London visitors are apt to complain about the sheer size of the city compared with New York or Paris, but there's at least one good reason for the expanse: London's parks. New York has the fat slab of Central Park and the generous green of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, while Paris features the hilly Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the heavily manicured Parc Monceau. But neither city has London's enviable abundance of verdant space. Along with the classic central Kensington Gardens, Regent's Park, and Green Park (which offer the Serpentine Galleries, the London Zoo, and Buckingham Palace, respectively), you should head to lesser-known leisure spots to get a true taste of life in the capital.
Among the East London locations with great character is Victoria Park, which has been around for more than 170 years, but lacks the stuffy, old-fashioned formality of many of its peers. Split in two, Victoria includes a smaller side with a scenic lake and the popular Pavilion Cafe, and a larger side with tennis courts, football pitches, and a skate park. Both ends feature a pub, each of which is perfect for a pint.
London Fields, Vicky Park's raucous younger cousin, is just a 10-minute, canalside stroll away. This space is a reminder that London's gardens are great for a bash, one in which people barbecue but also drink and get high on laughing gas in the summer. The Saturday hot spot Broadway Market, and nearby pubs like the Cat and Mutton and the Spurstowe Arms, add to the area's devil-may-care atmosphere. Meanwhile, North London's main bucolic getaway is the massive Hampstead Heath, which offers as close to a feeling of the rolling English countryside as you'll get in the city. It's famous on the gay scene for its cruise-worthy woods and men-only pond, where, in the summer, nudists sunbathe and swimmers rock Speedos.
Photo Credit: (c) The Royal Parks
With the onset of online shopping and globalized chains, it's increasingly hard to come home with original duds. Still, there's hope in London.
For the super-rich, there's the famous tailoring scene on Savile Row and the shirt and hat makers on Jermyn Street, as well as major treasure-trove department stores, like Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Fenwick. But aim for independent boutiques, where, even if some labels look familiar, you can find unique brands and buys unlike those in the U.S.
Shoreditch has a slew of menswear shops all within a few blocks of each other. Frank Ocean's favorite, Goodhood, has opened a new space on Curtain Road, specializing in high-end sports luxe and stocking Diemme, Neighborhood Japan, and PAM. On Shoreditch High Street, there's Present, which started off selling workwear (heritage plaid, brogues, and cotton-canvas jackets), but is broadening its appeal to include vibrant knitwear, printed trousers, and edgy patterned shorts.
Hostem on Redchurch Street is heavy on black and drapey looks by Ann Demeulemeester and Rick Owens, but sells the lesser-known British father-son brand Casely-Hayford, too. There's also the classic British underwear brand Sunspel, which has kitted out numerous on-screen James Bonds and, in such locations as 7 Redchurch Street, is adding sweatshirts, swimwear, and loungewear.
Elsewhere in the city, there's Dalston's cult -- and, as of press time, soon to be reopened -- LN-CC, which requires an appointment for shopping; Other/Shop, an adventurous buyer of modern menswear that also crafts superb looks in-house; and KTZ, the wild card if you're looking for killer club-kid chic. Yet to hit the U.S. is the H&M-owned COS, which does brilliant basics and minimal menswear at reasonable prices.
Top Left: ArcelorMittal Orbit. Bottom Left: Crate. Top Left: Counter Cafe. Bottom Left: Vinyl Pimp.
Shoreditch, London Fields, Dalston -- these neighborhoods have seen the gradual eastward creep of all things cool. As each becomes increasingly well-trodden, try heading even farther east to discover Hackney Wick and Fish Island, areas in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium and artist Anish Kapoor's ArcelorMittal Orbit structure. Whether you enter from Hackney Wick Overground station or by foot, bike, or car, don't be scared off by the distance from central London -- or the industrial yards. This spot is fast becoming the coolest place in the capital, with galleries, breweries, cafes, and a weekly style market. It's not polished by any means, but that's the charm (think arts and crafts and great coffee).
The area is broken up by canals and bridges, but it's essentially divided between Fish Island and Hackney Wick proper. On Fish Island, there's Stour Space, which is part studio and part events space, with the Counter Cafe serving up brunch, coffee, and tea on a floating seating area on the water.
The Cygnet is a couple of blocks away, dishing out salads and sandwiches by day and getting rowdy at night thanks to its massive canalside beer garden. Also nearby is H. Forman and Son, which specializes in wholesale smoked salmon, but also has a restaurant and gallery (be sure to check about its odd hours).
A little farther down the waterfront in Hackney Wick is Crate, a choice spot for craft beers and excellent pizza (it's housed in a complex that also plays host to the Yard Theatre and gallery spaces). And a few winding blocks away is the Hackney Pearl, with its affordable lunch specials, three-course dinners, pastries, coffees, and plates of British cheeses. Once you've had your fill, venture to Felstead Street for a great mini shop. If you're into vinyl (or synthesizers), London Modular and Vinyl Pimp, both in Oslo House, are good bets, while antique aficionados can hit up Imperial and Standard, open Saturdays from 12 to 6 p.m. Look out for artwork, too, at Elevator Gallery, Schwartz Gallery, and See Studio.
As with most gentrifying areas, Hackney Wick owes its ascent largely to an earlier artistic influx -- creative types drawn to large (and cheap) industrial spaces that allow them to create on a bigger scale. While taking in this civilized cafe culture, remember to keep your ear to the ground for a warehouse or squat party -- the raves here are the stuff of legend.
Photo Credit: Mike Fleming (ArcelorMittal Orbit). Tom Jennings (Crate). Counter Cafe, Toman Skyva (Vinyl Pimp).