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 by 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. Read the rest of this entry
Standing in a quiet square sandwiched between South Kensington tube station and the Victoria & Albert Museum is a rather unusual block of flats. No.5 Thurloe Square, nicknamed ‘the Thin House’, is thought to be one of the narrowest homes in the capital. Looking at the block from the south-west corner of the square, the house looks ridiculously narrow. However, it’s somewhat of an optical illusion as the building is actually triangular, which widens as you move further east.
Thurloe Square was built in 1840-1846 on land belonging to the Alexander Estate. The square was named after the Thurloe family – from which brothers John and James Alexander inherited the land following the death of their great-grandmother Anna Maria Harris’ son from her second marriage. Anna Maria, who inherited the estate in the early 18th century, was left widowed from her first marriage to John Browne (the Alexanders’ great-grandfather), and remarried John Thurloe Brace – grandson of the Puritan statesman John Thurloe (1616-1668). Their son Harris Thurloe Brace died without an heir in 1799, so the estate passed on to his mother’s family from her first marriage.
Most of the houses in Thurloe Square were designed by London-born architect George Basevi (1794-1845), a student of Sir John Soane and a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli. The terraces were designed in his signature neo-classical style with Doric columned porches at the front doors. This entrance feature is now a signature design of mid-Victorian terraces in the area. However, just two decades later, 23 houses in Thurloe Square were designated to be handed over to the Metropolitan District Railway, who were working on a new transport advancement, now known affectionately as ‘the tube’. Landowner at the time, H.B. Alexander was thoroughly unimpressed and fought against the plans, but the Government overruled him. Mr Alexander could only be grateful that the Government banned the railways from erecting an entrance to South Kensington station in Thurloe Square as it would have ruined the amenities and character. The railways bought Nos. 1-11 Thurloe Square for £3,000, but in the end, only five houses (Nos. 1-5) on Thurloe Square were demolished in 1867. The company had bought a total of 42 houses from the Alexander Estate over various roads, but only destroyed 19. Some of the surviving buildings had their back gardens dramatically reduced. In 1868, South Kensington station opened, providing services on the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District Railway lines.
By the late 19th century, Kensington and Chelsea were world-renowned as a hub for art. Flocks of artists built studios in the area, many of which still exist today. Two Victorian artists’ homes Leighton House Museum and 18 Stafford Terrace are currently open as museums. With the railway lines just a few feet away from the south side of Thurloe Square, the triangular site of former Nos.1-5, remained vacant for many years. However, prolific local builder William Douglas saw its potential for seven artists’ studios. The wedge-shaped red brick block was built between 1885-1887. The large north-facing windows are perfect for letting in lots of light for the artists to work in. Building plans were submitted to the Metropolitan Board of Works by surveyor C.W. Stephenson on behalf of Douglas, suggesting he may have been the architect. At its narrowest point, the building is said to be 6ft wide, spanning to 34ft at its largest.
In 1899, Thurloe Square was surveyed by Charles Booth for his poverty map. Notably, the houses on the south of the Square overlooking the railway were labelled ‘middle class’, while the remaining residences were ‘upper middle and upper class, wealthy’. Today, Kensington remains an area with some of the most expensive houses in the country. Most of the original Basevi terraces are Grade II listed, as is South Kensington station. While not listed, the artists’ studios are an impressive piece of real estate today. In 2016, a top floor artist studio apartment covering just 600 square foot in 5 Thurloe Square went up for sale for £895.000.
- ‘The Thin House’, 5 Thurloe Square, Kensington, SW7. Nearest station: South Kensington. NB: This building contains private residences and are not open to the public.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
London is loving the ‘dirty burger’ at the moment – gourmet, juicy meat patties served with flash fries, such as Cajan or rosemary salted. However, many of these American-style burger joints are lacking in style and feel like one of those ‘eat and leave’ places (my nickname for certain venues where you don’t feel encouraged to linger long).
This is where Dirty Bones offers something a bit more sophisticated and cool. Located in Kensington Church Street, DB is a basement bar and restaurant decked out in a retro style with a mix of booths and chairs. Low lighting gives the venue a suitable evening vibe, so it’s a great locale for groups of friends looking for cocktails and grub. I visited with two friends for a post-work catch-up so were keen to take advantage of the ‘Dirty Hour’, with 2-4-1 cocktails on Tuesdays-Fridays between 6-8pm. I was particularly drawn to the Top Dog (Finlandia Vodka, fresh strawberry, Chambord, lemon and Jeio Prosecco), which was fruity and refreshing.
When it comes to eating, the main choices are either hot dogs, bones (chicken, ribs or steak) and burgers. Although carnivores will be salivating over the carnivore choices, vegetarians are catered for with the Veggie Hot Dogs. The choice of dogs (pork, beef or veggie) are served four ways, ‘Classic Yankee’, ‘Brit Dog’, ‘Mexican’ or ‘Asian’. I opted for a veggie dog served in Classic Yankee style, which meant in a brioche bun with caramelised spring onions, French’s mustard and tomato ketchup. The veggie dog was really tasty and the packed-to-the-gills bun made the dish a lot more substantial and filling than a typical hot dog would be. The side orders looked particularly attractive to our empty stomachs and we ended up ordering way too much. We ended up sharing triple cooked fries, mac & cheese and dirty fries, which were gluttonous, but delicious.
Overall, we really enjoyed our visit. The venue feels more of a night out kinda of social spot for drinks and food, rather than a place for just a meal out. I would recommend for groups of friends looking for an informal, relaxed night out.
- Dirty Bones, 20 Kensington Church Street, Kensington, W8 4EP. Nearest tube: High Street Kensington. Open 6pm to midnight from Tues-Sun. For more information, visit the Dirty Bones website.
For more of Metro Girl’s bar and restaurant reviews, click here.
I don’t like to do anything Christmassy until at least 1st December, and even then it feels too early. However the past few years I have made an exception to this rule when it comes to starting my Christmas shopping. As everyone knows, it can be a pretty stressful – and expensive – experience, so I like the spread the cost and dilute the stress by starting in November. I have a large bunch of girlfriends I’ve been buying presents for since the late ’90s and every year I find it a challenge to find them something new I haven’t bought them before and that they will actually like!
So this is where Christmas markets and fairs come in. Not only do you get the chance to buy unique, handmade gifts that you won’t find in your local WHSmith or Boots, they also tend to be more relaxing, fun environments with festive food and drink and entertainment on hand. I’m planning to visit some of these fairs in the bid to get my friends and loved ones something a little different to place under the tree this year.
This is the 2012 guide – for the 2014 guide, click here.
- 16 November – 23 December : Christmas Market at Southbank
The German-style market returns to the Southbank as vendors sell food, drink and gifts along the Thames. Wooden huts pop-up alongside the Thames in front of the Southbank Centre. Choirs will also perform twice a day. Free entry. While you’re there, you could pop along and have a skate under the London Eye. Nearest tube: Waterloo or Embankment.
- 23 November – 6 January 2013 : Traditional German Christmas Market at Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland features a fun fair, food, drink, circus and an ice rink in Hyde Park over the festive period and includes a German market selling gifts too. Free entry. Nearest tube: Hyde Park Corner. For more information, visit the Winter Wonderland website.
- 29 November : Christmas Shopping Night at Seven Dials and St Martin’s Courtyard
Over 120 stores in the Seven Dials and St Martin’s Courtyard area of Covent Garden will be offering 20 per cent off during their special one-off Christmas shopping event. From 5pm until 9pm, Seven Dials will be closed off to traffic, with stores hosting live music, DJs and makeovers with complimentary gifts, drinks and nibbles on offer. You must register for the 20 per cent off voucher either online or on the night at 29 Shorts Gardens. Nearest tube: Covent Garden or Leicester Square. For more information, visit the Seven Dials website.
- 1 December : Fair Christmas Fayre at The Rink, Oxford Street
Who would ever imagine a Christmas fair in the middle of Oxford Street? A one day market selling ethical, fair trade gifts. From 11am until 6pm. Free entry. The Rink, 275 Oxford Street, London W1B 2LH. Nearest tube: Oxford Circus. For more information, visit the Fair Christmas Fayre website.
- 1 – 2 December : Christmas Fair at Chelsea Psychic Garden
Two day festival at London’s oldest Botanical garden. Stallholders will be selling garden paraphernalia, unique jewellery, cashmere clothing, Ceramics, handmade chocolates, chutneys, cheese and smoked salmon and leather goods, amongst others, in heated marquees. Guides will be available to show guests the gardens. Breakfast, lunch and mulled wine will also be on sale. Entry £5, friends of CPG free, Under 16s free. Chelsea Psychic Garden, 66 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HS. Nearest tube: Sloane Square. For more information, visit the Chelsea Psychic Garden website.
- 4 – 22 December : Christmas Pop-Up at The Artisan
Local artists will be selling ceramics, jewellery, glass, textiles, art and photography at this temporary pop-up Christmas shop at The Artisan in Willesden. Artisan, 80 Harlesden Road, London NW10 2BE. Nearest tube: Willesden Green. For more information, visit Artisan’s website.
- 6 December – Christmas Bazaar at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Local craftspeople and artists will be selling their wares at this Thursday evening event. There will also be carol singing and snacks, mince pies and wine on sale. Open 6-9pm. Free entry. Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21 7AD. Nearest train station: West Dulwich or North Dulwich. For more information, visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery website.
- 7 – 9 December : Jewel East Christmas Market at Old Spitalfields
Three-day festival showcasing the finest jewellery designers from across the country, as well as jewellery-making workshops and demonstrations. Open Fri 7th 10am-4pm, Sat 8th 11am-5pm, Sun 9th 9am-5pm. Old Spitalfields Market, Brushfield Street, London E1 6EW. Nearest tube: Shoreditch High Street. For more information, visit Spitalfields’ website.
- 7 – 9 December : Taste of Christmas
Sister event to the hugely popular Taste Of London event which celebrates food. Three day festival at ExCel in Docklands offers tastings, demonstrations, masterclasses and food theatre with Jamie Oliver, Jean-Christophe Novelli, the Baker Brothers and Michael Roux Jnr among those giving their tips. Prices start from £18.50 (advance) or £23.50 (on door). Nearest tube: Custom House (DLR). For more information, visit the Taste of Christmas website.
- 8 December : Christmas Fair at Surrey Docks Farm
A host of farm crafts, produce and meat for sale, as well as a chance for children to enjoy donkey rides. Surrey Docks Farm, South Wharf, Rotherhithe Street, London SE16 5ET. Nearest tube: Surrey Quays, Rotherhithe or Canada Water. For more information, visit the Surrey Docks Farm website.
- 8 – 9 December : Christmas Craft Fair and Santa’s Grotto at Sutton House
This National Trust, Grade II-listed Tudor property will open its doors for two days to host pop-up shops, workshops, carol singing and a chance to visit Santa himself. Open 11am-7.30pm. Entry: £1. Sutton House, 2-4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London E9 6JQ. Nearest tube: Homerton (Overland). For more information, visit the National Trust website.
- 13 – 16 December : More London Christmas Market at The Scoop
The Scoop – located next to City Hall on the Southbank with views of Tower Bridge – hosts a free four day market featuring food, drink and craft stalls. Entry is free. Open 11am-6pm. Nearest tube: London Bridge or Tower Hill. For more information, visit More London’s website.
- 15 – 16 December : The Secret Emporium Christmas Market
The Secret Emporium’s market showcases creations from 44 independent British designers and features entertainment from Ewan Bleach & the Snakewalkers, The Turbans, The John Langan Band, Whiskey Moon Face, Hicks & Higgins, Jessica Burn, Harky and Ben DeVere. Open from 10.30am until 8pm. Free entry. Factory 7, Hearn Street, Shoreditch, EC2A 3LS. Nearest tube: Shoreditch High Street (Overground). For more information, visit the Secret Emporium website.