Cities are curious places, particularly those big and famous enough for us all to believe that we know them, even before we have visited.
We know them from photographs of their monuments and streets; from television programs and books, and from years of knowing that London, Paris, New York and Buenos Aires simply exist. We become almost intimate as we imagine being there, and when finally, the opportunity presents itself to visit, like deer in the headlights, we book the first property that lies in a recognisable location.
And so, for London, we book near Hyde Park, Kensington or Piccadilly, firmly believing that we are in the heart of the city. Which geographically we may be, but really, we are in artificial London, the London of postcards and hop-on bus tours, and the London of tourism.
For very good reasons, millions of visitors descend every year to experience the museums, galleries and culture of the British capital. It is one of the world’s major tourist destinations, and because of its popularity, much of its life has edged away from the centre.
Central restaurants are full of visitors; the streets crowded with sightseers and the pubs, a highlight of many visitors’ experiences, are filled with vacationers. London, like so many other popular destinations, becomes a parody of itself.
However, London is really a collection of villages that have, over the last thousand years, gradually morphed together into a single, enormous metropolis.
Today, these villages still retain their individuality, and for visitors offer a much more nuanced and genuine experience of the British capital. Not to mention a more economical [or at least less expensive] experience.
It is also, away from the centre of any city, where you will meet local people. You will realise that you are indeed in London, and not wandering through a London inspired theme-park. Alas, more than so many cities, the centre has been taken over by visitors.
Hampstead, a wealthy and leafy village some ten minutes north of Leicester Square, is a delightful community. Known for its deep roots in the intellectual and artistic life of London, and the massive heath on its doorstep, it is a perfect place to use as a base to explore.
Easy access to Central London and the “Name Brand Sights”, and home to some delightful small galleries, bistros, pubs and quaint walkways, Hampstead is a breath of fresh air. The heath, one of Europe’s largest city greenspaces, is a fabulous place to wander and look at the panoramic vies of the city, a few miles to the south, and some 300’ lower.
To the east, and on the south side of the Thames lies Greenwich. Steeped in naval history, and the home of the National Maritime Museum, this old Royal Borough offers visitors a wonderful array of activities and attractions. Access to London, only six miles distant, is easy and can be achieved either with the Docklands Light Railway or on a riverboat.
In either case, accommodation is plentiful, and priced more attractively than in the city centre, and the atmosphere and ambience warmer and cozier. One of my very favourite properties is La Gaffe in Hampstead; and ola coaching Inn, and today, a small comfortable hotel with a marvellous restaurant.
For very good reasons, millions of visitors descend every year to experience the museums, galleries and culture of the British capital. It is one of the world’s major tourist destinations, and because of its popularity, much of its life has edged away from the centre. Postcard London has become a parody of itself.
As a visitor, you can truly experience London; stay away from the centre, and you will find a different resonance, and discover much more of this fascinating and vibrant destination that you will ever find at Piccadilly Circus.