Venture to the four districts that’ll unlock real London life
As most Londoners typically spend their spare time in the area that they live, the outer districts of the city are a verifiable hub of weekend markets, traditional pubs, quiet parks, and melting pots of global cuisines. For the intrepid tourist looking to adventure outside the shadows of Big Ben and the Gherkin, our list of must-visit neighborhoods can give you a glimpse at how locals do London.
Art and innovation collide to forge a creative district that’s chock-full of galleries, tech start-ups, fashion houses, and innovative restaurants. Shoreditch is the obvious starting point, but Dalston, London Fields, and Stoke Newington all offer local charm well outside the typical tourist’s radar.
What to see: The Columbia Road Flower Market is a colorful display of how Hackney residents like to spend their Sundays—strolling about, stopping for coffee, and grabbing a bargain from the antique stalls that dot the cobbled side streets. It gets very busy, so plan to arrive by at least 9:00 a.m. Once you’ve soaked up the atmosphere, head north to Broadway Market for an excellent choice of restaurants, pubs, and cafes for lunch.
Where to eat: Over the past decade, Shoreditch has grown to become a hotbed of culinary talent. The original Dishoom (7 Boundary Street) can be found here—a slick restaurant concept with five locations across the capital that models itself on Bombay cafes run by Parsi immigrants. Expect to stand in line for a table, but it’s worth it to experience the fiery curries, tandoor-cooked meats, and warm, puffed breads. Too hot to handle? Then head to Gloria (54-56 Great Eastern Street) for Italian food and captivating interiors. It’s arrival in 2019 caused a huge stir and is still one of London’s most in-demand reservations. No matter which you choose, both spots epitomize everything that’s great about London’s thriving food scene.
Where to stop for a drink: Forget glitzy venues with smooth jazz and wines from the big names. Hackney’s wine bars are low-key hangouts run by young wine buffs who source exciting and often unheard-of varieties from small producers across the globe. Sound enticing? Then head down to Hackney Road, where you’ll find your choice of candle-lit bars stretching from Shoreditch to Bethnal Green.z
Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts put this West London hotspot on the map for a whole generation of film watchers. The district comes alive every August bank holiday when the kaleidoscopic floats, deafening sound systems, and endless cans of Red Stripe lager of Carnival takes over. For the rest of the year, it’s all about the weekly antiques market, cozy neighborhood pubs, and an underground party scene.
What to see: From Monday to Saturday, the district’s main draw is half-mile-long Portobello Road Market. Backed by colorful terraced houses and stretches of quirky shops, the market vendors sell everything from glinting antiques and vintage collectables to handmade crafts and crates of vinyl. It’s always packed, but Friday is the least busy day, and you’ll be able to explore the fashion-forward Portobello Green Market as well.
Where to have lunch: If the market’s on, it’s likely you’ll be tempted by the wafts of food coming from the vans that park up on the cross sections of Portobello Road. However, if you’d rather plan ahead, book a table at Farmacy (74-76 Westbourne Grove) for some of the tastiest vegan food in the capital. Sourcing most of its ingredients from its farm in Kent, the team creates a seasonal menu that boasts “clean indulgence.” At first glance, the dish descriptions may sound over-indulgent, but everything is free from dairy, refined sugar, chemicals, and additives, all in line with the restaurant’s ethos. Health fads come and go in London, but this restaurant has stood the test of time and trends.
Where to discover its underground art scene: Notting Hill may be one of the prettiest (and poshest) areas of London, but it’s been a hotbed for artists and musicians since the heady days of the 1970s, when punks, mods, Rastas and rockers called the district home. Today, it still has a creative edge, which can be experienced at the excellent Graffik gallery (284 Portobello Road). Entrance is free of charge and you can expect to see boundary-breaking graffiti art from legends like Banksy, Stik and Dotmaster, as well as up-and-coming talent.
Its proximity to the Thames has meant that the charming area under the arches of London Bridge has been an important trading post for centuries, and historians have even suggested the Romans were doing business here from 48 A.D. Today, life centers around food, and lots of it. The market is part of most top chefs’ daily shopping runs, who love the fresh, seasonal ingredients. The restaurants tucked under the railway arches surrounding the cobbled marketplace and nearby Bermondsey high street have become a mecca for hungry Londoners.
What to see: Once you’ve eaten your way around Borough Market, save some space in your appetite and itinerary for Maltby Street Market. This once rarely frequented area transforms into a buzzing food market every Saturday between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Highlights include the oozing toasties from The Cheese Truck and inventive dumplings from Gyoza Guys. Be sure to bring cash for both.
Where to take a date: Originally built in 1599, the timber-framed Globe was the epicenter of London’s entertainment district before it was destroyed by a fire in 1613. Fortunately, the iconic theater was restored in 1997. There’s no other theater experience quite like it in the world. Tickets for the “groundling” pit cost the least, but require you to stand for the entire show, which can stretch into the three-hour mark. For something more comfortable (and sheltered from the British weather), secure a spot on the benches in the middle gallery.
Just five miles from central London is the home of Greenwich Mean Time, marked by the Prime Meridian that runs across the courtyard of the Royal Observatory (Blackheath Avenue). But there’s far more to this area than just its geographical importance. With a tree-covered park, slow pace of life, and beautiful rows of Georgian townhouses, it’s an ideal retreat from the hectic city life that’s just a short tube or boat journey away.
What to see: As well as the Observatory, where you can marvel at a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite before popping into a star show at the planetarium, you should carve out time to learn about the area’s naval and maritime history at the National Maritime Museum (Romney Road) and the legendary Cutty Sark.
Where to take a stroll: Greenwich is renowned for its village-like feel, with local life centring around the daily market and many residents heading to the riverbanks when they need to step away from busy London life. Keen ramblers can walk all the way to central London following the Thames Path, which offers ever-changing views of the cityscape and passes icons like Tower Bridge, the Globe theatre, and – eventually – the London Eye.