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  • Writer's pictureKaryn Farrell

72 Hours in London

Updated: Jul 22, 2023


David Hockney @ Lightroom, London

London in summer is always a good place to be. The possibilities are endless on any given day, and there is always something new to discover, no matter how many times you've visited. This time around we were there to see Blur play Wembley but over the course of a long weekend we also squeezed in an immersive David Hockney installation, the Summer Show at the Royal Academy, an insider tour of the Barbican Centre, and an exhibition of candid photographs by Paul McCartney at the newly revamped National Portrait Gallery. We also ate our way through the cuisines of the world at the stunning Mercato in Mayfair, had some truly world-class pub grub in Shoreditch, drank pints on a sunny terrace on Southbank and strolled the banks of its lovely canal. Yes it's ridiculously expensive right now but it's also one of the greatest cities in the world. For all of these reasons and many, many more.

First up, you're going to need somewhere to stay. Prices are at an all-time high right now so finding good value options can be a trying task. But thanks to a tip from another travel writer, we ended up with a pretty good deal, and a decent room with a view in a super location. Here's the lowdown...


Motel One, Tower Hill, London

This 3-star is part of a chain of affordable (in London terms), design-led hotels. Modern and comfortable with friendly staff, it was perfect for a busy weekend of cultural activities. We were chuffed to be given a room on the 11th floor with floor-to-ceiling windows on one side. Though this was not THE much-sought after City of London view on their website, the top of the Shard was visible in the distance. It's pretty cool to lie in bed and watch the lights of the capital twinkle beyond. Oh, and the beds are really comfy too. A good start.

As rooms go, this one was relatively large by London standards. Another plus - the location is excellent. Just a two minute walk from Aldgate Tube station and cool neighbourhoods like Spitalfields and Shoreditch (north) and Borough Market (south), it's also easily accessible from Heathrow (Piccadilly Line Tube and the newly opened Elizabeth Line), and Stansted (Liverpool St station). But best of all is the much-sought after Residents' Bar - a huge bonus in a city that effectively shuts its pub doors by 11:30pm at weekends....

 

Friday evening in the city, the sun is beating down and we're off to one of the biggest art events of the summer.


Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2023

Jemma Gowland, Facebook turns 18: Coming of age in the Digital World @ Royal Academy, London


This is THE place to be on a Friday evening in London. It's late-night opening and the buzz is palpable. Visitors flock to the on-site bar for a beer or glass of wine before taking in the largest open submission exhibition in the world (try saying that after a couple of aforementioned vinos....

Be prepared to be a little overwhelmed. This year's show boasts a massive 1614 works of art in a variety of media including painting, drawing, print, sculpture and mixed-media. Exhibitors range from emerging artists to the internationally renowned which means there is something for every price point. Tickets are not cheap at £25 a pop but a handbag-sized exhibition catalogue is included in the price.

This fantastic exhibition has been taking place since 1769 and is always worth a visit. Each year a different member of the Royal Academy takes the reins and the responsibility for curating the exhibition - this year was the turn of David Remfry RA. As for highlights of 2023 - there were too many to mention but I have to give a shout-out to Irish artist Stephen Murphy whose poignant Newborn (The Hardest Day of Your Short Life Yet) is one of the most affecting pieces in the show, all the more so because of its tiny size. It's also currently on show at Dublin's Royal Hibernian Academy and Limerick City Gallery of Art. Read the back story here. Another standout sculptural work is Facebook turns 18: Coming of age in the Digital World by Jemma Gowland.

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD


We emerge slightly dazed into the still warm evening and take a stroll before dinner. Next up - here's one for the diehard Bob Dylan fans...


Savoy Lane

A little bit of musical history took place here on the laneway between Savoy Steps and Savoy Hill. This is the location of Bob Dylan's iconic (and much-replicated) video for Subterranean Homesick Blues, filmed on May 8th 1965. You can check it out here.



St Swithen's Church Garden

This tiny raised garden is just around the corner from Cannon St Tube station. Historical records show that a church was recorded on this site as far back as the 11th century. Destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666, it was rebuilt to designs by Christopher Wren, renowned architect of St Paul's Cathedral. Sadly this was bombed and damaged beyond repair in World War II. The site was brought back to life in 2010. landscaped and preserved as a memorial garden. Enclosed you'll find a striking sculpture dedicated to the women and children who suffered during the war. It's a little oasis of tranquility, cocooned by nature, in the heart of the city.

St Swithen's Church Garden, Salters Hall Ct, London EC4N 8AL



Eating and Drinking: Friday Highlights


Lupins

Lupins, London


Described on their website as 'a neighbourhood restaurant in Borough serving seasonal sharing plates & wine', the menu offers snacks, small plates and large plates that technically are made for sharing but that plan may go out the window after one bite. Expect inventive dishes such as these: grilled beans with apricots, Mozzarella and breadcrumbs; deep-fried cod and jersey royal salad; braised chickpeas, goat's curd, pancetta & sage and, Tagliatelle, girolles & Parmesan. Everything was absolutely delicious!

We heroically managed to top things off with a Creme Brulée & boozey cherries (how could one refuse), and shared a deliciously smooth bottle of Portuguese Tempranillo. The restaurant is located in the trendy Flat Iron Square area with any number of groovy bars to pop into for an aperitif or a nightcap. Sit at the bar downstairs for a more casual dining experience or ask for a table upstairs with views onto Union St below. This was our second visit to Lupins and I'm glad to report that it was top marks all round again - delicious food, warm service and in London terms, it's pretty good value for money too.

Lupins, 66 Union St, London SE1 1TD


If the night is still young, pop for a nightcap to the groovy bar next door under the arch. It doesn't seem to have a name....

 

Barbican Centre

Saturday starts at the Barbican Centre, an extraordinary venue for music, theatre, dance and visual arts. The complex is enormous, home to cinemas, a library, two galleries and a concert hall, not to mention a tropical conservatory (I know!). There are cafés, restaurants and a bar, and also a fantastic shop selling books, merchandise and some seriously cool architectural t-shirts (a snip at £20). Something to note - you get 15% off all purchases at the shop with tickets for paid tours. The interior design is great - what could've been a coldly functional concrete box has been enlivened by pops of colour on the ceiling, feature walls and floors. You could easily spend a full day here.

What you may not know is that within its outer limits you'll also find a city within a city, raised above street level and home to approximately 4000 people. Which brings me to the reason for our visit - the Barbican Architecture tour. Recommended by a friend, this is hands-down one of the best things to do in London. Readers, I'm happy to share some of its secrets with you. It's 1.5 hours in duration so, before it starts, head for the cool café on ground level to caffeine up. Their coffee is excellent and the cakes are homemade and very tasty. I highly recommend the carrot cake.

Model of the Barbican estate @ Barbican Centre


First up, I have to give a shout-out to our wonderful tour guide who was so passionate about the Barbican estate and its history, and really brought it to life for us (see model above for aerial view of the site in its entirety). The tour is perfectly paced with just the right amount of historical and architectural information, interspersed with funny anecdotes and quirky details we'd never have picked up on if we were strolling around ourselves. It was endlessly entertaining from start to finish and worth every penny of the £15 ticket.

One of the most iconic examples of Brutalist architecture in Britain, the Barbican estate has always been divisive, its trio of soaring residential towers visible for miles. But what may be easily written off as yet another ugly concrete jungle has layer upon layer (quite literally) of hidden depths, with cheeky nods to an art historical past. The tour takes you through the core of the estate, exploring its little-known nooks and crannies and its interconnecting highwalks. What's not at all obvious from the exterior is how nature has such a key part to play in its design and how many leafy, green spaces have been incorporated within. Despite its location in the heart of the city. it's incredibly peaceful.

The tour kicks off on the tranquil Lakeside Terrace. We're taken back in time to Britain in WWII. The Blitz had effectively razed this part of the city to the ground so that by 1951, there were less than fifty people living in the area. Whatever your opinion of the architecture, the vision and ambition of the Barbican's architects is nothing short of extraordinary. They created a self-sufficient 'city within a city' for its now 4000 residents, comprising three towers, terrace blocks, mews and townhouses with access to schools, a church, a library, shops and an arts centre, to name but a few.

Lakeside Terrace @ Barbican Centre


Even on a grey, wet day, the surrounding greenery appeared almost luminous, reflected in the artificial lake. The terrace above is transformed in late summer for Outdoor Cinema season. This year it runs from Wed 23rd August to Sunday 3rd September 2023. See schedule here

Visually, I loved how every aspect of the estate was perfectly framed by the angles of the architecture. Indeed, that was something commented upon by the tour guide as yet another clever detail - not a happy accident. In the image below, we see 800 years of history in one frame, from the original Roman wall, through Tudor & Medieval times to present day.

One of the highlights is the remarkable Conservatory, the second largest in London after Kew. This tropical oasis is completely unexpected at the heart of a sprawling modern estate, yet it is home to fish and around 1500 species of tropical plants and trees. Fun fact: it was originally designed to conceal the rather unattractive concrete fly tower of the theatre from the neighbouring residents. Draped in lush foliage and overhanging plants, these days the structure beneath is barely visible. Sadly we were unable to visit on the day of our tour as a wedding was taking place so we had to make do with a peek through the windows.

Admission is free but you need to book online - tickets are released in advance on Fridays at 10am. There are also a limited number of day tickets available at 9:30am each day. Book here


For a quick taster, the Barbican also run a number of free 20 minute welcome tours – book online in advance here


Barbican Centre, Silk St, Barbican, London EC2Y 8DS | Tube: Barbican

 

Saturday afternoon: Wembley Stadium

After a disappointing lunch at Eataly (average and over-priced - don't bother) we were on the Tube and headed for Wembley to see Blur. What more can I say? They were utterly magnificent, and overjoyed to be playing on their home turf. We had the time of our lives and sang our hearts out. A gig to treasure forever.

Exiting with a crowd of 80,000 people, I started to have palpitations at the thoughts of the crowds on the Tube. So this is where I need to give credit to the incredibly well-organised and efficient system in place. Barriers in place along the exit route let blocks of people through at a time to board the trains which seemed to be running every minute. In less than forty five minutes we were sitting at the residents' bar at the hotel, glass of wine in hand. Hats off to the organisers - it was super-impressive.

Blur @ Wembley Stadium, Sat. 8th July 2023

 

Easy like Sunday morning...


Mercato Mayfair

Sunday kicks off with a feast at the so-called ‘cathedral of food’ in Mayfair. Featured on Stanley Tucci's BBC series Searching for Italy, this beautiful deconsecrated church is one of the most happening spots in the city with a huge variety of cuisines on offer across four levels. The setting is stunning with huge stained glass windows over the altar. You'll find a roof garden on the top level. a wine cellar in the basement and some fantastic regional cuisines in between. German Kraft on the altar serves up a selection of refreshing and authentic German beer which goes down a little too easily in the early afternoon...

Italy features strongly with a choice of homemade pasta at Pasta Lovers or excellent Neapolitan pizza at Fresco. And do NOT leave here without trying the gelato. Badiani serves up what is arguably the best authentic Italian gelato I've ever tasted. My benchmark is always the pistachio. Creamy and delectable, here, it comes with huge vivid green swirls of nuts throughout. Controversial though this may sound, I've never tasted anything like it. Even in Italy.

Mercato Mayfair, St. Mark's Church, N Audley St, London W1K 6ZA | Tube: Bond Street / Marble Arch


We rolled out of there, stuffed to the gills and slightly tipsy, and headed for the next cultural event of the day.


National Portrait Gallery

Paul McCartney, Photographs,1963–64: Eyes of the Storm

Beatles fans will adore this exhibition of never-seen-before candid photographs by Paul McCartney at the newly revamped National Portrait Gallery. Images were taken on his own camera between December 1963 and February 1964, capturing a historic phase in the life of the band as their fame escalates, propelling them into the international spotlight.


£24.50 - tickets available here

Make sure to visit the superb permanent collection. It's free to enter but you need to book timed tickets online.


A sunny Sunday evening calls for al-fresco drinks on the Southbank, one of buzziest parts of the city.

Do as the Londoners do and head for the Riverside Terrace Bar outside the Southbank Centre to enjoy drinks with a panoramic view across the Thames.

Riverside Terrace Bar, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, London SE1 8XX



We end our Sunday with some truly top-notch pub food in Shoreditch


Princess of Shoreditch

Let's be clear - this is no ordinary pub grub. The Princess of Shoreditch is a gastropub with some Michelin awards under its belt. Menus are seasonal, showcasing ingredients of British provenance, served up with an innovative twist. On Sundays it's a set-menu only with two-courses for €33 and three for €39. Go the whole hog and order all three - you won't regret it.


What we had:

To start: Cured sea bream, avocado purée, strawberries and jalapeños - an explosion of flavour in your mouth. Each ingredient had a part to play but worked in perfect harmony with the next. Citrusy and fresh with just the right amount of kick from the jalapeños

Mains: Roast dinner: Huge slices of roast beef, homemade horseradish, Yorkshire pudding. Gravy. Sides: roasties and veg. Takes the English traditional Sunday meal to a whole new level.


Pollock in crab bisque. The sauce was almost creamy. Absolutely divine.

Dessert: Lemon tart topped with clotted cream


To drink: a bottle of Primitivo

I was particularly impressed by the wine list, not least by the interesting varieties on offer and the reasonable prices but also the ethos behind it. Wines are carefully selected from small growers and independent family-owned vineyards.

Princess of Shoreditch, 76-78 Paul St, London EC2A 4QB

 

Just another manic Monday...

Not wanting to waste a moment, we made good use of our last morning in the city before flying out later that evening. We headed for the Kings Cross area. What was once slightly run down and in need of some love is now a lively, cosmopolitan neighbourhood, thanks to a large-scale regeneration project.

What impresses me every time is how they make best use of the public spaces in this city. Take Granary Square, for example - a vast open space lined with cafés and restaurants. In the centre are the Granary Square Fountains, spontaneously shooting water upwards from its 1080 jets. A popular attraction for kids (and big kids) during those hot summer days.

On the opposite side of the square is the lovely Regent’s Canal. In early July, people sat watching Wimbledon from a designated seating area on the bank with the big screen opposite. From June to August, this space is also used for outdoor cinema. Genius. Find out more here


Wildcard

For casual lunch, stop off at Wildcard, a trendy café serving up excellent coffee. They also make a mean ham and cheese toastie on sourdough. Nab a table on the terrace for some prime people-watching.


Wildcard, 1 Granary Square, London N1C 4AA



Coal Drops Yard

Coal Drops Yard opened in 2018 as part of the Kings Cross Central Development Scheme. Cobbled streets and brick arches blend seamlessly with contemporary features to create a vibrant urban space with over fifty shops, cafés, bars and restaurants. You'll even find sun loungers on one of the central plazas with workers flaked out on their lunchbreak. Through an arch, one side opens out onto Regent’s Canal, home to some colourful houseboats. It's peaceful and quiet in these parts, a neighbourhood I want to explore more on my next visit.


Lightroom London

It seems we left the best until last... Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away) is the extraordinary new show by David Hockney at the Lightroom London. Described as ‘London’s new home for spectacular artist-led shows’, the venue opened with a bang earlier this year with the irrepressible Hockney at the helm for the inaugural show. And what a show this is. A large-scale projection showcases his personal journey through sixty years of his art, as images from his colossal body of work are recreated digitally before our eyes.

The artist, in his soft Yorkshire accent, narrates the story of his fascinating life: from Yorkshire to LA and back, and to more recent years in his farmhouse in Normandy. What really comes through is the artist’s love of life and joy in nature; his absolute joie de vivre and vivacity, his intellect and above all, his passion for what he does. And of course, his trademark wit and humour is there in abundance.

His vibrant work lends itself so perfectly to this style of show, complemented perfectly by a carefully-chosen soundtrack.

It’s emotive, affecting and utterly mesmeric – unmissable.


The show has been extended to December 2023 so catch it if you can.

Lightroom London, 12, Lewis Cubitt Square, London N1C 4DY,



Happy travelling

K xx

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