South London rarely makes the itinerary of visitors. It’s very much worth your time to make a detour to these South London neighborhoods
When I told friends I was staying in Peckham, there were three responses:
- I’ve literally never heard of this supposed neighborhood
- Like in Only Fools and Horses?
- Isn’t that supposedly the hippest neighborhood in London?
While I’m not quite sure I trust CNN to identify hip neighborhoods, Peckham does have a decidedly hipster vibe.
Since I evaluate the world in comparison to NYC neighborhoods, Peckham reminds me of downtown Flatbush. You could swap Flatbush Ave for Rye Lane, Church Ave for Peckham Road, and Bellenden Road for Cortelyou.
Peckham first became a commercial centre as a way to avoid expensive London. The railway arrived in 1865 and it went from a tiny backwater to a suburb and Rye became a major shopping street.
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North Peckham Estate was an urban development project that was initially welcomed as a savior and quickly turned into a high-crime area. Much of it was redeveloped in the 90s and early 2000s. The estates fed the area’s underground arts and music scene.
EU funds have helped nurture the creative scene while reducing crime. The area remains one of the most diverse neighborhoods in London. Rye remains a great shopping (and people-watching) street, as do Peckham and Bellenden Roads.
Peckham was once part of Camberwell Parish, but today they’re adjacent neighborhoods that seem to blend into one another.
Places to work
Lumberjack might look crowded, but there’s more seating downstairs and in the back garden. It’s a lovely sunny spot populated by students and friendly locals.
Small White Elephant has a decidedly hippie vibe. If you can snag one of the few tables, you’ll be rewarded with delicious food and unusually good art on the walls. You’re encouraged to bring your pup.
Old Spike Roastery is too tiny to be an ideal place to work, but the coffee is exceptional, as are the doughnuts and the people watching.
Where to eat and drink
Peckham has no shortage of eateries, but don’t forget that some of the best food in Peckham is take-away only.
No. 67 Cafe is basically made for Instagram. It should come as no surprise, since it’s in an art gallery. This is the spot for brunch.
We were happy with the pizza at Theo’s, which was our first stop off the plane on our most recent trip. Bar Story and Gowlett will also provide you with artisanal pizza and beer.
If you’re staying long enough to not want to just eat out for every meal, the markets of Peckham are fantastic.
Things to do
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We loved exploring Nunhead Cemetery. Since it’s the only grand Victorian cemetery we’ve visited in London, it’s hard to know how much of the condition is the result of neglect and vandalism after the United Cemetery Company went bankrupt and how much is controlled neglect.
Everyone gushes about Frank’s Campari Bar, but this parking-lot rooftop hipster magnet is a summer-only attraction. The Bussey Building, aka CLF Art Cafe, has rooftop movies as well as art and dancing year round.
The Peckham Library was designed to be a neighborhood centerpiece and gets a lot of love from the design community.
The Peckhamplex is the place to go for cheap movies. The Montpelier also shows films.
Transit is easy. You can catch the train from Peckham Rye to London Bridge and Victoria. The London Overground stops at Denmark Hill and Peckham Rye.
The bus will have you in central London in 30 minutes, if you’re going that far, and most of the routes to Peckham are 24/7. It seemed like no matter where we were headed or coming back from, there was a direct bus.
If you feel like walking to London City, take Surrey Linear Canal Park. This follows the route of the old Grand Surrey Canal. The walk to the center of the city isn’t terribly long, but it’s a fairly dull one.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Best Western Peckham. It’s in a lovely old building in a spot close to everything Peckham has to offer, as well as a convenience store that’s open late. The decor is unfortunate. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many shades of green used in a single room before. While it certainly wasn’t the nicest (or quietest) hotel I’ve stayed in, it was perfectly comfortable and inexpensive.
Another option is the Victoria Inn, another practical and comfortable choice with a great restaurant downstairs.
Sydenham, Crystal Palace & Forest Hill
Our next spot in London was a place equidistant to these three charming neighborhoods. While Peckham is certainly the most hip, Sydenham still has lots to offer.
Sydenham and Sydenham Hill, now better known as Crystal Palace, are both traditionally wealthy neighborhoods. Sydenham Hill was renamed when the Crystal Palace was relocated from the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park to Crystal Palace Park.
The whole area was once covered in the Great North Wood, which is how Forest Hill got its name.
Places to work
Blue Mountain Cafe is a friendly neighborhood spot with both classic British and Jamaican fare. It’s also a spot where you’re welcome to nurse a coffee and enjoy their wifi. We weren’t in Sydenham long and we went here twice.
Brown and Green at the Station is a good spot to get a little work done on your way between the dinosaur park and the city. They have another location in the Crystal Palace triangle.
What to see
Crystal Palace Park is weird and wonderful, even if you’re not interested in their sports complex. The dinosaur park wasn’t quite as exciting as we’d hoped, but we should have thought more about the fact that they hailed from a time of terrible lizards.
The Horniman Museum is a personal collection turned museum. In addition to the impressive(ly weird) natural history collections and musical collections, there’s an aquarium and gardens. This is your chance to get a selfie with a walrus, don’t miss it.
The Crystal Palace Museum has a scale model of the famed Crystal Palace.
Sydenham is a bit further out, so be ready to pay for zone 3 or 4 or take the bus (and enjoy the sightseeing opportunity. While the trip into the city will take up to an hour, you won’t have to wait long to get moving, since the trains and busses run frequently. You can easily get direct service to nearly anywhere in London.