London is enormous. There are over 300 languages spoken in the city, which is home to some nine million people. It boasts over 170 museums (many of which are free), its primary airport (Heathrow) is the fourth busiest in the world, and in 2019, over 21 million people visited it.
It’s a historic, sprawling metropolis and one of the most popular destinations in the world. Food, nightlife, history, museums, architecture — there are countless reasons why London is a favorite choice for backpackers and luxury travelers alike.
One of those reasons is its neighborhoods. London comprises almost 50 different neighborhoods, each with its own flair and vibe.
In the past, popular areas like Soho, Kensington, Shoreditch, Camden, and other centrally located neighborhoods were the tourist magnets. But as new visitors are looking to get off the beaten path — and as repeat visitors want something new and fresh — some previously ignored neighborhoods are stepping into the spotlight.
Here is my list of the best non-touristy areas in London where I like to hang out.
Note: This post was written by a guest author. I hope you enjoy this different perspective on London!
Relative to London’s sprawl, Clerkenwell is a somewhat central neighborhood. It’s east of St. Pancras and about a 20-minute walk from the British Museum. In addition to being a way-off-the-radar area for tourists, Clerkenwell is home to London’s historic “Little Italy” and has a long, interesting history itself.
In the late Middle Ages, Clerkenwell fell outside of the walls of London. And as a result, the area was not regulated by the city. As one manuscript from 1596 stated, a “great number of dissolute, loose, and insolent people” lived in the neighborhood, which was home to “habitations of beggars and people without trade, stables, inns, alehouses, taverns…dicing houses, bowling alleys, and brothel houses.”
Much of that debauchery has gone elsewhere, but there are still some noteworthy taverns here. Namely, The Eagle. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, talented chefs started working out of the kitchens of neighborhood pubs a few nights a week, producing excellent takes on British pub grub. In 1991, The Eagle was born. And so was the genre of restaurant/bar called the gastropub. The idea spread all around London and then Great Britain, and subsequently jumped the Atlantic to the United States.
Another pioneering restaurant also calls Clerkenwell home (at least the Clerkenwell/Smithfield border). St. John is helmed by chef Fergus Henderson. Starting in 1994, he has produced a snout-to-tail dining menu (in which chefs aim to use as much of each animal as possible) that was way ahead of his time.
Located in West London along a bend in the Thames River, Fulham feels like a world away from Piccadilly Circus. If you like football (soccer), there are two premier league teams that play here: Fulham and Chelsea. If historic buildings are more your speed, the neighborhood boasts Fulham Palace, a building of medieval origin that was, until 1973, home to the Bishop of London; it is open daily and free to visit. But be sure to spend some time getting lost in nearby Bishops Park too.
Many Londoners associate the neighborhood with the classic White Horse Tavern, a pub that nearly everyone calls the Sloany Pony, thanks to its connection with the “Sloane Rangers,” a name for the upper-middle- and upper-class regulars who would frequent the place. I also love the Lillie Langtry pub, supposedly the oldest in the neighborhood.
3. Hackney Wick
Not many people outside of the metropolis are too familiar with Hackney Wick, an East London neighborhood. In a 1978 episode of the TV show Doctor Who, one of the characters referred to Hackney Wick as a “mudpatch in the middle of nowhere.” Maybe that was the case in 1978, but not today.
Because of the neighborhood’s proximity to Olympic Park, which was used in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, Hackney Wick received a lot of funds for development in the run-up to the competition. Today, warehouse-crammed Hackney Wick is thriving, particularly when it comes to arts and creativity. There are a lot of great galleries here, as well as performance spaces and artists’ studios.
The River Lee Canal, which is part of the River Lea, on which there was a Roman outpost about two thousand years ago, is great for strolling, as its paths create an atmospheric escape from urban London. And after a long walk, settle in at Crate Brewery, a former print factory and an erstwhile squatters’ home, serving up very drinkable brews and snacks.
Travel all the way to the end of the Victoria line in the northeast and you’ll feel like you’re no longer in London but in a separate town, far removed from Soho and Leicester Square.
I love going to Walthamstow on Saturdays to meander around the Lloyd Park Market, where farmers sell fresh organic fruits, vegetables, and meat. There is also a small handful of street food stalls from which to graze on something while you wander.
You can get closer to nature here by walking around the Walthamstow Wetlands, the largest urban wetland in Europe. People come here to walk, bicycle, and even fish.
After a few hours in Walthamstow, I love settling in at Crate St. James Street. Fashioned out of a former car park (parking garage), the complex houses a myriad of food and drink outlets, including pubs, Vietnamese coffee spots, and Italian bakeries.
Blackheath is located in southeast London. Because it was a common route for stagecoaches in the 17th and 18th centuries, the area attracted a legion of highway robbers. A 19th-century guidebook about London had this to say about the neighborhood: “In past times it was planted with gibbets” — public execution devices — “on which the bleaching bones of men who had dared to ask for some extension of liberty, or who doubted the infallibility of kings, were left year after year to dangle in the wind.”
In the warm-weather months, stroll around the verdant, plus-sized Blackheath Commons and then pop into the mid-19th-century All Saints Church. You can’t miss its massive spire. And don’t overlook the nearby St. Michael and All Angels Church, with its long, skinny steeple that locals have nicknamed “the devil’s toothpick.”
If you’re in the mood for looking at art, stop into the Ranger’s House, an 18th-century, Palladian-style Georgian mansion that houses a great collection, including works by Botticelli, Hans Memling, and Filippino Lippi.
Dulwich village was first mentioned in records around the year 967. Like much of the area surrounding London, it was eventually engulfed by the city. Toward the end of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (his first novel, published in 1836), the protagonist retires to Dulwich, saying it is “one of the most pleasant spots near London.”
Yet even today, it still feels very much like a village. The High Street is fun to walk down, as the 18th- and 19th-century buildings that flank it are beautifully preserved. As an added benefit, the area has a ton of indie, non-chain shops and restaurants. And Dulwich Picture Gallery, the oldest art gallery in England (from 1817), is worth the trip here in and of itself.
London is one of my favorite cities in the world. It has a ton of activities, countless budget-friendly places to stay (the best hostels in London are affordable, lively, and a great way to connect with other travelers), incredible museums (many of which are free), world-class food, a wild nightlife, and unique off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods you can explore.
While the city’s most popular districts are definitely worth checking out, by getting off the tourist radar, you’ll be able to have a more unique — and more authentic — visit. Have any questions about these non-touristy areas in London? Let me know in the comments!