10) 10 a.m. Somers time
Squeezed between St. Pancras and Euston stations is the quiet, mostly residential neighborhood of Somers Town. Start with a walk through the Ossulston Estate. Completed not long before World War II, in the heart of what had once been known as the Somers Town slum, this homage to Viennese-style modernism has been described as one of London’s most architecturally important housing projects. Then stop outside 15 Phoenix Road, the former home of Henry Croft, the orphan, street sweeper and rat catcher behind the “Pearly Kings and Queens” — a uniquely London working-class tradition, still going strong, that involves charitable fund-raising, inherited titles and elaborately pearl-bedecked garb. Finally, rest your feet at the Somers Town Coffee House — a pub, despite the name, that feels as local as anything could in this cosmopolitan corner of town. An English breakfast, including vegan options, starts at £8.
11) 12 p.m. Mother tongue
If written culture has a center of gravity, it’s lurking somewhere in the stacks of the British Library. The collection — the world’s second largest — contains more than 170 million items. In terms of shelf space, it grows by five miles per year. Behind-the-scenes tours (£10; book online) finish in the Treasures Gallery, home to the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest surviving Bible to contain the complete New Testament; handwritten first drafts of Beatles lyrics; a ninth-century Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text, described as the “world’s earliest dated, printed book”; and Jane Austen’s desk. The library’s delightful shop has something for everyone on your list, including Literary London micro jigsaw puzzles (150 tiny pieces; £9.50) and ingenious stools and side tables made of recycled paper (from £25).
12) 2 p.m. “Fear contended with desire …”
Around Caledonian Road are numerous monuments to an older King’s Cross. Start outside the Scala, once London’s legendary “cinema of sin.” A filmmaker called it “a country club for criminals and lunatics,” while my friend recalls hauling shopping bags full of homemade popcorn to her first experiences of cult, horror and pioneering LGBT films here. Today the Scala houses a nightclub. Next up is the nonprofit Housmans Bookshop. Named for Laurence Housman — peace activist, suffragist and younger brother of the poet A.E. Housman — this haven for the anti-establishment opened in King’s Cross in 1959. Sections include “Trotsky,” “Gramsci” and “Anarchist Key Thinkers”; there’s a fine selection of books about King’s Cross and London, too. Finish at Drink, Shop & Do, an art, music, food and learning venue set up after the 2007-8 financial crisis to encourage creativity and community. Afternoon tea in this former adult entertainment store is £29. The neon “Adult & Erotica” sign is original, while the classes — recently, on how to bling your beret, paint watercolor portraits of dogs, or sculpt a clay version of Tina Turner — are all the proof you need that King’s Cross, like London, is never the same place twice.
King’s Cross is packed with accommodations, including the occasional canal houseboat on Airbnb (around £130) and the YHA London St. Pancras youth hostel on Euston Road (from £16 for a shared room).
Or splurge at the aptly named St. Pancras Renaissance. First opened as the Midland Grand Hotel in 1873, it reopened in 2011 after a comprehensive renovation. Now it’s one of the grandest hotels in London. After I win the lottery, I plan to sequester myself, Howard Hughes-like, in one of the double-height Chambers Suites which offer mesmerizing views right into the station (from £529).