With more of us choosing to stay closer to home than ever before, we asked our U.K travel experts to showcase the best places to visit. We might not boast the balmy climate of our neighbours, but here at home, we sure have plenty to offer. Whether you’re looking for an alternative to the festivals of Europe, or seeking out reminiscence of the café culture of Paris, we’ve got it covered. Join us each week as we deliver tips for alternative holidays, and discover summer breaks to remember – right on your doorstep.
Italy’s capital Rome is known for its love of coffee, and famed for the beautiful old cafés strewn around its vine-draped Piazza. There are so many quaint squares to discover, and little eateries off winding side streets, that it’s easy to see how the café culture became a pivotal part of Roman life. But, as Fiona Maclean shows us below, our fair capital London knows a thing or two about al fresco dining.
Shades at the ready: these are some of the best outdoor bites in the Big Smoke.
When the sun comes out in London, whether you’re ’staycationing’, working in the city or here for a holiday, there’s nothing better than finding somewhere to eat al fresco. Unlike many of the towns and cities in Europe, however, we don’t have a wealth of Piazzas. Instead, our al fresco eating and drinking culture revolves around the river, the parks and the rooftops of London.
Despite our variable weather, London benefits from a variety of options. In addition to pub gardens, restaurant terraces and cafés, there are a network of parks where you can picnic in style. The eight Royal Parks cover 1,976 hectares, and include more formal gardens like St James’s Park together with vast open spaces like Richmond Park where you might just spot the Royal Stag. There are garden squares (many of which are private), council run parks, heaths and commons and even cemeteries (Brompton and Highgate) where you can spread a picnic blanket on the grass, relaxing all afternoon and lazing into the evening. So, for impromptu al fresco dining, you might just want to pack a picnic and head to your nearest park. London is lucky to have large open spaces – almost all of which are free of charge to enter (Kew Gardens and Hampton Court are notable exceptions). Many have cafés too, and although you won’t always find gourmet food on offer, the prices are usually reasonable.
New to London and wondering where to get your picnic from? Of course there are sandwich shops and bars where you can buy a takeaway, but most of the supermarkets provide excellent options too. Or, if you really want to do things in style, head for a deli that offers a picnic service – all branches of Carluccios have picnics to order online, or for something more exclusive you could try Finns of Chelsea Green, Fortnum & Mason or the Modern Pantry. You can even pick up a healthy Japanese-style picnic from one of the many branches of Itsu.
If you’re not quite sure about the way the weather will turn, but still want a budget conscious way to dine outdoors, many of London’s pubs have beer gardens and terraces. My own local favourites are the Atlas Pub, which has a tiny terrace with an electric retractable ‘roof’ so that if it rains, you can still stay outside, and the Troubadour Coffee Shop with its secret walled garden. Up by Hampstead Heath you could walk across the Heath and then reward yourself and your pampered pooch by relaxing outside in the splendid beer garden of The Spaniard’s Inn, one of London’s oldest pubs. Not only are there excellent dishes for humans, but there’s a dog wash and home-made dog snacks available at the bar! Alternatively, how about The Ship Inn in Wandsworth? It boasts views over the Thames, a lively crowd of diners and great pub food; there’s often a barbeque on the outdoor river terrace.
For more formal dining, the majority of London restaurants with outside space work on a first-come, first-served basis. If you book a table and want to sit outside, you just have to hope there’ll be space available when you arrive. While it might seem draconian, it’s simply a reflection on our unpredictable weather.
Head for the river to find a whole range of restaurants, both with outdoor terraces and views of the Thames. Every kind of cuisine is available here, from casual Italian at the Gourmet Pizza Company to classic dining at Pont de la Tour. The South Bank is an excellent place for people watching too, with street entertainers and informal exhibitions found along the way. Of course, if you’re simply looking for street food, the Real Food Market at the back of the Festival Hall has some of the best in town. Pick up a hog roast ciabatta from ‘Love me Tender’, sample some Indian Street food from ‘Horn OK Please’, or wander up to the roof garden café on the adjacent Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Of course, there are plenty of roof-top restaurants and bars in London. The Angler in the City has a particularly romantic roof-top terrace, with pretty wicker seating replete with rugs to cosy up in; if and when it gets a bit chilly! Kensington Roof Gardens comes complete with fruit trees and flamingos, and you can walk around one and a half acres even if you’re not planning on eating (as long as the place hasn’t been booked for a private event, that is). What’s more, throughout the summer there are pop-ups and impromptu events on practically every space in London: Frank’s Café and Campari bar is on the roof-top of a car park in Peckham, and has become something of a summer tradition – its budget conscious food and drink is accompanied by fabulous views over South London.
So, never mind the weather: London loves al fresco dining. And, while we might not do it the Continental way, our parks are perfect for picnics; our riverside restaurants and roof-top bars allowing us to dine in style with views of the City. Next time you’re planning on exploring the capital’s great outdoors, why not view our selection of properties in the heart of London?
Fiona Maclean is a London based marketing consultant and freelance lifestyle, food and travel writer. An eclectic childhood, travelling throughout Europe, Malaysia and the Middle East, led to a fascination with other cultures although she is always pleased to return home. In addition to writing her blog London-Unattached.com, she is a regular contributor to The Yahoo Network and The Cultural Voyager and writes travel articles and a restaurant review column for MyChicCity. Born in London, she’s lived in the capital for over 30 years.