Notting Hill at carnival time
Colourful dancers at London's renowned Notting Hill carnival. (Alain Evrard / LPI)
The British capital’s top summer knees-up, a celebration of the local Caribbean community, has enlivened this part of town since the 1950s. During the end-of-August bank holiday, the neighbourhood featured in the Hugh Grant film Notting Hill explodes with reggae sound systems and Rastafarians smoking what one of Grant’s characters might call “wacky baccy”.
Also featuring calypso and soca, samba dancing, sassy costumes and animistic sculptures, the display of vibrant Caribbean culture attracts two million party animals to West London, making it one of the world's largest street festivals. A steel-band competition and Children's Day are among the events reflecting the city's multiculturalism and love of a good boogie.
It all climaxes on Monday with a 3-mile parade of floats and revellers in feathered headdresses, Lycra suits and other costumes not normally spotted on London's streets. Ravers can fuel themselves at stalls selling Jamaican patties, jerk chicken and curries.
Make sure you have deep pockets for your money - street crime is a feature of the weekend.
Notting Hill itself has become a prosperous suburb, but also slightly blander as bankers and lawyers have displaced the old guard from their increasingly valuable houses. Nevertheless, it's a cracking place to shop and eat and there's an appealingly nonconformist feel to the area, particularly during the Saturday market on Portobello Rd.
The market runs from Monday to Saturday, and sprawls most of the way from Notting Hill Gate to Westbourne Grove. It's the city's best for rummaging through antiques and curios, and for getting kitted out like a trendy Londoner.
The market changes character several times as it winds through Notting Hill. The south end is given over to antique stalls and shops, but north of Westbourne Grove, the emphasis shifts to food, homewares, ornaments, and designer and vintage clothing. There's some good stuff on sale, but don't expect to find many bargains.
Although Shoreditch is the undisputed capital of retro fashion, there's a growing scene around Notting Hill. The big advantage of shopping at this end of town is that the clothes that end up in retro stores bear the names of people like Vivienne Westwood, Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes. Try the following emporiums: Rellik has neatly displayed racks of 1960s, '70s and '80s glad rags. And Retro Clothing is an Aladdin's cave of retro, spread over five stores - this is how second-hand clothes were meant to be sold!
It's also been whispered that the coolest bars are found west of the city centre. Trailer Happiness, for example, embraces 1960s California kitsch, shagpile carpets and trashy trailer-park glamour. Try the Tiki cocktails and share a flaming volcano bowl of Zombie with a friend to ensure your evening goes off with a bang. The Windsor Castle is a memorable pub with oak partitions separating the original bars. The panels have tiny doors, so big drinkers will have trouble getting past the front bar. It also has one of the loveliest walled gardens of any pub in London. Thomas Paine (The Rights of Man writer) is rumoured to be buried in the cellar.
Meals are best served by one of a string of funky gastropubs along Westbourne Park Rd. Bumpkin styles itself as a "country brasserie", which translates to rotisserie chicken, grilled salmon, out-sized sirloin steaks and roasts. Also, Cow has been created by Tom Conran, son of design pioneer Sir Terence, and is designated as one of London's finest eateries within this laid-back gastropub. The bar menu runs to winkles, whelks and rock oysters, while the smarter upstairs restaurant serves meaty English fare, done with panache.
Just east of Notting Hill in Bayswater there's a string of good Asian restaurants along its main thoroughfare, Queensway.