First of all, I should start this post by saying I don’t live in the capital, so perhaps you might find a more authentic “London by a Londoner” post elsewhere. However, I would like to say that my connections to London are more than passing ones, and I also like to think I know the city reasonably well: I was born in London, I studied for my degree there; trained as a teacher there; worked in schools and offices there; lived in various areas in varying degrees of scummy flats there- I even got married there. I don’t go back as often as I should, but when I do, I’m filled with a kind of nostalgic longing, tinged with a kind of disbelief that I ever managed to deal with the million other people who all want to be doing exactly what I’m doing exactly when I’m doing it, as well as sacrificing approximately 2/3 of my annual salary on rent for the privilege.
Later this week, I’ll be in London overnight, and it was the process of choosing where to stay that prompted this blog post. My novio isn’t allowed where to pick where we stay when we go to London- I just don’t trust that we won’t end up with some massively overpriced room in a central but dull part of town (I’m looking at you, The City). On this trip, I’m hoping to see my Dad, catch up with the Mexican side of my novio‘s family, and perhaps see an old friend as well as checking out the V&A’s new exhibition all about underwear.
But let’s get to it: where is the best area to stay in London?
Maybe I should start with places to avoid. I would really, truly, and honestly never stay around Leicester Square. It’s not that the area’s unsafe or lacks attractions- far from it. I absolutely visit this area all the time, but I’d never eat, drink or stay there (with the possible exception of a cheap pint at The Chandos). Leicester Square is massively crowded, kind of dirty, overpriced, and generally filled with tourist trap bars and restaurants. Plenty of Londoners come here for the theatre and the National Gallery, but then they quickly leave again. I should say, though, that China Town is a fun place to visit and eat in…so there are exceptions. Although maybe China Town is more properly located in Soho than Leicester Square.
Similarly, I would probably never stay in Westminster (the most central borough) at all. It’s government buildings, not very nice hotels, and there’s not a lot of character. Sure you can see Big Ben, but…avoid sleeping here. A little further east, the City, Clerkenwell/Farringdon and Aldgate all have a beguiling mix of glizty glass buildings, impossibly fancy restaurants, and ancient churches, but this is primarily a business district- no-one lives here and it’s dead at weekends, with some shops and bars not even opening on Saturdays or Sundays.
So where is good to stay? Well. When my novio‘s parents came to visit the UK for the first time last year, we cut costs by getting an Airbnb -actually a very sweet and tiny 18th century worker’s cottage- just off Brick Lane. It was a perfect location as they needed to leave on the bus to Stansted early (which goes from outside Liverpool Street station), and I knew the area well as I lived in nearby Whitechapel for 2 years. We were able to visit Spitalfields Market, Columbia Road Flower Market and Bethnal Green on foot, and it’s only a short distance on the tube or bus to St Paul’s Cathedral, One New Change, and the West End.
Other parts of London which I recommend for visitors include Mornington Crescent, Bethnal Green, Mount Pleasant, Camden Town, Holloway Road, Bloomsbury, London Bridge, and The Angel. All of these areas are proper neighbourhoods in their own right, where people actually live and work and where you’ll find cute places for for brunch, local markets, and quirky bars. If you stay in Bloomsbury, which is admittedly the least “neighbourhoody” of all the places I’ve listed, you’ll be able to walk to a lot of the main attractions- this is the area where the British Museum is, and Oxford Street is only a few minutes away. Actually, all of these areas will allow you to get around on foot, with the possible exception of Holloway Road, which is a little far (although I did walk from Tottenham Court Road to Holloway Road to meet a friend last summer. I got a blister but I saw so many fascinating things on the way – I love walking around London when I’m not pressed for time).
For this trip to London, we’re staying just south of the newly revitalised Kings Cross- chosen largely because my novio needs to be close to UCL for work, but also because it will allow me to walk around the city easily- I hate the tube, and this central location means that hopefully we’ve planned things just right for everything we need and want to do.