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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.