Paris might hold the crown of most romantic city in the popular imagination, but London isn't short of sensational spots for a smooch at any time of the day. Hellbent on a holiday romance during your visit? Why not forgo a predictable date night in favour of one of these amorous adventures in the UK's capital city?
The breakfast date
If you've been out in the wee small hours, rather than waiting miserably for the night bus home, stay the distance and take a dawn stroll around Lutyens' fountains in Trafalgar Square – at this time of day they are still-water mirrors undisturbed by tourists. Time it right (about 8.25am) and you’ll even see the fountains hiss into life. Then take a 15-minute stroll to Arlington St for a fancy brunch at Le Caprice (www.le-caprice.co.uk).
Other top brunch spots are the Hackney Pearl and the Counter Café in Hackney Wick; No 67 (number67.co.uk) at Peckham’s South London Gallery, where you can order the 'full Spanglish' (a Spanish-inspired take on the traditional English breakfast); the Wolseley in Piccadilly, where Lucian Freud used to take a spot of breakfast; and Balthazar (balthazarlondon.com), the perpetually booked New York bistro transplanted to Covent Garden – breakfast is the only time you can just rock up and take a seat, which means no tedious date-waits.
Browsing intimate, independent bookshops with somebody special is always romantic, and nowhere is that more true than at Heywood Hill in Mayfair (www.heywoodhill.com). Aside from its snug book-crammed interior, the shop is a monument to London’s bohemian literary scene. Bluestocking Nancy Mitford minded the shop in WWII, and it is still staffed by passionate bibliophiles who understand the importance of matching the right book with the right person (or couple). Once your purchases have been wrapped in brown paper, tuck them under your arm and, like any self-respecting true romantic, head to Keats House in Hampstead. This is one of the prettiest spots in London, and it's where the young poet fell in love with Fanny Brawne, the girl next door.
On the other side of London, in Eltham, less modest passions were taking shape at the romantic art deco Eltham Palace, home of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who met while skiing in Courmayeur. They came home to transform this 14th-century palace into a modish 1930s abode, where they lived with their pet lemur, Mah Jong. You can picnic by the lawn on coconut slices or cream teas.
My favourite romantic outing is the ‘date lunch’, which can often surprise with the best meals and most inventive atmosphere. For example, in the restaurant at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond you can enjoy fine dining amid potted plants and salvaged artworks in the rain-proof safety of the glass houses. Closer to town, opt for rooftop dining at the Boundary, Terence Conran’s hotel in a renovated printworks. In winter it is kitted out with heaters and cosy Welsh wool blankets; in summer, you can toast each other with Champagne or micro-brews as you gobble steaks from the BBQ.
Stressed out city workers should skive off on the DLR and head for Mudchute Park and Farm, London’s best effort at country fun. Nearby pub The Gun does an excellent Barnsley lamb chop served with smugglers' tales on a deck over the Thames. If you're staying on the north bank of the Thames, we recommend lunch at the Towpath Café (Whitmore Road, N15SB) while watching swans and coots on Regent’s Canal in Islington.
Breaking patterns is the key to excitement and romance, so take the afternoon off work to climb the hill in Greenwich Park to the Royal Observatory, where you can straddle different hemispheres on the Meridian Line. Return on the Thames Clipper past city landmarks after dark, when the lights twinkling on the river are magical. Alternatively, head west to walk amid showy camellias and daffodils on the Isabella Plantation walk in Richmond Park (enter via the Ladderstile or Ham gate), or sneak a lunch and matinee at the BFI in central London, or at the super-cool film club at Olympic Studios (www.olympicstudios.co.uk) in Barnes.
Unhurried afternoon tea is also a dead cert for romance: opt for low-key and exotic at Teanumu Chaya Teahouse (www.teanamu.com/teahouse) or the tea room at Asia House (asiahouse.org/about/mackwoods-tea-room), or stick with tradition at the Goring, which won the Tea Guild’s Oscar for best afternoon tea in 2013.
Dinner at last, but where should you go that isn’t tediously predictable? It’s hard to beat the faded gilt grandeur of Wilton’s Music Hall or its eclectic program of concerts, plays and cabaret for Old World glamour and fun. And on Mondays, you can hear musicians for free in the Mahogany Bar.
Late nights at museums are also a popular spot for flirting, especially candlelight night at Sir John Soane’s Museum, when the stained glass sparkles and Egyptian antiquities and neoclassical sculptures peer from the shadows. Cocktails with flamingos will undoubtedly impress at the Kensington Roof Gardens; or you could charm your other half’s socks off with a game of ping pong at Bounce (www.bouncepingpong.com): it’s located in Holborn in the basement of the building where the game was first invented in 1901. And it's not just about the game, there are grown-up gin cocktails and pizza for hungry competitors.
If you absolutely must do a romantic dinner, go to Galvin at Windows on the 28th floor of the Hilton. With its 360-degree, bird's-eye view of the city, it's like flying to Hong Kong for the night. It’s also sexy, Michelin-starred and expensive. And romantic? Hell, yes.