Whether you’re coming to London to tour the Tower of London, shop Oxford Street, or do business in the City, finding the right neighborhood to stay in can make all the difference in your trip. Do you want to blend in, drinking at the local pub, shopping at the market, hopping on public transport into Central London to sightsee? Or do you want to stay a few minutes’ walk from Big Ben, immersing yourself in the swift-moving city life along the Thames?
We’ve gotten two experts—London native Emma John and London resident Lottie Gross, both AFAR contributors—to map out the city for you, choosing the neighborhoods and boroughs that work best for different types of travelers, from those seeking traces of historic London to those in search of the right now. Find the London that suits you.
Best for living like a local: Islington
Unlike younger cities, planned from the get-go, grand old London has always felt like an agglomeration of the smaller (often medieval) communities it grew out of. And in many parts of the city, you can still live something akin to village life. Islington is full of those pockets—Highbury, Barnsbury, Tufnell Park—where tree-lined streets and 19th-century townhouses are served by some of the best neighborhood cafés and restaurants in the world.
The best Biang Biang noodles in the city will cost you a mere £8 (US$10.50) at Xian Impression on Holloway Road, while Upper Street—between Angel and Highbury Corner—is an ever-changing array of dining delights, from Ottolenghi’s flagship restaurant to award-winning newcomer Oldroyd. Legendary pubs include the Duke of Cambridge and the Charles Lamb, and you’ll barely need to travel beyond the end of your road for entertainment. The live music scene thrives at Islington Assembly Hall, Union Chapel, and The Scala; historic cinemas include The Rio and Screen on the Green; while the 325-seater Almeida is one of the most dynamic and influential studio theaters in London. —EJ
Just over the river from Tower Bridge and east of Borough Market, Bermondsey is part industrial, part residential. But don’t let the plain warehouses fool you: There’s plenty here for the hungry and thirsty traveler, and it’s an excellent base for exploring London, with Tube links to Waterloo, London Bridge, and Westminster.
Maltby Street Market is probably the most famous highlight in Bermondsey, where stalls sell everything from freshly baked pastries to vegan Thai food on weekends.
For something to drink, head to the Bermondsey Beer Mile, where a smattering of small-scale breweries tucked underneath the railway arches open their doors to serve some of London’s best beers on weekend afternoons. Stop in at Brew by Numbers for a sour quince saison, sample Ubrew’s IPA, and try honey beer at Hiver Beers’ tap room. —LG
Best for history buffs: Westminster
When TV anchors talk about what’s happened in Westminster today, they’re talking politics as much as geography. The place-name has become shorthand for Britain’s seat of government thanks to the neighborhood’s rich history as an epicenter of power. Stand on Whitehall and you can see its importance in every direction—from the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, to the secret bunkers of Winston Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms, to Banqueting House, where Charles I was the one and only English king to be executed. The iconic bell called Big Ben is currently under scaffolding, but you can still get some great selfies at the Houses of Parliament, not to mention Buckingham Palace, whose state rooms are open to the public throughout the summer.
Or stay in neighboring Mayfair or Piccadilly to place yourself in the aristocratic footsteps of its previous inhabitants. Hotels like Hazlitt’s, Claridge’s, and The Athaneum maintain not just their grand exteriors but also the elegant interiors that have welcomed curious and well-heeled travelers for centuries. The area around St. James’s is the perfect place to take yourself back in time. Shop for posh food and wine at Fortnum & Mason’s (the royal grocer) and Berry Bros. & Rudd (the royal vintner), try on the toppers at Lock & Co, the world’s oldest hat shop, or stop for London’s most powerful martini at Dukes. And to indulge in that most British of institutions, take afternoon tea surrounded by art deco glamour at The Wolseley or The Ritz. —EJ
Best for foodies: Hackney
Incorporating hipster hot spots Hoxton, Shoreditch, and Dalston, the borough of Hackney is still the place where new things start in London. And right now that means restaurants. A wave of supper clubs has fostered an experimental atmosphere in recent years, and many chefs who make their names in the competitive kitchens of rarefied West End establishments are moving east to open solo ventures. Take Tom Brown, whose fish dishes at Cornerstone have earned him instant acclaim, or Tomos Parry, one-time head chef at Kitty Fisher’s, who has just won a Michelin star for his wood-fired menu at Brat. Other must-eats for those on the foodie scene include Bright, Pidgin, Da Terra, and Island Social Club, while Dalston wine-shop-and-bar P. Franco should be every oenophile’s first (and possibly last) stop.
Coffee culture is at its most obsessive in Hackney, where famed local roasters like Climpson & Sons and Dark Arts (both have their own cafés) fuel one of the most caffeine-centric populations in the city. Visit Look Mum No Hands! if you want to see east London in a nutshell: a coffee shop where you can get your bike repaired while taking in the contemporary art on its gallery walls. You won’t be able to walk half a block without bumping into someone whose other job is barista or bartender. —EJ
South of the oxbow bend in the River Thames in London’s East End, Greenwich is a popular day out for visitors to London, but few choose to stay overnight here. Opt to Airbnb in Greenwich and you’ll find some of this neighborhood’s best bits to yourself once the day-trippers have gone home.
Britain’s maritime history has its home here in the form of the regal Old Royal Naval College, the Maritime Museum, and Cutty Sark clipper—all worth an afternoon exploring if you’re a keen historian. Nearby, go in search of deer in the Royal Park, and spot the Prime Meridian line at the Greenwich Observatory, where there are also regular planetarium shows.
Food and drink here are equally exciting, with the Greenwich Market offering 44 food stalls among handmade arts and crafts, jewelry, and clothes. For a classic British dinner, don’t miss the pie, mash, and jellied eels at Goddards pie shop—open since 1890.
One of the joys of Greenwich is the varying public transport at your disposal: If you’re heading into town, take the Thames Clipper boats, which travel under Tower Bridge all the way to Westminster, or get seats upfront and watch the city whiz by you on the Docklands Light Railway. —LG
For those who come to London eager to embrace everything it has to offer—and happy to be kept up late—there’s nowhere better to start than Soho, the pulsing, boozy district at the very heart of town. A single square mile of independent stores, famous old pubs, and every kind of restaurant crammed into a maze of historic streets and alleyways, Soho feels like London in miniature. Surrounding it are some of Britain’s best-known streets—including the shopping meccas of Oxford and Regent streets—and a bustling Chinatown.
Authors, musicians, artists, and media types have long made this area their second home—book a room at Dean Street Townhouse or Soho Hotel if you want to encounter them in their natural habitat. Comedy lovers should head straight to the Soho Theatre, which presents multiple shows a night and is home to some of Britain’s best stand-up and sketch performers. For musicals and straight plays, the bright marquee lights on Shaftesbury Avenue—London’s equivalent of 42nd Street—mark the beginning of one of the world’s great theatre districts, and the TKTS booth at Leicester Square is a great place to buy discount tickets.
London hipsters have branched out from over-hyped Shoreditch now: Peckham is the real creative scene. This largely residential neighborhood has no world-famous, star attractions, but plenty of community spirit and buckets of culture. Throw in some fantastic places to eat and holing up in a terraced townhouse here offers a delicious slice of London life.
The Bussey Building—a multi-level warehouse space—is the cultural hub of Peckham, with its artist studios and galleries, regular live music nights (don’t miss the South London Soul Train if you’re in town on the right night), and yoga on the rooftop. Along Rye Lane you’ll find independent bars and coffee shops next door to African grocers and a somewhat divey but well-loved pool club.
Don’t miss sundowners in the summertime at Frank’s—a bar on the roof of a parking lot—and when you get hungry, opt for exceptional Thai tapas at The Begging Bowl.—LG
If you’re keen to visit The Big Smoke but still value your fresh air, Hampstead is a good bet. Stretched across a large hill in the north of the city, Hampstead Heath offers stunning views of its skyline and the population who live around its edges are probably the luckiest (and most tranquil) of London’s residents, with 800 acres of public greenspace on their doorstep. As well as basking in its flora and fauna—ancient trees and hundreds of species of birds, not to mention hedgehogs, foxes, moles, and bats—you can take a swim in its famous ponds (with separate bathing areas for men and women). The Romantic poet John Keats lived nearby (you can visit his home), and these days the heath is a prime location for celebrity spotting. Hampstead village, with its snug little pubs and high-end clothing boutiques, is an artsy, liberal place, and many actors, directors, and musicians can be seen taking their daily constitutionals. —EJ
Best for families: Bankside
There are plenty of leafy London suburbs that will happily accommodate your double stroller and sell you an overpriced babyccino: Stoke Newington, Dulwich, and Battersea, to name a few. But if you want to take your kids to see the sights without having to navigate complicated journeys on public transport, may we recommend somewhere a bit closer to the Thames? The one-and-half-mile stretch of South Bank between Waterloo and London Bridge is a much-loved walk for tourists and locals alike, showcasing riverside views of the city’s most famous landmarks, from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Shard. It’s also home to hundreds of family-friendly activities, many of them free.
It costs nothing to visit the permanent collections at Tate Modern, or its ever-entertaining Turbine Hall installations (giant swings, slides, staircases, and monster spiders have all featured in the past). There are often free performances, festivals, and funfairs happening at the South Bank center, you can book educational tours (not to mention £5, or US$6.50, theater tickets) at Shakespeare’s Globe, and some of London’s horrible histories are on display at the Clink Prison Museum and the London Dungeon. Borough Market offers an endless variety of food stalls, and there’s a raft of family-friendly restaurants, both on the river and within the new Bankside development. An IMAX cinema, an aquarium, and, of course, the London Eye provide plenty more entertainment. The hotel offering has blossomed recently, ranging from St. Christopher’s Hostels to the affordable Hilton Bankside and boutique citizenM. —EJ
Best for those in search of a stylish sleep: Pimlico
Not far from the grandeur of Westminster and Buckingham Palace is the peaceful, elegant neighborhood of Pimlico. Here, a two-bedroom apartment will sell for upwards of $2 million and entire mansions make it into eight figures. But that doesn’t mean it’s unaffordable for visitors—an Airbnb here can cost as little as $40 a night.
Pimlico is a superb base for exploring London’s most famous sights, including the royal family’s city residence and the Parliament building, which are a 15-minute walk away. But the area has its own charms, too, with a Saturday farmers’ market set in the pretty Orange Square, and the manicured gardens of Ecclestone Square Park.
Next door in Victoria you’ll find the fabulous Ottoman-style, red-and-white-brick Westminster Cathedral—not to be confused with the Abbey—which is as stunning inside as it is out.
With Victoria railway and bus stations nearby, you’re in prime position for day trips out of the city. —LG
Best for a quiet stay: London Fields
If you’re keen to explore London’s East End and the trendy streets of Shoreditch, but you’d rather not be in the thick of it, London Fields is a leafy haven just northeast of the main attractions.
This largely residential area has its own station on the suburban rail network (called the Overground) offering connections to Liverpool Street Station in seven minutes, but the draw here is that you’re within walking distance of some of the East End’s highlights.
An ideal start to your day in London Fields is a swim in the lido, a public pool set inside a large green park, followed by a stroll into town. Be sure to pick up pastries and coffee on the way at the E5 Bakehouse under the railway arches. Detour to Hackney City Farm, where you’ll find goats, pigs, and sheep all living in the city, and stop off at Columbia Road Flower Market to take in the scents and colors of one of London’s most famous markets. Nearby, you can duck into the V&A Museum of Childhood for a trip down memory lane.
North of London Fields you’ve got easy access to equally cool Dalston with its smattering of Turkish restaurants and the glorious art deco indy Rio Cinema; east of the neighborhood is Victoria Park, where you can rent a boat on the lake. —LG
We hope this handy guide provides you with a good idea of the lay of the land if this is your first time to London. If you’ve been to London a dozen times, maybe you’ll be inspired to try out a new neighborhood—rather, neighbourhood—as your home base and experience London through a different lens. Cheers!
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