There has been some sort of royal connection with this elegant area since shortly after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, and subsequent monarchs — most notably Queen Victoria and Prince Albert — have left their mark here.
The most visible royal symbol is Kensington Palace, today home to Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. Located at the western end of Kensington Gardens, the palace draws visitors who tour its public spaces and formal sunken garden before heading to the glass-enclosed Orangery for afternoon tea.
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If you plan to visit this year, you can also take in a special exhibition — Diana, Her Fashion Story — which traces the evolution of the late Princess of Wales’ fashion style, and features some of her iconic gowns (including the nifty blue velvet number she wore on a visit to the White House).
The palace, however, is only one of the attractions in the 265-acre park, one of eight royal parks in London. It’s also the site of the Memorial Playground, created to honor the memory of Diana; the Peter Pan Fountain; the Albert Memorial, and the Serpentine Gallery, a one-time tea pavilion, now a gallery of contemporary art.
Just across from Kensington Gardens is what many consider the greatest concert venue in the world — the Royal Albert Hall. Its stunning exterior boasts a mosaic frieze depicting “the Triumph of Arts and Sciences,” and the interior — with more than 5,000 seats and enough gold leaf and gilt to make Fort Knox green with envy — has to be seen to be believed.
If there is any attraction more popular than the palace, it’s the trio of museums that dominate the south Kensington landscape on what is described as the “Museum Mile.”
The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts, with a permanent collection of nearly 5 million objects; the Science Museum’s current exhibition “Robots” traces the shiny metallic creatures back 500 years (who knew medieval droids existed?); and the Natural History Museum, which showcases everything from butterflies to dinosaurs, endangered coral reefs to endangered Indian leopards.
A left turn onto Derry Street from Kensington High Street will take you to the nondescript Derry Building. Nondescript, except for what is 100 feet above street level — one of London’s most remarkable gardens. Begun in the 1930s, the 1½-acre Kensington Roof Gardens is divided into three sections.
The Spanish Garden is modeled after the one at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and features dancing fountains leading to a campanile tower with original mosaics. The Tudor Garden is perfumed by the scent of lavender and roses, as well as other plants that would have been plentiful in Tudor England. And the English Woodland Garden blooms with snowdrops, bluebells and crocus and has a grove of native trees, a stream and a garden pond.
The Gardens are owned by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, but unless there is a private function or a photo shoot, visitors are welcome to wander free of charge.