It’s easy to get lost in London without the right strategy in place. The city is a massive metropolis that swells beyond its resident millions, with countless commuters and tourists clogging the streets day and night. Rather than see the forest through the trees, it’s best to view London for what it is: an enormous village, with neighbourhood pockets to explore, one at a time.
With over 600 square miles and a population of 8 million plus, London is segmented into 33 distinct boroughs. Residents cling fiercely to their chosen ‘hood and identify themselves with borough first, city second. As a visitor, it would be wise to acclimatize to the borough map and work out a manageable itinerary from there. Chances are, you’ll hit all the major landmarks and score some precious hidden gems along the way.
East of central London, the comically-titled borough of Barking and Dagenham comprises 165,000 residents. One major attraction of note is the ancient Anglo-Saxon abbey. Built in 665 AD in the Barking area, the historic ruins host a massive carnival every May. Other points of interest include the Valence House Museum and Broadway Theatre.
Barnet is a large borough with a diverse local population and plenty of parks and sites to explore. The borough has several attractions that chronicle what is known as an area of Jewish immigration and settlement. The Royal Air Force museum and Welsh Harp Nature Reserve and Reservoir, which straddles the borough of Brent, are top draws.
On the periphery of central London, Bexley nonetheless contains a surfeit of green space. A Sports and Water Festival is held here every summer in beautiful Danson Park. There are lovely gardens to stroll through on the shores of the River Cray at Hall Place, as well as historic churches and abbeys that go back to the days of Henry II.
Brent is notable for two main reasons. For one, the borough is home to the world famous Wembley Stadium, which alone makes it worth a special trip. Second, Brent is a veritable mosaic of cultures. Almost half of borough residents hail from outside of the United Kingdom. As a result, temples of worship and exotic shops and restaurants dot the busy streets.
On the outskirts of London proper, Bromley ranks first among city boroughs by area. As a result, there are no shortage of parks here for recreation and relaxation. Although the borough is a first-rate escape from the urban pace of the city, Bromley also attracts visitors with the Darwin Museum and Chislehurst Caves, which date back to Roman times.
If you like hipsters and dive bars, Camden is the borough for you. With a hot music scene and plethora of rehearsal and small concert halls, the area throbs to a unique beat. In the same vein, the borough has some of the most eclectic shops in the city. The British Library and Regents Park also attract a fair share of visitors to Camden.
Part of outer London, Croydon has more people than any other borough in the city. Thanks in part to the large local populace, the area contains some terrific facilities for residents and tourists alike. These include a massive street market and commercial complex, theatres, cinemas and no less than nine golf courses.
Rich in architectural splendour, Ealing has much to offer visitors. A myriad of ethnic groups contribute to the cultural landscape and as a result, the markets are rife with products of intrigue. Every August the borough hosts a free jazz festival in Walpole Park. Grand Union Canal remains one of the best places to stroll in all of London.
On the northern perimeter of the city, Enfield borough was once the aristocratic playground of the wealthy set. Today the area is much more popular as a first-class sports and entertainment destination, with cinemas, rugby, cricket and football clubs. The gardens at Capel Manor and the lush confines of Trent Country Park beckon visitors to Enfield as well.
The borough of Greenwich will play a major role as host of several events for the London Summer Games. As a result, visitors may want to catch more than a glimpse of the O2 Millenium Dome, Greenwich Park and Royal Naval College, all of which will field a variety of sports in 2012.
One of the most eclectic boroughs in London, Hackney has a diverse and vibrant ethnic community. It begins with the Shoreditch area, a hip home to cool bars and restaurants. Street markets flourish in Hackney and offer some of the best deals in the city on a flood of goods. For remarkable architecture and quiet coffee shops that remain on the fringes, Hackney is the borough to beat.