London is a series of villages, each with its own shopping highlights. For organic specialist stores there's Covent Garden, for antique flea markets Notting Hill's Portobello Road, while the centre for old and rare books is Charing Cross Road.
But when it comes to designer labels and luxury goods, the undisputed champion is Mayfair. Loosely defined as the area enclosed by Oxford Street and Regent Street on one side, and Park Lane and Piccadilly on the other – with Bond Street running through the centre – Mayfair is a melting pot of galleries, bespoke tailors, antique dealers and designer fashion labels, with some of the capital's top hotels and restaurants to relax in after a hard day of boutique-browsing.
There are several art and antiques centres in London, but as you walk south from Oxford Street on New Bond Street you'll pass the famous auctioneersBonhams and Sotheby's as well as other long-established specialists like The Fine Art Society and Bond Street Antiques Centre. The Fine Art Society has been based at 148 New Bond Street since 1876 and specialises in British art and design from the 17th to the 21st centuries. It has regular exhibitions: from December 6 to 21 the gallery is showing the drawings of children's literature artist EH Shepard – known for characters such as Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore (for sale at prices between £300 and £1,000).
Another place worth browsing isPaul Smith, which is better known as a designer clothes label, but you'll find no clothes at this outlet that opened last year at 9 Albemarle Street. Instead, the shop displays an eclectic range of antiques and curiosities, from old 1980s copies of The Facemagazine (£10 each) to antique furniture with a modern Paul Smith-style twist – like a pair of late-19th century French chairs upholstered in Paul Smith stripe/swirl fabric (£3,500).
Mayfair is also home to several old-fashioned arcades, the oldest of which is theBurlington Arcade, built in 1819, which makes for an atmospheric stroll. Perhaps the area's most famous street, though, is Savile Row, where traditional tailors have been making bespoke suits for more than a century. Savile Row was also home to the offices of The Beatles' Apple Corps, and The Beatles' final live performance took place on the roof of the building on January 30, 1969. Today the street is home to very English-sounding names in tailoring, such as Richard James and Henry Poole & Co, although international brand Abercrombie and Fitch is also about to open a store.
Several Savile Row businesses joined forces last year to campaign against proposed rent increases that would favour large chains over the smaller-scale traditional tailors – one of these wasGieves & Hawkes, which was once a military outfitter and has been based at No. 1 Savile Row since 1912. The shop, with its wooden floors, huge ceiling-lanterns and gilt-edged mirrors, is split into the classic, timeless Gieves & Hawkes collection, and the younger, funkier Gieves fashion line, as well as a large bespoke department.
It may be a traditional English tailor but under its new creative director, Joe Casely-Hayford, the company has deliberately strayed from the traditional for its autumn/winter 2006 Gieves collection. Casely-Hayford's most unusual item is the Buckshot brogue. Casely-Hayford shot himself in the foot quite literally when he experimented with the classic English brogue by aiming shotgun blasts at his feet and studying the patterns of buck shot that resulted. The winning configuration was then plotted onto a Goodyear welted sole shoe. The shoe features in the autumn/winter 2006 collection (in navy and brown; £240) as well as the spring/summer 2007 collection.
Another unique item is the military-style Strathconon coat (approximately £3,000), which is part of this collection's themes of resurrecting old materials. In this case it's the "Strathconon" tweed, first used in 1909. It has been used to create a splendid bespoke coat, made entirely by hand – a timeless, classy item.
If, on the other hand, it's designer labels you're looking for, there are few international labels that have missed the opportunity to open an outlet in Mayfair. The list of boutiques on Bond Street is endless, fromPrada, Armani and Burberry to Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen.
For another home-grown brand, tryAquascutum, at 100 Regent Street, another quintessentially British clothes brand trying to broaden its appeal. One of the UK's oldest clothing labels, Aquascutum is famous for its trench coat, which was invented to keep soldiers in the trenches dry in the First World War.
The company has revamped its flagship store, and it's clear that coats are still what the company does best: there is a dedicated "raincoat room", where you can thumb through "classic" trench coats, but the seasonal collections also include reworked versions of its classic coat, such as the soft cream water-repellent cotton Orson coat (£1,200), and the superb military-style great coats, like the Warner coat (£895).
As Christmas approaches, there are endless places in Mayfair to look for luxury presents, large and small. For those sweet of tooth try a box of chocolates fromCharbonnel et Walker (1, Royal Arcade), one of Britain's earliest chocolate makers, dating back to 1875. Another good place for gifts and accessories is Smythson of Bond Street(40 New Bond Street), a stationer and leather goods specialist and one of only eight companies in the world to have all four Royal Warrants. Dating back to 1887, the elegant flagship store has a mini-museum documenting its most famous customers such as Diana, the late Princess of Wales, as well as a recent photograph of her sons, both chuckling over the contents of a Smythson "snogs" notebook (in duck-egg blue calfskin leather).
Smythson has an extensive range of leather accessories, with newer additions including an iPod Nano case and a smart lightweight glossy black briefcase in calfskin with compartments for Blackberrys, and mobile phones (£750). Rather than the subdued, traditional colours you might expect, Smythson's two newest shades across its range are bright pink and an even brighter green. If you prefer something less lurid, there's an elegant peacock-blue which is restricted to the autumn/winter 2006 collection (stock will likely last until January).
Perennially popular items include the Classic Travel Wallet in pigskin (£235), with compartments for tickets, passport, currency, credit cards and boarding pass. Quirkier items for gifts are the Cellar Book (£145), a hard-bound book in which oenophiles can record details of their wine purchases, consumption and storage.
At the other end of the scale of gift-buying – perhaps if you're expecting a healthy Christmas bonus – is a luxury watch. Whether you're looking for a jewellery watch or you have a passion for mechanical timepieces, Mayfair will serve you.Watches of Switzerland, on the corner of Old Bond Street and Piccadilly, stocks a huge range of brands, such as Blancpain, IWC and Jaeger leCoultre, while Wempe, at 135 New Bond Street, has brands such as Breitling, Baume & Mercier and Glashütte Original.
For a very special timepiece, tryBoutique Breguet(10A New Bond Street). Breguet watches are instantly recognisable to watch connoisseurs by the distinctive fluting around the case band, and the famous "Breguet hands". Breguet is also the inventor of the original tourbillon, one of the most widely revered watch complications.
Breguet watches are items to be treasured: an entry-level piece starts at £6,500. There are relatively few watches on display in the small Mayfair boutique, indicating their exclusivity; however, appointments are not necessary, and you are welcome to go in and browse.
Today one of the most popular Breguets is the marine chronograph hand-engraved, with a self-winding movement and dial in 18-carat silvered gold, and water-resistant to 100 metres. Its most eye-catching design is the La Tradition, which has a brand-new movement, built entirely in-house at Breguet's Switzerland workshop, and is a piece of watchmaking heritage. With its hand-wound mechanical movement on display, it contains a version of the master's original design for shock protection, developed in 1790. La Tradition became available in white gold in summer 2006, and an automatic version will follow soon.
If Mayfair's boutiques and galleries make your feet, and your wallet, ache, there is no shortage of places to stop and gather your strength. This area boasts some of London's grandest hotels, withClaridge's, The Dorchester and The Ritz all within a short walk. You can't get more iconic than afternoon tea at The Ritz on Piccadilly (£35 per person), or there's Brown's Hotelon Albemarle Street. This historic hotel is offering a festive afternoon tea until December 31, including fine-cut sandwiches with turkey and cranberry, fresh scones with jam and clotted cream and a selection of cakes and pastries (£32.50 per person). You can also buy Afternoon Tea Certificates, costing from £59 for two people.
For more indulgent pampering, tryDuke & Co on 46 Curzon Street, which stocks products from La Prairie, Dermatologica and American anti-ageing specialist N.V. Perricone. Its signature treatment is the La Prairie Swiss Cellular Treatment, with a facial and massage (90 minutes costs £125). All treatments are available as gift certificates.