The London Borough of Camden is home to Camden Town, the shopping and entertainment district adored for its grimy, alternative edge.
It’s hard to believe now, but much of Camden Town was a post-industrial wasteland in the 1970s.
The counterculture moved in, turning old timber yards and stables into world-famous markets, and established a live music scene that is thriving today and unaffected by its popularity.
The wider borough is a big cross-section of London between Covent Garden in the south and Hampstead Heath in the north.
Camden has a couple of West End theatres and also a slice of Convent Garden, world-renowned institutions like the British Museum and British Library, and some of London’s most prized green spaces like Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Camden:
1. British Museum
The first national public museum in the world, the British Museum opened as a cabinet of curiosity at the former Montagu House in 1753. The site was redeveloped from the 1820s, according to a plan by the Neoclassical architect Robert Smirke, giving us today’s iconic portico.
Now, while for some the museum may be a holdover from the days of the Empire, when antiquities like the Elgin Marbles were gained unfairly, it’s impossible not to be won over by the wealth of artefacts on display, and the scope of the civilisations covered.
Those marbles, the metope and frieze carvings from the Parthenon, are just some of the many stupendous exhibits, like the Rosetta Stone, lion hunt reliefs from Assyria, the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, the Sloane Astrolabe, a bust of Ramesses the Great, Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and an early depiction of Christ from the Hinton St Mary Mosaic.
2. Camden Town
Still one of the best places to go out in London, especially if you’re in your 20s, Camden has had a bit of a louche reputation since the punks set up shop in the late-1970s.
There are rakish dives aplenty in Camden, many in listed buildings that used to serve the canal or railway.
Most of the nightspots have a stage for live music, while long established venues like the Electric Ballroom, Koko, Dingwalls, Roundhouse, the Dublin Castle and the Camden Assembly (Barfly) welcomed your favourite acts before they made it big.
By day there’s shopping galore, which we’ll mention later, and hip, one-off eateries of all descriptions, from Argentine steakhouses to tapas, Brazilian and Tex-Mex.
3. British Library
Once a department of the British Museum, the British Library detached from that institution in 1973, moving into a gigantic complex on the Euston road.
This is the largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century, and is the largest national library in the world.
It has a copy of every book printed in the UK and Ireland, amounting to more than 14 million books, and a collection dating back more than 4,000 years.
For casual visitors there’s a line-up of riveting exhibitions to check out, most of which are free.
As the name suggests, the Treasures of the British Library presents some of the most valuable pieces in the archive, like Magna Carta, handwritten manuscripts by Handel, Chopin and Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, first editions by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
4. Hampstead Heath
On Camden Borough’s northern boundary is a rambling 350-acre common on a sandy ridge at one of the highest points in London.
Hampstead Heath is bounded by some of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the city, and joins to the grounds of the Georgian former stately home, Kenwood House.
You can visit the house to view an art collection that has pieces by Rembrandt, Turner and Gainsborough, and sculpture outside by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
But the biggest draw at Hampstead Heath is Parliament Hill, which has what most agree is the best view of London’s cityscape.
This vista is actually protected by law and takes in historic monuments lie St Paul’s and the Houses of Parliament, but also the forest of towers that has sprouted in the City of London and Canary Wharf.
Down the eastern boundary of the heath is a string of former reservoirs, three of which are open-air swimming pools, open every day of the year.
5. Highgate Cemetery
Also in the north of the borough is a cemetery noted for its many illustrious burials, masterful funerary monuments and its natural splendour.
Even though it’s a working cemetery, Highgate is open all year except Christmas.
To name just a handful of the interments, there’s Karl Marx, actor Bob Hoskins, painter Lucian Freud, architect Frank Matcham authors Douglas Adams and George Eliot and punk impresario Malcolm McLaren.
The East Cemetery, home to Marx’s tomb, is open for self-guided visits, but you have to book a tour to visit the West Cemetery, which is adorned with architectural ensembles like the Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon.
6. Sir John Soane’s Museum
At the townhouse home of the Neoclassical architect John Soane (1753-1837), this museum is more than a simple exhibition of his personal collections.
First-off, space is limited and only 90 people are allowed in at any time, so it pays to come early.
Beyond that, the museum has almost no labels, but there are knowledgeable attendants in every room who can fill you in on each exhibit.
An act of parliament passed in the 1830s requires the museum to be kept as it was when Soane lived here.
It is packed floor to ceiling with ancient antiquities like fragments of Roman mosaics, Roman glass, cinerary urns, Greek and Roman busts, as well as Chinese ceramics, Peruvian pottery and Medieval fragments from the Old Palace of Westminster.
There’s also a vast collection of Soane’s own architectural models and drawings, like his design for the Bank of England building.
7. Regent’s Park
One of London’s eight Royal Parks, Regent’s Park is 410 acres of mostly open lawns crossed by long and straight tree-lined walks.
At the centre within the ring road, the Inner Circle, is the formal and fastidiously tended Queen Mary’s Gardens.
You can rent the pedal boats at the Boating Lake and sip a coffee by the water at the Boathouse Cafe.
A lot of Regent’s Park splendour comes from the terraces of stucco townhouses framing the park on the south, east and much of the western edges.
These were drawn up by the feted architect and urban planner John Nash, and the exponent of Neoclassicism Decimus Barton.
The northern boundary is fringed by the Regent’s Canal and is home to London Zoo, both of which we’ll bring up below.
8. Primrose Hill
Cross the Prince Albert Road from Regent’s Park and you can scale this 65-metre rise for another fabulous perspective of the London skyline.
Primrose Hill is in open parkland, and from its viewpoint you can ponder the BT Tower in the foreground and the London Eye and Shard in the distance, while slightly to the east of these is the ever-growing cluster of high-rises in the City of London, like the Cheese Grater and the Gherkin.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Primrose Hill is just how peaceful it is.
9. London Zoo
In the northern fringe of Regent’s Park is London Zoo, which started out in 1828, not as a public attraction but as a site for zoological research.
The zoo received its first public visitors in 1847 and it remains a go-to for family excursions in London, holding almost 700 species in its 36 acres, and constantly investing in new enclosures.
Children will adore Penguin Beach and examining the creepy crawlies at the B.U.G.S. exhibition in the Millennium Conservation Centre, while the recent 2,500-square-metre Land of the Lions was landscaped to mimic the Gir Forest National Park in India.
When this article was written in 2018 a new colobus monkey walkthrough was in the pipeline, designed by Norman Foster’s firm.
This adds to the zoo’s array of architecturally significant buildings, which includes two Grade I and eight Grade II-listed monuments.
10. Regent’s Canal
This 8.6-mile waterway is an integral part of Camden’s townscape.
Opening in 1820, the Regent’s Canal was also designed by John Nash, and can be followed from Little Venice, where it meets the Grand Union Canal, to the Docklands, where it joins the Thames.
The Camden Lock is a twin manually operated lock, still functioning and busy with narrowboats in summer.
The old wharf is a good spot to hang out by the water at this time of year, and you can head off on a waterside walk through London on a route not many tourists take.
Cruises are available, normally starting at Little Venice, and you can also take kayak tours.
The London Canal Museum is in a Victorian ice warehouse on the Regent’s Canal at King’s Cross and deals with the history of London’s waterways, preserving an original ice well designed to store ice brought here from Norway.
11. Jewish Museum
London’s Jewish Museum moved to this townhouse in Camden Town in 1995, and reopened in 2010 following a large-scale refurbishment and enlargement.
The museum charts Jewish life in England over hundreds of years, with ceremonial artefacts like the Lindo Lamp, an 18th-century menorah (nine-branched candelabra), a stunning torah kept in a glass box and a synagogue ark carved in Venice in the 17th century.
There’s also moving testimony from Leon Greenman, a Auschwitz survivor who was born in Whitechapel but was caught up in the war after moving to Rotterdam just before it was invaded.
Short-term exhibitions focus on specific periods and personalities, like the influential 60s designer Michael Fish or the singer Amy Winehouse.
12. Grant Museum of Zoology
We’ll finish the list with a couple of unfrequented museums, the first of which is at University College London . The Grant Museum of Zoology is named for the zoologist and anatomist, Robert Edmund Grant, who set up the collection in 1828, making it one of the oldest in the UK. The exhibition is unapologetically old-school, with specimens, many in formaldehyde arranged in glass cabinets over two floors of an atmospheric old hall.
What makes this museum such a treasure is its exhibits of extinct animals, including the bones of a dodo, a skeleton of a quagga and a thylacine specimen.
There are also wonderful fossils, like an intact rhamphorhynchus pterosaur, as well as beautiful and high-detailed glass models of sea creatures produced by the celebrated 19th-century glass artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.
13. Keats House
For a man who died at 25, John Keats’ contribution to English language and culture is immense.
John Keats stayed at this charming Regency house in Keats Grove in the late-1810s, coinciding with the most productive years of his short career and his engagement to a neighbour Fanny Brawne.
While he was here, Keats wrote one his most remembered works, “Ode to a Nightingale”, supposedly under a plum tree in the garden.
The house was saved from demolition and opened to the public in 1925, and together with its 20th-century museum building has original manuscripts and Keats family artefacts.
There’s a film about Keats’ life in Hampstead, and you can compose your own poem and hear the Keats’ works recited.
14. Stables Market
Possibly the best place to go shopping in London for something out of the ordinary.
The Stables Market in Camden Town is a magical place, in the Grade II listed Pickfords stables and horse hospital.
This was all built for the horses pulling barges on the Regent’s Canal.
There’s cobblestone paving and stores tucked into stable blocks, old workshops, down horse tunnels and under the arches of a railway embankment.
The range is staggering, and may occupy a dedicated shopper for hours.
There’s clothing for almost any subculture you can think of, as well as retro curiosities like cameras, suitcases, rotary telephones and loads more.
15. Lock Market
When people talk about “Camden Market” they usually mean this spot on the Regent’s Canal.
This space used to be a timber yard for the TE Dingwalls shipbuilders, and over the past 45 years has been developed with an indoor hall and a glass and steel canopy, both matching the brick industrial architecture of the site.
The Lock Market has just been bought over, and is set to be updated into London’s arts and crafts hub.
Come for clothes, handicrafts, jewellery, artwork, vinyl, knitting patterns, yarn and fabrics, but also delicious international street food.
There are stalls and small eateries serving Jamaican jerk chicken, burritos, halloumi fries, churros, crêpes, falafel and vegetarian curries.