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Like a local: West London

While its world-famous department stores, Michelin-starred restaurants and multi-million-pound mansions may epitomise the wealth of west London, there’s a host of distinct and alternative experiences on offer

Like a local: West London
Image: Scott Wishart

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Glam. Upscale. Eccentric in pockets. The well-heeled west has come to connote all sorts of things, though money plays more of a role here than ever. Why not begin at Harrods — the point at which London’s touristy centre gives way to a series of neighbourhoods united by their wealth. Exit this decadent department store and head west towards the museums of South Kensington, or north, past the twin lungs of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, towards Notting Hill. From the cut of the outfits to the cars lining the well-swept streets, it’ll become clear you’re walking among the monied.

West London is a place defined by its property. Its ubiquitous rows of lofty terraced houses were once subdivided into affordable flats, but have long since been pieced back together and sold as multi-million-pound urban mansions, often to celebrities eager for a fashionable London address.

This transition has profoundly affected the area, as the communities that once defined it — such as Notting Hill’s Caribbean families or the bohemians of King’s Road — have been priced out and replaced by well-heeled urbanites, who’ve brought with them boutiques, pricey furniture shops and artisan cafes. As a result, it’s no longer a curious patchwork, more a smooth blanket of well-tended, neighbourhoods. But while it may lack some of its former edge, it’s still capable of springing surprises. After all, this is the home of both the Notting Hill Carnival and the eclectic Portobello Market. And hidden away between the pricey esplanades and glitzy nightclubs, are plenty of relics from its colourful past, plus a few, off-the-wall modern treasures too.

 

 
Piles of style

If only all of London felt like Portobello Road. Oozing personality, it’s the type of urban stretch people want to linger on, whether they’re locals, visitors or aimless wanderers who’ve discovered it by accident.

The main selling point is Portobello Market, which stretches for two miles from Notting Hill Gate down towards Ladbroke Grove and beyond. Although famous for antiques, it’s also good for clothes — the area under and around the Westway flyover is, technically, the fashion market, where young designers line up next to secondhand stall holders, both a good source of bargains. However, visitors needn’t restrict themselves to this section — clothes are on sale along the entire length of the market, even in the antiques section, where you can pick up vintage coats, bags and jewellery.

The good news is the market has imparted its personality on the whole area — both Portobello Road and the surrounding streets of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove have a healthy compliment of eye-catching independent stores. Over the years, several have become local institutions, such as Spanish supermarket R Garcia & Sons; Mr Christian’s Delicatessen; bespoke clothes shops The Cross and Stumper & Fielding; and Alice’s Antiques, which has a curious selection of British memorabilia. The area also excels in secondhand record shops — Music & Video Exchange perhaps the best example.

Or you can head to one of the area’s boutique hotspots, where the range of designer and fashion brands is dizzying, particularly around King’s Road, Knightsbridge, Sloane Street and Duke of York Square. As well as iconic stores like Harvey Nichols, there are plenty of bespoke outlets, specialising in everything from underwear to cashmere. And those drawn to the area by its colourful past should check out Mary Quant’s only UK shop or Vivienne Westwood’s King’s Road store, often referred to as the birthplace of punk.

Shop picks
Alice’s Antiques:
 88 Portobello Road, W11 2QD. T: 020 7229 8187.
The Cross: 141 Portland Road, W11 4LR. thecrossshop.co.uk
Stumper & Fielding:
 107 Portobello Road, W11 2QB. stumperfielding.co.uk
R Garcia & Sons: 
248-250 Portobello Road, W11 1LL. rgarciaandsons.com
Mr Christian’s Delicatessen: 
11 Elgin Crescent, W11 2JA. mrchristians.co.uk
Music & Video Exchange: 
38 Notting Hill Gate, W11 3HL. mgeshops.com
Harvey Nichols: 
109-125 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7RJ. harveynichols.com
Vivienne Westwood: 
430 King’s Road, SW10 0LJ. viviennewestwood.co.uk
Mary Quant: 
37 Duke of York Square, SW3 4LY. maryquant.co.uk

 

 
Food glorious food

There’s certainly no shortage of top-class restaurants in west London, which attracts more than its fair share of big-name chefs — Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White each have a restaurant in Chelsea, while Australian TV personality Bill Granger has brought his tasty but unfussy dishes to Notting Hill, at Granger & Co.

Perhaps the best way to approach west London’s cuisine is to work your way through its culinary enclaves, starting with South Kensington, where an affluent French community has grown up around cultural centre Institut Francais. Here you’ll find all manner of cafes, patisseries and restaurants, the pick of which is arguably Racine, a Parisian-style bistro that likes to indulge meat lovers (calf’s brains, black butter and capers, anyone?). Nearby La Brasserie is similarly impressive, and open all day, with four separate menus covering breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Meanwhile, the area’s standout building, the century-old, art deco Michelin House, is today the site of Terence Conran’s Bibendum — home to the Oyster Bar, Restaurant, Café and Crustacea Stall; the latter serving up some of London’s best seafood.

On the other side of Hyde Park, Bayswater is home to a pocket of Middle Eastern restaurants — the best, Al Waha, located a little further north, near Ladbroke Grove, while nearby The Rum Kitchen is a high-quality nod to the area’s Caribbean heritage.

Food picks
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay:
 68 Royal Hospital Road, SW3 4HP. gordonramsay.com
Marco Grill: Stamford Bridge, Fulham Rd, SW6 1HS. marcogrill.com
Granger & Co: 175 Westbourne Grove, W11 2SB. grangerandco.com
Racine: 239 Brompton Rd, SW3 2EP. racine-restaurant.com
La Brasserie: 272 Brompton Rd, SW3 2AW. labrasserielondon.com
Bibendum: 81 Fulham Road, SW3 6RD. bibendum.co.uk
Al Waha: 75 Westbourne Grove, W2 4UL. alwaharestaurant.com
The Rum Kitchen: 6-8 All Saints Road, W11 1HH. therumkitchen.com

 

 
Party people

Viewers of Made in Chelsea could be forgiven for believing west London to be stuffed with a certain type of well-heeled, bling-encrusted nightclub. While these places certainly do exist, especially along King’s Road and around Kensington, there are plenty of alternative ways to fritter away your hard-earned cash.

For example, London’s current preoccupation with speakeasies is being led by the city’s west, with a new wave of novel cocktail bars offering unusual drinks in bizarre, and often hard-to-find, venues.

Barts, in Chelsea, is the archetypal Prohibition-era hideaway, concealed behind a black door within an unassuming residential block, while to access The Chelsea Prayer Room guests have to approach one of the hostesses at Goat restaurant and tell them they’ve been bad and need to repent for their sins — they’ll then be shown upstairs to a secret bar.

Evans & Peel Detective Agency, in Earl’s Court, takes things a step further. Guests are ushered into a room made to look like a private detective’s office, and forced to give details of an imaginary case before being led through a revolving book case into an atmospheric basement bar.

Another alternative to glitzy nightclubs can be found in bohemian live music venues such as Notting Hill Arts Club, which offers an eclectic selection of DJs and bands, and The Troubadour, in Earls Court, which has hosted stars — from Bob Dylan in the 1950s and ’60s, to Adele in the noughties — before they hit the big time.

There’s also a healthy complement of spruced-up traditional pubs. The Cow, in Westbourne Park, for example, is trendy yet welcoming and serves oysters at the bar, while the Churchill Arms ticks all the boxes — a handsome pub with a good selection of ales. But for a really dense concentration of quality London pubs, head to Hammersmith’s riverside, where five high-quality boozers line up along the banks of the Thames — including The Black Lion, which even has its own indoor skittle alley.

Nightlife picks
Barts:
 Chelsea Cloister, 87 Sloane Ave, SW3 3DW. barts-london.com
Evans & Peel Detective Agency: 310c Earl’s Court Road, SW5 9AQ. evansandpeel.com
The Chelsea Prayer Room: 333 Fulham Road, SW10 9QL. goatchelsea.com
Notting Hill Arts Club: 21 Notting Hill Gate, W11 3LQ. nottinghillartsclub.com
The Troubadour: 263-267 Old Brompton Road, SW5 9JA. troubadour.co.uk
The Cow: 89 Westbourne Park Road, W2 5QH. thecowlondon.co.uk
The Churchill Arms: 119 Kensington Church St, W8 7LN. churchillarmskensington.co.uk
The Black Lion: 2 South Black Lion Lane, W6 9TJ. theblacklion-hammersmith.co.uk

 

 
Top 10 local tips

01 Visit Bayswater’s Porchester Spa, one of the UK’s oldest bathhouses. better.org.uk/leisure/porchester-spa 

02 Every Friday, the Victoria and Albert Museum stays open until 10pm for themed evenings. vam.ac.uk 

03 Oyster cards — available online or at Tube or rail stations — are the cheapest means of travel. If you make multiple journeys in a single day, the overall price is capped. tfl.gov.uk 

04 The best way to explore is on foot. For starters, walk along Portobello Road.

05 Leather armchairs with footstools and side tables? The Electric Cinema is possibly the country’s most sumptuous movie theatre.  electriccinema.co.uk

06 Don’t miss Kensington Roof Gardens — 1.5 acres of landscaped greenery on the top of a retail block on Kensington High Street.

07 The huge Westfield London shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush gathers high-class brand names in one place. uk.westfield.com

08 The Natural History Museum hosts monthly sleepovers for accompanied groups of children, plus occasional overnight events for adults. nhm.ac.uk

09 Over nine weeks in summer, open-air operas are staged under a huge canopy in Holland Park.

10 The Royal Albert Hall is a stunning building worth visiting even if you’re not planning to see a concert. royalalberthall.com

More info

On screen: Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill was filmed in West London, as was fellow 90s Britcom Sliding Doors.

Books: Not a Guide to Kensington & Chelsea, by Simon Webb. RRP: £5.99. (The History Press)
London Villages: Explore the City’s Best Neighbourhoods, by Zena Alkayat. RRP: £9.99. (Frances Lincoln)

Local blog: littlemissnottinghill.com

Listings: timeout.com/london
allinlondon.co.uk
londonist.com
londontown.com

 

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Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)