I’ll never forget the first time I walked down Portobello Road. Chelsea felt like another world: cool, buzzy, odd and somehow even dangerous. This affluent part of London happily accommodates financiers, lawyers and successful entrepreneurs. As you’d expect, most of the facilities are targeted at them – the big spenders.
Notting Hill has always been the dark horse of West London. In the earlier years it was densely populated by pig breeders, and later on, by the UK’s first Caribbean immigrants. Only a generation ago racists were rioting against West Indian residents, burning down their houses, smashing their windows and assaulting newcomers. It was a dirty slum infested with poverty, rootlessness and crime until the birth of Notting Hill Carnival, which today is one of the largest street festivals in Europe. Fried chicken joints turned into organic eateries and wrecked estates into colourful houses, and then Jimi Hendrix threw a couple of epic gigs that lured hippes and celebrities to the area.
Notting Hill, 1971. Photo credit: brightasafig
If you’ve always wanted to live on the edge, West London is just the place to do it. The thing is, these days we’re forced to pay extra for that damn edge. With bankers bored of South Kensington beginning to invade, luxury designer stores selling £500 writing tables pop up to cater for their every need. So, what about the less-loaded folk who want to live and hang out in this happening part of London? Luckily, there are always more affordable options behind the cashed-up scenes.
Rule #1 – Know where to go: London’s best museums, venues and nightlife spots are often hidden in the most unexpected nooks and crannies.
Rule #2 – Know when to go: Make the most of happy hours. Trust me, you won’t be the only person at the bar!
Rule #3 – Avoid paying premium prices: Use discount vouchers and promo codes – there’s no shame in savvy shopping! Even the most exclusive establishments offer them every now and then.
Thankfully, Notting Hill remains quite egalitarian. While pleasing its newly attracted rich folk, it still cares for its “Endies”. Here are a few insider tips on where to enjoy delicious food, hunt for bargains and create incredibly exciting memories without going broke.
Shopping: The best finds are often hidden
Photo credit: Ana Zoria
West London’s charity shops are goldmines. Due to the layout of the Victorian houses typical to the area, the wives of prosperous husbands are constrained by the size of their wardrobes and, as a result, are forced to donate their metallic 90s Prada bags to down-the-road charity shops. While they’re preoccupied with the new Autumn/Winter collections at Harrods, you can be rocking some seriously cool 90s gear.
The area is also home to plenty of well-heeled grannies who like to donate old tat “for a good cause”. Charity shops are packed with vintage frames, chandeliers, brooches, pocket-watches and all manner of other retrobilia.
If, after a charity shop tour, you only end up with a couple of Walter Scott novels and a glass door handle, check out the vintage stores. Antique shops and retro fashion retailers tend to have a much more exclusive and organised selection of products, though they’re respectively pricier.
Galleries: Food for thought
Start your day at Westbourne Grove where you’ll find a handful of contemporary art venues. London West Bank Gallery never fails to surprise me with its eccentric collection of posters and artworks. Keep an eye out for the print of Jesus breakdancing and the mirror painting featuring a cocaine-snorting Snow White.
Afterwards, walk to Portobello Road to discover a few more galleries. Some of them also have workshops inside so you can observe the creators in action. Graffik Gallery is one of my favourites for urban/street art. It’s free to visit, plus it runs highly recommended graffiti classes every weekend.
If you wish to visit something bigger than a two-storey shop, head towards Knightsbridge via Kensington Church Street to Saatchi Gallery. It’s a great place to check out innovative works by undiscovered young artists, and it’s usually free.
Photo credit: Ana Zoria
Dining: Your Pizza Hut days are officially over!
Street food: If you don’t mind diving into a crowd of tourists, Saturdays at Portobello Road Market are truly wonderful. There are plenty of semi-healthy authentic food stalls to choose from. Don’t be frustrated by the slow-walkers – accept them for who they are, let them step on your feet, step on their feet and find yourself something delicious to eat. Grab an empty veg box to sit on and enjoy your feast!
Eat Tokyo: Fancy a sushi dinner but not willing to pay £18 for a seaweed tempura starter at Knightsbridge’s Zuma? At Eat Tokyo things couldn’t get any more authentic – the chef is a true Japanese samurai full of secret recipes that he will never disclose, even at knifepoint. It has even been certified by the Japanese embassy. Don’t expect a glamorous setting – all of the money goes into the food. The fish quality is top-notch, the selection of dishes is wide and everything is very well priced. This gem of a restaurant is hidden down a quiet residential street and is mostly frequented by locals.
Pizza Metro: As soon as you enter, the joyful manager will greet you with a loud “bongiorno”. Their thick-crust wood-fired Neapolitan pizza melts in your mouth and somehow tastes different to your typical London pizza. Perhaps because of the vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh gorgonzola cheese on hand-stretched dough, or possibly because of the 50% taste card discount that cuts your bill in half.
Notting Hill Carnival. Photo credit: Kamira
The Churchill Arms pub & Thai restaurant: This place aims to grab maximum attention both in and out of doors. The building’s façade is festooned with flowers, making it look more like a gnome’s house than an eating and drinking establishment. The Thai restaurant within is also adorned with plants and a butterfly collection, while the pub itself is packed with Winston Churchill memorabilia and chamber pots that hang from the ceiling. The tasty Thai food is served in generous portions and is unbelievably cheap for this part of London. The restaurant is usually packed, so grab a drink at the pub while you wait for a table.
Drinking: Find your favourite watering hole
Nam Long Le Shaker: A gritty cocktail bar/Vietnamese restaurant. I deliberately didn’t stick this place in the dining section due to its consistent “poor food, rude owner” TripAdvisor comments. True, the food isn’t the best and the flamboyant Vietnamese owner does sit in his chair pointing a laser pen at his employees as if they’re slaves. But! Sometimes it’s okay to not play it safe. This is what I love about West London – it has a hint of filth, superficiality and even danger. Head to Nam Long Le Shaker on a Friday night (arrive early, as it quickly gets packed) and order the “Flaming Ferrari” – you won’t regret it.
Photo credit: glitterandmud
Uxbridge Arms: An unpretentious backstreet pub. If you’re sick and tired of pompous crowds, Uxbridge Arms will make you feel a million miles away from the maddening masses. The music-free policy encourages conversation and, whether you’re a local or a stranger, you’ll be sure to receive a warm welcome from the lovely staff.
The Windsor Castle: Yes, it’s yet another pub, but one with a totally different atmosphere. It has a cracker of a beer garden with electric heaters and a bar at the back. It’s always packed with fun folk in trendy attire who stop by for a couple of after-work drinks or before a night out. The old-world interiors add a dash of charm and authenticity, and the landlord looks like he just stepped out of a Dickens novel.
Along with exclusive members clubs and high-end designer stores, these are the places that define West London. Just imagine that you’re one step away from venues where rock legends threw their troublesome parties, two steps away from some of the city’s most important historical monuments. You might just bump into a celebrity and have a casual conversation with them over a pint without even realising who they are. As for your distressed charity shop denim jacket, it will probably leave them wondering which movie they’ve seen you in. London can’t really get any more exciting!
Ana Zoria moved to London six years ago to study journalism. The degree taught her not only to communicate accurately and informatively, but also to produce content that is both useful and inspiring to her readers. Ana believes that life is about experiencing things, and that every experience helps one grow. She especially enjoys writing about her personal adventures in London.
Opening photo credit: William Perugini