LONDON — If Marylebone is London’s quintessential urban village and Bloomsbury its center of culture, Kensington is the nucleus of regal London — hence, its designation as the Royal Borough of Kensington.
There has been some sort of royal connection with this elegant area since shortly after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, and subsequent monarchs — most notably Queen Victoria and Prince Albert — have left their mark here.
The most visible royal symbol is Kensington Palace, today home to Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. Located at the western end of Kensington Gardens, the palace draws visitors who tour its public spaces and formal sunken garden before heading to the glass-enclosed Orangery for afternoon tea.
If you plan to visit this year, you can also take in a special exhibition, Diana, Her Fashion Story, which traces the evolution of the late Princess of Wales’ fashion style, and features some of her iconic gowns (including the nifty blue velvet number she wore on a visit to the White House).
The palace, however, is only one of the attractions in the 265-acre park, one of eight royal parks in London. It’s also the site of the Memorial Playground, created to honor the memory of Diana; the Peter Pan Fountain; the Albert Memorial, and the Serpentine Gallery, a one-time tea pavilion, now a gallery of contemporary art.
Just across from Kensington Gardens is what many consider the greatest concert venue in the world — the Royal Albert Hall. Its stunning exterior boasts a mosaic frieze depicting “the Triumph of Arts and Sciences,” and the interior — with more than 5,000 seats and enough gold leaf and gilt to make Fort Knox green with envy — has to be seen to be believed.
I went to Albert Hall for one of the periodic performances of a classic film, which is shown on a mammoth screen suspended above the stage. This time around it was “Titanic Live,” in celebration of the blockbuster’s 20th anniversary, with the soundtrack performed live by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.
Similar performances have been staged for the Harry Potter films, “Jurassic Park,” and what likely has patrons cringing in their seats, “Jaws.”
If there is any attraction more popular than the palace, it’s the trio of museums that dominate the south Kensington landscape on what is described as the “Museum Mile.”
The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts, with a permanent collection of nearly 5 million objects; the Science Museum, whose current exhibition “Robots” traces the shiny metallic creatures back 500 years (who knew medieval droids existed?) and the Natural History Museum, which showcases everything from butterflies to dinosaurs, endangered coral reefs to endangered Indian leopards.
Housed within the mammoth Gothic-inspired Natural History Museum are some 80 million items in five main collections: botany, zoology, paleontology, mineralogy and entomology. The exhibits are nothing short of spectacular and well worth the long queue to get in, especially on Sundays.
With its lovely cobbled lanes and hidden mews, Kensington is one of London’s most picturesque areas. Just off Kensington High Street are any number of secret nooks and crannies that open up to delightful hidden gems — a private garden here, an atmospheric pub there. A great way to discover these gems is on one of the Kensington itineraries through London Walks.
If you’re looking for a hotel in the middle of all the action, book a room at The Kensington, a property of the Dublin-based Doyle Collection that also has hotels in Bloomsbury and Marylebone.
Located on Queen’s Gate, it is an easy walk from most of the south Kensington attractions, and has the ultra-elegant feel of a private London townhouse — make that four townhouses linked together.
The accommodations are uber stylish, but the serene public spaces encourage guests to linger over a cup of tea or coffee and a newspaper. The Town House Restaurant features three interconnecting drawing rooms with fireplaces, a hidden whisky bar and a menu specializing in British and Continental favorites.
Afternoon tea in the drawing room is a must, with the only disappointment being that the specialty “Beauty and the Beast Tea,” designed to complement the release of the live action film, is sold out through November.
Don’t fret — Martyn Cope, the Kensington’s assistant concierge, will assist you in making alternate plans.
Martyn’s Kensington “must-dos”:
1. The Museums. Like most museums in London, the Victoria & Albert, Science Museum and Natural History Museum have free admission, with the only charge being for special exhibits.
2. The Parks. Kensington Gardens and adjoining Hyde Park cover 625 acres, larger than the Principality of Monaco. Activities range from horseback riding on Rotten Row (Hyde Park) to boating on the Serpentine (a 40-acre recreational lake that marks the boundary between the two parks).
3. Shopping at legendary Harrod’s and Harvey Nichols (OK, while they are technically in Knightsbridge and not Kensington, they are so close that not to visit would be unthinkable).
Kensington’s Best Kept Secret:
A left turn onto Derry Street from Kensington High Street will take you to the nondescript Derry Building. Nondescript, except for what is 100 feet above street level — one of London’s most remarkable gardens. Begun in the 1930s, the 1 1/2 acre Kensington Roof Gardens is divided into three sections.
The Spanish Garden is modeled after the one at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and features dancing fountains leading to a campanile tower with original mosaics. The Tudor Garden, perfumed by the scent of lavender and roses, as well as other plants that would have been plentiful in Tudor England, has hanging wisteria shadowing secret spaces. The English Woodland Garden blooms with snowdrops, bluebells and crocus and has a grove of native trees, a stream and a garden pond, home to pintail ducks and four resident flamingos.
The Gardens are owned by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, but unless there is a private function or a photo shoot (it is understandably a popular choice for magazine spreads), visitors are welcome to wander free of charge. Just ask at the first-floor desk. If there is an event, you can always book a table at Babylon Restaurant, which overlooks the Woodland Garden.
(Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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