Literary City Guide | London, England, UK

London perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play and a story and a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets… To walk alone through London is the greatest rest.
— Virginia Woolf

Tour Guide: Elena Bowes

Elena Bowes

Elena, a native San Franciscan, moved to stimulating London nearly twenty-five years ago after getting an MA from Columbia Journalism School in New York. She writes about travel for Indagare, helps edit 26, to inspire a love of words, and is getting an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University. For fun she’s a culture vulture, Instagram addict and avid park walker. (Photos by Elena Bowes)


Relationship to London: I moved here in the late eighties. Like a good love story, I hated it at first, but eventually was won over and now can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Ok so he’s more a comedian than a writer, but Graham Norton would be my ideal dinner date, as well as Tina Fey and the late Nora Ephron. I like to laugh.

Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Ruthie Rogers of the River Café.

Writing soundtrack: Silence is best. Sometimes I even wear ear-plugs to drown out the snoring pug. 

Pen or Pencil: Nothing beats my Niceday retractable ballpoints. 

Coffee or Tea: Coffee in the morning, chamomile in the evening.

Paperback or Hardback: Paperback or Kindle Paperlite. I move around a lot so convenience trumps beauty.

Good Reads


Books for Cooks. Notting Hill’s famous cookbook shop stocking over 8,000 books where they really do “cook the books.” Cookbook recipes are tested out in the café in the back and during cooking courses upstairs. This delicious smelling shop is a must visit for all cookbook junkies.

Lutyens & Rubinstein. Opened in 2009 by literary agents Sarah Lutyens and Felicity Rubenstein. They have stocked the two-floor haven with everything from popular novels to reprints of neglected classics. There are also clever bespoke services, award-winning marmalade and honey (season permitting) made by Notting Hill bees kept by Rubenstein’s husband.

Daunt Books. The Marylebone branch of this small chain of bookshops is housed in a sunny, welcoming Edwardian building. The travel section is predictably divided by country, but tucked within each destination are works of fiction, non-fiction, maps and guides. Interesting authors come to speak every month, and the Hampstead branch leads walking book groups through Hampstead Heath. (83 Marylebone High Street, W1U 4QW)

John Sandoe, Chelsea. This small treasure trove opened in the 1950’s and is full of eclectic books piled high in ever corner with the most knowledgeable, approachable staff able to suggest and locate all hidden gems with ease. (10 Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea SW3 2SR)

Persephone Books. Persephone is an independent shop that publishes out of print, unfairly ignored fiction and non-fiction books by women. Their books are famous for their intricately decorated covers. (59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1N 3NB)


The London Library. The London Library feels like a gentlemen’s club where silently reading versus chatting is encouraged. There are 15 miles of bookshelves accessing more than a million books dating back to the 16th century to present day. Past members have included Charles Dickens, TS Eliot and Agatha Christie. Visitors can buy a day ticket for £15, but they need to send an email to the enquiries desk beforehand- all very proper and oh so British. (4 St James Square, SW1Y 4LG)

The British Library. When it comes to size, the British Library wins big. The collection is so vast that if a visitor looked at five items a day, it would take him 80,000 years to view the entire collection. The Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebook, Beatles manuscripts, are just a small sampling of the unique books and sacred texts on display. (96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB)


Hay Festival. An annual festival at the end of May where writers, thinkers, film-makers, historians, poets and environmentalists to name just a few converge in the bookish town of Hay in the Black Mountains in Wales. The full list of speakers will be published in April, but a few luminaries speaking this year (2014) include Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, Arianna Huffington and Tony Morrison.

Local Bookstores. Daunt Books and Lutyens & Rubenstein (see links above) host a variety of readings throughout the year.


Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. Several great writers have been buried here, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. There are also several memorials to other greats from Jane Austen to Henry James to Lord Byron.

Bibliotherapists at the School of Life. Bespoke literary prescriptions are offered to clients after consulting with them about their reading habits and goals. The bibliotherapist tries to guide clients to books that will “enchant, enrich and inspire them, often by suggesting new literary directions.” They have recently published The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies.

Chelsea Physic Garden. A quiet sanctum by the river Thames in central London. On a sunny day there’s no better place to get lost in a book on a bench with the café nearby for refreshment breaks. 

The London Blue Plaque Guide. Get inspired by seeing where lots of world famous authors once lived, from Frances Hodgson Burnett to Joseph Conrad to Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh. They all lived in this cool city.


Good Eats


TomTom Coffee House. Tom’s is my local, and I go there every day for the tasty coffee and convivial atmosphere. Customers both regulars and tourists sit around a large communal table reading newspapers and chatting. Dogs are welcome. 

The Attendant.  This coffee shop gets top marks for originality. Set in what was an underground Victorian public bathroom, the Attendant has been lovingly restored and fully cleaned. There are a few remnants from its former life like the original porcelain urinals which are now coffee benches and food can be ordered through the old attendant’s window. The Attendant in Fitzrovia is a good afternoon pick-me-up place where batches of coffee are ground daily by Caravan and ‘cooknies’, a combination peanut butter cookie and brownie are on offer. Fitzrovia and neighboring Soho are full of good coffee shops like Flat White on Berwick Street and Kaffeine on Great Titchfield. (downstairs, 27A Foley Street, W1W 6DY)


Tom’s Kitchen. This is my ideal breakfast/brunch spot in the heart of Chelsea. With its long wooden tables, open-to-view kitchen and wood-burning stove, the restaurant serves up simple, seasonal, freshly sourced dishes. For breakfast there’s Eggs Royale with smoked salmon or crisp Belgian waffles with carmelized apples, cinnamon cream and maple syrup. Being a Californian at heart, I usually get the homemade granola, berries and Greek yogurt. (27 Cale Street, SW3 3QP)

Olivomare. A delicious fish restaurant in Belgravia owned by the charming, hard working Sardinian Mauro Sanna who owns four top-notch eateries and two foodie shops all within a stone’s throw of one another. The octopus salad and crab linguini are my staples although everything on the menu is really good. (10 Lower Belgrave Street, SW1W 0LJ)

Nopi. Ottolenghi’s first foray into the restaurant world, resides in Nopi (North of Piccadilly). With an accent on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, the chic eatery serves a variety of healthy dishes with loads of flavor. Situated in the West End’s Theaterland, Nopi is a good place to go before the theater. Diners can sit on the more formal ground floor (marble and brass galore) or eat at a long canteen table in the more casual lower ground looking onto the open kitchen. (21-22 Warwick Street, W1B 5NE)

Bocca di Luppo. In the heart of Soho is a small Italian trattoria with only 14 tables and a buzzy bar/chef’s counter at the front. The food is delicious Italian with lots of homemade goodies, including the pasta, sausages, salami and focaccia. Save some room at the end of the meal for Gelupo (same talented owners) across the street serving delicious homemade gelato. I’m partial to the rich chocolate sorbet although there are plenty of innovative flavors too like the ricotta or vanilla and saffron. Booking is essential. (12 Archer Street, W1D 7BB)

The River Cafe. This restaurant is perfect for special occasions like a birthday or an anniversary. It’s a bit out of town in Hammersmith with a garden overlooking the river so ideal for summer dining. The River Café opened in 1987 in a disused oil storage facility that was modified by architect Lord Rogers, husband of one of the River Café founders, Ruth Rogers. Ten years later this simple, unpretentious trattoria focusing on fresh ingredients like lemon, tomato, chili and Parmesan, won a Michelin star. Several successful chefs trained at the River Café such as Jessica Boncutter of Bar Jules in San Francisco and April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig in New York City. Specialties include the John Dory smoked in the restaurant’s own wood stove, wild mushroom risotto, lemon almond cake and the divine chocolate “Nemesis” cake. (Rainville Rd, W6 9HA)


Not a week goes by without me dropping into Ottolenghi my favorite London deli for some delicious salad, blueberry crumble muffin or café mocha. And if I’m at home, their cookbooks are my kitchen bible. 

Elena's 5 Favorites

1. Favorite view: London has so many pretty views, but for sheer panorama mixed with history climb up the 528-step ascent to the viewing platform in St Paul’s Cathedral. Or for something less strenuous but still scenic, amble across the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern. Then take the lift, I mean elevator, to level 6 and admire St Paul’s beyond the Thames River from Tate’s floor to ceiling glass windows.

2. Favorite place to write: My cozy office at home, the only noise, my snoozing pug Antoinette.

3. Favorite museum: It’s a toss up between Tate Modern and the Victoria & Albert. They both host frequent thought-provoking, beautiful shows. The V&A gift shop is good for original presents.

4. Favorite coffee shop: Tomtom Coffee House on Elisabeth Street in Belgravia. 

5. Favorite thing about London: I love the diversity of London. I’m never bored. It’s ancient yet modern, grand yet intimate, dynamic yet tranquil. London is packed with charming neighborhoods, terrific museums, delicious restaurants and peaceful parks. Plus the British capital is an ideal hub from which to visit other European destinations.