Culture and festive sparkle in Kensington

Heading to the capital this Christmas? Find top shops, museums, great hotels, eateries and a Royal palace too
Kensington Palace is beautiful at Christmas (photo: Historic Royal Palaces / SWNS)Kensington Palace is beautiful at Christmas (photo: Historic Royal Palaces / SWNS)
Kensington Palace is beautiful at Christmas (photo: Historic Royal Palaces / SWNS)

Cultural gems

From the days of Biba and Kensington Market in the swinging sixties, Kensington High Street has been a beacon for fashion. See how it all developed and celebrate innovative talent with a visit to the excellent Design Museum to take in the Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion exhibition. Highlights include the swan dress worn by Björk at the 2001 Oscars, and Sam Smith's inflatable latex suit from the BRIT Awards. There’s also an exhibition which chronicles the history of the skateboard from the 1950s to today.

Also on the High Street is Japan House where you can discover the best of Japan’s art and design and learn about the country’s culture. Its new exhibition is about the indigenous people of northern Japan and is called Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River.

Christmas at The Milestone (photo: Susannah Fields Photography)Christmas at The Milestone (photo: Susannah Fields Photography)
Christmas at The Milestone (photo: Susannah Fields Photography)
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We loved: Getting a new perspective on fashion design and learning so much more about Japan than we already knew. Fascinating.

Hidden London

Steps away from Kensington High Street are Leighton House and Sambourne House - the artist studio-homes of celebrated painter Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) and Punch magazine illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910). Find out about the lives and careers of these celebrities of the late Victoria era. What a fabulous way to see what lies behind the high street: tree lined-roads and a house of six floors all immaculately kept. The audio guide is a must to learn more.

We loved: Discovering these hidden gems that take you back as if in a time capsule to the Victorian era and, of course, the William Morris wallpaper!

The Rebel Exhibition at the Design Museum (photo: Studio Stagg)The Rebel Exhibition at the Design Museum (photo: Studio Stagg)
The Rebel Exhibition at the Design Museum (photo: Studio Stagg)

Shopping delights

The museums and Kensington Palace all have shops where you can buy some unique gifts, but also wander off along the charming side streets to discover some great individual shops. We were particularly impressed with Opportunity Kensington’s downloadable map. It allowed us to find everything easily. We could admire the Victorian architecture, displaying blue plaques galore, plus galleries, cafes, shops and pubs. Despite being in central London, Kensington, away from the High Street, has a lovely village atmosphere with lots of green spaces and charming squares.

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We loved: Pomegranate, a jewellery store in Kensington Square, which has superb designs made from ethically sourced Indian gemstones.

Where to eat

The drawing room at Leighton House (photo: Dirk Lindner)The drawing room at Leighton House (photo: Dirk Lindner)
The drawing room at Leighton House (photo: Dirk Lindner)

There are so many places to choose from, including Design Kitchen, the newly refurbished lounge-style space at the Design Museum. The Builders Arms has a great value three-course festive menu and the newly-opened pub The Holland has traditional choices. Eat lunch at the Ivy Kensington Brasserie in very stylish surroundings or in the bright and airy Origin restaurant overlooking Kensington Gardens.

Urban oasis Pascor offers modern Mediterranean tapas cooked on an open flame. Drop Kensington combines a wine shop and bar where you can have a drink and enjoy cheese and charcuterie. We ended our Kensington evening here and highly recommend it. Proprietors Carlos and Dom give everyone a warm welcome. They love to share their knowledge of the hundreds of wines on offer and Dom advised on some of their best sellers. He gained his expertise working in different sectors of the wine industry. Drop has a cool atmosphere and is a great place to hang out.

We loved: The Festive Afternoon Tea at the Milestone Hotel which was superb and rated among the best in London by food reviewers. It’s served in an elegant room with a portrait of Noël Coward keeping an eye on proceedings. It’s a Christmas twist on a traditional afternoon tea with an array of sandwiches, including turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Among the cakes and scones is hotel founder Mrs Bea Tollman’s signature cheesecake (£85pp, or £98 with Champagne. Served until January 2, but the hotel’s other very special afternoon teas are available all year round).

Where to stay

The Stables Bar at The Milestone (photo: The Red Carnation Hotel Collection)The Stables Bar at The Milestone (photo: The Red Carnation Hotel Collection)
The Stables Bar at The Milestone (photo: The Red Carnation Hotel Collection)
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Location, location, location! The Milestone Hotel & Residences is just a six-minute walk from Kensington High Street tube station and is directly opposite Kensington Palace with a superb view of the gardens. The family-owned hotel is pure five star luxury in an iconic red and white brick facade Grade II listed building. The original marble checkerboard floors, Victorian tiling, leaded windows and wood paneling all add to the historic atmosphere.

We loved: The very homely and welcoming feel to the hotel and the superbly attentive staff. The turn-down service is amazing – it made us feel special. We stayed in the Matisse Studio, which is everything you want in a room, spacious, gorgeous decoration and the bed of your dreams. The Health Club with its plunge pool, gymnasium and sauna is great after a hard day’s shopping and sightseeing.

Palace picture house

Kensington Palace’s Pavilion plays host to some of the best family Christmas films with its Luna Cinema’s 2023 programme. Elf, Love Actually – both of which are celebrating 20 years since their release – as well as The Holiday, Miracle on 34th Street and The Muppet Christmas Carol will be shown. There is a choice of seating, with refreshments available. The programme runs from from December 11 to 15. Book online at Prices start from £14.

Travel factsA stay in a Deluxe King Room at the Milestone Hotel and Residences is £565 per night, inclusive of tax and breakfast.

Find out more about the area by visiting Opportunity Kensington.

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