Love it or loathe it, Oxford Street is the centre of London’s shopping scene and a major draw for its temples to retail. It also divides the two wealthy areas of Mayfair and Marylebone. The former takes its name from a fair once held here, but today it is a rarefied bastion of the exclusive, its Georgian streets and squares packed with high-class shops, galleries and businesses. Marylebone is also smart but with a more relaxed, domesticated air, right down to the regular farmer’s market held in its villagey heart.
Running between Mayfair and Marylebone is London’s high street, the crowded shopping centre of Oxford Street, home to several top department and flagship stores, such as Selfridges and Topshop, amidst a fair bit of tat at either end of the mile-long thoroughfare. The relentless crowds mean locals really only come here for serious shopping, although plans to possibly pedestrianise the street may change this.
Mayfair clings to its exclusivity, although many of the magnificent Georgian homes are now hotels, apartments, offices, shops and showrooms. Bond Street is Mayfair’s version of a high street, where you will find London’s most exclusive couturiers and designer boutiques, jewellery shops, antiques emporia and art galleries, as well as the headquarters of Sotheby’s, the famous auctioneers founded in 1744.
Bond Street runs into Piccadilly, home to The Ritz hotel and the southern boundary of Mayfair. Here, behind the imposing Renaissance-style facade of Burlington House, is the Royal Academy of Arts. The Academy stages big exhibitions all year and is especially famous for its Summer Exhibition. Next door, the Burlington Arcade is home to prestigious shops, although archaic rules ban whistling and hurrying while passing through it.
Cork Street is the place for galleries, where many of Britain’s top artists are represented. Just beyond is Savile Row, traditional home of gentlemen’s outfitters. Curzon Street leads to Shepherd Market, a pedestrian enclave with a clutch of good pubs, places for alfresco dining and small galleries; its incongruity in the area makes it all the more charming.
Brook Street is home to Claridge’s Hotel, one of London’s premier hotels, and also the Handel House Museum, based where the composer lived for 35 years. Park Lane runs from Hyde Park Corner to Marble Arch, forming the western boundary of Mayfair. It is bounded on the other side by the 350 acres (142 hectares) of Hyde Park. The houses overlooking the park have largely been replaced by apartments and hotels, including the Dorchester.
North of Oxford Street is Wigmore Street, home to the Art Nouveau Wigmore Hall, one of London’s most delightful concert halls. Nearby Harley Street has been the haunt of medical specialists since the 1840s. In Manchester Square is Hertford House, home of the Wallace Collection, which houses a remarkable display of art assembled in the late 18th century.
Pretty Marylebone High Street is packed with small specialist food shops, pubs and boutiques. Georgian residential streets fill out the area, which is frequently cited as an example of ‘urban village’ dwelling in London. Baker Street is best known as the place where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set Sherlock Holmes up in residence. In a creaking Victorian terrace house, the Sherlock Holmes Museum carefully recreates the super-sleuth’s home. On busy Marylebone Road, the crowds alert you to the location of the phenomenally popular Madame Tussaud’s waxworks.
Heading north from here is the elegant Regent’s Park, which spreads over 410 acres (166 hectares) framed by white Georgian terraces to the south and Regent’s Canal to the north. London Zoo is at the northeastern end of the park.
South of the park is Portland Place, home to the mass of Broadcasting House, headquarters of the BBC. The lovely All Souls’ Church, with its circular design and slender spire, marks the beginning of Regent Street.