London, England, recently ranked the No. 1 European city for shops, affordability, hotels and culture and the West End of the city is also officially the largest shopping district in Europe. At this time of year, dazzling lights and window displays, great shops plus chic hotels and restaurants make London a fantastic vacation or short-break destination. The tour operator Canadian Affair is offering last-minute flights from $600 this month and many London hotels have special shopping packages.

By Joanne Shurvell


SHOP

Selfridges Front. Photo credit: Paul Allen

Shopping in the West End can be a fraught, overcrowded affair but it’s well worth the effort if you focus on certain shops and areas. Start first thing in the morning on Oxford Street at the historic Selfridges department store that has been owned by the Canadian Weston family since 2003. Selfridges has ongoing collaborations with the art world so it’s no surprise that this month in their ‘Wonder Room’ you’ll find a series of limited edition products ranging from tattoos to jewellery by controversial artist Marc Quinn (known for his bronze sculpture of Kate Moss in an extreme yoga pose!) Next, go to nearby St Christopher’s Place with its great assortment of shops and cafes, including the oldest Mulberry boutique, a haven of luxurious handbags and luggage.  From there, head to grand old Regent Street where you’ll find Oscar Wilde’s favourite store, Liberty, the classic British Aquascutum, along with newcomers like Spanish boutique, Hoss.


EAT & DRINK

Carluccios. Photo credit: Paul Allen

When you need a break from shopping, visit one of Carluccios’ West End locations – St Christopher’s Place, Bond Street (in Fenwick’s) or Market Place.  The soups and the butter and sage ravioli are particularly delicious. They also have an excellent selection of Italian treats in their shop area.

Senkai, a more upmarket choice, is a cozy oasis of calm overlooking Regent Street. The restaurant and lounge offers affordable Japanese fare and a late night cocktail bar open until 3am on weekends.

Afternoon tea in London is a tradition not to be missed. Highly recommended is the Mad Hatter’s Tea at the Sanderson Hotel, featuring a beautifully presented selection of finger sandwiches, scones and cakes, tea of course plus an incredibly boozy cocktail.

CULTURE

Death & The Maiden, Ariel Dorfman’s Olivier award-winning thriller about a former Latin-American political prisoner, still seems relevant today and Thandie Newton in the lead role gives a gripping and convincing performance. It runs until Dec. 31 at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Although tickets are sold out, it’s still possible to get tickets in person each day to Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan at the National Gallery (on until Feb. 5, 2012). This is the most complete exhibition of Leonardo’s paintings ever shown anywhere and the first exhibition dedicated to Leonardo as a painter.

SLEEP

Offering the impeccable service one would expect from a five-star boutique hotel, the Philippe Starck-designed Sanderson Hotel, just off Oxford Street, combines modern minimalism and funky design with classicism and antiques.  The lobby features a Dali red lips sofa and a Louis XV armoire. The late night Purple Bar (open until 3 a.m.) offers ultra-comfortable velvet plush furnishings while the 80-foot Long Bar offers both glamour and excellent cocktails. The mostly all white guest rooms with splashes of colour in the chic bathrooms and the heavenly scented spa make for a relaxing stay. Be sure to check out the special offers on their website.

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