At ToursByLocals, we travel to London often to meet our UK staff, travelers and guides. This past winter weekend saw us in the city for the Adventure Travel Show, taking place at Olympia in West Kensington. With a couple days to spare before flying to the next show in New York, we braved the January drizzle to soak up the city by re-visiting some of our favourite neighbourhoods. This is the London we love best, away from Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Tower Bridge.
If you’re visiting London – for the first time or the fifteenth – consider a quiet stroll in one of the following neighbourhoods. None of them are secrets, but they all harbor delightful surprises away from the tourist crowds of Westminster:
An eternal favourite with us, Hampstead Heath feels like the great northern lungs of the city. The Heath is not like Hyde Park, St. James or Regent’s; you won’t see manicured walkways and rose gardens here. You’ll find muddy paths, ancient oaks, hillsides covered in dried grass, a great big open sky, joyous dogs – and no sense that you’re just moments away from a city of 9 million people. Leave the park at its south end and you’re in the undeniably adorable red brick neighbourhood of Hampstead, full of winding lanes, charming pubs and a village-like High Street.
Get off at Chalk Farm Station and head southwest along Regent’s Park Road, over the little bridge that spans the rail tracks, then along the High Street. The beautifully restored heritage houses leave no doubt that this is a wealthy part of London. If you’re tempted, turn onto one of the curving streets that climb up from the shops, and indulge yourself in the fantasy of living in one of the stately homes there. Order tea and a warm scone in one of the bakeries that line the High Street before climbing to the top of Primrose Hill for expansive views straight south, all the way to the Thames. A visit to Primrose Hill is easy to combine with the busier (but exciting!) Camden Market.
Many travelers make their way to Notting Hill; even before Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant filmed the blockbuster romance here, the colourful neighbourhood drew weekly crowds looking for antiques at its Portobello Road market. Head just a bit further west and you leave the throngs behind to enter Holland Park, home to gleaming rows of white terraced houses, cobbled mews and the lovely Japanese Gardens in the park itself. Kensington Palace and the Royal palace is just next door.
A decidedly edgier and artier neighbourhood to the posher areas of north and west London, Shoreditch replaces stately homes with east London grit and cool. It’s home to Spitalfields Market, Brick Lane and Banksy–style street art. Nearby Whitechapel was once the alleged stomping grounds of Jack the Ripper, and it’s not hard to imagine creaking carriages while walking down the atmospheric Victorian laneway, Artillery Lane. Visit on a Sunday to experience Brick Lane Market in full swing, and don’t miss unique shopping at Spitalfields, which is full of affordable vintage and locally designed clothing, art and accessories.
Local purveyors abound in Bermondsey. Visit the makers and sellers of British beer, bread, meat, cider, cheese, preserves and baked goods under the railway arches at Spa Terminus. This area has a rich history of food production, and here you can glimpse behind the scenes, where some of London’s most delicious treats are born. Wander the cobbled alleys of Shad Thames, the historic dockyard now turned residential, popping out to the river for close-up views of Tower Bridge. Or head to the nearby Maltby Street Market on the weekend for a lively laneway full of hawkers selling food and drink. It’s just a stone’s throw from Borough Market, but without the tourist throngs.
Our guides in London will always delight at showing you the city’s iconic must-sees, but will love if you request to explore one of these other pockets of London life. Send any of them a message and they’ll gladly customize the perfect day around town.