The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for England, Scotland, and Ireland: Philip McCrum of Extraordinary Britain.
Designing custom-tailored itineraries in the U.K. and Ireland is a McCrum family tradition: Philip’s mother, Jane, started the business decades ago. Philip’s connections to private homes—from country estates in the Cotswolds to castles in Scotland to charming cottages in Cornwall—are particularly useful these days, as travelers seek out creative ways to socially distance or even quarantine (most visitors to the British Isles must self-isolate for 14 days). Philip can also arrange after-hours and behind-the-scenes access, such as a private viewing of the Crown Jewels before the Tower of London opens to the public or a visit to a royal palace that is normally off limits. And he’s particularly adept at handling multigenerational journeys complete with movie-making experiences and treasure hunts by speedboat.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
In London, Philip favors many of the Firmdale hotels, including the new flagship Ham Yard Hotel, and many of the Red Carnation and Dolce Group hotels. They’re all small and quirky, the staff know Philip well and take good care of his guests, and he can often get quite good rates. Red Carnation’s Milestone Hotel has excellent family apartments. At the Egerton House, the garden rooms are especially lovely and you can help yourself at the honor bar.
Best hotels for a splurge
For location, nothing comes close to the Mandarin Oriental. It’s just across from Hyde Park and Harvey Nichols. What more could you ask for?
Outside of London, in the very green and beautiful county of Devon, Philip can sometimes arrange for guests to stay in one of the area’s most stunning manor homes. The two or three that he uses have been in the same families for centuries (one dates back to the 1500s), and they’re the perfect place to live out the fantasy of an Edwardian grand weekend, complete with curtsying ladies’ maids and butlers, and dinner tables groaning with silver and china.
Best-loved neighborhood restaurant
For simple but good food and quality service, head to Ebury Restaurant and Wine Bar in elegant Pimlico Village, just down the street from Winston Churchill’s home.
Chez Bruce is Bruce Poole’s award-winning Michelin-starred London restaurant, serving unpretentious but immaculately prepared food with a strong French influence. It is a favorite with local foodies and well worth a journey south of the river to the borough of Wandsworth.
Fish and chips is widely available and eaten by everyone, but for something more unusual, try “pie and mash,” a traditional working man’s meal, particularly linked to the East End of London, served with a green parsley sauce known as “liquor,” and topped with chili vinegar. You could also try it with jellied eels, but that’s more of an acquired taste.
Meal worth the splurge
Dinner, the restaurant from the mad genius Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, is worth every pound. If you have six in your party, booking the chef’s table makes economic sense and is a memorable experience.
Chiltern Firehouse is the hottest ticket in town. It’s owned by André Balazs, the greatest hotelier since Caésar Ritz, and the kitchen is run by the great Nuno Mendes, hailed as the modern-chef’s chef. The food certainly lives up to the hype, but at the moment it is thought that even God would have to wait for a table. Perhaps not the young royals, though, who seem to be regulars.
What to See and Do
The Sir John Soane House-Museum is an absolute gem. Soane, the eighteenth-century architect behind the Bank of England and many homes of the landed gentry, collected Roman and medieval antiquities, architectural drawings, paintings, and sculptures, and displayed this amazing treasure in his London home, right in the heart of the ancient Inns of Court.
A day-trip from London, some 80 miles away, is the prehistoric Avebury stone circle. It’s every bit as impressive as Stonehenge but less well known—consequently, no crowds. Visitors can walk freely among the stones and, if visiting with an expert, seek out the hidden carvings, which are seen only from particular angles.
Madam Tussaud’s is overrated and not worth the high price and lengthy queues. Even paying for priority entrance still entails a long wait.
Yes, you’ll see the best horses in the world—and the most outrageous hats—at the Royal Ascot (in June), but it’s become a little too popular unless you have the budget to arrange access to the Royal Enclosure. A much better alternative is the Henley Royal Regatta, a rowing race that takes place in late June or early July. The crowd is much better behaved than they are at Ascot. The racecourse is stunning (on the Thames), and Philip reserves a special area where his guests can watch the race; they then go to a lovely place nearby for lunch, sometimes in a private home.
Four miles south of Trafalgar Square is the lovely village of Dulwich with the wonderful Dulwich Picture Gallery, filled with an astonishing collection of masterpieces. It is easily accessible by train—a ten-minute journey. A few miles downriver is the National Maritime Museum and, near it, the Prime Meridian, where you can stand with one foot in the Western Hemisphere and the other in the Eastern. Then there are all those ancient and beautiful churches in the city of London, some of which, such as All Hallows by the Tower, date back to the seventh century. All of them are open to visitors, and a number hold free lunchtime concerts.
All of London’s museums are free, including the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert—both well worth a visit. Then there are the London markets: street markets, selling their wares from open barrows. Two of the best are the Borough Market, not far from Shakespeare’s Globe, and the colorful Columbia Road Sunday Flower Market. Soccer fans can get tickets to tour the home stadiums of some of the world-famous London teams, such as Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC.
How to spend a Sunday
The Columbia Flower Market in East London is worth a visit and is open only on Sundays, as is Spencer House in London, the ancestral home of the family of Diana, Princess of Wales. The Wallace Collection in Manchester Square is a sanctuary for lovers of decorative and fine arts, spanning the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Combine a visit to this superb collection with afternoon tea or a light meal in the courtyard restaurant, flooded with natural daylight. For those who are more active, the roof climb at the O2 Arena in Greenwich is a runaway success with all ages; after, you can use the cable car across the Thames to explore the trendy East End.
Spring and autumn may be the loveliest times of year in London, but the busiest month in the British royal calendar is June. The season actually starts in late May with the Chelsea Flower Show. Then, in mid-June, there’s the Trooping of the Colour, a big parade on horseback held in honor of the queen’s birthday. After that, the ceremony at Windsor Castle for the Order of the Garter, which is the biggest spectacle of all, with the knights in blue velvet cloaks and hats decorated with heron and ostrich feathers. The whole royal family turns out, and everyone is in their morning coats, medals, and top hats. It’s really a sight! The following day: the Royal Ascot races. All of these events are open to the public, but they tend to be mobbed. Philip can arrange special entry to all four (and other royal meetings), including an after-hours visit to the Chelsea Flower Show and access to the castle grounds for the Order of the Garter ceremony.
The summer also brings a number of wonderful music festivals, including the Proms, the famous classical concert series that lasts from mid-July to mid-September. The Last Night of the Proms is fabulously festive; all the great patriotic songs are played and concertgoers don the most ridiculous Union Jack attire. Even the divas wear Union Jack dresses. At the Glyndebourne opera festival in the country, everyone dresses in their formalwear and picnics by the lake.
There is no bad time to visit London. The weather, as in the rest of Europe, is unpredictable, but even with gray skies London has something exciting to offer. If gardens are your passion, wait until after Easter, when most of them reopen.
Booking half-day tours with a private guide. The fee for a half-day is only slightly less than for a full day (as it is unlikely that the guide would receive a booking for the rest of that day). To make the most of your money, book full days with a guide, then plan whole days to explore on your own.
For a very special experience, have Philip arrange a behind-the-scenes visit to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Another possibility: an after-hours viewing of the Tower of London given by a Yeoman warder, who will explain all the secrets of the ancient fortress; guests enjoy a private viewing of the Crown Jewels in all their splendor. Or how about a Secrets of the Tower private tour, where you’ll see things the public never do?
Outside the city, Philip can arrange access to a number of private estates, including the Getty family’s sprawling Wormsley Estate for a special visit to the family’s incredible library (which just happens to have a first edition of The Canterbury Tales and the first folio of Shakespeare’s comedies). If you want to spend the day shooting or stalking on the estate, Philip can organize that too.
One of the most beautiful sights in London is to stand on Lambeth Bridge and look downriver toward the Houses of Parliament.
For spectacular aerial views, you’ll need to be on the London Eye or the viewing platform in the new Shard building.
Buckingham Palace, taken from within St. James Park, is a very elegant photo.
For evening shots, the Houses of Parliament from Westminster Bridge or the famous Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus with the neon signage in the background.
Visit the Buckingham Palace shop at the rear of Buckingham Palace for quality and great choice. They sell lovely porcelain especially made for the palace, as well as unique silk scarves, tea towels, and jewelry. Nothing tacky. Beware the gift shop at the Victoria and Albert Museum; it’s hideously expensive.
Avoid the unlicensed mini-cabs. Only use the iconic black taxi cabs as they are absolutely reliable and honest. There are now a number of seven-seater minivan black taxis available as well.
ATM Hunter is a no-frills app that can tell you the nearest ATM that doesn’t charge hefty fees.
Using the Internet on the move can still be pricey, especially if you’re data roaming. Onavo sticks it to the mobile phone networks by compressing information before it’s downloaded to the phone, slashing data usage by up to 80 percent.
Time Out London Mobile App provides the latest intelligence on what’s happening in London, from classical ballet to live pub sessions.
Hardly anyone in London now pays full price for a restaurant meal. OpenTable UK, which handles reservations for 80 percent of London’s Michelin-starred eateries, can provide restaurant discounts on everything from quick bites to fine dining as well as nearby restaurant searches and the ability to book online.
Having the Tube Map on your phone is invaluable.
Download the Heathrow Mobile App for flight status, journey planners, terminal maps, and even shop and restaurant listings.
The Heathrow Express is a 25-minute train ride into London. If your budget is tight, there’s the Piccadilly underground line to the center for only 6 euros.
In London the usual tip is 10 percent, but check the bill in restaurants as some are inclined to include a service charge and you are not obliged to essentially tip twice.