With Tier 2 restrictions stubbornly hanging around, socialising with mates seems to offer the unhappy choice of risking frostbite or catching heater-induced sunstroke.
It needn’t be so: as good as they are, there’s more to London than its beer gardens. While under usual circumstances a London bucket list might mean a parade of West End theatre or gloriously regrettable nights in Fabric, now’s the time to tick off our Covid-friendly checklist to the city.
Find a lost classic at Walden Books
Tucked away from Camden Market, Walden Books is a treasure largely unbothered by most Londoners. For 40-odd years, it’s quietly sold rare and hard-to-find second-hand novels, poetry, essays and more. Inside is a trove of intriguing titles in colourful dust jackets, with cardboard boxes on the floor for the spillover, while the outdoor racks are dedicated to cheerful shelves of cheap paperbacks. Impossible to swing by without finding something to leave with.
38 Harmood Street, NW1, waldenbooks.co.uk
Tuck in at E Pellicci
More is preserved at this East End caff than the walnut panelling and formica tables. E Pellicci is a rattling room of clinking cutlery and locals laughingly calling each other c***s. With regulars since the Seventies and a Kray connection — the twins would pop by often — stepping into Pellicci is like waking up in a bit of old BBC footage. It has stood in Bethnal Green Road since 1900 and remains the real deal: they serve a cracking fry-up, decent homemade pies and proper sandwiches.
332 Bethnal Green Road, E2, epellicci.co.uk
Get in the front row
Happily, the theatres have begun to open again: the National’s Olivier auditorium has been reconfigured to accommodate socially distanced performances — at the moment, head there for Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s Death of England sequel Delroy starring Michael Balogun (SE1, nationaltheatre.org.uk). As for the museums, book for the nearby Tate Modern (SE1, tate.org.uk). With social-distancing and ticketed visits only, it’s arguably more enjoyable to wander the exhibits now than before.
Back to Brick Lane beigels
Smelling of garam masala and simmering tomatoes, decorated in graffiti and lit in neon, walking Brick Lane is entertainment in itself. Besides the countless curry houses and occasional dive bars are two bagel shops: one white (Beigel Bake, E1, bricklanebeigel.co.uk) and one yellow (Beigel Shop, E1, 020 7729 0826). At both, the speciality sees thick slices of salt beef smothered in mustard and buried beneath great thick wedges of gherkin. The white shop always has the queue but the yellow spot is just as good — though saying so usually causes an argument. Test them both for yourself.
Lose yourself in the Barbican conservatory
It’s quieter now inside the brutalist slabs of the Barbican, with a Covid-reduced programme of concerts, but its conservatory is a secret garden worth exploring. It’s like someone put windows around a tropical jungle, with 1,500 species of plants and trees to marvel at, and admission is free.
Silk Street, EC2Y, barbican.org.uk
Have a night at Ronnie Scott’s
Social distancing hasn’t dimmed the magic found in the comforting darkness of Ronnie Scott’s. The jazz club has drawn everyone from Miles Davis to Tom Waits, even hosting Jimi Hendrix’s last ever gig, and even now it remains full. Few places have an atmosphere like here: in the glow of the club’s famous red lamps, sip on a cocktail — their Manhattan is particularly good — and tap along to some of the world’s greatest musicians doing their thing.
47 Frith Street, W1D, ronniescotts.co.uk
...or the Glory
Haggerston’s Glory, London’s best-loved LGBTQ+ pub, usually thrives as a late-night den of drag and debauchery, one with a UV-lit staircase and gold foil everywhere. Owners Jonny Woo and John Sizzle haven’t let curfew get them down: this queer mecca is continuing its near-nightly run of live shows. Come for cabaret, comedy and camp.
281 Kingsland Road, E2, theglory.co
Claim your curry house
Claiming to have found London’s best spot for a curry is a rite of passage every Londoner should live through. Tooting has its moments — Dosa N Chutny (SW17, dosanchutny.com) does South Indian and Sri Lankan favourites — while Whitechapel is where it’s at for Punjabi plates. Tayyabs (E1, tayyabs.co.uk) is revered for its grill — my God, the lamb chops — while it’s hard to fault anything at Lahore (E1, lahore-kebabhouse.com), least of all the price. Both are BYOB. Nearby Needo (E1, needoogrill.co.uk) is highly rated as well. Up north, try Royal Nawaab (UB6, royalnawaab.com) — a cavernous banqueting hall offers a huge buffet for £21.95.
Find an adventure
With indoors (mostly) off-limits, lean into the outdoors life, where household mixing is allowed in groups of up to six. The rapids at the Lee Valley White Water Centre (EN9, gowhitewater.co.uk) can be booked for white water rafting, hydrospeeding or kayaking, but if you don’t fancy the journey, stick to the centre of town and see the sites at high speed on a Thames Rocket (SE1, thamesrockets.com). Those preferring to be up in the air rather than skimming along the watertop should test their mettle at the ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which has the UK’s highest freefall abseil (E20, arcelormittalorbit.com).
Time travel in a Soho boozer
Soho has always been riddled with an Eeyorish kind of nostalgia, a feeling that things aren’t what they were. Forget it — there’s plenty of “old Soho” in the beautiful, battered old boozers. Try the Coach and Horses (29 Greek Street, W1D, coachandhorsessoho.pub), where plenty of journos can still be found skiiving, or the French House (49 Dean St, W1D, frenchhousesoho.com), where 30-year regulars talk high art and low morals as they put away endless glasses of wine. Take a book and listen — or join in, if your tongue’s sharp enough.
Rutting season at Richmond Park
If Clapham Common can sometimes feel like the world’s biggest beer garden, Richmond Park feels like a lost corner of the countryside somehow still unsullied by the city. Seeing the deer always feels a bit Beatrix Potter — and now more than ever as it’s rutting season, when magnificent stags clash antlers. Keep your distance, at least 50m (they’re wild, after all), and witness something extraordinary.
Wander Portobello Road Market
Once a mosh pit, 2020 has put paid to all that and the quiet means it’s easier to appreciate the market in all its noise and glory. Besides the pastel shop fronts, come for crates of old vinyl, handmade local crafts and the famous antiques. Saturday is the big day, but things run from Monday to Wednesday as well. Though most Londoners tend to avoid this spot like the plague, without the tourists, it’s not a trap.
Portobello Road, W11, visitportobello.com
Catch a re-run at the Prince Charles
Perhaps the only cinema to have regulars the way a pub does, there’s something special about the Prince Charles. While it does show a carefully curated choice of current releases, it’s mostly dedicated to drawing loyal fans of old films, offering a chance to see some of the all-time greats as they were originally released. Masks must be worn, and food and drink isn’t served after 10pm, but the curfew doesn’t apply to cinemas, so it’s one of the few places for a late night. It’s also the perfect thing to do after dim sum in Chinatown.
7 Leicester Place, WC2H, princecharlescinema.com
Raise a glass to cocktail hour
Something of a polestar for cocktail lovers, head to Dukes Bar (35 St James's Place, SW1A, dukeshotel.com) for their famous martini, which is strong enough that after about the third sip it's natural to starting wondering if boozing can turn you blind after all. Otherwsie, who can avoid sketch (9 Conduit St, W1S, sketch.london)? The Mayfair townhouse feels like a mushroom trip run through every Instagram filter all at once. It is not normal or reasonable, but therein lies the appeal. The famous pink Gallery restaurant and the upstairs Lecture Room and Library – which holds three Michlin stars – are the big draws, but a drink in any of the bars is cheaper and tends to be as much fun. Our pick is the Parlour bar – cosy enough that gossiping in a pair is best – but whichever you pick, you’ll still get to nip to the famous egg loos.
Stock up at Borough Market
Obvious, perhaps, but Borough Market is the answer to an afternoon without plans. Under green girders sits some of London’s best food, bar none. Spice stalls line up beside tables creaking with cheeses you’ve never heard of, while other spots are dedicated to rye bread, raclette, clay pot cooking. Perfect for ambitious cooks with cupboards to fill. Elsewhere, queues still snake for Padella’s perfect pasta, while Elizabeth Haigh’s Mei Mei is quietly becoming a local favourite for its take on dishes from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Go hungry, with a big bag, and get thoroughly lost.
8 Southwark Street, SE1, boroughmarket.org.uk