London: Places to Explore


Kensington, Chelsea, and Knightsbridge

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There's no getting away from it. London's wealthiest enclave (not many other neighborhoods are plagued with street racers in Maseratis) is shop-'til-you-drop territory of the highest order. With two world-famous department stores, Harrods and Harvey Nichols, a few hundred yards apart, and every bit of space between and around taken up with designer boutiques, chain stores, and jewelers, it's hard to imagine why anyone who doesn't like shopping would even think of coming here. If the department stores seem overwhelming, Beauchamp Place (pronounced "Beecham") is a good tonic. It's lined with equally chic and expensive boutiques, but they tend to be smaller, more personal, and less hectic. Nearby Sloane Street is lined with top-end designer boutiques such as Prada, Dior, and Tods.

In the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (or "K&C" as the locals call it) you'll find London at its richest, and not just in the moneyed sense. Once-bohemian Chelsea is where James McNeill Whistler and the Pre-Raphaelites painted and Mick Jagger partied. In South Kensington you'll come upon a concentration of great museums near Cromwell Road, including the Victoria & Albert, the Natural History Museum, and, within Hyde Park, historic Kensington Palace. Knightsbridge has become a playground for the international wealthy, with shopping to match their tastes. It is all summed up in adjacent Belgravia: comprised of block after block of cream-beige and white-porticoed mansions, this eminently walkable enclave of imposing residences and splendid embassies is like a stage set designed by Cecil Beaton.

Chelsea was settled before the Domesday Book and was already fashionable when two of Henry VIII's wives lived there. On the banks of the Thames are the vast grounds of the Royal Hospital, designed by Christopher Wren. A walk along the riverside embankment will take you to Cheyne Walk, a lovely street dating back to the 18th century. Several of its more notable residents—who range from J.M.W. Turner and Henry James to Laurence Olivier and Keith Richards—are commemorated by blue plaques on their former houses.

Another place to find peace and quiet is a divinely peaceful stroll in fashionable Belgravia, one of the most gorgeous set-pieces of urban 19th-century planning. Street after street is lined with grand white terraces of aristocratic town houses, still part of the Grosvenor estate, and owned by the Dukes of Westminster. Many are leased to embassies, but a remarkable number around Lowndes Square, Belgrave Square, and Eaton Square remain homes of the discreet, private wealthy and outright super-rich. Some people call the area near Elizabeth Street Belgravia, others Pimlico-Victoria. Either way, now that you've had a break, it's time to shop again, and this street is the place to be.

The Albert Bridge, a candy-color Victorian confection of a suspension bridge, provides one of London's great romantic views, especially at night. Nearby is one of London's most exciting shopping streets, the King's Road (Charles II's private way from St. James's to Fulham). Leave time to explore the tiny Georgian lanes of pastel-color houses that veer off the King's Road to the north—especially Jubilee Place and Burnsall Street, leading to the hidden "village square" of Chelsea Green. On Saturday there's an excellent farmers' market up from the Saatchi Gallery selling artisanal cheese and chocolates, local oysters, and organic meats, plus stalls serving international food.

Kensington laid its first royal stake when King William III, fed up with the vapors of the Thames, bought a country place there in 1689 and converted it into Kensington Palace. Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, added the jewel in the borough's crown when he turned the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851 into South Kensington's metropolis of museums: Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum. His namesakes in the area include Royal Albert Hall, with its bas-reliefs that make it resemble a giant, redbrick Wedgwood pot, and the lavish Albert Memorial.

Turn into Derry Street or Young Street and enter Kensington Square, one of the most complete 17th-century residential squares in London. Holland Park is about ¾ mile farther west; both Leighton House and 18 Stafford Terrace —two of London's most gorgeously decorated Victorian-era houses (the lavish use of Islamic tiles, inlaid mosaics, gilded ceilings, and marble columns make the former into an Arabian Nights fantasy)—are nearby as well.

Kensington, Chelsea, and Knightsbridge at a Glance

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