Taxi Noir: Top 10 London Districts
What follows is a very subjective and personal survey of my favourite areas to visit in London:
The City of London is a compact little borough, also known as the “Square Mile”. Monday to Friday, The City’s financial district is a fast-paced hive of activity, with be-suited commuters scurrying in and out of tube stations like rats in a race – which many of them are. It’s a traditional, sometimes staid, area of offices; with just enough pubs, wine bars, restaurants and sandwich bars to serve the community of commuters who pour in every weekday. There aren’t many shops.
The grand architecture and financial buzz is best experienced in daylight, but any day is good. Many places close for the evening and at weekends, but it’s changing. Leave your suit at home and enjoy the peace and quiet of a weekend stroll, or visit on a weekday and take in the energy.
Some of the office blocks are tourist sites in their own right; for example, the Cheesecutter, the Walkie Talkie, and the much-loved Gherkin. The Walkie Talkie on Fenchurch Street houses the popular Sky Garden roof terrace, open to the public.
Covent Garden once housed a fruit & veg market, which was re-developed when the market outgrew the area in the 1970s. It’s now Tourist Central and a jolly area of shops, pubs and restaurants. It’s certainly more than a soulless tourist trap though. I’d just say go early to avoid the crowds. Unless you like crowds of course. There’s a nice piazza where street entertainers perform, and it’s more pleasant than Leicester Square. On the piazza you have the wonderful London Transport Museum. I visit few museums, but this one is great. The area bordering Soho is London’s premier theatre district.
Soho is Covent Garden’s badly-behaved neighbour. Soho was a byword for porn, prostitution and seediness in earlier times, but the area cleaned up many years ago. Most people flock to its pubs and restaurants rather to the few remaining peepshows and strip joints. Some streets still have a seedy feel, but Londoners like the authenticity of Soho and fear gentrification will bring in more chain places and make Soho less unique. Chinatown is part of Soho and is well worth a visit, and a cheap lunch. South of Oxford Street there’s a grid of interesting streets crammed with pubs and restaurants, and there are a few nice squares in which you have a quiet sit-down.
Bloomsbury is a stately area of Georgian terraces and leafy squares. It’s a university area, famed for the Bloomsbury Set of writers, intellectuals and philosophers who were associated with the area in the early 20th century: people who included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and EM Forster. Bloomsbury’s main tourist attraction is the British Museum. Away from the museum there are some nice walks around pleasant streets. 0
Tottenham Court Road divides Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury. Both districts offer an alternative to the sometimes hectic Covent Garden and Soho; and while it’s attractions are more spread out, it’s a rewarding area to explore.
Clerkenwell is another overlooked Central London district. Personally, I think it’s the connoisseur’s choice for atmospheric little corners. Have a look around historic St John’s Square and cobbled Bleeding Heart Yard (check out the Bleeding Heart Tavern & Bistro). The area around Smithfield meat market offers top class restaurants and characterful pubs. Clerkenwell used to be London’s Little Italy, but all that’s really left is the Italian Church. You’ve also got the world famous Hatton Garden; a street full of jewellers and full of activity on weekdays.
Camden Town is a diverse residential area of smart leafy streets and council estates. Some of it is attractive and stately, some of it is pig ugly. Camden High Street is pretty workaday, but at Camden Town Station the area turns into a tourist mecca of interesting shops, a market – and plenty of tourist tat. Camden Lock offers quirky shopping and world cuisine. It feels counter cultural, but how much of is it for show? The canal side is nice, providing for attractive walks and boat trips. There are some decent pubs. Take a large bag: you’re bound to impulse-buy a pair of Union Jack Dr Marten boots.
Islington is Camden’s neighbour just north of Central London. It’s my favourite North London area – much more refined than tatty old Camden Town. There’s everything here, with a good variety of pubs and restaurants. Tourists are drawn to the antique shops around Camden Passage. Nearby you have some lovely canal side streets – look for the Island Queen pub. Islington High Street and Upper Street are the main commercial streets, but the residential streets are worth looking at. Look at the house prices and weep.
Hampstead is an even more upmarket North London district. There’s a discernible village atmosphere and a feeling of wealth and taste. The area is known for its famous residents; especially actors. Specialist shops include artwork and antiques. At the top end there’s Hampstead Heath. This wild area of common borders other “villages” such as Highgate and Golders Green. It’s all very attractive.
Canary Wharf is worth a trip out. About thirty years ago, some of the financial district moved out of The City into the newly developed dockland areas. It’s a much more modern take on the financial district, with its steel and glass banking towers overlooking the Thames. I like it because of its unique atmosphere: it doesn’t feel British, it feels European or American. The Wharf is viewed best by a ride on the driverless Docklands Light Railway trains that snake along elevated rails. Ground level brings you close to the action. Just keep your feet moving, life here is conducted at a brisk tempo!
Brixton is the best example of mad, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, London. It’s Caribbean, African, Brasilian, Eastern European – everything. It’s busy, loud and edgy: interactive and in-your-face. There’s people and produce from around the world, a lively market, street life and music everywhere. There are some interesting eateries, though it’s light on decent pubs. Take it all in, but don’t act too touristy.
So that was my personal Top 10. Next time I’ll break it down into individual streets. Don’t be disappointed if your favourite areas aren’t included this time, they’re bound to come up sometime!