International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,’ said the great English writer Samuel Johnson in 1777 – and the city still has the power to inspire and excite. We explore the unique experiences on offer in the English capital.
Follow a trail of text messages to explore London at twilight
The sun is beginning to sink in the sky, bathing the South Bank in a golden glow. People strolling, cycling or skating along the riverbank cast long shadows across the paving stones outside the Hayward Gallery’s Concrete bar. This Brutalist architectural space is the starting point for the Bright Lights Evening Trail – a walking tour that unfolds via a series of clues sent by text message. Part urban ramble, part bar crawl, the route takes in South Bank views and a hidden basement drinking den, and is designed to showcase the beauty of the city as it fades to night. Its final stop is at a cosy central boozer, which you’ll be reluctant to leave before last orders (£16 per team).
Get up close and personal with a giraffe at London Zoo
Fourteen-foot tall Ellish strides across her paddock as elegantly as a model on a catwalk. Pausing briefly to bat thick eyelashes worthy of a Disney heroine, she sticks out her extraordinarily long tongue to retrieve the carrot from my outstretched hand. ‘Giraffes use their tongue like an extra limb,’ explains keeper Gerald Asher, who is hosting today’s Meet the Giraffes encounter at London Zoo. ‘For example, to reach a tall branch and strip it of leaves.’ The tongue’s black colour evolved to prevent sunburn in the giraffe’s natural habitats in Africa. Here, Ellish and her two companions, Molly and Margaret, are fed mostly a mix of clover hay, pellet food and linseed-oil cake, but can usually be lured to the elevated viewing platform with a treat. ‘Like a lot of animals, giraffes are quite food-orientated,’ says Gerald, ‘but they’re sociable creatures, too’ (tickets from £25; daily; book in advance).
Enter a cinematic fantasy world
Rarely does a good night out begin with a court summons, but then Secret Cinema is no ordinary night out. Soon after turning up at a location given in a cryptic email, tonight’s ticket-holders are incarcerated. In a convincing mock-up of a 1940s jail – actually a former Hackney school – a stern prison officer issues grey uniforms, and inmates begin to explore the building’s dimly lit corridors. Each room offers something different, from work programmes – candle-making, cross-stitch – to an appointment with a bespectacled psychoanalyst. Beers in brown paper-bags and fat, mustard-slathered hotdogs can be bought illicitly from corruptible guards or infirmary nurses. As a feeling of comfortable institutionalisation begins to set in, someone attempts escape and prisoners are corralled into the gym. Here The Shawshank Redemption flickers on to the screen – a film most of the audience will have seen before, but never felt so much a part of (tickets £43.50; programme changes regularly).
Stay at Hampton Court Palace
‘The palace has a very warm atmosphere,’ says housekeeper Wendy Guest as she unlocks the door to the capital’s most historic accommodation. ‘Its past seems to ooze out from the brickwork.’ The favourite home of Henry VIII, Hampton Court Palace now houses two Landmark Trust rental properties. Fish Court, an apartment tucked beside Tudor kitchens, once accommodated the royal pie-makers. The other, The Georgian House, is grander, with a private walled garden. Guests at either get a privileged glimpse of the palace at its most peaceful, with after-hours access to the magnificent gardens and most of the courtyards. Strolling in the rose garden at dawn, where one Landmark guest proposed to his now-wife, the mind inevitably wanders to the king’s own ill-fated romances (from £714 for a four-night stay at Fish Court, which sleeps up to six).