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Time Out: London

London's Belgravia neighborhood

Photo by Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy

London's Belgravia neighborhood.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” That apt quote from English writer Samuel Johnson in 1777 continues to ring true today. Wealthy global investors converge on this ancient capital—with cash in hand—to buy a stake in its chain of charming neighborhoods, including Chelsea and Belgravia. To see what all the fuss is about, explore these two areas by hopping on bus 11 or 14. Or, better yet, download a guide from the London Parks & Gardens Trust and walk from one to the other to discover wonderful green spaces.

The Chelsea Physic Garden, hidden behind a high wall next to the Thames River, is London’s oldest botanic garden, founded in 1673. Among its 5,000 medicinal and historical plants, you’ll find rare and endangered species thriving thanks to a microclimate. Locals love the lavender scones in the garden’s peaceful Tangerine Dream Café.

At the crossroads of Chelsea, Knightsbridge and Belgravia, Colbert is a favorite midday spot for high-powered locals. Owned by the restaurant dream team of Corbin and King, it’s known for elegant and eclectic French décor and impeccable service. Try one of the many croque sandwiches or the salade Niçoise. Just outside, bus 11 will take you to Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Just off Belgravia’s embassy row lies a sleepy pocket of quaint commerce. Buy an English novel at the classic Belgravia Books on Ebury Street or note cards at H.R. Stokes on Elizabeth Street. Then relax next door at Baker & Spice with a slice of baked blueberry cheesecake or a croissant with homemade jam. Afterward, walk to nearby Buckingham Palace.

Tour the Royal Hospital Chelsea, home to London’s retired soldiers known as the red-coated Chelsea Pensioners. An architectural legacy left by Sir Christopher Wren and King Charles II, the home includes an impressive chapel, museum, great hall, café and shop, as well as manicured grounds. A guided tour led by one of the pensioners is highly recommended (book well in advance).

Time Out: London

Somerset House

Alex Segre\Alamy Stock Photo

Stand on Westminster Bridge looking across the River Thames, and you might not recognize London’s skyline any more. The distinctive Sir Christopher Wren-designed dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral is still there, but it sits between sinuous, shapely glass skyscrapers. Head east and you’ll get a shock, too. The gritty neighborhoods you’d have avoided 20 years ago are now home to pop-up art galleries, hip markets and the city’s most adventurous eating. Britain’s capital has changed hugely, but, as always, the changes are piled up alongside what was already there—2,000 years (and counting) of history, waiting to be explored.

London’s cocktail bars routinely make it onto lists of the world’s best. Check out The Bar with No Name at 69 Colebrooke Row for innovations such as the Prairie Oyster (tomato juice and vodka sealed in a gel bubble, creating a bloody mary explosion in the mouth). Hit Nightjar for a literally underground, 1940s jazz club vibe in the East End. Or stop at the oak-paneled Connaught Bar for the best martini trolley in the West End.

The winter holiday transformation of the neoclassical palace Somerset House on the Strand is akin to seeing the most elegant tailor on Savile Row put on a Santa suit. An almost 40-foot-high tree and a large ice rink take over the central courtyard, but you don’t have to skate to enjoy the Christmassy ambience. Instead, enjoy a posh hot chocolate or a warming Scotch at Fortnum’s Lodge.

Ignore the stores on heaving Oxford Street and head to nearby Marylebone High Street for a more personal shopping experience. The Conran Shop and Cath Kidston make this an essential stop for lovers of interior design, while London’s most beautiful bookstore, Daunt Books, looks, with its high oak galleries, more like a chapel than a shop. Then take the Central Line east to hit Boxpark, a pop-up indie shopping mall on Bethnal Green Road made out of refitted shipping containers.

Rumors have abounded since the 1800s that a supernatural being calls Highgate Cemetery home. The last resting place for the likes of Karl Marx and George Eliot, high on a hill above North London, certainly looks like it should belong in a Victorian ghost story. Built in the late 1830s, it’s a gothic fever dream of tangled branches and cracked marble that will bring out the Edgar Allan Poe in anyone.

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