Go west! Exploring Kensington’s hidden gems and local hangouts
There’s more to this expansive west London district than just the palace…
The London district of Kensington is world renowned for its palace, famous museums and having some of the most expensive property in the UK. From the grand museums of South Kensington to the greenery of Kensington Gardens, each district has its own different character. With its location and tube stations providing easy access to the capital’s attractions, Kensington is a popular base for many visitors.
With the borough boasting an array of museums, it’s no surprise that three of its attractions appear in the top 10 list of most visited free attractions in London. The Natural History Museum had over 4 million visitors in 2017, while its neighbours the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum had over 3 million. Meanwhile, Kensington Palace is No.11 on the list of paid London attractions, with over 645,000 visitors in 2017.
While all three of the big museums are brilliant places to go, there’s a lot more to visit in Kensington. I’ve worked a large chunk of my career in Kensington and have stumbled upon the lesser-known attractions of the area when I’ve not been working. For this blog post, I spent the day exploring some of Kensington’s hidden gems. One particular destination off the beaten path is the stunning Leighton House Museum. Located near Holland Park and Kensington High Street, it was built in stages from 1866 to 1895 as a home and studio for painter Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896). From the outside, it looks like a classical, red Victorian home. However, upon stepping inside, it’s like entering a Moorish palace. The main attraction is the beautiful Arab Hall, with its mosaics, Islamic tiles and golden dome. As well as its stunning interiors and expansive garden (by London standards at least!), there is also an extensive art collection, featuring paintings and sculptures by Leighton and his Victorian contemporaries. If you’re a fan of architecture and/or art – particularly pre-Raphaelite paintings – I recommend checking it out. You’re not allowed photos inside, although you can get some good shots in the lovely garden.
A short walk away is the Design Museum on Kensington High Street. It was previously located in Bermondsey, but moved to the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington in 2016. The spacious 1960s building is worth a visit in itself for architecture fans. It is home to a permanent free exhibition; ‘Designer, Maker, User’, as well as various changing exhibitions and events throughout the year. On my particular visit, I bought tickets for the Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier exhibition, which is on until 7 October 2018. Curated with the designer shortly before his death last year, the exhibition features a collection of his fashions from the early 1980s to his last collection in 2017. The museum is an interesting space and the way the team have presented Alaia’s creations on transparent models on mirrored platforms was brilliant and really showcased the layers and angles of each design.
When you’re in this end of High Street Kensington, there’s a great little café down a quiet side street if you’re feeling peckish. Located on Phillimore Gardens with a small outdoor terrace is Café Phillies. It’s an independent café and wine bar, popular with locals and serves an all-day breakfast. It’s a cosy venue with contemporary art on the walls and friendly staff. I took advantage of the unlimited brunch hours and ordered an Eggs Benedict Royale for a late lunch. Served on toasted English muffins, there was a very generous serving of smoked salmon and the poached eggs were perfectly runny. A great spot for lunch or breakfast.
If you’re looking for some fresh air, consider walking down to Kensington Gardens. The large park covers 207 acres, with Kensington Palace located in the western end of the Gardens. Known for being the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, parts of the palace are open to the public, including the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments. On this particular visit, I remained outside the palace walls and enjoyed the many free attractions of the gardens. As the palace was the last home to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, there are several memorials to the royal, including a children’s playground and a memorial walk. Throughout the Gardens are many buildings and sculptures to check out, including the 18th century Queen Caroline’s Temple, Henry Moore’s arch and the ornate Albert Memorial. The north side of the park features the 150-year-old Italian ornamental garden, built as a gift to Queen Victoria from her husband Prince Albert. Nearby is Queen Anne’s Alcove, a small structure built in 1705 and designed Sir Christopher Wren. Meanwhile, deeper in the Gardens is Queen Caroline’s Temple, a quaint 18th century summer house with views towards the Long Water.
While in the Gardens, fans of contemporary art should visit the Serpentine Gallery, near the border with Hyde Park. The gallery is spread across two buildings – the original gallery and the Sackler Gallery across the Long Water. Many of the exhibitions are free, while a temporary Pavilion is erected on the grounds every summer between June-October. I went along to check out the 2018 creation by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo, made of cement roof tiles.
After all that exercise, a hard-earned drink is in order. Kensington has an array of traditional Victorian and Edwardian drinking holes for a quintessential English pub experience. I particularly recommend The Builders Arms in the back streets between the High Street and Gloucester Road. You may also see some local celebrity residents if you’re lucky as some A-listers have been known to frequent the pub. Meanwhile, The Britannia further west has been fuelling locals since 1834 and has a good food menu.
However, if you’re staying in the South Kensington or Gloucester Road part and are looking for a cocktail bar, you’ll be spoiled for choice. With so many hotels in the area, many of them have their own bars which are open to the public as well as residents. I headed to the Checkmate bar at the Park International for a pre-dinner cocktail. The bar’s quirky layout makes you feel like a pawn in a giant chess game with its black and white interiors and checkerboard marble floor. There’s a generous daily happy hour with offers on cocktails, beer and wine. I opted for an old favourite, a Cosmopolitan, enjoying two for the price of one. Meanwhile, sports fans could do well to check out the Polo Bar at the Rydges Kensington Plaza. With only a handful of tables, it’s an intimate space with cosy leather seating and a TV screen showing the latest games. There’s a friendly bartender who can whip up whatever you want, with a good happy hour between 6pm-8pm.
When it comes to dinner, there’s plenty of good options. The Ivy Kensington Brasserie on the High Street is a great quality destination at any time of the day or evening. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of independent and chain offerings around South Kensington. I had dinner at Honest Burgers in South Ken, which first started in Brixton, south London back in 2011. Honest Burgers offer sourced, 100% ingredients in their beef or chicken burgers, have a decent veggie option and also cater to gluten-free. One of their big attractions is the delicious rosemary salted chips which must be tried! Their cocktails are pretty good too.
My day spent in Kensington was only the tip of the iceberg as you could literally spend days exploring all its museums, shops and restaurants. Kensington Gardens has plenty to explore on sunny days, while the many galleries and museums are great places to hide out when the weather’s bad.
NB: This feature on Kensington was a collaboration with Hotels.com. The spending money was gifted by Hotels.com, but all views are my own.
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