Here are some suggestions for unusual, interesting, quirky and 'hidden' places to visit in London which I've featured on this site. These should be of interest to Londoners as well as tourists and visitors!
Parks and squares
- Paternoster Square - just behind St Paul's Cathedral, a mini-monument and Elisabeth Frink sheep.
- Postman's Park - it seems to feature in every 'secret London' list, but is really worth a visit for the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice.
- Victoria Tower Gardens, right next to the Houses of Parliament, are home to a wonderful piece of Victoriana - the Buxton Memorial Fountain.
- Pelican feeding time is one of the more unusual attractions of St James's Park - and look out for Duck Island Cottage.
- St George's Gardens off Borough High Street incorporates an original wall from Marshalsea debtors' prison.
- Charlton House offers parkland, as well as a very lovely venue for a cup of tea.
- Hall Place, Bexley, has parkland, formal gardens and heraldic topiary - as well as a rather amazing Tudor house.
- All London's 'magnificent seven' cemeteries are worth a visit; Nunhead Cemetery is among the less well-known. It is open daily and offers regular guided tours.
- Ladywell Cemetery is a Victorian municipal cemetery, full of fascinating stories: look out for guided tours. Greenwich's Victorian maritime cemetery is now a park, East Greenwich Pleasaunce.
- Crystal Palace Park has dinosaurs lurking in the vegetation. Victorian dinosaurs, no less! Its other Victorian masterpiece, the subway, is open occasionally and hopes to open more in future.
- Kew Gardens may be one of London's best-known parks, but its Japanese Gateway has a surprising and thought-provoking history.
- Many of London's garden squares are private, but open to the public for Open Garden Squares weekend - you can see everything from a nursemaids' tunnel to Doric water pumps.
Transport and travel
- Croydon Airport - once London's main passenger airport, it now opens its museum once a month. You could combine a visit with a look at the remains of Croydon's atmospheric railway.
- If you're in Baker Street, have a look in the Lost Property Office windows.
- Piccadilly Circus underground station has a vintage world clock.
- Also on the Piccadilly Line, Barons Court is an Art Nouveau gem.
- By contrast, Chiswick Park shows the influence of European and modernist architecture on Charles Holden. Another Holden station, Oakwood, has a fascinating old sign.
- King's Cross Station has a lovely new extension - and the original facade has recently re-emerged.
- Blackfriars Station has also had a major revamp - but one piece of the past remains.
- Victoria Station has some vintage tiled maps, full of charming details (I would also suggest a look at Little Ben just outside). A smaller, local station full of Victorian appeal is Battersea Park.
- Right outside Tooting Broadway tube station is a splendid signpost that's also a lamp and a ventilation cover.
- London Transport Museum opens its Acton Depot stores several times a year. It also organises the Hidden London programme, which includes visits to the disused Down Street station, Clapham South Deep Level Shelter, Charing Cross's abandoned Jubilee Line platforms and construction tunnels, and abandoned corridors below Euston Station.
- On Westminster Bridge Road, see where the trains of the Necropolis Railway once departed.
- Royal Victoria Dock is now home to the Excel Centre, Siemens sustainability pavilion and one end of the cable car, but it also has plenty of historical interest.
- If public transport isn't your thing, you might like the custom and classic vehicles at London Motor Museum. Or one of London's oldest car parks - multistorey, with a lift, and still in operation - is just off Oxford Street.
- Even a short journey by lift has its risks: look out for this vintage alarm on New Bond Street!
Museums and galleries
- Here are five specialist museums and five one-person museums.
- Open only occasionally, 19 Princelet Street - a former Huguenot silkweaver's house and Victorian synagogue - is London's museum of immigration.
- Another occasional treat is the Sewing Machine Museum, open the first Saturday of every month.
- The Horniman Museum offers all sorts of exhibits, a basement aquarium, gardens, and a wonderful cast-iron conservatory.
- The Museum of Childhood features mosaics made by prisoners and a building which was originally part of the V&A - as well as lots of toys, of course. A less upbeat experience of childhood is explored at the Foundling Museum.
- Discover Hogarth's House - and statue, and local church - in Chiswick.
- There are links with Hogarth - and Shakespeare, and St John Ambulance, and the Crusades - at the Museum of the Order of St John, which covers a millennium of history in a Tudor gatehouse. Don't miss the related Grand Priory Church across the road.
- It's worth making an appointment to visit the Thames River Police Museum - although now part of the Metropolitan Police, this body pre-dates it by decades. Also open by appointment was the London Fire Brigade Museum, complete with fire engines - it's currently closed but should reopen in a few years.
- There's a little museum - one of the city's smallest - in one of London's oldest shops, Twining's tea.
- Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain's oldest public art gallery.
- At 18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington, the home of Victorian Punch cartoonist Linley Sambourne offers an enchanting mirror into the period.
- The National Maritime Museum is well-known, and has spectacular exhibits such as Prince Frederick's barge, but don't forget to see Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle while you're there. And don't miss the Queen's House, with its art collection and stunning Tulip Stairs. Also make sure to cross the road - the Old Royal Naval College's Painted Hall is a Baroque masterpiece, and conservation work currently allows you to get close to the painting.
- Visit Two Temple Place during its annual exhibition - not just for the showcasing of regional collections, but also for the amazing building.
- A very different building, the Grade-I listed modernist masterpiece that is home to the Royal College of Physicians, has a museum open on weekdays and a garden full of
- There's another modernist masterpiece in Hampstead - explore a story of celebrity chefs, spies, and plywood furniture at the Isokon Gallery.
Places of worship
- Sandy's Row Synagogue in Spitalfields, the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in London, has occasional openings. (There's also a curious door across the road and some bakery reliefs in nearby Widegate Street.)
- Westminster Cathedral (not to be confused with the Abbey) offers Byzantine-inspired architecture and a fine view over London.
- Newington Green Unitarian Church is London's oldest non-conformist place of worship still in use.
- More non-conformist history can be found at Wesley's Chapel, which shares its site with John Wesley's house and a museum of Methodism.
- City of London churches include St Botolph Without Aldersgate, at the entrance to Postman's Park. Don't confuse it with St Botolph Aldgate, with its fine memorial to Robert Dow - and fountain to Frederic David Mocatta outside. The sole Jacobean survivor in the Square Mile is St Katharine Cree, while St Mary Aldermary is Wren's only gothic church and St Mary Woolnoth is Hawksmoor's only City church.
- St Paul's Cathedral is a true London icon, but to really get to know it, take a Triforium Tour behind the scenes. It includes the geometric staircase (which is something of a film star), library, and Great Model. And while photography in the nave is generally strictly forbidden, those rules don't apply at the Cathedral's evening openings.
- Great St Bartholomew's is a former abbey church founded in 1123, full of traces of its long, complex history.
- Another former abbey church, whose crypt dates back to the eleventh century, is the Priory Church of the Order of St John. I'd recommend taking a guided tour from the nearby Museum which includes both buildings.
- Notre Dame de France is a French Catholic church just off Leicester Square, with impressive art including Cocteau murals.
- A few steps from Oxford Circus is the Gothic Revival splendour of All Saints, Margaret Street.
- From there, it's a short walk to London's last 'embassy chapel'.
- The Middlesex Hospital Chapel, aka Fitzrovia Chapel, is a hidden jewel which now opens to the public on Wednesdays, 11am-4pm.
- Humble but fascinating: the 'tin tabernacle' in Cambridge Avenue, Kilburn is open on Saturday afternoons. There's another in Shrubland Road, Hackney, although you can't go inside.
- The Thames Barrier has a park, cafe and visitor centre. It's particularly interesting to visit during the annual closure.
- Alongside the river at Greenwich, ceramic panels tell a Thames tale.
- Rotherhithe village offers a concentrated dose of history - not least the Mayflower pub, on the spot where the famous ship of the same name departed.
- Walk under the Thames in the Woolwich Foot Tunnel - you can return on the Woolwich Free Ferry. (You can also walk through Rotherhithe Tunnel, but I wouldn't recommend it.)
- Take a train through the Thames Tunnel, Marc Brunel's masterpiece of engineering; then find out more in the Brunel Museum. You might even get to hear a concert in the Thames Tunnel shaft - a new entrance has made access much easier since my visit!
- Alternatively, cross over Tower Bridge - and look out for its mortuary. If you can do one of its occasional engineering tours, jump at the chance!
- Or, simply walk along the foreshore at low tide (keeping a careful eye on the water level). Many parts are readily accessible, although Tower Beach is only open once a year.
|Kirkcaldy Testing Works|
- Crossness Pumping Station, a cathedral to sewage, is currently undergoing restoration but still opens on several days throughout the year.
- Smaller, but still well worth a visit, is the Markfield Beam Engine which once pumped Tottenham's sewage.
- Also on the sewage theme, take a look at London's last sewer gas lamp - next to the Savoy Hotel.
- Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which cast Big Ben, no longer offers tours as it's relocating - but you can still see the exterior.
- 'Facts not opinions' was the motto of the Kirkcaldy Testing Works, now a museum with regular open days.
- Take a boat trip through the Islington Tunnel on the Regent's Canal.
- How did wealthy industrialists spend their profits? See one answer at 'Bovril Castle', built by the inventor of the beef extract in Dulwich, and now a library and events venue.
|Wilton's Music Hall|
- Wilton's Music Hall, a Victorian original, still offers regular performances and a bar.
- If you can't afford to stay in the high Victorian splendour of the St Pancras Renaissance hotel, it's still worth trying to take a look inside to discover its past - and present.
- The Black Friar is London's only art nouveau pub, and a real treat.
- Outside Borough Market, the High Street holds plenty of reminders of the former hop trade here.
- Undeservedly little-known, the remains of a Roman villa and bath house can be visited under an office building in Billingsgate.
- Learn all about London with the treasures of Guildhall Library.
- Sands Films in Rotherhithe has occasional open days, and a weekly film club.
- See the Tower of London long after most visitors have gone home, and witness the ancient Ceremony of the Keys.
- St Bartholomew's Hospital has its own church, a charming courtyard, Sherlock connections, and its original poor boxes at the Henry VIII gate.
- One of the best views of London comes from a most unusual Wren building: the Monument. It's quite a climb, but you do get a certificate for completing it!
- Around the corner from Trafalgar Square, Craven Street is a little haven of eighteenth-century history with plenty of traces of former residents - not least Benjamin Franklin whose museum is here.
- At the other end of Pall Mall is London's only Art Nouveau memorial.
- Find out about the legal system at the Supreme Court.
- Eltham Palace is an arresting blend of mediaeval and Art Deco, set in attractive gardens.
- One of the National Trust's more unusual properties is Sutton House, Hackney: a mixture of Tudor house, 20th century squat, and modern community hub.
- Explore 1930s municipal modernism with a guided tour of Hornsey Town Hall.
- Visit an exhibit from the 1951 Festival of Britain - the Lansbury Estate, showpiece of post-war social housing. Contrast it with the striking 1930s social housing in Page Street, Pimlico.
- Much-maligned Croydon has some fine Victorian buildings, including WH Smith's.
- Don't miss the chance to use London's most elegant cashpoint.
Guides and tours
- Guided walks are one of the best ways to find new places, even in familiar areas. I discovered Grotto Passage thanks to Joanna Moncrieff of Westminster Walking, and some very fine ghost signs thanks to Pete Berthoud of Discovering London. Even that most tourist-y of events, the Changing of Guard, was more entertaining and interesting in the company of Fun London Tours.
- Book a guided tour of the Charterhouse, whose almshouses are still home to a number of 'brothers'. Its brand new museum is now open, too.
- Love it or hate it, you might also enjoy a tour of the Barbican's brutalist architecture. Other arts venues offer tours as well - the Theatre Royal Drury Lane regularly allows a fascinating look behind the scenes.
- It may take some planning, but a tour of one of the City guilds' company halls is always worthwhile - here are the Drapers, Stationers, Ironmongers, Skinners, Apothecaries, and Vintners.
- Daily events guides full of the unusual are offered by IanVisits (do sign up for his weekly email) and Londonist.
- Annual events include the extraordinary London Open House Weekend. On a smaller scale, but very worthwhile, is Croydon's heritage festival - visits might include the Elizabethan Whitgift Almshouses, the Arts and Crafts Adult School Hall, or historical, glamorous Airport.
- For fascinating events and visits (like this one to the Parliamentary Archives), monthly articles and competitions, and to meet fellow London history enthusiasts, I'd strongly recommend London Historians.