Quirky and Unusual Things to Do in London

© Seb Braun / Culture Trip
© Seb Braun / Culture Trip

With a rich history and a buzzing cultural life, London has dozens of unique things to do and see tucked away – you just need to know where to look. From exploring ancient temples to wild swimming, these are the best quirky and unusual things to do in London.

Candlelit tour of an eccentric Victorian house

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BH1M3J Europe, Great Britain, England, London, Sir John Soane's Museum
Uncover a collection of historical curios at the Sir John Soane's Museum | © Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
Inside the curious Sir John Soane’s Museum you’ll find a lavish collection of classical paintings, sculptures and relics, all bizarrely jam-packed into a large terrace house, once home to the neo-classical architect it was named after. Sir John accumulated such a stash of historical oddities that a Private Act of Parliament had his home transformed into a museum upon his death in 1837. The museum is so crammed with artefacts, including a huge 3,000-year-old stone sarcophagus, that you’ll have to tread carefully to avoid upsetting a valuable piece of history. You can visit during the day, but for an extra-special treat, visit during a late opening, when the space is lit up by candlelight, Victorian style.

Take an outdoor art walk along The Line

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'Quantum Cloud' wire sculpture by Anthony Gormley
'Quantum Cloud' wire sculpture by Anthony Gormley can be seen on 'The Line' art walk in London | © Mo Peerbacus / Alamy Stock Photo

Already familiar with uber-trendy Hackney? If you want to explore a lesser-known corner of East London, take a walk along The Line, a sculpture trail that stretches across the Thames, from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford all the way down to The O2 Arena in Greenwich. There are 12 sculptures along the route by artists including Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley. Look out for the upside-down electricity pylon in Greenwich, and when you visit the 115m-tall ArcelorMittal Orbit tower in Stratford, be sure to ride the slide from top to bottom. The walk takes about three hours and roughly follows the Meridian Line. Both start points are easily accessed via the Tube network and it’s the perfect way to get some exercise and see the Thames, which you’ll cross via a dangling cable car.

Drink coffee in a Victorian toilet at the Attendant

Cafe, British, $$$
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The Attendant
The Attendant is a Victorian toilet that has been converted into a quirky café in Foley Street, London | © Martin Williams / Alamy Stock Photo

The Attendant has a number of cafes in the city, but the Fitzrovia is the one to visit. In Victorian times, the space was a public toilet, but 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.

Raise a glass to Dr John Snow in Soho

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Dr John Snow Pump
The original pump at this location was the source of a deadly cholera epidemic | © Nathaniel Noir / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Drop into a 300-year-old tea shop

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The Twinings Store, The Strand
Indulge in the Great British tradition of tea time at the Twinings Store on The Strand | © Steve Vidler / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

Tour an elaborate Victorian sewage works

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The colourful decorative ironwork of The Octagon at the Victorian Crossness Pumping Station, UK
The colourful decorative ironwork of The Octagon at the Victorian Crossness Pumping Station | © Nathaniel Noir / Alamy Stock Photo

Istanbul has its “basilica” Cistern; Paris has its sewer tours. To learn about the history of London’s plumbing, make sure you visit the Grade I-listed Crossness Pumping Station in south east London. After the Great Stink of 1858 – a summer when the smell of human excrement being dumped into the Thames became unbearable – the engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette proposed a radical solution: a London-wide sewage network powered by cutting-edge pumping technology. Aside from being a triumph of Victorian engineering, the site is an ornate marvel, with working pumps and wrought-iron decoration that has been carefully restored. To get there, catch the train from London Bridge to Abbey Wood, then walk 30 minutes north towards the Thames.

Explore a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras

Archaeological site, Museum
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London Mithraeum, Roman Temple, London
Explore the ancient Roman world of the English capital at the London Mithraeum | © Nick Harrison / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Bask in neon lights at God’s Own Junkyard

Art Gallery
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Gods Own Junkyard
God's Own Junkyard in Walthamstow dazzles with a collection of neon signs | © Roger Garfield / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Kayak on the Thames

Natural Feature, Sports Center
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Two canoeists on the River Thames in Teddington, London
Why not try a spot of canoeing on the River Thames? | © David Dixon / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Get spooky at the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies

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Hoxton Monster Supplies
You'll have a scream at Hoxton Monster Supplies | © Adam Gray / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

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.

Spot some of the world's best street art

Art Gallery
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Graffiti covered buildings on Bacon Street, just off Brick Lane
Graffiti covered buildings on Bacon Street, just off Brick Lane | © Mark Henderson / Alamy Stock Photo
East London has been a hotbed for some of the world’s best street artists for the past 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.

Nose round the oldest prison in England

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The Clink prison museum
Tour the gruesome past of a 12-century jail at The Clink | © Nando Machado / Alamy Stock Photo
The Clink Prison Museum, just off the South Bank near London Bridge, 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.

Swim in the open air at Hampstead Heath ponds

Swimming Pool, Park, Ruins, Natural Feature
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Hampstead Heath pond
Make a splash in Hampstead Heath ponds | © John Farnham / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Visit the oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe

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The Old Operating Theatre Museum
The Old Operating Theatre Museum shows how surgeries were done before anaesthetics and antiseptics | © Nathaniel Noir / Alamy Stock Photo

The Old Operating Theatre Museum, close to the Shard in London Bridge, 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.

Discover the historical graveyards The Magnificent Seven

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Highgate Cemetery
Find the grave of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery | © Rik Hamilton / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

Staying for the evening? Check out these cool and unusual bars in London.

These recommendations were updated on March 30, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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