As posh as it gets in London, Kensington is about staggering wealth, boutiques, rows of elegant townhouses, a royal palace and lots of European embassies.
Kensington is also a cultural quarter extraordinaire, with three of the UK’s best museums on a single street.
The Natural History Museum and Victoria & Albert are world leaders in many fields.
The V&A is one element of what is sometimes called Albertopolis, a set of landmarks honouring Victoria’s husband Prince Albert who died young in 1861. The Royal Albert Hall is a splendid concert hall of international renown, and this faces Kensington Gardens’ ceremonious Albert Memorial.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kensington:
1. Victoria and Albert Museum
Paradise for people who love exquisite things, this museum showcases 5,000 years of decorative arts from Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa.
The V&A has some of the world’s finest and most comprehensive collections of jewellery, ironwork, costumes, sculpture, ceramics, silver, glass and printmaking.
The East Asian collections are the greatest in Europe, while the assortment of Islamic art is one of the largest in the Western World.
The museum’s muddle of corridors and galleries always leads to unexpected discoveries, and that might be a 15th-century Italian Cassone chest, an original Art Nouveau poster, an 18th-century bittern with ivory inlay, a Mannerist picture frame, a 16th-century four-poster bed, a painting by John Constable or a Bronze Age Irish collar.
The temporary shows are often indispensible, like 2018’s exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s personal possessions and diary from the Casa Azul.
2. Natural History Museum
The second in that trio of world-class museums in South Kensington opened in 1881 and is considered one of the world’s centres of natural history research.
The collection deals with mineralogy, entomology, botany, zoology and palaeontology.
Many of the NHM’s 80 million specimens are also historical artefacts as they were collected by the likes of Charles Darwin.
The building warrants a mention for its palatial Romanesque revival design, little natural-themed motifs and the stirring central hall.
For 112 years this was dominated by a 32-metre replica of a diplodocus, known as Dippy, but in 2018 Dippy set off on a tour around the country.
Now the centrepiece is a genuine skeleton of a young blue whale.
It’s not hard to fall under this museum’s spell, poring over 10,000-year-old lichens, numerous dinosaur fossils, agate grown in gas bubbles of molten lava, a first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, casts from Pompeii and so much more.
3. Science Museum
A day would never be enough to appreciate the full depth of the Science Museum.
In the 300,000 strong collection are epochal machines like Stephenson’s Rocket from 1829, Puffing Billy, the world’s oldest steam locomotive, and an operating example of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine.
The epic exhibits in spaces like the Energy Hall and Flight are only one facet of the Science Museum’s charm: Alongside historical scientific artefacts for anything from navigation to space exploration and medicine there’s also a world of interactivity.
For instance, Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery reveals the beauty of the maths and science that shape the world, with more than 50 amazing interactive stations, shows and demonstrations.
Also remember to keep an hour or so free for a 3D movie at the IMAX theatre.
4. Holland Park
For many people Holland Park (also the name of the surrounding area) is the greatest of London’s green spaces.
In 55.5 acres it’s the largest park in the borough, on the estate of the ruined Jacobean Holland House, which once welcomed the likes of Lord Byron and Benjamin Disraeli.
The park was bought by the London County Council in 1952, and the house’s facade became the refined backdrop for opera performances at the open-air Holland Park Theatre.
For some peace and reflection there are two Japanese gardens, one donated by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto in 1991, with a koi carp pond, bridge and waterfall.
The more recent garden was plotted as a memorial to the Fukushima earthquake in 2012. In the 19th century the second wife of the Resident Earl of Holland planted the first dahlia seeds to germinate successfully in England in this park.
5. Royal Albert Hall
A concert hall of regal proportions, the 5,272-seater Royal Albert was built in memory of Prince Albert and opened by Queen Victorian in 1871. This circular construction is in the Italian Renaissance style, with an immense metal dome above a terracotta frieze evoking the triumph of Art and Literature.
It would take forever to list the cultural luminaries and famous musicians who have passed through these doors in the last 150 years, but Richard Wagner conducted a series of eight concerts here in 1877, Sergei Rachmaninoff performed his Prelude in C-sharp minor in 1911 and Albert Einstein gave a lecture in 1933. Since 1895 the Royal Albert Hall has held the Proms, an eight-week summer season of orchestral concerts, concluding with a patriotic UK-themed last night on the second Saturday of September.
6. Kensington Gardens
What used to be the private grounds of Kensington Palace is a 270-acre green space divided from Hyde Park by the Serpentine Lake.
Long before William and Mary redesigned Kensington Palace, this had been a hunting ground for Henry VIII. Queen Caroline sequestered the gardens from Hyde Park in 1728 and a landscape garden was laid out by Henry Wise and Charles Bridgeman.
You can walk the stately plane avenues and bring little ones to the Diana Playground.
There’s bold contemporary art and design at the Serpentine Gallery, which we’ll come to later.
But the obligatory sight in front of the Royal Albert Hall is the Albert Memorial, Victoria’s memorial for her husband opened in 1872, 11 years after he passed away.
Under a rich Gothic Revival canopy by Sir George Gilbert Scott is a statue of the prince facing south towards the Royal Albert Hall.
7. Kensington Palace
A Royal Palace since the 17th century, Kensington Palace is a Jacobean mansion built in 1605 and then expanded by Christopher Wren after the property was purchased by William and Mary.
This is the official London residence for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan), to name just a few of its tenants.
You can go in to see the State Rooms, where there are exhibitions of paintings and treasures from the Royal Collection.
In 2018 there was a long-term exhibition with some of Diana, Princess of Wales’ most iconic outfits, as well as an intimate show about Queen Victoria.
This had privileged insights from her journal and a host of personal possessions, from childhood dolls to brilliant jewels gifted by Prince Albert.
8. Design Museum
Founded in 1989, the Design Museum moved to the former site of the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington in 2016, enriching an already vibrant cultural quarter.
The institute’s stupendous 1960s Modernist building was adapted as a space fit for a 21st-century museum.
On the impressive top floor you can view the museum’s permanent exhibition dedicated to design and architecture, recording the history of mass production.
Some highlights in the 3,000-piece collection are the Vespa, the Saarinen tulip chair, the Dieter Rams SK5 Phonosuper and the Singer sewing machine.
Recent temporary shows on the ground floor have delved into California’s mid-Century Modernism, 21st-century political campaign posters, Cartier watches and the history of Ferrari.
9. Serpentine Galleries
In Kensington Gardens there’s a pair of contemporary art galleries, the largest of which is housed in the park’s former tearoom, dating to the 1930s.
Since 1970 this has witnessed exhibitions by big names of modern and contemporary art like Andy Warhol, Henry Moore, Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst.
In 2013 the Serpentine Sackler Gallery opened five minutes’ away across the Serpentine Lake, at the former gunpowder magazine built in 1805. This has an extension designed by Zaha Hadid.
Another hallmark of the Serpentine Galleries is the Pavilion, a temporary summer structure designed each year by an international architect who has not yet completed a building in England.
Past architects include Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Olafur Eliasson, Oscar Niemeyer, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Liebeskind and Rem Koolhaas.
10. Leighton House Museum
At this “palace of art” you can enter the only purpose-built studio-house open to the public in the UK. The historical painter and sculptor Frederic, Lord Leighton, commissioned architect George Aitchison to design this complex in the 1860s, and extensions would continue over the next 30 years until the artist passed away.
The restrained exterior is composed of bright red Suffolk bricks, with corbels and lintels in Caen stone.
This may not prepare you for the interiors, which are lavish and filled with classical antiquities.
See the spectacular Arab Hall in an eastern extension, with a golden dome, intricate mosaics and vibrant Islamic tiles.
Then head up to Leighton’s cavernous painting studio, where he impressed guests like Queen Victoria, who visited in 1859.
If you have money to burn there’s no quicker place to spend it than Knightsbridge.
There’s not much to say about this opulent shopping district that isn’t universally known, but your first stops have to be the two feted luxury department stores, Harrods (1834) and Harvey Nichols (1831). Of course these are destinations for high-end fashion, cosmetics, and jewellery, but all this may be eclipsed by the epicurean delights of their respective food halls.
If you’re in town in the Advent season Harrods’ Christmas Grotto is a tradition going back to 1955, and the toy department, now on the 4th floor, is hands-on heaven for kids.
A fun fact about Harrods is that it had England’s first escalators, installed in 1898; passengers were offered a shot of brandy following their ordeal! The renowned classical music venue Cadogan Hall is in this neck of the woods, staging Saturday matinees and Monday chamber music concerts during the Proms.
12. Saatchi Gallery
Advertising mogul Charles Saatchi’s gallery has hopped around London since it opened in 1985, and has ended up at the Georgian Duke of York’s Headquarters on the King’s Road.
Starting out as the preserve of contemporary art aficionados, the Saatchi Gallery now puts on some of the most-visited art exhibitions in the capital.
Many of the artists featured in these free exhibitions have a low profile in the UK, both among audiences and dealers, so the curators could be described as arbiters of taste, providing a launch-pad for careers.
This was the case for the Young British Artists, led by Damien Hirst in the 1990s.
In summer 2018 the Known Unknowns showcased the work of a new generation, while Dancing with Colour was a selling exhibition of paintings by 20th-century artist Berenice Sydney.
13. Notting Hill
This area’s painted townhouses, little sidestreets and independent shops hit the big screen in the namesake movie with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.
Since then a slightly scruffy district just north of Kensington has become one of the capital’s most coveted addresses and another haunt of the ultra-rich.
It’s a far cry from the race riots of 1958, and the melting pot that produced the Notting Hill Carnival.
Now into its 6th decade, and one of the world’s largest street festivals, the carnival takes place across the August bank holiday.
The rest of the year you can come to poke around to see the Trellick Tower, an icon of Brutalist social housing, and England’s oldest purpose-built movie theatre at the Electric Cinema (1911).
14. Portobello Road Market
Brave the crowds on Saturdays for a half-mile-long antiques extravaganza on this storied street threading through Notting Hill.
Like almost everything on this list, Portobello Road, its Victorian terraces and blue doors are already burned into the world’s mind.
The street has been immortalised by Paddington Bear, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and of course Notting Hill (1999). The wares on offer range from invaluable decorative art to tatty odds and ends and obscure collectibles.
The southern Notting Hill side is on the pricier end of the spectrum, while there are vintage clothes and kitschy homewares to be found towards Ladbroke Grove.
Come on a Friday when things are less hectic, and stop for Jamaican burgers, tapas or Malay street food.
15. Kensington High Street
Another of London’s most treasured shopping areas, Kensington High Street still does a roaring trade, even after the gigantic Westfield mall was opened a few minutes away in Shepherd’s Bush in 2008. Here you have to mention the Whole Foods Market.
This American brand set up their organic superstore on the high street in 2007 and its collection of eateries offer stone-baked pizza, Asian-fusion noodles, high-quality tacos and sushi.
Atop of the Art Deco former Derry & Toms department store (1930) are the 1.5-acre Kensington Roof Gardens , a nightclub and restaurant with an English woodland garden, Tudor-style formal garden and a Spanish garden with Moorish flourishes based on Alhambra.
As of 2018 this space has closed after more than 35 years, but is expected to reopen before long.