I’ve always felt that London is more a conglomerate of adjoining unique villages than an actual city. Like when you watch a cheesy American High School movie and you have the varied social groups all vying for individuality. So, if Camden be the Goth’s, Chelsea the Jocks and Greenwich the Am-Drams then Hampstead Village is definitely the wealthy white kids with A-grades and humanitarian hobbies.
But despite the fact there are more than your average amount of designer suede moccasins (organic and fair-trade of course) walking the High Street of Hampstead, London, this unique area is more than just an aesthetically pleasing neighbourhood for wealthy city folk wanting a taste of cosy village life. It may have more millionaires per square metre than any other area of the UK but it also has an awesome history, beautiful architecture, and an array of interesting tourist attractions. Not forgetting the cool places to eat and drink that come as standard in upscale neighbourhoods.
In fact, if you’re staying for the weekend in London, Hampstead is somewhere you might like to consider as your base in the city. There are plenty of pubs and restaurants, a cinema and so many options for coffee and a croissant before you head off for a day in central London. Plus, with that villagey feel, it’s a nice place to retreat from the crowds after a few hours of sightseeing. We have some suggestions of where to stay in Hampstead later on in the post.
You’ll find everything you need to know about the area in our Guide To Hampstead…
A History of Hampstead in London
Starting life as ‘Hampstead Well’s’, as the name suggests this affluent area of London became a village as a result of some natural springs. The infamous ‘Chalybeate Waters’, flung similar places like Tunbridge Wells and Harrogate into wealthy and prominent Spa sensations. And, although the wells were closed in 1882, money had already started to settle in the area and many grand and great houses were built. Several still remain today and are noted in our Places To Visit section, but with central London only a 4-mile journey away it’s not hard to understand why those who could afford it would choose such a leafy, civilized area to live.
A new railway made it even more appealing to commuters in 1860 and more and more beautiful homes started popping up. Hampstead, with its green spaces and rural character, continued to attract the wealthy. No doubt you’ve heard of Hampstead Heath? Even today it is still the most likely place you’ll run into somebody famous walking their dog or picnicking with the kids.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Hampstead’s charm is that it always seemed to attract the more liberal thinkers of the day. Artists, poets and activists are ten a penny in nearby Highgate Cemetary and there are so many blue plaques you begin to wonder how mindblowing neighbourhood dinner parties must’ve been! John Constable, Henry Moore, George Orwell to name but a few former residents.
And all of this avant-garde history seems to ooze from the bricks and mortar of the Hampstead hood and translates it into a fascinating encounter, whether that be on a London day-trip excursion or a weekend voyage. You will not fail to be enthused when you visit Hampstead, London.
A Guide To Hampstead – Things To Do…
There are so many things to do in this area of London, the trick is to know what to leave off your list when you visit Hampstead! We suggest making a weekend of it and booking yourself into one of the Mirabilis Apartments at Wells Court, right in the centre of Hampstead Village. You’re a stone’s throw from the Hampstead Station tube stop, should you need it, and you have bakeries, coffee shops and a good handful of pubs and restaurants on your doorstep.
Alternatively, this apartment on Pilgrims Lane gets you some outside space plus it’s just across the street from Hampstead Heath.
So without further delay, here’s our Hampstead Guide…
1. HAMPSTEAD VILLAGE HIGH STREET
Where folk carry their groceries in wicker baskets and Georgian window displays entice you inwards. Hampstead Village High Street is a 10 minutes slopey wander of boutique independent stores and foodie outlets, under the shades of giant Elm and Lime trees. You feel like a million miles from the city! Take a turn off the main drag down the pedestrianised Flask Walk and you’ll feel like a million light-years from anything 21st century too – cobbled ground and wooden window boxes line the route to bookshops and antique stores.
Just around the corner from the High Street on Heath Street is one of the most glorious Aladdin’s Caves and hidden gems of London, The Hampstead and Antique Emporium. Antiques, jewellery, painting and artisan crafts all in one place and a feast for the eyes. Definitely worth a stop.
Look Out For…
- Just north of Hampstead Station tube stop Sir Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt rest their weary war-trodden legs on a London bench. A really cool bronze sculpture that encapsulates a friendly conversation between two pals who happen to have just won WWII.
- Hampstead residents appear to LOVE their ice cream, there are several places you can get great ice cream in this part of London, but we’d recommend Oddono’s on Flask Walk.
2. HAMSTEAD HEATH PARK
Even those who weren’t aware of the leafy suburb village of Hampstead have at least heard of The Heath and it would naturally pop up on any Guide To Hampstead. Where Mr Bean walks his dog, and Kate Moss jogs with Jonathan Ross? OK, so you’ll definitely up your probability for a famous person sighting here but The Heath goes way beyond the cool of celebrity!
Hampstead Heath has one of the best views of the London skyline, ever. If you can find yourself an empty bench at the top of Parliament Hill on the south side of Hampstead Heath you can sit for an eternity taking in those sights. Then there are the outdoor pools, or Hampstead Heath Ponds as they are better known, where the current trend of wild water swimming can be enjoyed. Most unique in that the original Victorian segregation of women from men still exists today in their distinct pools – I love that! (There is also a ‘mixed pond’ and if you count the resident ducks it might get a little bit more mixed than you bargained for)
Unlike other London parks, that are preened and sculpted, The Heath is a more rugged green space with nature trails, woodland and sections of meadows left so that butterflies and bees can feast on wildflowers hidden in tall grasses. Personally, I don’t think it’s that pretty a park but what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in magic. There’s something so inviting about the Heath and only 4 miles from the centre of the bustling capital, it can be a perfectly timed retreat if needed.
3. HAMPSTEADS MUSEUMS AND GREAT HOUSES
You won’t be short of places to visit in Hampstead! London’s wealthy residents spied out this verdant land and built beautiful homes to live out their privileged days. Here are some of our top choices…
Kenwood House is probably the most well known of Hampstead’s big houses and is owned by English Heritage. It started life as a fairly modest brick built home for King James I’s printer but was then subsequently bought, extended and improved upon as time went by. Eventually, it became the rather large home of Lord and Lady Mansfield in the 1700s and they commissioned Robert Adam to modernise it. Like everything that Robert Adam touched, Kenwood became the beauty it still is today.
The stately home has had some interesting owners in its time and a fascinating history has transpired under its roof – the museum does a grand job of relaying some of those bygone tales. It’s also home to a world-class collection of art too, including Rembrandts, Turners and Gainsboroughs to name a few. And if you’re looking for a cafe in Hampstead Heath the Brewhouse attached to Kenwood has plenty of seating both in and outdoors.
Despite the fact John Keats met an untimely death at age 25, he managed to accomplish an astonishing amount in his short life. The Keats Museum is the beautiful Georgian villa where this old romantic found inspiration, friendship and love. Throughout the house, many Keats quotes are displayed and you leave with a real feeling for the man behind the pen. No doubt this place will touch your heart and leave you pondering on his life for a little while. A must for any poetry lover!
Burgh House (A.K.A The Hampstead Museum)
Even if you only go for a perfectly orchestrated fruit scone in their lovely courtyard cafe, Hampstead’s Burgh House is worth a quick peek and it’s free!
The appealing Queen Anne style house attracts weddings and parties which you can imagine just adds to the atmosphere, but the small museum documenting Hampstead’s history is also interesting enough. And, if you’re lucky you might even catch a recital.
I’d say if you were a tourist in London and you were looking for an English afternoon tea, then you may have just discovered a little London secret spot!
If the weather is good when you’re in Hampstead, visit Fenton House. Although that’s not to say that the collection of musical instruments indoors isn’t worth seeing, but the grounds are so beautifully British. A walled garden with a rose collection to be rivalled and many interesting plants and topiary. But ultimately those who come to Fenton are here to see the piano pedigree’s and they won’t be disappointed. Inside the house make sure you take in the views as far as Canary Wharf from the upper balcony!
This is a National Trust Property and you could combine it with 2 Willow Road if you are in Hampstead for a day out.
2 WIllow Road
Another National Trust gem, the architect Erno Goldfinger designed and lived in this inspiring modernist home. So inspiring, local Hampstead resident Ian Flemming even created a character based on him. Rumour has it Flemming wasn’t too keen on the Modernist style and thought it looked like a villain should live there, cut to the James Bond evil antagonist! I totally love that, don’t you? I can’t say I’m overly keen on the house either but then I probably identify more with the other James Bond villain, Blofeld and his cat – now they did have a cool house!
Freud once said…
“The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'”
The poor bloke spent 3 unprofitable decades trying to figure it out and I could have told him – a bath, a book and a bar of chocolate, simples. Still, despite his inadequacies, it’s still quite cool to see the house he lived in after escaping the Nazi’s in Vienna. And that couch where actual psychoanalysis was invented.
Open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Adults; £12
4. THE HILL GARDEN AND PERGOLA, HAMPSTEAD HEATH
Honestly, this is one of my favourite secrets spots in London (for more London Hidden Gems check out this post). It’s a place ready for photo op’s but despite its charm and beauty, it’s still really easy to find a quiet bench to sit on. It’s a little off the beaten path but well worth the hike.
Lord Leverhulme clearly loved the book The Secret Garden and being a man with enough money to do what he liked, he went ahead and built himself one. You can just imagine the lovely parties it hosted, and perhaps a few clandestine shenanigans it sheltered too. See for yourself, its twisting vines and trellises percolate a little bit of magic and mystery.
The Hill Garden and Pergola are free to visit and adjoining Golders Hill Park is apparently a great spot for a picnic too, although we’ve never been ourselves.
TIP : If you’ve made it this far then be sure to make time for a drink in one of the best pubs in Hampstead – The Spaniards Inn. It’s only a 10-minute walk from the Hill Garden.
5. CRAWL THE HAMPSTEAD PUBS
In line with our suggestion to make Hampstead Village your base for a London weekend, there are so many great pubs in Hampstead you’ll have no problem filling your evenings! Being one of the oldest neighbourhoods in London and home to many writers and artists, it’s no surprise the area comes up trumps for watering holes and a few with fascinating anecdotes too.
We like The Flask on Flask Walk for the old black and white photos of London and The Holly Bush on Holly Mount for its cosy corners and open fires.
Also The Duke of Hamilton owned by local lads Ben, Ed And Adam – a neighbourhood boozer with charm. It’s attracted several famous actors and Hampstead residents over the years and I just love the Farrow & Ball-esque decor and finishing touches. A little London secret is the basement Jazz club underneath the Duke, but check out their website for more specifics.
If you head out of the village a little (perhaps on your way to Kenwood House or the Hill Gardens) you may want to down a pint at a proper antiquated establishment The Spaniards Inn – local to John Keats and Charles Dickens no less! It started life as a toll-house in 1585 and is one of the cosiest Hampstead pubs to hole up in on a wet London day. Low beams, wood panelling and an open fire ensure its punters repeatedly keep getting the orders in. You definitely won’t want to leave.
Hampstead Pubs are some of the best pubs in London.
6. HIGHGATE CEMETERY
Ok, so not officially Hampstead but close enough! As is the case with other non-denominational private city cemeteries around the world (think Pere Lachaise in Paris and Cimitero Acattolico in Rome) Highgate Cemetary has quite the collection of famous residents. There’s a lengthy string of graves belonging to famous poets, artists, novelists and rock stars, and of course the most famous grave of all, Karl Marx.
You can visit Highgate Cemetery without a guide and if you do your research and use the map given to you at the entrance you will have the most pleasantly serene walk and fascinating amble. As a matter of fact, the cemetery is a beautiful nature reserve in its own right. But you can also take a really great tour which is the easiest way of finding out what celebrities are buried at Highgate Cemetery, plus a whole load of other interesting facts.
The cemetery is split into East and West and the tickets are bought separately. For more information check out their website HighgateCemetary.org
7. SWAIN’S LANE AND HOLLY VILLAGE
One of our favourite ways to learn about a place is through the architecture around about. Along with Flask Walk mentioned earlier, Swain’s Lane and adjoining Holly Village are also full of gems and tell stories about Hampstead, England.
First, you might want to grab yourself a caffeine fix and an energy-inducing Chelsea Bun at GAIL’s at the bottom of the hill – Swain’s Lane reaches gradients of 20% at some points! But Holly Village is strategically placed halfway up so you can legitimately stop for a breather and a look around. So what is Holly Village?
In short, it’s a neo-gothic fantasy. Dreamed up by the wealthiest woman in England (discounting the Queen) Angela Burdett-Coutts, along with the most talented Italian woodsmiths and the most expensive stone money could buy, completed a miniature housing estate of utter quality and beauty. The Victorians loved all that Gothic business – buttresses, gables and gargoyles – and Holly Village has to be one of the finest examples in England. It is a private estate but happily, you can still see a lot from the main gates.
You can read more about Miss Burdett-Coutts in this article, including how she established the charities NSPCC and RSPCA – what a woman!
Back on Swains Lane you’re eventually introduced to Highgate Cemetery but not before a steady incline of homes with blue plaques. And before you finally reach the gates of the graveyard you can see the poshest council estate in the UK – the Holly Lodge Estate. Angela Burdett-Coutts used to live on the estate herself and entertained all manner of famous friends including Darwin, Hans Christian Anderson and even her mate the Queen, although the villa was later demolished. Later on, these mock tudor homes were built for workers and eventually became social housing for women after the 1st world war. Nowadays they fetch anything in the region of £750k for a 2-bed flat!
8. CHECK OUT HAMPSTEAD’S FOODIE SCENE
It goes without saying there are plenty of great places to eat in Hampstead, this is London afterall! Here are a few of our favourites…
- GAIL’s Bakery on the High Street and Swain’s Lane for coffee and pastry’s
- Franco Manca for some of the best sourdough pizza in London!
- The famous La Creperie de Hampstead – the queue’s are worth it
- The Duke of Hamilton for locally sourced and fresh dishes
- Oddono’s of Hampstead do the best authentic Italian style gelato in over 130 flavours!
- And if you’re a sushi lover, pick up a picnic from Sushi Hana and take it over to the Heath for lunch
So there you have it, our guide to Hampstead – things to do and places to see that’ll definitely keep you busy for at least a day, if not more. Roam the streets, taste the sweets and absorb the mood of this delightful London neighbourhood.
And, as always, a big thank you for booking your accommodation through us – the links you use mean we get a small commission at no extra cost to you and we’re so grateful for you helping us fund this blog.
For more ideas of Neighbourhoods worth exploring, check out another post of ours here.
pin for later…