It’s all about understatement in Britain. As an American in London, one of the first things I learned about fitting in is that self deprecation goes a lot farther than self aggrandizement, and what is unsaid is often more important than what’s stated aloud. This phenomenon extends beyond human interaction, revealing itself in the city’s neighborhoods as well. The best example of this is Hampstead, an unassuming little village in north London.
Hampstead is one of London’s most beautiful neighborhoods, not because it has movie star looks—although plenty of movie stars live here—but because of its subtle charm.
There are no major landmarks here, no big tourist attractions. It’s just a quiet local corner of the city that happens to be lovely despite its lack of showing off.
I lived in Hampstead for years, never growing tired of exploring its narrow cobbled streets. I peeled back the layers of hedges and history to discover its colorful houses, traditional pubs, and voracious gardens. I wrote extensively about the neighborhood in my first years in the city, and today I’m back to rediscover its beauty.
The best place to start a day in Hampstead is on the high street, just outside the tube station. It’s full of high-end boutiques and little cafes, with small passageways leading off it like so many roads less traveled. Delis like Melrose and Morgan have great picnic supplies for summer feasts on Hampstead Heath, one of London’s best parks, and cafes like Gail’s and Ginger & White are the perfect spots for coffee and cake.
On the other side of the high street is Flask Walk, a short pedestrianized street overflowing with eclectic antiques, bright flowers, and restaurant tables. It’s so sweet I want to give it a hug.
But it’s only when I get off the high street that Hampstead’s charm fully reveals itself. Old stone staircases lead up to out-of-the-way pubs like the Holly Bush, making me feel like I’ve stumbled upon something nobody’s ever found before.
Just around the corner, the hidden facade of Fenton House, one of Hampstead’s many little museums, is tucked away down a tree-lined walk. Around it are thick walls with velvet red roses kissing their bricks, and homes with stately names like the Admiral’s House.
Tiny churches fill the interstices between brightly colored doors, and the grays of historic tombstones show their shades under overgrown vines in the local cemetery.
Down Well Walk, one of the neighborhood’s most beloved streets, are more pubs like The Wells, which has great picnic tables for sunny days, and places like the Buttery Cafe at Burgh House, which has pretty garden tables. Beyond them lies the wild terrain of Hampstead Heath, where expansive views of London reward those willing to climb Parliament Hill.
But even the views are understated, the distance dwarfing the City’s skyscrapers and making St. Paul’s Cathedral look like a tiny toy. Because Hampstead knows how to do subtle, and that’s what makes it
ridiculously amazing lovely.