Treasures and Ruins in Sun-Drenched Sicily
Cinematic depictions of the famed Italian island barely scratch the surface of its cultural riches and staggering scenery.
Exploring the city's most dynamic neighborhoods through their markets, pubs, and shops.
AS THE BRITISH writer Samuel Johnson put it: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Whether you’re a seasoned Londoner or a first-time visitor, the city will be different for each of us. As a North Londoner who moved to Paris in 2019 and now splits my time between the two cities, I use my Eurostar travel time to plan catch-ups at favorite haunts while making sure to check out what’s new. Home for me is Bloomsbury, and thus my journey starts central.
A village fete is very English, but not what you expect to find in the center of London. Murmurs of “Who was it? Who won?” go through the crowd. The waiters’ race, which has happened every summer since 1978, is the main event at the Soho Village Fete; the neighborhood restaurants’ waitstaff compete in the race, carrying an ashtray, a full bottle of champagne, and a glass flute on a tray in one hand, without dropping anything. The course takes them up Dean Street, around Soho Square, and down Greek Street to the finish line outside The French House (see below), where the contestants are met by huge cheers and sprayed champagne. Soho has been a place of continuous transformation, from its origins as a fashionable seventeenth-century hunting ground for the wealthy elite to its twentieth-century heyday as a center of bohemian and artistic culture.
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Today, even among the swaths of generic development and the uncertainty of a still-unfolding Brexit story, there’s a definite joy in the air in Soho, a feeling for the physical and intellectual enjoyment of life. Sitting at Duck Soup’s bar with a glass of natural wine and their market pickles is the perfect way to unwind the day. If your party is more than two, book the coveted booth table at the back. The French House is an institution, serving up la bière pression (half pints of draft beer) in a lively atmosphere where old locals and young creatives rub shoulders under photos of Francis Bacon, the iconoclastic painter and former regular patron. Or head to Bar Termini for the chicest Italian aperitivo. Seen from the street, this tiny bar’s appearance is unassuming, but it has been meticulously designed, from the pistachio-colored interior to the white quilted doily under the water glass. The house Negroni is a thing of beauty, ruby-hued in a delicate pre-chilled tumbler.
In terms of shopping in Soho, head to Machine-A and Très Bien for cutting-edge designer fashion. The concept store Alex Eagle Studio has a curated selection of clothes, accessories, beauty, and homeware. Meanwhile, Eagle’s husband, Mark Wadhwa, a commercial property developer, transformed a nearby brutalist office building into 180 The Strand, a creative hub with exhibitions, live events, studios, and restaurants. The upper floors are now a Soho House members club. Nestled on the ground floor is Reference Point, a library and bookshop specializing in art, design, fashion, and culture. Walk through St. James’ Square past the London Library — the city’s first lending library, located in this spot since 1845 — where writers still sit among the beautiful stacks working on their next novels. Then, it’s on to Dover Street Market, which is the brainchild of Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe, and is the vanguard in department-store experience. Here you’ll find luxury brands from Simone Rocha, Maison Margiela, Lemaire, and Dries Van Noten, to streetwear labels Stüssy and Supreme. Look for Dover Street Market’s limited-edition collaborations too, and Rose Bakery on the top floor is great for a recharge.
It’s the apotheosis of what London does best, to enable those places that give you a sense that life is there for living.
The contemporary art scene in London moves in mysterious ways; often, like a flock of birds, when one gallery decides to relocate, others follow. The gravitational pull for contemporary commercial galleries is back-central, with strong scenes in the east and south too. Sadie Coles has consolidated her London-only status with three beautiful central spaces. The London outpost of Sprüth Magers occupies an exquisite eighteenth-century building just off Bond Street, and Thomas Dane Gallery’s two spaces on Duke Street St. James’ never disappoint. Maison François is a great pit stop, joining the Wolseley and Brasserie Zédel as a new European-style brunch spot. A short walk away is the Institute of Contemporary Arts. With a recently appointed new director, and artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans as chair of the board, watch for an enriched nighttime program by emerging creatives. At dusk, London takes on a magical quality, especially when on the way to a martini at the discreet Dukes Hotel in Mayfair. Note that two maximum is the house rule.
One of London’s singular charms is suddenly finding yourself on the loveliest of small streets. Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury is like a revamped Charles Dickens novel. Set to a backdrop of perfect examples of nineteenth-century townhouses, wealthy bachelors scour (a particularly high concentration of) men’s stores, as London’s top pediatric consultants grab much-needed coffees. Bloomsbury is the heart of London’s intellectual history, and The Lamb pub was a favorite of John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, and Ted Hughes. The street is also home to a selection of independent stores, selling everything from shoes to flowers. Noble Rot’s modern European menu is served within a dark-wooden interior that is both friendly and formal. Don’t miss their superb wine shop across the street, Shrine to the Vine, which sells the gamut from serious Bordeaux to bubbly biodynamics. Tucked away on another easily missed Bloomsbury street is the seasonal restaurant and wine shop Café Deco with a long list from Gergovie Wines. Its chic interior was designed by Michael Marriott and Casswell Bank Architects. During Frieze week, the place is packed with art-world glitterati. On the other side of town, in South London’s Bermondsey district, 40 Maltby Street is located inside Gergovie’s warehouse. Londoners like to keep this place a secret.
Nothing in London restores the soul like a walk across Hampstead Heath in North London. Start from Lower Hampstead, where you can meander past the ponds (and even have a swim). When sustenance beckons, The Holly Bush pub is a cozy classic, or for a younger scene, head to the hip residential area of the De Beauvoir Town neighborhood, where Hector’s bottleshop transforms into a wine bar by night with quite the cool following. Expect different wines on every visit from its 300-plus list, accompanied by an excellent selection of bar snacks. For a more substantial dinner, the Michelin Bib Gourmand-rated Westerns Laundry is hidden away on a residential street in the neighborhood of Drayton Park, but worth the trek.
Heading west, the first-ever Ottolenghi was its Notting Hill location, part Middle Eastern and Mediterranean deli, part restaurant. Imagine a child’s drawing of a cafe: Piles of cakes covered in pistachio and rose petals fill the window, with a mountain of the largest raspberry-swirled meringues you’ve ever seen. The savory salad selection is treated with the same panache and sumptuousness. It has such a cult following that you’d be hard-pressed to be invited to dinner at a Londoner’s home without being offered some Ottolenghi-style dish. For a more classic British offering, The Cow is a small gastropub known for its oysters on a Notting Hill backstreet. The upstairs dining room serves great food over white tablecloths.
Sundays are all about the Columbia Road flower market, with hungover hipsters choosing the perfect hydrangea or queuing for a flat white (essentially a microfoam latte with less milk) and sourdough loaf from Pavilion Bakery. Enjoy a lunch of Mediterranean small plates in the airy surroundings of the brilliant Brawn, and then cut across Hackney Road to Broadway Market. Among its stores and cafes is Donlon Books, a treasure trove of idiosyncratic new and rare titles including art, photography, fashion, counterculture, and music. Donlon also hosts book launches and author events. Meanwhile, Aro Archive in Dalston is a dream for those in search of innovative vintage Japanese, Belgian, British, and French clothes. Goodhood in the Shoreditch district is the go-to store for the latest designer streetwear, shoes, and homeware. Check out which exhibitions are on at the cluster of great East London galleries, notably, Maureen Paley, Herald St, The Approach, Kate MacGarry, and Carlos/Ishikawa.
Still in East London, Arnold Circus is another area with a certain magic, in the heart of the Victorian Boundary Estate. Behind a Narnia-esque door in a garden wall, you’ll find Rochelle Canteen in what used to be the old bicycle shed of a Victorian school. It’s now a beautifully minimal space that opens out onto a garden, which in the spring blossoms into an idyllic scene of flowers and bees, reminiscent of a Pierre Bonnard painting. Expect chilled crémant sparkling wine and a bicicletta cocktail, buttery potatoes, slip sole, radicchio and radishes, and a proper pud and custard, with a clientele of some of London’s finest architects, fashion designers, and cultural producers who have their studios next door.
The nearby Blue Mountain School commissions designers for one-off works, including clothes, textiles, furniture, and ceramics. All are available to view and buy in the six-story building, which also hosts exhibitions and residencies. Redchurch Street should satiate any shopping needs before heading to the Michelin-starred Brat, a restaurant that specializes in Basque-style, open-grill cooking. A small selection of lovely independent stores can be found on Calvert Avenue, including Luna & Curious, which sells beautiful kids’ clothes and toys, womenswear, jewelry, and homeware. Across the street, the leather and waxed cotton bags at Ally Capellino are the ultimate in understated British style.
Next door is Leila’s Shop, where you’re greeted by piles of Sicilian blood oranges, apples, and Leila McAlister herself in her famous blue apron. McAlister knows everyone who walks by and has handpicked the best of everything: cheeses laid out on a marble slab, glass jars of Italian chocolates, Spanish crisps, French kitchen knives, and the most succulent vegetables sourced from farms across the U.K. and Europe. Fortunately, she also has a cafe next door, so if you’re far from home or without a kitchen, you can still taste the exquisite produce. Come rain or shine, Leila’s Shop sells the totally addictive, South London-made La Grotta Ices ice cream.
La Grotta Ices can also be found at the General Store deli in the Peckham district. Peckham, and its neighbors Brixton and Deptford, have thriving art and music scenes. Make sure to visit the excellent South London Gallery across its two sites, one of them being a Grade II-listed nineteenth-century fire station. Bold Tendencies, a not-for-profit organization that commissions emerging artists and musicians, was founded by Hannah Barry who also runs the nearby Hannah Barry Gallery. Get to Bold Tendencies before sundown to enjoy the spectacular city views from Frank’s Café and Campari bar on its rooftop.
There’s no day more nourishing than one filled with ideas, conversation, art, and food, and no evening more nourishing than one spent at St. John Smithfield. It’s a hard place to sum up, as it embodies the best bits of the neighborhood pub, cocktail bar, brasserie, fine restaurant, and members’ club. Nestled at a table in its generous bar area, with a Welsh rarebit and green salad, letting the evening unfold, is the perfect combination of informality and formality, tradition and experimentation, strangers and friends. It’s the apotheosis of what London does best, to enable those places that give you a sense that life is there for living.
Rosy Head is a creative strategist and thought partner for a wide variety of clients, based between London and Paris. She founded Auzinc Studio to confront conventional thinking using strategic imagination and interdisciplinary knowledge to solve complex problems and conceptualize extraordinary new ideas.
Based in his native London, Rory Payne applies a mix of analog and digital techniques in his work. His clients include Calvin Klein, Cartier, Mugler, and Versace. He has shot for publications such as British Vogue, GQ Style, Vogue Mexico, and Teen Vogue.
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