A city in bloom … London is dotted with little-known street markets, like the East End's Columbia Road Flower Market. Photo: Getty Images
We think we know London. Buckingham Palace and the British Museum; Westminster Cathedral and St Paul's; Dickens, Woolf and Turner; the blue plaques, red buses and black cabs. However, the appeal of any city lies in its details, and sprawling London has more details than most. The best way to enjoy it is to choose a neighbourhood, any neighbourhood, and let yourself get lost, see what you discover on the way.
Increasingly, explorers are heading east and south-east. The neighbourhoods around Shoreditch, Hackney and Spitalfields have long been a magnet for hipsters drawn by the burgeoning arts scene. Pretty Hoxton Square, with its cutting-edge galleries, and Brick Lane, with its Bangladeshi curries, draw the crowds, but taking a random turn off any main drag always leads to delightful discoveries.
Off the Old Kent Road, for instance, an old garage has been turned into a performance space called Auto Italia, while if you happen to alight on platform one of Hackney Downs railway station you'll find a pocket-sized art space, Banner Repeater, which hosts talks and discussions as well as mini exhibitions.
Insider's guide to London
A man plays guitar on a narrow boat on the Regent's Canal, near Camden Lock in north London. Photo: Reuters/STEFAN WERMUTH
Then there are the Walthamstow Marshes, the wildest of London's great parks, with a marina and boat yard, industrial relics dotting the landscape and cattle grazing on the long grass, as well as the Hackney Marshes.
The yang to east London's yin is the Bond Street area, where tradition is revered above all else. If east London is Eliza Doolittle, Bond Street, and Mayfair generally, is Henry Higgins. In fact, Henry would have approved of some of the outlets in nearby Jermyn Street, which offer every service for gentlemen, from bespoke tailors to old-fashioned barbers equipped with hot towels and cut-throat razors.
In the nearby arcades you'll also find small specialty retailers that are masters of their craft. Charbonnel et Walker in the Royal Arcade and Prestat in the Princes Arcade fight it out for the title of best chocolatier. In my book, a visit to the richly-coloured, pocket-size Prestat to pick up some handmade violet creams is a better sweet treat than a cakes-and-cucumber-sandwiches afternoon tea. (Although if you do have a hankering for afternoon tea, the art deco Wolseley on Piccadilly is a fabulous choice.)
Following London's waterways is another way to make unexpected discoveries. A walk – or a kayak – along Regent's Canal lets you peer through the proverbial back door. Start among the houseboats of Little Venice and you'll pass parks, a zoo, Victorian warehouses, Camden Markets and the Olympics district. Thirteen kilometres later, if you have the stamina, you'll wind up in Docklands, near another favourite secret place, charming St Katherine Docks.
My list of London's best secret spots is long. I love the gallery in the crypt beneath St Pancras Church, which hosts everything from sound installations to an alternative nativity scene. I love Kensington Roof Gardens, perched on top of a department store and invisible from the street. It features a Spanish garden with a fountain, a wisteria-draped Tudor garden and an English woodland garden with a pond housing what must be four uncomfortably cold flamingos.
As for unwinding at the end of a long day, well, where to start? You might nibble on a canape in The Dorchester's classy bar, catch some jazz at Charlie Wright's International Bar, or take a trip back in time at the Cittie of Yorke in High Holborn, where a pub has stood since 1430. Cheers to London and its ever-changing moods!
From Sunday Life