With nearly 2,000 years of history and a vibrant cultural life, London has much more to offer than just the usual big-ticket attractions. From temples to taxidermy and from museums to monsters, uncover the best unique, quirky and unusual things to do in the city.
The Line, which stretches from the fresh green spaces of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London down to The O2 in Greenwich, unveils a host of exciting public artworks along the Meridian Line. It’s the perfect way to get some exercise, see London’s waterways (you cross the Thames in a cable car at one point) and enjoy works by artists including Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley. The whole walk takes about two and a half hours, and there’s plenty to see along the way.
Blink and you’ll miss the water pump in Soho that helped to cure cholera. The water-borne disease caused mass fatalities in London, until local doctor John Snow traced an outbreak back to this pump in 1854. Before this, people believed cholera was transmitted through the air. Pop into the John Snow pub nearby to raise a pint to the good doctor.
London dates back nearly 2,000 years and was already a town before the Romans descended on Britain. They made it a fortified city and brought their mystical beliefs with them. The temple of one of their gods, Mithras, was discovered in 1954, and today the London Mithraeum has its own museum below Bloomberg’s European headquarters. The temple has been restored to look the way it did when it was first excavated, and is showcased in a presentation that uses lighting design, audio recordings and haze. Entrance is free but booking is essential.
The Attendant has a number of cafés in the city, but it’s the Fitzrovia one you’ll want to visit. In Victorian times the space was a public toilet, and the old urinals are now a main focal point of the interior (but don’t worry, they’ve been cleaned). The beautiful wrought-iron entrance is another reason to visit the café, which looks so authentic that baristas say they regularly have to turn away people who think it’s still a functioning public toilet.
East London’s psychedelic God’s Own Junkyard is a treasure trove for anybody fascinated by neon signs. The gallery, which is located on an industrial estate, contains everything from old Soho sex-shop signs to props used in fashion shoots. Walking around the colourful space is a truly cool experience; it’s one of the more Instagrammable places in London, and has its own café, The Rolling Scones Café. God’s Own Junkyard is only open at weekends and entrance is free.
It might look murky and you definitely wouldn’t want to fall in, but kayaking is a fun way to get up very close to the iconic London river. Kayaking London take out small groups every day around the Houses of Parliament or in Little Venice in Paddington.
Is it a shop? Or a gallery? Or a Victorian wormhole full of unusual curiosities in Hackney? Well, it’s all of those, and it’s where you can learn the art of taxidermy, should you wish to. Otherwise known as Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors, the Last Tuesday Society has an array of strange and quirky items to see, from skulls to dildos. Oh, and there’s a bar – you might be in need of a drink after taking this all in.
No one loves tea more than the Brits, right? London used to practically run on the stuff and the Twinings Café on the Strand has seen some changes since it opened in 1706. Twining was one of the first merchants to bring tea to the UK and it’s been providing the royal households with brews since 1837.
No, not the Tube. We’re thinking of the Postal Museum, which has brought back to life one of the railways that snaked under London. They were once used to deliver letters when there were two deliveries per day. The journey takes you from the former engineering depot of Mail Rail – the 100-year-old Post Office railway – into the original tunnels, and is combined with a theatrical experience.
East London has been a hotbed for some of the world’s best street artists for the last couple of decades. While street art comes and goes, the streets around Shoreditch and Hackney are awash with colour and life. If you’re not sure where to start, book a street-art tour.
The Clink Prison Museum, just off the South Bank, has a long history of locking people up. The clink (a nickname for ‘jail’) operated from the 12th to the 18th century. Today you are free to leave, but not before being shown round by actors in costume who bring the grisly past to life.
It’s Halloween all year round at the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, run by the charity Ministry of Stories, which encourages children to write. The shop has everything you could want – salt made from tears of sorrow, cubed earwax (fudge) and jars of daylight (a solar-cell LED light) – for ‘the monster in your life or afterlife’. A great place to visit if you want to find unusual gifts and support a good cause at the same time.
Visitors to ZSL London Zoo have the option of staying behind when the gates shut by booking an overnight experience in one of the venue’s new lodges. Guests will get an after-dark tour, a drink, dinner and exclusive experiences (there’s even an early-morning fry-up if you make it through the night).
London has a surprising number of outdoor pools and lidos that are perfect for both warm summer swims and brisk winter dips. Some of the best can be found on Hampstead Heath, where the bathing ponds and the lido are open for swimmers all year round. Taking in the wilderness in the middle of London with an early morning swim is a lovely, calm way to exercise and get back to nature. Opening and closing hours depend on the season, so make sure to check the website, but the ponds normally open at 7am.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum in South London is exactly what it sounds like. The charity showcases how surgeries were made before we had anaesthetics and antiseptics, and the attic space also houses herbs that were used for medicines. It’s a fascinating place to visit, and makes you very grateful for modern medicine. If you want to get a real feel for how operations were done in the 1800s, there are surgical demonstrations every weekend.
Escape the typical museum crowds and head for something a little more offbeat. London’s full of quirky museums, and the Leighton House Museum is certainly one of them. Once the home of Sir Frederic Leighton, it’s decorated in an Art Nouveau-meets-East style – complete over-the-top Victorian palatial folly.
The Magnificent Seven isn’t just a 1960s Western; it’s also the collective name of the seven large Victorian cemeteries dotted around London: Kensal Green Cemetery, West Norwood Cemetery, Highgate Cemetery, Abney Park Cemetery, Nunhead Cemetery, Brompton Cemetery and Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Originally introduced to help relieve the city’s small, overflowing burial grounds in the 19th century, today the cemeteries are beautifully overgrown and havens for wildlife. Choose one of them to walk around, and make sure to find out if anyone famous is buried there before visiting – Highgate Cemetery is where you’ll find Karl Marx’s grave.