LONDON — I was having trouble picking up a Wi-Fi signal at the corner coffee shop. I sought help from the guy with the shaved head and angular glasses on the sofa across from me. He looked up from his laptop and explained that I had to buy a card from the cashier, then said, "I've seen you come in the past three mornings. Do you live around here?"

"Yes, sort of."

I could have been at one of my neighborhood coffee shops in Minneapolis — except everyone was speaking with an English accent and I paid for my Wi-Fi card with pounds. Also, my knight in shining pleather was named Clive, and he was talking to a guy named Nigel on his cell — er, "mobile."

I was visiting London, but I wasn't staying in a hotel. I was living in a townhouse around the corner. Sure, I might have gotten similar Internet aid if I'd stayed at a nearby hotel — it just would have come from another bleary traveler sitting next to me in the hotel's character-free coffee shop.

I wouldn't have walked out the front door of a private rowhouse every morning with the previous day's garbage tied up in a plastic deli bag to deposit in the bin outside. I wouldn't have waved to the woman next door while locking up (my fears of setting off the alarm by bungling the security code subsided after three test runs).

Renting an apartment in London can be a great alternative to expensive hotels; not only does it enrich the travel experience, but it's usually less expensive — especially when you shop at the local grocery and cook meals at home. You may be just visiting, but it feels like living there. And no neighborhood in London is better suited to a temporary going-native experience than Notting Hill, a hip-yet-homey neighborhood on the western border of the central city.

Carving a serpentine, crowd-dodging path down Portobello Road on a Sunday, I didn't think of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant from That Film. Instead, I tried to remember the lyrics to the old Cat Stevens song celebrating this street with all of its one-of-a-kind shops and pedestrians: Greeting strangers in Indian boots; Yellow ties and old brown suits. ... cuckoo clocks, and plastic socks; Lampshades of old antique leather; Nothing looks weird, not even a beard, or the boots made out of feathers.

Cat Stevens is now named Yusef Islam and has given up the world of pop-star excess for a more ascetic life. Notting Hill has changed, as well, in the opposite direction. The area has been yuppified to both good and ill effect.

The 2,000 stalls that line the long road on weekend market days, selling everything from tube socks to art and antiques, no longer offer the bargains of yore. These days you're at least as likely to encounter trustafarians (translation: rich kids sporting dreadlocks and a faux-impoverished attitude) as you are the offspring of the actual West Indian immigrants who moved to the area in the 1950s. You'd never know that in 1958, intense race riots ripped the neighborhood apart as white youths beat up newcomers and the phrase "Rackmanism" — named after a landlord who strong-armed exorbitant rent from immigrants — was coined.

On some streets, models of gentrification beckon from every other doorway. Just a block off Portobello's mish-mash of hip boutiques and scruffy street vendors is the tony Paul Smith flagship store, and there seems to be an overpriced organic-infantwear shop or holistic aromatherapy center like Neal's Yard Remedies around every corner. Yet the neighborhood retains an almost defiant commitment to individuality. Not a Banana Republic or H&M in sight (although there is one Starbucks). Instead, quirky stores and stalls with names such as Punkyfish, Rough Trade and Fussy Nation line the street.

One of the most desirable places to live in London, Notting Hill has become pretty pricey. But unlike the West End and other well-traveled sections of the inner city, it's still home to a lot of young urbanites. And a week at a rented apartment — with privacy, a working kitchen and at least twice the space of a hotel room — can still be found for much less than a week at a good hotel. A one-bedroom studio can be reserved for as little as $175 a night. Three-bedroom houses with garden access run from $2,000 a week and up. (Disclosure: I was lucky enough to have the free use of a friend's townhouse, complete with private garden. The superior experience prompted me to research rentals for future trips.)

Don't be fooled by tourist maps that consider Notting Hill too far from the action to be included within their borders. It crosses the Kensington and Chelsea boroughs on the west edge of the central city, within walking distance of Hyde Park, but skirts the hubbub of denser pockets.

While the aforementioned Starbucks has Wi-Fi access, I preferred the coffee and company of Kitchen & Pantry (14 Elgin Crescent), painted a bright apple-green on the outside, with a wood-and-leather denlike feel on the inside.

Across the street, neighborhood institution Mr. Christian's Deli (11 Elgin Crescent) provides tasty takeout fare. The wine bar Negozio Classica (283 Westbourne Grove) offers specials that make the currently weak dollar stretch further.

Notting Hill is best known for its carnival, a colorful music, parade and food fest with Caribbean roots that takes over every year in late August. Locals caution that coming for carnival is like being in New Orleans during Mardi Gras — hectic and surreal compared with other times of year.

There can be downsides to choosing a rental over a hotel. You're much more likely to meet with the unexpected, which is a plus for some travelers, but cause for stress in others. If you're felled by a nasty flu — as I was last January in a rented apartment on the Ile St. Louis in Paris — you'd better have a loyal friend to bring you chicken soup and decongestants, because there's no room service or concierge.

In the end, a vacation is never about how many sights you saw and checked off in the guidebook, but how being there felt — conversations overheard at the market, pleasantries exchanged with the rest of the morning laptop brigade at the coffeehouse, lunching in the garden behind your temporary home with birds rather than fellow tourists for company.

Renting in a residential neighborhood turns a vacation or business trip into a glimpse of everyday life in another country. Hotels bring you fresh towels and breakfast in bed, but they can't do that.


E-mail: ktillotson@startribune.com