London is vast. Even most of the residents aren’t familiar with each of its districts. It can take longer to get from the very north of the metropolis to the south than it would to travel from London to Paris on the Eurostar. Aside from coming into the centre of town, most Londoners tend to hang out on their side of the Thames, the river that cuts the city in half. We envy tourists who have the time to explore a little further.
You’d need to check in for a year, however, to get to know every little bit of the UK capital. I’m going to focus on five distinct neighbourhoods that are within half an hour of the main attractions of central London, all ideal as a home base for a family trip.
Hampstead is one of north London’s cutest villages. The crossroads by the tube stop are full of chichi boutiques, upmarket delis, food stores and buzzy restaurants (you must queue for a crepe at La Creperie on the High Street). Wander off the main roads to lose yourself in a warren of beautiful residential streets, many linked by staircases and alleyways that entice you to explore further in. Eventually, you’ll emerge into the wilds of Hampstead Heath, famous for its swimming ponds, toward the Highgate area, the adventure playground by Parliament Hill and the historic Kenwood House at the north end.
A short bus ride or a couple of stops on the tube leads to Primrose Hill, known for its pastel-coloured townhouses and high-end shops. If you like noisy Greek restaurants, book a table at Lemonia, right on Regent’s Park Road. As the name of the main thoroughfare of Primrose Hill suggests, it’s just a short walk from London Zoo and Regent’s Park.
In this trendy west London enclave, social housing sits side by side with some of the most expensive homes in the UK. On Saturdays, when the Portobello Road Market is in full swing, the area is buzzing. Traders plying everything from street food to antique leather footballs vie for attention. In the intersecting streets are beautiful terraces of dream-worthy homes, boutiques such as Paul Smith and Joseph, and eateries in which to while away an afternoon, such as The Ledbury, or to be treated to tea, such as Ottolenghi.
Kensington Park, with its incredible Princess Diana Memorial Playground, and Holland Park are within walking distance. Notting Hill is only a couple of miles from the South Kensington museum district too.
Not too long ago, Shoreditch in East London didn’t make the guidebooks. Now it’s the hippest place in the capital. Old Spitalfields Market, which once housed fruit and veg wholesalers, is now ringed by casual restaurants (check out Leon for healthy fast food). Depending on the day, the centre of the covered market is home to antiques, vintage, music and fashion stalls and a variety of pop-up eateries. Just along the way, Brick Lane is famous for its curry houses and the adjacent streets house one-off fashion, beauty and retro homeware boutiques, jewelers and artists’ studios.
The Tower of London, the Museum of London, the Bank of England, St Paul’s Cathedral and various museums are all within walking distance.
On the southern banks of the Thames yet an easy walk across the Millennium Footbridge to the City of London, Borough is most renowned for its eponymous food market, where some of the UK’s most renowned food producers gather to sell their wares. As a consequence, it’s also fringed by fantastic restaurants. Arrive hungry! For fans of roast food, Roast is one to book.
Just along the river from Borough, you’ll find Shakespeare’s infamous Globe Theatre, where you can experience the Bard’s plays in the setting for which they were written. There’s also the Tate Modern, OXO Tower with its design boutiques, the arty Gabriel’s Wharf, and the theatres and concert halls of the South Bank, all overseen by the London Eye.
Although much more leafy and suburban, Greenwich has some similarities with its Manhattan namesake. It’s full of arty shops and one-of-a-kind restaurants (for a traditional British meal, tuck into pie and mash at Goddards at Greenwich) and has a laid-back student vibe. But there is so much to do on its doorstep. Families can board the 19th-century Cutty Sark clipper ship, straddle the Prime Meridian Line, check out the Royal Maritime Museum or picnic in Greenwich Park.
Afterward, take the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and walk right under the River Thames to emerge in London’s Docklands. Mudchute, one of Europe’s largest inner-city farms, is close to the northern entrance of this tunnel, and a 15-minute stroll will take you to the heart of London’s Canary Wharf business district, a 21st-century architectural masterpiece. It’s quite a contrast!
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Anna Tobin except where noted.
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