Shopping In London
A Guide to Shopping in London for Tourists and Visitors
London is one of the world’s shopping capitals but there is no one best place to shop. There are several places, depending on what you are looking for. London has been described as a collection of villages and each village has its own individual feel and its own specialities for shopping, reflecting the people who live and work in the area. There are still streets where a row of specialist shops congregate all offering one particular product eg jewellery in Hatton Garden , musical instruments in Denmark St, antiques in Islington’s Camden Passage. And of course there are huge department stores – retail palaces offering you a vast variety of goods alongside all the famous names of UK and international retailing.
The West End: Oxford St, Regent St, Piccadilly, Bond St, Covent Garden
Oxford St, London W1
The longest shopping street in Europe has 300 shops and stretches from Tottenham Court Road in the east to Marble Arch in the west. It has four tube stations (all on the red Central line) and many bus routes. Cars aren’t allowed, just buses and taxis. My preferred way of ‘doing’ Oxford St is to take the tube to Marble Arch and work my way along the street until I either reach the end or my feet ache. This does not work if you are the sort of person who likes to re-visit shops to buy the first dress you tried on.
Oxford St is the place to go for high street fashion, with many of the large retail chains having their flagship stores there. Some of the highlights
Marks & Spencer - two large shops, one at Marble Arch where the company trials many new lines particularly in homewares. The other (the Pantheon) store is east of Oxford Circus tube station, close to a big branch of Next (reasonably priced men’s, women’s and children’s clothes offer a petite range for shorter women and kids clothes are good value) and Japanese clothing, storage and homewares specialist, Muji (always good for original gifts particularly at Christmas and also for small London-themed souvenirs).
TopShop - teenage fashion heaven at Oxford Circus, a must do for every girl age 13-35. There is a TopMan too, but it’s TopShop that gets all the plaudits with ranges designed by supermodelKate Moss and other famous fashion names.
Selfridges - largest department store, famous for its lavish window displays, designer goods, luxury items, food hall and ambitious pricing. Definitely worth a visit.
John Lewis - a department store built on traditional lines but has kept pace with changing fashion. Ladies can still buy a sensible pair of gloves on the ground floor but you can also buy a designer dress on floor 1, a baseball bat in sports or the latest MP3 players on floor 5. John Lewis offers quality goods at the best prices, excellent for kitchen gadgets (cooks head straight for the basement), homewares, perfume and skincare, stationery and cards, children’s clothes, nursery and toys (4th floor), men’s and women’s fashion (particularly for the 30+ age group). All of middle-class London shops here.
All of the large department stores are on the north side of the street; next to John Lewis is House of Fraser, which compares reasonably well with John Lewis and offers much more fashion with more upmarket brands but a smaller range of homewares. One block further on is Debenhams which has some franchises of other stores within it and has large perfume/skincare, fashion and homewares sections.
Primark - for a cheap and cheerful outfit, head to the opposite ends of Oxford St as it has two branches one close to Marble Arch, the other close to Tottenham Court Road. When Primark opens a new store, there is often a riot as people are so keen to get their hands on its extraordinarily cheap fashion. The huge shops are extremely popular with massive queues every weekend for the tills. Get there early!
HMV - heaven for music fans of all genres and gamers, HMV now occupies one store at 363 Oxford St, on the site of its first store opened by the composer Edward Elgar in 1921. It often hosts signings by stars with new releases and is London’s largest store for music and home entertainment ie CDs, DVDs, computer games.
European fashion chains in London; in recent years there has been an influx of European clothing retailers opening branches in the UK. Spanish fashion chain Zara has two stores on Oxford St, Mango (Spanish again) has one store and Swedish H&M has two outlets. The Japanese are here with their clothing store Uniqlo and homewares from Muji. All of these offer fashion at value for money prices.
Eating & Drinking there are a number of coffee shops on Oxford St, the ubiquitous Starbucks as well as British brands Eat and Pret A Manger. The department stores have cafes and restaurants too, but if you don’t want a big corporation to make your lunch, head off into Soho (east of Oxford Circus to the south) for smaller sandwich bars, cafes, pubs and restaurants. And if the weather is nice, get a sandwich and a coffee and join the office workers in Soho Square a small patch of green in a charming Victorian park.
Top Tip: Oxford St is rammed at the weekends, particularly in the run up to Christmas and it is pretty busy at weekday lunchtimes and on Thursday when shops stay open til 8pm. The best time to visit Oxford St is early in the morning (Monday is very quiet). All shops are open by 10am (some at 9.30) and in many cases you will be the only customer.
Top Tip 2: if you need a bathroom, go to John Lewis on the second floor.
For maps of Oxford St showing location of stores visit http://www.streetsensation.co.uk/oxford/os_intro.htm
Expect to see: exhausted shoppers, pickpockets (watch your bag, keep your wallet close to you)
Regent St, London W1 crosses Oxford St at Oxford Circus
Stretching southwards from Oxford Circus down to Piccadilly Circus, Regent St attracts a more upmarket selection of stores than Oxford St, with grand old brands such as Jaeger, Austin Reed, Burberry, Lacoste and Aquascutum standing firm alongside arrivistes The Gap, Armani Exchange, The Apple Store and Ted Baker. Highlights include:
Liberty - the mock Tudor building is as charmingly genteel and reassuringly expensive as ever. Go for high quality accessories, Liberty print scarves, bags, gloves, umbrellas, social stationery as well as fashion, perfume and skincare. Has everything the lady or gentleman of leisure could wish for.
Hamleys - hell on legs for parents; the highlight of the shopping day for the under-12s. Hamleys offers four crammed floors of toys and games. Expect to pay above the going rate but also to see toys you can’t find anywhere else and enthusiastic staff demonstrations of toys.
American retailers favour Regent St, as well as Gap you will also find Brooks Brothers at no. 150 and Timberland at 144 Regent St.
Lillywhites - five floors of sports goods and sports clothing on Lower Regent St, on corner of Piccadilly Circus.
Menswear – off Regent St is Savile Row home of London’s finest tailors for 250 years and also of the only European branch of US shop Abercrombie & Fitch.
St Christopher’s Place
If you’re finding the relentless line of chain stores on Oxford St wearisome, this charming walkway leads to smart shops (Coast, Whistles, TM Lewin) in a pedestrianised area. Cafes and restaurants with tables outside, some around a fountain, and often a band playing too. It makes a pleasant place for lunch or a snack.
You’ll find it up an alleyway which is between H&M and O2 phone shop, opposite Bond St tube station. If you miss the alleyway, head North up James St (between Gap and The Body Shop) to St Christopher’s Place.
Marylebone High Street
Another detour from Oxford St’s long line of vast emporia, behind Selfridges (walk up James St) you will find Marylebone High St. A street of good quality shops and fashion boutiques, many of them independents. Lots of restaurants and chi chi cafes too. At the top end, there is a churchyard where they have a Saturday market of food, craft and designer fashion (Cabbages & Frocks).Opposite the churchyard you will find homewares store The Conran Shop full of quirky designs and top of the range bits for the fashionable home.
Made famous in the 1960s, Carnaby St is not the place to be seen it once was, but it still holds its own as a good place for browsing. Just east of Regent St (pretty much behind Liberty’s), it is not as frenetic as Oxford St and has smaller shops and some nice cafes and places to sit outside and watch the world trundle by.
Examples of the shops on Carnaby St and in surrounding streets; fabulous chocolate shop Choccywoccydoodah on Fouberts Place, Levis, Henri Lloyd for the sailing fan (does fashion too); Puma, Wrangler, Adidas, Dr Martens, Diesel, Jones the Bootmaker, Neals Yard Remedies, All Saints.
Piccadilly starts at Piccadilly Circus and runs all the way to Hyde Park. Most of the street is given over to hotels (The Ritz, Le Meridien), the vast Royal Academy art gallery, the Pigalle cabaret club, Green Park and airline offices, but the section nearest Eros’ statue is home to the UK’s most upmarket grocers, established by Charles Fortnum, (footman to King George III), and his partner Hugh Mason. Fortnum & Mason, grocer to Queen Elizabeth II, is 300 years old and is famous for its theatrical window displays, its selection of 130 teas, its hampers (it invented the hamper) and for serving afternoon tea in its St James restaurant (prices start at £30 per person). It has five restaurants, each serving fine foods (the ice cream parlour is popular with children). It is without doubt heaven for the committed foodie, who will find foods as yet untried or even heard of here. Boar terrine with chestnuts and King Neptune’s Relish anyone?
Also on Piccadilly you will find the weekend craft market in the courtyard outside St James’ church, London’s oldest bookshop Hatchards (est. 1797), De Beers diamond jewellery store and London’s largest bookshop, a branch of Waterstones. In my opinion, bigger doesn’tnecessarily mean better. Go to Hatchards for a calm and wholly English browsing experience.
On Piccadilly’s north side lies the architecturally outstanding Burlington Arcade, the longest covered shopping street in England and Britain’s first shopping arcade which opened in 1819. It houses retailers of luxury items only; antiques, vintage watches, perfumes and leather goods.
On Piccadilly’s south side, the elegant Piccadilly arcade (more luxury items of a quintessentially British nature) leads you to Jermyn St. Originally established in 1664, it has a reputation for gentlemen’s fashion and while it retains a good selection of high-end tailors and shirtmakers, it now includes shops offering ladies fashion and as well as perfumery, jewellery, antiques and art, footwear, fine wine and food and cigars.
Comprised of two streets Old Bond St (built 1680s) and New Bond St (built 50 years later), the road links Piccadilly with Oxford St. It runs through one of London’s most expensive districts, the ever fashionable Mayfair and is full of stores where only the most monied may shop. Tiffany’s, Gucci, St Laurent, Chanel, Joseph, Max Mara, Prada, Daks, Mont Blanc, Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander McQueen all have shops on Old Bond St. Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Ralph Lauren, Jimmy Choo and Armani are on New Bond St. One of Bond St’s favourite stores is the department store Fenwick’s which offers a big selection of designer clothes over five floors of largely ladies’ fashion (men’s in the basement). If you want to buy something small in Bond St, try their ground floor hosiery, skincare and haircare section (going to a wedding? visit their splendid hat section too). Their Ladies Powder Room on the 3rd floor offers a luxurious (and free) bathroom.
Towards Oxford St, the Bond St stores become a more affordable, with a large branch of Spanish fashion retailer Zara, Reiss (men and women’s smart casual clothes) and finishes with a big branch of Next on the corner of Oxford St.
Until quite recently, Old Bond St was home to art galleries and this accounts for the presence of auctioneers Sotheby’s, Bonham’s and Phillips on Bond St.
Look out for statue of FDR and Winston Churchill in conversation on a bench and the Handel House Museum at 25 Brook St where the composer Handel lived for 36 years and died in 1759. Next door at 23 Brook St is the flat where Jimi Hendrix lived.
Quick detour up South Molton St a pleasant pedestrianised street with some cafes and smart shops of a slightly more affordable nature. Links Brook St with Oxford St
Expect to see: ladies who lunch, ladies who shop, celebrities in disguise (dark glasses, big hats)
Charing Cross Road famous for its bookshops, it runs down the east side of Soho, connecting Tottenham Court Rd with Leicester Square and later Trafalgar Square. Not a shopping highlight unless you are looking for a particular book. Try the big stores Foyles and Blackwells for hard to find titles. Blackwells have a service where they can print you a copy of an out-of-print book while you wait. Some of the independent, specialist bookshops remain in Charing Cross Road but they are slowly fading away as rents rise.
Tottenham Court Rd for electronics and gadgets enthusiasts, the southerly part of Tottenham Court Rd retains its reputation for TVs, cameras and all things digital. Further north the traditional furniture business retains its hold on the area with flagship branches of Heal’s and Habitat dominating an entire block. Try them for small gifts for the homemaker or cook. Further up, more furniture stores and the wedding shop Confetti with everything but the dress for the bride-to-be.
Denmark St – Off Charing Cross Rd, Denmark St is the place for musicians. A collection of music shops sell all types of musical instruments (guitars a speciality) and sheet music. If you are in a band, pop into Denmark St for a browse.
If you are looking for jewellery, you can spend hours in Hatton Garden, which runs between Clerkenwell Rd and Holborn Circus. About 50 jewellery shops are based here, selling every possible type of ring, necklace, bracelet, pendant, watch, tiara, diamond, precious gemstone or metal, whether brand new, antique or vintage you name it, someone in The Garden will have it.
Top Tip: don’t be afraid to haggle and don’t be put off by the lack of customer service on offer in some of the shops. Jewellery remains a very traditional, male dominated world.
London’s oldest planned square, laid out by architect Inigo Jones in the 1630s and used as a fruit, vegetable and flower market until the 1970s (if you’ve ever seen the film My Fair Lady, this is where Liza is found selling flowers by Professor Higgins). The Piazza now houses fashion and cosmetics shops, restaurants, cafes and a market of arts and crafts stalls, full of original items. If you like the market, leave the main building and go to the south of the square where there is a covered market of even more original jewellery, prints, collectibles, art and crafts.
In the roads surrounding the piazza there are lots of restaurants and, north of the Piazza head for Floral St for branches of designers Paul Smith and Agnes B, head to Neal St for lots of small independent fashion shops.
Place to leave the non-shopping male in Covent Garden; London Transport Museum www.ltmuseum.co.uk full of old buses, trams and trains and some interactive displays for those who fancy driving a tube train simulator. Good museum shop here for London souvenirs, particularly for boys.
Place to leave the sports enthusiast while you shop’ The Oasis Sports Centre on corner of High Holborn and Endell St has heated indoor and outdoor pools and squash courts.
The big attraction here is the retail temple of Harrods, the luxury department store which has become a tourist attraction and is a must for many visitors to London. Famous for its food hall, its extravagant window displays, its vast product range spread across 330 departments, its 28 restaurants and food outlets, its Egyptian staircase and its fountain (a tribute to Princess Diana and her friend Dodi Al Fayed, the son of a former Harrods’ owner, who was killed alongside her in Paris), Harrods certainly offers up lots of spectacle and wow factor. Twice the size of Selfridges in Oxford St, it is one of the largest department stores in the world, rivalling Macys in New York.
But if Harrods showy presentation doesn’t do it for you, try Harvey Nichols, which describes itself as an international luxury lifestyle store’. Known to its wealthy customers as Harvey Nicks, it has 7 floors of fashion, beauty and home collections plus a restaurant, cafe, bar and food store on the fifth floor. It offers a calmer, more tranquil shopping space than the frenzied excitement of Harrods and this is where you will most likely find Knightsbridge’s smart locals.
Alongside Harvey Nichols (corner of Sloane St & Knightsbridge) and Harrods, pretty much every luxury fashion label has a store in Knightsbridge’s Sloane St. But you can find smaller outlets on the pretty Beauchamp Place and Walton St.
Top Tip: Huge reductions in Harrods at sale time, in January and July. Be aware of the Harrods’ dress code, enforced by doormen; no shorts, no vest tops and backpacks must be carried in your hand.
Kensington High St
If you are going to Kensington Palace and Kensington Gardens, you might like to pay tribute to the late Princess Diana with a stroll up her local high street. Kensington High St is a busy street with a mix of big chain stores and smaller shops, all catering for the West London smart crowd who live in this desirable (and expensive) area of London.
Notting Hill & Portobello Rd
Famous for its August Carnival, Notting Hill (and nearby Holland Park) is a very smart place to live and the shops reflect its wealthy inhabitants. Lots of small shops selling desirable things you didn’t know you needed are dotted amongst delis , patisserie and chic cafes. Portobello Road market is on every Saturday and while it is famous for selling antique furniture, glassware, silverware, old books and prints, it also has stalls selling, fruit, vegetables, flowers, clothes and general household items. Towards the end of the market the stalls veer towards second hand goods and vintage clothing.
Expect to see; Londoners looking for a bargain, collectors looking for fine antiques, tourists looking for places where film Notting Hill was shot.
Kings Road, Chelsea
It might have lost the razzle of the swinging 60s but Kings Rd can still cut it as a smart hangout for a cool West London crowd. Starting at Sloane Square, Kings Rd snakes westwards towards Chelsea, running parallel with the River Thames. It has one big department store, Peter Jones, which is a slightly more upmarket sister store to John Lewis in Oxford St, but mostly the shops are high-end fashion chains, independent boutiques and interior design and homewares stores (big branches of Habitat and Heal’s).
Expect to see; celebrities (my friend almost ran Dirk Bogarde over on the Kings Rd); Chelsea Pensioners dressed in smart red uniforms, they are forces veterans who live in the nearby Royal Hospital accommodation.
Westfield Shopping Centre
The nearest large shopping mall to Central London is in Shepherd’s Bush. In an effort to attract London’s shoppers out of the malls in Essex (Lakeside) and Kent (Bluewater), Westfield London opened in October 2008. All the well known chain stores are here (Debenhams, Marks & Spencer, House of Fraser, Next), many of them with huge shops to show off their entire product range. Unusually for a mall, there is a section reserved for boutiques and upmarket designer labels (The Village) including Gucci, Burberry, Prada, Miu Miu, Hackett, Jo Malone,Joseph, Kurt Geiger, Tiffany and Versace
Cool youngsters and those of a trendy, youthful disposition, head to North London on Friday, Saturday or Sunday for Camden Market. From Emos to Clubbers, every youth tribe will find its street fashion here. Handmade clothes, funky shoes, unique jewellery (much of it made by the stallholders or sourced from independent designers) as well as throws, rugs, retro furniture, scented candles and everything for the student house is on offer.
Take the tube to Camden Town and head up Chalk Farm Road to Stables Market (built on the site of horse hospital) to find clothes from independent designers and vintage clothes look out for two huge sculptures of robots outside Cyberdog, the shop for clubbers fashion. Also make sure you look above your head, as many of the shops have homemade fun sculptures above them e.g. a giant red trainer atop a shoe shop, a lobster on another. There is also a small antiques/bric-a-brac market by Camden Lock and a good few music shops and stalls selling hard to find vinyl editions and rare tracks. And if you need food and drink, either stop at one of the stalls offering street food from all parts of the world or have a drink in one of the bars by the canal and spend an hour watching canal boats negotiate the three locks.
Expect to see: lots and lots of young people, wild haircuts, piercings, clothes that granny won’t like.
Top Tip: if you are going on Sunday, get there before 10am it will be mobbed by 3pm.