As the spotlight shifts from London Olympics, Ute Junker rediscovers the delights of the capital's more traditional side.
Walking down the elegant streets of Knightsbridge, it's easy to imagine there's a doorman on duty, keeping the hoi polloi off the well-groomed streets. He may even be backed up by a small army of valets who wipe down the black painted iron railings and gently dust the blooms in the window boxes each morning. How else does it all stay looking so perfect?
The white stucco buildings and landscaped squares make me feel like I'm in a Technicolor musical. My Fair Lady's Henry Higgins might have made his home here, or Oliver Twist in his happy post-Fagin days. If milkmaids came swirling through in the early hours, singing about wonderful mornings, I wouldn't be at all surprised. If I lived in Knightsbridge, I might burst into song too.
It's a long way from newly hip East London, which glowed in last year's Olympics spotlight. Some visitors love the gritty, graffiti-covered district where artists' studios bump up curry houses. For those seeking a less in-your-face experience, however, Knightsbridge offers more than elegant surroundings. Along with its well-heeled neighbours, such as Belgravia and Chelsea, this compact area offers more to do per square metre than many more popular destinations. Here you'll find traditional delights such as museums, gardens and parks, and high-end shopping with an unexpectedly radical edge.
One of the places where trad and rad collide is Sloane Square. For years a shopping destination for the well-to-do Sloane Rangers, it is still a great place to check out the best of British. Pick up a classic fragrance at Jo Malone or Penhaligon's parfumerie on Kings Road - also a haven for shoe shoppers - or admire the exquisite leather work at Pickett on Sloane Street. (They also stock the most stylish backgammon boards around.)
It's not all about shopping, however. This area is also home to some of the city's most cutting-edge cultural venues. Now housed in the Duke of York barracks, the Saatchi Gallery showcases the work of upcoming artists. A block away, the Royal Court Theatre focuses on presenting innovative work. Its six-week Open Court festival (from June 10) includes events such as a Playwright at Your Table (where participants sit at a table with a playwright while they read their work aloud) and mystery performances on Monday and Tuesday nights.
From Sloane Square it's an easy stroll up Sloane Street to Brompton Road, the heart of Knightsbridge.
Along the way you pass Cadogan Place Gardens, an exquisitely tended private garden that is usually open only to residents. An annual open day in June offers outsiders the chance to enjoy it for themselves (see cadogan.co.uk).
Only slightly less exclusive - no key required - are the area's luxury boutiques. Even if your budget doesn't stretch that far, it's worth a peek inside simply to admire the sumptuous interiors. At Bottega Veneta, for instance, the lift that takes you to the womenswear is lined with camel-coloured suede.
Once you hit Brompton Road, it's time to choose between capitalism and culture. You can stop in at the shopping temples of Harrods and Harvey Nichols, or head down the road to where London's best collection of museums awaits. The Victoria and Albert Museum, or V&A, is deservedly one of London's most popular museums. Its focus on the decorative arts takes in everything from Islamic ceramics to art deco furniture, but the V&A is best-known for its blockbuster exhibitions. Showing until August 11 is a David Bowie retrospective. The neighbouring Natural History Museum and Science Museum are also great family destinations.
From here, it's an easy stroll to Hyde Park. Rather than taking the direct route, however, lose yourself along the way in the picturesque warren of squares and mews that litter the area.
Hyde Park itself has more to offer than just strolling or boating, although for family fun on a summer's day it's hard to beat the paddle boats on the Serpentine. Nearby is one of the park's best-kept secrets, the Serpentine Gallery. Its changing exhibitions showcase the best in contemporary art, including the work of artists such as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and Chris Ofili.
Each summer, the Serpentine Gallery also invites celebrated architects to create a temporary pavilion outside the gallery itself. Past architects have included Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron and Oscar Niemeyer; this year, it's Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto's turn. His cloud-like latticed structure, which will include a cafe, will be open for four months from June 8.
When it comes to dining, Knightsbridge also has plenty to offer. In Sloane Square, the always-packed Colbert brasserie is the latest venture from the team behind hugely popular art deco tea room the Wolsely.
Fish lovers will want to book a table at Outlaw's, the London outpost of Cornwall-based celebrity chef Nathan Outlaw. Outlaw serves only the freshest seafood, inventively presented, and the lunches are a steal, with two courses for £20 ($31), or three for £25.
Despite its polish, however, the area has still has its share of characters. Take the pocket-sized pub called the Nags Head, a wooden-fronted premises in a tranquil mews that hasn't changed much in the past 300 years. The small front room features an 1820s stove and all kinds of bric-a-brac, including a saucy Victorian "What the Butler Saw" peep show.
You'll often find the owner in attendance. Kevin Moran, a thespian who enjoyed a run playing monsters on Doctor Who in the 1970s and 1980s, runs the place with magisterial decorum and a few quirky rules. Ignore the "no mobile phones" sign at your peril: if your phone rings, you'll find yourself unceremoniously thrown out.
Ute Junker travelled courtesy of British Airways and the Capital Hotel.
Getting there British Airways has a fare to London Heathrow for about $1860 low-season return from Sydney, including taxes. It takes about 24 hours, including transit time in Singapore. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect; see britishairways.com.
Staying there The Capital is an intimate, family-run, five-star hotel just minutes from Harrods. A three-night package for two people starts from $1758 (low season). See capitalhotel.co.uk or contact your travel agent.
More information londontown.com