Julia is a college student who spent her junior year studying in and exploring London.
Although most of London's big-name sights are clustered further east, the borough of Kensington and Chelsea just west of Central London is well worth a visit. One of the most affluent areas of London, if you venture slightly off the main roads you'll easily find rows of beautiful houses to admire. Kensington Gardens, though often overlooked in favor of neighboring Hyde Park, is a beautiful place for a stroll or bike ride; South Kensington is home to some of London's best museums, and its town center has a wonderfully cozy and intimate feel compared to most other London neighborhoods. Below I've compiled several of my favorite things to see, do, and eat in this area into a full day plan. Do as much or as little as you like, and enjoy exploring this beautiful part of the city.
Walk Down Kensington Palace Gardens
Start your day by making your way to Notting Hill Gate (it might be convenient to take the tube or bus to Notting Hill Gate station). Off of this main road, turn right and walk down the beautiful Kensington Palace Gardens, a tree-lined street home to several embassies. This street is one of my favorite places for a walk; the controlled traffic gives it a quiet and peaceful atmosphere, and each embassy building has a different character. Importantly, no photographs are allowed on this street, presumably for security reasons.
Explore Kensington Gardens
Turn left off of Kensington Palace Gardens and pause to admire Kensington Palace as you enter the park. I've never been inside, so I haven't explicitly included a tour on this day plan—but if you're interested, definitely check it out! The purchase of a ticket (£15.50 for adults, free for children under 16) gives you access to the Palace Gardens, the Queen's State Apartments and other seasonally rotating exhibitions.
From the palace, head toward Round Pound, an aptly named small, circular body of water usually surrounded by birds (including swans) and people. On a sunny day, the water looks incredibly blue.
Keep strolling across the park until you reach the Italian Gardens, my favorite spot in Kensington Gardens. It's beautiful no matter the season; depending on when you go, you might see summer flowers or fall foliage, but you'll always be able to enjoy the fountains and a beautiful view over the Serpentine. In the spring and summer, ice cream is sold from an old-fashioned car parked right by the garden, in case you're in the mood for something sweet. Take a rest on a bench here and enjoy the scene!
Once you've spent some time enjoying the Italian Gardens, make your way back to the southern border of the park (and toward South Kensington), arriving at the Albert Memorial. You won't miss this gigantic monument, or the Royal Albert Hall across the street. The memorial was commissioned by Queen Victoria to commemorate the loss of her husband Prince Albert to typhoid, and was finished in 1872. The Royal Parks' website describes it as "one of the grandest high-Victorian gothic extravaganzas anywhere," and it certainly appears so.
Walk away from the memorial to the left and exit the park where the road bisects it. Cross Kensington High Street and keep walking straight, perpendicular to the park. Now you are on Exhibition Road, a beautiful street lined with museums and Imperial College buildings. Walking along this road will take you all the way to the center of South Kensington.
You'll be back later to visit the museum of your choice, but for now, walk all the way to the plaza. Look for a green awning with the letters "KC" on it. This is Kensington Creperie, where I suggest you sit and enjoy a savory crepe for lunch (or one savory and one sweet for dessert!).
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Visit a Museum on Exhibition Road
There are three major museums on Exhibition Road (all free!): the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Visit whichever one is most interesting to you; they are all located just steps away from one another.
The Science Museum's free exhibits include clocks, mathematics, the modern information age, the history of steam power, space, and more. There is also an IMAX theatre and temporary exhibitions accessible with the purchase of a ticket. I especially like the exhibit on data in contemporary society—there's an interesting aerial diagram of traffic flows in a London underground station.
The Natural History Museum is especially great for kids, or for adults who like interactive and hands-on museums. Its free exhibits are grouped thematically: there's a collection on the Earth's formation, another on the evolution of life on Earth, and another on the diversity of creatures that inhabit or have inhabited the Earth (mammals, reptiles, dinosaurs, humans). Personally, I found this museum more intriguing than the Science Museum, but it depends on your individual interests. One of my favorite rooms is actually the collection of optical illusions, meant to demonstrate how human sight is in no way fixed or objective.
Lastly, the Victoria and Albert Museum is focused on art and design. It's really impossible to see everything in one visit—there are collections of art from all over the world, as well as exhibits on the processes by which different forms of art and functional objects are created: jewelry, glass, furniture, tapestries, and more. There are also ticketed temporary exhibitions and a lovely courtyard in the center of the building.
All three of these museums are enormous and could easily fill your entire day. Choose just a few exhibits that are interesting to you to get the most out of your experience! Be aware that there can be lines to get into the museums, especially on weekend days.
Explore South Kensington
After visiting the museum of your choice, take a stroll around the area before dinner. Have a cup of coffee or tea at Brompton Food Market, a hipster grocery store/cafe combo, and make sure to spend some time perusing South Kensington Books.
If it's a nice day outside (never a guarantee in London, but sometimes you get lucky), find a place to sit in the plaza or on Exhibition Road and do a little people-watching. Street performers are often stationed outside the museums and the Tube station. Regulars include a steel drums player and a man who blows giant bubbles—the latter always attracts a crowd of children.
For dinner, head to Pierino, a small but smartly decorated restaurant serving delicious Italian food. I'd recommend making a reservation ahead of time, since the place fills up. Meals can be quite affordable here: most pizzas and pasta dishes are under £10. Make sure to order something with buffalo mozzarella!
After your meal, there's always the option to head to a local pub for some after-dinner drinks and conversation. If you've had a busy enough day already, take the bus or Tube back to your accommodation. (South Kensington station connects to the District & Circle lines and the Piccadilly line. For a tube map, click here.)
Enjoy Your Trip!
There are so many areas of London worth exploring. After a year of living there, I still didn't feel done; as Samuel Johnson famously said, "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." But despite the dizzying array of options available to you, I hope you're inspired to spend a day following all or part of this itinerary, and enjoy the area as much as I have.