London is the capital of the small island of Great Britain on the edge of Europe, but it’s hardly an insignificant city. The scene of major events throughout history and home to the well-loved Royal Family – not to mention a host of talented artists, musicians and designers – London’s creative and political influence is felt throughout the whole world.
Napoleon Bonaparte called England a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ and even today shopping is something of a national pastime. London may be one of the most expensive cities in the world, but the unique culture of Britain, its history and traditions of fine workmanship mean that you can buy many things here that you simply won’t find anywhere else.
Along with Paris, New York, and Milan, London is a contender for the title of fashion capital of the world. Buy a new outfit here and in a season or two everyone back home will be emulating your trend-setting style.
Main shopping areas
Oxford Street is the ultimate High Street. Many of the nationwide chains have their flag-shop stores here, though on Saturdays it can seems like the entire population comes here to shop.
Less run-of-the-mill are London’s legendary markets. From crafts at refurbished Covent Garden to hippy chic in Camden, antiques in Portobello, Kensington and Notting Hill to electrical goods in Brick Lane, each has specialities and a certain character of its own.
Though somewhat antiquated and crowded at peak times, London’s public transport system takes you pretty much anywhere you would want to go in the city. The ‘Tube‘ was the first underground railway system in the world and is still one of the most comprehensive.
Bright red London buses are something of a symbol of London, and mean you can do a bit of sightseeing en route to the shops, plus bus fares are typically half of the cost of the exorbitantly priced tube, although one day cards are a good bargain if you intend to do a lot of travelling and allow access on all trains, buses and tubes within certain zones.
Instantly recognisable London taxis, or black cabs, are a more luxurious way to get from A to B. Fares are always metered but you can’t get far for less than about $20. Even so, you can hail one with its light on almost anywhere, they seat up to five and are fully licensed so you can be sure you’ll get to your destination safe, and British ‘cabbies’ are the most geographically knowledgeable and clued up people in the city. Mini cabs (taxis booked through firms) are of dubious reputation and best avoided.
Most of the shops in the centre of London are open from 10am to 6pm, though some (especially bookshops and record shops) stay open late into the evening. Most shops are open on Sundays, but usually close at around 4pm.
The UK has not yet adopted the Euro, the debated single currency for Europe. Prices-tags are in pounds sterling, and tax is included in the amount shown. Credit cards are widely accepted, but it’s a good idea to carry small amounts of cash as in the heart of the shopping areas, banks and ATM cash points can be thin on the ground. The value of the pound is often strong compared to the US dollar, so check what you’re getting when you change your money – it may not go as far as you think.
Markets & shopping districts of London
Portobello Road is the hub of a diverse multicultural community and home to three markets, each of which has its own distinct character. The daily fruit and vegetable market is the best place in West London for fresh produce; the weekend street market sells new goods, crafts and fashions; and the pick of the bunch, the world’s largest antiques market which takes place only on Saturdays. The English antiques scene is legendary, and if you know what to look for, you can source some real treasures.
The antiques market kicks off at around 7am on Saturday, when between 10am and 3pm dealers set up stall along the street and in the 10 arcades. The smallest arcade has just 5 dealers, the largest as many as 200 – but whichever one you choose to explore you can be sure that by mid-morning it will be absolutely heaving. The range of antiques on sale here is incredibly varied: from random bits of bric a brac to unusual pieces of furniture or a $40,000 watch.
The Portobello Road Antiques Dealers Association (PADA) is a voluntary organisation made up of and run by the dealers themselves. Members pledge to abide by a code of conduct and fair trading, and as not all the dealers are members, shoppers should look out for the association’s sticker to affirm they aren’t getting a raw deal.
The history of Portobello dates back to the Middle Ages, when there was a market on Nuttynghull Street – that’s Notting Hill, as we now know it. However until the 1870s the area was quite rural, serving as a market garden for the West End. Portobello Road was born when the farm (named after national hero Admiral Sir Edward Vernon, who has also given his name to one of the arcades) sold off a tract of land. A fruit and veg market began trading amid the shops that sprung up along it, and in the 1920s the first licences were handed out to street traders. The antiques market took on its modern form after World War II.
Despite attaining international fame thanks to Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts’ blockbuster movie Notting Hill, Portobello Road has managed to couple its quirky, grassroots identity with its image as a hip hangout for the trendiest Londoners.
For more information and for a free guide to the antiques market contact:
Oxford Street and the West End
The premier shopping district in London is the West End. Oxford Street in Soho and the surrounding streets are where you’ll find clothing chains such as Top Shop, Next and Nike Town – but bigger and better than anywhere else in the country. Once you’ve been shopping on Oxford Street you’ll understand the true meaning of ‘shop til you drop’. It can be exhausting, especially at the weekends when you’ll expend a massive amount of energy just elbowing your way through the crowds.
Nearby pedestrianised Carnaby Street rose to fame in the Swinging Sixties and was where the wildest mod fashions of the era first saw the light of day. It’s a lot more mainstream now though a few cools shops still remain amongst the obligatory union-jack sequinned bikini and postcards of Prince William.
The West End is also a nightlife hub with some of the city’s swankiest bars and ‘media dahling’ hang-outs around here. Just be aware that a pint costs a fair bit more round here than it does outside of the centre of London.
When it comes to London department stores, it’s not so much a matter of what to buy as what can’t you buy. These massive, multi-story emporiums sell everything under the sun all under one roof. They have a noble history of trading in England’s capital that goes back centuries, almost all having started out as tiny, individual-run shops. Ranking amongst the best are:
By far the most famous is department store in London is Harrods, a must on every visitor’s shopping list. It started life in 1894 as a local grocery store – now only the well-to-do Kensington elite can afford to do their weekly shopping in the legendary Food Halls.
There’s seven floors of luxury at Harrods covering everything from ladies-wear to pets, toys to home décor and the 4,000 strong staff strive to provide whatever your heart’s desire: if they don’t have it in stock they’ll gladly order it for you, just as long as its not illegal or immoral. Amongst the most extraordinary items in stock are a $30,000 platinum gold-club, a replica Egyptian tomb and a life-size wooden horse, a snip- at $6,000. But if all this is a little out of your league don’t despair – there’s always the famous twice-a-year sales when you can add a little luxury to you life without it costing the earth.
Since 1980 Harrods has been owned by eccentric Egyptian tycoon Mohammed Al Fayed,who has made his mark on this English institution. At the entrance to the Egyptian Room sits a golden sphinx, and the gargoyles around the walls bear a remarkable likeness to their owner. Each morning at around 11am, two pipers parade around the shop floor and if he’s on the premises at the time Al Fayed makes a habit of following at a discrete distance, greeting his staff as he goes.
Harrods is located in Knightsbridge. Nearest tube: Knightsbridge.
Tel: +44 20 7730 1234
Another of London’s most remarkable department stores is Liberty. The quaint Tudor building on Regent Street screams Englishness, and the stylish and distinctive Liberty prints – be they in the shape of scarves, handkerchiefs, bags or lipstick cases – make elegant and easy to carry souvenirs. Equally prized, though harder to fit in your carry-on case, is the exotic imported furniture from the far-flung corners of the world.
Visit Liberty on Regent Street
Tel: +44 20 7734 1234
In days gone by, no Englishman was considered properly dressed unless he wore an impeccably tailored 3- piece suit, shirt, tie and a well-polished pair of shoes. These days, this only really holds true for City boys – other Londoners are a scruffy lot, often getting away with wearing the full kit for weddings and funerals only.
Even so, England boasts the best tailors and some very fine gentlemen’s establishments have been passed down through the generation since the height of the British Empire. Off the peg just can’t compare to that made-to-measure fit, which can compliment or conceal a man’s individual build.
Saville Row is London’s premier street for top-of-the-range-tailors, and customers come to London specially to have a suit made here. It isn’t cheap, but the classic styles don’t date and the end result will look dapper for ages. Unlike the tailors of the Far East, Saville Row is no rush job and you should allow a couple of months for your new togs to be ready.
Shopping doesn’t get more quintessentially English than Jermyn Street. In 1664 Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans, was granted a lease in 45 acres of Crown land in Pall Mall Field. He built St James’ Square and the surrounding streets, including fashionable Jermyn Street. Because of its proximity to the court of St James, this is where some of the capital’s most elegant specialist shops are located, including shirtmakers, perfumiers, cheesemongers, barbers. Several establishments on Jermyn Street are by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, including her preferred grocers’, Fortnum & Mason.
The royal warrant is a mark of merit, which is strictly regulated and highly coveted. Businesses must have supplied a member of the royal family for more than five years, and have impressed the regal client with their service and quality to be allowed to print the coat of arms on their marketing and packaging materials, letterhead and shop front. This is the highest accolade a British business can receive.
Historically, Jermyn Street has been the epicentre of London’s bespoke shirt-making industry (while suits were centred on Saville Row). Customers can chose the fabric and style of their shirts, all made to measure to ensure an elegant fit and monogrammed if required. The shirtmakers will even replace the collar and cuffs should they wear out – so although a custom-made shirt will set you back over $170, they look and feel so much nicer than off the peg shirts, as they are specially made to suit an individual’s peculiar body shape.
For more information on Jermyn Street visit www.jermynstreet.org
The most traditional and historical shops on Jermyn Street include:
Geo F. Trumper
Excellent barber shop for the best shave in London. Since 1875 Trumpers has prided itself on providing the closest shave in London. This exclusive barbers shop also sells a range of men’s accessories including shaving paraphernalia, cologne, canes, natural sponges and a good deal more.
It doesn’t matter how finely suited you are – it’ll count for nothing if you’re not booted too. Trickers is one of several shoe-shops on Jermyn Street, but it’s surely the most traditional. Holders of a Royal Warrant, Trickers specialises in top-notch brogues, demi-brogues and the most elegant house slippers anywhere.
67 Jermyn Street
London SW1Y 6NY
Tel: +44 20 7930 6395
Harvie & Hudson
There are actually two Harvie and Hudson shops on Jermyn Street – one is run primarily by the Harvies and the other by the Hudsons in a unique business partnership that has flourished through three generations. This is the only establishment on Jermyn Street where the shirts are still actually made on the premises. If you’re in a hurry, they also have a selection of ready-to-wear shirts.
Makers of the most stunning brocade waistcoats you’ll ever lay eyes on – not to mention pure silk scarves, ties, kerchiefs and cummerbunds. Bound to be a favourite with gentlemen and ladies alike.
55 Jermyn Street, London, SW1Y 6LX
Tel: 020 7491 2337 Fax: 020 7491 2334
Royal Memorabilia: Hope and Glory
You can buy cheap souvenirs of the esteemed Royal Family all over London, but one shop stands out as selling the best selection of genuine historic souvenirs.
Every milestone in the lives of the royals is commemorated by a line of ceramics. Hope and Glory has a vast collection of new and antique cups, places and pots – from the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887 right through to that of Queen Elizabeth II in 2002.
Kitsch they may be and not to everyone’s taste, but die-hard collectors are fanatical about the pieces of royal memorabilia they hunt down in flea markets and antique shops. To them, Hope and Glory is a real Aladdin’s Cave and they’re prepared to part with some serious cash to add to their collection. Prices range from $30 for a Queen Mother In Memoriam mug to $6000 for a one-off Queen Victoria vase which was exhibited on the French government stand at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851.
Hope and Glory
131a Kensington Church Street
Tel: + 44 20 7727 8424
Second Hand Clothes: Sign of the Times
Seen a slinky little Gucci number but the price tag made you swoon? Fawning over a Favourbrook but your bank manager’s having none of it? Don’t despair, you can still dress like an ‘It girl’ even if you don’t have the purse to match. Sign of the Times is the oldest second-hand designer shop in London, and is located in the heart of Chelsea, home of ‘ladies who lunch’. Owner Lorraine Fraser, who has an impeccable eye for fashion, has been on hand to always on hand to advise her regular clientele on colour, shape and style for the last 27 years.
Lorraine receives new consignments of cast-offs daily, some barely worn and still ‘this season’. There’s Valentino, Betsy Johnson, Edina Ronay, Alberto Ferretti and Josephgalore – all going for as little as a quarter the original price. Thanks to Lorraine, no one in the neighbourhood need look down at heel – as if they ever did!
Sign of the Times
17 Elystan Street
near Chelsea Gardens
Tel: +44 20 7589 4774.
Phillips Stained Glass
In the heart of Portobello, Phillips Stained Glass is one of the most unique specialist antique shops in all of London. In business for 30 years and now run by Edgar Phillips, son of the founder, the shop has an impressive stock of antique decorative glass sourced from all over the world. Much of it is Victorian, but there are art nouveau and art deco pieces too and even some dating from the 15th century.
In his workshop within the shop, Edgar will add to or reduce any antique window to make it fit a customer’s needs. He offers a full restoration service, or, if you’re after something a little more modern, he’ll custom design glass to suit your taste and specifications. There are very few artists working in the medium of stained glass and using traditional methods today, and Edgar’s work and fine reputation has brought his commission in every corner of the world.
In addition to beautiful glass, you’ll find some more curious items in Phillips too. Unusual and gothic architectural items find their way here, particularly if they have an ecclesiastical theme, and at any one time there can be anything from church pews to pulpits, elegant light fittings to rows of grizzly gargoyles.
Phillips Stained Glass
99 Portobello Road
Tel: + 44 20 7229 2113
Fax: + 44 20 7229 1963
Accommodation, books & Travel
Abbey Court Hotel
A 4-Star town house Hotel with just 22 rooms, the Abbey Court offers luxury service in trendy Notting Hill. If you’re coming to town to trawl through the treasures of Portobello Market, you could do a lot worse than stay at this luxury 4-Star town house hotel, which has just 22 individually designed rooms.
The Abbey Court Hotel
20 Pembridge Gardens
London W2 4DU
Tel: +44 20 7221 7518
Fax: +44 20 7792 0858
This international chain has great value hotels in every continent of the world, including 13 in central London.
22 Jermyn Street is a gem of a hotel just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus and situated on one of London’s most exclusive shopping streets. This is the finest example of the phenomenon known as boutique hotels. Quaint, cosy but quite luxurious, this is where the upper crust put up when they come to London.
Every visitor to London wants to get as close as they can to the venerable Royal Family and at Heritage House you can do just that. Every room of Margaret Tyler’s Bed and Breakfast is decorated with memorabilia relating to a member of the family. Her collection is enormous, probably the largest in the world, and she herself is a true fanatic.
Heritage House is open only at weekends.
London A to Z
Don’t even think about venturing out onto the streets of London without an A to Z, the comprehensive map of the entire city which has a handy tube map on the back.
Time Out Shopping Guide
Top guide book publishers Time Out have come up trumps with this London shopaholic’s bible. A new, updated edition comes out each year.
Born to Shop London, by Suzy Gershman. Published by Hungry Minds Inc
One woman’s honest guide to her favourite shopping spots in London town.
London Bazaar TV show
Read the full story on the TV show
Related page on Pilot Guides
Pilot Destination Guide: England & Wales
Guide by Jess Halliday