With a history stretching all the way back to the Roman Empire, London has long been a city of neighborhoods, a sprawling patchwork of distinct areas that have grown up over the centuries, now woven together to create the diverse and eclectic British capital of today. And while the lure of top sites is strong—from the pageantry of the Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace to the soaring views from the London Eye—the real London is waiting to be discovered in these most visit-worthy neighborhoods.

Long overlooked by tourists, London’s working-class East End has been enjoying a 21st-century renaissance. Head to the Spitalfields area to sample a blend of old Cockney London, modern multiculturalism and bohemian flair—not to mention some of the city’s coolest shopping and tastiest restaurants.

The star of the neighborhood is one of London’s best markets, Old Spitalfields. Set within a colossal Victorian hall on a site used by sellers for nearly five centuries, today’s Old Spitalfields Market offers a wide mix of wares, from young designer fashions to eclectic home furnishings to art to antiques.

Over on the neighborhood’s east side, the Sunday-only Brick Lane Market offers an even quirkier selection of goods—from fine handmade crafts to granny’s old knickknacks and secondhand books. Wander along Brick Lane itself for lunch—the street is renowned for its assortment of “curry house” restaurants, thanks to a long-prominent local Bangladeshi community.

Insider tip: Just steps from Old Spitalfields Market is Poppie’s Fish & Chips, one of the city’s best options for Britain’s quintessential meal, in a wonderfully kitschy location reminiscent of classic East London.

Tucked neatly between Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, pretty Marylebone manages to meld big-city savvy with little-village charm. Full of lovely Georgian houses, cobbled streets and quirky upscale shops and restaurants, in recent years Marylebone has become one of the most desirable residential neighborhoods for London’s well-to-do.

The excellent Wallace Collection, housed in the lovely Marylebone townhome of the Marquesses of Hertford, showcases the incredible artworks amassed by the family, and includes masterpieces from Rembrandt and Rubens. Over on Baker Street, the fictional address of Sherlock Holmes is now home to a small museum bearing his name.

Marylebone’s best shopping can be found in the posh indie boutiques—such as Skandium home furnishings and the travel-focused Daunt Books—along Marylebone High Street, and on the even more fashionable Chiltern Street a bit west. More modest budgets will appreciate that Oxford Street, long one of London’s most popular shopping strips, with many large chain stores, forms Marylebone’s southern border.

Insider tip: Sunday’s Marylebone Farmers’ Market isn’t huge, but it’s one of the city’s best, featuring some 40 stalls of fresh produce, meat, dairy, poultry, fish, seafood, baked goods and flowers.

Here, London’s literary past and present collide. This area, still refined and erudite-feeling, was made famous by the cluster of interconnected, early 20th-century writers and thinkers (including Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster) who lived here and came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. Today, the neighborhood is filled with numerous bookshops and tranquil, writer-friendly garden squares.

Bloomsbury’s star attraction is the British Museum, the fifth-largest museum in the world. With a massive collection of some 8 million items that span human culture both temporally and geographically, it’s understandably the country’s most visited museum.

On Bloomsbury’s east side is the late 1830s home of Charles Dickens, where he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, and which is now the Charles Dickens Museum. More than just an homage to the writer’s life and works, it’s a fascinating glimpse into early Victorian London life.

Insider tip: Indulge your inner nerd at Skoob Books, which boasts an ever-rotating stock of some 55,000 second-hand titles on pretty much every subject imaginable.

Stretching two miles along the Thames from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge, South Bank is a pedestrian-friendly strip that’s loaded with top-notch entertainment options. What’s more, it boasts the city’s best views, both at ground level along the riverside and from high above via the London Eye (Europe’s tallest observation wheel)—and even higher from The Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building, where the viewing platform soars 800 feet above the city.

Wherever you travel in the British Isles, be sure to start your day with a proper English breakfast.

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South Bank’s superb cultural offerings include the massive Tate Modern, converted from an old power station into Britain’s national gallery of modern art. The district is also home to the Globe Theatre, rebuilt in 1997 near the spot where Shakespeare’s famous theater first opened four centuries earlier.

Insider tip: Save the hefty admission fees for The Shard’s viewing deck by grabbing a bite at glass-walled Aqua Shard restaurant on the 31st floor—only half as high, but still with gorgeous city vistas.

It’s hard not to get swept up in the buzz of Covent Garden, one of London’s most bustling and beloved tourist districts. At its heart is the lively Covent Garden Piazza, a centuries-old produce market reborn in recent decades as a traffic-free, cafe-lined shopping area. The Apple Market, a historic glass-ceilinged hall at the Piazza’s center, is filled with crafts, jewelry and art stalls. The smaller Jubilee Market to the south has more of a flea-market feel, with Mondays dedicated to antiques. Another big Piazza draw is its street performers, including classical opera singers, living statues, magicians and acrobats.

Just across the street looms the Royal Opera House, home to London’s esteemed Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies (booking ahead is highly recommended). Covent Garden also is a key part of London’s thriving West End theatre district—for discount tickets for many area performances, check out the TKTS booth in nearby Leicester Square.

Insider tip: For a more London-local experience, explore the blocks and shops around the famed Seven Dials corner—and don’t miss Neal’s Yard, a vibrantly colorful back alley courtyard.

If money’s no object—or you just want to pretend for a while that it isn’t—there’s no better place in London than Knightsbridge. From the iconic luxury of Harrods department store on Brompton Road to the even tonier boutiques, like Harvey Nichols and Tom Ford along Sloane Street, Knightsbridge is a fashion-lover’s paradise.

Hugging the top of Knightsbridge is sprawling Hyde Park, one of London’s largest green spaces, fantastic for an urban stroll. The Diana Memorial Fountain honors the late princess, who lived at Kensington Palace on the park’s west end (Prince William and his young family have also recently relocated here). The two Serpentine Galleries, straddling the lake of the same name at the park’s center, host outstanding contemporary art shows.

With a brand-new entrance hall, courtyard and exhibition space, the Victoria and Albert Museum (or just “the V&A” to locals) is the world’s largest decorative arts and design museum, featuring seven magnificent floors of sculpture, glass, textiles, ceramics, jewelry, furniture and more, spanning five millennia and as many continents. The V&A Cafe, aside from being the world’s oldest museum restaurant, is an ideal spot for afternoon tea.

Insider tip: Grab sushi with London’s VIPs—and, on occasion, celebs such as Beyonce and Kanye West—at Zuma, one of London’s best and buzziest Japanese restaurants.

Westminster is the stately seat of Britain’s government and monarchy. Perched proudly along the River Thames is the regal Palace of Westminster (or Houses of Parliament), home to British royals in medieval times, and today where both branches of the country’s legislature meet. There, in Elizabeth Tower, is one of the city’s most famous icons, Big Ben (though contrary to popular belief, Big Ben is not the tower’s clock but the great bell inside it).

Just a block away is beautiful Westminster Abbey, where every British monarch since 1066 has been crowned and many of the country’s most memorable royal ceremonies have taken place. At Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip live beyond public view, but many parts of their grand home are open to everyone, and the Changing the Guard outside the palace is always free.

Insider tip: Westminster Abbey is one of more than 60 attractions that allow free entry (and often fast-track entrance) with a London Pass, available in most major railway and Underground stations.

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