London for the Holidays: Tips From Claridge’s Head Concierge, Martin Ballard

Martin Ballard

Set in the heart of London’s Mayfair and one of the finest 5-star hotels in the world, Claridge’s, is a home away from home for royalty, politicians, the well-to-do and celebrities since the late 1800s.  Still as glamorous and decadent as ever, with 195 plush rooms and suites; Michelin-star cuisine at Fera at Claridge’s; gorgeous afternoon tea in the Foyer & Reading Room; people watching over champagne in the bar, all particularly breathtaking at this time of year, with the annual Christmas installation, this year, by Apple’s head of design, Sir Jony Ive and industrial designer Marc Newson, both longtime clients of the hotel, who’ve created virtual winter wonderland in the lobby. 

All very fabulous, but it’s the staff that bring Claridge’s to life, so Luxury Travel Advisor sat down with Head Concierge, Martin Ballard, to see why he thinks the holidays are the best time to visit London.  A native Londoner, Ballard’s been with Claridge’s since October,1980, working his way up from a page boy, now he has contacts all over the world and is a member of Les Clefs d’Or. He’s even met future President Trump, and served five past U.S. Presidents: Nixon, Carter, Regan, Bush Sr. and Clinton. 

What do you suggest guests do in London over the holidays?

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The Christmas lights around London are spectacular, I always send guests to see them around Mayfair, top spots are Mount Street, Bruton Street (incidentally the Queen was born on this street, and now the very spot is Hakkasan) and my personal favorite, New Bond Street.  There’s so much to do this time of year, markets, music, ice skating, and another favorite, Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park

Best places for ice skating?  Natural History Museum, for the grandeur of the building, and Somerset House, for the elegance of the setting and pop-up food and drinks by Fortnum and Mason.

Top spots for Christmas lunch or dinner? For a proper affair of turkey, trimmings and Christmas pudding, you really need to dine at a hotel, naturally I’d suggest here, The Berkley or The Connaught. Top tip: to buy a Christmas pudding, which our hotels sell, and you can eat it up to one year later!  If you don’t fancy a traditional Christmas dinner, try Novikov, which serves Asian or Italian, two restaurants in the one space, or Indian at Tamarind  Some of the better Michelin-star restaurants close for Christmas because they can’t get the supplies, but generally re-open for Boxing Day.

Festive holiday cocktails?  For people watching, a fun spot is the traditional Grenadier Pub in Belgrave Square,, which is over 300 years old and was used by the Duke of Wellington’s officers.  The newly redone Blue Bar at The Berkeley, is great spot for being seen.  For a view, the Pont de la Tour,, the restaurant where Tony Blair famously took Bill Clinton. A secret tip of mine is lunch at The Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, where you can see all the way to the Houses of Parliament.

Holiday theatre or Pantomimes? I love the English tradition of the Panto, the best show this year is Cinderella at the London Palladium  Another favorite for the holidays, The Nutcracker, there are four productions on in London, the best is Royal Opera House, second choice is the Coliseum  The holidays are a great time for music in London, try and catch a carol concert, my favorite place for this is the Brompton Oratory next to the V&A, they do the most amazing midnight Mass.  I once sent a guest there and Placido Domingo was singing, and it was not advertised!

Do the museums or historical sights do anything special for the holidays, if so, recommendations? Not necessarily particular to the holidays, but the Picasso at National Portrait Gallery is incredible, and at the moment, Elton John’s collection of photographs (ends in March) at the Tate Modern.  I love to send guests to the Victoria & Albert, just to see the collection of ceramics, silver and paintings and The Wallace Collection, which is a smaller gallery, a bit like the Frick in NYC.

Holiday shopping suggestions?  Beyond all the well known department stores, and luxury branded spots, I like to send clients to the nearby Mount Street, Burlington Arcade and Jermyn Street, for English boutiques that offer incredible quality, also fun is Borough Market for food and Portobello Road for treasure hunting.

What are some examples of special arrangements / VIP activities or excursions they make for guests during the holidays?

Something unusual we’ve done with lots of success is to arrange private concerts, where I get a choir, singers, or a well-known violinist to come and perform in a suite. 






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