Exploring London's villages

by ANITA ISALSKA·
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The British capital has splendorous museums, royal pomp and all the urban chaos you’d expect from a city of eight million people. But while you shouldn't skip the big sights, you’ll have an even richer experience of London by experiencing its villages, the charismatic neighbourhoods on its outskirts.

London swallowed these places up as it mercilessly expanded outwards, but they have kept all of their personality and remain oh-so calm and chic compared to the growling heart of the city centre. So hop down from the London Eye, say sayonara to St Paul’s Cathedral, step off the art gallery carousel - and prepare to be utterly charmed.

1. Greenwich

Fancy straddling the line dividing the east and west hemispheres? Then you’re not alone, judging by the crowds who line up to have their picture taken on the Greenwich Meridien. But there’s far more in this southeastern neighbourhood to keep you in thrall. The National Maritime Museum has a strangely compelling collection of naval paraphernalia, the Royal Observatory entertains budding star-gazers with an astral display on its enormous domed ceiling, and Greenwich Park swells with Londoners baring all at the slightest glint of sunlight.

Want more? Shop for handmade gifts and eye-grabbing fashion in Greenwich Market (check opening times on www.shopgreenwich.co.uk), meander along the waterfront and step aboard one of the world’s most famous ships, the newly re-opened Cutty Sark. Get an inspiring view of the maritime sights over some refreshments at the historic Gipsy Moth pub (www.thegipsymothgreenwich.co.uk).

Get there: what better way to alight at a cornerstone of naval history than by boat? Hop aboard a boat from Charing Cross Pier, Tower Pier or Westminster Pier. If you don’t have sea legs, there are plenty of trains from Charing Cross, Waterloo East and London Bridge stations.

2. Hampstead

To Londoners, Hampstead is a by-word for elegance, class - and illicit affairs. A former spa town turned intellectual haven, Hampstead is best known for its Heath (one of London’s crowning green spaces, as well as a nocturnal meeting spot) and the Ponds, where hardy Londoners go wild swimming in some of the slimiest waters around.

But while you’re throwing frisbees and making a beeline for the summer ice cream vans, don’t overlook the cultural draws. Mucky-minded psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud lived in Hampstead, and you can see his famous couch in the Freud Museum. Tragic poet John Keats wheezed some of his last breaths here (before absconding to die in sunnier climes) and the museum in his name is an interesting glimpse into 19th-century English life. And there's no merrier way to spend an afternoon than with a pint of real ale in one of London’s oldest pubs, The Spaniard's Inn.

Get there: jump on the Edgware branch of the Northern line, three stops past bustling Camden Town.

3. Highgate

On the opposite branch of the Northern line lies well-heeled Highgate, with a very macabre drawcard: Highgate Cemetery. But this is no ordinary fusty graveyard - Karl Marx’s oversized head looms from the East Cemetery, along with some surprisingly spangly art-nouveau tombs. (If it all feels a little familiar, you've been watching too many Hammer Horror movies - the area was used as a film set repeatedly in the '70s.)

Once you’ve contemplated the resting souls of London’s intelligentsia, mingle with the living in one of Highgate’s excellent pubs. The Angel Inn (www.theangelhighgate.co.uk) has boardgames for the young-at-heart, and a fine selection of ales.

Get there: Highgate is an easy journey from central London on the northbound Northern line, High Barnet branch.

4. Barnes

Shoot southwest from Waterloo station and within minutes you’re in lush countryside. Welcome to Barnes village, home to chilled-out students and hoi polloi in equal measure, toting textbooks or designer prams as they march around Upper Richmond Road. (Look out for celebrities ducking into the infamous Priory rehab facility - dark sunglasses are a must.)

Breathe in some fresh air at the London Wetlands Centre (about 15 minutes’ walk from the train station) - after a few minutes wandering this expanse of marshland studded with exotic birds, you’ll feel a million miles from London’s beating heart. Replenish yourself in one of Barnes’ restaurants, where organic cuisine and locally-sourced nosh is the norm. Annie’s (www.anniesrestaurant.co.uk) will merrily serve you the most extravagantly juicy roast chicken of your dreams, with lashings of homemade mayonnaise.

Get there: take a train from Waterloo or a quick bus ride from Hammersmith.

5. Wimbledon

Anyone for tennis? You think you know Wimbledon - a peaceful, green corner of London with an annual madness for sport - but there's more to this chic area than rackets and balls. Sure, put your ballot in for a tennis ticket in summer or relive the greatest serves at the Lawn Tennis Museum - but make time to soak up the atmosphere with a picnic on Wimbledon Common and window-shopping the eye-popping price tags in the local designer shops.

Wimbledon has some more surprising sights, too - get some Thai flavour at the Buddhapadipa Temple, a gloriously gold-festooned edifice, or go Dutch with a walk to the Wimbledon Windmill. Finish your visit by heading south to local Italian favourite Al Forno (www.alfornowimbledon.com).

Get there: it's a long slog on the District (green) underground line from central London to Wimbledon Park, Wimbledon or Southfields tube stations. Wimbledon Rail Station is served by quicker Overground trains from Waterloo. The official 'village' part of Wimbledon is a short bus ride away up the hill, but the town part where the trains terminate is worth exploring, too.

Anita Isalska is a writer and editor based in Lonely Planet's London office. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.

This article was first published on 3 May 2012 and was republished in June 2012.