I spent an afternoon exploring Peckham, the London neighborhood that was just voted one of the coolest in the world — and I found 2 different communities living side-by-side

Rachel Hosie Peckham.JPG

  • Peckham, south London, is one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world in 2019.
  • That’s according to Time Out’s annual ranking, which places Peckham in 11th place, the highest scoring area in the UK.
  • Having never visited Peckham before, I set off to explore for an afternoon to try and find out why it’s so cool.
  • There was definitely a strong sense of community, but it seemed like two different ones side-by-side-
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I’ve lived in London for four years, but before this week, I’d never been to the city’s coolest neighborhood.

According to Time Out’s annual ranking of the world’s coolest neighborhood, Peckham in south London is the place to be.

While the top spot was taken by Arroios in Lisbon, Peckham was the highest entry from the UK, coming in at number 11.

Read more: The 25 coolest neighborhoods on the planet in 2018

The new ranking seemed like the perfect impetus to go and explore, so I hopped on a train (Peckham is only reachable by Overground train, rather than the Tube) to see what all the fuss was about.

Peckham Rye Station brings you out right into the hustle and bustle of Rye Lane.

Full of fast food chains, pound shops, and discount stores, it was immediately clear Peckham isn’t one of London’s wealthiest areas.

It’s not polished, but if you’re after cheap, colorful, and cheerful, you’re sorted.

I soon stumbled across the popular Peckhamplex, the area’s famously cheap cinema where tickets are, incredibly, just £4.99 ($6) all the time. I made a mental note to come back.

The cinema had a very retro feel, and I liked it.

The walls were covered in flyers advertising what was on, from gigs to screenings.

I wandered around the side of the building, following a walkway lined with colorful graffiti.

It was bright and leafy, and pleasantly calm compared to the busy madness of Rye Lane.

I soon found the entrance to Peckham Levels, which I’d heard a lot about.

Peckham Levels is the name of the floors above the cinema, and you have to climb up multiple flights of colorfully painted stairs to get there.

After going past a couple of private floors, I made it to the public area of Peckham Levels and emerged to find a huge space featuring bars, restaurants, working spaces, and more.

There were various different areas on the main floor, all decorated in a quirky manner.

There was a kids play area and skate ramp, too.

Trendy food stalls were cooking up delicious chicken burgers and mezze.

Being mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, it was pretty quiet, but there were a few people (largely millennials) working, chatting, and drinking.

One of the bars on the level struck me as pretty Instagrammable, complete with a disco ball and neon sign on the wall, and I imagined it would be a cool spot at night.

If you’re less basic, however, you might be more taken by the more traditional pub section.

Around every corner there seemed to be more surprises, like a hair salon.

I don’t know what the point of this colorful mirror wall is, but I like it.

There was even a bright yoga studio, which looked like a pretty nice place to take a class.

The entrance to the studio featured a healthy cafe serving up vegan food and drinks such as buckwheat pancakes, toasted seed bread with activated nut butter, kombucha, cold pressed juices, and turmeric lattes with black pepper, dates, and baobab. So far so trendy.

But when I ventured out of the building and back onto Rye Lane, the vibe was totally different.

It wasn’t entirely clear to me where the rest of the “cool” stuff was just yet.

Then I found the library, which had an interesting design — the building actually won the Stirling Prize for Architecture in 2000.

The leisure centre opposite looked entirely different, but I was starting to realize Peckham’s appeal. It’s an area of contrasts — half polished, modern, and trendy, and half rough around the ages, but full of character.

Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts drama school sits just behind the library, another modern building.

I came to the entrance of Burgess Park so went for a stroll down Surrey Canal Walk. The dappled walkway was lovely and peaceful in the early autumn sunshine, and I only wished I had more time to head further into the park.

Heading back into central Peckham, I walked down some residential streets. As with most areas of London, there’s a real mix of housing.

There are blocks of council housing, as well as some semi-detached homes with gardens.

I found Peckham High Street, which seemed similar to Rye Lane to me. Incredibly, it seems Queen Bey herself even has a store in Peckham. Who knew?

Everywhere I looked, there were bright pops of color, flavor, and lots of street art.

This is Peckham High Street, which seems to have resisted the gentrification that’s occurred in other areas of London.

There are lots of recognizable budget brands, like Burger King and KFC…

… As well as small independent cafes and restaurants, many of which served traditional Caribbean dishes like jollof rice with beans.

The buildings on the high street are actually very pretty, although I imagine living above all the nail salons, kebab shops, and fried chicken restaurants would get noisy.

I turned off the main street on to Bellenden Road, which was immediately way quieter. I walked past this sweet-looking, modern school.

And suddenly felt like I was somewhere entirely different altogether.

I found myself amongst grand, polished homes with well-manicured front gardens and expensive cars in the driveways. It was so peaceful.

The street had an almost Notting Hill-esque feel to it, and as I approached a series of shops and cafes, there was a very quaint village vibe.

I popped into a cute cafe called Anderson and Co, which had a selection of delectable looking treats on the counter — the staff insisted that it was actually only a fraction of the usual spread, as they were about to close for the day.

I crossed the road to find possibly the fanciest independent grocery store I’ve ever seen.

The shelves were lined with jars and packets of products by brands I’d never seen, as well as baked goods.

Fresh produce was all laid out in an artistic way.

As I wandered down the street, I passed a store selling grains, nuts, and seeds; another selling antique furniture; a retro style laundromat; and a branch of the small London pizza chain, Made of Dough (which I happen to know is delicious).

I popped into a stylish boutique, Form SE15, selling designer clothing, interiors, and gifts.

I then had a peek inside a pub called the Victoria. This wasn’t a run of the mill boozer, though — the food menu included crushed avocado and poached eggs on toasted sourdough; baked Camembert with chilli jam, toasted sesame seeds, and sourdough; and a sirloin steak sandwich with fried onions, watercress, and fries.

I asked the bartender what he thought made Peckham so special, and he told me he thinks it’s the homely vibe and the sense of community. However, as I mingled amongst the yummy mummies and their children, I couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy about how it seemed like a totally different community to what I’d seen on Rye Lane and the High Street.

There was still street art on Bellenden Road, but it wasn’t the rough graffiti I’d seen earlier on in my travels.

I wandered down a leafy side street off Bellenden Road and ventured back to the hustle and bustle of central Peckham.

It couldn’t have been further in appearance and vibe from the strange, bougie bubble of Bellenden Road.

The street was lined with African food stores, some of which were grilling meat outside, and it smelled delicious. They were also selling fruits and vegetables you don’t see in mainstream supermarkets, like plantain.

On Rye Lane, I found the entrance to the Bussey Building and climbed my way past the floors of offices and art spaces to the rooftop bar on the top.

I’d heard about the Bussey Rooftop Bar before, but hadn’t realized it was so beautiful. Covered in a canopy of colorful flowers with views of the London skyline, I loved the vibe.

There was a little chip shack catering for the inevitable munchies you get after a few drinks.

And naturally, a neon sign for the ‘gram.

On the other side of the building is the Rooftop Film Club, where movie-lovers can recline in deckchairs and enjoy films in the open air — provided they don’t get distracted by the views, that is.

The final stop on my Peckham afternoon tour was back to Peckhamplex — perhaps the most famous bar in the area is Frank’s on the roof of the building, but it didn’t open till 5 p.m. that day. To get there, you have to climb up yet more flights of stairs, but the staircase to Frank’s is an Insta-famous shade of bubblegum pink.

I couldn’t resist.

When I reached the top of the staircase, I found an art exhibition about gaming.

But I was there to find Frank’s. And it wasn’t what I was expecting. The bar was at the end of the rooftop, past a couple more outdoor art installations.

While the view was indeed wonderful (much like the one from the Bussey rooftop, which I could see), Frank’s was more rough around the edges than I’d expected.

It was pretty simple and unfussy, with rows of picnic tables, next to no decorative touches, a bar selling classic cocktails, and a little restaurant shack serving bar snacks, small plates, and some bigger meals.

While the industrial roughness of Frank’s is certainly some people’s cup of tea, my basic self couldn’t help but prefer the pretty, colorful vibe of the Bussey Rooftop bar.

As I left Peckham, I felt a little confused. While there’s undoubtedly a great sense of community in the area, I wondered if it’s all one community, or rather two communities which rub along side-by-side. 

What makes Peckham so cool is that it will cater to whatever you deem cool to mean, though — whether that’s authentic homemade Caribbean cuisine, industrial art exhibitions, or flower walls and neon signs, you’ll probably find what you’re after here.

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