“The city that never sleeps” is probably a cliché used for cities in almost every country in the world. But is London really a nocturnal city, where night-or-day you can find somewhere to play? Lottie Gross took up the challenge to find out...
It’s 6am on a Saturday morning and for some reason I’m awake, trundling along on a big red bus on my way from south-west London to Vauxhall. It doesn’t exactly sound exotic, but it’s about to get far more colourful as my boyfriend and I jump off in search of the confusingly named New Covent Garden flower market (bizarrely, it’s not anywhere near the actual Covent Garden).
After a dazed amble around some empty looking warehouses we find the flower market, a hive of activity with palettes stacked high with plants and flowers from all over the world. This is the main wholesale flower market for London, where florists, designers and individuals alike come to barter over the price of a petal – and that golden dinosaur sitting atop a display, apparently.
When my pollen allergies get the better of me we finally move on, jumping on the London Underground to Victoria where the enormous Westminster Cathedral provides a fascinating view of the city. From the top of the tower, I can see Parliament, the London Eye and Westminster Abbey, but only just, as they’re mostly masked by a melee of concrete and glass buildings, corporate offices and residential blocks. It’s rare that you ever see London from this angle and I gain a new perspective on this ever-growing city, as workmen hammer away on new developments.
The cathedral itself is magnificent; it’s a Byzantine-style basilica decorated inside with all colours of marble and mosaics. At over 100 years old it’s opulent and in some places garish, but most of all it’s impressive – there are over 12.5 million bricks making up this building and its bare, black ceiling provides a dramatic contrast to the colourful walls.
Sitting in the Lady Chapel, my stomach rumbles and I realise I’m starving – it’s 11am and it’s been hours since breakfast after all. Hopping back on the Underground, we arrive in Brixton and head to The Provincial, one of the many restaurants on Market Row, for a feast of chorizo, fried eggs and roasted vegetables on a thick white bloomer.
Satisfied and sleepy – perhaps not a great start to our 24 hour adventure – we stroll through Brixton Village, an indoor market that’s a mish-mash of boutique clothes shops, delicatessens and international supermarkets, where you can buy anything from pigs ears to giant snails and art prints to kitchen supplies.
From Brixton we jump back on the Underground and take the Victoria line and then District line to Embankment, from where we can cruise on the River Bus and enjoy that famous London skyline from the Thames.
The boat moves west and passes the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, before turning around towards Greenwich and sailing past St Paul’s, HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge. At around £6 it’s a steal compared to the extortionate river tours run by the various companies along the river. The bargain hunter in me is proud as we finally disembark at Greenwich Pier and catch sight of the magnificent Cutty Sark, her masts standing tall against the dramatic English summer clouds.
Greenwich is home to all things nautical as the Maritime Museum and the Old Royal Naval College sit along this part of the Thames. From the outside the college’s white buildings are a grand tribute to the UK’s Royal Navy, and inside there are beautiful frescoes and great halls – my favourite being the Painted Hall with its enormous ceiling mural and walls painted to give a 3D illusion of stone-sculpted pillars.
We wander through the park to the Royal Observatory and make the obligatory time-related puns as we arrive the famous Meridian Line that measures half a circle from the North Pole to the South: “Oh look, we’re on time!”
The somewhat confusing 24-hour Roman numeral clock on the wall outside the Observatory tells me it’s 5pm – time for a coffee. We sit outside at the Pavilion Café with a fantastic view of Canary Wharf on the opposite side of the river. An hour later and we’re half way through our sleepless marathon – this is easy, I’m thinking, as we begin to move to our next destination.
The cinema isn’t something I’d usually consider when intending on staying awake for extended periods of time, but armed with my bikini and a towel I am confident I won’t be snoozing in my seat here as we arrive at the unused Shoreditch Underground station on Brick Lane for a Hot Tub Cinema showing of Moulin Rouge. After taking the DLR from Greenwich to Shadwell, then the Overground to Shoreditch High Street, there’s popcorn, drinks and the usual big screens, but instead of cramped seats we’re put up in spacious hot tubs to sit back, relax and enjoy the film.
Sipping Pimms throughout, the film flies by and before we know it, the entire room has erupted into some debaucherous foam party as bubble bath is added to each tub and the bar staff are jumping in, fully clothed. There’s music, dancing and splashing wars before it all winds down at 11pm. Exhausted and starving we dry off and find the much talked about 24-hour bagel shops on Brick Lane.
We devour the salt-beef bagel from Beigel Bake, but this all-day, every-day shop isn’t just about the bagels – the counters are stocked full with loaves of bread and freshly baked buns, and on the way to the toilets upstairs I bump into a woman carrying a tray of sublime-looking chocolate éclairs. This could very well be Heaven.
After a swift pint in the BrewDog bar up the road we manage to catch the end of the England-Italy World Cup game through the windows of a packed-out bar on Shoreditch High Street. It’s midnight so we hop on the night bus back into town in search of some after-hours fun.
On arrival at Trafalgar Square, the high-heeled revellers are out to party, but thanks to our severe lack of sleep, we’re not exactly feeling up to it (nor are we dressed for the occasion). We need sugar, and fast, so I’m elated to discover that my favourite lunch spot on the Strand is open until 4am on a weekend. Next time I need a falafel salad after a heavy night I’ll be bearing Sesamo in mind.
Racking our brains, there’s nothing else to do than stroll over to the Hippodrome Casino on Leicester Square. Much like all casinos it’s a timeless, windowless affair with tacky decor and bright lights – not a place for a classy night out, but the perfect venue to keep us awake as we people watch from the end of a Blackjack table. I’m grateful for the warmth, but lusting after the embrace of a duvet and feather pillow.
When it gets to 3.30am we make our way back to the bus stop and find the N11 to take us east again to Liverpool Street – this is what I’ve been waiting for all night. Arriving at the Heron Tower in darkness, we ascend forty floors during a leg-jellifying lift ride, and sit down to a champagne breakfast at Duck & Waffle, one of London’s few 24 hours restaurants.
As I’m nibbling some surprisingly tasty barbecued pig’s ears (and to think almost 24 hours ago I cringed when I saw these for sale in Brixton market), I watch the sun rise over the city and the views change from a sea of bright lights to reveal the concrete jungle that is east London. We try to get our bearings and map out our journey so far: I see the Royal Naval College, Brick Lane, and Tower Bridge.
It seems an age ago that we were in Victoria admiring the cathedral, or even sitting on a boat cruising the Thames, but it’s not over yet. After devouring the delicious signature dish – duck leg, egg and waffle with maple syrup – and polishing off a much-needed coffee, we splash out on a taxi to take us to our final resting place. We arrive back at the almost boutiquey Hilton London Syon Park just after 6am to find the Kallima Spa has just opened. We ditch our clothes, get back in our swimwear and wind down in the steam room and sauna before finally collapsing into bed.