Few place names in the world carry quite the same cachet as Chelsea.
This area in West London has always been affluent, and in the 18th and 19th centuries even had a private road for the king, literally the King’s Road.
That was ordered by Charles II, who also founded the Royal Hospital Chelsea as a retirement home for army veterans in need.
The hospital’s residents, Chelsea Pensioners, show up often in British public life and attend Chelsea F.C. matches at Stamford Bridge.
For culture, Chelsea has two institutions committed to taking risks and promoting new talent at the Saatchi Gallery and Royal Court Theatre.
In May, the Chelsea Flower Show sets new trends in garden design and is an early landmark in the London social calendar.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Chelsea:
1. King’s Road
If you’re fascinated by British 20th-century fashion and pop culture then the King’s Road is a mile-long pilgrimage site.
The name refers to Charles II who had this former private road built in 1694 to link St James’s Palace with Fulham and on to Kew, and many of the houses on the street date to the early 18th century.
In the mid-1960s this artery was mod-central, and Mary Quant had a boutique, Bazaar here.
A decade later, SEX, run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, helped define the style of the punk movement.
Deep into the 21st century the King’s Road’s counterculture credentials have been consigned to the distant past, and the street is now for upmarket shopping and posh dining.
At no. 213 there’s a Blue Plaque commemorating one of England’s greatest directors, Carol Reed, who lived at this property for 30 years until his death in 1978.
2. Saatchi Gallery
A launchpad for the careers of dozens of important contemporary artists, the Saatchi gallery has bounced around several venues since it was founded in 1985. For the last decade it has been based at the Neoclassical Duke of York’s HQ (1801). The gallery is named for its founder and collector Charles Saatchi, and in the 80s, 90s and 2000s its exhibitions tracked his changing taste.
In the early 90s for instance, Saatchi suddenly sold most of his American art and invested in fresh British talent, exhibited in the “Young British Artists” shows, which helped put the likes of Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and (later) Tracey Emin on the map.
The gallery is for art deemed important right now, so its solo and group exhibitions help bring new UK artists to light and also hand London debuts to international artists yet to make their mark on these shores.
3. Chelsea Physic Garden
The oldest botanical garden in London is concealed by high brick walls next to the Thames.
This location was chosen for its southerly aspect and mild air currents by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673, as somewhere to grow medicinal plants.
The apothecaries would set off by barge to conduct plant-finding expeditions to find species that might treat illnesses, but also work as poisons! The garden has lots of noteworthy specimens, like the UK’s largest fruiting olive tree, possibly the world’s northernmost grapefruit tree growing outdoors and a rock garden, which is the oldest in the country to grow Alpine plants.
There are 5,000 individual plant species, arranged in plots like the Garden of Medicinal Plants, the Pharmaceutical Garden (laid out according to ailments), the Garden of World Medicine, the Garden of Edible and Useful Plants and the World Woodland Garden.
4. National Army Museum
The central museum for the British Army is right next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea and has just reopened after a £23.75m refit.
In five galleries – Soldier, Army, Battle, Society and Insight – the museum chronicles British military history, and changing perceptions of the Army, from the English Civil War in the 17th century to the present day.
The original Brutalist structure, purpose-built for the museum in 1971, has been altered to create an atrium and give the galleries more light.
The new layout allows more of the collection, as many as 2,500 pieces, to go on show.
Some of the many engaging artefacts are the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse, the cloak worn by the man who gave the order for the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (1854), the Duke of Wellington’s cloak and shrapnel from a battle in the Helmand Province in 2006.
5. Royal Court Theatre
On Sloane Square, the Royal Court Theatre is renowned for its new writing and contributions to worldwide contemporary theatre.
That tradition for the non-traditional goes back to 1956 when the English Stage Company opened at the Royal Court.
In 1973 the compact Upstairs venue staged the premiere of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Productions have become more left-field since current artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, took over in 2013, so you’re sure to see something at the leading edge of London culture.
In 2017, the Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, became the fastest selling play in the theatre’s history.
The Theatre Downstairs seats 380 while Upstairs has room for just 85. There’s also a Bar & Kitchen, mirroring the theatre’s creativity with its menu and decor, and also a hangout for cast, crew and playwrights.
6. Royal Hospital Chelsea
Founded under Charles II in 1682, the Royal Hospital as an institution was inspired by Les Invalides in Paris.
With architecture by Sir Christopher Wren, the hospital remains a retirement home and nursing home for 300 army veterans who have found themselves in a time of need.
The residents are known as Chelsea Pensioners and wear a blue uniform on the hospital grounds and an iconic scarlet uniform when they’re out on visits.
The on-site museum has an absorbing display of uniforms, documents and badges, as well as George Jones’ panorama of the Battle of Waterloo (1820), a reconstruction of a berth at the hospital and diorama of the complex as it would have looked in 1742. Book early for a tour of the hospital by a pensioner, taking in the Wren’s Baroque chapel, Great Hall and a gleaming contemporary statue of Charles II in the Middle Court (a centrepiece for the Chelsea Flower Show).
7. Carlyle’s House
The 19th-century philosopher and social commentator Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle, a noted woman of letters, lived at this Georgian terraced house, no. 24, Cheyne Row.
Thomas Carlyle passed away in 1881, and the house was opened to the public in 1895. Now owned by the National Trust, Carlyle’s House is much as it was in the 19th century and is decorated with the couple’s personal possessions, including portraits by Whistler and Helen Allingham.
So as well as offering a privileged look into the life of one of Victorian England’s most important thinkers, Carlyle’s house is a period residence suspended in time.
That goes for the compact walled garden to the rear, which has a fig tree from when the Carlyles lived here.
8. Battersea Park
Cross the Albert Bridge and you can visit this glorious 200-acre park, plotted in the 1850s.
This land was reclaimed from the Thames, and before becoming a park it was taken up by market gardens.
Feuding nobility would also come here to duel, most famously when the Duke of Wellington faced off against the Earl of Winchelsea in 1829 (both aimed their pistols away from each other). The London Peace Pagoda on the river was erected in 1985, while there’s a fleet of pedal boats and rowboats to hire on the boating lake in summer.
In a handsome four Victorian tower beside the lake is the Pumphouse Gallery, putting on thought-provoking contemporary art exhibitions.
And for families with small children there’s the Battersea Park Zoo, which has a surprising collection of exotic species like emperor tamarins, emus and eastern box turtles to go with its donkeys, pigs and ponies.
9. Chelsea Embankment
Between the Royal Hospital Chelsea in the north and Battersea Bridge in the south is the mile-long Chelsea Embankment, which changed the face of the riverfront forever when it was unveiled in 1874. The scenic bank painted by the likes of Canaletto, Turner and Whistler was gone forever, but the project, led by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was a necessity to protect against flooding, foul odours and diseases.
Heading along the river there are captivating views over to the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park, and you can escape from the traffic at the chain of gardens, laid out in the 1870s.
Next to Battersea Bridge is Crosby Hall (1466), the only Medieval city merchant house still standing in London.
This isn’t its original site, but was transferred here from Bishopsgate in 1910. The Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, once owned this building, and a scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III is set at this house.
10. Albert Bridge
Initially designed and built by Rowland Mason Ordish, the Albert Bridge (1873) – named for Victoria’s husband Prince Albert – is a hybrid of thee different bridge designs.
The first cable-stayed design proved to be structurally unsound, so suspension cables were installed in the 1880s.
Then in 1973 concrete piers were built underneath, turning the central span into a beam bridge.
The Albert Bridge retains its four Victorian toll houses, and is the only bridge in London to do so.
On these octagonal structures are 19th-century signs telling troops to break step, as marching in rhythm increased the danger of a collapse.
At night the bridge is a treat, illuminated by some 4,000 LEDs.
11. St Luke’s Church
Chelsea’s parish church was completed in 1824 and is one of the earliest pieces of Gothic Revival English architecture in London.
One glance and you may notice similarities to some Medieval Perpendicular monuments like King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, or Bath Abbey.
It’s a building of real grandeur, designed to fit 2,500 worshippers, and well worth seeing on the inside for its lofty vaults and galleries that extend for the length of the nave.
Charles Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, a Chelsea resident, at St Luke’s in 1836, just two days after the Pickwick Papers (his first success) was published.
In the north gallery hunt down the solemn marble monument to Lt-Col Henry Cadogan, killed at the Battle of Vittoria in 1813.
12. Brompton Cemetery
In the past few years this Grade I cemetery, one of London’s “Magnificent Seven”, has become a real visitor attraction.
Many of its buildings and monuments have been given a facelift, and there’s now a cafe and visitor centre.
Brompton Cemetery is the resting place of more than 200,000 people, and has more than 35,000 gravestones and monuments.
Among the many famous burials are the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and the Victorian physician John Snow, dubbed the father of epidemiology after cracking the cause of a cholera outbreak in 1853. The cemetery is arranged on a main avenue, flanked by arcades and leading to a domed Neoclassical chapel built in 1839.
13. Chelsea F. C.
The world-renowned club plays its home matches at the Archibald Leitch-designed Stamford Bridge.
If we’re being strict, Stamford Bridge is in Fulham, but it’s a comfortable walk on the Fulham Road or King’s Road.
As a club Chelsea are right in the middle of the greatest period in their history, having won the Champions League, the Europa League and the Premier League title (five times) in the 15 years up to 2018. You can learn all about these glittering achievements during the combined stadium tour and museum visit.
If you’re already a fan you’ll get chills walking the same halls as former greats like Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.
You can sit in the press room where Mourinho held court, or visit the dressing room to locate the shelves and seats now used by some of the game’s biggest stars like Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kanté.
14. Chelsea Flower Show
One of the world’s most feted horticultural events is held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea every May.
The inaugural flower show (then the Great Spring Show), took place in 1862, and the event moved to the hospital in the early 20th century.
The Chelsea Flower Show is on the royal calendar, and if you like to keep up with changing trends in garden design, this is the equivalent of a catwalk at Paris Fashion Week.
The world’s top gardeners vie for awards in five main categories and an array of special awards.
New plants often make their first appearance at this show, while older, forgotten varieties make their comebacks.
Attendance to the show is limited to 157,000 because of the of the small-ish 11-acre site.
So you’ll have to book your ticket as early as possible to avoid disappointment.
Eating out in Chelsea will never be an economical activity (unless you’re very well-off), but if you’re happy to push the boat out there’s a truly global selection of upmarket restaurants to choose from.
You can decide if you’d prefer contemporary Malay (Zheng), farm-to-table British cuisine (Rabbit), upscale Indian (TPH), Peruvian seafood (Chicama) or authentic Japanese (Kurobuta), and that’s just for starters.
Chelsea’s traditional pubs have mostly been poshed up in the last few decades, and are now gastropubs for upscale grub, artisanal gin and tonics, craft beer and first-rate wine.
The Chelsea Pensioner is one such establishment, but, being just two minutes from Stamford Bridge, can still feel like a proper London boozer on match days.