Onto a New Year in London: 2024

Peter Himler
Travel Insights & Images
12 min readJan 2, 2024

--

London Cityscape

Few cities rival New York in terms of sheer vitality. London is undoubtedly one of them. My wife and I hadn’t visited the UK capital in over 40 years. London surprised us in countless ways — from the Brits’ palpable joie de vivre to the serendipity of eye-catching architecture around every corner. And then there’s the food, fashion, and art! Yes. Food.

With our three sons off in different directions this holiday season, we treated ourselves to a post-Christmas jaunt across the pond, where it was immediately apparent that the holiday spirit remained in full swing. New York may have strung a star and some oversized holiday ornaments above Fifth Avenue’s shopping district, but London has gone the Full Monty with street after street festooned with elaborate illuminations.

We arrived on an overnight British Airways flight from JFK on a Friday morning and were soon ubering off to our hotel in the tony Mayfair district. The Chesterfield Mayfair was the antithesis of any hotel you’d find nowadays in, let’s say, Miami, another vibrant city with such a different vibe. (I’m being kind.) Tidy and well-appointed, this “quintessentially British” hotel, with its three red awnings, beckoned visitors inside only to be fawned over by the polite and solicitous staff.

The Chesterfield Mayfair Hotel

Our room was expectedly not ready, so we set off by foot toward Hyde Park where we grabbed two bikes. Spanish bank Santander, like Citibank in New York, had the brand monopoly on bike shares in Londontown. In addition to its well-marked bike lanes, London is a great walking city. We must’ve hoofed 20–30 miles over three days, mindful not of the speeding bikes like in Amsterdam or the electric delivery bikes in New York, but of cars that cared little for pedestrians’ right-of-way, made even more precarious with reversed driving lanes. Look right. Look left. Don’t get killed.

Kensington Palace by bike through Hyde Park

The bike ride along the Serpentine Pond in Hyde Park, teaming with people on this unusually mild day in late December, was delightful. Upon seeing Kensington Palace, we were surprised by how majestically dowdy it appeared and that gawking tourists could actually peek through the windows for a royal glimpse. Doesn’t the future King of England reside here with his young family? What a burden on him, though I have difficulty mustering sympathy for the Prince and Princess of Wales.

The cost per bike was £1.65 ($2.10) for each 30 minutes. The one-way bus fare was £1.75 ($2.22), and it takes Apple Pay.

With our bikes docked at one of the many racks scattered about the city, we made our way to the much-ballyhooed food market at the fabled Harrods Department Store. Yes, I know, we’re such tourists! En route, we passed the Royal Albert Hall, a festive Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and those iconic emblems of London: red double-decker buses and telephone “boxes.”

Clockwise from top left: London street scene, Royal Albert Hall, my beautiful wife, and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel

Many people rolled their eyes when we mentioned that Harrods was on our itinerary. But, honestly, I’ve never seen another department store as chock-a-block stocked with goods as this one was — post-Christmas even. Neither Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Nieman Marcus, nor Nordstrom compare. Perhaps Bon Marché or La Samaritaine in Paris with elements of New York’s Bergdorf Goodman do. We were told that Harrods carries complete lines of everything (not unlike Fortunoff’s did back in its heyday). An Assouline, anyone?

And then there was Harrods food hall, which was similar in size and scope to the food halls of Bon Marché or Galeries Lafayette. One pitfall: Harrods hadn’t any seats or tables where one could consume their delectable pickings. We took ours to a Harrods-branded coffee bar across the street.

Replenished and rejuvenated, we set off toward Buckingham Palace, Westminister Abby, and Big Ben. As mentioned, London, like New York, is a city of serendipity. You never know what you’ll discover. Google Maps may display that we’ve arrived at our destination, but we’d have to turn a corner or emerge from an alleyway to be stunned by the majestic structure that suddenly appeared.

Big Ben, on the other hand, is hardly serendipitous. It can be seen from many vantage points in the city.

Clockwise from top left: Big Ben from afar and then up close, Westminister Abby, and tourists at Buckingham Palace

We’re still on day one, but pretty pooped at this point. Thankfully, the hotel phoned to say our room was ready. We bee-lined back through St. James Park to The Chesterfield Mayfair and our small but comfortable room, where we quickly dozed off for 90 minutes.

Our next stop was the buzzy Mercato Mayfair for dinner, as if one food market per day wasn’t enough. This one was located in the converted St. Mark’s Church with its giant stained glass window, not unlike New York’s The Limelight back in the day, but for foodies, not druggies. We found it loud and too much like the Time Out Markets we had visited in other cities. We decided to abandon this plan and headed out to find something a little more civilized.

Interestingly, almost every notable eatery in the high-end Mayfair district had men in uniforms posted outside. They weren’t maître d’s per se, but guards who seemed to take their cues from Buckingham Palace. I chatted up a few before I met the three-piece-suited Nathan, general manager of two restaurants in the district. He asked what we wanted to eat and then directed us to his second eatery Koyn for sushi. It was the perfect choice to cap a long travel and touring day. He even sent us a palette pleaser of sweet, raw tuna with sesame seeds in a crispy small rice cup!

L. to R.: Koyn sushi, Mercato Market, and Nathan’s other restaurant Jamavar w/ Ferrari

The following day, we took in The Chesterfield’s expansive breakfast —gratis for those of us past a certain age — before heading out to catch the #23 bus at Green Park Station on Picadilly Street for the Portobello Road flea market in Notting Hill. Easy Peasy getting on the bus with my mobile pay app. We sat up top. The flea market stretched a mile, with tables and tents lining both sides of the narrow road with curb-to-curb shoppers speaking many languages. We found a tea caddy and picked the brain of a Japanese Satsuma pottery specialist.

NOTTING HILL (Clockwise from top left): Portobello Road flea market, St. Luke's Mews, Ottolenghi’s Cafe, and pastel-colored row houses

We also stopped into celeb chef Ottolenghi’s cafe and took in a fair share of Mewses with their cobblestone streets and pastel-colored homes. My London-based friend and colleague Pallab, his wife, and three young children joined us for lunch at Granger (on Graydon Carter’s recommendation). It’s a good thing we were already in the area to put our name on the waiting list. An hour later, and just when Pallab and his family arrived, the host, Johnny Walker, seated us. I later learned that the eatery’s eponymous owner passed away a few days earlier.

We made an early dinner reservation at NOPI, another Ottolenghi eatery near the West End Theatre District. We had tickets that evening to see Cameron MacIntosh’s “Old Friends,” a showcase of the late Stephen Sondheim’s music featuring Bernadette Peters making her London theatre debut, Lea Salonga, and a wonderful cast of talented singers and actors. The food at NOPI was distinctive — see photos here — but the show was a veritable blockbuster destined to bow on Broadway.

Sondheim’s “Old Friends” in the John Gielgud Theatre

Following Sunday morning breakfast on New Year’s Eve day, we set out for the Tube to take us to the Tate Modern Museum. Odd that a ticket on the Underground costs £6.50/per person ($8.27), while the bus runs just £1.65. Then again, train travel is more expensive than air travel in Europe (or maybe not).

For some reason, the tube blew past the stop for The Tate, so we went on to the London Bridge. This was a good twist of fate as we grabbed some pics of the Tower Bridge (from the London Bridge) and started walking back to The Tate. The route took us to another attraction on my wife’s pre-planned itinerary: The Borough Market — a food market to end all food markets. They don’t call it “London’s premiere food market” for nothing. Our only misstep: we had breakfast an hour before. We did stumble across the original site of William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Clockwise from top left: Tower Bridge from the London Bridge, Borough Market exterior, Globe Playhouse Plaque, inside Borough Market

Everyone with whom we spoke in advance of our trip raved over the Tate Modern, “a must-visit London museum.” I, for one, didn’t find it as engaging as MOMA or The Guggenheim in New York. Was it worth the visit? Most definitely, with dedicated rooms featuring the works of Kasuma, Joan Mitchell, and Gerhard Richter, to name a few. Then there was the L.I. local artist Ellsworth Kelly, that life-sized chess board, and a man (literally) painted into the mirror.

The Tate Modern (clockwise from top left): the museum exterior, that man in the mirror, Ellsworth Kelly, and chess pieces

Barbara and I stopped for a skyline selfie from The Tate’s rooftop before heading across the bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral and a couple more dramatic images en route.

Clockwise from top left: Panoramic London, P&B from The Tate, Tower Bridge, and St. Paul’s Cathedral

After St. Paul’s, we set off on foot to Covent Gardens, where we were told that Christmas was on full display and that it was where we might find some lunch. Alas, no appealing food court here. Instead, we were treated to some extreme touristy stuff and entertainment by one of those unauthorized street entertainers you might find anywhere in any city. (I prefer the acrobatic dancers at the band shell in New York’s Central Park.)

Covent Gardens

We left Covent Gardens, sandwiches in hand, destined for the shopping district where we had a few more department stories on our list. Among them: Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges, and Liberty of London. The latter two were a disappointment with their aisles and aisles of extremely picked-over goods. Fortnum & Mason, on the other hand, was much more intriguing and visually arresting, albeit with tiny lifts (i.e., elevators). I struck up a conversation with one of the porters who gave us a brief history of Mr. Fortnum’s humble beginnings as a candle-seller to Queen Victoria. He built his business re-selling unused candles. The rest is history. Here’s a night photo we took of the store:

Fortnum & Mason for the Holidays

And since we’ve segued into the night, London is en-lightened like few other cities at this time of year. My wife posted many images on her Instagram, while I posted this short video clip to TikTok:

London Lights Up for The Holidays (w/ Annabelles at lower right)

For our last night in town, we had a quiet Italian dinner near our hotel in Mayfair, then walked about 100 yards into Green Park before reaching a long, non-descript passageway that led us to the Stafford Hotel. There, one would find the American Bar, a small clubby paneled room with all sorts of American paraphernalia hanging from the ceiling and walls. Oddly, we had to pass through the hotel’s more spacious and opulent bar area to reach the American Bar.

The American Bar at The Stafford London

The Russian hostess stopped us as we waded through the main bar and curtly advised that this was for hotel guests only. The American Bar, on the other hand, while cozy, was clearly for American tourists. We had a drink and some peanuts, then returned to The Chesterfield Mayfair to spend a quiet New Year’s Eve — this year without a drunk Anderson and Andy.

The next morning, New Year’s Day, we came across some marching bands and baton twirlers prepping in our neighborhood for the day’s grand parade.

Warming up in Mayfair for the New Year’s Day Parade

We could have easily tacked on another week in London. We never visited the British Museum, the Churchill War Rooms, or the National Gallery. And there was certainly more theatre to see, including Guys & Dolls, and so many more restaurants to try, including a typical English pub for fish & chips. And while we prefer indigenous, non-chain specialty retail shops, we did find our way to New Bond Street, where an unmatched gathering of the world’s most esteemed luxury brands fell neatly into line. And even though Christmas had passed, no sales are to be found in these stores…ever.

Happy 2024.

All photos: Peter Himler using an iPhone 14Pro

--

--

Peter Himler
Travel Insights & Images

Founder, Flatiron Communications; President, PCNY; Editor, Medium; Blessed w/ 3 exceptional sons & a most fabulous wife; Music & tech; Maker of the sauce. #NYC