The single thing that Expater friends ask me most is where to rent. Especially those moving to London.
Which are the best areas? Is London safe? How much will it cost? Is it possible to avoid the hour long underground commute wedged under someone’s armpit?
Of course, the answers to all of the above are, ‘it depends’.
Are you a single woman moving on your own, or do you come as a package with a husband and kids? Are you going to be out working (or playing) from dusk till dawn? Will you be staying for a few months or a few years? What’s your budget?
For families, I’d recommend Wandsworth in the south, West Hampstead or Muswell Hill in the north, and Richmond or Barnes in the west. If you’re prepared to live further away, Sutton in the south west is a good option too.
For young professionals, I’d mention Islington, Angel and Maida Vale in the north, Battersea, Wandsworth and Wimbledon in the south or South Kensington or Notting Hill in the west.
For the more party friendly hipsters out there I’d go for Shoreditch or Bethnal Green in the east, Hackney, Dalston or Camden in the north, or Brixton in the south.
Whatever your situation, below is a brief snapshot of London’s most central neighbourhoods, known as boroughs. The areas within boroughs vary wildly so be sure to check out your ‘hood properly. Visit in the evening as well as in the daytime (some places are great by day but not by night or vica versa). Check your transport links – it may actually be possible to cycle or walk to work, and some tube lines have a reputation for being more delayed than others. Ask around too – speak to locals, your colleagues and social media buddies.
Famous for Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and Trafalgar Square, Westminster is also home to the West End theatre hub, as well as the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Opera House. Locals here can escape the 24/7 wail of police sirens and Oxford Street’s crowds with a wander through St James Park or Hyde Park (technically Hyde Park straddles Westminster and Kensington).
Best for: its central location
Worst for: touristphobes.
Kensington and Chelsea
A district which varies wildly, from the super rich ritz of Knightsbridge and its famous Harrods department store, to the high brow restaurants, museums and cafés around Notting Hill Gate and South Kensington, and the more financially deprived areas at the far end of Chelsea, including the site of the horrific Grenfell Tower fire.
Best for: depending on your exact location – culture vultures, café hoppers and brunching socialites.
Worst for: anyone on a budget.
Hammersmith & Fulham
Hammersmith has two faces – the spaghetti junction of concrete flyovers where several multinationals have their HQs and the greener, more genteel terraced homes by the river. The borough used to be a bit of a dead zone but thanks to Westfield, a huge fairly upscale mall in Shepherds Bush, the area has improved considerably. Some posh pubs and decent family homes can be found around Fulham, and several large concert venues are located in Hammersmith, but it’s by no means a vibrant area of town.
Best for: young professionals looking for a calm but connected lifestyle, red trouser clad pub goers.
Worst for: hipsters seeking an edgier slice of London.
Photo by HerryLawford
The well (Jimmy Choo) heeled areas of Chiswick can be found here, along with Michelin star restaurants and cosy riverside pubs, but head further west to Hounslow central and you’ll encounter a much more deprived part of town. The borough’s proximity to Heathrow airport is a mixed blessing – handy for travelistas but not so great in terms of noise pollution.
Best for: airport workers, frequent travellers.
Worst for: anyone who struggles to sleep with noise. City workers – it’s a decent distance from the eastern banking quarters.
Photo by Paul Robertson
Home to Richmond Park, including the delightful Petersham Nurseries, Hampton Court Palace and the idyllic Kew Gardens with its roaming deer, Richmond is the closest you’ll get to a slice of the country in London. City workers yearning for a pastoral life can take refuge in Barnes with its village pond and gastro pubs.
Best for: village dwellers, families.
Worst for: city party animals.
Photo by Davide D’Amico
The financial hub aka The Square Mile. Pinstripe suits are as loud as the city boys and skyscrapers tower over St Pauls Cathedral. There are some sleek restaurants and bars catering to the city slickers, but it’s more of a commuter district – local population is less than 10,000 but this swells to over 300,000 during the day when the office workers hit town.
Best for: city boys who play as hard as they work.
Worst for: nature lovers, anyone allergic to work.
With the ultra modern financial hub, Canary Wharf, to one side, and the historic towers of London Bridge to the other, Tower Hamlets is one of the most varied, so do your research if you’re considering renting here. It’s a borough where Bangladeshi immigrants, dockland workers, flashy bankers and Shoreditch hipsters can all be found.
Best for: depending on your exact location, curry loving party animals or flash cash bankers.
Worst for: anyone allergic to asphalt (Canary Wharf) or diversity.
Photo by Davide D’Amico
This leafy suburb is home to the Royal Observatory where tourists come to straddle its 0º longitude and the UNESCO certified Greenwich Park. For better and worse, it can seem a little apart from the capital’s social scene, and perhaps the revellers returning from a night at the O2 arena are the only clue that London is within reach.
Best for: fresh air fans.
Worst for: the impatient (the commute could take a while, depending on your location).
Home to The Shard and with great restaurants lining the Bermodsey area, Southwark (pronounced ‘suthurk’) has improved dramatically over the years. The borough also boasts Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern art gallery and prime foodie spot Borough market. Venture further south around Elephant & Castle and the area becomes much more deprived. Peckham also used to be a no go area but now hipsters are fast reclaiming territory from the gangland.
Best for: young professionals, foodies, culture vultures.
Worst for: nature lovers – apart from the odd patch of scrubland, Southwark is more about cafés and galleries than green spaces.
Brixton in Lambeth was once considered one of the most dangerous parts of London. How times change. Nowadays you’d be more likely to see a craft coffee than a drug deal on the street. Sure, some gangland territory remains tucked away in the very socially deprived backstreets, and it has more than its fair share of fried chicken shops but it’s also popular for its african food, hip bars and vibrant music scene. There is a campaign against gentrification and its community ethos even includes its own (optional) currency.
Best for: night owls.
Worst for: racist bigots (like most of London, Lambeth is fabulously diverse).
Photo by Bex.Walton
Wandsworth includes the famous Wimbledon tennis lawns, the dog walking paradises of Wandsworth Common and Battersea Park, the ‘nappy valley’ of Clapham and more centrally, Battersea Power Station which is being re-developed into a hub of shops, restaurants and apartments. Wandsworth is perhaps the safest borough in London, however like any large park at night I’d recommend you avoid walking through Clapham Common alone after hours.
Best for: families with dogs.
Worst for: the childless.
Photo by EG Focus
While the borough has suffered / benefited from some proper gentrification, Hackney is still a melting pot of creatives. With Shoreditch, Dalston, Hoxton, London Fields and parts of Hackney Wick and Stoke Newington, if there’s a pop up, start up or rave going on, this is where it’ll happen.
Best for: hipsters looking to up their instagram following.
Worst for: asocial homebirds.
Photo by *hettie*
Here an alternative music and cultural scene runs alongside the mainstream. Yes, there are an abundance of hippy, grungy, left-leaning students around Camden Market but A-list social butterflies also flutter around Fitzrovia’s upmarket bistros and Primrose Hill’s cafés before winding down with yoga in Regent’s Park on a Sunday.
Best for: bohos with cash.
Worst for: the ultra right wing or authenticity seekers (a lot of Camden can seem a bit cliché).
With prime brunch spots on Upper Street such as the insanely popular Ottolenghi’s, as well as other fashionable restaurants and bars around Exmouth markets, not to mention top dance theatre Sadler’s Wells and other concert venues close by, Islington is a prime hangout for young professionals. Beware – heavy drinking backpackers and litter can take centre stage on a Saturday night however.
Best for: foodies, culture aficionados and the intelligentsia.
Worst for: the teetotal.
Photo by skuds
Are you new to London or considering a move? Leave me a comment!