Eight hours after jetting from Charleston on British Airways’ new overnight flight, we weren’t asleep anymore—not a chance. We’d made it to London Town, baby, and were ready to explore. Here, find takeaways from our fast-track holiday to plan your own getaway or establish a base for further adventures
Sure, I’ll have another glass of Champagne. And then maybe I’ll stretch out for the night. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I are on a Boeing Dreamliner for the British Airways direct flight from Charleston to London that debuted in early April, and I’m feeling heady from trip ideas (and sparkling wine). The idea to dash off across the pond came quickly, and at a dinner party earlier in the week and by phone since, I’ve been talking with friends and colleagues to ask for their favorite spots in London.
But first, there’s the luxury of a speedy Atlantic crossing. French wines and London-roasted coffees are on offer. I order the butternut squash risotto with arugula salad for a late dinner and settle into the most roomy span of personal space I’ve ever experienced on a flight. We’re booked in the Club World section, the business-class compartment where each seat reclines flat and bed-like, and curved dividers offer privacy. Across the aisle, two women on a return flight are talking about their first trip to Charleston, including their stay at Belmond Charleston Place, a visit to Middleton Place, and “walking just about everywhere” on the peninsula.
The ease of this passage from our South Carolina city named for a British king (Charles II) is already extraordinary. To get to London—even with the five-hour time difference—the flight from Charleston International takes off shortly before midnight and arrives in the UK’s capital city just after noon. From the walkways of Heathrow Airport, we’ll make our way directly to the London Underground train platform and catch a ride within minutes on the Piccadilly Line into the city.
Our Sunday-to-Thursday getaway just happens to fall in the height of lilac season—branches of flowers are spilling perfumed blooms over the tops of garden fences—and we arrive in bright sunshine, ready to start exploring London for the next three days. Cheerio, and here we go!
Victoria & Belgravia - A Neighborly Home Base
In a city of more than 10 million residents, including the most famous of royals, we find our home base in central London’s Victoria neighborhood. It could have been ritzy Mayfair, or romantic Notting Hill, or among the street murals of Shoreditch: London neighborhoods each have a distinct feel. Victoria and Belgravia is upscale and residential, with small guest houses and local boutiques rather than chain stores—all arranged near the train and bus hub of Victoria Station, and an easy walk to Buckingham Palace.
Our lodging destination is in a pair of 19th-century townhouses that have been converted into the garden-facing Eccleston Square Hotel (ecclestonsquarehotel.com). This modern revamp of a historic residence has connections to Winston Churchill (he used to live a couple doors down) and Queen Victoria, known to make occasional tea time visits when the townhouse was home to a royal granddaughter.
In the first-floor dining room, we meet Swiss-born Olivia Byrne, the young hotelier who’s given the property its contemporary edge, including high-tech amenities, such as free use of a smartphone with each guest room. She points out some of her favorite features of the sophisticated design scheme, including a chevron tile pattern on the floor, velvet upholstery and Italian-designed wallpaper with the texture of crocodile skin near the elevator. Our second-floor room opens to a balcony large enough for a bistro table and overlooks the verdant garden square just across the street.
Byrne explains that her father owned Paris hotels while she was growing up, but says she knew she wanted to forge her own career in London, and in a smart location. “Victoria is still a quiet residential area, but it’s becoming a travel destination,” she says, and not just for businesspeople and visitors to the nearby Google offices. “Different parts of London are like villages; you can be in this part of the city and relax, with theaters and shopping right here.”
Little Villages - Elizabeth Street
After dropping our bags, we’re ready for a walkabout. Within five minutes, we make it to Eccleston Yards, a recently redeveloped pedestrian-only enclave of shops and cafes. I immediately notice a large mural of artist Frida Kahlo across the open courtyard off Elizabeth Street edged by buildings that once housed a horse-drawn coach manufacturer.
Hungry from travel, we follow sounds of R&B to The Jones Family Kitchen (jonesfamilykitchen.co.uk) with its eclectic vibe and order braised rabbit leg and wild mushroom pasta, finishing with one scoop each of bitter chocolate sorbet and cornflake milk gelato. Delicious, all. We also meet the eatery’s cofounder, Anna Watts. A fan of contemporary art, she suggests that if we get to Chelsea, we ought to “nip briefly down the King’s Road to the Saatchi Gallery.”
After dinner, we wander the stretch of boutiques on Elizabeth Street (elizabethstreetlondon.com) with windows decorated in massive flower bouquets that I’m told are amplified in spring, especially during the Chelsea Flower Show. I stop for closer looks at the pink tilt of “fascinator” hats at Philip Treacy, a Kate Middleton favorite (philiptreacy.co.uk); the fragrance mixing at Les Senteurs perfumery (lessenteurs.com); and the elegant shop Hawico (hawico.com), filled with Scottish cashmere.
We find plenty of from-scratch cooking and local ingredients, including at traditional pubs. Memorable favorites include the “beauty” smoothie at Wild by Tart (tart-london.com/wild-by-tart) in Eccleston Yards; London-brewed lagers, English pea and mint soup, and truffle fries at gastropub The Thomas Cubitt on Elizabeth Street (thethomascubitt.co.uk); and sticky toffee pudding in The Grenadier pub on Belgrave Square (grenadierbelgravia.com). Pre-trip, we’d mentioned our upcoming London travel to Sean Brock, former chef of Husk and McCrady’s who now lives in Nashville, and he replied with two words: “St. John.”
A St. John Afternoon
Per Sean’s recommendation, we reserve a table at St. John (stjohnrestaurant.com) for a late lunch on Wednesday. From the first curls of brown shrimp—each no bigger than a dime—set atop a mound of cool cabbage that’s chopped like sauerkraut, we’re struck by the temperature, taste and simple ingredients. Now, this will be unforgettable.
The space is spare, painted white, with no music and no art on the walls, to keep the focus on the food at this iconic Michelin-starred restaurant that Anthony Bourdain described as “my favorite in the world.” The owners, winemaker Trevor Gulliver and chef Fergus Henderson, just finished a lunch meeting and pull up two of the vintage bent cane dining chairs to join us. Henderson and Gulliver add genuine warmth—the gents keep us laughing through the afternoon, from the ice-cold langoustines all the way through to the coffees and steamed blood orange pudding.
On our first night, we sip a bit of London Dry Gin on the balcony of our room, and the botanicals remind me of the sunshine and flowers we’ve already glimpsed. After breakfast the next day, we tour pathways thick with camellias in the private Eccleston Square Garden across the street (the front desk has a key to unlock the gate), then make our way to Buckingham Palace and walk under the tall trees of nearby Green Park.
I’m excited to get to Chelsea Physic Garden, set on four acres near the banks of the Thames (chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk). Founded in 1673, it’s known to be a treasure of botany and medicinal plant study with fascinating collections of more than 5,000 types of plants. I take in as much as I can, noting that there’s a fernery (collected live ferns), a rockery (arrangement of collected rocks), an entire “glasshouse” (greenhouse) of geraniums, and even a collection of pitcher plants from South Carolina. Later, via the online records of MUSC’s Waring Library, I learn of another Lowcountry link to the garden: Colonial Charleston residents sent numerous letters and specimens to Chelsea Physic’s leading advocate, royal physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).
Seconds after we rolled our carry-on bags off the Tube at Victoria Station, I noticed a poster at the bustling train hub for the London version of Hamilton, the most American of musicals, playing at the Victoria Palace Theatre across the street (victoriapalacetheatre.co.uk). But we’ve booked tickets for The Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie mystery that’s been performed more than 27,000 times since 1952 in London’s West End and at the circa-1916 St. Martin’s Theatre since 1974 (londontheatre.co.uk/show/the-mousetrap). It’s worth arriving early to check out the elaborate wooden staircases and collection of vintage photographs of past cast members and royal audiences—plus the wood-paneled upstairs bar with an open-air balcony.
London’s theater scene is a rich one centered around the West End, home to dozens of theaters grand and small, hosting everything from big-name productions from Broadway to fringe works. Next visit, I’d like to get to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 312-seat, off-West End venue, The Other Palace (theotherpalace.co.uk), which is staging the Tony Award-winning musical Falsettos through November.
The Arts Abound
While in Chelsea, we do get to the recommended Saatchi Gallery, which was founded in the ’80s by Charles Saatchi of the legendary advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and hosts free exhibitions of mainly emerging artists. The building itself—the 70,000-square-foot, circa-1801 Duke of York’s Headquarters—is situated along a wide lawn, where a small crowd is lounging to take in the sunshine. Inside, several floors of stark white walls host gorgeous portraiture, photography, and thought-provoking modern work. Subjects on display range from daily city life to ecological themes (Arctic ice melt, deforestation, ocean trash).
Hotelier Olivia Byrne suggested we visit Tate Britain, where there are paid and free exhibits (check alternate entrances), as well as an expansive gift shop chock-full of art supplies and gifts. Upcoming shows include works by Van Gogh (through August 11) and William Blake (September 11, 2019 through February 2, 2020). Meanwhile, Saatchi will host a major King Tutankhamun exhibition beginning this fall.
History Follows the River
Like Charleston, London is a river-and-bridge city—though much, much older. The Romans built the first bridge crossing on a narrow stretch of the Thames almost 2,000 years ago. The river is central to London and essential to visit. We walk along the waterfront in the oldest sections, passing the Houses of Parliament and Victoria Tower (a Union Jack flying to indicate that the House of Commons is in session); small crowds of poster-carrying Brexit supporters and protestors; the clock tower Big Ben (covered and silent for restoration through 2021); Hugh Street and the iconic, circa-1894 Tower Bridge (towerbridge.org.uk); and the storybook turrets and walled castle of Her Majesty’s Royal Fortress and Palace, with a central tower that dates to 1078.
History is everywhere. In a gift shop, I spy a postcard image of a British king wearing a red velvet cape and silver pantaloons. I turn the card over and realize it’s a portrait of Charles II, our city’s namesake and the 17th-century ruler with a cavorting reputation who was exiled to France during his 20s and then reigned from 1661 to 1685 as King of England, Scotland and Ireland. (Meanwhile, across the pond, settlers from England were founding Charles Town.)
When you’re tired of walking, there are always waterside and floating pubs along the Thames, including Tamesis Dock (tdock.co.uk), recommended by our hotel concierge for the across-the-river views of the Houses of Parliament. And why not? After all, you just woke up in London.
LONDON CALLING: Ready to pop over for a UK getwaway! Use these tips to get there and around
Cross the Pond: The fastest route is British Airways’ new nonstop overnight flight between Charleston International and Heathrow, departing Sundays and Thursdays (currently offered through October); britishairways.com.
All Aboard: Train stations are easy to find and use throughout central London, with service to Heathrow Airport, too. For a package rate on public transport, including Underground (Tube), bus, and Overground train, buy a rechargable Oyster Card (from $27); visitbritainshop.com.
By Car: Only black cabs can be hailed in the street. If the yellow “TAXI” sign is on, the cab is available for hire (metered, with a minimum charge of £3); rideshare services, such as Uber, are also active.
Hoof It: In good weather, walking is a great way to navigate the city, but pay attention to distances (we could have saved time by taking the Tube more often). The Walk London route—including the Jubilee Walkway on the Thames River waterfront—passes some of the city’s most iconic landmarks; tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/jubilee-walkway.