Every day of the year, come rain or shine, hell or high water, the area from Hyde Park in the west to the Tower of London in the east, from St Pancras station in the north to the Houses of Parliament in the south will be thronged with visitors and tourists, all of whom are happy to pay £3.75 ($8) for a pint of beer, £14 ($30) for a pizza and £4.50 ($10) for the pleasure of using the underground system.
And, of course, central London is fully equipped to give the crowds exactly what they want: when you’ve finished gawping at Buckingham Palace (probably one of the ugliest buildings in Britain), you can head down the Mall and gawp at the Royal Festival Hall (certainly the ugliest building in Britain) on the south bank, before filling up on outrageously overpriced tacos in Trafalgar Square. Then you can round off your day with a ride on the London Eye, the big fun-fair wheel which now dominates the London skyline. Altogether, your day out will have cost more than your house.
So next time you’re on holiday in London, rather than going to see the same old sights and paying royally for the privilege, why not try getting on a train and going out into the suburbs to see the parts of London where the real Londoners live? These 4 destinations are well worth a visit:
Only a couple of tube stops north of King’s Cross, Islington is the ‘trendy’ heart of north London, full of bars, restaurants, boutiques and B2B businesses. Attractive terraces of Edwardian houses give way to large open spaces and vibrant high streets, offering every kind of food and drink you can imagine. Moreover, Islington is the traditional ‘new Labour’ heartland: it’s the favoured residence of media types, TV presenters, newspaper editors and, until recently, Mr and Mrs Blair.
2. Brick Lane
The East End of London has, traditionally, been associated with poverty and deprivation. These days, though, things are starting to look up.
Only minutes from the City of London, Brick Lane has been a traditional centre for immigrants into the city. Since the 1960s, it has become a major centre for the Bangladeshi community. This area is famous for its excellent curry houses, which compete for your custom, offering anything from free naan bread to free wine to try to get you through the door. At night, the area is a festival of glowing neon and brightly lit shop fronts. The smell of frying onions and spices pervades the whole area. Were it not for the freezing temperatures and rain, you could almost be in Dhaka.
In south London, the paradox of poverty next to prosperity is at its most stark. Greenwich, in the south east, which you can reach on the Docklands Light Railway, is a particularly vibrant area which should not be missed. Containing the Royal Naval Hospital and Royal Observatory, Greenwich has a mix of beautiful nineteenth-century architecture, riverside parks and an effervescent market to boot. Although, you are never far from the ubiquitous tower blocks and housing estates, Greenwich has enjoyed considerable investment over the past decade and is now reaping the benefits.
4. Clapham, Putney and Barnes
Accessible from Waterloo and Victoria stations. Places like Clapham, Balham and Putney are the chosen residences of London’s young professionals and the areas have come to reflect that. A minute’s walk from Clapham Junction station (the busiest railway station in Europe, apparently) is the famous Northcote Road. Recently voted the best road in Britain, this area is full of very pleasant (though not very cheap) bars, pubs and restaurants. Moreover, this is the kind of area that real Londoners visit to go shopping and eat out. The usual shops and boutiques give way to more unusual stores. Just round the corner is the Battersea Arts Centre, where (usually) excellent productions and concerts can be enjoyed for a fraction of the cost of those in central London. Wandsworth Common and Clapham Common, where pleasant summer afternoons can be wiled away, are also not far.
Putney is another good location. A small, uninspiring high street conceals some excellent bars and restaurants as well as an outstanding riverside location. Heading west up the river – there is a very pleasant walk – will bring you to Barnes and Castlenau. Home to Mick Jagger amongst others, these areas are not exactly cheap, but they do reflect a very pleasant side of the ‘real’ London.
Photo of Brick Lane, London, by Ben Snook