Travel feature: Eat, shop and be entertained in style on a winter break in Westminster
Peter Ormerod explores the varied delights of Westminster
The word Westminster carries many connotations. Power, politics and a great weight of history certainly come to mind. But there's plenty of fun to be enjoyed there too - and there can be few better places for a short pre-Christmas break.
While the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey may be its most obvious landmarks, the district stretches as far as Oxford Street and includes much of the West End. So that's shopping, food and entertainment sorted - as well as some of the finest sightseeing in Europe (a little place called Buckingham Palace is also within its borders), with grand architecture that often looks its best illuminated on a dark December evening.
Our train down on Saturday morning arrived in good time to check in at our hotel near Pimlico tube station before a leg-stretching but eye-pleasing walk into Soho for lunch, passing magnificent monument after magnificent monument. Our destination was Ugly Dumpling in the Carnaby area, and what a delightful little place it is: friendly, cosy and serving restaurant-quality food in a small cafe atmosphere. Its stated aim is to "create the world’s finest ingredient-led dumplings", and it's certainly going the right way about it. The menu encompasses classics but adds unusual twists: we had a mixture of satay chicken, margherita pizza, mushroom & truffle and Thai green curry. They made for a gloriously varied selection of magical miniature mouthfuls, and were gluten-free to boot. The walls are adorned with pictures of dumplings given all sorts of felt-tipped adornments, and the whole experience feels a world away from corporate chains.
It's hard to believe that Ugly Dumpling is anywhere near Oxford Street, but you're there in a five-minute walk, via Carnaby Street's glistening and characterful Christmas decorations. The heaving crowds on Europe's busiest shopping street may not be for everyone, but they show that it's lost none of its appeal, and can bring their own sense of invigoration. We were heading to somewhere very different from the huge stores, namely The Collect pop-up boutique. It's been set up by Westminster City Council along with New West End Company and James Andrew International and houses a range of small fashion brands focused on inclusivity and sustainability. They include Never Fade Factory, which runs workshops about tackling the problem of overconsumption, and Bleaq, which aims to present customers with an "alternative and unique marketplace that both supports the world we live in whilst liberating young mindful designers". It's all rather refreshing and inspiring.
At this time of year, it can be easy just to dash from shop to shop. But sometimes its worth taking a step back and taking in the beauty of many of their displays from the outside. New Bond Street, a few minutes' walk away, is looking especially resplendent, with grand flags hanging from storefronts and gorgeous designs and decorations aplenty. Before long we found ourselves in Leicester Square, where an elaborate festive attraction has been built. Christmas in Leicester Square transforms the square into a wonderland, including traditional Christmas markets with hand-crafted goods and delicious food and drinks, as well as a whole host of remarkable shows in the surrounds of a traditional 1920s spiegeltent. It looks, sounds and smells the part: carols ring out, seasonal scents waft around and the little huts housing the stalls are sweet.
Then it was back along Regent Street for another unusual shopping experience, the Clean Power pop-up. It's run by Togetherband, a sustainable fashion brand, and offers a unique space where shoppers can learn all about its band renewable energy campaign while browsing its collection of exclusive bands, recycled tees and plant-based compostable phone cases.
After all the exploring and savouring, it was time for dinner around the corner in Carnaby at Mamma Pastrama. Chef Jay Morjaria pays homage to his favourite eats in New York, serving up classics and inventive modern ideas. It's another little gem, and it treats pastrami as if it were the most precious substance known to humankind - which, in these hands, it might just be. My kimchi pastrami sando was served in toasted sourdough, the meat melting away with a wonderfully sweet smokiness, the flavour rounded out by mellow cheese and tangy kimchi. The accompanying Boxcar IPA brought added warmth and tang. And full marks to the especially ebullient staff, who were worked off their feet owing to the much-deserved popularity of the place.
That brought an end to a memorable day. But there's much else to enjoy around Westminster too, including:
* Clos Maggiore, an oasis of calm in the heart of Covent Garden. Chef Patron Roxanne Lange describes her modern French inspired cuisine as follows: “I bring my own memories and experiences into my creative process. Other people can apply similar techniques but not similar stories. My cooking is my storytelling.”
* Christmas In Covent Garden. This year sees the return of Covent Garden's much-loved decorations, Christmas tree, an immersive LEGO installation, many mulled wine varieties and of course, the daily snowfall. New for this festive season is a Frozen takeover,a traditional Christmas Village complete with bauble dining domes, a shopping weekend and much more. All this can be found in the open air, pedestrianised piazza and surrounding streets which are filled with great brands, heated terraces and some of the best dining in the West End.
* The Artist Garden at Temple Station Roof Garden. London-based artist Lakwena has given the roof of Temple tube stationa kaleidoscopic makeover, transforming a once dull grey space into a bright welcoming place to take in views across the Thames.
* The Christmas Market at Trafalgar Square, where various stalls sell all manner of exquisite gifts, as the capital's most famous Christmas tree stands proudly nearby.
Visit www.westminster.gov.uk/westminster-reveals for more information about the delights of Westminster this Christmas.