South Kensington is more than just a pleasant neighborhood within easy reach of a lot of London attractions. It’s an ideal base for exploring and mastering the rest of London — and it’s been serving that role for decades.
Back in my old London neighborhood, South Kensington.
Cromwell Road. Gloucester Road. Collingham Road. Being on these streets again feels like reuniting with old friends. Each name brings back a memory, a smile.
The sidewalks bustle with people of every nationality. Travelers flow up and down the thoroughfares, towing wheeled suitcases bearing tags from the airlines of a dozen nations from Europe, Asia and Africa.
My friends Jay and Irene Berman introduced me to this neighborhood a decade ago. It’s what I call a “travel base,” one of those neighborhoods that ideally suited as a base of operations for the visitor.
South Kensington has served that role for tourists, business people and foreign students for decades, and it’s easy to see why.
It’s strategically located to the rest of the city. You can get subway trains of the London Underground to virtually anywhere from the Gloucester Road Tube station. It’s got everything you need within easy walking distance — restaurants, pubs, grocery stores, banks, post office, laundromat, Internet cafes, hardware stores.
There are some nice sites close by, as well — museums like the Victoria and Albert. Parks like Kensington Gardens and Green Park. Harrods, for those of you out there with the shopping gene.
Walk south for a few blocks and you’re at the Thames River.
But South Kensington has taught me to look not for touristy things, but for the things that give you what you need and want to make your trip a success.
In other words, the things that make you feel at home, when you’re not.
But they’re more likely to be older cities like London, built to a human scale, rather than a place like Los Angeles, which was built around the automobile. Easy access to good public transportation is one of the hallmarks of every good traveler’s hood.
There’s another factor in my choice of neighborhoods when I travel, and that’s lodging. Regular IBIT readers know I prefer apartments over hotels when I travel. Staying in apartments rather than hotels is more likely to put you in a real neighborhood like South Kensington than in a hyper-commercial downtown district.
It can cost a little more than a hotel per night, but apartment stays come with some benefits that save you money over the course of your stay. Having a kitchen to prepare your own meals, and a washer and dryer for your clothes saves you money on restaurant bills and baggage fees, not to mention making your luggage a lot lighter.
I’ve since learned that just every great metropolis has a neighborhood like this, and the truly gigantic cities in the world have more than one.
In New Orleans, for instance, there are neighborhoods along or near the St. Charles streetcar line that are just as functional as South Kensington, and have the added “perk” of being beautifully scenic, besides.
New York City has several of them, in each of its five boroughs, and you New Yorkers out there probably can and should tell the rest of us where they are. Ditto for Chicago, Atlanta and Washington DC.
Indeed, easy access to public transit is one of the hallmarks of a traveler’s ‘hood.
What would you look for in your ideal travel base? Have you ever found such a neighborhood yourself when you traveled — and if you have, where was it and what was it like?
Okay, off to the Imperial War Museum. I’ll add some pics to this entry once I’ve had a chance to shoot a little bit.