When I moved to London from the United States in late 1997, I knew no one. Worse, as a new journalist at the BBC, I worked the graveyard shift: 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. three to four days a week, including every other weekend. Even if I'd had any friends, they wouldn't have been up for an after-work drink at 9 a.m. or free when I woke up at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday.
So I spent a lot of time amusing myself. When I'd exhausted the obvious tourist destinations, I started in on less familiar neighborhoods. Soon I was a font of information on little-known places in London -- even to my new English friends. (Londoners notoriously stay close to home, frequenting their "locals.")
Leave London's Portobello Road Market to the tourist mobs and instead go antiquing at the Bermondsey market.
Exploring the city became addictive, and like any good expatriate I've done my best over the years to blend in. So if the Tower of London, Harrods and Buckingham Palace just don't do it for you anymore, put that guidebook down and come along with me to some of my favorite off-the-tourist-track haunts.
View from Primrose Hill
Until the mid-1990s, Primrose Hill was a quiet North London neighborhood, its brown-brick Georgian town houses and old-fashioned shops overshadowed by the trendy grit of Camden Town and the glitz of Regent's Park. Then Jude Law and his then-wife Sadie Frost moved in. Other celebrities followed. Real estate prices soared, and it wasn't long before a spa, a yoga center and half a dozen trendy clothing and design shops dotted Regent's Park Road.
Primrose Hill isn't exactly the new Notting Hill, but it's the chic family alternative. During the day, yummy mummies in Prada bring their toddlers to Cachao (140 Regent's Park Rd.) for creamy hot chocolate or the Primrose Patisserie (136 Regent's Park Rd.) for a croissant.
But the best thing about Primrose Hill -- the Hill -- has remained accessible, even to the little people. Enter the 112-acre park at the corner of Regent's Park and Primrose Hill roads. From the top of the hill, the panorama is as good as from the London Eye. You can see St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey, Canary Wharf and the omnipresent "Gherkin" skyscraper designed by Norman Foster. Even better, it's free. On a summer evening, the Hill is packed with picnicking hipsters, kids flying kites and locals walking their dogs. On Sundays, I often meet friends for a pint at the popular Queens pub (49 Regent's Park Rd.), browse at Primrose Hill Books (134 Regent's Park Rd.) or just walk up the hill and take in the view.
Tube: Chalk Farm.
Many of London's distinguished houses have been transformed into museums, but none is lovelier than Leighton House, the home and studio of famed 19th-century painter Lord Frederick Leighton. Behind the simple brick facade on a quiet street off High Street Kensington is a Victorian shrine to the exotic: The floors are covered in Roman-style mosaics. A grand Venetian glass chandelier lights the drawing room. And the piece de resistance, the Arab Hall, is tiled with peacock blue and sea green 16th-century Damascus tiles, bedecked with jewel-colored stained glass and topped with an octagonal cupola.