Until 10 months ago London was my home for 30 years and I love it, I’ve since temporarily relocated to New York, another great city but this post is an insider guide to London with a local.
London is a glorious city; culturally, architecturally and creatively. It’s a really easy city to enjoy; loads to see with great public transport making it easy to get around. It’s safe, it’s friendly and surprisingly still affordable (compared to New York where a night out costs eye watering prices). There are incredible buildings, museums and galleries; just wandering the streets is a visual feast. History is embedded in the cobbled mews of alleyways and the scuffed stone slabs of pub doorsteps marking the footsteps of the historical figures who crossed them. The street markets are like no others in the world…and there are just so many of them. And for those on a retail fix, I still think the shopping in London and the fashion here is the best in the world. Even in the days of gentrification and rampant homogenization, London still offers a choice and inventiveness that most cities can’t compete with.
London never dips to the bone-crunching arctic temperatures of some of its neighbours. Aside from the top ten things to do in London that you find all over the internet (it’s more like a top 100!), take time to wander the neighbourhoods to see the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian houses. Decorative brickwork, elegantly curved crescents and sash windows; rows of redbrick terraced houses shaded by soaring London Plane trees. I tagged on to my husband’s work trip and we stayed at The Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington High Street; ideally located for me to catch up with friends and favourite places. The well known Churchill Arms pub is around the corner, covered year round with plants and flagpoles, in spring and in summer literally dripping with blooms from hundreds of window boxes. (photo credit: Trip Savvy).
Based in Kensington you are within walking distance of Notting Hill, location of the Hugh Grant/Julie Roberts movie of the same name. Wander down among the houses with their colourful front doors and you’re in Portobello Market which spreads down under the bridge to Ladbroke Grove at the far end. On Saturdays especially, the area comes alive with traders selling vintage clothing and antiques. Look out for the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland.
The stalls are backed by rows of small shops; one of my favourites is ‘Rag Yard’ which make fabulous peacock sleeved sweatshirts https://ragyard.com (instagram @ragyard).
The antiques peter out further down, replaced by food stalls; from fruit and veg to meat cooked on the spit. Look out for the Olive Stall where my friends Max, Pete and Joe serve up around 40 different types of olives from wooden tubs… tapenades, delicious fried halloumi rolls and sell bunches of heavily scented lavender brought directly from the fields of France. Cafes, cake shops, shoe shops and boutiques share space with English pubs like the recently refurbished Portobello Gin Hotel. Under the rail bridge is a large vintage clothing and jewellry market. You are now in Ladbroke Grove/Goldbourne Road. More quirky shops and two Portuguese cafes Lisboa and O Porto where locals come to share tables and eat sandwiches and Portuguese pastries.
The following day I met up with an old friend Vicki, a proud born and bred South Londoner. We met at London Bridge tube station to walk the cobbled streets to the River Thames walkway and look out over HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge. Lit up at night the river views are stunning.
Tower Bridge (built circa 1886) is a beautiful blue painted suspension bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge) which spans the river close to the Tower of London. The two towers of the bridge house the machinations and the bascule pivots used to operate the opening of the bridge to allow tall masted river traffic to pass along the river. It’s a great bridge to walk across linking The Tower of London, Whitechapel and Spitalfields (more of later) on one side and The Fashion and Textile Museum, Borough Market (locals call it Boro), The Golden Hind, Southwark Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe and Tate Modern on the other. You can walk from Tate Modern all along the riverside until you reach Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. It’s a fantastic walk.
For movie fans, the flat where fictional character Bridget Jones lived in Bridget Jones Diary, is above the Globe pub on Bedale Street in Borough.
Visit from Wednesdays to Saturdays. The bustling food market sprawls under the Victorian railway bridges and around Southwark Cathedral. It gets very crowded on Saturdays but it’s worth it. Great places to buy hot roast or halloumi sandwiches and huge paella dishes cooked in front of you. Hundreds of stalls sell everything from coffee to fresh cooked Japanese dumplings, vegetables, fruit, homemade pickles and jams, amazing bread and cake stalls, a huge variety of farm produced cheeses, venison sausages; buy to eat on the spot or to take away with you, it’s one of the best food markets in the world. London Borough Market website: http://boroughmarket.org.uk/
Back to Kensington the following day; also home to some of the most beautiful museums in London. Don’t miss the Natural History Museum; the gorgeous facade is worth the trip alone; the same building includes the Science Museum….both of which kids will love with lots of interactive sections to explore. I met my friend Max to take him to my favourite London museum, The Victoria and Albert, also on Exhibition Road. The inner courtyard and water feature is beautiful, the Victorian red brickwork glows in the sun. In spring and summer it is filled with the heavily blossomed heads of bruised purple hydrangeas.
You can sit at the cafe’s outdoor tables and the main cafe inside is stunning. William Morris tiles and wallpaper, huge ball shaped chandeliers, mosaics and gorgeous stained glass windows, and often there is a piano or a harp player; you can enjoy all of this for the average price of a cup of coffee because entrance is free to all of the major museums in London. The only fees are for access to one of the specialist exhibitions that come and go throughout the year. Standards are high; David Bowie, Frida Kahlo and Alexander McQueen exhibitions were all shown here. The museum shop is great for unique London gifts with good prices.The V&A as locals call it is the largest museum in the world of decorative arts and design, housing over 2 million objects. The Morlaix French wooden staircase dating from 1522-30, Sir Paul Pindar’s wooden house-front from Bishopsgate in London which survived the Great Fire of London and the towering plastercast replica of the original marble Trajan’s Column (in the breathtaking room called the Cast Courts) are some of my favourite things.
A wander around this area will reward you with wonderful views of the Royal Albert Hall, the world famous concert hall and home to The Proms. Everything from classical music to rock gigs can be seen here. Visit their website to check their upcoming events https://www.royalalberthall.com/
Red brick mansion blocks of privately owned apartments fill this area, curving around the streets mirroring the curves of the Royal Albert Hall. North of the Royal Albert Hall on the other side of the road is the gold leafed Albert Memorial; commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of her husband Prince Albert who died in 1861.
For serious shopping in London head to Oxford Street. Just over a mile long it runs from Marble Arch tube station opposite Hyde Park down to Tottenham Court Road tube station at the other end. London red double decker buses run the length of Oxford Street and just off it at Oxford Circus on Great Marlborough Street, is one of the longest established department stores in London named after Arthur Lasenby Liberty.
Liberty the brand was first established in 1875. This Grade II Tudor Revival building was built circa 1924, constructed from the timbers of two ships; HMS Impregnable (formerly HMS Howe) and HMS Hindustan. The front of the building is said to be the same length as the Hindustan. Known for its Liberty prints and scarves, the store sells luxury brands, exotic imports and gifts. It’s worth a visit simply to experience the building; walk up the oak staircases and look down through the tiered levels. Their seasonal Christmas windows are elaborately decorated and it was the subject of a 3 episode TV series called ‘Liberty of London’ aired in 2013.
For fun fashion with ideas direct from the world catwalks, visit the huge 3 storey Top Shop on Oxford Circus, midway along Oxford Street. Fashionistas, fashion editors and sartorial kids from all over the world visit this flagship London store.
Another day another fantastic London market. Brick Lane has become the stomping ground for eccentrics, artists and hispters. Easily my favourite market in London the best days to visit are Saturday and Sunday. Fridays are fun too but only the shops are open; market stalls aren’t here until the weekend. Don’t come too early as it won’t be in full swing. Arrive around 11.30am, go for a coffee and watch the madness expand around you. It really is a fantastic market.
Liverpool Street is one of the nearest tube stations and Spitalfields Market is the first stop on the way towards Brick Lane market, 5 minutes walk further along. Exit at the Bishopsgate side cross to the opposite side of the road where you’ll see a pub called Dirty Dicks. Cross Bishopsgate and walk up Middlesex Street next to Dirty Dicks and where the street forks, walk to the left until you are on a beautiful narrow street called Artillery Passage. This area is full of history; it was allegedly an old military training ground and famous for the notorious Jack The Ripper who was said to have killed his last victim here.
At the end of Artillery Passage cross over to Gun Street. There are plenty of routes to the markets but this is my favourite; walking on cobblestones by old Georgian shopfronts. Look out for the preserved building front shown below on Gun Street with the new building behind it. At the end of Gun Street take a right on Bushfield Street and you’ll see the entrance to Spitalfields Market with the shield emblem above it (see image below).
Spitalfields is an indoor market, it tends to have different themes in the week. My favourite day is Thursday when it specialises in secondhand curios, vintage, antiques etc. On Saturday it has clothes, jewellery stalls, vinyl records and some fun shops around the periphery. Lots of affordable chain restaurants like Wagamama and Giraffe and great food stalls with communal tables to eat at. My favourites are the Turkish Gozleme wraps followed by a visit to Crosstown Doughnuts at the back of the market. Check out the fabulous hat stall run by the wonderful besuited dandy Colin in his top hat. Lovely bloke and fabulous hats.
Brick Lane Market is less than a 10 minute walk from Spitalfields. Exit the market on to Commercial Street and head across the road to the looming Hawksmoor Church (Christ Church Spitalfields/Anglican) built between 1714 and 1729 by Nicholas Hawksmoor. On the opposite corner is the Ten Bells pub, existing in one form or another since the 18th century, linked with Jack Ripper. Allegedly one of his victims drank here and another, a prostitute, picked up clients outside. The film ‘From Hell’ based on The Ripper has a scene where Johnny Depp as the Detective is drinking in the pub with Mary Kelly, one of the Ripper’s victims.
Between the church and pub is Fournier Street, a cobbled East End Street lined with Georgian houses dating to 1720 and originally built for wealthy French Huguenots. Many were silk weavers from Nantes, Lyon and other French cities and several of these domestic houses would have been occupied by silk weavers.
The English artists Gilbert & George own two townhouses on Fournier Street with their artist studios running behind. Photo credit of the artists below standing on Fournier Street by Jooney Woodward which featured in New York Times Style Magazine in 2014 https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/15/t-magazine/london-spitalfields-gilbert-george.html
If you love street markets, graffiti, vintage clothing and music, then you will love Brick Lane Market. It has easily surpassed Camden as the coolest market in the city (the former being a shadow of its heyday years). Famous for its Indian and Bangladeshi food there are now crazy pop up shops, bars, indoor golf and a heady mix of London street culture which will pretty much hook anyone in of any age group. Try out the Bangladeshi sweet shops which were trading here long before it became cool.
Drop in to the indoor Vintage Market, a black doorway with black and white signs outside and steps leading down to a huge warren of stalls featuring straight vintage finds from all eras and customised vintage by individual designers.
Just under the Truman Brewery down a small street cornered by food stands, you’ll find Rough Trade Records with a huge selection of CDs, vinyl and music books and regular live showcases featuring new bands. Further along this street past the crazy indoor golf place (good fun) and another branch of the fabulous Ragyard, there is an open area of food trucks. Look up to see wall murals by American artist Shephard Fairey and Banksy’s pink car now enclosed in a tatty perspex box. There are other pieces here by Invader and other internationally known street artists. You can sign up for graffiti tours at a fee; just bear in mind that whatever street artists you see featured online, some are protected and remain whilst others are regularly overpainted by invited artists; many walls are leased out for certain periods of time.
Back on Brick Lane look for a side street called Hanbury Street where you will see a beautiful Crane bird by Belgian street artist ROA. There’s a lot of street art on Hanbury which changes regularly but ROA’s crane has been a feature for several years.
My trip back to London was about catching up with friends and family as well as cramming in some of my favourite places. London covers a huge area and there is a lot to pack in. Back at my Kensington Hotel and a visit from my friend Peter and his dog Archie. Directly behind the hotel are the Kensington Palace Gardens, home to Kensington Gardens, The Orangery, Serpentine Gallery, The Italian Gardens and the Peter Pan Statue. The park is just one of London’s eight Royal Parks. https://www.royalparks.org.uk/
Proof that talking to random people on your travels can pay off for years! Catching up with our Algerian friend Lyes who lives in London but who we met in Damascus when we travelled in Syria several years ago. Brunch in The Ivy Kensington Brasserie https://theivykensingtonbrasserie.com/ one of my favourite brunch places in London followed by a long walk around the back streets of Kensington.
The guide books will cover all of the obvious sites like Buckingham Palace, London Eye, London Houses of Parliament, Big Ben etc so I’m going to work on some separate blog posts for alternative London ideas over the next few months; some off the beaten track London walks that we used to do when we lived there and some more ‘visit London like a local’ travel tips. I can recommend several local London walks that cover a lot of sites along the way so check back in or feel free to contact me.
I am including some additional information and links below.
The Distillery Portobello Road Gin Pub. Notting Hill area. https://the-distillery.london/
Churchill Arms Kensington Pub. https://www.churchillarmskensington.co.uk/
Victoria and Albert Museum Kensington https://www.vam.ac.uk/
William Morris 19th Century Textile Designer https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/william-morris
Natural History Museum Kensington https://www.nhm.ac.uk/
Old Spitalfields Market London https://oldspitalfieldsmarket.com/
History of Sptalfields Market https://www.spitalfields.co.uk/spitalfields-history/
Hawksmoor Christ Church Spitalfields https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_Church,_Spitalfields
Rough Trade East Record store Brick Lane https://www.roughtrade.com/stores
History of Brick Lane Market https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brick_Lane
Brick Lane in 1980s photographs https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2017/mar/06/brick-lane-exposed-impressions-east-end-london-1980s-in-pictures
Royal Garden Hotel Kensington. Ask for a quiet room at the back. They are not sponsoring me to include them here, I thought the staff were excellent so I’m giving them a shout out. However, if you want a more independent experience of London, I would recommend booking an apartment or house rental through Air B&B. https://www.royalgardenhotel.co.uk/
Some other points of interest below, not covered in this blog post. Visit the blog now and again and I will keep posting up more London travel ideas and info. I know a lot of London off the beaten track that I’m planning to share.
London Street Art visit Brick Lane and the surrounding streets and also the Waterloo Tunnels near Waterloo station. https://www.lonelyplanet.com/news/2017/11/16/londons-graffiti-tunnel-leake-street/
Dennis Sever’s House. Whilst in the Brick Lane area, visit this beautiful house, it is a real treat but book in advance. It is only a small building and can only take so many people per day. https://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/
Sir John Soane’s House this is one of my personal all time favourites and I’ve taken so many people here and they have all absolutely loved it. An incredible place. City of London area, Holborn. https://www.soane.org/
Lord Leighton House Museum Kensington area https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum1.aspx
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in the City of London Fleet Street; was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London. Very atmospheric, open fires, sawdust on the ancient wooden floors, go down old winding staircases lower underground. Wonderful place to grab a beer. You will be in good company as allegedly Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle author of Sherlock Holms novels all drank here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ye_Olde_Cheshire_Cheese
London January 2019 @thetraveldiarist on Instagram and Pinterest