London is a city I have dreamed of visiting for decades.
So when I decided my husband’s birthday gift was going to be a tour of the Scottish Highlands by luxury train, I felt we absolutely needed to do 4 days in London before flying home.
“London opens to you like a novel itself… It is divided into chapters, the chapters into scenes, the scenes into sentences; it opens to you like a series of rooms, doors and passages. Mayfair to Piccadilly to Soho to the Strand.”– Anna Quindlen
I couldn’t even tell you how many books spanning how many centuries I have read that took place in London. In so many ways, I really felt as though I had already been to London.
Until I ACTUALLY started planning a trip there.
There is just so so so much to see and do!
And it’s impossibly spread out!
Even if “all you want to see” are the “greatest hits” list of this city–you’re not walking it. And suddenly only 4 days in London doesn’t seem like enough. I’ve never done the hop on, hop off bus thing–but I thought hard about it for this trip. But. . .my husband was giving me this pained expression when I mentioned that option and I get it–being jostled around with other eager tourists isn’t exactly our cup of tea (yep that pun was intended).
We like to be the more understated kind of tourists, blending in and trying to get more of a local’s perspective on a place. One of our best “non-tourist-tourist moments was a few years ago in Paris: a couple came up to us asking in French if we knew where the line for the boat tour was. Six years of high school and college French with a Duolingo brush-up and I could barely respond, ugh. However. The point is we LOOKED like Parisian locals so in my book that’s a win!
Anyways. Back to 4 days in London.
I did my best to get us around the city of Austen, Dickens, Doyle, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Flemming. . .and all the rest of the writers from the Middle Ages on who shaped this city so finely in my mind.
The best way to be a tourist without looking like one is a private walking tour.
“Private” doesn’t necessarily translate to “expensive”! But it absolutely translates to “Personalized” which is the BEST kind of tour!
It means your guide will focus on the things you want to see and talk about the things you are most curious about. It’s still within the framework of the tour you signed up for, but if you get off on a tangent well– no one else is waiting around rolling their eyes, when the topic goes from the Parliament building to the disappointment of No Time To Die, are they? No. It’s just you and your local guide. And what a relief to know we aren’t the only ones who had a problem with the ending of that movie. Now we can move on to Westminster Abbey.
4 Days in London
Arrival Day: Check in and keep plans loose
Case in point: our flight from Edinburgh to City Airport London was delayed, and we ended up missing our dinner reservation. BUT lucky us: our swanky hotel also had a swanky restaurant.
Plan your hotel location central to your sightseeing plans. In the case of a big city like London, this doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to walk to all your planned points of interest–but it does mean your taxi rides can be in the 10 minute range. This saves you precious time–and money. If you are planning to use the tube stations this rule also applies.
Go for the gold standard and stay at Rosewood London.
Located off the bustling and historic High Holborn, Rosewood London is pretty central to a lot of the main tourist attractions. As busy as the street is, however, the hotel itself is tucked away behind tall iron gates and down an enclosed carriage lane. The inner courtyard is like an entirely different world: all serene luxury and hushed tones.
This vibe continues to the stunning interior spaces, designed by Tony Chi and Associates. It very much feels like you’re visiting the manor house of your delightfully flamboyant, artistic, and mysteriously wealthy gentleman uncle. Spaces feel collected yet cohesive, with plush furniture, quirky objets d’art and books (many showcasing the city or famous Brits) scattered around. And gleaming surfaces everywhere. The pinky-bronze metal of a long gallery, mirrored tables and walls, gilded ceilings. . .even the little marble tiles making up the black and white mosaic floors wink and twinkle as you walk.
The shine (the the design wow) factor doesn’t stop at the public spaces. We treated ourselves to one of the 45 suites at Rosewood London, and it felt like we were hiding out at some celebrity crash pad. Gleaming marble floors, black lacquer tables and doors, more mirrored walls, endless closet space, more tempting books, and a massive shower/tub area completely done in marble that could classify as its own room. Whew!
Coming directly from spending four nights in an elegant 85 sq ft train carriage, this suite felt like a mansion.
Pretty sure a regular room would have been fine too but. . . seems my husband was ready for some SPACE so I only gave a little squeak of protest when he asked Luca about suites at check-in. He looks at me, all serious, because he knows I’m about to calculate the cost difference and show it to him on my calculator like we’re in negotiations, and he says, “It’s my birthday.”
Well, OK! He went from being pouty about getting older to treating hisself – and me by proxy! Fine by me! Celebrity crash pad for 4 days in London, check.
If you’re spending 4 days in London then at least one dinner should be classic British fare. The Holborn Dining Room is everything you could want for that quintessential London dining experience.
Dim lighting glowing from grand-scale ceiling fixtures and scattered brass lamps.
Deep leather booths that embrace a weary traveller while allowing a view to the soaring ceiling and architectural columns original to the building. A menu of elevated British classics guaranteed to send you back to your room satiated and sleepily content.
Plan on the extra time it takes for one of their famous savory pies. We noshed on the endive, pear, and walnut salad along with the truffle parmesan fries. When that chicken, chestnut mushroom and tarragon pie comes out you will know that the 30 minute wait is 100% WORTH IT.
On to our laid-back itinerary. Since London was at the end of our two-week UK journey, I tried not to hustle us too hard.
Day 1: Highlights and Hidden Gems Walking Tour
We are Foodies. So when planning 4 days in London, where we’re gonna EAT is a priority. And I love a good breakfast! So I’m on my iPhone Maps app searching around the meeting spot for our walking tour and yippie there’s Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen near St. Paul’s. And away we go!
At 10:30am it’s not busy at all which means I can take in all the quirky decor (Ramsay’s got himself done up on an oil painting that makes me think seriously about that “paint me famous” gift for people). Scrambled eggs & smoked salmon for Mark, Vegetarian breakfast for me (hello, halloumi), some REALLY GOOD coffee and we’re off to meet our guide.
A walking tour is great because it burns a few calories AND gives you a lay of the land. A GUIDED walking tour is FANTASTIC because you’re taking a local’s route and also hearing some incredible stories about the things around you! We had the best day hanging out with Tom “The London Storyteller” Barclay Matchett. You can book with him directly or you can book the tour through Viator.
What’s better than 4 days in London spent seeing some London Icons? Seeing some lesser known “gems” along the way too!
Big Ben is a fantastic monument to see in person. But so is meeting a long-time Borough Market vendor like Ratan, owner of Tea2You. Those are the kinds of interactions and experiences that elevate a vacation from “trip” to “journey”.
Reserve a table at Amazonico for a lush and immersive dining experience.
You might be spending 4 days in London, but a dinner here will transport you to a tropical jungle paradise. Located on Berkeley Square in upscale Mayfair, the door guys are a little intimidating, but it’s worth planning in advance with a reservation, I promise! The interior decor is a feast for the eyes, and the menu is a feast for the taste buds. We literally went down the menu and ordered something from nearly every section. Everything sounded good! We wanted to try it all!
A primavera salad with heritage tomato, watermelon, almonds and a lemon vinagrette from the “Hojas y Verduras Frescas” section. Aguachile, a Mexican style stone bass ceviche from “Crude y Marinados”. Wagyu beef empanadas served with huitlacoche cream and spicy chicken Tequeños with tybo cheese and coriander sauce from “Petiscos Amazonicos”. Scottish Halibut with beetroot escabeche and yuzu butter from “Del Rio a la Mar”. It was pure flavor heaven. Every bite was savored. I’m so glad I wore a more loose-fitting dress. There’s no way Spanx would have been able to hold all that into a bodycon.
What’s better than indulging in the most amazing Latin/tropical cuisine, served up in the most incredible rendition of a swanky rainforest? Add in the live music: jazz, Samba, and Bossa Nova completes the transportive magic of Amazonico.
Do you wanna know a secret?
The Unnamed Bar. With green and gold decor inspired by Mexico’s cenotes, it’s between the kitchens and down a dimly lit staircase. You have to get the octopus stamped on your hand in ink only visible under black light. There’s no mention of it on their website or anywhere else, and if you ask about it at dinner, they will try to take you to the other, more high-energy bar area. So only ask if you’re willing to press the point that you know about this space downstairs. It’s a true speakeasy, what a thrill!
Day 2: The British Museum
You’ve had a walk around the borough of Westminster and the City of London. You popped into Mayfair for an indulgent dinner at Amazonico. Now get your Academia on and head out to the Georgian buildings and leafy greenery of Bloomsbury, in London’s West End.
Victoria House Coffee & Food will set your day up for success.
This is a small locally owned and operated spot two minutes’ walk from the museum. There are a pleasing mix of English and Indian flavors and lots of healthy and vegan options too! We lucked into the one table out front (they have a lovely outdoor area out back but it had just rained) and had some of the best brunch food on the planet.
The “Rooty Tooty Fresh & Fruity” waffles were light and fluffy, topped raspberries, blueberries, and bananas–and a magical homemade cherry compote I would love to have the recipe for. I’d slather that on anything. Also there was maple syrup–the real stuff–and a sprinkle of cinnamon involved. Have you ever seen that show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate?” Yeah. It’s on that level.
When you can’t eat another bite, it’s time to walk it off at the British Museum.
Plan to be waiting in line at the museum entrance. The earlier you go the shorter your wait. . .and the crush of humanity inside will be less intense.
We got in the queue around 10:30am (opens at 10am) and waited maybe 15 minutes. It moved pretty quickly. Once you’re inside, if you don’t already have a map consider buying one, and/or making a donation. Entry to the museum is free, but you definitely want to book a time slot in advance. There are 2 million years of human history housed in these galleries, plus seasonal exhibitions–so you really want to get on the website and plan a route to hit whatever you most want to see. My face in the photo by the Rosetta Stone? That was a huge bucket list item, and one of the reasons I finally decided on the British Museum over the Museum of Natural History (on my “next time” list now).
I planned us out for 3 hours, and we were there just a little over that estimate. Realistically, there’s only so much information you can take in at a stretch!
Head down Piccadilly for Afternoon Tea at The Ritz
Not far from Amazonico, between Mayfair and St James, is the iconic Ritz Hotel. Queen Elizabeth II was known to have loved to have tea here and ironically this is where we were when we learned of her passing. It was quite a shock and we did end up glued to the BBC in our hotel for the remainder of the afternoon. Suffice to say our Ritz experience even more memorable, and almost like a tribute.
We nibbled on delicate sandwiches, scones, and pastries brought by white-gloved and coat-tailed servers. We sipped our tea (Darjeeling Second Flush for Mark, Rose Congou for me) and glasses of Barons de Rothschild “Reserve Ritz” Brut.
It’s the perfect place to talk about all the things you saw and learned at the museum, or to just sit and observe the room while resident pianist Ian Gomes plays the jaunty and apropos “Putting’ on The Ritz”.
Be sure to book in advance and dress smart for this elegant experience. Since we were coming from hours of walking in the museum, I stashed our fancy footwear in my mid-size Chanel tote and we switched out of our walking shoes in the taxi on the way to the Ritz.
Slip into a Speakeasy for artistic cocktails and bluesy live music
We were too full from afternoon tea and too busy watching the BBC coverage of the Queen’s passing to bother with dinner. My original plan was to dine downstairs at Holborn Dining Room, but we already covered that when we missed our arrival day reservations! So instead we relaxed in our room until it was time to Uber to our evening activity: Night Jar Shoreditch.
Night Jar in Shoreditch isn’t a true speakeasy, per se. They have a website, and you DO want to book a table for sure.
But when you’re walking along in the dark it’s very easy to miss the entrance.
When you do spot the rectangular brass plaque with the bird (a night jar is a type of bird!) the door guy is pretty intimidating. The staircase heading down is pretty dark, dank, and dreary. Then the door below opens. And you know you’re in for a fun night of live music, and drinking. Probably also befriending the people squeezed into the booth and atop the rickety wood chairs alongside you.
Night Jar does the most artistic and delightful drinks! You know it’s a serious business when you open the drink menu and see that it’s organized into sections “spanning the glorious history of the cocktail: Pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, Post-War, and our Nightjar Signatures”.
And every cocktail comes to the table in a unique glass with intricate garnishes! Since I’m Extra, I went for the drink that gets put down into a wooden block they light on fire: Name of the Samurai. I also had to try out a drink that lists “popcorn tea infusion” alongside Japanese whisky and sake, among a myriad of other ingredients. How could you not, right? They have a small snacks menu and I recommend getting some if, like us, you skipped dinner and have any hope of making it back up the stairs in one piece after a couple of these cocktails.
We got the end table in front of the stage area and Davide Sanna set the mood for a bluesy night in London.
Day 3: Bond. . .James Bond.
You’ve done some wide grand exploring and now it’s time to think about doing something a little more niche. For us, it was a “Bond For A Day” tour! We are both fans of James Bond films and this tour is so much fun. And it’s a small group thing (in our case 4 people). This is good because at least you already know you’ve got something in common!
Our tour guide Peter was a fount of knowledge. He pointed out lots of film locations had a binder with stills from the movies in the exact spot we were standing. So cool.
We also learned about real-life British spies, traitors, MI5, and where those working for Her Majesty’s Secret Service exchanged information in the city. We talked a ton about Ian Flemming. It was so interesting how his life and the people he met influenced his creation of the story plots and characters in his Bond series.
Peter also told us about what the coming days and weeks would look like in London with the passing of the Queen. Things were already happening that the city hadn’t witnessed since the death of King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, in 1952.
So you see my point again about private guided tours.
Also we got to shoot guns. And drink Vesper martini’s at the Hotel of Spies, St. Ermin’s.
Which was all pretty badass.
Rules Restaurant keeps the Bond vibes going into dinner.
The bustling and loud Maiden Lane atmosphere outside Rules is quickly replaced by a calm upper crust ambiance inside. It makes perfect sense that this would be the Covent Garden restaurant where Q and Moneypenny interrupt M’s dinner in the 2015 movie SPECTRE. Bond aside, Rules is the oldest restaurant in London, so that along with all the memorabilia on the walls makes it worth a visit.
Day 4: Shopping
You can’t come to London and not do any shopping. For us it was St James’s and the bespoke shirt experience for my husband. He is a fan of Turnbull & Asser shirting, just as his father was before him. Our first time visiting the original London storefront did not disappoint! Judging by the royal warrant and all the celebrity photos on the walls, he’s not the only loyal fan of this Jermyn Street establishment.
Lunch at 45 Jermyn was unplanned and a brilliant find after shopping!
We had a lazy morning so ran out of time but Harrods should be on anyone’s list.
Did you know that area is called the Tiara Triangle? I love that.
My original plan was to spend the afternoon shopping til we dropped at Harrods and then walk 10 minutes to dinner at Scalini. Since Scalini was SO DAMN DELICIOUS, I think I might re-plan for this on the “next time” trip.
Have dinner at the tucked-away, celebrity-approved Scalini
They’ve been serving up authentic Italian fare in the posh Chelsea borough for over 30 years. The Bresaola & Ricotta was incredible. The tomatoes and olive oil they used for the bruschetta made it the best I think I’ve ever had. I almost cried into my Fettucine al Ragu Bianco & Tartufo Nero–it was that good.
We had the most lovely moonlight stroll through the undulating Queen Anne style “Pont Street Dutch” houses of Lennox Gardens.
I could just imagine Peter Pan and Tinkerbell flitting above and flying into Wendy’s open window. Pretty sure this is the kind of upscale area the Darlings would dwell.
What we actually saw was a young couple lingering outside next to the car, while a concerned Papa paced in and out of view in the large picture window. And Mama came in to and shoo him away from the window.
We didn’t want to make it any more awkward for the youngsters by stopping and staring, so we didn’t get to see if he got up the courage to kiss her. But given the romantic moonlight and gentle breezes, I’d like to imagine he did. Or maybe she got bold once her father was out of view and got on tiptoe to take matters into her own hands. Either way. I’m a total champion of love.