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Imposing Victorian townhouses painted in pretty pastels stand in immaculate rows on cherry blossom-lined streets. Homes inhabited by plummy blokes with floppy hair and endearingly kooky English roses (local parlance for fair-skinned rosy-cheeked English beauties), all positively overflowing with bumbling self-deprecation.
"...there’s a lot more to this London neighbourhood than dinner parties and Hugh Grant lookalikes"
This image of Notting Hill, the one Richard Curtis projected to the world in his films - Four Weddings and a Funeral, the namesake Notting Hill and Love Actually - does actually exist. The area is full of lovable oddballs, but there’s a lot more to this London neighbourhood than dinner parties and Hugh Grant lookalikes.
The real Notting Hill
The Caribbean community that came over in the 50s and filled the silent streets with music, the Portuguese immigrants who saved Londoners from scurvy with the sale of decent fruit in the 60s, the middle class bohos who made the place groovy in the 70s and the investment bankers we all love to loathe who moved in in the 80s ALL coexist in this rich pocket of London life (no pun intended). Their combined presence gives Notting Hill its unique character. We can’t deny that gentrification is rife, but we’re not here to spoil a good time in Notting Hill with the pitfalls of modern socioeconomics.
If Notting Hill were a person, she’d be that effortlessly beautiful girl who never takes herself too seriously, never tries too hard. She has fun, she has vices, she even has Mick Jagger’s mobile number, but (in that terribly English way) she is rather homely at heart.
You’ve arrived in the Royal Borough, it’s a sunny day (assuming it’s late May, early June, otherwise it’s probably just about to rain). What to do?
Start with an idyllic walk through the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park and amble down to Portobello Road at your leisure. If it’s the weekend try to get up and out early (8am) to see the market as it’s being set up; it’s when vendors and locals are at their friendliest, and you can enjoy the scale and spectacle of what’s on offer without having to navigate through the crowds. Our advice to anyone is to start at the north end of Portobello, around Golborne Road. You’ll need some brunch, the best of which can be found at Snaps & Rye (order the Hog’s Pudding with Viking Blood ketchup. Don’t ask - just have it!), Pizza East West for avocado on toast or a full English at West Thirty Six. If you’re in a rush to get going pop into Kipferl or The Tin Shed for coffee and pastries.
Once you’ve had your fill of poached eggs and people watching, ease yourself into the chaos of the market with a look around 316 Portobello. A framing shop run by the very welcoming Debbie, the space doubles as a contemporary gallery showcasing (affordable) fine art and photography by London based artists. A great stop if you’re looking for a souvenir slightly more special than a Union Jack mug and a packet of shortbread.
"a souvenir slightly more special than a Union Jack mug and a packet of shortbread"
It would be remiss to dismiss Portobello Market as two miles of tourist tat, of which there is plenty, but amongst the cluttered stalls of London Underground t-shirts, lo-fi reggae recordings and £5 organic, gluten free, sugar free, pleasure free brownies – there are many gems to be found.
The Bread Stall, Portobello Road
You’ve booked yourself a beautiful home on Plum and you should enjoy the pleasure of having a kitchen by sampling the neighbourhood’s most delicious treats. Opposite the famous Electric Cinema you’ll find two charismatic French brothers (Yann and Franck) selling gloriously stinky cheeses and the best sausages this side of the Channel. You’ll need some bread for that; The Bread Stall is conveniently next to them (on Fridays and Saturdays) and sells fresh, fluffy loaves of all kinds. If you’re after something sweet, they also sell the BEST nutella doughnuts and almond croissants on the strip - there are many, over the last 20 years we’ve tried them all - this is carb-o-coma we keep coming back to.
"A reasonable amount of haggling is allowed, the staff could be a little friendlier, but that’s fashion dahling."
Should you start feeling claustrophobic in the crowds, respite is at hand. Notting Hill is full of beautiful boutiques (Paul Smith, Agent Provocateur, Sandro, Maje, 202) but most of these can be found online. Take the opportunity to explore the truly independent boutiques you cannot find anywhere else. One of a Kind and Rellik were both born out of Portobello market stalls and have become meccas for designer vintage. This is not smells-like-Grandma’s-nursing-home vintage; it’s Chanel, YSL and Dior. A reasonable amount of haggling is allowed, the staff could be a little friendlier, but that’s fashion dahling. If you’re after more on-trend threads check out Kokon to Zai, their painfully cool concept store has a cult following; we can’t pull it off, but it’s always good to know what the kids are into these days.
An exceptional shop for interior lovers is Ollie & Bow on Golborne Road, a treasure trove of oddities and design classics. Not a single item has a price on it; you’ll have to ask the staff, if you can’t see them it’s because they’re probably outside, possibly next door, but persevere. They’re very accommodating and prices are negotiable; it’s not every day you come across a mid-century bingo cage in mint condition. A few doors down you’ll also find Les Couilles du Chien, home to high-end Art Deco antiques and Victorian natural history curiosities amongst other fine trinkets from days of yore.
The Lutyens & Rubinstein bookshop
If you’re after a more cerebral offering you mustn’t miss the Lutyens & Rubinstein bookshop. A beautifully designed space opened by two publishers (Sarah Lutyens and Felicity Rubinstein) on Kensington Park Road, without question the most beautiful street in Notting Hill. Sarah and Felicity, who still run their literary agency in the same building, have curated their store based on readers’ and writers’ favourite reads. It’s an incredibly eclectic stock of print that ignores trends and sales rankings; instead it takes pride in selling works of all genres recommended by some bookworm, somewhere, who thinks you simply must read it too! A lovely notion Amazon could never deliver.
A Bit of Culture
There is culture to be had alongside the rampant retail scene in Notting Hill. The art scene that flourished in the area in the 1970s continues to have a strong presence. Notable galleries include Muse at 269 which supports and promotes emerging artists and the Whitewall Galleries on Westbourne Grove which endeavours to breakdown the pretension surrounding contemporary art galleries to make them as accessible as walking into any other shop. The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising tucked behind Ladbroke Grove is an unsung hero of London’s many museums. A small, but perfectly formed collection displaying the history of branding across all industries and media from the 19th century to present day, it’s a visual delight for the style conscious and nostalgic alike.
By this point you might be feeling spent in every sense of the word. If in need of a quick bite Maramia is a quiet, unfussy spot for authentic Palestinian fare served up by the incredibly sweet (and handsome for his years) Mohammed, his son, Mohammed, and his equally handsome grandson, yup, you guessed it, Mohammed. This family run restaurant doesn’t have fancy décor or a refined wine list, but they have Mohammed’s charm x3 and their infallible chicken mousakhan.
Out on the town
People always underestimate how much walking they’ll be doing in London so if you’re pining for a sit down, but don’t want to eat, drink or go home just yet, Notting Hill is home to the greatest cinema in all of London, if not the world. The Electric Cinema, now part of the Soho House Group, has been Notting Hill’s most iconic cinema since 1911. We wouldn’t normally suggest something so ordinary as a trip to the cinema when visiting a city with as much to offer as London BUT the Electric is an experience worth having. Opulently luxurious with its mahogany leather armchairs, Chesterfield footrests, cashmere blankets, a front row of velvet beds and a full bar – it’s the epitome of civilised and sets the standard for what all cinemas should be – for what all living rooms should be! The Electric Diner upstairs doesn’t deserve the hype, it lost its sparkle some years ago, but the cinema is still the very best there is.
Go home, drop your bags, rest a little and head back out for dinner, drinks and maybe some dancing, if the mood strikes you. The great thing about Notting Hill is that it really does feel like a cosmopolitan village in the heart of London. Everything you need is on your doorstep, you never need to leave it, and many don’t.
You’re spoilt for choice on the food front. Every cuisine is represented and every budget considered. You can push the boat out at The Ledbury, which is currently one of the top 20 restaurants in the world and has not one, but two, Michelin stars to its name. The food is fancy, masterfully presented, but, most importantly, it tastes phenomenal. The menu is inspired and innovative without alienating people who don’t care for haute (or haughty) cuisine. The roasted cauliflower with crab cream is a personal favourite. Marianne’s is also a cosy spot on Chepstow Road, perfect for smart lunches and romantic dinners.
On the flip side, you can still have some great cheap and cheerful eats and save your pennies for those Paul Smith brogues. George’s Fisheries on Ladbroke Grove (not to be confused with George’s Portobello Fish Bar, a fine chippie itself) dishes out sashimi quality fish and seafood at deli prices. For a low-key evening pop into in any one of Notting Hill’s countless gastropubs. The Ladbroke Arms offers a thoroughly British menu that goes beyond shepherd’s pie. Everyone should enjoy at least one traditional Sunday roast it the garden of The Windsor Castle and if your palate is enticed by spice, the Thai upstairs at The Walmer Castle has been curing hangovers with lemongrass and love for decades.
A national pastime on these fair isles, and Notting Hill has a bar stool to suit everyone. One thing no one can argue with is that Notting Hill has great pubs. Catch up with friends at The Prince Bonaparte, make new ones at The Cock and Bottle, get some sun at The Garden Bar or shade at The Sun and Splendour, watch a gig at The Elgin or have a go at the pub quiz at The Champion; take your pick, grab a pint and watch the day merrily pass you by.
For a more upbeat scene head to The Portobello Star; always heaving, with great margaritas and entertaining staff it’s the sort of place you can go to alone and find company. If you’re already with friends, The Distillery is a four-storey shrine to gin. There are two spacious bars and a museum, of sorts, where you can make you own bespoke blend to take home. Mau Mau on Portobello is a pocket friendly, cash-only dive with live music most nights, if you want to meet real locals who aren’t named Fifi or Henry, they’re here. For more intimate affairs try the Confessional Cocktail Club, a teeny-tiny basement bar in the foundations of an old church on Westbourne Grove. It’s everything you could want from a bar; it’s dark, sultry, mischievous and they bring nibbles.
Even if you’re off the wagon, there’s a bar for you! Redemption is a health food/non-alcoholic bar conjured up by a nutritionist. We cannot fault the food or the mocktails, it’s not our scene per se, but if you’re pregnant, in recovery or just one of those people - it’s a fun alternative to Diet Coke.
So you wanna dance?
Although residential, there are plenty of places to bust a move in W8, you cannot see them, but they’re all there right there under your feet. Notting Hill Arts Club is an institution. A concrete basement guarded by Derek at the door, a monolith of a man at 6’5, he’s a gentle giant who doesn’t suffer fools. NHAC has launched the careers of many (namely Mark Ronson and Lilly Allen) at their renowned hip-hop nights. They host a range of gigs, open mic nights and art shows. If the Arts Club is too young or too sweaty, go over the road to the Blag Club. Around the corner a Little Yellow Door opens to a house party in an actual (fictional) house. The crowd varies, but more often than not, there is a great vibe and if you have an occasion of your own to celebrate, it makes for a perfect venue. Further down Portobello you’ll find Trailer Happiness, a busy tiki bar with great cocktails and a crowd pleaser of a playlist, but there seems to be what can only be described as a drainage problem. Upon arrival you will notice an odd smell. Is it damp? Is it sewage? It’s been 5 years and it’s still there. It’s time for them to sort it out!
As with all dining, drinking and dancing forays in London, and Notting Hill in particular, especially at the weekend, we strongly recommend making reservations wherever possible. It is never “just a 10min wait” and there is no need for it, planning ahead is advised.
Postcript: Notting Hill Carnival
A little note on the Notting Hill Carnival; a divisive topic for locals and tourists alike.
It IS loud. It IS messy. It IS too crowded. Getting home can be a nightmare.
But it IS a party.
And like all good parties it is loud, messy, too crowded and getting home can be a nightmare.
Worthy of its fame and so satisfying to explore, Notting Hill is a celebration of eccentricity, diversity, community and beauty. A heavenly base to call home for any length of time.
Don’t let the hipsters fool you. West is best!