I remember sitting on my bedroom floor in Notting Hill last summer, listening to Taylor Swift’s then-just released London Boy with my friends and thinking: “Hmm…what a random and odd, for that matter – choice of places to go to while in London.” We all cracked up at a Twitter thread in which someone had calculated the total time and money TS would have had to spend getting everywhere by tube (spoiler: it’s £24 and over 5 hours).
When my friends at Vivano asked me what my usual haunts in London were and where I’ll be going when lockdown is lifted, I started thinking about where I, as a London girl, spend my most enjoyable time in a city that offers so much. Here are the five places I cannot wait to go back to once it’s safe to do so.
1. Westbourne Grove Street, Notting Hill
Having lived in the heart of one of London’s top tourist destinations (thanks Julia Roberts & Hugh Grant!) for over a year, I had to quickly discover alternative routes around the beautiful Notting Hill, away from the crowds of tourists in search of the perfect pastel-coloured house for a photoshoot, or sliding up and down Portobello Road on the lookout for their vintage fix.
This is how I discovered Westbourne Grove – a rather quiet haven of oh-so-many wonderful contrasts that runs across Notting Hill between Queensway and Kensington Park Road.
The street is lined with a quirky selection of high-end boutiques, cafes, hair salons, charity shops, and restaurants. But if you do decide to take a stroll down Westbourne Grove, here are a few of the places you should make sure to stop by.
At number 17, tucked behind a bus stop and very modest-looking, KS Hair Book is inconspicuously waiting to offer you the best haircut you never thought you could get for such a good price (I promise!) – or if you’re not on the market for a haircut, they also offer mani-pedis and other beauty treatments.
At 26 Westbourne Grove you can enter the peaceful world of Al Saqi Books, a specialist bookshop which, since 1978, has been housing books on all subjects in Arabic, and the most comprehensive range of books on the Middle East and North Africa in English. If, like me, you’re passionate about the Middle East and an avid reader, you’re going to relish in Al Saqi’s “safe haven for persecuted literature” (The Telegraph).
Moving on, at number 44, some of the best Persian food you’ll find in London is served at Alounak. Here, you can enjoy the décor while you wait to be seated, but rest assured that your food won’t be a minute, as the maître d’ rules the restaurant with a velvet-gloved but nonetheless firm iron fist.
A number of other fabulous restaurants can also be found on Westbourne Grove, including the vegan-friendly Farmacy, Granger & Co, famous for its delicious fluffy ricotta pancakes and the hour-long queues to get a table (after all, queuing is Britain’s favourite pastime), and the palace of my guilty pleasures, Ottolenghi. A number of both charity shops and high-end boutiques also line each side of the colourful Wild at Heart flower shop, at 222 Westbourne Grove. They say no man is an island, but this flowery oasis sure is.
Vintage car parked outside 222 Westbourne Grove – the Wild at Heart flower shop. Captured with my phone during a stroll.
Now the final – and my personal favourite stop of this stroll down Westbourne Grove should be at number 179, for one of the most ridiculous (in a good way!!) establishments I’ve probably ever come across: Verve Pet Boutique & Café Lounge.
The Verve website describes this establishment as “the first pet boutique, café bar, grooming parlour & doggy hotel in the world! – all under one roof” since 1984. I think any other words would be superfluous – you’ll need to see this place for yourself to understand why I became so fascinated by it from the moment I first came across it. There are dog-shaped purses hanging at the top of the window-display, plush chairs waiting to comfort the tired bones of pet owners awaiting for their furry friends to be tended to, a fully stocked bar, animal-themed postcards, and a full range of accessories for pets at the back – a sight to behold!
2. Leighton House Museum
I’ve always considered accidental finds to be some of my luckiest discoveries. While being a student in London, as a way to clear my head and discover the city I’d just moved to, I started taking lots of walks – most of them without having a particular destination in mind. Strolling and taking in nature, architecture, the sounds, smells, and people around me became one of my favourite pastimes.
It was during one of these aimless walks around Holland Park, one afternoon, that I discovered what has since become one of my favourite museums and also probably one of London’s best kept secrets: the mish-mash between the Middle East, arts and crafts, and the baroque that is Leighton House.
While the Victorian era marked horrendous abuses over about a quarter of the world’s population by an expanding British Empire, the 19th century was a good time for the arts, including painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature. Lord Leighton, one of Britain’s most famous artists, was a sculptor, painter and, as his home stands to testify, had impeccable taste in interior décor.
Glimpse into Sir Leighton’s Studio. Captured with my phone during a visit.
As soon as you walk inside, the stunning Arab Hall he had commissioned after a trip to Damascus opens up to the left on the ground floor, and the sight is honestly out-of-this-world. Climb the beautiful wooden staircase, past the peacock, and my favourite rooms on the first floor are Leighton’s studio, which is a bright oasis bathing in northern light, and the silk room, i.e. his gallery, which exhibits the works of his artist friends.
While unlike most museums in London this one is not free to visit, the entry fee is well worth it, I promise, and it goes towards maintaining the house in the gorgeous state that it was brought to through restoration after being bombed twice during WW2. The Museum also offers soirees of music and theatre, poetry readings, as well as workshops hosted by visiting artists, life-drawing classes, or art-themed panel discussions which will wrap your soul in silk and paint any artistic fantasies you may entertain in shades of crimson and turquoise. If you’re lucky, while visiting the garden, you’ll run into the most fabulous resident cat – don’t be afraid to go ahead and pet it, it may just bestow you with a purr.
My first encounter with the resident cat outside Leighton House. Photo by Filip Neagu.
3. St Dunstan in the East
Another lucky accidental find for me, donning a rather eerie atmosphere, St Dunstan in the East is so well tucked away among sky scrapers that you won’t sooner find it than if you ask for help from Google Maps. Bring a coffee or a tea, a book, and witness the grind of the City fade away beyond the walls of this used-to-be-Church that was bombed down during WW2, and then turned into a beautiful public garden. The walls of the church are all that’s left of the original construction, but they now make for a beautiful oasis in a sea of glass and metal.
This is also where we shot the first series of pictures for the Vivano launch, when we found ourselves right in the middle of a wedding ceremony taking place inside the garden.
Climbing the steps of St Dunstan in the East, photographed by Filip Neagu.
4. The Victoria & Albert Museum
You know when you visit a new city and discover a place you love and wish you’d have more time to explore it? Most of the time, the locals seem to be taking it for granted in the rush of day to day life. However, I always like to imagine that if I lived in that particular city, whichever it may be, I would not allow myself to disregard the beauty that surrounds me.
When I was 13, I visited London for the first time with my parents, and the loveliest summer day found us wandering around the V&A. One of the dearest memories that stayed with me from that trip was of running around the fountain in the Museum’s courtyard, barefoot, surrounded by breath-taking architecture. The Museum was that place for me in London, the one I wished I didn’t have to leave.
Vivano photoshoot, featuring Mestrovic. Photo by Vivan Bhagat.
Since I’ve moved here, the V&A in summertime has become a whole mood for me – I often bring a book or a friend (or, as it happens, a Vivano handbag) there to escape the city’s heat and take refuge among Botticelli, Cezanne, Canova, and Rodin. The Museum also hosts spectacular temporary exhibits – recent ones I’ve seen include Balenciaga, Pink Floyd, Mary Quant, Dior, and Tim Walker. An annual membership will get you free entry to all the temporary exhibitions, otherwise entry to the Museum’s permanent collection is free for all to enjoy.
5. London’s Bridges
As mentioned before, there aren’t many things I enjoy more than a long walk in London, and one of my favourite sceneries is that of London’s Bridges. While Tower Bridge is probably one of the most popular among tourists, I highly recommend an evening stroll along the South Bank, by (or across) other Bridges as well. Start off at Tower Bridge and head West, past the London Bridge, towards Tate Modern and, if you enjoy walking as much as I do, keep going until you reach Southbank Centre and cross Waterloo Bridge to make it back onto the North side of the river. This adventure will take you past Shakespeare’s Globe, eclectic pop-ups selling old books and various knick-knacks, and an array of food trucks teasing your senses.
Benches are perfectly placed along this route, so you can stop and admire what’s sure to be a stunning sunset over the Thames (if you’re in luck of a clear sky), perhaps with a snack or a glass of *insert beverage of choice*. Once you reach Tate Modern, you’ll have an impressive view of St Paul’s Cathedral across the Millennium Bridge (probably my favourite bridge, which, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, is also featured in the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film). Continue past Blackfriars’ and you’ll soon reach Waterloo Bridge, which’ll give you a good picture of the City’s skyline to the East, and of the London Eye to the West.
View of St Paul’s Cathedral as seen from the Millennium Bridge. Photo by Vivan Bhagat.
These five places are certainly not exhaustive of what I enjoy most in London, but they sure are at the very top of my list of places to go back to once the lockdown is lifted. Whether you already know (of) them or not, I hope you feel inspired to (re)discover them, no matter which part of London you call home. Finally, to circle back to the musical theme I started this post off on, I’ll borrow some lyrics from Joy Crookes:
“Roaming around in the moment
Streets that are tailored to no one
But that’s what makes London mine”.