London: The Musts

I remember the day I arrived in London for the first time as an adult so clearly, even though it was more than two years ago… It was something about the majestic houses that line up the streets, the continuous hustle and bustle of the city and the beauty of just every corner you turn to, I knew this city was always going to have a special place in my heart..

Since I spent a while in London, I decided to dedicate separate posts for the food scene there, which I will be publishing soon.. For now, I wanted to give you a sample itinerary for the prime spots that you should be covering if you ever visit.. This is based on me living there for almost a year, taking people who came to visit me around and also returning to London as a visitor myself around a month ago.

While this list might not be exhaustive, it includes the main areas and tourist attractions that you definitely should cover while in London:

  1. Start off on The Strand, home to many of the main hotels in London such as Savoy, One Aldwyich, ME London by Melia. There you can pass by the major theatre houses located on Aldwych and if you’re walking there at night you can see people scurrying around before and after their shows, grabbing a bite in Covent Garden. By continuing to walk along the Strand, you will reach Trafalgar Square, one of the main public squares in London that houses the National Gallery and is home to a lot of the public demonstrations that happen in London. If you’re a fan of art, then definitely stop by the National Gallery as it has a beautiful display of +2,300 paintings from the mid 13th century up to the 1900s. The architecture of the building itself inside is also very beautiful.IMG_4736IMG_4804
  2. From Trafalgar Square, walk along Whitehall street to see the Horse Guards and if you time it right you might even pass by when the change of guards is happening. From the Horse Guards place you can either continue to St. James Park and the other parks in London or continue down the street past 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister of the UK, reaching Big Ben. Don’t be surprised, it will look just as majestic as it does in photos, if not more. If you continue walking down Westminster Bridge, you will reach Southbank, home to London Eye (You can buy tickets there, or online at: https://www.londoneye.com/) Southbank is a great spot to take photos with Big Ben in the background ( I can vouch for that, I took my graduation photos there.) If you’re going during Christmas time, Southbank has a really nice Christmas market with live performances and delicious food stands!IMG_4904IMG_4905
  3. From there you can take the tube to London Bridge, where you can easily walk to one of my favourite food markets in London, Borough Market. Several Harry Potter scenes were shot in and around this area, you can even take a guided tour of these spots. I will include a link to my top picks at Borough Market once I publish the London Food posts. From Borough Market, you  can continue walking along the Southwark cathedral to bankside, passing by Shakespeare’s Globe (A replica of the Elizabethan theatre showing Shakespeare plays in the open air) to reach Tate Modern (London’s national gallery for international modern art). After touring Tate Modern, you shouldn’t miss out on crossing Millenium Bridge and taking the best photos of St. Paul’s cathedral from there. The walk from Borough Market to St. Paul is actually one of my favourite “mini-tours” of London.IMG_4937IMG_4972

These items above will take around 3-4 hours for you to complete depending on how many stops you will be taking for food, pictures, galleries, etc. There are also other things that you must do while in London:

  1. Visit Shoreditch, the creative and hipster hub of East London. If you walk from Brick Lane towards Shoreditch you’ll even have a chance to see some of the best street art in London lined up on the way. If you’re visiting on a Sunday, make sure to check out Brick Lane’s sunday market, filled with second-hand finds and food stalls. All across Shoreditch you will find vintage stores and independent boutiques. Shoreditch is also home to Boxpark, a popup mall filled with popular food popups such as Soft Serve Society (see photo). Shoreditch also has some of the best bars and clubs in London such as Cargo, Queen of Hoxton, Nightjar, etc. IMG_4960.jpg
  2. Shop along Regent’s, starting off at Piccadilly Circus which is London’s own Times Square. Not only is it beautiful to walk down Regent’s Street all the way to Oxford Circus and reaching Regent’s Park, they also have the widest variety of international stores lined up the streets. If you go early enough in the morning, stores will not be as crowded and you will be able to shop with a peace of mind.IMG_5142IMG_5191
  3. Visit Green Park, my favourite park in London. There is nothing special about it, but it is so green and serene, I loved sitting there for hours doing nothing. From Green Park you can walk to Buckingham Palace to see the house of the Queen and then continue to Hyde Park. Hyde Park is huge, people go there to exercise, feed the ducks along the Serpentine Lake, enjoy a cup of coffee at the Serpentine cafe or rent a bicycle. During Christmas time, Hyde Park is home to Winter Wonderland, one of London’s main Christmas markets.
  4.  Go to Camden, one of London’s other hip Boroughs, this place has markets such as the Lock Market, Lock Village, Stables Market which are great for souvenirs, art pieces and books. It also has a very popular food market that gets really busy on weekends. After you pick up something to eat from the market, walk along Regent’s canal reaching Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill. Primrose Hill is a hill located on the northern side of Regent’s Park and has some of the best views of the city. It’s a great idea to relax there after walking all the way down from Camden.
  5. Visit Harrods, one of London’s oldest and biggest department stores. Walking downwards along Brompton Road, you will reach the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s largest museum of art and design, as well as the Natural History Museum. During Christmas time you also have the chance to ice skate at the Natural Museum ice rink.

Great areas to walk in for cafes, shops and restaurants: Covent Garden, South Kensington, Mayfair, Soho, Notting Hill, Neal’s Yard.

Please let me know if you end up following any of the suggestions above! Would love to hear out your thoughts!

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Sean Connolly at the Opera: One of Dubai’s Finest

Living right next to Downtown Dubai’s Opera for almost two years now, I’ve been to the building multiple times and I just love it. The fact that people were looking for a culinary offering there can be seen from the amounts of people pouring into the nearby ‘Carribou’ for a quick bite to eat either before or after the show. When I heard that there is a new restaurant Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera opening up, I was excited to try it out and intrigued by what concept could have been cultivated to fit in with the the surrounding settings.

While Chef Connolly is a bit of a celebrity in both New Zealand and Australia especially after opening up five restaurants and making numerous tv appearances, this was his first venture in the Middle East. I never dined at any of his restaurants before, but after some research I was excited to head to Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera  to try the “contemporary brasserie serving seafood and steak”. We went there on a Sunday for lunch and upon arriving to the second floor were pleasantly surprised with an incredibly well lit, open-space that had the prettiest coral and oceanic tones. While the restaurant was empty when we first arrived at around 12pm, it surprisingly got more busy towards 2pm. The brasserie features two bars, one serving cocktails and The Raw Bar serving oysters and other types of shellfish, as well as The Fire Bara grill for pizzas and such.

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Photo by Brooke Halm from Yatzer.com

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Photo by Brooke Halm from Yatzer.com

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Photo from Yatzer.com

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Photo by Brooke Halm from Yatzer.com

The à la carte menu features a selection of raw seafood and light appetizers while the main dishes are a variety of pasta and seafood dishes as well as meat grills. In addition to the à la carte menu, there were two pre-theatre options, one which included 2 courses for 155 AED/pp. and one that included 3 courses for 195 AED/pp. The pre-theatre menus include options such as Oyster fritters, Tomato Tart Tartin and a Raw Plate for appetizers, Fish and Chips, Roast Aubergine and a Daube of Beef for mains, and Opera Cake, Lemon Tart and Frozen Nougat for dessert.

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We opted for the à la carte menu, with Watermelon, Strawberry Tomato, Torn Mint and Whipped Feta Salad, Grilled White Peaches, Buffalo Mozzarella, Pistachio Pesto and Salmon Sashimi for appetizers. Both the Watermelon Salad and Buffalo Mozzarella had such a refreshing taste, with the watermelon forming a great combination with the strawberry tomato, mint and feta. The white peaches and pesto were also a great addition to the buffalo mozzarella and each bite just completely melts in your mouth. The quality of the salmon sashimi was also exquisite.

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Moving on to the mains, we opted for the Crab and Chilli Linguine and the 300g Sirloin with a side of Duck Fat Chips. The Linguine was a wonderful cross between creamy and lemon-ey and the portion of crab on the plate was very generous! The Sirloin steak was cooked to perfection and the chips were also perfect, crisp on the outside and soft and delicious once you bite into them. When it came to the dessert, we were actually quite full but nevertheless decided to try the popular Hazelnut semi Freddo coated with popped corn and salted caramel sauce. This served as a delicious end to a wonderful meal, especially with the ice cream hidden beneath layers of popcorn and salted caramel.

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The Verdict: There was honestly not a single dish that I tried and didn’t like on the menu, from the well crafted appetizer dishes to the perfectly cooked mains and creative desserts, I can definitely say Sean Connolly is one of my favourites in Dubai. The service there is also great and quick, with the waiters recommending the best dishes as well as answering any questions we had. The atmosphere of the restaurant indoors was also bright and spacious and I can see it being a great dining destination in the evening as well. While we didn’t get a chance to step outdoors, it also looked like a great place to grab a quick bite and drink before the show, especially with the Burj Khalifa view.

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As always, if you’ve been, please let me know your thoughts and if you do end up going sometime in the future I would love to know about your experience!

Lugano: The run down

Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. I’ve been to several cities like Geneva, Zurich, Lausanne, Crans-Montana and Lugano, and the nature and greenery in each of these cities always leave you feeling so serene and peaceful. You should be warned, Switzerland isn’t a very big foodie destination, but they are famous for their ah-mazing chocolate (Lindt and Läderach are just one of the many)

The reason we specifically chose Lugano out of all Swiss cities was that it was very close to Milan, where we already were.

How to get there?

Again, similar to my trip to Florence, I would suggest the train as the quickest, cheapest and most convenient way to get to Lugano. We used Tren Italia from Milano Centrale to Lugano, with the whole journey taking 1 hour and 15 minutes approximately. Tickets can be bought for as cheap as € 24 for normal coach tickets and € 33 for first class tickets.

Lugano has a domestic airport Lugano Agno Airport with only Swiss Airlines and Darwin Airlines flying into it, which means that if you’re coming in from outside of Switzerland, you would have to fly into Zurich or Milan and take a bus or train to arrive to Lugano.

What to do?

1) Take a walk through Parco Civico – Ciani:  A beautiful park with the most colorful tulips. We walked through the park for around an hour and then sat on one of the benches staring out at Lake Lugano from there.  Parco Civico is also home to the Natural History Museum, Lugano Cantonal Library and Villa Ciani, where art exhibitions are often held.

2) Go up Monte San Salvatore: You can take the funicular from Paradiso to the top (the whole journey will take around 15 minutes and cost Fr. 30 for a return trip ticket). The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking! There is a terrace near Restaurant Vetta that has a panoramic view, photos would look nice from there. There is also a chapel that is a bit of a tiny hike from the terrace. I would definitely recommend going there and going up the roof of the chapel. The view from there is breathtaking! You can see the whole city, my phone even caught some Italian signal! Some people might choose to hike up or down from Monte San Salvatore back to the city, the trail is quite visible and takes around 2 hours to go up and around 1.35 hours to go down. One of the advantages of the funicular is being able to take in the view as you go up from Paradiso to Monte San Salvatore. Believe me, this is one thing you definitely do not want to miss doing in Lugano.IMG_5814IMG_5881

3) Take a tour of Lake Lugano: Did you know that Lake Lugano has 63% of its waters located in Switzerland and the rest in Italy? There are different types of tours, I would recommend the classic tour, it lasts around 80 minutes and takes you around a good area of the lake. You can choose to combine the tour with walking tours as well of the Swissminiatur and other points of interest. Prices start at Fr. 27 for the classic tour.

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Credit to Ticinotopten.ch

4) Walk through Old Town: The architecture is absolutely beautiful, and the city is bustling with people doing some shopping. You have a range of stores there, from local Swiss boutiques to the likes of Rolex, Prada, Louis Vuitton. I would definitely recommend a trip to Laderäch  for amazing Swiss chocolate, you can sample some of the many flavors that they have. Walking through Old Town, will lead you to Piazza della Reforma which is the main square of the city, with a lot of cafes for you to sit at.

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Credits to Ticinotopten.ch

5) Walk along the Lakeside Promenade: It stretches from Paradiso to Parco Civico and it’s a beautiful walk and exercise when the weather is nice. What we actually did was walk from Paradiso where the San Salvatore funicular is all the way to Parco Civico and stopped in the Old Town on the way.

Where to eat?

1) If you’re looking for a place in Piazza della Reforma, I would recommend Vanini Dolce e Caffe, perfect for tea or coffee and some dessert IMG_5992.JPG

2) Arte Al LagoOne of the unique things about this restaurant is that it is located inside an art gallery, it is also has one Michelin star. It is the only Michelin starred restaurant in Lugano. Prices range between Fr. 100 – Fr. 170 per person for a three course meal.

3) Ristorante L’Argentino : Recommended by a friend for their pizza!

4) La Cucina De AliceLocated on the Lugano Lake, this is somewhere you can go for a nice dinner/lunch that won’t necessarily break the bank. They are famous for their homemade pastas! Prices range between Fr. 40 – Fr. 80 per person for dinner/lunch exclusive of alcohol.

Where to stay?

While I cannot personally recommend any hotels as we were only there for the day, I did my research and can recommend these hotels

1) Hotel Splendide Royal ($400-$500): This 5 star hotel has a perfect location, right on the lake of Lugano. This is a recommendation from one of my friends who also said their service is impeccable and breakfast is served in the restaurant with a perfect view of the lake!

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Photo credit to Hotel Splendide Royal

2) Villa Principe Leopoldo ($500-$700): This hotel was once the home of an actual prince, so safe to say, you will be feeling royal. It also has an in house luxurious spa. While the location isn’t as central as Splendide Royal, this hotel also is situated on the Lake of Lugano

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Photo credit to Villa Principe Leopoldo

3) Grand Hotel Villa Castagnola ($400-$600): While this hotel didn’t house a prince, it housed a noble Russian family. It is also home to the 1-star Michelin restaurant Arté D’el Lago. Location is also not as central as Hotel Splendide but it does have its own private park! It also houses two other restaurants, La Rucola and Le Relais

 

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Photo credit to Grand Hotel Villa Castagnola

For recommendations that won’t break the bank, there are these hotels which are quite central and range between 3 to 4 stars:

Hotel Lido Seegarten, International Au Lac Hotel, Park Hotel Principe 

Noire: A Unique Dining Experience in Fairmont DXB

The first and only dine in the dark experience in the Middle East, Noire is a restaurant that everyone should visit at least once while in Dubai. When I first heard about the concept I got very excited at the thought of trying something different! The concept is quite simple yet innovative, you have a 3 course dinner meal in pitch darkness and no one can see anything except the waiters who are wearing night goggles (Yes, they do have some funny stories to tell if you stick around after dinner!)

We arrived at 7.00pm with dinner scheduled to start at 7.30pm. We were first led to a small reception area where we had welcome drinks and were briefed on what to expect inside the room. Now mind you, I hadn’t actually thought about dining in pitch darkness until that moment when we were told to put our hands on each others shoulders as we were led group by group to our tables inside the “room”. As we first entered the pitch blackness, I did think about turning back and walking out! However, here is where something very special about Noire comes in, and it is the waiters and service. The waiter that led us to the table was very kind as he took me by the hand and led me to my seat, helped me place my bag and explained where everything on the table was. The same was done for every person who then entered the room and throughout the entire night the waiters were always on point in helping out whenever we needed anything.

As for our meal, we had 3 courses scheduled and you can inform the team prior about any allergies that you might have. The menu changes every week so there is no way you can know beforehand what you are going to be eating that day. As the appetizers were set on the table came the challenge of figuring out how to eat! Where was my food? Did I scoop up anything the first time? (Usually not btw, and a tip is to scoop from outside in rather than top down) Then when I finally managed to put something on that spoon, came the question of what exactly am I eating? Something was crunching, but then there was some sauce, was it fish? chicken? You would be surprised at how dumbed down our taste senses are when we’re not seeing what we’re about to eat. As people ease up and get used to the darkness, they start chatting and laughing freely. People start guessing what’s on the main dish menu out loud as it is placed in front of us. Funny thing is, your taste buds don’t get better at recognition by the time dessert comes.

After almost an hour and a half, our waiters lead us back to the reception area where our chef is waiting with a full display of the three course menu that we had just eaten inside. The “fish” I thought I was eating turned out to be Foie Gras, the main dish was duck on a bed of mashed potato (I did guess the mashed potato, but the duck took me a while before I eventually guessed, I first thought it was steak!), the dessert turned out to be sponge cake and ice cream (which was probably the only thing that almost everyone guessed right)

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The chef presenting what we actually ate inside!

 

We stayed back to chat with Reagan, one of our waiters for the night who has been with Noire since it opened, and he spoke to us about some of the funny stories that he has witnessed during the past 4 years. It was very awe inspiring to see the attachment that the team had to the restaurant, they spoke to us about how they place a personal touch on every event they help people organizing whether it was a birthday, a proposal (yes, a proposal in pitch darkness, I’m just glad the poor bride to be didn’t swallow her ring!). They even showed us some photos they took of the different events they helped organize. Service in such an experience is very important as the guests cannot see anything, so a big amount of trust is placed in these waiters and rightly so because this team understands the importance of customers having a good time! Of course, we also got to try on the night goggles and go inside the room and see everything from the perspective of the waiters, which is something I would also definitely recommend doing.

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A very thoughtful gift from the Noire & Fairmont team!

Noire runs every Friday to Monday with one seating between 7.30-10 pm, with the room having a capacity of 30-40 people. It is priced at AED 325 per person.