North of central London on the Northern Line tube, Camden is home to London’s grittier alternative scenes -- think piercings and leather, platform shoes and purple hair -- and a favorite haunt of edgy rock stars (this is where the late Amy Winehouse had her home and where she drank at the Hawley Arms. The stores and markets around Camden Lock, on the edge of Regent’s Canal, teem with crowds who come to buy vintage clothing, alternative fashion and handmade jewelry and crafts. Terraced tables spill out of the eateries that surround the Lock and stalls sell international cuisine, such as Thai, Mexican and Turkish kebabs. At night the area is just as lively, as revelers head to Dingwalls for live music or comedy, the Roundhouse for theater and Koko for clubbing.
West of central London on the Central Line tube, Notting Hill is home to an excellent antiques market on Portobello Road, and an annual August carnival that’s the biggest in Europe. The neighborhood sees Afro-Caribbean roots culture rub up against super-chic wealth -- the film Notting Hill didn’t really capture this ethnic diversity. For a glimpse into the lifestyle of the well-heeled locals, head to the affluent area around Westbourne Grove and Ledbury Road, where you’ll find boutiques, cafes and the 2-Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury. If you are in the area after dark, try the Notting Hill Arts Club for music and dancing or the Electric Cinema for movies in luxurious surroundings with space for your bottle of wine by the plush seats, and hummus and flatbread instead of hotdogs.
Step back in time with the quaint village atmosphere of Hampstead, surrounded by the open parkland of the heath. This neighborhood seems far from the bustle of central London, and has long been popular with writers, actors and artists, including poets TS Eliot and John Keats, actors Dame Judy Dench and Stephen Fry and artists John Constable and Lee Miller. Relax in one of the many cafes, browse the small boutiques of Hampstead High Street or take an exhilarating walk on the untamed expanse of Hampstead Heath. If you are here in summer, don’t forget your swimsuit -- there are natural bathing ponds on the heath that are excellent to swim in. Hampstead is north of central London, accessible via the Northern Line Tube.
Just south of the River Thames the historic area of Greenwich is home to Greenwich Meantime and the Meridian Line. Explore the striking 17th- and 18th-century buildings that house the Royal Observatory -- with the meridian and a planetarium -- and the National Maritime Museum, which tells the story of Britain’s fascination with the sea. Alternatively, join the weekend crowds who come to purchase a unique gift or rare artifact at the antiques and crafts markets (on Greenwich High Road and off Stockwell Street). Pick up information about the area at the new Discover Greenwich center in the Old Royal Naval Collage.
Hoxton and Shoreditch
These east London boroughs form the center of London's cutting-edge art and media scene. In the streets surrounding the bustling, revamped Spitalfields Market, which is filled with stalls run by young designer-makers, you will find an eclectic mix of art galleries, designer furniture and clothing shops, funky cafes and traditional pubs. Visit on a Sunday when the market is in full swing and neighboring Brick Lane is lined with stalls of bric-a-brac, while empty warehouses are transformed into antiques and vintage clothes emporiums. Eat a salt beef or smoked salmon bagel at the 24-hour Brick Lane Beigel Bake before heading west to Hoxton Square, where you can visit contemporary art gallery the White Cube. The area can be explored from Liverpool Street station, which serves 4 Tube lines.
All these neighborhoods can be reached in less than half an hour from central London, and will greatly enhance your understanding of London’s diversity.
Antonia Windsor is a London-based freelance journalist specializing in travel. Her work appears in The Guardian, Observer, Financial Times and various travel-related magazines. She is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers.