London’s neighborhoods were laid out during a period of wagon and foot traffic, when districts were defined in narrower terms than we define them today; indeed, for centuries people often lived complete lives without seeing the other side of town. Ironically, in our times, the Tube has done much to divide these districts from each other. Visitors are likely to hop a train between them and don’t often realize how remarkably close together they really are.
Are these the only areas of interest? Not even close. Literally hundreds of fascinating village clusters abound, many with names as cherishable as Ponders End, Tooting, and The Wrythe. And considering that a third of Londoners now belong to an ethnic minority and more than 200 languages are spoken, the flavor of your experience shifts as you go. But visitors are likely to spend time here:
BLOOMSBURY & FITZROVIA
Best for: Museums, affordable inns, residential streets, universities, and homewares and electronics shops on Tottenham Court Road
What you won’t find: Evening entertainment, nightclubs
Bloomsbury’s dark-brick, white-sashed residential buildings and leafy squares date mostly from the Georgian period, when the district became the first in a chaotic city to be planned—it was an early version of the modern suburban development. The refined air attracted the intelligentsia nearly from the start, and its two universities are both 19th-century institutions. The British Museum settled here, too. Bloomsbury became a place of remembrance on July 7, 2005; of the 52 who died that day, 26 perished underground on a bombed Piccadilly line train between King’s Cross and Russell Square stations, and 13 were killed on a double-decker bus passing above through Tavistock Square. Bloomsbury’s cozier sister Fitzrovia, similar in character but devoid of major attractions, lies on the western side of Tottenham Court Road. Famous residents include George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf, who both lived (at different times) at 29 Fitzroy Square.
Best for: Budget hotels, trains heading north (and south to Paris), alternative/down-and-dirty nightlife, student housing, take-away counters
What you won’t find: A large restaurant selection, shopping
A decade ago, the area around King’s Cross station was an unsavory tenderloin of porn stores and warehouses. Behind the station, millions of pounds have just transformed once-derelict industrial infrastructure into Granary Square, a canalside center for arts hotspots, restaurants, colleges, and tech HQs. Legend (surely apocryphal) says the Celtic queen Boudicca rests somewhere near Platform 8 of King’s Cross. Fans of Harry Potter know that the young wizard boards the Hogwarts Express at the (fictitious) Platform 9 3/4; the movie versions have shot at Platforms 4 and 5 but used prettier St Pancras station, next door, as a stand-in facade. Change came, as it often has in English history, from France: The Channel Tunnel Rail Link is the starting point for Eurostar train trips to France and beyond.
MARYLEBONE & MAYFAIR
Best for: Luxe shopping, hotels, restaurants, small museums, strolling, embassies
What you won’t find: Historic sights, savings
The middle-class hubbub of Oxford Street west of Regent Street divides high-hat Marylebone from its snobbish southern neighbor, Mayfair. Both play host to upscale shopping and several fascinating, if overlooked, museums, but there the similarities end. World-famous Mayfair, typified by hyperluxe bauble shops and blue-blood heritage (the present queen was born at 17 Bruton St. in a building that is no longer there), has a high opinion of itself as a starchy enclave of wealth, much of it from other countries> Yet Mayfair has less to offer the casual tourist, although it is the city’s hot zone for cushy hotels. (The title of the musical My Fair Lady is witty wordplay on how its Cockney heroine, Eliza, would have pronounced “Mayfair lady.”) Marylebone (Mar-le-bun), on the other hand, benefits from convenient Tube and bus connections and lively sidewalks crowded with evening celebrants, particularly around James Street. Also, thanks to a territorial local authority, its main shopping drag (Marylebone High St.) remains one of the last important streets in London that isn’t awash with the ubiquitous corporate chain stores. Oxford Street is The City’s premier shopping corridor; the western half between Oxford Circus and Marble Arch is the classier end, with marquee department stores such as Selfridges and Marks & Spencer.
SOHO, COVENT GARDEN & CENTRAL WEST END
Best for: Shopping, restaurants, theater, cinema, nightlife, opera, free art (National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery), star sightings
What you won’t find: Elbow room, silence
London’s undisputed center of nightlife, restaurants, and theater, the West End seethes with tourists and merry-makers. After work, Old Compton Street and Covent Garden overflow with people catching up with friends; by 7:30pm, the theaters and opera houses are pulsing; by midnight, the action has moved into the nightclubs of Leicester Square and lounges of Soho; and in the wee hours, you might find groups of partiers trawling Gerrard Street, in a teeny Cantonese Chinatown, hunting for snacks. Prim Trafalgar Square, dominated by the peerless National Gallery, has often been called London’s focal point. On a sunny day, you’ll find few places that exude such well-being.
WESTMINSTER, INCLUDING ST JAMES’S
Best for: Historic and government sights, river strolls, St James’s Park
What you won’t find: Affordable hotels, a wide choice of restaurants
Though it’s near the West End, this area’s energy is more staid. It’s a district tourists mostly see by day. South of Trafalgar Square, you’ll find regiments of robust government buildings but little in the way of hotels or food. Whitehall’s severity doesn’t spread far: Just a block east, its impenetrable character gives way to the proud riverside promenade of Victoria Embankment overlooking the London Eye, and just a block west, to the greenery of St James’s Park, which is, in effect, the queen’s front yard, since Buckingham Palace is at the western boundary of this area. North of the park, the tidy streets of St James’s are even more exclusive than Mayfair’s, if that’s possible.
Best for: Old streets, the Tower of London, St Paul’s, financial concerns
What you won’t find: Nightlife or weekend life, affordable hotels
Technically, this is the only part of London that’s London. Other bits, including the West End, are under the jurisdiction of different local governments, such as Westminster or Camden. The City, as it’s called, is where most of London’s history happened. It’s where Romans cheered gladiators. It’s where London Bridge—at least 12 versions—touched shore. It’s where the Great Fire raged. And, more recently, it’s where the Deutsche Luftwaffe focused many of its nocturnal bombing raids, which is why you’ll find so little evidence of the aforementioned events. Outside of working hours, the main thing you’ll see in The City is your own reflection in the facade of corporate fortresses; west of Liverpool Street station, even most of the pubs close on weekends. Although it encompasses such priceless relics as the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower Bridge, the Bank of England, and the Monument, many of the area’s remnants are underfoot—the spider web of lanes and streets dates to the Roman period, with names that hint at their former lives (Walbrook is where the river Walbrook, now hidden underground, flowed down to the Thames; Honey Lane, Bread St., Milk St., and Poultry all once hosted food markets.) Buildings have come and gone, but the veins of The City have pumped in-situ for thousands of years.
THE SOUTH BANK, SOUTHWARK & BOROUGH
Best for: Museums, memorable pubs, strolls, gourmet foods and wines
What you won’t find: Shopping, parks
During the recent rehabilitation of Southwark (Suth-urk) from a crumbling industrial district, its blighted power station became one of the world’s greatest museums (the Tate Modern), a master playwright’s theater was re-created (the Globe), and a sublime riverfront path replaced the coal lightermen’s rotting piers. Now it’s where London goes to fall in love with The City. It’s a 1-mile riverside stroll between the London Eye and the Tate Modern, and every step is a pleasure. Once-dank railway viaducts are filled with cafes and reasonable restaurants; Western Europe’s tallest skyscraper, The Shard, lords over from above; and the nation’s dramatic showpiece (the National Theatre) anchors them at South Bank. But it’s gratifying to see that some things never change: Borough Market, which attracts gourmet foodies from around the world, is the descendant of a market that fed the denizens of that medieval skyscraper over the water, London Bridge.
VICTORIA & CHELSEA
Best for: Boutiques, low-cost lodging, town homes, wealthy neighbors
What you won’t find: Transit options, street life, museums
Victoria doesn’t technically apply to the neighborhood around the eponymous train station—Belgravia (to the west) and Pimlico (south and east) take those honors—but the shorthand stuck. Most of the area, which is residential or uninterestingly workaday, was developed starting in the 1820s in consistent patterns of white stucco-terraced homes. The area around the station, which is being redeveloped in a massive works project, contains two outlier West End theatres, but little else. Just north, you’ll face the brick walls of Buckingham Palace Gardens. Chelsea, to its south, has a history of well-heeled bohemianism—Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler, and the Beatles all lived here—although it’s known more as one of The City’s most exclusive (and some would say insular) communities. A stroll past boutiques and pocket-squared residents on the King’s Road, turning ever-more corporate and indistinct, is not the adventure it once was.
Best for: Museums, shopping, ultra-luxe boutiques, also-ran hotels
What you won’t find: Historic sights
Here, one expensive neighborhood genuflects to another, and barely anyone you meet was born in England. South Kensington and Brompton draw the most visitors to their grand museums; and Knightsbridge is where moneyed foreigners spend and show off—London now has the most billionaires in the world, nearly twice as many as New York or Moscow. They can’t legally change most of the facades, so to satisfy their hunger for more space, the big trend among the rich is to burrow downward to build underground rooms—the “pleasure caves” of Kensington. Privilege has long had an address in Kensington—that’s a reason those edifying institutions were located here to begin with, away from the grubby paws of the peasants—but it also is home to a core of French expats; you’ll find the cafes catering to them on Bute Street. Kensington Palace, at the Gardens’ western end, is where Prince William and Kate live when they’re in town. When you travel west to Earl’s Court, you experience a considerable drop in voltage. It’s a frumpy zone deprived of a contingency to the park with undistinguished eats and sleeps; the rise of King’s Cross and Shoreditch for younger travelers has reduced it to near-negligible stature. Your parents may have stayed here once, but you shouldn’t.
SHOREDITCH, SPITALFIELDS & HOXTON
Best for: Nightclubs, music, food of all types, galleries, clothing
What you won’t find: Museums, parks
If Mayfair is London’s champagne, the East End hoods have been its hangover. For centuries it was an impoverished, squalid slum for poor immigrants and shifty souls. Jack the Ripper slashing and the Elephant Man suffering jibes—it happened here. That’s in the history books now. Spitalfields (Spit-all-fields), named for its excellent covered market and increasingly threatened by an unstoppable cancer of soulless, open-plan office buildings from The City, blends into Shoreditch, big on name-dropping up-and-coming designers and party promoters as if you knew who they were. Shopping, restaurants, bars, hipsters—it’s all here now. Dalston, young and bohemian, is north of these. East of Spitalfields, in ancient homes that have long housed waves of immigrants (French, then Jewish, now South Asian), you’ll find the famed restaurants of Brick Lane, the cafes and dance clubs of the converted Old Truman Brewery, and the art-savvy neighborhood of Whitechapel. Prostitutes are out, £4.50 coffee is in—which may not be an improvement.
Best for: Museums, antique and food markets, river views, strolls, boats
What you won’t find: Hotels, bustle
Greenwich, on the south bank across from the Canary Wharf developments, retains the tranquility of an untouched village. Such lovely insularity exists because the Tube (well, the DLR) didn’t connect it to the greater city until 1999—all the more remarkable when you consider the town’s illustrious pedigree as a royal getaway (it’s got the oldest royal park in London), as a scientific capital, and as one of the world’s most crucial command centers. If it all sounds like a living museum, it is: On top of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Maritime Greenwich), the village is literally the center of time and space, since it inhabits the exact location of Greenwich Mean Time, and of longitude 0 0 0. Set away from Greenwich town there’s the colossal O2 dome, The City’s iconic concert venue.
Other Popular London Neighborhoods
Mostly because of iffy transit connections (for example, service by a single Tube line that, should it go on the blink, would derail your vacation), this book doesn’t focus on these neighborhoods as prime places to stay, but they’re still vital parts of town.
BAYSWATER & PADDINGTON
Best for: Sub-par inns, ethnic food, well-preserved Victorian thoroughfares
What you won’t find: Attractions, non-chain stores, street life, adorable bears
Its whitewashed, terraced houses were briefly the most fashionable in The City (Churchill and Dickens were residents), yet today, the sizable transient population of this area deprives it of sustained energy, and its hotels tend to be for immigrant tradesmen. Crowning the muddle is Queensway, a popular shopping street containing Whiteleys, a 1911 department store edifice converted into a mall with fairly unexciting tenants. Although Paddington station is one of London’s most beautiful train hubs (it was built by the legendary architect Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1838), it’s also the most inconvenient—although Heathrow and Windsor trains go from it.
Best for: Development, ancient warehouses, super-cheap chain hotels
What you won’t find: Street life, nightlife
Most of far east London along the north side of the Thames is ignobly called by a single, sweeping name: Docklands. The past is rich here: Captain Cook set off on his explorations from here, and its hand-dug basins once teemed with ships bearing goods from around the planet. Docklands made colonial Britain successful—and thus America, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, too. After a fallow generation, East London’s hand-dug pools are under constant redevelopment by corporations in stacks of fluorescent-lit office cubes, and the Olympics settled here in 2012 near the Stratford Tube stop. Away from the river, in salt-of-the-earth neighborhoods like Bethnal Green, Stratford, and West Ham, The City’s Pakistani and Indian populations flourish, with marvelous but unglamorous food and shops.
Best for: Antiques, gastropubs, theater, street markets, cafes, strolls
What you won’t find: Museums, hotels
Few neighborhoods retain such a healthy balance between feisty bohemianism and groomed prosperity, and almost none retain streetscapes as defiantly mid-century as Chapel Market. Islington’s leafy byways are dotted with antiques dealers, hoary pubs with backroom theater spaces, beer gardens, and most pleasingly on a sunny day, pedestrian towpaths overlooking Regent’s Canal. Why more tourists don’t flood Islington is a mystery—and a blessing—but that hasn’t stopped its ascendancy as a choice neighborhood for those with money.
Best for: Alternative music, massive clothing markets, junk souvenirs, pubs
What you won’t find: Elbow room, hotels, upscale restaurants
Name a British tune that got under your skin, and chances are it received its first airing in the beer-soaked concert halls of Camden Town. London’s analogue to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District, it was big in the countercultured '60s and '70s and is still grotty enough for Amy Winehouse to have expired in. The area’s shoulder-to-shoulder markets, which hawk touristy hokum, cheap sunglasses, and £5 falafel in the former warehouses and stables serving Regent’s Canal, can be pretty awful, and the sort of places where you feel compelled to carry your wallet in your front pocket. Tourists come more out of duty than for any true mission for commerce and they cram the inadequate Tube stop on weekends.
Best for: Markets, village vibes, restaurants, pubs, tourists, antiques
What you won’t find: Well-priced shopping, museums, Hugh Grant
Thanks partly to Hollywood, this westerly nook known to locals for race riots and, in 2017, the horrible Grenfell Tower fire, appears high on many visitors’ checklists. Its Saturday Portobello Road market, the principal draw, is fiendishly crowded but short on truly wonderful wares. In fact, it’s touristy. Like Camden, people go because they think they should. But if you feel compelled, Hugh Grant’s blue door from Notting Hill (1999) is at 280 Westbourne Park Rd.
Use the Code
London is chopped into geographic parcels, and you’ll see those postcodes on street signs. The heart of The City, in postcode terms, is near the Chancery Lane Tube stop. From there, areas are given a compass direction (N for north, SW for southwest, and so on) and a number (but ignore that, since a number greater than 1 doesn’t mean the area is in the boonies). In the very heart of town, addresses get an extra C for “centre,” as in WC1, which is where Covent Garden is located. Every address in this book includes its postcode, which corresponds to the neighborhood in which you’ll find it. Don’t worry—you won’t need to memorize these because each listing also includes the nearest Tube stop to help you quickly place locations on a map. Here are some of the most common postcodes:
WC2 Covent Garden, Holborn, Strand
W1 Fitzrovia, Marylebone, Mayfair, Soho
W11 Notting Hill
SW1 Belgravia, St James’s, Westminster
SW5 Earl’s Court
SW7 Knightsbridge, South Kensington
EC2 Bank, Barbican, Liverpool Street
EC3 Tower Hill
EC4 Fleet Street, St Paul’s
E1 Spitalfields, Whitechapel
E2 Bethnal Green
E14 Canary Wharf/Isle of Dogs
NW1 Camden Town
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.