London: Places to Explore


Regent's Park and Hampstead

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As civilized as a Gainsborough landscape, Regent's Park and Hampstead contain some of the prettiest and most aristocratic architecture that London has to offer. The city becomes noticeably calmer and greener as you head north from Oxford Street, past the newly chic shopping streets of Marylebone and immensely regal mansions that encircle Regent's Park, up to the well-tended lawns of Primrose Hill (no wonder Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow chose to live here) and the handsome Georgian streets of Hampstead. All in all, this area will provide a taste of how laid-back (moneyed) Londoners can be.

Rather like the Left Bank in Paris or Greenwich Village in New York, the residential areas north of Regent's Park have long been associated with artists and writers—even though it's been a long time since most of them could afford to live here. John Keats (1795–1821) lived in Hampstead as a virtual pauper; you'll find Keats House, where the poet wrote his most famous work, among the homes of artistic types who these days are more likely to be millionaire film stars or musicians. However the neighborhood still retains a gorgeously bohemian vibe, which all but shimmers through the moneyed haze of swank boutiques and artisan food stores. Perhaps it's something to do with the high concentration of wonderful, atmospheric pubs.

Also hidden among Hampstead's winding streets are Fenton House, a Georgian town house with a lovely walled garden, and Kenwood House, with its remarkable art collection. Overlooking it all is Hampstead Heath (known locally as just "The Heath"), a huge, wild urban park with great views across London—although Primrose Hill has perhaps the most spectacular view you can find without getting onto the London Eye.

A livelier, cooler vibe prevails at Camden Market, a magnet for dedicated followers of fashion, while kids will adore London Zoo at the northern end of Regent's Park.

This, the youngest of London's great parks, was laid out in 1812 by John Nash, working, as ever, for his patron, the Prince Regent (hence the name), who was crowned George IV in 1820. The idea was to re-create the feel of a grand country residence close to the center of town, with all those magnificent white-stucco terraces facing in on the park. As you walk "the Outer Circle," you'll see how successfully Nash's plans were carried out. The most famous and impressive of Nash's terraces would have been in the prince's line of vision from the planned palace, so was extra-ornamental. Cumberland Terrace has a central block of Ionic columns surmounted by a triangular Wedgewood-blue pediment and giant statuary personifying Britannia and her empire further single it out from the pack. There are those who find nearby Chester Terrace to be even more regal.

The southeastern exit of the park is just around the corner from two of London's most traditional tourist destinations, the Sherlock Holmes Museum and Madame Tussauds.

Before you plunge back into the frenetic activity of central London, you can wander down the stylish Marylebone High Street and, just north of Oxford Street, check out the patrician Wallace Collection, an extraordinary collection of old-master paintings and palace furniture housed in an 18th-century mansion.

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