An expert’s guide to London neighbourhoods
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One of the greatest charms of London is that rather than it being one huge hulking metropolis, it actually feels like a ramshackle cluster of villages, each with its own vibe, quirks and personality.
Whilst Greater London is officially divided into 32 boroughs, some of which even locals haven’t heard of, Londoners really define areas of the city by neighbourhood. We talk of heading to a gig in Brixton, rather than “Lambeth”, and for drinks in Soho, rather than “The City of Westminster”. Their boundaries are often a little more abstract, and it is these neighbourhoods that we will dive into.
If you want to eat well and have — perhaps too much — fun, Soho is the spot. This is probably the most well-known neighbourhood in London and it’s somewhat sordid past spills over to today in a buzzy and exciting way.
Soho is bordered by Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road to the north, Regent Street to the west, Charing Cross Road to the east, and Shaftesbury Avenue to the south. It is home to some of the most famous and popular theatres, bars and restaurants, and the original outpost of world-famous members club, Soho House on Greek Street.
For a full Soho experience, get tickets to a West End show, march up and down Old Compton Street and the surrounding area for drinks and book in for a late-night session at one of the oldest jazz clubs in the world, Ronnie Scott’s.
If you’ve got cash to splash, head slightly south-west of central London to Knightsbridge. You’ll find some of the most expensive real estate in the country here with the highest-value properties fetching up to £7,000 per square foot.
Even if you don’t think you’ll be buying a pad, it’s fun to look around and soak up the atmosphere of the very wealthy and international crowd. No trip to London is complete without experiencing Harrods, the U.K.’s poshest department store.
The beating heart of east London, Shoreditch rose to fame as an edgy spot and although it has certainly become far more mainstream, you’ll still find the trendiest hotels like the Nobu, restaurants and independent retailers there.
A local favourite is the Colombia Road Flower Market, which is open every Sunday. Not only will you nab a bargain on an incredibly wide array of plants and flowers, but you’ll get a sense of “old London”, with the stall owners shouting out their offers of the day. Don’t miss the small alleyways that run off Columbia Road for incredible vintage finds, coffees and cakes at places like Lily Vanilli Bakery.
Also known to locals as the square mile, this small enclave is a world in itself — home to huge banks, law firms, insurance companies and the London Stock Exchange. The City sits on the eastern side of London, and you can always tell when you are within its boundaries by the unique black white and red starred bollards that line the roads.
The architecture is different here to much of the rest of London, as it’s home to many of the city’s skyscrapers (the rest clustered further east at Canary Wharf). One of the most fun-looking buildings in the city is here, at 30 St Mary Axe, and is known colloquially as the Gherkin.
There is also lots of history here. The City is home to the Tower of London and some very historical markets like Leadenhall Market and the delightfully regenerated Spitalfields Market, full of interesting stalls, more high-end stores and a plethora of food options.
Brixton in south London is really up-and-coming, multicultural and, best of all, perhaps — it’s the birthplace of David Bowie. Brixton is also home to some of London’s best-loved music venues like the Brixton Academy and the Electric Brixton. It also has strong ties to the Caribbean, which is reflected in the vibrant culture, food and shopping. It’s also where Britain’s first cultural centre dedicated to black heritage can be found.
Brixton Market is certainly worth a visit. Here, you can find delicious food from practically every continent. Part of the market is on Electric Avenue — the song with the same name, written by Eddy Grant, refers to this area of the market. Another interesting fact is that the Franco Manca pizza revolution started in Brixton. Give thanks by popping in for a sourdough feast on Market Row.
Greenwich Village in south-east London is a true “out of London” day trip experience. There is the enormous Greenwich Park, home to the Observatory, where the prime meridian passes through — where the expression “Greenwich Mean Time” comes from. You can actually stand on the line with one foot in each half of the earth. After that, take in the magnificent views of the city with a picnic. Greenwich is a great place for a family day out as there is also the National Maritime Museum — which is free — and the Old Royal Naval College, which has featured in films such as “Les Miserables” and “The King’s Speech”.
Then there’s the majestic Cutty Sark — a restored old British clipper ship that used to be one of the fastest of its time. Tours are available and it’s a fascinating way to spend an hour or two. Greenwich also has a fun outdoor market, full of delicious street food, independent boutiques and vintage clothes. After all the excitement, pop into Peyton and Byrne for a coffee and cake. Greenwich is on the DLR and also has a mainline station — or get the tube to Canada Water then jump on the bus.
Read more: 8 ways to spend a rainy day in London
Hampstead & Primrose Hill
Head north-west on the tube’s Northern line for not much more than 10 minutes from the centre of London and you’ll find yourself in a completely different world. Home to celebrities like Sam Smith and Taylor Swift, Hampstead feels in places like a quaint village with tiny winding cobbled streets, and high-end independent shops, bakeries and restaurants. It sits against one of London’s most beautiful parks, Hampstead Heath, complete with swimming ponds.
I love the tiny Japanese grill restaurant, Jin Kichi, and for one of the best Sunday roasts in London, don’t miss the historical Spaniard’s Inn.
Down the road towards Camden, after passing through equally beautiful Belsize Park, you’ll find Primrose Hill, another artsy enclave with some fantastic restaurants along the high street, Regent’s Park Road. However, you won’t want to miss the incredible view of the whole of London from the top of Primrose Hill, which you can climb in less than five minutes from the high street.
Home to the world-famous Notting Hill Carnival, this neighbourhood is more than just the film named after it. It has a gritty past that can still be seen, but today, it’s awash with amazing food and a fun vibe and restaurants like Gold combine the two. Notting Hill Arts Club is the spot to enjoy a wild night out.
Portobello Road Market is one of the best places to experience Notting Hill today. At almost two miles long, you’ll find everything from antiques to vintage fashion.
King’s Cross & Camden
King’s Cross was once the miserable and dirty entry point for northerners arriving into London on the East Coast Mainline trains. In the past few years, it has undergone significant regeneration and the actual train stations of St Pancras (home to Eurostar) and King’s Cross (home to platform 9 3/4 of “Harry Potter” fame), along with the immediately surrounding area have become destinations in themselves.
Edging into north London, and on myriad local and national train lines, King’s Cross is now the home to large offices of Google/YouTube, Universal Music and Expedia.
The opening of Coal Drops Yard, right across the lovely (in parts) Regent’s Canal, secured the status of the area with a host of upmarket shops and restaurants, including the vibey and delicious Coal Office, a collaboration between designer Tom Dixon and prolific Israeli chef Assaf Granit.
Just north of King Cross is Camden, home to the late Amy Winehouse. Camden is full of music venues (like the giant Koko), pubs and edgy market stalls.
Whilst South Kensington might not be the most exciting neighbourhood, it is well connected to the west of London on the Piccadilly and District tube lines and is home to some of the grandest museums in the world. Two absolute favourites are the Victoria and Albert and the Natural History Museum, which sit next to each other on Cromwell Road. The gorgeous buildings themselves, built in the mid-1800s, justify a visit to these museums, never mind the incredible contents of both.
For the most spectacular South Kensington experience, catch a show at the 150-year-old Royal Albert Hall. Preferably one where the venue’s 9,999 pipe organ is being played.
Marylebone & Mayfair
These two neighbourhoods sit to the north and south, respectively, of London’s main shopping strip, Oxford Street, to the west of Regent Street. Mayfair is, by far, the posher of the pair (there’s a reason why Mayfair is the most expensive square on the British Monopoly board), but both ooze a classy and sophisticated charm.
Mayfair is home to some of the most expensive homes, restaurants and shops, like those that line Bond Street. Marylebone, and its high street, has a far more villagey feel and still is home to many independent retailers. A firm local dinner favourite is schnitzel restaurant Fischer’s, where you will feel transported back in time by the traditional menu and wood panelling.
London really does feel like a collection of villages, and each neighbourhood brings its own charms. There’s only one way to find out which ones you love the most and you get the best vibes from, and that is by spending time in them. So hop on a bike, bus or the tube, and explore all the diversity that London has to offer.
Additional reporting by Hayley Coyle
Featured photo by doutorfotografo/Twenty20
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