Cocktail at The Artesian Hotel
Credit: Amy Tara Koch

Newsflash: January is an excellent month to travel to Europe. The perception is that it is cold and miserable, a post holiday downer. I took full advantage of the travel discounts attached to this myth and hightailed it to London with my college BFF. Orchestrating this girls’ getaway wasn’t easy. But, through sly mileage machinations (my seven month advance purchase of an “off-peak” fare was reasonable. So, I used AA miles to upgrade. My pal sniffed out an American Express promotion that yielded 50k points that she transferred into her Delta Sky Miles account. The total cost of her ticket ? $200.) we pulled it off and were able to ditch our kids for 96 hours of unfettered fun.

Upon arrival at the Mandarin Oriental(selected for its primo location and excellent spa), we stowed our gear (and jet lag) and set the tone with a few glasses of “bubbles” (Brit speak for champagne) in the hotel’s swanky, new Rosebery Room. Then, we were off. First stop? The Wedding Dresses exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a must-see for fashion lovers. The show chronicles the evolution of the white wedding dress from 1774-2014 with standout pieces from Charles Worth, Norman Hartnell, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Vera Wang. Continuing with the fashion theme, we headed over to Notting Hillto trawl vintage shops. Aside from clothing, this gritty/glam area is filled with taxidermy and decades’ old Brit- specific tabletop curiosities. I love rogue branding. So, checking out the wacky Bright Old Things window display at Selfridge’s was on the docket. This homage to fourteen AARP aged artistes confirmed my belief that the old dears have far more moxie than millennials.

When I travel, I have a rule: only buy things that cannot be found at home. Translation? Avoid homogenous high streets and hunt for standout spots that could not exist anywhere else in the world. In London, this spot is Jermyn Street. Since 1664, this historic street (and the interior arcades that spring from the main drag) has been home to heritage purveyors of haberdashery, fragrance, leather and foodstuffs. Of specific interest is the fact that many of these shops hold the coveted royal warrant, a “by appointment to the queen” crest signifying exceptionally high quality. I bought a jaunty Donegal tweed newsboy cap at Bates Gentlemen’s Hatter (est 1898), some bath gel for my daughters at Floris (est 1730) and then embarked on a taste test of chocolate and cheese from two brands Prestat (est 1902) and Paxton & Whitfield (est 1797) purported to be the Queen’s favorites. Around the corner, we took tea (or, in my case, more bubbles) amongst the social swans at The Wolseley and finished up the day with a look-see at Liberty of London (est 1875) known for exuberant prints.

Our last day, we explored the art galleries and the hipster outposts of Shoreditch, the burgeoning East London neighborhood. We could have easily called it a night after massages at Cowshed Spa. But, I had heard about the fancy pants’ (high density ice! 3D drinks that change flavor! Beverages based on literary themes!) cocktails at The Artesian Bar inside The Langhamhotel and was intent on one last blast of glamour before our early morning flight. Let’s just say that my gin-based Camouflage cocktail (from the newly minted “Unfolding and Exploring” themed drinks’ menu) did not disappoint. The taste was light and refreshing. But, the presentation was what delighted. Served in a brass pineapple, the server lifted the lid for a playful reveal: smoky incense nesting on a bed of exotic flowers and orange rind. This, like the getaway, was a perfect jolt to the senses.

Amy Tara Koch is Travel + Leisure's Chicago Local Expert.