Why go now?
This well-heeled London village, where mellow townhouses compete for space with high-end fashion stores, is blossoming. This week Chelsea welcomes the horticultural hordes to the grounds of the Royal Hospital (1) for the annual Flower Show (24-28 May; 0845 260 5000; rhs.org.uk). Even if you have not been lucky enough to secure a ticket for this sold-out event, summer is the ideal time to wander through elegant streets, browse the intriguing stores and enjoy some of London's best options for eating, drinking and culture. As the new TV reality show, Made in Chelsea, reveals, this is a millionaire's playground – but you are welcome to join in the fun.
The nearest airport is Heathrow, 15 miles west, and London City, 12 miles east. But thanks to its fast rail link to Victoria station (2), Gatwick (28 miles south) provides the easiest access from any of the capital's airports.
The nation's main hub for long-distance bus services, Victoria coach station (3), is on the eastern fringe of Chelsea.
Get your bearings
On the south-western edge of central London, Chelsea occupies the patch of land spreading north from a trio of bridges over the Thames: Chelsea, Albert and Battersea. To the east, it merges with Belgravia and to the west with Kensington. The main thoroughfare is the King's Road, once the royal fast track connecting the capital with Hampton Court. It begins its south-westward course at Sloane Square (4) – location for Chelsea's only Tube station. An excellent way to get around Chelsea is on Barclays Bikes, for which "docking stations" are dotted across the district. A credit card secures 24 hours worth of use for £1, so long as no rental is longer than 30 minutes.
Such is the selling power of the "Chelsea" label that it is attached to a number of hotels well outside the district, including a couple south of the river. One of relatively few genuine options is myhotel Chelsea (5) at 35 Ixworth Place (020-7225 7500; myhotels.com), which is the perfect place to enjoy the district's villagey atmosphere. The public areas are bright, with a colour spectrum that includes tangerine, lilac and plum. The individually styled rooms are not numbered, but named after herbs. The hotel has adopted our city-break brand to create a "Forty-Eight Hours" package comprising a two-night stay, on one of which you get a two-course meal in the mybar. Continental breakfast is included in the rate of £367 for two.
At the other end of Chelsea, the Orange Public House and Hotel (6) at 37 Pimlico Road (020-7881 9844; theorange.co.uk) has a highly regarded restaurant on the ground floor, and four spacious en-suite double rooms on the second floor. Two are priced at £185, and the other two at £205, including Wi-Fi but not breakfast.
In an area with soaring property prices, it is not surprising that budget options are thin on the ground. The best nearby option is the clean and well-run Meininger Hostel (7), occupying part of the Scouts' headquarters, Baden Powell House, at 65 Queen's Gate (020-7590 6910; meininger-hotels.com). A bed in a dorm costs £27, breakfast is £4.
Take a view
Sloane Square (4) is dominated by the glass-and-steel curves of the Peter Jones department store. While the retail offering may be conventional, the sixth-floor espresso bar has a spectacular view: over the chimneys and mansions of north Chelsea. It opens 9.30am-7pm daily (11am-5pm on Sundays).
King's Road is arguably the main retail thoroughfare for London, yet the most individual shops in Chelsea are away from this artery. John Sandoe Books (8) at 10 Blacklands Terrace (020-7589 9473; johnsandoe.com) is a whimsical store piled high with books; explore the first-floor travel section. Designer fashion outlets converge on Draycott Avenue and Walton Street, or pick up stylish bargains at the chic British Red Cross (9) charity shop at 67 Old Church Street (020-7376 7300).
Pimlico Road, in the east of Chelsea, is engagingly eclectic, with carpets and antiques vying for shop-window space with the delicacies at Daylesford Organic (10). On Saturdays, the produce on offer is augmented by a farmers' market in the square outside.
Lunch on the run
Daylesford (10) has an appealing (if pricey) café, or on a fine day you could of course assemble the ingredients for a picnic and enjoy it in the park outside the Saatchi Gallery (11).
Alternatively, lunch is a good time to see if the Orange Public House and Hotel (6) has a table; the wait to dine in the evening can be very long.
The Duke of York's former headquarters has had an illustrious past, and since 2008 has enjoyed a 21st century renaissance as venue for the Saatchi Gallery (11). The gallery (020-7823 2332; saatchi-gallery.co.uk) is closed until Friday (27 May) while the next exhibition is installed. The Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture sees the gallery filled, for the first time, with only three-dimensional works – from wrecked cars to granite monoliths. It opens 10am-6pm daily, admission is free.
Take a hike
The King's Road has long offered a fascinating mix of architectural styles and commercial premises, and a walk along the main stretch is always rewarding. At the top end near Sloane Square, chain couturiers have chased away the more individual stores, but further down some premises have been spectacularly reinvented. The Pheasantry (12) is a flamboyant mansion turned Pizza Express, with live music on most evenings. Across the road, the interestingly named cobbler, R. Soles, has some fetching sculptures above the shop.
Chelsea Town Hall (13) is a handsome municipal palace that has been the venue for celebrity weddings – including Marc Bolan but not, despite rumours, Paul McCartney. On the opposite side of the King's Road, Dovehouse Green (14) is a welcome open space – though dotted with tombs, since this was originally a graveyard.
Throw a loop left down Glebe Place, to witness the instant transformation from busy city street to a tranquil Mediterranean village.
Most impressive conversion of all is Bluebird (15) at No 350, where a garage of that name has been turned into a café, restaurant, delicatessen and fashion store (020-7559 1000; bluebird-restaurant.co.uk).
Bluebird (15) has an appealing outdoor area, but Chelsea has plenty of "proper" pubs along with the designer bars.
The friendliest of them all? The Queen's Head (16) at 25 Tryon Street (020-7589 0262) claims to be. The right-hand bar, as you face the pub, is mainly straight, while the left-hand is mainly gay.
Dining with the localsWhatever your budget, you can feast at the western end of the King's Road. Marco Pierre White has a Steakhouse (17) at 386 (020-7351 9997; kingsroadsteakhouseandgrill.org), with a three-course fixed-price menu for £27.50 featuring an 8oz ribeye. At No 273, the long-established Stockpot (18) will feed two hungry travellers and supply a carafe of wine for around the same amount.
Sunday morning: go to church
Officially, Chelsea's finest place of worship is known as Holy Trinity Sloane Square (19), but its scale and ambition are best summed up by Sir John Betjeman's description of it as "the Cathedral of the Arts & Crafts Movement". This late 19th-century response to industrialisation aimed to celebrate nature through artifice – best represented in the Great East Window, by Edward Burne-Jones.
Take a ride
Just along the King's Road you can pick up a Barclays bike from the stand at the top of Royal Avenue (20). Steer south along the avenue to the gates of the Royal Hospital Square, then turn left to follow the perimeter of the grounds, going right, left and right again into Chelsea Bridge Road. At No 104, Jerome K Jerome wrote Three Men in a Boat. Aim towards the chimneys of Battersea Power Station; the river is just yards away. Turn right on to the Chelsea Embankment, where you join National Cycle Network route 4 and are allowed to ride on the broad pavement, looking across to the Pagoda in Battersea Park.
Cross over to gaze at the multimillion-pound residences of the two halves of Cheyne Walk, then continue to Battersea Bridge and turn right along Beaufort Street. At the top, loop left around to the Moravian Burial Ground (21), a walled garden is where you can admire a tablet to the memory of Christian Renatus, "Count of Zinzendorf and Pottendorf". You should have enough time remaining to make for Chelsea Green (22), a village triangle with all manner of eating options – and a docking station in the middle.
Out to brunch
Tom's Kitchen (23) is close by at 27 Cale Street (020-7349 0202; tomskitchen.co.uk), offering a robust brunch menu at weekends from 10am to 4pm; eggs Benedict, £12. More exotic fare is available at Baity Kitchen (24) at 172 Walton Street (020-7584 6888; baitykitchen.com; 9am-8pm on Sundays), a Middle Eastern café with a beautiful back garden.
A walk in the park
Chelsea Physic Garden (25) was founded in 1673 to provide a supply of medicinal plants for physicians. Today, it still has row after row of strange flora, from wild tobacco to rare peonies. A microclimate – and some venerable greenhouses – assist with the cultivation. The café here provides coffee and delicious home-made cakes. The entrance is on Swan Walk; open noon-6pm on Sundays (noon-5pm from Tuesday to Friday), admission £8 including a guided tour (020-7352 5646; www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk).
The icing on the cake
Prize for the most spectacular building in Chelsea goes to Bibendum (26), a Michelin Tyre emporium turned high-class restaurant. Many original features remain, including motifs of the tyre firm's pumped-up mascot and exquisite tile work celebrating the joys of European motoring. Have a drink in the forecourt, then walk right around the building – which blends with the Conran Shop, in case you have not yet reached your credit limit.