Insider Guide to St Albans
Probably the most urban location in Herts, St Albans is home to the first saint and the first hot cross bun, and it's full of contemporary independent places to eat, drink and shop!
St Albans is urban, busy and buzzy, with bags of Roman history, winding cobbled streets, impressive views and heaps of contemporary style. While it’s hugely popular for young families moving out of London, George Street in the Cathedral Quarter is fast becoming the cool destination for grown ups, with its independent restaurants and bars. This summer the opening of the new museum and art gallery is possibly the most exciting cultural happening in Herts. It’s home to Alban, the first saint, and the Alban Bun, the original Hot Cross Bun. Welcome to St Albans!
St Albans has lots of well known chains – The Ivy is on its way – but it’s the independent food scene that is increasingly interesting and exciting. For breakfast or brunch, head for George Street and the George Street Canteen. Cosy in cold weather, positively Mediterranean when the sun is out, the courtyard is also welcoming to dogs who can nibble on homemade dog biscuits. The food is absolutely gorgeous and the kitchen champions many local food producers. I love the cooked breakfasts with chorizo and halloumi, and the coffee is the best. Another good morning spot is Hatch on Holywell Hill, also renowned for its coffee.
Lunch. Well now, let me see. If you want a very reasonably priced set menu with a chef who gained a Michelin star while working with Jean-Christophe Novelli at Auberge du Lac, I suggest you head for Thompson St Albans. It’s opposite St Peter’s Church, a place worth visiting for a few minutes of perfect calm. The church sculpture garden is also good for a tranquil wander. Hatch is great for burgers, waffles, smoothies and juices. Per Tutti on Holywell Hill is also hugely popular and loved by locals.
Dinner. This is when you are spoilt for choice. St Albans just gets better and better. It’s back to George Street we go, to the Cathedral Quarter.
You would do well to visit Dylans, even if just for a drink. This is a cool and quirky pub with restaurant food that has people salivating and swooning. Be warned: it’s hard to get at table at the weekend, so book ahead. But it’s great fun in the bar. If you’re not eating here, you could choose between two brand new restaurants: Loft or The Abbey. Loft is run by Louise and Nick Male who owned The Larder in Clerkenwell and Nick was also executive chef at Conran Restaurants. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has been here loves the food. Opposite is The Abbey, where I sampled stunning canapés at the launch party this week. Run by a talented team with experience gained at Soho House and Petersham Nurseries, there’s a great buzz about this place. It’s the chef, Cat Ashton, who has come from Petersham Nurseries. Both Loft and The Abbey are contemporary and exciting spaces and St Albans is feeling very lucky indeed that they’ve arrived.
Oh, St Albans! What you really need right now is a couple of natty boutique hotels! There are rumours that the now defunct BHS is going to be a hip and happening place to stay, but that could be a long way off. In the meantime, try St Michael’s Manor on Fishpool Street, possibly the most beautiful residential street in St Albans. The hotel has been here for years and while compiling this guide, I asked so many people in the know to recommend a place to stay and they all said St Michael’s Manor. It’s a proper swanky hotel, so if you want somewhere simple, this might not be it. Waiting in the wings, is the brand new Torrington Hall, not open for business yet, but the rooms are ready and I’ve had a peek and I’m looking forward to going to stay. Torrington Hall has a wonderful position on Holywell Hill with views of the Cathedral and it’s a couple of minutes’ walk into town.
St Albans has cobbled streets galore and it’s a great blend of old and new. Start from the Clock Tower, built opposite the Abbey in 1405 as a symbol of defiance against the Abbot of St Albans, and make your way to the Cathedral. There’s a path to the left of the shop Raindrops on Roses which is a good route to take. You can also walk down George Street and take a left at the bottom at Romeland, and you’ll also arrive at the Cathedral. From here, you can walk further into Verulamium Park where you can run around in over 100 acres and admire the lake and also walk along part of the River Ver. You can visit The Hypocaust, a Roman mosaic, and I would also recommend Fishpool Street where I can guarantee you’ll develop an obsession with door knockers. Look out for fish, foxes, goats and snakes. Another good approach to the Cathedral is from Holywell Hill.
If it’s coffee, then the best places are Hatch (one on Holywell Hill and a proper hatch in the small shopping centre The Maltings) and George Street Canteen. For more grown up drinking, then it’s back to Dylans on George Street. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks with famous landlord Christo, dates back to the 8th Century. There are tunnels from the pub to the Abbey used by monks who wanted to pop out for a drink.
St Albans is full of upmarket chains but the real gems are the independents, all run by creative and talented people who understand the joy that shopping can bring. If you’re looking for gifts, head for Holywell Hill, where you should visit Cositas, which cleverly combines great gifts and interiors with regular workshops on painting techniques and how to build a terrarium. Cositas is flooded with light and it’s a very attractive shop. Further along you’ll find Hatch and then White Mint, a shop which has another branch in Berkhamsted. White Mint is great for gifts and party stuff and I guarantee you’ll find things there that you haven’t seen before. Check out Rock Pop Candy for retro sweets, also on Holywell Hill. For vinyl, head for Empire Records in Heritage Close. There’s a great vintage place, Little Viking, in the Courtyard, George Street.
Men with style (or hoping to find style), should head straight for D. Copperfield which is another shop where you’ll want to linger. While it’s extremely contemporary and the owner Harrison knows everything there is to know about style and quirky finds, the service is proper old-fashioned – warm and friendly. You will never be ignored here! What’s interesting about D. Copperfield is that it stocks brands that are quite out there and that would probably be at home in Tokyo. It also stocks the brand Snow Peak, so if you’re about to embrace the great outdoors and practise bushcraft and wild camping, you’ll find all the equipment here. For contemporary grooming and beard trims, I recommend the Alternative Barbering Co on George Street. While you’re there, check out Cerimonia, for extremely stylish wedding garb.
Raindrops on Roses is loved by all. Profits go to cancer charities and it’s full of lovely things. One thing I admire about the shops in this guide is that they are constantly changing their displays. And the owners and people who work with the shops really know their stuff. Also recommended is The Dressing Room – very stylish, and not at all intimidating. Chloe James is another shop to put on your list. The owner, Donna, is a key person on the shop local scene in St Albans. She organises a fashion show that sells out in hours and her shop is very much lifestyle – lots of clothes – but also loads of accessories and gifts. Do not pass Chloe James without going in! Same goes for D. Copperfield. Oh, and the best hair salon in town is Trinder Hair Studios, run by Marc and Sophie Trinder, who worked with Charles Worthington before bringing balayage to St Albans.
It goes without saying that you have to visit the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban while you are here. There’s the Shrine of St Alban and the longest nave in England are just two of the highlights. Scenes from The Crown were filmed here. As you would expect, there are lots of celebratory services over the Easter Weekend and on Easter Sunday, BBC Radio 3 is recording Choral Evensong at 3pm. If you’ve got children who have got project work on the Romans, or if you wish you knew a bit more about them, a visit to St Albans will do the job. Verulamium was the third biggest Roman town in Britain and Verulamium Museum is now built on the site of the Roman town. Here you will find golden coins and plasters and mosaics. From Easter onwards, in the High Street, you can also visit the Clock Tower, although I have literally just attempted the stairs and had a sudden attack of claustrophobia and had to come down again before reaching the top. Please don’t let this put you off! Market days: Wednesday and Saturday, and there’s a great Sunday farmer’s market once a month on St Peter’s Street.
Another great touristy thing to do is the Cathedral’s Tower Tour. You need to book for this but it’s a winner. And when you are in the Cathedral, remember to look up: the ceilings, mosaics and stained glass are stunning.
Depending on how long you are here, there are great theatre productions for children at the Sandpit Theatre. Again, you can head for Verulamium Park and then to the Verulamium Museum, where there are always great activities for kids at weekends and during school holidays. For food, I recommend Hatch on Holywell Hill and also George Street Canteen. There are interesting toys and books for younger children in Raindrops on Roses. Thompson St Albans has great make-your-own-puddings on the menu and Loft has entertainment in the bar area for kids on Sunday lunchtimes. And if you take your children to The Pudding Stop on Verulam Road they will love you forever. A new Persian ice cream place opens on Sat 31 March: Darlish in French Row.
Look out for the history of the Alban Bun, the original hot cross bun, still made at nearby Redbournbury Mill. During Easter, you can sample them at the Abbot’s Kitchen. While we’re talking about buns, there’s also the mobile Pudmobile in town, usually parked in Christopher Place, for salted caramel brownies and other delights.
St Albans is very proud of its vintage and independent cinema, The Odyssey. You’ll have to book tickets in advance, it’s very popular. There’s the Alban Arena for the big names and events, but you’ve also got a choice between The Maltings and the Sandpit Theatre, both smaller, and with interesting things going on.
This summer sees the opening of most exciting cultural centre in Herts: the new Museum and Art Gallery in the former Town Hall. For something calm and cultural, how about Evensong at the Cathedral. During the week: 5pm; Saturdays: 4pm; Sunday: 6.30pm. And if you want to see a film and haven’t been lucky enough to book the red velvet seats at The Odyssey, I suggest going along to The Pudding Stop on Sunday evening, where you can wallow in bread and butter pudding and milk ice cream while enjoying a delicious and classic film. The Film Festival is brilliant and runs from 26 June – 1 July 2018.
Head straight for Sucker Punch on George Street. Best bar in St Albans.
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