5 years, 9 months ago
One of the most iconic and diverse capitals in the world, London paints a completely different picture depending on whom you ask about it. For some, London is an ancient place, steeped in history, with a rather large clock, serene green spaces, palaces, politeness, funny hats and big red busses and telephone boxes. Others think of London and conjure imagery of the Olympics, national pride, royalty, union jacks waving and high-tech events. And yet even more are whisked away by its people; and see London as a cultural hotpot filled with iconic archetypes, mish-mashed and stirred together. A hint of Jamaican or Indian, a dash of punk rocker, city slicker and just a smidgen of good old fashioned English gentleman.
But whether you’re visiting London to watch its people, be inspired by landmarks and historic sights, or learn something new, the best way to learn about local London is to, of course, ask the locals.
So that’s what we did.
Meet Charles. He’s one of HouseTrip’s Impeccable Hosts, and would like to tell you some of his favourite things to do, see and eat around the capital…
What are some of your favourite things to do in your free time?
If you are asking that, you clearly don’t have children! However, in the carefree days prior to parenthood, I used to particularly enjoy the diversity of life in London you find centred around going out for a drink. London’s pubs are great. Leaving aside British ale which is an acquired taste (not mine), there is a great diversity of nationalities and cultures in most pubs that makes them a really interesting place to hang out with old friends, meet new friends, listen to music and people watch.
Kensington is really popular with French and Americans living in London. Close to my studio flat in Kensington there are many French cultural activities including a French cinema which we really enjoy.
Another great thing about West London particularly is that you can find anything from classical music to hard rock within walking distance or at the most a bike or taxi ride away. So when we can, we enjoy going to musicals or finding a pub that has a good gig.
Biking around London really gives a different perspective to the city, and I couldn’t recommend it more. You can find shared bicycles at stands set up all over the city. You rent a bike from one point, and drop it off at another when you’re done! Us locals call these “Boris Bikes” because the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, started the scheme. On the subject of biking, we provide passes for Boris Bikes to Guests renting our Kensington studio flat.
What is London’s best kept secret?
Oh, definitely Postman’s Park. Very few visitors to London know about the shrine built here. It’s close to St. Paul’s Cathedral, in deepest, darkest, city of London. In the 1800’s a monument was built here called ‘The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice’ and in the memorial are a series of plaques, telling the stories of real life heroes who gave their lives to help fellow Londoners. Many of them died helping complete strangers. It is a sad place, but truly wonderful and humbling.
Where is the best place in Kensington to escape the tourists and find some quiet?
One of the great things about Kensington is the number of parks nearby. Kensington Gardens joins up with Hyde Park to create a huge park in the centre of the city which you can walk to. Apart from some summer evenings when there are concerts in Hyde Park, it’s large enough to wander aimlessly as a cloud or sit and contemplate without lots of people on top of you. I love it here because you can exercise many kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of the city between trees and grass. You may need to avoid the occasional army horse who could be exercising in the park as well though.
The other really peaceful part of London is by the river, only a 15 minute bike ride away. It is lovely to walk by the Thames and see rowers and other life on the river.
Where are some great places to take the kids?
Kensington has three of London’s best museums; the Natural History Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum and best of all for kids – the Science Museum.
I’ve visited a lot of science museums around Europe, and still the Science Museum in London is in my view the best. Lisbon comes close, Granada is okay, and Valencia definitely not (although the aquarium is superb). There is just so much to do there, and they have lots of activities for very small people as well in the basement. The best thing about the museum is how interactive it is, so it keeps me entertained for hours while I pretend I am only there for my kids. Keep in mind also that London’s museums are free.
Next door is the Victoria and Albert Museum (for fashion lovers, there are costumes from 300 years ago as well as temporary exhibitions, at the moment there’s one dedicated to David Bowie) and also next door to that is the Natural History Museum. It has floors of incredibly interesting (including extinct) animals and other really interesting artefacts, including a huge collection of dinosaurs. Again, it is interactive, so keeps the children highly entertained. In front of the museum in the winter there is also a skating rink which our children love
Aside from the historic sites of London, there are lots and lots of places close by to keep the kids entertained. Perhaps you won’t want to purchase too much, but Harrods in the next-along area of Knightsbridge is always interesting – not least because you can find almost anything from Labradors (the real variety), to food, to toys. Apart from the fact that it is crowded, it is worth a visit for its entertainment value alone, this is true with many of the shops in our area. I was amused that one of our guests chose to come to our apartment as their son was a car nut and wanted to be next to a Lamborghini dealership!
Where can you find the best breakfast?
In my opinion, the best English breakfast is found in a traditional greasy spoon. There you would be served the best full English breakfast you could find so long as you weren’t too fussed about the fact that the same oil had been used hundreds of times (which is what adds to the taste) and your calorie intake is probably sufficient for a week. Finding such an establishment is hard in Central London due to the number of coffee shops offering 53 types of coffee. In parts of South and East London you would find a true greasy spoon but bear in mind that there is a converse relationship to the quality of the area and the quality of the greasy spoon – the worse the area the better the greasy spoon. I have to admit I have not found the perfect greasy spoon in Kensington – but whilst it is not a true greasy spoon there is a cafe called ‘house of coffees’ on Gloucester Road which does a good breakfast at a reasonable price.
Which is your favourite cafe or bar?
The first isn’t particular posh, but is owned by some old friends of ours on Old Brompton Road (near Earls Court). It’s called the Troubadour cafe and is best described as bohemian in its decor. It was expanded some years ago, which has detracted from some of its charm, but it is still a good place to go and socialise. They also have a club downstairs where the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon played before they became famous and they still hold concerts (well, gigs actually). There is a garden outside, so with kids it is okay for lunch, but it’s a lot more fun without children in the evening.
The other place is a little more bizarre. Opposite the Science Museum on Exhibition Road (leading up to Kensington Gardens, turn left for the Albert Hall), is the Polish Club. I haven’t eaten there, but sometimes go there to have tea or a pre-dinner drink. It is similar to a gentleman’s club without the need to be a member. You can pretty much rely on a couple of old timers (in this case Polish) sitting in the corner gently soaking up their vodka for most of the day with jacket and tie. It has a similar atmosphere to one of the London clubs that I used to belong to. Each evening the first to dinner was a gentleman well into his 80s. The problem was that he was also the last to leave as he always fell asleep during his solitary meal. The waiters had perfected the art of steering him to a table near the door so that each time they went in or out they could nudge him awake.
Any markets that you know about where I can find ingredients for cooking in the kitchen of a holiday rental?
In the area there are an enormous number of specialist food shops as well as supermarkets. English supermarkets are remarkable in the quality and diversity of food that they supply, for a reasonable price. As a result when on the way home, I stop at Waitrose and pick up something from the far side of the world. In the morning, as they bake their own bread on site and it is only two minutes from the flat, I like to go and pick up fresh croissants for the family to enjoy on the terrace.
However if you wanted to make a day of it, there are a number of amazing food markets in London. My favourite is Borough Market.
But if you want to visit a truly exciting market for odd souvenirs or maybe something eccentric for yourself, the largest antiques market in the world is close to Kensington in nearby Notting Hill (yes, like the movie): Portobello Road Market. I love just mooching, even if I’m not coming to buy anything. Portobello Road is definitely one of the world’s top destinations to mooch.
Featured image by Chris JL