Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia -- Bloomsbury, a world within itself, is bounded roughly by Euston Road to the north, Tottenham Court Road to the west, New Oxford Street to the south, and Clerkenwell to the east. It is, among other things, the academic heart of London. There are several colleges here, including University College London, one of the main branches of the University of London. Writers such as Virginia Woolf, who lived in the area, have fanned the neighborhood's reputation as a place devoted to liberal thinking, arts, and "sexual frankness." The novelist and her husband, Leonard, were unofficial leaders of a group of artists and writers known as the Bloomsbury Group in the early 20th century. However, Bloomsbury is a now fairly staid neighborhood of neat garden squares, with most of the students living outside the area.
The heart of Bloomsbury is Russell Square, whose outlying streets are lined with moderately priced to expensive hotels and B&Bs. It's a noisy but central place to stay. Most visitors come to see the British Museum.
Hotel prices have risen here in the past decade but are still nowhere near the levels of those in Mayfair and St. James's, and there are still bargains to be found, particularly on busy Gower Street. In general, Bloomsbury's hotels are comparable in price to what you'll find in Marylebone to the west, but Bloomsbury is arguably more convenient -- at its southern doorstep are the restaurants and nightclubs of Soho, the theatre district, and the markets of Covent Garden. If you stay here, it's a 5-minute Tube ride to the heart of the West End.
To the west across Tottenham Court Road is Fitzrovia, a rather forgotten stretch of the West End, somewhat overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbors. To those in the know it offers a welcome respite from the crowds and madness along Oxford Street, with many good shops and pubs, particularly on Charlotte Street. The area was once the stamping ground for writers and artists such as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and George Orwell. The bottom end of Fitzrovia is a virtual extension of Soho, with a cluster of Greek restaurants.
At Fitzrovia's center stands one of the great retro-futurist icons of London, the BT Tower, which looks a bit like an enormous spark plug. Opened in the mid '60s, it seemed then to represent the very cutting edge of architectural design, but now looks cheerfully dated. A restaurant once revolved at its summit, now long closed.
Covent Garden & the Strand -- The flower, fruit, and "veg" market is long gone (since 1970), but memories of Professor Higgins and his "squashed cabbage leaf," Eliza Doolittle, linger on. Covent Garden contains the city's busiest group of restaurants, pubs, and cafes outside of Soho, as well as some of the city's hippest shops, particularly along and around Neal Street and Seven Dials. The restored market buildings here represent one of London's more successful examples of urban recycling. The main building is now home to a number of shops, as well as a small arts and crafts market, while the former flower market holds the London Transport Museum.
The area attracts professional street performers, who do their juggling and unicycling on the piazza by St. Paul's Church in front of thronging crowds in summer -- and just a few shivering souls in winter. Everywhere you go on the main square, you'll see living statues, buskers, magicians, and on the lower floor sometimes even opera singers moonlighting from the adjacent Royal Opera House. Appropriately enough, London's Theatre district starts around Covent Garden and spills westward over to Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Soho.
You'll probably come to the Covent Garden area for the theatre or dining rather than for accommodation. There are only a few hotels -- although among those few are some of London's smartest.
Running east from Trafalgar Square, parallel to the River Thames, the Strand forms the southern border of Covent Garden. At one time it bordered the river, but in the 19th century the Victoria Embankment was created to allow for the subterranean construction of Tube lines and sewers to take place, separating the two. Most of the grand mansions and fine houses that once lined its length have -- with the honorable exceptions of Somerset House and The Savoy hotel -- been replaced by nondescript offices and chain restaurants.
Leicester Square & Piccadilly -- Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square are two of the capital's most famous locations, and yet you can't help feeling that if all London's attractions were of this quality, the city wouldn't receive any visitors at all. A barely-there square, Piccadilly Circus is more the confluence of major streets -- Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, and Piccadilly -- than a venue in its own right. Although its neon billboards have graced a thousand postcards, the reality is underwhelming: a small, partly pedestrianized junction with relentless traffic and crowds; some interesting, if rather overshadowed Regency architecture (which can be seen to better effect on Regent Street); and one small, albeit undeniably pretty statue known to most Londoners as Eros (although trivia fans should note that it was meant to be his brother, Anteros, the Greek god of requited love). Visitors who pack its confines throughout the day seem to have a faint "is this it?" look in their eyes as they pose for the obligatory photo.
Leicester Square, just to the east, is larger and fully pedestrianized, and has a bit more going on, but is perhaps even more tawdry -- a hub of theatres, restaurants, movie palaces, and mainstream nightlife. Leicester Square changed forever in the Victorian era, when four towering entertainment halls were opened in what had previously been a rather upmarket area -- the artists Hogarth and Reynolds had both maintained studios here. Over time, the old entertainment palaces changed from stage to screen; today three of them still show films, and are the principal venues for star-laden premiere nights.
During the day the square is somewhat of a poor man's Covent Garden, with various low-rent buskers belting out the standards. At night, particularly on weekends, it's a bit too crowded and boozy to be pleasant. There are a few hotels here, although they're invariably expensive. It's convenient for those who want to be at the center of the action. The downside is the noise, congestion, and pollution. Perhaps the 2011 arrival of the St. John Hotel will herald the green shoots of a renaissance.
Much more inviting is Piccadilly itself, the grand avenue running west from Piccadilly Circus, which was once the main western road out of London. It was named for the "picadil," a ruffled collar created by Robert Baker, a 17th-century tailor. If you want to do some shopping with a bit of added grandeur, retreat to a Regency promenade of exclusive shops, the Burlington Arcade, designed in 1819. The English gentry -- tired of being mud-splashed by horses and carriages along Piccadilly -- came here to do their shopping. Some 35 mahogany-fronted shops offer a variety of upmarket jewelry and gentlemen's tailoring. The arcade is still guarded by fancily dressed top-hatted staff known as beadles, who are employed to make sure nobody enjoys themselves too much -- they're there to prevent any running, whistling, or singing. You have been warned -- your shopping can be accompanied by no more than a soft murmur of pleasure. Next door stands the Royal Academy of Arts, one of the capital's major venues for art exhibitions.
Soho & Chinatown -- Just south of the international brands and off-the-peg glamour of Oxford Street -- the capital's über-high-street -- is somewhere altogether more distinctive: Soho, London's louche dissolute heart. It's a place where high and low living have gone hand in hand since the 19th century, and where today the gleaming offices of international media conglomerates and Michelin-starred restaurants sit next to tawdry clip joints and sex shops. In the '50s and '60s, its smoky clubs helped give birth to the British jazz and rock 'n' roll scenes -- in Ronnie Scott's, it still boasts one of the capital's foremost jazz venues.
Soho's streets thrum with energy: During the day its pavements are filled with busy people on the make; at night, there's a whiff of sleaze about the place, where illicit entreaties are guaranteed if you wander down the wrong alley -- although it's generally a safe area (just keep your wits about you). There are dozens of great places to eat, drink, and hang out, ranging from chic, high-end gastrofests to cheap, late-opening stalwarts such as Bar Italia. Many of the best are found on Dean, Frith, and Greek Streets.
Soho is bordered by Regent Street to the west, Oxford Street to the north, Charing Cross Road (lined with second-hand bookshops) to the east, and the Theatreland of Shaftesbury Avenue to the south. At its northeastern corner is Soho Square, where the central stretch of grass is usually packed with sunbathing workers during sunny lunchtimes, while close to its southern end is Old Compton Street, the longtime home of the capital's gay scene. Keeping it "real" between the two is one of the few remaining street markets in the West End, on Berwick Street -- even if these days it consists of barely a half-dozen fruit and "veg" stalls. The British movie industry is centered on Wardour Street, while Carnaby Street -- a block from Regent Street -- was the epicenter of the universe during the Swinging Sixties. It's recently become a bit of a schlocky tourist trap, although a few quality, independent stores have begun to emerge again.
South of Shaftesbury Avenue is London's Chinatown . . . although "town" is a slightly grand way of describing what essentially amounts to one-and-a-bit streets lined with restaurants. The main street, Gerrard Street, is rather kitsch, with giant oriental-style gates and pagoda-esque phone boxes. However, this is no theme park, but a genuine, thriving community, and one of the most dependable areas for Chinese food.
Marylebone -- Pretty much every town in the country has a high street, a collection of shops and businesses aimed at the surrounding community. Where once these would have been locally owned stores, most have now been taken over by national and international chains. Oxford Street could be regarded as London's high street, where the biggest chains have their flagship branches and where several of the capital's most prestigious department stores, including Selfridges and John Lewis, are found.
It can be a brutal place, particularly on weekends and the weeks before Christmas, when it is choked with people, traffic, and noise. Huge volumes of cash are dropped here every day -- although not so much of it by Londoners, who try to avoid the crazy, over-commercial maelstrom as much as possible. Note that it can often be quicker making your way between two destinations on Oxford Street by taking the longer route via the backstreets, rather than fighting your way through human traffic.
North of Oxford Street, the district of Marylebone (pronounced Mar-lee-bone), set between Fitzrovia and Paddington, was once the poor relation of Mayfair to the south, but has become much more fashionable of late -- certainly more so than when it was the setting for public executions at the Tyburn gallows (although those did at least attract the crowds). The last executions took place in the late 18th century. Most first-time visitors head here to explore the bafflingly popular Madame Tussauds waxworks or walk along Baker Street in the imaginary footsteps of Sherlock Holmes. The streets form a near-perfect grid, with the major ones running north south between Regent's Park and Oxford Street.
Marylebone has emerged as a major "bedroom" district for London, competing with Bloomsbury to its east. It's not as convenient as Bloomsbury, but the hub of the West End's action is virtually at your doorstep if you lodge here. Once known only for its townhouses turned into B&Bs, the district now offers accommodations in all price ranges, catering to everyone from rock stars to frugal family travelers.
Mayfair -- Once a simple stretch of fields outside the main part of the city where an annual party was held at the start of summer (the "May Fair" that gave the area its name), this is now one of the most exclusive sections of London, filled with luxury hotels, Georgian townhouses, and swanky shops -- hence its status as the most expensive property on the U.K. version of board game Monopoly. Sandwiched between Regent Street and Hyde Park, it's convenient for London's best shopping and reasonably close to the West End theatres, yet removed from the peddlers and commerce of Covent Garden and Soho.
One of the curiosities of Mayfair is Shepherd Market, a micro-village of pubs, two-story inns, restaurants, and book and food stalls, nestled within Mayfair's grandness. This is the place if you're seeking sophisticated, albeit expensive, accommodations close to the high fashion shops of Bond Street, the commercial art galleries of Cork Street, and the bespoke tailors of Savile Row.
At the center of the area, Grosvenor Square (pronounced Grove-nor) is nicknamed "Little America" because it's home to a statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. Embassy -- although a new embassy is due to be constructed in Nine Elms, Battersea in the next few years.
St. James's -- The neighborhood begins at Piccadilly Circus and moves southwest, incorporating the south side of Piccadilly, Pall Mall, The Mall, St. James's Park, and Green Park. Often called "Royal London," St. James's basks in its associations with everybody from the "merrie monarch" King Charles II to the current Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. This is where you'll find several of the most prestigious royal addresses, including Clarence House, home of the Prince of Wales, and St. James's Palace, the current home of the Princess Royal (Princess Anne) and the official address of the British sovereign -- although one they're clearly not very fond of: No reigning monarch has lived here since George III, preferring instead the roomier confines of Buckingham Palace down the road.
St James's is where English gentlemen seek haven at that male-only bastion of English tradition, the gentlemen's club, where poker is played, drinks are consumed, and deals are made (the Reform, the Athenaeum, and the St. James's Club are some of the most prestigious institutions). Be sure to stop in at Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly itself, the grocer to the Queen. Launched in 1788, the store sent hams to the Duke of Wellington's army and baskets of tinned goodies to Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. Hotels in this neighborhood tend to be expensive, but if the Queen should summon you to Buckingham Palace, you won't have far to walk.
Trafalgar Square lies at the opposite end of the Mall to Buckingham Palace, marking the district's eastern boundary. It's one of the city's major landmarks and perhaps the closest thing to an official "center" that London possesses. Its north side is taken up by the neoclassical facade of the National Gallery, while in the middle stands Nelson's Column, erected in honor of the country's victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805.
Paddington & Bayswater -- Paddington radiates out from Paddington station, north of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. It's one of the major B&B centers in London, attracting budget travelers who fill the lodgings along Sussex Gardens and Norfolk Square. After the first railway was introduced in London in 1836, a circle of sprawling railway terminals, including Paddington station (built in 1838), spurred the growth of the area. Just south of Paddington, north of Hyde Park, and abutting more fashionable Notting Hill to the west, is Bayswater, also filled with B&Bs that attract budget travelers. Inspired by Marylebone and elegant Mayfair, a prosperous set of Victorian merchants built terrace houses around spacious squares in this area.
Paddington and Bayswater are "in-between" areas. If you've come to London to see the attractions in the east, including the British Museum, Tower of London, and Theatreland, you'll find yourself commuting a lot, with bus and Tube journeys of 20 to 30 minutes to reach the heart of the action. Stay here for moderately priced lodgings (there are expensive hotels, too) and for convenience to Hyde Park and transportation -- as well as proximity to some interesting shopping at Whiteleys. Rapidly gentrifying, this area ranges from seedy to swank.
Kensington -- The Royal Borough lies west of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park and is traversed by two of London's major shopping streets, Kensington High Street and Kensington Church Street. Since 1689, when asthmatic William III fled Whitehall Palace for Nottingham House (where the air was fresher), the district has enjoyed royal associations. In time, Nottingham House became Kensington Palace, and the royals grabbed a chunk of Hyde Park to plant their roses. Kensington Palace was home to the late princesses Margaret and Diana, and is still home to Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Kensington Gardens has been open to the public ever since George II decreed that "respectably dressed" people would be permitted entry on Saturdays -- provided that no servants, soldiers, or sailors came (as you might imagine, that rule is long gone).
During the reign of William III, Kensington Square developed, attracting artists and writers. Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair while living here. With all those royal associations, Kensington is a wealthy neighborhood with some very well-to-do hotels and shops. Although it can feel like you've left central London behind on its quiet residential streets, it's just a few Tube stops from High Street Kensington station to the heart of the action.
Notting Hill -- Fashionable Notting Hill is bounded on the east by Bayswater and on the south by Kensington. Hemmed in on the north by the elevated road known as the Westway and on the west by the Shepherd's Bush roundabout, it has many turn-of-the-20th-century mansions and small houses sitting on quiet, leafy, recently gentrified streets, plus a number of hot restaurants and clubs.
In the 1950s the area welcomed a significant influx of Caribbean immigrants, whose cultural heritage is vibrantly celebrated each year at the Notting Hill Carnival, Europe's largest street party. Hotels are few, but often terrifyingly chic. Although farther out from the center than Paddington and Bayswater, many young professional visitors to London wouldn't stay anywhere else. Notting Hill is also home to Portobello Road, the site of London's most famous street market. Adjacent Holland Park, an expensive residential neighborhood spread around the park of the same name, is a little more serene, but also more staid.
Shepherd's Bush -- To the immediate west of Holland Park, this increasingly fashionable area is attracting a slew of artists and photographers, and in their wake a number of trendy new hangouts. (Old milk-bottling factories are being turned into chic dives, for example.) BBC TV Centre is located on Wood Lane, while Europe's largest shopping center -- upscale Westfield -- can be found on the northeastern flank of Shepherd's Bush Green.
Westminster -- Westminster has been the seat of first English and then British government since the days of Edward the Confessor (1042-66). Dominated by the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, the area runs along the Thames to the east of St. James's Park. Whitehall is the main thoroughfare, linking Trafalgar Square with Parliament Square. You can visit the Churchill War Rooms and walk by Downing Street to see Number 10, home to Britain's prime minister (though the street itself is fenced in and guarded these days). No visit is complete without a call at Westminster Abbey, one of the greatest Gothic churches in the world. It has witnessed a parade of English history, beginning with William the Conqueror's coronation on Christmas Day, 1066, and most recently with the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton in 2011.
Westminster also encompasses Victoria, an area that takes its name from bustling Victoria station. Many B&Bs and hotels have sprouted up here because of the neighborhood's proximity to the rail station, which provides the main fast link with Gatwick Airport. Victoria is cheap (for London) and convenient, if you don't mind the noise and crowds.
The hotels on Belgrave Road fill up quickly. If you've arrived without a hotel reservation, you'll find the pickings better on the streets off Belgrave Road. Your best bet is to walk along Ebury Street, east of Victoria station and Buckingham Palace Road. Here you'll find some decent, moderately priced lodgings. Since you're near Victoria station, the area is convenient for day trips to Brighton and the south coast.
Things are a bit pricier to the southwest in Pimlico, the area bordering the river, which is filled with fine Regency squares as well as the 1930s-built Dolphin Square apartment block, where many Members of Parliament (or "MPs") have their London homes.
Belgravia -- South of Knightsbridge, this area has long been one of the main aristocratic quarters of London, rivaling Mayfair in grandeur. Although it reached its pinnacle of prestige during the reign of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Westminster -- the country's third-richest man -- still maintains one of his many houses at Eaton Square (where both the 1970s' and 2010 versions of BBC drama Upstairs, Downstairs were set). The neighborhood's centerpiece is Belgrave Square, now home to various foreign embassies.
Packed with grand, formal, and often startlingly expensive hotels, Belgravia is a haven of upmarket tranquility. If you lodge here, no one will ever accuse you of staying on the "wrong side of the tracks." It's also extremely convenient for the western part of central London, just east of the restaurants and pubs of Chelsea, and just west of Victoria station, making it a handy base if you're planning to take day trips.
Chelsea -- Beginning at Sloane Square, this stylish Thames-side district lies south and to the west of Belgravia. The area has always been a favorite of writers and artists, including Oscar Wilde, George Eliot, James Whistler, J. M. W. Turner, Henry James, and Thomas Carlyle. Mick Jagger and Margaret Thatcher (not together) have been more recent residents, and the late Princess Diana and the "Sloane Rangers" (a term used to describe posh women, derived from Chelsea's Sloane Square) of the 1980s gave the area more recognition. There are some swanky hotels here, and the merest scattering of modestly priced ones. The main drawback to Chelsea is inaccessibility. Except for Sloane Square, there's a dearth of Tube stops, and unless you like to take a lot of buses or expensive taxis, you may find getting around a chore.
Chelsea's major boulevard is King's Road, where Mary Quant launched the miniskirt in the 1960s, Vivienne Westwood devised the punk look in the 1970s, and where today Charles Saatchi's eponymous Saatchi Gallery makes the running in the contemporary art world. The road runs the length of Chelsea all the way to Fulham, and is at its liveliest on Saturday. King's Road's shops aren't typical of otherwise upmarket Chelsea, an elegant village filled with town-houses and little mews dwellings that only successful types such as stockbrokers and solicitors can afford to occupy.
Knightsbridge & Brompton -- One of London's swankiest neighborhoods, Knightsbridge is a top residential, hotel, and shopping district just south of Hyde Park. Its defining feature and chief attraction is Harrods on the Brompton Road, "the Notre Dame of department stores." Right nearby, Beauchamp Place (Bee-cham) is a Regency-era, boutique-lined street with a scattering of restaurants. Most hotels around here are in the deluxe category.
Knightsbridge, and the equally well-to-do Brompton to the south, make up one of the most convenient areas of western London, ideally located if you want to head east to the theatre district or the Mayfair shops, or west to Chelsea or Kensington's restaurants and museums. However, staying here will come at a price.
Directly south of Earl's Court lies West Brompton, whose focal point is the sprawling Brompton Cemetery, a flower-filled "green lung" and burial place of such famous names as Frederick Leyland, the Pre-Raphaelite patron, who died in 1892. The area has many restaurants and pubs, as well as some budget hotels.
South Kensington -- If you want to be in the vicinity of the shops, boutiques, and restaurants of Knightsbridge and Chelsea, but don't have the resources for a hotel there, head for South Kensington, where the accommodation is more moderately priced. Southeast of Kensington Gardens, primarily residential South Kensington is often called "museumland" because it's dominated by a complex of museums and colleges, including the Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, and Science Museum. Just to the north, facing Kensington Gardens, is the Royal Albert Hall. South Kensington boasts some fashionable restaurants and town-house hotels, and is just a couple of stops along the Tube's Piccadilly Line from Green Park.
Earl's Court -- Earl's Court lies south of Kensington and just west of South Kensington. For decades the favored haunt of visiting Australians (hence its nickname "Kangaroo Valley"), the area is still home to many immigrants -- mainly eastern Europeans nowadays -- and is also a popular base for budget travelers, thanks to its wealth of B&Bs, inexpensive hotels, and hostels, and its convenient access to central London: A 15-minute Tube ride takes you into the West End. Littered with fast-food joints, pubs, and cafes, it provides a cheap, cheerful base, but little in the way of refinement and no major sights on your doorstep, unless you're visiting the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre.
Battersea -- Battersea was once an island in the river before being reclaimed by inhabitants of the Thames' southern bank in the Middle Ages. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was an honest working-class district where most of the population were employed in local industries. However, over the past couple of decades, as the number of available properties in Chelsea began to shrink, the tentacles of development reached across the water into Battersea's Victorian terraces. The process of gentrification is now in full swing, particularly along the riverfront.
There are some decent restaurants and hotels here, but you shouldn't go expecting any great bargains -- although the presence of the fantastic Battersea Park makes it a peaceful alternative to the center.
Not all local redevelopment has been a success, however. The 1930s-built Battersea Power Station, one of the great icons of industrial London, its four giant brick towers dominating the local skyline, has stubbornly resisted all attempts to find a new use for it, in a "redevelopment" process that has been ongoing since the 1980s. It's a listed building, which means it can't be torn down, but without anyone willing to pay for its upkeep, the interior has become a gutted shell. Just to its south stands another great icon, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the country's most famous center for abandoned pets.
Lying south across the Thames from Covent Garden and the Victoria Embankment, this is where you'll find the London Eye, National Theatre, and Southbank Centre (the largest arts center in Western Europe, and still growing). It's reached from the south via Waterloo station, and from the north by crossing Westminster Bridge, Hungerford Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge.
Although the area's time as a top hotel district may yet come, that day certainly hasn't arrived yet. A few interesting lodgings aside, the South Bank is a popular evening destination for culture and dining with plenty of options at Gabriel's Wharf, the Oxo Tower, or the Southbank Centre in full view of the sparkling lights of the London Eye, the River Thames, and the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben.
To the east the South Bank bleeds into Bankside, site of Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe, and HMS Belfast, and today the two areas are generally regarded as forming a single riverside zone linked by a cheery riverside path taking you all the way -- via a couple of inland detours at London Bridge -- from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge.
If you're renting an apartment in the city, the South Bank is a great place to pick up some fresh produce from Borough Market, one of the capital's top foodie markets. The market lies across the road from London Bridge station, and just around the corner from Southwark Cathedral. At the time of writing, the station area is currently in the midst of a mass renovation program, the chief element of which is the creation of the European Union's tallest building, due to be completed in May 2012. This giant glass-and-steel structure some 310m (1,017 ft.) high at 32 London Bridge is already more commonly referred to by its nickname, The Shard. Several of the upper floors will be occupied by a new luxury Shangri-La hotel, which will add to the area's accommodation choice, as well as providing some new perspectives over the city.
Farther south the area quickly becomes much more businesslike, as tourist attractions give way to the residential streets of Bermondsey, Borough, and Lambeth, where gentrifiers are fighting hard to reclaim the streets from their working-class roots.
The Square Mile -- When Londoners speak of "the City," they mean the original Square Mile that's now Britain's main financial district. The City was the original site of "Londinium," the first settlement of the Roman conquerors. Despite its age, the City doesn't easily reveal its past. Although it retains some of its medieval character, much of the City was swept away by the Great Fire of 1666, the Blitz of 1940, and the zeal of modern developers. Landmarks include Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece St. Paul's Cathedral, which stood virtually alone in the rubble after the Blitz, and the curvy glass skyscraper 30 Mary Axe, better known as the "Gherkin." Some 2,000 years of history unfold at the City's Museum of London.
The City is a strange, functional place, home to many businesses, but few residents, aside from those in the Barbican complex. Workers pack out the streets by day, arriving from all corners of the capital and beyond, but depart abruptly come 6pm. On weekends, it can seem ghostly, with few people on the streets, and many restaurants, pubs, and shops shut -- although the opening of the upmarket One New Change shopping center just opposite St. Paul's has brought a bit of retail life to the area. As such, it can be a bit of a lonely place to base yourself. Most of the hotels are set up for business travelers, not sightseers. However, that can sometimes mean weekend bargains at upscale establishments.
Clerkenwell -- This neighborhood, north and a little west of the City, was the site of London's first hospital, and is the home of several early churches. In the 18th century, Clerkenwell declined into a muck-filled cattle yard, home to cheap gin distilleries and little else. During a 19th-century revival, John Stuart Mill's London Patriotic Club moved here in 1872, and William Morris' socialist press called Clerkenwell home in the 1890s -- Lenin worked here editing Iskra.
The neighborhood again fell into disrepair, but has recently been reinvented by the moneyed and the groovy. A handful of hot restaurants and clubs have sprung up in Exmouth Market, and art galleries line St. John's Square and the fringe of Clerkenwell Green. Lest you think the whole area has become trendy, know that trucks still rumble into Smithfield Market throughout the night, unloading thousands of animal carcasses ready for sale at the morning meat market. The area is a good base for young and fashionable visitors, just a couple of stops on the Tube away from Oxford Street and a short walk from the Square Mile itself.
Holborn & the Inns of Court -- The old borough of Holborn (Ho-burn), which abuts the Square Mile southeast of Bloomsbury, and Temple, south of Holborn across the Strand, represent the heart of legal London -- this is where you'll find the city's barristers, solicitors, and law clerks, operating out of four Inns of Court (legal associations that are part college, part club, and part hotel): Gray's Inn, Lincoln's Inn, Middle Temple, and Inner Temple. Still Dickensian in spirit, the Inns are otherworldly places to explore, away from London's traffic, with ancient courtyards, mazy passageways, and gas lamps.
Following the Strand eastward from Aldwych, you'll soon come to Fleet Street. In the 19th century, this was the most concentrated newspaper district in the world. William Caxton printed the first book in English here, and the Daily Consort, the first daily newspaper printed in England, was launched at Ludgate Circus in 1702. In recent times, however, most London newspapers have abandoned Fleet Street for new developments in Docklands. Where the Strand becomes Fleet Street stands Temple Bar, marking the point where the City of London officially begins (the actual Bar has been transported to Paternoster Square, adjacent to St. Paul's).
The East End, Hoxton & Dalston -- The East End extends east from the old City walls, encompassing Spitalfields, Bethnal Green, Stepney, Bow, Mile End, Poplar, and other districts, and has long been one of London's poorest areas. A multitude of slums emerged here during the intense industrialization and urbanization of the 19th century, many of which were bombed out of existence during World War II.
East London's unique character has been shaped by the many immigrant communities to have settled here over the centuries, with each group of arrivals contributing to its ongoing evolution, and gradually pushing London's boundary eastward. Much is still impoverished, although some areas are attracting investment. Cheap rents have attracted a certain type of young, design-savvy entrepreneur, and you'll now find lots of trendy bars, clubs, restaurants, and vintage clothing outlets. Much of the most fashionable life is found just north of the Square Mile, around Hoxton Square -- home to the contemporary art scene's mecca, White Cube -- and its periphery, including the "Shoreditch Triangle," formed by Old Street, Great Eastern, and Shoreditch High Street, Dalston, and Brick Lane .
There's always plenty going on here, making it a place to base yourself if you want to take advantage of the intense, fluid nightlife, but perhaps a little hectic if you prefer your 8 hours and an early start. Accommodation options have grown and there are plenty of good, affordable places to eat, particularly in Shoreditch and Dalston. Once rather poorly served by public transport, the area is now easier to reach, following the revamp of an old Tube route that's now part of the Overground rail system, with new stations at Shoreditch High Street, Hoxton, Haggerston, and Dalston Junction.
Immediately east of the City, the redeveloped Spitalfields area boasts a number of great (and historic) markets, including a craft market still trading in the old Spitalfields Market building, despite recent encroaching development; the clothes and jewelry pandemonium of Petticoat Lane (officially called Wentworth Street); and the sprawling flea market that takes place every Sunday on Brick Lane, selling everything from furniture, clothes, and electrical equipment to CDs, DVDs, and bric-a-brac.
If you're self-catering, it's also worth checking out Whitechapel Market opposite the Royal London Hospital, which caters to the local Asian population, and is a good source of bargain fruit and vegetables.
Brick Lane, incidentally, is a great place for a curry, if you can deal with all the waiters on the street trying to hustle you into their restaurants. You stay round here for the vibe more than for the sights, but attractions you may want to visit include the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Royal London Hospital Museum, and farther east, the shiny new stadia of Olympic Park, which represents the area's biggest development since the transformation of Docklands in the 1980s and '90s.
Docklands -- In 1981, in the most ambitious scheme of its kind in Europe, the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was formed to redevelop the then-moribund dockyards of Wapping, the Isle of Dogs, the Royal Docks, and Surrey Docks. The area is bordered roughly by Tower Bridge to the west and London City Airport to the east. Despite early setbacks and a couple of ill-timed recessions, the plan was ultimately successful. Many businesses have moved here; Thames-side warehouses have been converted to Manhattan-style lofts, and museums, shops, and an ever-growing list of restaurants have popped up at this 21st-century river city in the making.
Canary Wharf, on the Isle of Dogs, is the heart of Docklands. This 28-hectare (69-acre) site is dominated by a 240m (787-ft.) tower, One Canada Square, which (until the "Shard" is completed at London Bridge) remains the tallest building in the United Kingdom. The piazza below the tower is lined with shops and restaurants. Direct access to the area is provided by the DLR and Jubilee Tube line.
On the south side of the river -- although owing to the Thames' meandering nature, actually west of Canary Wharf -- Surrey Docks once covered most of the Rotherhithe Peninsula. It too was redeveloped in the 1980s and '90s, and renamed Surrey Quays, with a new marina, shopping centers, and several thousand homes. Dockside development also took place farther west at Butler's Wharf, where Victorian warehouses have been converted into offices, workshops, houses, shops, and restaurants. Butler's Wharf is home to the Design Museum. Chances are you'll venture here for sights and restaurants, not for lodging, unless you have got business in the area. The area is fun during the day and home to some great restaurants, offering good food and a change of pace from the more traditional West End.
North & Northwest London
Islington -- These days Islington, east of King's Cross, has become synonymous with a type of left-leaning, gastropubbing, guacamole-eating gentrification. Once upon a time, however, it was a solidly working-class area, filled with market traders and factory workers who had their entertainment at the area's various Victorian music halls.
Since the 1970s, much of it has undergone wholesale renovation as middle-class professionals began moving in, attracted by the (then) low property prices. However, the renovated Regency squares and Victorian terraces don't tell the whole story. Away from the smart pubs and restaurants of the main thoroughfare, Upper Street, parts of Islington remain severely impoverished.
A primarily residential area, its main formal attraction is Camden Passage antiques market, as well as its vibrant nightlife, which attracts visitors from all over town; people pack out its pubs, restaurants, and comedy clubs at the weekend.
King's Cross & St. Pancras -- Long a seedy area on the fringe of central London, King's Cross is in the midst of a massive regeneration program. Millions of pounds are being ploughed into its decaying infrastructure. The area is still far from chic, but was given renewed importance with the fact that Eurostar, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, now arrives at St. Pancras instead of Waterloo. Because of this venue change, it's estimated that some 50 million passengers will pass through King's Cross annually. Six Tube lines convene underneath King's Cross station, and it also provides direct links with airports at Gatwick (via regular rail services) and Heathrow (via the Underground). To the north of the station a spate of new development is taking place that's already resulted in new restaurants, hotels, and art galleries, with more planned for the future.
Adjacent to King's Cross, St. Pancras International is the new transport hub for Eurostar, bringing renewed life to this once forgotten part of London. Train stations are, of course, primarily places you go to be transported somewhere else, not to linger. St. Pancras, however, is an exception, being one of the finest architectural icons of the Age of Steam. If you have some time to spare, do spend a few moments looking around -- it's almost worth missing your train for. British Poet Laureate John Betjeman called the 1868 structure, with its huge single span roof -- the largest in the world when it was built -- gargoyles, and Gothic revival towers, "too beautiful and too romantic to survive."
He almost became a prophet in the 1960s when this landmark was slated for demolition, only to be saved by preservationists. Today the glamorous and restored station is a dazzling entry point into Britain. Stay tuned for hotel, shopping, and restaurant developments to blossom around the station. Once pretty much the last place you'd want to base yourself, King's Cross is now no more (or less) dangerous than anywhere else in central London. The main concerns are more likely to be the crowds spilling out of the various pubs and clubs and milling around the stations.
Maida Vale & St. John's Wood -- On the north side of the Marylebone Road are Maida Vale and St. John's Wood, two former villages that have long been absorbed by central London. Maida Vale lies west of Regent's Park, north of Paddington, and next to the more prestigious St. John's Wood (home to the Beatles' Abbey Road Studios and Lord's cricket ground). Both addresses are favored by the sort of people who like to pretend they're actually living in the more swanky surrounds of Hampstead to the north -- not that St. John's Wood is exactly lacking in swank, with house prices among the highest in the capital and some fancy shops on the high-street. Neither area is packed with hotels, but there are a few chains and B&Bs, and they make a quiet, leafy, almost villagey alternative to the center.
Primrose Hill -- Once a rather quiet locale, Primrose Hill is principally known these days as one of the favorite London addresses for paparazzi-dodging celebrities. It seems escape has long been a theme here -- in H. G. Wells' book The War of the Worlds, Primrose Hill was the site of the final Martian encampment. Today the pretty urban village of Victorian terrace houses rolling up a hill on the north side of Regent's Park provides a welcome retreat from big city bustle. From the hill, some 78m (256 ft.) up, you have a panoramic sweep of central London to the southeast and the village of Hampstead Heath to the north. In addition to the view, visitors come here to explore the high street, check out the fashionable boutiques, and maybe spot a famous face or two. It's not a place to stay, however, as lodgings are few and far between.
Camden -- London's alternative heart lies just east of Regent's Park. Since the 1960s, its thicket of clubs and pubs has been at the forefront of a succession of -- usually short-lived -- musical scenes: Punk, Brit-pop, alt-folk, the embers of which often continue smoldering here some time after the wider blaze has died down. Indeed, Camden can at times resemble a museum of youth movements from across the ages, where tribes of punks, Goths, psycho-billies, and more proudly congregate to keep the flames of their countercultural obsessions burning.
Camden's various sprawling markets, which occupy a number of venues north of the Tube station and sell a vast abundance of arts, crafts, and fashions, have turned the area into one of London's major tourist destinations, with tens of thousands pitching up here each weekend. For all its modern mainstream appeal, however, Camden retains a gritty, faintly "dodgy" edge, which is part of its attraction.
It's a noisy, vibrant, crowded, and intense place, and for all those reasons, perhaps not the best to base yourself unless you're here to party. There's still a vibrant music scene played out nightly in the pubs and in more established venues, such as the legendary Roundhouse, near Chalk Farm Tube station, and Koko. In any case, Camden doesn't really have much of a hotel scene, although there are some good restaurants. Camden Lock provides a gateway to gentler pleasures, offering narrowboat trips along the canal to Little Venice.
Hampstead -- This residential suburb of north London, beloved by Keats and Hogarth, is a favorite excursion for Londoners. Everyone from Sigmund Freud and D. H. Lawrence to Anna Pavlova and John Le Carré have lived here, and it's still one of the most desirable districts in the city. It has a few hotels and B&Bs, although it is quite far from central London. Hampstead's calling card is Hampstead Heath, nearly 320 hectares (791 acres) of meadows, ponds, and woodland; it maintains its rural atmosphere despite being surrounded by cityscapes on all sides. The "village center" of Hampstead is filled with cafes and restaurants, and there are pubs galore, a few with historic pedigrees.
Highgate -- Along with Hampstead, Highgate is another choice north London residential area, particularly on or near Pond Square and along Highgate High Street. Once celebrated for its "sweet salutarie airs," Highgate has long been a desirable place for Londoners to live; locals still flock to its pubs for "exercise and harmless merriment" as they did in the old days. Today most visitors come to see Highgate Cemetery, London's most famous burial ground and the final resting place of Karl Marx and George Eliot.
Greenwich -- In the southeast of London, this suburb, which contains the prime meridian -- "zero" for the reckoning of terrestrial longitudes -- enjoyed its first heyday under the Tudors. King Henry VIII and both of his daughters, Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, were born here. Greenwich Palace, Henry's favorite, is long gone, though, replaced by a hospital for sailors during Greenwich's second great age, which saw it emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries as one of the country's main naval centers. The hospital became the Old Royal Naval College, which still stands, although it's now home to the University of Greenwich, the last of the sailors having departed in the 1990s. Today's visitors come to this lovely port village for nautical sights, including the National Maritime Museum, and some niche shopping opportunities.
Greenwich is a great place for a daytrip -- well worth taking the extra time to arrive by boat, which provides the best views of the historic riverside architecture of London's Docklands en route. It's also an ideal location in which to base yourself during the period of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, being on either the Jubilee line or DLR to Stratford, and also near the locations of Greenwich Park and the North Greenwich Dome for some events.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.