I’ve lived on a big hill in northwest London for the last two years, first in Belsize Park and then partway between Hampstead and Golders Green. It’s a lovely part of town, bustling but peaceful, and a bit hoity-toity (but fortunately the views of the London skyline, and Hampstead Heath’s tangled, leafy expanse are both free). Here are some of my favorite northwestern things…
-The Cecil Sharpe House is a center for folk dance (hear me out…), and regularly hosts ceilidhs (think Scottish square-dancing in pairs and groups). I know it sounds a bit dweeby, but I had so much fun the time I dragged a date here to dance in a sweaty crowd of Londoners. All ages were represented, but mostly people 25-40, many of them clearly regulars– who says folk dancing isn’t cool?
–Burgh House is a lovely brick mansion surrounded by flower gardens. It puts on small events and has a nice little gallery upstairs that is free to peruse, while downstairs a cafe makes a cozy spot to get out of the rain (or enjoy the sun from the tables outside in its garden).
-I didn’t grow up in a family that ever “went to the spa,” and it was only last year that I got a massage for the very first time, at one branch of Cowshed (I think the name is extremely ill-advised), which felt incredibly spoiled and luxurious but was relatively affordable (a 30-min back massage at £50 didn’t totally break my bank, though there are cheaper massages to be had in London if you’re willing to take a chance on the ambiance…). Cowshed Primrose Hill is a clean, relaxing space on a charming street just moments from Primrose Hill itself (one of the prettiest views of London)– why not get lavender oil massaged into your skin and then go sprawl in the grass like some kind of indolent nobleperson?
–Primrose Hill is the perfect spot for a picnic (maybe with some pita bread and olives and hummus and sun-dried tomatoes and baba ganoush from Roni’s Hampstead?): its slope is optimal, it has an excellent trees/grass/crowd ratio, and it offers the perfect view of London, clouds gliding over the long skyline.
–Highgate Cemetery is a picturesque death jungle and a moodily inspiring place to stroll.
-It’s a joy to get lost in the refreshingly rural Hampstead Heath, Golders Hill Park, and Hampstead Heath Extension, with stops at Kenwood House (staffed with overenthusiastic historians who definitely don’t get enough of a chance to share their knowledge), the Hill Garden and Pergola, and Parliament Hill.
A refreshing escape from concrete and steel is invaluable when you live in a city, and there’s no better place in London than this set of parks to wander and soak up all the green and mud and stately old trees (side note: there is a UK Ancient Tree Inventory). And meanwhile, keep an eye out for little green tropical birds– really.
-The Zabludowicz Collection on Prince of Wales Road is a modern art gallery of manageable size inside a renovated chapel. Also, it’s free!
There’s no shortage of comfy pubs in northwest London. My favorites are the ones along the borders of the park, ready to welcome walkers after their day out, such as The Garden Gate and the Dickens and Stoker-famous Spaniards Inn (both with large outdoor seating areas). But the food is best at The Flask and The Holly Bush.
For one-stop variety, choices are pretty few and far between in Hampstead and Belsize Park. There is a Brewdog in Camden, a pretty glorious selection at the Southampton Arms, and cocktails at the handsome Heads + Tails, but you won’t find much else that is especially adventurous. I don’t spend a lot of time in Camden Town– I think its coolest day has long passed and I have no live music know-how and an intolerance for tourist and teenaged crowds – though I do enjoy the cozy quirk (and resident cat) at Tapping the Admiral and the no-frills vibes at Camden Town Brewery.
Northwest London’s tea and coffee game is decent: the chai flight at Pamban Chai and Coffee House is a novelty, and the tiny Ginger and White, tucked down a pedestrian walkway in Hampstead village, serves up the most delicious breakfast with its top-notch coffee.
If a world-ending meteor were headed toward earth and I couldn’t leave northwest London, I’d probably start the day with a giant English breakfast at Mani’s, followed by a second giant English breakfast at Chamomile Cafe, followed by more breakfast at The Alice House. Then a savory crêpe from La Crêperie de Hampstead, a mountain of grilled meat from La Patagonia Argentinian restaurant, a platter of affordable, tasty sushi from the Golders Green Eat Tokyo, a bowl of hot laksa from Sambal Shiok (OK this one is a little bit outside NW London…), and wonderfully spiced, rich Thai cooking from Little Thai and Meekhun Cafe. Last but not least, a cone full of cremino (hazelnut with chocolate topping) gelato from Venchi Chocolate and cinnamon gelato from Oddono’s. Aaaand then maybe some chocolate challah bread from Karma Bread Bakery…. With luck, I’d eat myself to death before the meteor could get me.
to shop for:
To carry books, though, it’s best to have a bag, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share the best bag of all time, which I found at the Odi Lynch stalls in Camden Stables Market – it’s the right size for a day-to-day work bag, doubles as both a backback and a shoulder/weekend get-away bag, and has lots of handy pockets. Beyond pragmatism, it is also quite pretty! You’re welcome…
Aside from the insanely-crowded Northern line (I usually walk to work, a journey of over an hour and twenty minutes, to avoid the crush), northwest London is a really pleasant place to live, a sort of small town within arm’s reach of the big city. There’s even a Camden cat that sits and greets southbound commuters as they descend Hampstead Road. What more could you want, really?