There is an affluent North London neighbourhood on the fringes of Hampstead Heath with a curiously rural feel. With a larger number of millionaires residing here than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, Hampstead Village is the locale of choice for contemporary celebrities and socialites.
Nonetheless, the culture of Hampstead is far from what you might expect from a star-studded community. There is a pervasive feeling of tradition here — a sense of quiet. Nightlife in Hampstead is an old-fashioned English pub, rather than a slick industrial bar; residents live in Victorian carriage houses, not sky-piercing condominiums.
The aesthetic is traditional. The culture is intellectual. The name “Hampstead” is a direct translation of an Anglo-Saxon conglomerate of the words ham and stede, meaning “homestead.” The local community is so fiercely protective of the neighbourhood’s deep roots that McDonald’s fought for twelve years for the right to open a location on Hampstead High Street — only to see it closed down permanently in late 2013.
The heritage of this community is deeply artistic and intuitively progressive. If Hampstead’s present-day residents, famous and otherwise, reap the benefits of a private and quaint neighbourhood in the city, it is due in part to the sensitive minds of writers who once walked the same roads, drank at the same pubs, and wrote legendary novels in the same historic homes.
The subtle vibrancy of contemporary Hampstead was sown many centuries ago by literary and intellectual icons, including John Keats, D.H. Lawrence, George du Maurier, and H.G. Wells. The alleged lover of Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, also made his home here during Wilde’s infamous trial for homosexual behaviour in the 1890s.
Hampstead’s “blue plaques” — designators of historic homes — explain the significance of certain locations, and plenty of specifically curated collections are available for public viewing in museums.
These plaques, which date back to the 1860s, provide detailed information about specific buildings, attempting to thread the past with the present. They are intended to inspire newcomers to the area by reminding them of the cultural magnitude of many of Hampstead’s charming row houses, mansions, and gardens.
Equally magical and morbid, the Keats House, now a museum, stands as a testament to the legacy of a Romantic poet who produced his most famous work, Ode to a Nightingale, while seated underneath the plum tree in his garden. For tourists with a love of literature, this is probably the best-known spot in Hampstead. It is worth going just to see the collection of Keats’ original manuscripts — and the macabre copy of his death mask.
However, if you wish to experience Hampstead the way the locals do, you must dig a little deeper. Against a serene, leafy backdrop, the neighbourhood is teeming with upscale amenities. If it is a quiet trip to Hampstead that you seek, here are a few hidden gems you won’t find in traditional tourist guidebooks.
Ginger & White
This cozy café first opened its doors in 2009, and by 2011 the buzz was so wild that the owners realized they were going to need to move to a larger location. They set up shop at their current address in the NW3, applied for a liquor license, and began preparing mouthwatering pastries and quick eats to complement their locally roasted coffee drinks.
It is easy to see how remote workers, especially self-employed writers, would be drawn to a luxury coffeehouse in Hampstead, but the companionable and warm atmosphere has also made it a popular spot for young parents.
Over the past decade, Ginger & White has stood at the forefront of London’s rapidly developing coffee culture. It has become a comfortable and safe haunt for locals and tourists, giving it a unique and trendy vibe, simultaneously friendly and fast-paced.
Whether you are grabbing a coffee to-go before a summer walk in the Heath or camping out with your laptop for a few hours to finish an article, you’ll feel right at home at Ginger & White. Its flat whites are famous, and you’re unlikely to find more intricate latte art anywhere else in North London.
The Spaniards Inn
A well-kept local secret with a seriously impressive collection of wine, spirits, and brews, the Spaniards Inn is known for its relaxed and unpretentious vibe. The pub is located on Spaniards Road in the NW3, a prime central location surrounded on three sides by immense untouched greenery: Hampstead Heath to the south, Golders Hill Park to the west, and an array of golf courses to the north.
The natural location adds ambience to the quaint pub, which, as its name suggests, was once a rambling 16th-century inn providing food, refreshment, and comfort for those on the road. Today’s visitors to Hampstead often find themselves driven into the Spaniards Inn by the same longing to experience London off the beaten path.
The interior is as rustic as the neighbourhood is elegant. A roaring fireplace and wood panelling make this an idyllic location for holiday dining and catching up with friends and family. The diverse menu combines classic pub fare with modern cuisine — the Sunday roast is world-renowned. If you’re in search of drinks, there is a long list of exclusive cocktails and a chance to discover your new favourite craft beer.
A European tavern located at 30 Well Walk, the Wells is nestled directly in the shadow of the hilltop Heath. The interior was designed to fit the established mood of the ancient Georgian house, and both the upstairs dining room and elaborate sweeping bar on the ground floor are strikingly beautiful.
The Wells tends towards exclusivity and usually requires advanced booking, but on weekends and bank holidays its walk-in policy is much more relaxed. The Wells has an international appeal, with a keen eye on American culture; indeed, every Thanksgiving, the Wells caters to Hampstead’s many expats from across the pond with a delicious turkey dinner.
Lunch and dinner specials are casual yet tasteful, with offerings such as Granny Smith apple and walnut salad and mushroom risotto topped with crumbled goat cheese. You may wish to dine outdoors on the patio during the warmer months, when red flowers trail along the stone-grey brick wall and waitstaff encourage dogs to cool off with water bowls placed at a designated “doggy station.”