We were up at 07:20, refreshed and ready. We’d slept like rocks, full of Indian food — but the promise of the day made me jump out of bed. It was the first official day — our first day of the trip.
We straightened the room, showered, dressed and stepped off the curb outside La Suite West at 08:30 sharp. We made our way down to the Queensway station, and dutifully queued for the elevator with the masses heading to work. We packed ourselves into a Central line train to Chancery Lane — elbow to elbow, cheek to cheek.
It was a 9 minute wander through winding streets to breakfast — but I could’ve wandered for an hour. London is always jarring to me when we first arrive, in the best possible way. The texture, the history, the materiality — it’s entrancing. I took a lot of inspiration photos on the walk. A gate here, a brick pattern there... Something about London makes these things impossibly new and impossibly old at the same time — part of history, but remixed. We walked past posh new apartments, old office buildings, a nursery school, Brutalist brick council maisonettes — it all fit, perfectly, no matter how disparate.
Breakfast was at the Clerkenwell branch of my very favorite place — Albion. We discovered it on our last trip to London and ate there nearly every morning. It’s nothing incredibly different or special — the interiors and concept are by Sir Terence Conran, but what isn’t in London? The food is wonderful, though — avocado and poached eggs on toast, a side of streaky bacon and a big pot of Yorkshire tea. But my absolute favorite part of Albion is the cheese and Marmite scroll. Imagine a cinnamon roll the size of your face, but swap all of the sugar and icing out for English cheddar and smears of yeasty, salty Marmite. It’s heaven, completely. Mark absolutely hates Marmite, as do most people it seems — but I don’t understand at all. I dream about those puffy, salty chunks of divinity. I’m too afraid to ruin the idea of them, so I haven’t ever tried making my own… But perhaps I should try.
We toddled out of Albion, stuffed to the gills (a common theme). I took a few pictures of The Turnmill, the lovely brick building within which Albion sits — another example of perfectly contextual modern architecture.
We made our way southeast, past Smithfield Market and Florin Court (Hercule Poirot’s residence), past bustling coffee shops and a Tesco Express — all the way to the Barbican.
The Barbican is one of my favorite places on the planet, period. There’s something about it that is irresistible, endearing, magnetic.
For those who don’t already know, the Barbican is an incredible piece of London’s history. It’s a gigantic 40-acre redevelopment in the heart of London, built beginning in the 1960s to replace a vast swath of the city centre that had been completely demolished during World War II. It contains over 2,000 flats, the Museum of London, the Guildhall School of Music, a public library, the City of London School for Girls, a sprawling arts + cultural center, a conservatory, three restaurants, and acres of gardens. It’s Grade II listed — meaning it’ll exist forever — and it’s a shining example of Brutalism, my very favorite architectural period.
Brutalism is extremely controversial — it often is derided as ugly, cold, impersonal. It’s a surefire way to get into an argument with an architect, certainly. Even non-architects have extremely strong feelings about it — I was de-friended on Facebook ages ago for posting an article about Paul Rudolph’s work! (She was a high school acquaintance who got worked into a froth over Victorian houses and chintz, so good riddance.) But who cares about any of them — this is my blog.
Brutalism, to me, is anything but cold and impersonal. It’s architecture for the people — everything is human-scaled, human-centered, human-inhabited. It was built to propel the lower classes upward, into humble luxury and flexible spaces, surrounded by greenery. The concrete, brick and glass of the Barbican envelops you, making you feel important and special within the gigantic city around you. Every single thing was custom-designed — the elevator buttons, the fire hoses, the door handles, the light fixtures, the bathroom sinks. Every detail considered, every moment planned. It’s like walking through a movie. You can see where the architects knew you’d look, where they knew you’d sit, step, pause, wait. It’s impossible to really convey through words — but for someone who notices every one of those tiny details, it’s euphoric. As a designer, I’m incredibly sensitive to visual noise — unresolved moments, ignored details, forgotten pieces. I firmly believe that nearly everyone is this sensitive — it’s just a matter of whether you’re conscious of it or not. And the Barbican is like a salve for my eyes — a perfect symphony of angles, edges, textures, tones, colors.
We always visit the Barbican when we’re in London — it’s a required pilgrimage. It’s a craving that needs to be satiated, like the cheese and marmite scroll. This time was no exception — we wandered around for almost two hours, taking it all in. I must have a thousand photos of that place now, but I can always take more. We lingered around the council flat entrances, documenting the shades of green on the steel mullions. We loitered at the base of Shakespeare Tower, peering through the windows — Casper Mueller Kneer (Céline’s architecture firm of choice) has a glass outpost in the base of the tower, full of experimental materials and endless shelves of books. Then a sojourn into the Barbican Shop — for books, as per usual.
We’d always wanted a copy of “Residents” — a photographic survey of the inhabitants of the Estate that has been in and out of print for what seems like ages. I didn’t buy a copy last time we were in (and since then, someone has listed a copy on Amazon for nearly $500), so we found the lone dusty remainder on the shelf and asked if they had any newer copies.
“It’s just coming back into print, actually. We should have some tomorrow!”
We gleefully left our UK cellphone numbers and emails with the shop attendant, giddy about the book, but also at the prospect of coming back to the Barbican once more. We walked westward, shopping in hand, almost sad to leave.
We made our way through Holborn, to Fitzrovia — and up Tottenham Court Road to the Penny Drop, a cafe we’d seen online and been wanting to see ever since. It’s a cozy little place — warm tones of oak, fresh flowers, clean graphics, great coffee. We decompressed and took it all in over oat-milk lattes. (Prediction: oat-milk will be the next big thing in the US — you heard it here first.)
After regaining our strength, we wandered back out into the city — past the BT Tower, past the University of Westminster (Mark’s alma mater) and back onto Oxford Street.
We had decided to swing by The New Craftsmen on our way back to the hotel — a very posh art / design shop, full of British handicraft. It was mesmerizing — perfect ceramics by Olivia Walker, colorful throws by Bristol Weaving Mill, the perfect box pillow by Good Shepherd, a stunning bottle-green wood settle by Inglis Hall and Sue Skeen. I wanted everything — but not much was within our price range (or shipping budget, really), so we thanked the shop attendants and wandered back out to the street.
We decided to detour a little and headed south to Grosvenor Square, site of the former US Embassy — designed by Eero Saarinen and now eerily empty. The building was bought by Qatari Diar, and will be redeveloped into a Rosewood Hotel — and as the building has Grade II status, it’ll remain largely identical to the original design.
“Can you imagine how much a room will cost?” Mark whispered. “Who knows,” I replied as we anxiously took photos of the abandoned complex. The security guards were long gone, and the cameras turned off — just a Modernist gem, sitting empty on the Square. We walked past statues of Reagan (I rolled my eyes) and Roosevelt, their bronzed smiles feeling a little out of place without the American flag flying steps away. We bid our farewells, and walked to Marble Arch for the train home.
We quickly changed, and then headed right back out into town for one of our most eagerly anticipated events of the trip: afternoon tea at Claridge’s.
Claridge’s is one of the best hotels in London, if not the world — and their afternoon tea is a requisite experience. We wandered into the grand lobby, and the maître’d walked right up and took our coats, then shepherded us to a perfect table almost wordlessly. Tea is served in the Foyer and Reading Room — a grand, very old-school palace of excess. A towering floral arrangement anchored the center of the Foyer, beneath a gigantic Chihuly chandelier. Everything was mirrored, or velvet, or encrusted with baroque details. We sat right on the edge of the cozy Reading Room, with a view into the Foyer — the perfect location for people-watching.
A mother and son sat next to us, on the Foyer side. They may have been from North London or Essex, from their accents — the afternoon tea is a long-standing Christmas tradition between them. “He takes me to a different high tea every year — he’s a lovely boy,” she beamed, turquoise teacup in hand. A large group of posh ladies had glass after glass of champagne while their fur shrugs fell to the floor, their diamond necklaces glinting in the light. A classical cellist and pianist softly played jazz in the corner, pulling the entire scene backwards in time. It could’ve been the 1930s, easily.
Our waiter was gallant and kind, and was more that willing to offer his suggestions. We chatted about his favorite tea, his favorite sandwiches, how long he’s worked at the hotel… It’s one of those reminders that truly high-end places should make you feel welcome and comfortable — no matter what. As we’ve traveled, we’ve been to many “high-end” hotels and restaurants — and it’s always the truly luxurious places that make you never want to leave. SP34 and Relæ in Copenhagen, Pujol and Downtown México in Mexico City, Cadet in Montréal — all staffed by expert, kind people who make you feel at home. (One notable exception is the Hôtel Costes in Paris — no one speaks to you out of haughtiness, but somehow that’s the allure of the place?)
We had three kinds of tea, almost two full rounds of sandwiches and a massive dessert platter before we had to call it quits. Our waiter whisked all of the excess away, and returned with a perfect little to-go box — complete with little bakewell fudge squares for later. We had discussed our plans for the evening, and he told us to take the desserts out with us for the night with our friends.
“Girls love a dessert — but they really love a dessert from Claridge’s.”
We gathered our coats, visited the most pristine and luxurious restroom on the planet and hurried home with our little black and white box — with zero plans to share anything within.
Another pit-stop, another outfit change — then to The Sun & 13 Cantons, a pub in Soho.
We always see Biba and Binai when we’re in town — they went to university with Mark, and have become our best London friends. We usually end up rolling from gay bar to gay bar, but we always start at a pub for a pint or a G&T (or seventeen). And to be fair — we usually see Binai, as Biba conveniently goes on holiday whenever we show up. We’ve joked that we’ll show up to Biba’s upcoming wedding, and be greeted with a text: “Sorry, in Dubai for the weekend…”
Big hugs for Binai and Nav — and met one of Binai’s coworkers, Charlotte. From Essex, she’s a spitting image of our dear friend Nicola (also from Essex — so maybe it’s the accent?). After our greetings, Binai set her empty G&T on the pavement.
“It’s time, Charlotte.”
She produced a bottle of prosecco from her purse (“£7.99 at M&S — where my nan buys her sweaters!”) and popped it as discreetly as possible. Nav kept rolling his eyes.
“I don’t know any of you. None of you. When you’re arrested, I’ll just wave goodbye.”
Binai glugged bubbly into her glass, and filled Charlotte’s as well.
“Nav, it doesn’t matter! No one will ever know! We’ve been chilling it in the fridge at the office all day, it’d be a shame to waste it.”
We went in to the pub for a round of gin & tonics, and then the night became a whirlwind of fragmented memories.
O Bar for more gin and several of Binai’s worst invention, the tequila-apple — a shot of tequila and an apple juice chaser. A drunk blonde girl whipped Nav in the face with her hair. Then to the basement at Friendly Society for a round of “Friendly Babies” — no one wanted theirs, so I drank most of them… Old habit. They tasted of licorice — no idea what was in them, really. The last visit to the Friendly Society involved me buying a bottle of Veuve and dancing with it in an ice bucket, whipping cubes of ice around the dance floor. We lounged around in an upholstered cave, talking about our adventures of the day and plans for tomorrow — and then the discussion turned to food.
“I mean, we have to go to Balan’s.”
Balan’s SoHo Society is a magical place, a posh all-night diner of sorts — last time, we’d shown up at 02:00 completely plastered and barely coherent. This time, we were only slightly buzzed — and so early that we’d arrived before the late-night menu began. We were slightly heart-broken — there’s a £13 club sandwich that’s my favorite, and not available before midnight. Maybe we were really turning into adults — we talked about taxes, Brexit, housing prices over our dinner-menu selections. I had the burger — and an espresso martini, which was so out of character that maybe it could be interpreted as a weak grasp for the recklessness of our last visit.
We departed, leaving our friends in the Piccadilly Circus station. It’s always a sad goodbye — but this was buoyed a little by the prospect of Biba’s upcoming wedding. “See you soon, boys,” Binai said as we kissed cheeks. They disappeared on one line, we disappeared on another — a little past midnight, deep underneath the city, moments into our second day.
The Sun & 13 Cantons — 21 Great Pulteney Street — Piccadilly Circus