I’m an American expat based in West London, which isn’t far from London Heathrow Airport (LHR). A lot of flights from the US to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East leave passengers with a layover in London, and it’s easy to get out and explore the city on stopovers of five hours or more. If I had a long layover in London, at Heathrow, I would head straight to my neighborhood—South Kensington—to soak up the culture, food, and atmosphere of London without straying far from my connecting flight.
South Kensington is known for many things, from its famous museums to its French influence. There are lots of great restaurants, cafes, and pubs in the area, and Hyde Park—one of London’s largest green spaces—borders the northern end of the neighborhood. Locals and visitors alike come to the area to visit the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and Victoria & Albert Museum, all of which offer free entry and have world-class collections. There’s also a large French population in South Ken—as Londoners call it for short—which means that there’s no shortage of great bakeries and pastry shops. And that’s to say nothing of the ambiance, which features a beautiful mix of historical buildings filled with great shops and boutiques.
The easiest way to get to South Kensington from Heathrow is to take the Tube (officially called the London Underground). Conveniently, the tube runs straight from all five terminals at Heathrow to South Kensington station, which is right in the heart of the neighborhood by the museums. It’s a 40-minute ride, and at £6 each way, it’s the least expensive way to get from Heathrow to central London.
What to do
Once in South Kensington, the best thing to do is explore the museums. They’re all pretty big, so you’ll probably want to choose one or budget your time between the three (Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and Victoria & Albert Museum). You can also head to Hyde Park to stretch your legs and explore Kensington Palace Gardens and the Serpentine Gallery. If you like music, Royal Albert Hall is one of the best concert halls in the city. There’s also great shopping where Fulham Road meets Pelham Street and Draycott Avenue. Just make sure your credit card has a high spending limit!
Where to eat
If you’re hungry, there are great restaurants and cafes around South Kensington station. You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to quality and variety, so to help you narrow down the options, here are a few of my favorites:
- Le Pain Quotidien (15-17 Exhibition Road, London SW7 2HE; +44 (0)20 3657 6940) — It’s a chain, but the food is good and the atmosphere lively. There’s also a big communal table that’s great for solo travelers.
- Gail’s (45 Thurloe Street, London SW7 2LQ; +44 (0)20 7584 7499) — Gail’s is one of London’s most beloved bakeries. If you want a quick scone or pastry on the go, it’s a great place to stop.
- Le Comptoir Libanais (1-5 Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, UK SW7 2HE; +44 (0)20 7225 5006) —My favorite of the many great lunch options in South Kensington. I love their Middle Eastern food, especially the chicken and green olive tagine. The colorful ambiance is great, too. The service can be spotty, but the prices offer some of the best value in the area.
- Fernandez & Wells (8a Exhibition Road, London SW7 2HF; +44 (0)20 7589 7473) —When I just want a sandwich, I head to Fernandez & Wells. They have a great range of freshly made sandwiches and delicious Spanish ham.
- Franco Manca (91 Old Brompton Rd, London SW7 3LD; +44 (0)20 7584 9713) — It’s one of London’s best pizza places, and is also known for offering great value. The daily specials are always worth trying.
- Afternoon tea (a tradition in London, and if you like sweet things, it’s not to be missed)
- Ampersand Hotel (10 Harrington Road, London SW7 3ER; +44 (0)20 7589 5895) —A great place for afternoon tea in South Kensington is the Ampersand Hotel. The tearoom is bright and modern, with colorful accents and lots of light. The afternoon tea offering has a great mix of finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries, and the menu changes seasonally. It’s located right by the tube station, too.
- Blake’s Hotel (33 Roland Gardens, London SW7 3PF; +44 (0)20 7370 6701) —The best place for an atmospheric afternoon tea in South Kensington. The hotel has an exotic colonial style and a great intimate ambiance. Afternoon tea is slightly less traditional here than at the Ampersand—no tiered trays and bigger pastries but fewer of them—but just as good.
- Admiral Codrington (17 Mossop Street, London SW3 2LY; +44 (0)20 7581 0005) — There’s nothing like traditional pub food when you’re in London, and my favorite place for fish and chips is the Admiral Codrington, which has a great traditional atmosphere and excellent food (the burger is award-winning).
- Casa Brindisa (7-9 Exhibition Road, London SW7 2HE; +44 (0)20 7590 0008) — If I want classic Spanish tapas close to the tube station, Casa Brindisa is just the place. It’s always packed, and has great food and a lively crowd.
- Margaux (152 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0BE; +44 (0)20 7373 5753) — If I want a great meal and don’t mind spending a bit more than usual, I head to Margaux. It has modern European cuisine and a great wine list, and I always leave impressed.
- Bumpkin (102 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3RD; +44 (0)20 7594 4944) — If I want British food, I head to Bumpkin. It has a menu of classic and modern British dishes, and a cozy dining room that always warms me up on cold days.
- Launceston Place (1a Launceston Place, London W8 5RL; +44 (0)20 7937 6912) — If it’s a special occasion, I head a few blocks west to Launceston Place, which has a Michelin star and is known for its great British cuisine and impressive wine list.
South Kensington is one of the best places to go out in London, and there are plenty of bars and pubs for every taste.
- Jak’s (77 Walton Street, London SW3 2HT; +44 (0)20 7584 3441) — One of the best bars in South Kensington, and it’s always packed on weekends. There’s great music and a good scene here.
- Eclipse (111-113 Walton Street, London SW3 2HP; +44 (0)20 7581 0123) — Right by Jak’s and is known for its watermelon martinis and other cocktails. There are also DJs here, so bring your party shoes.
- Drayton Arms (153 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0LJ; +44 (0)20 7835 2301) — A great traditional pub with a laid-back atmosphere. It’s a good place to soak up London’s pub culture.
- Anglesea Arms (15 Selwood Terrace, South Kensington, London SW7 3QG; +44 (0)20 7373 7960) — Another great pub in the area. There’s a nice terrace out front for warmer nights, too.
Unlike many central London neighborhoods, South Kensington has a good variety of grocery stores, many of them on the bigger side. Over by the Gloucester Road tube station, there is a Waitrose, London’s high-end supermarket, and down Cromwell Road is a huge Sainsbury’s.
Where to stay (if your layover in London allows it)
- Ampersand Hotel (10 Harrington Road, London SW7 3ER; +44 (0)20 7589 5895) — A great choice in the heart of the neighborhood is the Ampersand Hotel. It’s a stylish hotel that just opened a couple of years ago, and is in a convenient location right by the tube station.
- Blake’s Hotel (33 Roland Gardens, London SW7 3PF; +44 (0)20 7370 6701) — Blake’s Hotel is a discreet luxury hotel that’s popular with celebrities and those that want to keep a low profile. The rooms are uniquely decorated and absolutely gorgeous.
- The Kensington Hotel (109-113 Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5LR; +44 (0)20 7589 6300) — The Kensington Hotel is another good choice. It has lovely guest rooms and a beautiful lounge in the lobby. I stayed here once and you can read about my experience here.
- London Marriott Hotel Kensington (147 Cromwell Road, London SW5 0TH; +44 (0)20 7973 1000) — If you want to collect some hotel points, there’s the London Marriott Hotel Kensington over on Cromwell Road. It has an executive lounge and classic American restaurant.
- Sofitel London Heathrow (Terminal 5, London Heathrow Airport, London TW6 2GD; +44 (0) 20 8757 7777) — If you want to be close to the airport, check out the Sofitel London Heathrow, which has direct access to LHR Terminal 5.
- Rent a house or an apartment
If you’re staying for longer than a day, you can rent a flat in London. Airbnb and OneFineStay are two of the major companies you can rent through.
Almost all flats in London come with laundry facilities, so there isn’t much in the way of laundromats in South Kensington. That said, Faiza Unique (46 Harrington Road, London SW7 3ND; +44 (0) 20 7581 3080) is an option near the station.
Manicure and pedicure
If you want perfect nails while you travel, a great option is The Nailberry Salon (19 Bute Street, London SW7 3EY; +44 (0)20 72253116). It’s in the heart of South Kensington and offers manicures, pedicures, and a full range of services including eyelash extensions, waxing, threading, and tinting.
Shoe repair or polish
If you need your shoes repaired or polished, a good place to go is C L Shoe Repairing (61 Old Brompton Road London SW7 3JS; +44 (0)20 7581 5391). They do high-quality work, and will take on some jobs that others in the area can’t. Another option is Timpson Ltd (8 Station Arcade, London SW7 2NA, +44 (0)20 7589 5857) in the tube station arcade.
Useful South Kensington resources
That’s “my” South Kensington. I hope it will make your long layover in London a good one!