You just can’t beat London at Christmas. Unless you’re lining up to get into the Tube station (never mind onto a train) at Oxford Circus, in the pissing rain. Then you’re better off in one of those glass igloos in Finland.
When I’m in town for the holidays, I find myself returning to a few old faithfuls, with a few old faithfuls.
The Zetter Marylebone
Keep this gem up your sleeve for when the crowds become a little too much. A warren of sumptuous suites and a lavish, candlelit parlor awaits at dinky Zetter Marylebone hotel, just a couple of streets back from shopping mecca Selfridges. Divide and conquer last-minute shopping with Mom, then meet here at lunchtime for a swift recovery.
An historic Georgian facade and duck egg blue door lead the way to a memorable coffee stop (or sleepover, if you can spring for it — think four-poster beds and deep baths). Cocktails, cheeses and charcuterie boards welcome you in from the cold, as do the staff and their taxidermy collection. It’s not every day you can dine with a stuffed ginger cat in a tea dress.
Take your mom: thezetter.com/marylebone
Petersham Nurseries, Richmond
You wouldn’t think a garden center was a place to see and be seen, but Petersham Nurseries has long drawn West London’s well-heeled. Plus my Nan and me!
It’s an outdoorsy manifestation of the beautiful lifestyle brand; rows of robust Christmas trees and heavy wreaths flanked by atmospheric, fairy-lit greenhouses. Guests sit for afternoon tea in their coats, ordering loose leaf Earl Grey or a glass of Crémant de Loire. Three-tiered stands are stacked with chive and Gorgonzola buttermilk scones, spiced gammon and piccalilli sandwiches, mini chocolate Yule logs and sticky ginger cake.
The adjoining Aladdin’s cave of trinkets and darling handmade Christmas decorations is perfect for finding last-minute gifts. Look closely and you might spot a gold-plated collar around the neck of that tiny Dachshund you’re stroking.
Take your grandmother: petershamnurseries.com
Turnips, Borough Market
Having finally given up on owning my own flat by the Globe pub a là Bridget Jones (who didn’t deserve the stick she got — justice for Bridget!), schlepping to Borough Market is the next best thing. Unfailingly festive, laden with the country’s produce, the historic market is one of London’s oldest and arguably best. Problem is, everyone knows that, so it’s seriously packed. Saturday afternoon? Don’t even think about it.
I beat the crowds by booking a table at Turnips restaurant, sequestered away in the nooks and crannies. The family-run greengrocers appointed chef patron Tomas Lidakevicius to deliver fine dining with their excellent produce.
Meat is served, though world-class vegetables take center stage; try Provence outdoor tomatoes with mussels, Cévennes onion brioche, Iberico Pork with Brittany Jerusalem artichoke and petits fours. I love shouting my order over neighboring fishmongers selling their wares; a slice of elegance amid happy chaos.
Take a foodie: restaurant.turnipsboroughmarket.com
Shakespeare’s Globe & Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Bankside
For me, Christmas isn’t complete without some public drama (sometimes I go to the theater, too).
This year an epic new version of Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale, has been reworked by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage for Shakespeare’s Globe — a powerful venue that hardly needs my upsell (but really, it’s magic in December).
Next door, the Sam Wanamaker playhouse celebrates its ten-year anniversary with a run of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts until January 28 — London’s only candlelit theater can be relied on to deliver some atmosphere.
Take a thespian: shakespearesglobe.com
KOL Mezcaleria, Marylebone
KOL Mezcaleria boasts plenty of dark corners; the type you want to escape to with a hot date and copious margaritas after a never-ending festive lunch with Great Aunt Dolores.
Offering a welcome break from Christmas flavors, here you can explore Mexican spirits from small producers. Punchy cocktails are crafted with wild, seasonal ingredients sourced from the British Isles and divided into four categories: Fig Leaf & Pear, Sorrel & Hop, Corn & Chamomile and Coffee & Woodruff.
Knock back some homemade sloe Mezcal and order up some antojitos while you figure out if they’ll make the Naughty list — I like the Kentish Oaxaca cheese quesadillas and beef shortrib empanadas with red onion xnipec.
Take a date: kolrestaurant.com/the-mezcaleria
DAUNT Books, Marylebone
All I want for Christmas is a Daunt book subscription! Stuffed with travel writing, the tomes lining the shelves have forever caught my imagination and helped inform my next big adventure. I love everything about this place, from the nostalgic smell to the classic green facade.
I make a beeline for former banker James Daunt’s original shop on Marylebone High Street, but other branches like Haverstock Hill, in Belsize Park or South End Road in Hampstead, guarantee fewer crowds.
Take a bookworm: dauntbooks.co.uk
Just walking to this stylish restaurant is a feast for the senses, passing Liberty London and Hamleys on the walk from Oxford Circus and Claridge’s steps away. Watching the fire glow at HUMO cranks Christmas up a notch; the posh lunch to end all posh lunches centered around a four meter-long grill.
Precise Japanese cooking techniques ensure the best scallops, monkfish, lamb and steak is cooked just so, while charismatic sommelier Merlin oversees a matching wine flight of Bourgogne Blancs and Tendus. Wine and sake lists look a little different here; arranged into grape varieties and areas of focus from light fresh styles at the top of the page down to richer, more full-body styles at the bottom.
Do ask him about the selection of low and no sulfur wines, all vegan-friendly and painstakingly picked.
Take an oenophile: Humolondon.com
The Resident, Victoria
If you’re in town to see the sights, I recommend the Resident Victoria for reasons threefold: it’s a five-minute walk from Buckingham Palace, steps from Victoria station (whence you can get just about anywhere) and really good value for the area.
Wrap up warm and get walking: check out Westminster Cathedral, upmarket Belgravia and leafy St. James’s Park before collapsing with a takeaway and the TV back “home.” A microwave, kitchen sink and cutlery mean you don’t have to venture back out every night (so don’t tell the kids Wicked: The Musical is around the corner).
Take the kids: residenthotels.com/victoria