Noel Baker samples all that London has to offer on weekend trip to mark a ‘significant’ birthday. 

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Weekend break: London, a city that never fails to delight

Noel Baker samples all that London has to offer on weekend trip to mark a ‘significant’ birthday. 

Weekend break: London, a city that never fails to delight

There are certain locations that are so thrilling, you feel a bit dizzy.

The upper reaches of the gorgeously antiquated Wyndham’s Theatre is one of those places, and the city wrapped around it, London Town, is another.

I’d ended up in the nosebleed seats at Wyndham’s purely by accident.

My attempts to locate the bar during the interval led me, in typical bumbling style, up a few flights of stairs when a swift right turn would have seen me in the one closest to our mezzanine seats. But then I wouldn’t have seen that vertigo-inducing view...

London has so many of these eye-popping scenes. We were in the city to celebrate my birthday (a ‘significant’ one), and for me it was my first proper trip in years to a place I had frequently visited in my younger days.

For this trip my wife, as organiser and covert operator-in-chief, pulled out all the stops for a post-Brexit stay where the beneficial exchange rate meant even greater value.

We stayed at the grandly-named Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair, a short stroll down Piccadilly.

Our room featured stylish prints of a Queen Elizabeth, Kate Moss and divers plunging into the Thames at Tower Bridge, but the best sight was the one outside our window, overlooking Green Park on the other side of the street.

At evening time just pulling back the curtains offered a bewitching view of the winter sun setting over the city, soundtracked by the black cabs and red buses whizzing by.

Elegant, luxurious, but more importantly, cosy and unfussy, we really lucked out with our accommodation - compared to other five star hotels in the area you get serious bang for your buck, an incredible location and a stylish basement bar which, if it’s your thing, serves a fantastic cocktail.

Family-run for decades, it has played host to Elizabeth Taylor and Russell Crowe, among others, while Steven Spielberg even edited some of Raiders of the Lost Ark here. Plus, I’ve rented flats smaller than the shower.

If the hotel guaranteed rest and relaxation, the world outside the front door thrummed with excitement and possibilities. We did a lot of walking and plenty of people-watching.

Some of the strolling about was due to simple incompetence with directions - we got lost trying to find the hotel in the first place.

Then again, one of the joys of London is aimlessly wandering around and chancing across small parks, beautifully-lit side streets and buildings imbued with centuries of history.

We ambled across to Covent Garden Market, still bustling in the falling darkness, and grabbed a pint in the Lemon Tree pub. Lots of famous locations seemed closer together than I remembered from previous visits, and everything seemed to be open.

Since everything was in such close proximity, when we weren’t walking we were grabbing a black cab - a bit pricey, but still preferable to the Ubers knocking around all over the place, and worth it for the chats with the drivers.

Food on our first night was at Quilon, an award-winning Indian restaurant at Buckingham Gate in Westminster.

My wife is a fiend for Indian, to such an extent that she has all-but-perfected cooking a number of dishes. As a result she is something of a critic, but she needn’t have worried. This was one of the best Indian meals we have ever had.

The friendly staff suggested a tasting menu option which seemed to have a bit of everything, from okra to seafood, all of it incredible but, in a pleasing turn of events, not belt-busting.

They were also fantastically accommodating to a young family who had a crying child, which was lovely to see, particularly when most restaurants view chisellers as toxic matter.

The staff even produced a mini birthday cake-style dessert, which was basically a very tasty firework. I wonder who told them.

We reeled out of Quilon with beaming smiles and food in our bellies and thanks to another black cab we were soon outside the Radio Rooftop Bar.

Located on the 10th floor of the ME London hotel, you access the bar via an express lift, and the VIP vibe goes through the roof when you catch the view from up there.

It’s an incredible panorama, encompassing the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye and other jewels of the London skyline. Last year the Radio Rooftop bagged the ‘Best Bar’ gong at the London Lifestyle Awards, and it’s easy to see why.

Its drinks menu is also pretty eye-catching, particularly when you spot the Louis Roederer Cristal champagne option, a bottle of which is yours for a cool £5,250.

Things are much more affordable at the other end of the price scale, but the main thing is to drink in the view.

Day two: more sauntering around, window and shopping up and down Regent St, and then to acclaimed Basque restaurant, Eneko, for some grub. At another time I lived for a few months in the Basque Country and came to love the food there.

Chef Eneko Atxa has transplanted the very best of San Sebastián to his new London venture and the results are spectacular.

Its small-but-perfectly-formed menu offers intriguing choices of fish, meat and veg, at very affordable prices, but the finished dishes are culinary alchemy.

Walking off all this Iberian excess was pretty simple. We strolled up to Hyde Park and the oversized splendour of Winter Wonderland, a now annual fairground staple where you can throw your innards around on a variety of rides, or watch other people do likewise while you sip a mulled wine.

We then pegged it back to the hotel and changed for the theatre, still an essential London activity.

It was Harold Pinter’s ‘No Man’s Land’ starring two legendary actors, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, ably supported by Kildare’s Damien Molony and Owen Teale, who delivers one of the great lines of the play: “The best time to drink champagne is before lunch, you...”

The venue, stylishly tumbledown and dappled in gold and blue inside, was packed, everyone agog at the four men on stage and their mastery of Pinter’s dazzling dialogue.

We fell out of there flattened by the star power and feeling culturally enhanced, although my plan to hang around the side entrance for a chance to meet the players was nixed by the realisation that we had to leg it for yet another meal, this time at Galvin’s in the Athenaeum. More gluttony ensued.

The final day, and I was already a little blue that the mini-break was almost over.

After a morning spent walking aimlessly through Mayfair and back up onto Regent St, it was time for one last lunch.

There are two Picture restaurants: the original on Great Portland St, in the shadow of the BBC, and the latest venture in nearby Marylebone.

We went to the wrong one first, obviously; disorientated, again. The extra walking just drummed up our hunger.

There’s an Irish link here, with the supremely talented head chef Colin Kelly hailing from Offaly.

Front of house is managed by Tom Slegg, a man so urbane I can only assume he also plays keyboards for Suede in his spare time. And the meal was a knockout.

A six course winter menu was on offer at an entirely reasonable £40, ranging from lightly smoked pork to venison haunch and hake brandade - in other words, an astonishing, sensational range of beautifully prepared food (with names I didn’t quite understand).

The Stansted Express and the plane home was beckoning but there was still time for one more outing.

I headed into the National Gallery’s ‘Beyond Carravagio’ exhibition and was duly bowled over by the works of the Italian master, but also those that came after him - in particular, the breathtaking ‘The Martyrdom of St Bartholemew’ by Jusepe de Ribera.

I ambled out of there and into another work of art, the expanse of Trafalgar Square, as another sunset spread over a city as thrilling and captivating as any you’ll find anywhere else in the world.

Where to stay

We had a great stay at the Athenaeum Hotel.

Accommodation at the five-star hotel in Mayfair starts at €335 per room per night through its online early booker option - see www.athenaeumhotel.com

It also does an excellent breakfast and its Galvin restaurant is top notch.

Where to eat

Possibly easier to list the places where you can’t eat. Lunch at Eneko www.eneko.london and at Picture www.picturerestaurant.co.uk is essential, while the Indian food at Quilon www.quilon.co.uk is also recommended, especially its more affordable taster menu.

One great thing about London is the number of recommendations from regular visitors, so places like Kaffeine www.kaffeine.co.uk for coffee had plenty of backers.

What to do

It’s a long list but www.wyndhamstheatre.co.uk is a worth a visit for the interior alone, while the National Gallery www.nationalgallery.org.uk is a must.

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