London Neighborhoods & Towns
The actual City of London is only one square mile in size and constitutes the city's famed financial district. But the area that has become known as London is massive at 610 square miles and comprised of 32 other boroughs, as well as a number of neighborhoods within those. Despite the city's tremendous size, London's main attractions are concentrated in central London or along the River Thames and are accessible by public transportation.
Accessible via the St. Paul's and Mansion House tube stops.
The City, which is centrally located along the Thames, is rich with history. Although the Roman conquerors founded Londinium here centuries ago, the Great Fire in 1666 destroyed any would-be historic architecture or artifacts. World War II and IRA bombings also made their mark on this area, but Sir Christopher Wren's, 17th-century St. Paul's Cathedral survived. You'll also find the Bank of England, the London Stock Exchange, and Lloyd's of London here. In this general area, travelers can also wander onto Fleet Street (think Sweeney Todd), where newspapers ruled the roost, starting in the early 18th century.
Accessible via the Aldgate East tube stop.
East of The City in the Tower Hamlets Borough is an area known as East End. The elusive Jack the Ripper carried out his ghastly deeds in the East End's dark streets just as Charles Dickens characters roamed them. Though it may not be teeming with tourist attractions, don't write off the East End as a waste of precious sightseeing time. This area of London boasts a rich history, architectural gems, and a bustling (if gritty) cultural scene. It's also where Olympic Park is located. Travel guides say not to miss Brick Lane's numerous Bangladeshi restaurants, as well as the Shoreditch and Spitafields neighborhoods for their vibrant markets, and the eclectic clientele they attract.
Accessible via the Farringdon and Barbican tube stops.
Some of the oldest Norman churches reside in Clerkenwell, but this Islington borough neighborhood, located north of the City, also hosts some of London's hottest nightlife, from bars to the popular Fabric club, as well as numerous art galleries. On the other hand, Clerkenwell also shelters the Smithfield Market, a mammoth meat market that features animal carcasses abound (and as such might be unsettling for some).
Accessible via the Covent Garden tube stop.
Located west of the City in the Royal Borough of Westminster, Covent Garden is a part of London's "Theatre District." (Note that the term 'West End' refers to the genre of Broadway-esque, musical-type theatres in London, as well as the compilation of neighborhoods—Covent Garden, Soho, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus—which house theaters.) Covent Garden also has an assemblage of lively pubs, restaurants, and lots of shops for pre- or post-show amusement. Travel guides recommend the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the Donmar Warehouse and The Strand's Savoy Theatre. And for people-watching, Covent Garden's piazza offers a worthy setting since it crawls with street performers, from magicians to mimes.
Accessible via the Leicester Square tube stop.
Leicester Square—a cobblestone pedestrian square that abounds with cinemas and nightclubs—is the hub of London's West End Theater District. It's here that you can find the Official London Half-Price Theatre Ticket Booth (TKTS), from which savvy travelers can purchase discounted tickets. Beware of other fake half-price ticket vendors. A couple blocks north of Leicester Square, Chinatown bursts with dozens of eateries and a bright ambience, lit by the many hanging Chinese lanterns.
Accessible via the Tottenham Court Road tube stop.
Just north of Leicester Square, Soho used to be London's red-light district. Now, its streets are filled with independent theaters, nightclubs, restaurants, and countless boutiques. If you're of the party-going crowd, look to book a budget hotel or hostel in Soho.
Accessible via the Piccadilly Circus tube stop.
Likened to New York City's Times Square, Piccadilly Circus is a crowded, flashing carnival of a place that caters to tourists. Many travelers choose to book rooms here or other West End neighborhoods, but costs can be steep.
Accessible via the Temple tube stop.
If you suddenly see a bunch of cloaked and wigged people milling about, you'll know you've wandered into London's legal district. Yes, the barristers still wear powdered wigs. But after seeing the historic structures and cobbled streets that were miraculously untouched during the Great Fire of 1666, it's easy to understand why the area maintains its allegiance to such antiquated traditions. You'll also find a handful of budget hotels in this area.
Accessible via the Hyde Park Corner, Victoria and St. James's Park tube stops.
Britain's royalty, law-makers, houses of worship, and works of art all converge in Royal London, as its nicknamed, or the Westminster borough. The works of Botticelli and Van Gogh sit in the National Gallery, located right off London's midpoint, Trafalgar Square. From Trafalgar Square you can meander down Whitehall Boulevard to the steps of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. But if you stroll a different way—down The Mall—you'll arrive at the gates of Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II's primary residence. You can also watch the stately Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.
Regent's Park & Hampstead Heath
Accessible via the Hampstead Heath, the Regent's Park and Baker Street tube stops.
North of London's West End lies a more serene and green London. Regent's Park is a grassy knoll, hemmed in by Marylebone Road to the south and the London Zoo to the north. At the northern tip of the park's boating lake, you'll find the delightful Open Air Theatre. At the southwestern corner of the park are Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and the Sherlock Holmes Museum.
Just north, Primrose Hill offers a sweeping view of London, as the adjoining park serves as an ideal place to eat a picnic, fly a kite, or to read in the shade of a tree. Hampstead Heath, a nearly 800-acre park located further north, brims with playgrounds, a jogging track, woodlands, grassy hills, and ponds.
Just south of Regent's Park, you'll find two wonderful shopping districts: Marylebone High Street and Oxford Street, home to local department stores like Selfridges & Co. and Marks & Spencer.
Accessible via the Knightsbridge tube stop.
Located in the west of London is the Knightsbridge neighborhood, where you'll find high-end shopping galore: Local department stores Harrods and Harvey Nichols, as well as Chanel, Prada, and Gucci.
Kensington, Chelsea, and Notting Hill
Accessible via High Street Kensington, South Kensington and Earl's Court tube stops (Kensington and Chelsea); Accessible via the Westbourne Park and the Ladbroke Grove tube stops (Notting Hill).
Adjacent to Knightsbridge is Kensington, which is resplendent in royalty and formality. This is the archetypal London of white row houses, cobblestone streets, secret gardens and yes, even a palace. Kensington Palace, the residence of the late Princess Diana, rises elegantly off the formal Kensington Gardens—which connect with the larger Hyde Park. Although Kensington Palace isn't as opulent as Buckingham Palace, it's still a favorite among many tourists because it housed the beloved Princess Diana, among many other British royals. Today, the palace showcases pieces like Queen Victoria's wedding dress and Queen Mary II's private relaxation rooms. Also in the area are the Victoria and Albert Museum (more commonly referred to as the V&A); the Royal Albert Hall, a luxurious performing arts venue; and the Albert Memorial, all named in honor of Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert.
Chelsea, just south of Kensington and Knightsbridge along the Thames, used to house a couple of King Henry's wives and Queen Elizabeth I, when she was still a princess. But in the 19th century, the neighborhood started sheltering a different sort of British royalty—the Beatles once lived here, and so did the Rolling Stones.
For the most part, you'll find upscale accommodations in these neighborhoods; this side of London belongs to the well-heeled. However, there are a number of budget accommodation options clustered around the Earl's Court tube stop in Kensington.
Farther northwest is the Notting Hill neighborhood—the setting for the Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts romantic comedy in a film by the same name—which is home to the world-famous Portobello Road Market.
South Bank & Southwark
Accessible via the London Bridge and Southwark tube stops.
South Bank tucks into the southern side of the snaking Thames, right across from the Waterloo Bridge. Here, you'll find the colossal Ferris wheel that is the London Eye. For more panoramic views, head to the South Bank's Oxo Tower. Neighboring South Bank to the east is Southwark, home to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the factory-cum-museum Tate Modern. Foodies should consider a visit to nearby Butler's Wharf or Borough Market for a contemporary take on traditional British fare.
Should you desire to explore beyond the confines of London, England affords any number of excursions and attractions within a few hour's drive. Mysterious Stonehenge lies less than two hours away, as is William Shakespeare's home, Stratford-upon-Avon. The royal residence, Windsor Castle, is only about 25 miles west of London. And the Canterbury Cathedral, located in the birthplace of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, is about 60 miles southeast. If you're a fan of the famed foursome, you might want to daytrip out to Liverpool to tour The Beatles Story museum, which is about four hours away on the northern coast. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge—both in towns by the same name—provide amusing and educating daytrips.
London is generally a very safe city; however, travelers should take note of several safety tips. The U.S. State Department advises tourists to only use London's licensed Black Cabs. Private cab companies have been known to rip-off, mug, or even rape customers. To be safe, travelers should call the taxi company directly at 087-1871-8710 and hire a car. Travelers should also be wary of pickpockets, who tend to target tourists on the tube or at different popular attractions. The U.S. State Department also reports an increase of assault, robbery, and rape, so travelers should pay attention to their surroundings.