A Guide to Fitzrovia, London

Avoid the hordes of tourists in London by spending a day in this off-the-beaten-path neighborhood
February 25, 2016Words by Nik SpellerPhotos by Matthew Pike

When we asked our friends at British menswear blog Buckets & Spades to whip up a guide to London, they countered with an even better idea — why focus on just one lesser-known neighborhood? So welcome to Fitzrovia, a square-mile patch of London that's packed with everything the city across the pond has to offer. 

London: it’s both fantastic and fantastically large. Not only that, as one of the greatest cities on Earth (yeah, we’re biased), it’s been written about from pillar to post and back again. So instead of the standard guide to the same old landmarks and well-trodden paths of England’s capital, we set ourselves a challenge and chose a different angle — exploring a single area, in detail, that most Londoners don’t even seem familiar with. After all, that’s what life’s about: finding adventures, even on your own doorstep.

Packed with loud high streets, quiet back streets, leafy parkland, and quaint squares, Fitzrovia is a square-mile microcosm of all that is great in London. Yet, even to born-and-bred Londoners, Fitzrovia is an unknown, forgotten, and overlooked part of the city. "Where’s that then?" they kept asking, showing a glint of recognition only if we named a bar, street, or store that they’d visited a good number of times. 

It’s fair enough. London is confusing. Google might show nice, neat divisions, but the areas of the city tend to blend, overlap, and swallow each other whole. Consequently, Fitzrovia suffers from an identity crisis, as it rubs shoulders with more famous areas of the city like Soho and Oxford Street, and because (aside from the drab BT Tower) it has little in the way of defining landmarks. 

So, early one blustery winter’s morning, we turned north from London’s ever-busy shopping Mecca, Oxford Street, to see what the seemingly quieter streets of Fitzrovia have to offer a visitor.

That’s what life’s about: finding adventures, even on your own doorstep.

The British Museum should be your first stop. We’ve used the lack of a clear boundary to our advantage here, as the museum is balanced on the edge of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury. But once you step inside and witness that breathtakingly high, glass-ceilinged atrium casting a dazzling blue glow across the crowds below, you’ll understand why it warrants the border bending.

Surprisingly, given its size, status, and reputation, the British Museum is tucked away behind a warren of Georgian townhouse-lined streets. This chiseled mountain of a building offers up incredible insight into humanity’s entire history. Sound grand? Sound impressive? It is. Seriously, you could spend a lifetime wandering the narrow rooms and narrower passages of this building and still not see all that’s on show.

Don’t dawdle, though. Instead, leave the museum and head to the eerily quiet Bedford Square. Here is a picture-perfect postcard of all that people imagine London to be: imposing black brick buildings, high wrought iron fences, huge red doors. It’s the set of Mary Poppins come to life and a great place for some classic car spotting — always a hit on Instagram.

While you’re here, take a quick a look inside Royal Mile Whiskies — an emporium of the most tempting scotches, bourbons, gins, and other spirits — and stop for a quick coffee at Store Street Espresso. Each place is a thirty-second walk from the square.

While the squares of Fitzrovia as usually empty, the main streets can be busy. It’s best to avoid the bright lights of Tottenham Court Road, filled as it is with high street chain stores. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but why not focus on the unique places Fitzrovia has to offer? DF Mexico definitely ticks that box. Tasty tacos and crunchy tortillas are served within a neon-painted discotheque of an interior, the colors of which almost mirror the never-ending stream of car lights flashing past the window.

Following lunch it’s usually coffee time. If it’s raining though — as London is known for — perhaps a mild beer in a warm pub is a better bet. Fitzrovia isn’t short of a classic English boozer or eight. None, though, come close to matching the Newman Arms for that dreaded cliche: rustic charm. Serving up beer and food from the far reaches of Cornwall, the Newman Arms has brought with it a serious dose of that West Country vibe. It’s a pub on a windswept moor, teleported to the centre of the city.

Continuing with the rural theme, nip across the road to Hobgoblin Music — a treasure trove of musical instruments, with a wall full of banjos and a basement full of harps — and then walk around the corner to Rivet & Hide, one of our favorite menswear stores. Here, North American and Japanese influences play out in an array of the world’s finest (and heaviest) denim. They also sell huge, beautifully ornate blankets crafted in Sweden.

Now it’s coffee time and you won’t need to go far. Not only does Fitzrovia offer a lot, but it does so within a few closely-knitted streets. It seems very en vogue, yet slightly pretentious to throw different stores together. Sharps Barber and Shop offer haircuts and coffee. They do both well, so we’ll let them off. On the coffee side, quiet booths, a stacked magazine rack, and friendly staff are always a strong combination. The obligatory coffee pic can also be enhanced by a couple of tiny coffee plants.

Wandering these small streets throws up some real gems.

Wandering these small streets throws up some real gems. The architecture is stunning and there always seems to be a new store to discover. The Movie Poster Art Gallery, with its original Star Wars: A New Hope poster on proud display in the window, caught our eye. Further north, towards the very end of Fitzrovia, we also stumbled across The Grant Museum of Zoology. Wow, what a place: single wood-paneled room, stuffed floor-to-ceiling with over 60,000 animal specimens. With skeletons, preserved heads, and more, the place might not be for the squeamish, but it’ll fascinate everyone else.

As the winter sun begins to descend, you should just have enough time to get to the corner of Regent’s Park and dodge the late-afternoon joggers, sprinters, and footballers with a brisk walk along the manicured pathways. The park connects Fitzrovia to bohemian Camden in the north and the affluent Maida Vale in the west. In the summer, it’s worth a longer walk, out towards the canals, London Zoo, and back again. For now, we stuck with a few choice art exhibits near the entrance, spotting a couple of celebrities on the way.

After dark, Fitzrovia isn’t done. There are restaurants galore, for every budget and every taste. A kebab at the popular Lebanese Yalla-Yalla, a breath of a sea air at Bonnie Gull Seafood Shack, a steak at Barnyard, or a quick and delicious pizza at Home Slice. It’s all here — you can’t go hungry and a good meal is just the ticket after the miles walked across this packed part of town.

Next time you’re in London — or indeed any city — take a moment and think about the lesser-known, more neglected areas of town before you go rushing to the biggest, boldest, and best-known tourist attractions. They might offer all you need without the crowds, queues, and higher prices. Fitzrovia did — and we’ll definitely be back. [H]

Nik Speller is a writer and influencer marketing consultant, based in London, England. Nik writes on men's lifestyle for Buckets and Spades and on food and drink for a range of other publications. He's keen on travel and loves to explore the less-trodden sides of different destinations.

 

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