This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to London
The Ritz is a very useful place. Whether you are Evelyn Waugh, lunching on caviar, grouse and peaches, King Zog of Albania, in residence with your entourage and weekly settling the tab in gold, or Margaret Thatcher in her final days, it is a place in which to eat, live and dream. For me, it marks the centre of London, or at least of its West End.
Here are three walks of about an hour each starting and ending at the hotel (or, for the transport-minded, Green Park Tube station), walks suited to any time of day, whether you are working up an appetite for lunch, burning off a multi-layered cake stand or stretching your legs ahead of the evening’s menu gourmand. This is a corner of London that is both modern and deeply traditional and which offers glorious parks and waterways alongside thoroughly urban pursuits. These walks allow you to sample some of these treats.
1. Georgian St James’s
Having soaked in the Edwardian fantasy of 18th-century France that is The Ritz, head for an hour or so into 18th-century London. We start in St James’s Street, once a warren of chocolate and coffee houses, which, in turn, gave way to gambling houses before becoming the gentlemen’s clubs we know today: Boodle’s (No 28), Brooks’s (No 60; corner of Park Place) and White’s (No 37) are London’s three oldest, with Boodle’s and Brooks’s having the most intact 18th-century buildings. While you take in Brooks’s Palladian façade by Henry Holland, think of how the sandwich was reputedly invented here by the eponymous earl not wanting to interrupt a particularly intense gambling session for supper.
Turn down King Street and past Christie’s to reach St James’s Square, the most intimately elegant square in London, developed in the 17th century as homes for courtiers close to St James’s Palace. Spend some time admiring some of the Georgian townhouses (clockwise): No 20 (Robert Adam, 1771-4, extended by four bays to the left in 1936-7); No 15, Lichfield House (James “Athenian” Stuart, 1764-6); No 13 (Matthew Brettingham, 1735-7); No 11 (Robert Adam); No 5 (Matthew Brettingham, 1748-9, stone-faced in 1854-6); and No 4, The “In and Out” (Naval and Military) Club (Edward Shepherd, 1726-8). When you get to Charles II Street, enjoy the view of John Nash’s flamboyant Theatre Royal (1821).
Cut through to Pall Mall, turn left and then right on to Waterloo Place. The Athenaeum’s Grecian magnificence (Decimus Burton, 1827-30) rises before you, topped by a Wedgwood-blue copy of the Parthenon frieze, fittingly evoking ancient erudition for this club whose membership has always been based on achievement more than background or political affiliation (51 Nobel laureates have been members).
Take the steps down to The Mall past the Duke of York Column (1834) and look up at Nash’s colossal terraces behind you, which form London’s most triumphal processional avenue, before making your way to Horse Guards Parade, whose exquisite façades have witnessed all manner of event from the pageantry of the Trooping of the Colour to the exuberance of the beach volleyball at the 2012 Olympics. The centrepiece is the wonderful rhythmic complex that is Horse Guards, started by William Kent and finished by Wright, Robinson and Vardy in the 1750s.
As you walk around the parade ground, take a look at the two cannons brought back from the Napoleonic wars: a beautiful 16th-century Turkish gun captured in Egypt in 1801, now resting on a cheery Egyptophile base complete with crocodiles, and a French cannon taken by Wellington near Salamanca and mounted on a (slightly preposterous) dragon.
Cross the south-eastern corner of St James’s Park to Cockpit Steps and enter the astonishingly preserved early-18th-century world of Queen Anne’s Gate, taking time to enjoy the doorways and carved keystones and even a fading second world war sign to the nearest air raid shelter (No 28). When you reach the end, turn right through the passage onto Birdcage Walk and into Nash’s Regency St James’s Park, across the bridge and up to The Mall and the south-eastern corner of Green Park.
The last stretch of our walk takes us along the Queen’s Walk, named after George II’s consort, Caroline of Ansbach, and the location of some of London’s most magnificent townhouses. These include John Vardy’s joyously flamboyant and quirky Spencer House (1756-66) with its wonderful statues of Bacchus, Ceres and Flora — well worth visiting its interiors by James “Athenian” Stuart, now beautifully restored — and, back at The Ritz, William Kent House, built by Henry Pelham as his prime ministerial abode and part of The Ritz since 2000, linking France to Britain with even less effort than the Eurostar.
2. 20th-century Mayfair
Mayfair, perhaps unexpectedly, presents the flâneur with a survey of 20th-century architecture in miniature. The Georgian scale of the neighbourhood and its associated planning restrictions means that buildings such as Peter Moro’s Miesian block on Albemarle Street (see below), which in Chicago or New York would rise to 30 or 40 storeys, have the dimensions of a family house. You also get to see innovative Edwardian structures such as The Ritz or Brown Hart Gardens, but disguised in 18th-century costume.
Starting at The Ritz (which opened in 1906 and was the first freestanding steel-framed building in London), walk down Piccadilly and turn right into Half Moon Street, the home of Bertie Wooster, Algernon Moncrieff (in The Importance of Being Earnest) and Wilfred Owen, and then left into Curzon Street, past Heywood Hill Books, where Nancy Mitford once worked. Stop for a moment at the elegant midcentury-modern Curzon Mayfair cinema (HG Hammond, 1963-6), perhaps booking the royal box to get a better view of the Victor Vasarely ceiling and the W Mitchell fibreglass wall panels within. Turn right up South Audley Street and follow it to Grosvenor Square, admiring the 19th-century Japonisant-Flemish extravaganza that is Thomas Goode and the almost New England simplicity of the Grosvenor Chapel (1730-1), one of the original buildings in Sir Richard Grosvenor’s development of his farm into what we now know as Mayfair.
The west side of Grosvenor Square is entirely taken up by the façade of Eero Saarinen’s former US Embassy (1957-60), currently undergoing conversion by David Chipperfield into a hotel. All that is left for now is the rhythmic screen front with its windows of Georgian proportions, an elegant solution in a square that is otherwise made up of pastiche Georgian buildings.
Continue north into North Audley Street and cut through Providence Court into Brown Hart Gardens (Charles Stanley Peach, 1903-6). Despite its neo-Roman appearance, this is a profoundly modern building, accommodating an electricity substation below elegant Italian gardens provided by the Duke of Westminster for the recreation of the occupants of the artisan housing surrounding it. One of Mayfair’s more eccentric and engaging spots.
Stop for a little coffee at HR Higgins, coffee supplier to the Queen, before walking down Brook Street for a dose of Art Deco. Marvel at the lobby and corridors of Claridge’s (Oswald Milne, 1929), one of the best Art Deco interiors in London and, staying in the 1920s, glide on to Greybrook House (No 28), built in 1929 as a showroom for Bechstein pianos. If you glance across the road you will see a row of houses, including the Handel House Museum, at various times (incongruously or entirely appropriately) the homes of both GF Handel (who lived at No 25) and Jimi Hendrix (No 23).
The next stretch of the walk brings us to the 1950s. Take New Bond Street to the corner of Bruton Street and admire the Time & Life Building (Michael Rosenauer, 1951-3), which integrates reliefs by Henry Moore on its Bond Street façade. If you pop into Hermès and go upstairs to the home-furnishing department, you will find yourself in a beautiful 1950s boardroom by Hugh Casson and Misha Black, on one side facing an elevated roof garden with a magnificent reclining figure by Henry Moore and, on the other, a monumental Ben Nicholson painting — surely one of the loveliest midcentury rooms anywhere.
From there continue down Bond Street, cutting through Grafton Street (past John Bruckland’s perfect shopfront for Wartski, 1974) to reach Albemarle Street. On the corner of Stafford Street stands Peter Moro’s exquisite office block of 1961-3 (now Thai Airways), a supremely elegant composition of curtain walls and horizontal beams originally built as a Hille showroom to display the great Robin Day’s beautiful furniture. A little further along (Nos 45-46) you will encounter another jewel, Ernö Goldfinger’s office block of 1955-7, a miniature test piece for his giant Alexander Fleming House in Elephant and Castle.
Cross Piccadilly and head down St James’s Street to Peter and Alison Smithson’s supremely elegant Economist buildings and plaza (1962-4) (where you might want to try Sake no Hana for an excellent Japanese meal).
Continue down St James’s Street, and gasp at the full-on 1970s period piece that is No 66 (Rodney Gordon, 1979-82), before turning down St James’s Place. At this point, depending on the time of day, you may be faced with a dilemma — a dry Martini at Dukes hotel or a Cosmopolitan at The American Bar in The Stafford.
St James’s Place ends with the magnificent 26 St James’s Place, Denys Lasdun’s modernist dream of 1959-60. It is best admired from the Queen’s Walk in Green Park, so take the passage into the park opposite The Stafford hotel and turn left.
Return to The Ritz up the Queen’s Walk.
3. Surf and turf
This is a walk of green and water and views. It takes about 1¼ hours and would, I imagine, also make a good run.
Leave The Ritz and enter Green Park next to the Tube station, descending the Queen’s Walk (see walk 1) as far as The Mall. Cross The Mall and into St James’s Park, turning left along the near side of the lake. Whereas Green Park is truly green, St James’s is multicoloured — flowerbeds, all manner of trees (including the fig tree by the bridge, popular with parakeets) and polychrome fowl, all reflected in Nash’s picturesque lake.
Leaving the colours behind, march across Horse Guards Parade and straight through the central gate of Horse Guards (see walk 1; gate open 7am-8pm) and from there past Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House (1619-22), the only part of Whitehall Palace to have survived the fire of 1698 (well worth a visit for its interiors with Rubens ceilings) and the 40-ton figures of Earth and Water outside the Ministry of Defence, and the ruins of the palace in the garden in front.
Do not go as far as the river; instead, turn left along Whitehall Gardens and look up at Whitehall Court, London’s very own Chambord. At the far end, cross the street and go through the tunnel below Terry Farrell’s postmodern leviathan, Embankment Place, and Charing Cross station. Enter Victoria Embankment Gardens and turn left until you reach the astonishing York Water Gate (1626-7), once (before the Embankment was built) the grand river entrance of York House, the 1st Duke of Buckingham’s mansion. If you have time, explore the gardens with their monuments to the Imperial Camel Corps and D’Oyly Carte, looking up at “Big Benzene”, the clock at the top of the Art Deco Shell-Mex House that is even larger than Big Ben’s.
Turn back the way you came, looking across to the left at the Egyptian obelisk affectionately known as Cleopatra’s Needle, cut through Embankment Underground station and climb the steps to the pedestrian footbridge on the north side of Hungerford Bridge for one of the loveliest views of London, from St Paul’s to The Shard and the South Bank.
When you reach the other side of the bridge by the beautiful Royal Festival Hall, the only surviving building of the Festival of Britain held here 1951, walk under the bridge and along the esplanade towards the London Eye and Westminster Bridge, passing below the vast County Hall (once the seat of the London County Council). Opposite, you will see the buildings you passed earlier (Ministry of Defence, Whitehall Court, Embankment Place) in their colossal entirety.
Cross Westminster Bridge on its far (north) side as that will give you the best views of the Cradle of Bureaucracy, the Houses of Parliament, particularly striking when its Gothic details glow in the morning light. Shed a tear for the beautiful and historic Victoria Tower Gardens about to be altered beyond recognition to make way for a controversial Holocaust Memorial.
Cross Parliament Square to Great George Street and Birdcage Walk, perhaps stopping for a lemonade in the delightful garden of the Café at Storey’s Gate. As we cut through to the lake, we greet the pelicans and walk along the near side in the direction of Buckingham Palace. At the short end of the lake below the palace, take in the fairytale view of the towers and turrets of Horse Guards and Whitehall Court behind, a sort of Neuschwanstein Castle in London. From there walk back up to The Mall and across Green Park to The Ritz for a well-deserved lunch.
Photography by Laura Hodgson
Maps by Liz Faunce
Which are your favourite walks in central London? Tell us in the comments below
For more pieces like this, visit ft.com/globetrotter or read our guide to the UK capital, London with the FT
Follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter