travel tips

Your insider’s travel guide to London, according to a luxury concierge

Paddy Renouf is the founder of London-based luxury concierge business Serendipity by Renouf. Here, he gives his guide to traversing the city the luxe way

From little-known museums to the best live music haunts, Renouf gives his guide to London’s best attractions

Paddy Renouf, 63, is a professional flâneur and founder of Serendipity by Renouf. The Briton started out selling medical devices around the world, then pivoted to become the premier fixer/tour guide in London almost two decades ago; think of him as a connected friend you can hire to squire you around.

He’s been used by everyone from Kelsey Grammer to travel company Black Tomato, which tasked the dapper Renouf – with his quite-possibly-an-undercover-spy affect – to be the face and voice of its 007-themed itineraries.

Renouf’s airline of choice? Virgin. “They make just as many mistakes as all the other people, but it’s just the way they handle their mistakes: good-humoured and good-natured and smiley and fun,” he says. Much of Renouf’s mileage is by foot, tramping around London, but he usually shuttles to and from the US several times a year, logging around 60,000 miles or so at 36,000 feet.

He lives in London’s Soho in a house built in 1732 for Burkat Shudi, a harpsichord maker who made instruments for such neighbours as Handel, Haydn, and Mozart. Below, he gives his insider’s guide to traversing London the luxe way.

Upgrade to the pointiest part of the plane – even when you’re not on business

Whenever you can, fly first class. Leisure travellers in first class have the time and inclination to be open and gracious to other first-class passengers. Wealthy leisure travellers are quite different from [chief executive officers] and managing directors.

Families travelling in first class have got all the time and natural curiosity to enjoy a good conversation with someone they’ve just met, because that’s all part of the experience of travelling.

On the way back from New York once, I was upgraded into first class – and who should I meet? Sir Tim Rice. We then had an hour and a half in first class, discussing musicals with one-half of the living legend of musicals, and he soon became a very good friend. We met for lunch and dinner a few times.

If you do have to fly in economy, this will upgrade the experience

When you’re travelling, little touches make life more bearable. When you wake up in the middle of the night, particularly if you’re travelling in economy, you need two or three beautiful oranges, some eye gel, and moisturiser.

Peel one of the oranges, put some moisturiser behind your ear lobes and the eye gel on, and you’ll feel like you just had a spa treatment in first class. Oranges don’t squash, and they’re absolutely fresh when you peel them. And I use D.R. Harris moisturiser.

Paddy has one rule for his clients when planning an itinerary

No sightseeing on an empty stomach. To really appreciate anything that demands your concentration, you have to have eaten. Otherwise, you get fatigued incredibly quickly from the crowds and the overload of information.

Street food bought from Borough market

I like to take people to Borough Market, which people are gobsmacked to find is in England. The fun of walking around there is that you can graze as you’re doing it: the oyster bar is a standout, because you can knock back a few and it feels a bit naughty, and the paella stand looks so spectacular about eight feet across, filled with rice. There’s a wonderful sense of going off-piste, indulging and treating yourself to all the delicate tidbits.

There’s a hidden place for a dip right in the centre of London

I really love going for a swim in the Serpentine, a huge flooded lake, which George II did to commemorate his wife, Caroline. There’s an area of it that's got a bathhouse and a cafe, and you can swim; they’ve sectioned it off and you can swim there every single day of the year. Just pay your fee and go in.

It’s not leisurely as people go to swim laps. It’s so energising. It’s busy in the morning and evening, so I’d go for elevenses or early afternoon. There’s something very beautiful about swimming in a lake in the middle of a city – you get the smell of the country.

Don’t miss London’s answer to the Frick in New York

The Wallace Collection

I love showing young people around the Wallace Collection. It’s a townhouse of an aristocratic family displaying their collection of souvenirs from the grand tour, which shows that they’re not just wealthy, they’re also cultured and educated. I get them laughing at Rembrandt’s Laughing Cavalier there, for example when we look at self-portraits; these were early selfies.

This overlooked musuem is an unsung hero

The Mail Rail in Farringdon is great for families. You can get a ticket or hire it privately, which is what I’ve done for clients. It’s next to the Post Museum. The train underground used to deliver up to 45 million letters, but it stopped in 2003 because texting took over; it was totally not viable financially.

So they made it into a visitor attraction, and you can have a ride on that train. When I explain the volume of messages – the excitement of sending something handwritten to the very front door of whoever it is all over the world – children become so engaged.

Want to catch live music in London? Renouf’s recommendation might surprise you

Everybody’s heard of Ronnie Scott’s around the corner, but underneath Pizza Express in Dean Street, in Soho, is one of the finest jazz venues in Europe. It’s authentic, live jazz and it’s in a pizza joint, so it’s quite egalitarian – expansive, with a good stage.

I’ve been there with Alfie Boe, the singer, and Kelsey Grammer – they starred in Finding Neverland together on Broadway. There was a drummer there that Alfie was thinking of hiring for his next tour, so we were sitting there anonymously, eating pizza.

Skip afternoon tea at a five-star hotel, and do this instead

I find afternoon teas at hotels formulaic and rather embarrassing and trite and overpriced. It’s better to go to Fortnum & Mason, get a hamper and go to the park. Fortnum & Mason is old school and good fun. Tell them “I want to do the perfect afternoon tea,” and they’ll give you advice.

Don’t assume a five-star hotel concierge will work magic only for guests of the property

If you are a frequent traveller, it pays to befriend and become close to the best concierge in each city that you regularly visit. And generally, the grander and more established the hotel, the better the concierge will be.

You do not have to be staying at the hotel in which the concierge is working, as they are at liberty to act freelance – to operate in any way they want. The best operating concierges I know are the ones who say that a person comes into the hotel and introduces themselves; if they're likely to be making a lot of requests, put the 50 pound or dollar note straight in the handshake. Now you’ve got a pitch to play on.

Say, “I don’t always stay at this hotel, but I’m in town frequently.” Any tickets to shows and access to special events and restaurants are suddenly easy to come by, and over time you have developed a lovely relationship with an ally in a foreign city. Most good concierges are people pleasers.

These secret greenspaces will elevate your experience of Regent’s Park

Most people who go to Regent’s Park regularly don’t even know about St. John’s Lodge. It’s absolutely exquisite. I think the house is now owned by the Sultan of Brunei, a wonderful wedding cake of a house.

St John’s Lodge, Regent’s Park

But the gardens have been sectioned off for the public, and you can get to it down a secret path and through a gate. No more than an acre, it has the most exquisite planting and herbaceous borders.

And the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is about 400 years old and designed by an apothecary, so the plants were planted for medicinal purposes in the time of Charles [II]. There’s an utterly beautiful South African tulip tree there, though I don’t know what its benefits are. Just turn up and pay the entry fee.