If you’re looking for things to do in London for a special occasion let me use my 6 years, 3 months and 17 days as a London resident to help you. I’ve been around. Over the years I’ve had to source special things to do in London for mum and dad, entertained visiting friends with Shoreditch street art tours and been to more than a few cool music venues in London.
When it comes to a really special occasion in London though, you need to pull out all the stops…
Admire the Big Smoke from above
The Shard is one of the newest attractions in London and is definitely worth a visit. City Wonders do a cool skip the line evening tour up the top which includes a delicious fish and chip dinner at the old George Inn and a tour around Borough Market too. Prices start from £62 per person.
If it’s views you’re after, the view across London from the top of the O2 is amazing. Its not actually even that scary to climb across either – I did it on a cold, windy, wintry night and survived, so you’ll be ok. Prices start from £30.
If you’ve got a few hours after you’ve finished your special activity, or before, make sure to check out some of London’s sky view bars. My favourite is the Double Tree Hilton at Tower Hill, you can see for miles.
If you’re looking for something a bit tamer there are plenty of great places to have an afternoon tea in London, it would probably take you a few months to get through them all. My favourite afternoon tea experience was at Fortnum and Mason – the history of the place, the service, the quality, and the fact it’s all you can eat won me over.
Watch a West End Show
Going to the West End is a fun treat in London. Most recently I went to see Phantom of the Opera and had a backstage tour beforehand, it was brilliant. I still want to see The Bodyguard and Thriller, but my all-time favourite show is definitely The Lion King. There are loads of great restaurants round there and many have a pre-theatre deal of some sort, try to choose somewhere more unique than Pizza Express, Planet Hollywood and the like.
when Eating London asked me if I wanted to try their tour, there was no need to think for too long.
Eating London Tour
On a sunny August Thursday morning I met the group at a coffee shop in Spitalfields to gorge my way around Shoreditch. We would be spending the day eating at all the best places the Eating London boss had carefully handpicked from more than 200 eateries in the area.
I’m not going to spoil the surprise, or the hard stomach-expanding work of the team, by revealing the ten stop offs but I’ll let you know what I ferried away into my piggy little mouth in the space of just three hours…
Bacon sandwich, fish and chips, curry, cheese, cider, beer, bread and butter pudding, chocolate torte and salt beef bagel.
I went home and had to have a little sleep afterwards.
It wasn’t just the food that was incredible. Our Eating London tour guide Emily gave us loads of insider information on the area too. I learnt all about the prostitutes, the Jews, the soup kitchens, the film sets, street art, Jack the Ripper, the crafty government, building plans, building scams and what it’s like to run these tours every day. She was great.
At first I wasn’t sure about £65, but the amount of food you get to try, knowledge you get to reap, facts to splash out next time you’re in Shoreditch and new great restaurants you have in your repertoire, its well worth it.
Its a good job I didn’t have breakfast that day. I’d advise you not to eat the day before either, or the one after come to that. Alternatively, you don’t actually have to eat everything on the tour, apparently.
Try to see it all
I loved the day out I had on the London Pass. For £40 you can make the most of over 40 attractions. In one day I went to Westminster Abbey, a Thames Boat Cruise, the Tower Bridge Exhibition, the Crypts and The Curzon Cinema. If you’re looking for some action for your special occasion in London, this would be the option to go for.
Chill out with Liz
One of my favourite days in London when I was looking for something special to do, was the day my mum and I spent at Buckingham Palace looking at the latest exhibition, which at the time was the dresses of Diana. We had a great time looking around all the rooms there and following the tour. Afterwards we went to the cafe for a coffee – mum still has the Buckingham Palace emblazoned cup on her dressing table.
In my eyes the high street shops in London are pretty boring. It’s basically just more of the same of what you’d find on any town high street but way bigger and far more stressful to get around. The best way to shop in London is to visit the boutique shops of the likes of Covent Garden or Portobello Road, or hit the markets. Greenwich Market, Camden Market, Brick Lane Market and Spitalfields are my favourites.
If you’re in London for a special occasion you might as well stay over so you don’t have to worry about getting home afterwards. Mum and dad recently visited me and I was able to treat them to a night at the Holiday Express Inn in Pimlico on my IHG Rewards points. A night here is normally around £300, so it was really useful to have the points to use. Find out more about IHG points here.
Any food market is always good, and despite the previous orienteering incident with this one we had a great time. There were six of us so we could all buy something and share it around to make more of the treats on offer. After salt beef, fruit smoothie, olives, caramel nougat, tea, chicken and broccoli quiche, sausage and cheese on toast I was just about stuffed and in need of a drink.
I’d been to Vinopolis a few years ago and always wanted to go back. I thought it would be the perfect thing for the six of us to do on a freezing cold Saturday afternoon after getting foot freeze from Borough Market.
We went at 1:30pm, which seemed like a great time, judging by the queues when we left at 4pm. We were given a talk on how to taste wine properly by the French sommelier before getting to sniff and suck back the wine from our first glass.
For the entry fee of £27 you’re given seven credits to use how you wish. Whether you like Champagne, rum, red, white, fortified or even absinthe you can work your way around the vending stations.
There are plenty of opportunities to sit down here and you can extend your trip by ordering a tapas board.
Hot tip for you: choose the wines that are down to the last glass. A member of staff will come and change it and usually let you have the rest of it for free.
As it was Christmas the Winter Festival was on in full swing. We glugged mulled wine – with extra brandy to really finish us off – admired the Christmas decorations on offer and enjoyed the views over The Thames and the Christmas lights. We were pretty exhausted after this and so after a quick stop at Waterloo to pick up some mulled wine from M&S we went off home to collapse on the sofa ready for the Sunday fun…
I wanted in at Harrods, but unsurprisingly when it came to be booking it two weeks before December hit I was told they were full up. I spent a good few hours analysing the smorgasbord of afternoon teas available in London Town I chose the honey tea at St Ermin’s Hotel in St James’ Park. At £25pp it was in a super fancy hotel which was beautifully Christmassy.
We sat around in the nearby Feathers pub by New Scotland Yard before hand, which was perfect apart from the ridiculously rude bar staff. “You’re not having another round of coffee are you?” Rude.
At St Ermin’s the staff were very attentive and explained to us we could have as many sandwiches and as much tea as we liked. The teas had us all cooing over the presentation and the little cakes were tasty and filling. Of course we did go for that extra round of sarnies, you can’t say that to us lot and expect us not to have more.
Fortnum & Mason Afternoon Tea
The Fortnum & Mason Afternoon Tea in the Diamond Jubilee Salon is famous worldwide thanks to Queen Liz opening it back in 2012. But the history of tea here goes way back, to 1707 in fact. They have a whole tea tasting menu here, but I’m not sure my limited palate is quite ready for that.
We shunted the golden staircase and took the lift up to the top floor. We were greeted by the friendly staff who took our coats and bags and invited us to sit on the chaise lounge and wait for our table to be ready.
It was one of those situations where you feel like you have to whisper. We kept quite and just knowingly admired our fellow guests as they arrived – some obviously for a treat, others so distinguished I imagined this was just another day out from their fabulous schedule.
No more than five minutes later and we were shown to our table. They seated us in the posh way – pushing our chairs under after us – and gave us both a comprehensive menu.
Do we choose, or do we get it all?
You get it all, and if you need any more, just shout.
Ar yes. An all you can eat Fortnum & Mason Afternoon Tea, brilliant.
Afternoon Tea Drinks
Seeing as it was Bank Holiday Monday, and a special occasion, we decided to order some wine to go with the tea. They had a separate wine list and we went for a Rose at £10 a glass.
The Rose arrived at the same time as the Darjeeling Tea I’d ordered so I had an interesting juggle of those two and the water. But the tea wasn’t just your average PG Tips and a bit of semi skim, this was Darjeeling Tea of a ‘robust’ character, and number 51 of 85 to choose from. It was served from one of the traditional Fortnum & Mason teapots and you had to strain it to drink it. Poor old philistine friend totally forgot on her second pour and got all the leaves of her lemon tea in her cup. Amateur.
Afternoon Tea Food
Next out came the three tiers of food and the three tiers of preserves.
From the bottom; steak, egg, salmon and of course, cucumber sandwiches. All with crusts cut off and perfectly sized.
The salmon sandwich won for flavour, hands down.
Next tier up and we had two delicious scones each. Served with strawberry jam, lemon curd, and clotted cream. Incredible. They were all you can eat too, but all we could eat was two each.
And finally, on the top tier was a range of little cakes. I had stuffed myself on the sandwiches so only managed a forkful of them all. Delicious though.
Oh, we also got access to the cake train. A trolley with creamy, chocolatey, fruity cakes piled up on top. I had some lemon drizzle cake while my friend went for the biggest beast on there. We shared. Hers was better.
- 12 finger sandwiches
- Two scones
- A slice of lemon drizzle cake
- Two cake bites
- Glass of wine
- Darjeeling Tea
It does sound pretty expensive, but this wasn’t just any afternoon tea, this was a Fortnum & Mason Afternoon Tea. Part of the money is the experience you’re paying for and this Afternoon Tea would be a perfect day out for a special occasion in London.
Walking back down the golden staircase to try and take off a few calories we were satisfied with our efforts. Later that night though I scolded myself for not pushing just one more round of sandwiches in. If you decided to go, make sure you do as they say, and eat all you can.
If you’re planning on a trip up The Shard save up your number twos to enjoy with incredible views across the whole of London. Sadly, I was not in on this gem of advice prior to scaling the tower but thanks to my pint of cider I was given as part of the dinner and Shard view tour I was on, I was able to enjoy the most scenic wee I’ve possibly ever had.
The windows in each toilet cubicle are huge. When I was up there I had a flashback to the media coverage when The Shard first opened, when the exhibitionists among us apparently enjoyed the opportunity to ‘screw with a view’, if I may put it so crudely. None of that malarkey when my friend and I took some time out to enjoy one of London’s newest attractions.
We were at The Shard and ready to enter the lifts up to the 68th floor. Just before we did though they decided they wanted to take a photo of my friend and I to super impose onto a photo of The Shard. On exiting we found it was the worst photo either of us had ever seen, and that went for both of us. This one here is much better…
Up the top the weather turned and we were treated to a grim view over London, incredible though nonetheless. Philip pointed out the walkie talkie, the gherkin, and the first building to have its own windmills.
When you’re up at the top of The Shard you’ll see they have magical telescope things that you can use to ‘view’ London as if you were looking at it on a clear night, or in the sun, or in the 20s, 60, or 90s, it’s all very interesting. You can also learn more about the history and building of the shard using the different functionalities.
There was a bar up there too, serving Champagne and quite a few people were enjoying a glass. After a long day at work it would’ve been nice to have some seats up there to quaff it back with, but I can only assume they want you in and out.
A theatre tour up Shaftesbury Avenue? Followed by a backstage tour of Her Majesty’s Theatre, dinner and the best seats in the house at Phantom of the Opera? Yes puh-lease!
That was my Friday, one rainy day in May.
We met the City Wonders team outside Her Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket in my beloved London. After a friendly chat about all the essentials – where we were from, where we lived, y’know, the usual – we went on a tour of Shaftesbury Avenue. Also known as ‘Theatre Land’.
‘We’ were me, my mum, the City Wonders tour guide Kieran, and four 50+ women from Switzerland on a girlie weekend. We were a good team.
Before we set off we were given headphone sets so we could hear Kieran as he walked and talked through the busy London people traffic. In this world of smart phones, robots and space travel it’s a touch sad that I was amazed by these contraptions, but I was. A little part of me hoped I wouldn’t bump into anyone I knew with the blue headset on, yet another part, maybe smaller, hoped I would so I could show off about what I was doing.
Theatre Walking Tour
We walked up Haymarket, across Piccadilly and up to Shaftesbury Avenue. We learned about the famous theatre cat Beerbohm who’s eventual death was so upsetting for the community it took over The Stage’s front page, also about the twin buildings concept where now you can see how destructive ‘forward thinking’ can be to architecture. Just take a look at the Gieguld Theatre compared to the neighbouring and attached Queen’s Theatre to see what I mean. Kieran told us that apparently Dame Judi Dench was performing at the Gieguld, but wanted to say she’d been in Les Miserables at the Queens, so after her show she made her way through to the Queens Thetare, sang in the chorus, and then was able to sign her name on the famous cast wall. No one even noticed until she admitted it a few years later.
The tour carried on through Leicester Square and back past Sir Isaac Newton’s house until we got back to Her Majesty’s Theatre – apparently the only one in London with a changeable name. Once ‘Her Majesty’ pops it and Prince Charles takes over it’ll be known as His Majesty’s Theatre.
The whole walk was about an hour of stopping and starting so anyone who has issues walking, like my dear mother and her dodgy knee, should bear that in mind. Mum did well though and as long as you kept her entertained with a tale or two, she was fine.
Backstage Theatre Tour
After 30 minutes of waiting outside the theatre in the rain for the tour to start – after all it’s a live theatre whose priority is to be ready for the show – we were given permission to enter and begin.
Ten steps in the door and I was on a West End stage. Another one of my many life goals as a young vickyflipflop, done. Kind of.
We were shown around the stage from the Prompt corner where they had little screens set up so you could see the conductor and communicate with the control box, to the famous remote control boat. I won’t give too much away, but they had some funny stories to tell about Micheal Crawford, his time as the Phantom, and that boat.
Unfortunately everything in the show is copyrighted, so I couldn’t take any photos.
One of the most fascinating things about the tour was how small the actual theatre was. Everything had to be tied up on top of each other in order to fit in the wings. At one point in the show they have this huge staircase, it all has to go back and the tonnes of steel tied up within two minutes, in silence. The props technicians have to train for years to be allowed to work on Phantom of the Opera, and they all have two understudies because it’s such a vital, dangerous and complicated job.
We were shown the back room where the legendary comedian Tommy Cooper eventually died after collapsing on stage mid-performance. Now the room is used as a dressing room and his ghost is said to stalk the corridors.
We made our way up to the top floor, again, not a good one for anyone with mobility issues but you can distract yourself by clocking all the cast getting ready and going by. I was determined to remember their faces later on when I saw them on stage.
Up at the top we saw the inner mechanisms of the stage, how they dropped the screens down and delivered the props to the technicians below ready to receive them. Her Majesty’s Theatre is a Grade II Listed building, so they’re not allowed to make any changes to the theatre as it is. This includes the pillars that disrupt the view of the cheap seats, and the stage mechanisms below. They actually had to wind a stick backstage to a certain countdown number to get the candelabras to wind back in on stage. Pretty funny when you bear in mind today’s technology.
Apparently in the olden days the Navy boys would come up on land from the Thames to work the theatres. All the theatre machinery processes and contraptions had been developed to be similar to those on a boat.
Dinner time at Grace
The hour-long backstage tour of Phantom of the Opera was over too soon.
The six of us were scooted up to Grace Bar in Piccadilly. It seemed like a strange choice and as we passed all the fag ash lils outside and the chavvy clubbers by the bar I worried for my 50+ companions.
The seven of us were ushered to a back room though and sat around to enjoy our two-course set menu. I chose the asparagus and goat’s cheese tart followed by steak; it was one of those just-enough portions. I was actually glad it wasn’t more as I didn’t want to fall asleep in the theatre – I was felling pretty knackered. I skipped the wine, but it was a choice for the usual London prices on top. Staff were friendly, prices were good and we had a good group sat around that table together.
Phantom of the Opera: The show
7:30pm, and the show was due to start. We’d made it ten minutes early to get to the front row of the Royal Circle – a perfect view with a comfortable bar to lean on. It was the best seat I’d ever had in a theatre.
Her Majesty’s Theatre is beautiful and can house up to 1,216 people a night.
The show was amazing – everything I’d wanted from a show I’d wanted to see for so many years. The singing was incredible and being so close to the front meant I was totally wrapped up in the music and the story. The time went so quickly and it was genuinely mind blowing to see how the basic stage and set I’d seen just a few hours earlier made the whole story come to life.
The VIP Phantom of the Opera Experience
Having the whole backstage tour experience gave so much more depth to the day, and a much better understanding of the cast and show.
The tour with City Wonders currently costs £105, normal price £150.If I look now I can see Friday night seats in a month’s time in the Royal Circle are £75, and that’s not even the front row. And a two-course set dinner at Grace is £20. So the actual Shaftesbury Avenue tour and the backstage tour cost £10 – WOW, well worth it!
I was a guest of City Wonders but I’d absolutely, definitely recommend the tour. So would my mum, although she wanted me to make it clear that anyone with mobility issues should be aware of the walking and the theatre stairs.
Even though I haven’t really been for years, I used to love the theatre and getting to stand on stage and see the theatre as the cast do was an incredible experience, and one you would’ve thought money can’t buy. But apparently it can.
The VIP Phantom of the Opera tour would make for a great treat for anyone important in your life, including you. Give it a go!
How about a speakeasy in London?
Speakeasies are cool aren’t they? A nod back to prohibition time when the only drinking could be done in secret, underground, in the dark and totally illegally. How much fun does that sound?
Now it’s cool to legitimately drink underground and in secret, not quite as badass but these bars are doing all they can to create that feeling of times gone by. When people actually dressed up to go out, everyone knew each other and only the most hipster of the hipsters knew the best places to go.
Danger of Death
From the front it looks like an antique shop. From the inside it seems to be a pizza joint. But down below, by the toilets, through a specific series of light-switch presses, opens a door to the super-swanky bar. Part of the Rushmore Group (Milk & Honey, Rotary Bar, etc.), they’ve got a beyond-solid cocktail menu — and as of the beginning of this year it’s no longer a members, club open their doors to the well-behaved public Weds-Sat.
Head to Off Broadway – a cocktail bar in its own right – and pop straight down to the loo where one cubicle only has a sink and a cistern. Give the chain a pull and magically a door swings open to reveal this hidden colonial era-styled den, boasting over 50 different rums. Cocktails run through classics, twists on classic, and house drinks – all centered around cane hooch, naturally. Also, if you really like a bottle of something, buy it and they’ll keep it stashed away with your name on it.
5CC at The Well and Bucket and The Exmouth Arms
- Shoreditch / Exmouth Market
A good pub is a good thing. What makes them great is a secret bar tucked away inside. In Shoreditch, look for the neon sign (this one’s not SO hidden). If you’re in Exmouth Market, however, you need to head out back – almost outside even – and upstairs for their tiny cocktail world. Both are strictly seating only, and they boast a range of house-aged cocktails in vintage bottles for a not-too-steep price either.
Kench & Bibesy
Upstairs? A delicious resto, daily prepping freshness from the market next door (pulled oxtail anyone?). Head to the bookcase at the back, however, and lean against the wall… and suddenly you’ll find yourself in their dive bar love child, with one of the best back bars and some of the more boundary-pushing cocktails in London.
Hidden at a dead-end hallway under the Shoreditch branch of BrewDog behind a cupboard, is the way of the future. Underdog (clever name, fellas) specializes in beer cocktails, and does not disappoint. It’s a dimly-lit bar – accessible by asking any bartender on the ground floor to take you downstairs – that’s stacked full of oddities. From snakes curled up in jars, random taxidermy and small boxes inexplicably filled with human hair, to a hidden voodoo corner where tables are surrounded by melted candles, shrunken skulls and one large, imposing skeleton. It’s pretty weird.
If you’ve got any other ideas of what to do for a special occasion in London, let me know in the comments box below.
Lucky for me I was upgraded to the Grand Suite on arrival, which gave me more floor space than the average two bed flat in good old London, a huge bed, a desk, wardrobe, free standing bath, lounge area, table, shower and en suite toilet. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is exactly how I want my flat to be, when I get one.
Bathroom fit for a (hipster) king
It’s a tough choice but my favourite thing in the Grand Suite is definitely the spacious bathroom. After my final night out (for this England jaunt) with friends I came home and filled the huge tub, using the complementary Bramley bath salts for effect I sat back and watched the street below. Granted, not much happened but it was a perfect moment and an excellent goodbye to London. If you wanted you could even angle the TV to watch from the bath, or my preference, just sit back and admire the room.
Little bit of history
It took two years to create Artist Residence from the dilapidated building it was when they bought it in 2012. Once a pub, erected by Thomas Cubitt who was responsible for much of Pimlico and Belgravia, as of September 2014 it’s now a ten bedroom independent hotel, restaurant and bar. And at just a 5-minute walk from Pimlico, Victoria and Sloane Square it’s in a great location.
Sourced from reclaimed materials and antiques dealers you can tell everything in the room has been carefully selected for their cool aesthetic. From the exposed brick to the fireplaces and through to the wooden floor the design team have obviously earned their keep. The artwork is really cool too. In the Grand Suite two Mills and Boon book covers adorn the walls – with funny sarcastic ‘True Love Stories’ overlays. I won’t ruin the surprise for you, you’ll have to go to find out what they say, or alternatively you could just zoom into the photo.
- The room temperatures can easily be controlled on the panel at the door.
- Free tea and coffee (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to work a coffee machine without many, many swear words and a few coffee capsule casualties).
- The artisan choice at the mini bar – fudge (my fave), popcorn, posh crisps and nuts.
- Late check out option (if the room’s not booked that is).
- Wooden desk complete with cool light and old school phone.
- Roberts radio for your use.
Food, drink, meetings and menus
Downstairs there’s also a guest lounge where I sat and enjoyed waiting for my room to be ready (I was early). It looks out over the garden and would be the perfect spot for a meeting – business or social. I also spotted a private room you can rent out for up to 12 to eat – I’d love a cocktail laced meal there!
There’s also an in house restaurant, Sixty Four Degrees, where the menu changes daily. If you’re after Champagne, oysters and cocktails there’s also a bar that looks carries on the cool design and atmosphere throughout, but I didn’t quite get the chance to try.
I had to leave to catch my flight to Tokyo, but if that wasn’t on the horizon I’d find it pretty hard to checkout of the Artist Residence. I’ll definitely be back, if only to try the Champers and light bites at the restaurant!