Samuel Johnson’s famous line that ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ is never truer than when you look at a map of Greater London. There are dozens of ways to divide Greater London’s 32 boroughs, but the Greater London Authority sees it as five distinct areas – central, east, west, north and south. You’ll probably find yourself mostly in the central London – often referred to as ‘Zone One’ - the centre of which is considered to be Charing Cross station.
West Central London, taking in the West End, Kensington and Notting Hill and extending south to Chelsea, boasts one of the highest concentrations of wealth in the world. With its Georgian terraces, magnificent museums, fantastic old pubs and breathtakingly expensive property, if you go to one place only in London, chances are it will be West Central London.
Most people start in the West End (generally thought to be the city district west of the City of London but distinct from London’s West) – the narrow cobblestone streets of funky Soho, a Shaftesbury Avenue theatre or the Roman piazza of Covent Garden, now thronged with tourists visiting the Royal Opera, the Apple market and pop-up shops. Thousands of clubs, cosy pubs, trendy cafes and eclectic boutiques line every street, as well as Chinatown for a bite to eat.
In the southwest, you will find plenty of the big draw cards like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Horse Guards, all joined together by sweeping tree lined avenues like The Mall and Birdcage Walk. And to the direct west, prestigious Belgravia, Chelsea, Kensington, Knightsbridge, Mayfair, and Nothing Hill and Chelsea are located.
Shoppers can tube it straight to Knightsbridge for the big name labels and department stores or to Sloane Square’s Kings Road, snaking its way through wealthy riverside Chelsea in the city’s biggest concentration of luxury boutiques. Admire the fine Georgian townhouses along your way, and even pop into a garden or two (if it’s not private).
South of the river, you’ll find freshly gentrified suburbs like Battersea, Clapham and Wandsworth, suburban refuges for London’s priced out middle class. With parks and London’s quintessential gastropubs on every corner, they’re a great place to go for a Sunday pub lunch or stroll around the park.
Notting Hill was known for its gritty bars, alternative cafes and Jamaican culture long before its charms were amplified on the big screen with Julia Roberts and High Grant, but you’ll still find plenty of fun on its winding streets, especially on weekends when the whole area is taken over by a sprawling street market.
Heading back into the centre you can visit the sweeping Hyde Park (lots of fun on Sunday at Speaker’s Corner), elegant Kensington Palace and distinctly middle-eastern Marble Arch.
Lying to the north of central London, you’ll find countercultural Camden Town, former haunt of Amy Winehouse and epicentre of London underground life. The market at Camden Town is a classic visitor experience – with acres of open-air stalls to browse and great global food along the locks of Regent Canal.
You’ll also find literary Bloomsbury, affluent Marylebone and vibrant Clerkenwell with its historic streetscape and the old Smithfield markets, along with boutique hotels, swanky bars and exclusive restaurants.
They used to say that only those born within the sound of the Bow Church Bells were cockney, but East London now extends way beyond its humble origins as the city’s working class district. Now you’ll find swish contemporary business districts Canary Wharf, Docklands and Whitechapel in the East. It received a new surge of development with the 2012 Olympics and shops, restaurants and bars have followed to this new financial and commercial hub.
The City of London or the ‘Square Mile’ can also be considered in the east of Central and serves as the city’s main financial district. You’ll find plenty of swish bars and expensive restaurants as well as St Paul’s cathedral, the Royal Exchange and the Barbican crammed within the mediaeval walls of this former Roman settlement.
Afterwards, you can visit the nearby Tower of London, or head north to Hoxton Square and Shoreditch, official stomping ground of the East End hipster. Or keep going east along the Thames to get to GMT, the World Heritage site Greenwich, best known as the 0 meridian and a popular Sunday destination.
‘Sarf London’ includes Bankside, Borough, Lambeth, Southwark and multi-cultural Brixton within its diverse boundaries with plenty of big attractions like the Globe Theatre, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, the Tate Modern and Imperial War Museum.
Rapidly gentrifying Brixton is still at the centre of the Caribbean community and is famous for its market and street art. In the southwest, you will find polite London suburbs like Richmond Park, Kew Gardens and Wimbledon – all popular destinations on the weekend.