London: A Cheapo guide to South Kensington’s hotels, restaurants and bars
London’s South Kensington neighborhood is a funny place. There’s no denying the excellence of attractions such as the museums, Hyde Park and the Royal Albert Hall. There are sweet mews streets and some gorgeous bits of architecture.
Unfortunately, the area is fully aware of its own charms and has pushed the prices up accordingly. With members of the British royal family frequently photographed emerging from South Kensington’s pubs and clubs, it’s obviously never going to be the cheapest part of town. However, as a base, the location alone means you should save on some transport costs, and there are still some bargains to be had, if you follow our Cheapo guide.
Where to Stay
65–67 Queen’s Gate SW7 5JS
Doubles from $121 to $152
Part of a small German chain, the Meininger takes all those Germanic clichés of efficiency and cleanliness and transfers them to a convenient location, just down the road from the magnificence of Hyde Park. The hotel offers both dorms and private rooms, with a mixture of private and shared bathrooms too.
Although perhaps lacking in some of the charms of a traditional B&B, that’s more than compensated for by the view in the rooms facing the Gothic splendour of the Natural History Museum.
easyHotel South Kensington
14 Lexham Gardens, W8 5JE
Doubles from $68 to $86
“A very small room” says the sign on the guest room door. And they’re not lying. The easyHotel makes no pretense to be anything other than what it is—a no frills hotel, with very small rooms, and with any extras coming at an additional cost. If you don’t begrudge paying for your breakfast, TV or Wi-Fi, on top of the basic super-cheapo room rate, the concept might appeal.
The hotel is housed within a gorgeous mansion, conveniently placed between Gloucester Road and Earls Court Tube stations, so at least you can aspire to South Kensington grandeur even if the size of the room and, thankfully, your bill say otherwise.
Where to Eat
Bute Street SW7 3EX
Here’s a slightly crazy fact: In terms of population, London is actually the sixth largest French city in the world. And South Kensington, with both the Lycée Francais Charles De Gaulle and the French Institute, is sometimes known as “Petite France”. The aptly named Raison D’Etre is a charming sandwich shop that could almost convince you that you were in Paris, located down the road from a French bookshop and a rotisserie.
You’ll probably have to fight off a few of the Lycée students to get a table, but it’s worth it for this shop’s hearty range of ciabatta, baguettes and focaccia – all around £5 – with a dazzling range of fresh fillings. There’s great coffee too, all topped off by the café’s eager-to-please service.
La Cave à Fromage
24–25 Cromwell Place SW7 2LD
Yes, more to be thankful to the French for. You can’t miss this one, not least because of its powerful aroma. Just around the corner from the South Kensington Tube, La Cave is a mecca for fromage fans. Primarily a specialty cheese shop, there are also simple wooden tables and chairs for customers to relax and sample the wares.
At lunchtime (and also in the evenings if there’s not an event going on), they serve up huge platters of, yes, cheese, but also freshly baked bread, cured meats and specially selected wines. You can stagger out, fully sated by some of life’s finest things, for around £10.
Al Arez 2
128 Brompton Road SW3 1JD
It defies logic but one of the area’s best cheap eats is situated opposite Harrods, one of the world’s most expensive department stores. Al Arez 2 (the original is on Edgware Road) is a canteen-style Lebanese restaurant whose three floors are always packed with devoted fans. Everything is extremely reasonably priced: It’s a challenge to spend over £10, no matter how hungry you are.
The biggest bargain has to be the wraps, costing between £3.25 and £3.50 each, filled with delicious shawarma, falafel or spicy sausage. The wraps are available to take away, but eat in to enjoy all the bread, olives and baklava extras that are standard with service.
Where to Drink
The Queen’s Arms
30 Queens Gate Mews SW7 5QL
Given its charming back streets and hidden corners, drinking in South Kensington isn’t the delightful experience it should be. In fact, its pubs fall into two disappointing categories: either really expensive or dingy, or—in quite a few places—both.
The Queen’s Arms is probably the closest to pub perfection in the neighborhood. It isn’t particularly cheap but its pricing is reasonable and, set on the corner of a mews street, the building itself is charming. There’s a wide range of lagers, ales and ciders available, and a traditional range of meals too. In fact, it’s got just about everything you’d want from a boozer. If you are going to splash out for a pint anywhere in the area, your pound will bring you the most pleasure here.
Imperial College Union Bar
Prince Consort Road SW7 2AZ
South Kensington is also home to the campus of Imperial College and the cheapest drinks in the area. They have a couple of bars that cater to the demands of their students including Union Bar, a quaint wood-paneled bar, with real ales, the University’s tankard collection and a large grassy area to sit out in on a sunny day.
So why isn’t it swarming with bargain-hunting tourists? Well, it’s only open to members of the Imperial College Student Union, so you can’t just walk in off the street. However, visiting students from abroad are lucky enough to be able to become an Associate Member. Membership is automatic for students at some American universities in London, such as the Boston University Academic Center, but any student can simply register at Imperial College reception to make the most of the cheapest catering facilities for miles around.
Natural History Museum (last Friday of month), Science Museum (last Wednesday of month), V&A Museum (last Friday of month)
The attraction here isn’t the cheap booze (you’ll need to head out of South Kensington for that), rather it’s the unexpected extras. Each of the major, and already free, museums in the neighborhood offers its own late night event, attracting a younger, cooler crowd to the area. The museums stay open into the evening, and the galleries are given over to pop-up bars, as well as free music and events. With open-mics taking place next to the dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum, screen-printing sessions at the Science Museum and live DJs at the Victoria & Albert, who needs to pay to head out to a nightclub?
Bonus: Charity Shops
With its affluent, well-heeled and well-read population, the charity shops around South Kensington offer some of the city’s best second-hand bargains, if you are prepared to rummage. Octavia and Trinity Hospice on Bute Street often contain catalogues from museum curators’ bookshelves and the nearby Christie’s auction house, while the British Red Cross on Old Church Street is stuffed full of famous names, whether that’s in the form of a Missoni jumper or a pair of Ferragamo shoes. It’s designer shopping without the guilt, or the hefty price tag, attached.
Be sure to check out our Cheapo guide to Soho and feel free to leave any questions or comments below.
Have a favorite spot in South Kensington to add to our list? Tell us about it in the comments section below!