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20 Under-the-Radar Things to Do in London

PHOTO: Mark Guest

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Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the British Museum are famous for good reason, and of course, they should be on any London visitor’s bucket list. But once you’ve checked off the major sights, it’s time to try the more unusual, unique, and extraordinary activities that London has to offer, from famous cemeteries and gourmet food markets to cabaret performances and canal boat rides. There’s even a bar on a carpark rooftop with some of the best views in the city.

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PHOTO: Keaton Chau
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Bar-Hop Along the Bermondsey Beer Mile

London is well-known for its drinking culture, and the Bermondsey Beer Mile makes for an intense lesson in some of London’s best craft beer. Nine independent craft breweries and bottle shops are housed in the old brick railway arches of Bermondsey, and their close proximity and the decision to synchronize opening times on Saturdays has led to the birth of the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Start at Four Pure Brewery in South Bermondsey with a half-pint of their thirst-quenching Juice Box before following the winding route towards Southwark Brewing Company, where it halts just short of Tower Bridge Road.

All nine stops on the mile might leave you asleep in your hotel room by 6 pm, so hit the highlights of Four Pure, Partizan Brewing, Brew by Numbers, and buy a keepsake from the legendary Kernel Brewery’s now takeaway-only bottle shop.

 

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Eat Your Way Through Maltby Street Market

While Borough Market is the most famous food market in the city and Broadway Market in Hackney is undoubtedly the hippest, Maltby Street Market might just be London’s most underappreciated weekend stop for exotic cuisine. Perhaps due to its compact size—a long narrow stretch of Bermondsey sidewalk sandwiched between railway arches—but Maltby even flies under the radar of some Londoners. Luckily this means fewer lines for the assorted stalls and shops that contribute to the weekly Saturday and Sunday events. From gourmet grilled cheese toasties to authentic jerk chicken, there’s enough variety to excite even the most jaded gourmand. Other highlights include the incredible doughnuts of St. John (fresh from the bakery on the edge of the market), a classic salt beef sandwich from Monty’s Deli, and a pav bhaji from Devi’s.

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Explore the Famous Graves of Highgate Cemetery

For a unique way to enjoy some peace and quiet within the metropolis, check out London’s Victorian cemeteries. Known informally as the “Magnificent Seven”, the city’s seven 19th century cemeteries were part of a societal trend of visiting cemeteries for peace and relaxation rather than as a duty to pay respects to departed loved ones.

Highgate Cemetery is the most famous of the Magnificent Seven and modern Londoners have carried on the traditions of the Victorians, exploring its flora and fauna and finding an appealingly atmospheric—not to mention beautiful—place to wander. Admission to the East Cemetery, where graves of Karl Marx, Malcolm McClaren, and George Eliot can be found, costs £4, while the catacombs, monuments, and mausoleums of the West Cemetery are accessible by guided tour only (£12 for adults).

 

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Go on a Shopping Spree at a Flea Market

Located in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Peckham, Copeland Park is more than just host to South London’s largest indoor vintage market; it’s also home to a community of vibrant, independent businesses. The roughly bi-monthly Peckham Salvage Yard flea market is the place to source mid-century furniture, vintage fashion, retro records, and endless bric-a-brac across a whole weekend.

When you’re done with the vintage maps, second-hand books, and French workwear of the market, stop in at The Nines for a relaxed cocktail or eat a full Italian meal at Oi Spaghetti, the cutest restaurant you’ll ever see.

 

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Watch the Sunset With Cocktails on Top of a Carpark

There’s no shortage of places to find a bar with great views in London (The Shard and Tate Modern both have bars that provide excellent photo opportunities), but if you’re willing to travel deep into south London, a bar on the 10th level of a multi-story car park awaits. Climb the florescent pink staircase to the very top (there’s no elevator) and the ramshackle structure of Frank’s Café opens out before you, offering up drinks, snacks, and the main event: a killer view. The sweeping panorama features the Gherkin, the London Eye, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and might just be the best place in the city to see the sun set across the London skyline.

INSIDER TIPFrank’s is an annual seasonal pop-up that runs May through September. 

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PHOTO: Rndmst | Dreamstime.com
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Take a Stroll Along Regents Canal

London’s canal network might not be quite as famous or as sprawling as some of its European counterparts, but what it lacks in notoriety and size, it makes up for in hipness. Dotted with stylish cafés, pubs, breweries, and one whimsical floating bookshop (Words on the Water), the length of the Regents Canal between Angel and Hackney Wick is an ideal way to explore the East End. For the full tour, start in Angel and make the roughly two-and-a-half hour walk to Hackney Wick where the pizza and microbrewed beer of the Crate Brewery provide a nice reward for all that walking.

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PHOTO: Petersham Nurseries
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Get a Green Thumb at Petersham Nurseries

London is a fast-paced city that stops for no one, so naturally Londoners have their ways of escaping the buzz, especially when even the city’s parks get too crowded. Petersham Nurseries is one such place, a combination of country garden, plant nursery, and restaurant located in leafy Richmond in west London. Rows of flowers and plants fill the aisles to create a calm oasis, with an award-winning restaurant at the middle of it all, an idyllic spot for lunch in the summer months.

INSIDER TIPSpend a full day outdoors with a visit to neighboring Richmond Park, where deer roam free in one of London’s most regal Royal Parks.

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See the Best of Brutalist London at the Barbican

Long before the Brutalist revival, the Barbican Centre was voted London’s ugliest building, underappreciated thanks to its divisive blocky and grey façade, which many see as too foreboding a structure. Having recently enjoyed something of a renaissance, it’s now acceptable to enjoy the bold, rigid lines of this Brutalist masterpiece, which houses Europe’s largest performing arts center. With a cinema, theater, library, and exhibition spaces, the Barbican Centre is a haven of creativity and artistic expression where visitors can find anything from classical concerts and avant-garde pop performances to cult movies and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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Experience How Londoners Used to Live

A museum of many facets, the 1714 Geffrye Museum in Hoxton is a nostalgic exploration of home life through the ages from 1600 to the present day. Preserved rooms fill the quaint building, presenting a collection of interior design that might just offer some inspiration for that 1745 parlor you’ve been dreaming about. Beyond the parlor, there’s a recreated living room from 1935, an 1890 drawing room, and a 1630 hallway; there’s even a display of a 1998 loft-style apartment for contemporary design fans.

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Meet London’s Most Famous Walrus at the Horniman Museum

A resident of the Horniman Museum for over a century, London’s favorite walrus is a taxidermy specimen who doesn’t quite live up to his real-life counterparts. Prepared in the 19th century when taxidermists didn’t have the luxury of the Internet for reference, the lovingly idiosyncratic and overstuffed walrus is synonymous with this charming natural history museum that sits at the top of Forest Hill. Full of educational and evocative pieces, the permanent collection features everything from ancient tribal art to manmade mermaids. After visiting the museum and aquarium, take in the beautifully manicured gardens and the views over London.

INSIDER TIPThe gardens’ official closing time is sunset, which makes it well worth sticking around to see the sun go down over the city.

 

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Visit the Victoria and Albert Museum After-Hours

London’s museum of decorative arts and design is the largest of its kind, with a collection that features an eclectic permanent collection to support its annual blockbuster exhibitions. Think Balenciaga’s ball gowns, 16th-century marble sculptures, John Constable paintings, and a Buddha stone head that dates back to the 4th century. The V&A Museum was also one of the first museums in London to host regular after-hours events. The Friday Lates series runs on the last Friday of every month, when DJs, pop-up cocktail bars, artists, and designers help create one of the best free nights out in town.

INSIDER TIPA piece of beauty all of its own, the William Morris-designed Green Dining Room is the perfect spot to stop for tea and cake surrounded by Victorian masterpieces.

 

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See an Old-School Cabaret Show at the World’s Oldest Music Hall

Once one of London’s best kept secrets, Wilton’s Music Hall is fresh from a four-year renovation that has brought the evocative building back to its former glory. Built in 1859, a visit to Wilton’s rewards on two fronts. First, there’s the beautiful architecture of the vaulted ceilings, rustic brickwork, and original timber beams. But then there’s also the entertainment; alongside theater, classical music performances, and piano concertos, there’s the timeless fun of cabaret. Extravagant characters, Cockney sing-alongs, and comedy bring back the Blitz spirit and represent the bawdy music hall performances of old.

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Swing-Dance in a 1950s Ballroom

The last remaining intact ballroom of its kind in London, Rivoli Ballroom and its barrel-vaulted auditorium first began hosting dances in the 1950s and since then, there has been little deviation from its sumptuous interior décor, where walls are clad in red velvet paneling and ceilings are draped in crystal chandeliers. Cabaret night Rouges host ’60s, ’70s and ’80s revival nights on the fourth Saturday of every month, but it’s the Jive Party on the third Saturday of the month that provides the chance to jitterbug around the ballroom to the sounds of a live swing band.

http://simpsonsinthestrand.co.uk www.jamesbedford.com
PHOTO: James Bedford
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Eat the Most Regal Roast Dinner in London

If there’s one thing more British than fish and chips, it’s the famous Sunday roast dinner and nowhere in London does a meal feel more akin to a historic event than at Simpson’s in the Strand. Opened in 1848, the restaurant’s famous patrons have included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, and Vincent van Gogh, who, like everybody else, visited for the glorious roast beef. Wheeled around the oak-paneled dining room on its own trolley, this prima donna beef is hidden beneath a jumbo silver cloche before being carved tableside. Served with the classic trimmings of roast potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and plenty of gravy, a Sunday spent at Simpson’s is an unforgettable ritual.

INSIDER TIPThose who look on enviously at the skill of the meat-carvers at Simpson’s can learn the art themselves at Simpson’s Carving Class for One.

 

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See Contemporary Theater (Not in West End)

While the city’s West End hosts the biggest theaters with the most famous plays, there are plenty of spaces in London to see contemporary performances at a fraction of the price. The intimate Donmar Warehouse is a nonprofit performance space in the heart of Covent Garden that produces some of the city’s finest and freshest work, with subsidized tickets available to encourage a young and diverse audience. South of the river, the Young Vic is another space dedicated to appealing to younger audiences with relevant stories that play out in the stylish theater on The Cut. In the East End, the Arcola Theatre is one of London’s most iconic off-West End theaters, and pairs established writers and directors with cutting-edge work in its dual performance spaces.

 

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Travel on the Venice Canals

There are no gondolas, but the affectionately named neighborhood of Little Venice has plenty of narrow boats, waterside cafés, and independent shops to make up for its slightly misleading nickname. A 10-minute walk north of Paddington, the picturesque waterways of Little Venice provide the backdrop to tranquil strolls that could take you as far as the Docklands if you’re up for a trek. A better way to experience the area is with a ride on the Regents Canal Waterbus. Departing from Brownings Pool in Little Venice, the public narrowboat chugs its way through Camden, Primrose Hill, and Regents Park, with a stop at London Zoo. No advance booking is necessary and the round-trip journey lasts 110 minutes.

 

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Take a Candlelit Tour of a Neoclassical Architect’s Home

Ever wonder what kind of house your favorite 19th century London architect might have lived in? Luckily for you, the former residence of the famous neo-classical architect Sir John Soane has been perfectly preserved in the state it was left at the time of his death in 1837. Reflecting his refined tastes, the John Soane’s Museum is filled with furniture, architectural models, curiosities, antiquities, and paintings by artists including Hogarth, Turner, and Canaletto. Free to visitors at all times, nostalgic candlelight tours are held on the first Tuesday of every month between 6 pm and 9 pm, with the first 200 visitors granted access on a first-come, first-served basis.

Closed to the public for 160 years and renovated in 2015, it is now possible to enjoy tours of Soane’s private apartments on the second floor of the museum.

 

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PHOTO: John Gomez /Shutterstock
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Watch Cult Classics at the Prince Charles Cinema

Described by Quentin Tarantino as his favorite London cinema and the closest the city has to a trashy American grindhouse, the Prince Charles Cinema is London’s cult film homebase. Surrounded by the multiplexes of Leicester Square, the Prince Charles caters to cinephiles who pine for the old, the odd, and the iconic, showing classic double-billings, quote-along screenings, all-night movie marathons, and cult movies in their original 35mm formats.

INSIDER TIPChristmas is especially festive at the Prince Charles Cinema; every year, holiday classics are screened throughout December accompanied by mince pies and mulled wine.

 

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Get Blinded by the Neon at God’s Own Junkyard

If Las Vegas’s Neon Museum is a retirement home for the city’s overworked luminous lights, London’s God’s Own Junkyard is more like a rehabilitation center. Owned and operated by neon artist Chris Bracy, God’s Own Junkyard is a working business that has morphed into a part-time museum, opening on weekends to cater to neon fans across the globe. Known as “the place where neon never dies,” the site is a vast collection of salvaged signs, letters, and displays that are being returned to their former glories. Accompanied by the in-house café The Rolling Scones, it also makes for a unique place to enjoy afternoon tea.

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Meet the Otters at the London Wetland Centre

Besides pigeons and the occasional urban fox, London really isn’t the place to spot free-roaming wildlife, but you don’t have to stray too far from the heart of the city to find a thriving urban oasis. Located in Barnes, ten minutes from Hammersmith, the London Wetland Centre is the place to walk among moths, rare birds, dragonflies, and other insects as you warm up to the main event: the otters. Masters of the river, the otter is one of the most beloved wild animals in Britain, the only issue being the playful critters are usually hard to find. Fortunately, the London Wetland Centre provides the perfect place for Londoners to get their otter fix, with their popular Meet the Otters events. Scheduled daily at 11 am and 2 pm, everyone is invited to watch the river animals playing, foraging, and swimming as they come looking for their breakfast and lunch.

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PHOTO: L’antica Pizzeria da Michele
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Eat Italy's Best Pizza

Known in Italy as the “Sacred Temple of Pizza”, L’antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples has been open for business for over a hundred years, never expanding, franchising, or diverting from serving the city’s finest pizza. That is until the restaurant decided to open their second outpost right here in London. Widely regarded as the best pizza in Naples (why else would Julia Roberts’ character visit in Eat Pray Love?), which basically equates to being the best in Italy, the restaurant settled on a spot in northeast London’s Stoke Newington in 2017, 147 years after the original Napoli parlor opened in 1870. In true rustic style, the choice is between a either simple margarita or a rich marinara.

INSIDER TIPIf you can’t get a table, take a short walk to nearby Stoke Newington Road where the impeccable Pizzeria Apollo offers its own take on Neapolitan pizza.