals.
Paddling along the River Thames offers a fresh perspective as you drift under Tower Bridge and see the water side of the Tate Modern and Houses of Parliament, guides revealing historical insights over the clamour of squawking gulls.
The tidal flow favours daytime jaunts from Greenwich to Battersea and in the opposite direction for a night tour. Canoe the loop around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and one minute you’re eyeing graffiti and sporting arenas, the next elegant swans and marshy wilderness. Back on land, The Line is London’s first dedicated public art trail, meandering via the post-industrial landscapes between Stratford and Greenwich. Peruse sculptures, installations and murals from emerging talents and big names alike, including Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin.
Image credit: Emily Lovell, Clerkenwell Boy