Leaving London for a day trip sounds great in theory, until you clock that the South Coast is becoming an extension of High Street Ken, Cambridge is as rammed with students as it’s ever been, and that, of course, you’ve almost entirely forgotten how to use transport that doesn’t involve touching in and out. The good news is that you don’t really have to leave London to feel like you’ve had a break. Here are our favourite places for getting some garden and waterside vibes without leaving zone 4.
Check out the rest of the Summer Guide here.
There are garden restaurants, and then there’s the cafe at Petersham Nurseries. It’s essentially a cafe in the greenhouse of a private garden in Richmond, with Italian food that’s pricey, but always extremely pretty and the kind of thing even your pickiest friend would nod approvingly to. Get a plate of their saffron gnocchi with mussels and peas and sit in their absolute stunner of a conservatory, which opens onto an actual meadow during the summer. As far as escapes go, it feels like you’ve left town because you basically HAVE left town. Factoring in the walk from Richmond tube, it’s a proper mission, but compared to getting on the train to Oxfordshire to eat at a mediocre country pub, we’ll take this any day.
You might have known this spot previously as The Plough, but also maybe not, since it’s literally in the middle of nowhere East London. It’s a cool outdoor cafe and bar with a big terrace overlooking the River Lea, near Hackney Wick, and the obscure waterside location feels miles away from everything. Sure, you can see the Olympic Stadium behind the trees and sure, the river used to glow a weird radioactive green at night, but they’ve cleaned it up to the point that it’s actually a nice place to hang out with a few drinks with mates on a sunny afternoon. There are burgers and tacos if you get hungry, craft beers, and an air hockey table because you’re human and you like ripping into your mates. Be sure to check that there aren’t any football matches on the day if you don’t fancy being caught in a crowd of West Ham fans.
Getting lost in Holland Park’s Japanese gardens is already an escape, but it doesn’t involve food or drinks, so we can’t really list it here. But stumbling upon Belvedere in Holland Park takes it up a couple of notches. It’s an old restaurant and ballroom that dates back to the 17th century, and has a faded grandeur that reminds us of the dance hall from Beauty and the Beast and a real-life Hotel California. The French and Italian food is tasty (though it can feel like you’re eating in a posh restaurant, circa 1994), and even though it’s quiet much of the time, having lunch on its outdoor terrace that overlooks the garden is a peaceful way to escape for a few hours.
A stabby-looking disused car park in the backstreets of Hackney Wick isn’t an obvious place to escape the stress of London, but turn down an alley (stay with us here) and you’ll reach Grow, a little haven along the River Lea. Everything is apparently locally grown and fairtrade, but the main headline is that there’s an excellent riverside vibe that’s hard to beat, and on a sunny afternoon it’s full of locals watching kayakers and paddleboarders coast along the water while sipping cold drinks and tucking into halloumi and pulled pork buns. There are usually DJs and live bands at the weekends as well, so it’s also easy to make a night of it with a few mates.
The further East you go along the Thames, the more everything starts to look like something out of A Clockwork Orange. So, pretty bloody grim, then. The opposite to that is the Mayflower Pub, the oldest boozer on the Thames, and a great spot to pitch up for a session at the weekend when you just want a drink and to catch some lazy river vibes. It’s a ‘proper’ pub, then - the inside’s cosy and looks like it’s barely changed for centuries, and there’s a lovely outdoor terrace that overlooks the water, good for drunkenly screaming at the odd kayaker after several rounds (just like Magaluf). As for food, it’s just as old-school - there’s a different pie each day and standards like fish and chips, though disappointingly there is avocado on the menu. They even cater to vegetarians.
Standing on Shoreditch High Street doesn’t sound like a promising place to start for a great escape, and neither does eating lunch inside an old school canteen. Our repressed memories of being locked inside the stationary cupboard aside, things change when you take a couple of turns from the main road, and you’ll end up at a quiet square and the entrance to one of our favourite restaurants in East London. Pressing the buzzer to the Rochelle school and opening the gate into the garden that Rochelle Canteen sits in is a delight we’ll never get tired of, and we could easily say the same of the simple but excellent British food. Hit it for a supremely chilled breakfast or glorious lunch, especially when they start setting the garden furniture outside.
There are a few cafes and restaurants dotted up and down the Union Canal, but none of them look quite as awesome as Dock Kitchen up in Kensal. It’s a sleek restaurant that’s attached to the studio of designer Tom Dixon (the guy who makes the metal pendant lights you keep seeing everywhere), with an impressive view that overlooks the canal. We’re not saying it’s just like being in Amsterdam, but there is a canal involved. It’s a lovely place to sit with a drink and something to eat on a summer day, especially when the light hits the water just right. Even if you can’t get away, the food does it for you, with dishes that bounce between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The biryani and a glass of wine will sort you out.
Living somewhere that’s hidden from the tube map has its disadvantages, like people wondering how the hell to get to your epic annual Eurovision party, but for a lot of South London, that’s actually a good thing. There are tons of pretty neighbourhoods and green spaces that the rest of London hasn’t cottoned onto, and they don’t come much nicer than Dulwich Picture Gallery. The cafe at this art gallery is already a nice place to relax outside, but for this summer, the guys behind Infatuation pub hall-of-famer The Camberwell Arms have set up shop in the Gallery’s new pavilion and they’re making excellent food for the warmer months. Grab some small plates like crab on toast, roasted peppers and a spritz, before wandering around the gallery’s pretty new pavilion. You’ll genuinely feel like you could be outside London.