London city layout
The major neighborhoods, streets, squares, and landmarks of London
London is huge, and it sprawls. Its 625 square miles consist of many small towns and villages that have slowly been gobbled up in a centuries-long urban expansion.
Officially, London is divided into 32 boroughs plus the City of London, and most visitors spend 99% of their time in the City and the 12 boroughs of Inner London, rarely venturing into the 20 boroughs of Outer London.
The bulk of central London lies north of the River Thames (or west of it, once the river turns southward).
Central London is more or less bounded by the vaguely Absolut bottle–shaped twinned loop of the District and Circle Tube (subway) lines, roughly divided between The City (all business and banking), the West End (itself comprising many neighborhoods whose names you'll get used to as you trundle about this lively center of London's restaurant, shopping, theatre, nightlife, and museum scene), and—west of the West End—the areas around Westminster and Hyde Park.
The neighborhoods of London
Most of London's 8.17 million residents don't both with the borough names and still use traditional neighborhood names, and we'll do so as well, lumping a few neighboring ones together for convenience.
Yes, each is unique and has its own style and flavor and history—but, frankly, to the average visitor, most can be lumped together into groups of two or four adjacent areas that are really rather similar, and this will make things far easier.
So, the fanciiful neighborhood designations below will detail which collection of traditional neighborhoods fall into our broader categories. (Old London hands may notice a few gaps, but honestly: how many visitors ever find themselves in Pimlico or Lambeth?)
Today on the eastern edge of London's center, The City—today mostly business and banking—is the ancient square mile where the Romans founded the original Londinium.
The City now home to St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and other icons of Ye Olde Londontowne. The City is best known as London's main financial district (and the one-time center of British newspaper publishing, on Fleet Street)—filled with expensive suits by day, but a bit dead and deserted after office hours.
The City is also unique in London in that it a self-governing neighborhood, with its own mayor, police force (the City Police, versus the Metropolitan Police who patrol the rest of London), and other quirky traditions.
For our purposes, we'll extend "The City" just to the north to include the Barbican and Farringdon neighborhoods. (Hey: they're just as historic; in fact, you can still see stretch of the Roman-era wall here.)
The West End: Theatreland
(Covent Garden, Soho, Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square)
Think of this heart of the West End as the central turnstile of London, famously home to London's top playhouses and theatres around Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square.
Piccadilly/Leicester Square is also London's party central with lots of crowded pubs, bars, and commercial clubs; the biggest movie houses; and Piccadilly Circus itself, is a bustling traffic circle of tacky neon.
To the west, Soho, once a seedy red-light district, is these days scrubbed more-or-less clean to house numerous budget eateries from every corner of the globe and what remains of London's old Chinatown (nice red Chinatown gate and some Chinese shops).
The University District
(Bloomsbury, Holborn, Fitzrovia)
Just north of the greater West End and City lies the intellectual side of London.
Holborn is another old district today filled with the offices of lawyers and other professionals.
North of this district is the literary, academic's Bloomsbury, home to the British Museum and the University of London.
East of Hyde Park: Upscale London
(Mayfair, Marylebone, Regent's Park)
North of this stretches lovely Regent's Park.
Westminster: Rule Britannia, Parliament and the Royal Family
(Westminster, St. James's, Victoria)
Southwest of Piccadilly Circus is Westminster, running along the western bank of the Thames' north-south stretch.
This is the heart and soul of political Britain, home to Parliament, Big Ben, and the Prime Minister's home at 10 Downing Street, shading into the the royal district stretching from Westminster to Buckingham Palace through the exclusive, old residential streets of St. James's (picture a gentlemen's club and expand it several blocks in each direction).
Westminster flows into Victoria to the south, broadening to Millbank and Pimlico. Centered upon Victoria train station, this neighborhood remains genteel and residential, though the streets get a bit dingier and more knockabout (with a glut of cheap hotels) around Victoria Station.
South of Hyde Park: Posh London
(Knightsbridge, Belgravia, Chelsea, South Kensington, Kensington)
West of the West End, the neighborhoods are divided north-south by enormous Hyde Park.
South of it stretch the variably posh and upper middle-class fashionable residential zones of Knightsbridge, Kensington, and South Kensington, which are also home to London's grandest shopping streets and some quite posh hotels.
This old aristocratic zone full of stylish town houses is where London keeps Harrods, the world's ur-department store (in Knightsbridge), as well as the Victoria & Albert Museum, Royal Albert Hall, and a whole passel of foreign embassies.
West of here, Northwest of Victoria and west of Westminster is Belgravia, an old aristocratic zone full of stylish townhouses that's just beyond the West End.
South of Belgravia and South Kensington is the artists' and writers' quarter of Chelsea, which manages to keep hip with the changing times (it debuted miniskirts in the 1960s and punk in the 1970s).
North of Hyde Park: Middle Class London
(Paddington, Bayswater, Notting Hill, Notting Hill Gate)
North of Hyde Park are the more middle-income residential neighborhoods of Paddington, Bayswater, and Notting Hill, popular among budget travelers for their plethora of B&Bs, inexpensive hotels, and the Portobello Road market.
(Also, in the movie Notting Hill, you can see one of my Frommer's Italy guidebooks to the right of Julia Roberts during the bookshop scenes. This forces me to watch it every time it comes on basic cable.)
Nearby Notting Hill Gate is similar and is becoming a rather hip fashion and dining center in its own right.
South of the Thames
(South Bank, Southwark, Lambeth)
On the other side of the Thames—between vast Waterloo Station in the west and London Bridge in the east—are the arts and cultural centers of Southbank (across from the West End and Westminster) and, just across the river from The City, Southwark (sometimes called Bankside).
Southwark has been wonderfully revitalized thanks to the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the excellent Tate Modern art museum (now connected to St. Paul’s Cathedral and The City by the funky pedestrian Millennium Bridge), and a motley assortment of lesser sights.
Southbank—and, to its south, Lambeth—also contain several of London's premiere performance halls and the National Theatre.
Greenwich and The East End
Frankly, on a first-time or quick visit, you'll probably never visit The East End—except perhaps passing through en route to the even more easterly maritime village of Greenwich, on the south bank of a bend in the Thames with some fabulous sights including the Royal Observatory, which keeps the Prime Meridian (0 degrees longitude) and the time by which the entire world sets it clocks.
However, as the East End does loom large in the mythos of London, I thought I'd place it for you.
The East End is eternally a somewhat economically depressed area. Traditionally, Whitechapel, Stepney, Wapping, and Bethnal Green (plus southern Hackney) make up the most famous working class area of London, home to Cockney accents, EastEnders, and an ever changing cadre of hard-working immigrant communities (most notably in the modern era, Bangladeshis).
Historically an often poor area where fortunes rose and fell with the business on the nearby docks and influx of various waves of immigrant groups since the 1700s, London has managed since the 1980s to revive some of the areas (and crack down on some of the crime that sadly goes hand-in-hand with poverty), with varying success in the refurbished business and Thamesside condo districts of Canary Wharf and Docklands.
Personally, I am partial to the Streetwise London map—amazingly detailed yet tiny, a foldable and laminated map that slips into your (deeper) pocket.
If you'll be exploring London to any extent, one of your most useful purchases will be one of the world's greatest street-by-street maps, the London A to Z (remember: in British that's pronounced "A to Zed").
It's the only publication that lists every tiny alley and dead-end lane of the maze that is London's infrastructure. You can buy one from Amazon, or just pick it up thre at any bookstore and most newsstands.