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Londonspring in the square mile

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Time Out: London

Somerset House

Alex Segre\Alamy Stock Photo

Stand on Westminster Bridge looking across the River Thames, and you might not recognize London’s skyline any more. The distinctive Sir Christopher Wren-designed dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral is still there, but it sits between sinuous, shapely glass skyscrapers. Head east and you’ll get a shock, too. The gritty neighborhoods you’d have avoided 20 years ago are now home to pop-up art galleries, hip markets and the city’s most adventurous eating. Britain’s capital has changed hugely, but, as always, the changes are piled up alongside what was already there—2,000 years (and counting) of history, waiting to be explored.

London’s cocktail bars routinely make it onto lists of the world’s best. Check out The Bar with No Name at 69 Colebrooke Row for innovations such as the Prairie Oyster (tomato juice and vodka sealed in a gel bubble, creating a bloody mary explosion in the mouth). Hit Nightjar for a literally underground, 1940s jazz club vibe in the East End. Or stop at the oak-paneled Connaught Bar for the best martini trolley in the West End.

The winter holiday transformation of the neoclassical palace Somerset House on the Strand is akin to seeing the most elegant tailor on Savile Row put on a Santa suit. An almost 40-foot-high tree and a large ice rink take over the central courtyard, but you don’t have to skate to enjoy the Christmassy ambience. Instead, enjoy a posh hot chocolate or a warming Scotch at Fortnum’s Lodge.

Ignore the stores on heaving Oxford Street and head to nearby Marylebone High Street for a more personal shopping experience. The Conran Shop and Cath Kidston make this an essential stop for lovers of interior design, while London’s most beautiful bookstore, Daunt Books, looks, with its high oak galleries, more like a chapel than a shop. Then take the Central Line east to hit Boxpark, a pop-up indie shopping mall on Bethnal Green Road made out of refitted shipping containers.

Rumors have abounded since the 1800s that a supernatural being calls Highgate Cemetery home. The last resting place for the likes of Karl Marx and George Eliot, high on a hill above North London, certainly looks like it should belong in a Victorian ghost story. Built in the late 1830s, it’s a gothic fever dream of tangled branches and cracked marble that will bring out the Edgar Allan Poe in anyone.

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