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Alternative things to do in London

Alternative things to do in London

Samuel Johnson said “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” And he’s got a point – it’d take you a long time to work your way through all the varied attractions London has to offer. But what if you’ve already visited Buckingham Palace, been on the London Eye, toured the Tower of London and checked out the view from the top of the Shard? What can you do on your second visit, or third or fourth? Here’s my pick of some of the best alternative and unusual things to do in London for your next visit.

Read more: Visiting London on a budget

Alternative things to do in London

Inside London’s Tate Modern gallery

Inside London’s Tate Modern gallery

Travelled on the Tube? Explore its ghost stations

London’s Tube was the world’s first underground railway when it opened in 1863, and since then it’s expanded to 11 lines, 403km of track and 270 stations. But over the years there are some stations which have been closed down either because they weren’t used enough or because routes changed. Some have been converted or demolished, but other ‘ghost stations’ lie buried beneath London’s streets, complete with original tunnels, platforms and ticket offices.

They have been used for filming everything from Bond film Skyfall to BBC series Sherlock. But there are also occasional special tours where the public can head underground and back in time. The London Transport Museum run tours of several stations including Euston, Moorgate and Down Street as part of their Hidden London event (sign up to their mailing list to be notified when tickets go on sale). Or Brit Movie Tours runs tours of Aldwych and Charing Cross.

Read more: Hidden London tours of Down Street and Euston

Euston’s secret tunnels on the Hidden London underground tour

Euston’s secret tunnels

Been up to the top of the Shard? See the view from Big Ben

If you want views over London from up high you’re spoilt for choice – there’s the London Eye, Sky Garden, Monument, St Paul’s cathedral dome, and tallest of all the Shard. But did you know you can also climb to the top of one of London’s most iconic towers at the Houses of Parliament? It’s called the Elizabeth Tower but you might know it better as Big Ben, after the bell inside. At 62 metres high you get a spectacular view of London as well as a peek behind the clock face.

There’s a catch though – you have to be a UK resident and request a visit via your local Member of Parliament. It’s popular so put your request in as early as possible. Tours are temporarily suspended while work’s being done on the clock tower until 2021, but there are free talks or you can take a tour of Parliament (open to overseas visitors too). Or there are other unusual London viewpoints to try – like the Emirates Airline cable car from Docklands to Greenwich, the O2 arena roof climb and the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower at the Olympic Park.

Read more: Stepping inside British history at the Houses of Parliament

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at night

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

Seen the Science Museum? Try one of the city’s stranger museums

London is famous for its museums and galleries, with big names like the Science Museum, Tate, National Gallery, V&A and British Museum. But there are a plenty of smaller, quirkier museums around the city. You can travel back to the 18th century at Dennis Severs’ House. Severs bought the house 30 years ago and has recreated the life of a Huguenot silk weaver and his family.

Candlelight adds to the atmosphere and with half-drunk cups of tea on the table it looks like they’ve just popped out. Or you’re not too squeamish you can hear tales from the gruesome tales of surgery at the Old Operating Theatre – the oldest in the UK. And if you do want to visit the big museums, look out for special late-night opening events, like ‘Dino Snores’ at the Natural History Museum (for kids or adults) where you can spend the night with the dinosaurs.

The main hall at the Natural History Museum, London

The Natural History Museum

Taken a boat trip on the Thames? Sail the Regents Canal

There are a whole range of boat trips available along the River Thames, from Transport for London’s Thames Clipper commuter service to a RIB speedboat ride or a Champagne dinner cruise. But for something a bit more relaxed, head to leafy North London where the Regent’s Canal winds its way along the 8.6 miles from Paddington to Limehouse.

The London Waterbus Company run 50-minute canal trips between Little Venice and Camden Town on board an original narrowboat. Along the way you pass flower-decked houseboats, grand waterside mansions and London Zoo’s giraffe enclosures and aviary. Or if you want to get out on the water yourself, you can take a guided kayak tour along the canal. They start from Primrose Hill Bridge and last 90 minutes, and you don’t need previous kayaking experience.

Boat trip on Regent's Canal London

Boats on the Regent’s Canal – photo credit Chris Sampson on Flickr

Watched a West End show? Catch a quirky cinema screening

The West End is the home of London theatre and Leicester Square is the best known spot in town for cinema. It might host film premieres, but in real life the cinemas there are big, soulless and pricey. Instead try one of London’s quirky cinemas. If you fancy joining in, visit Soho’s Prince Charles Cinema where you can sing along to classics like Grease and Dirty Dancing.

On a sunny summer evening there are a couple of outdoor cinema options. The Rooftop Film Club take over rooftops in East London for summer film screenings. Or Luna Cinema hold screenings in London parks and grand locations like the Sky Garden and overlooking St Paul’s from One New Change, as well as indoor in museums and Kensington Palace in winter.

Ourdoor rooftop cinema London

Luna Cinema at One New Change – photo credit Luna Cinema

Picnicked in Hyde Park? Discover the stories of Postman’s Park

Right in the centre of the city, the green expanse of Hyde Park is a great place to escape the city and relax with a picnic or take a boat trip on the Serpentine lake. But to discover a park with a hidden secret, head into the City of London to Postman’s Park. It opened in 1880 on the site of a former church burial ground. But in 1900 Victorian artist George Frederic Watts came up with the idea of creating a ‘Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice’ in the park.

He wanted to celebrate ordinary local people who’d given their lives to save others. So on the wall of the park hand-painted ceramic tiles commemorate the lives of 62 brave people. From stewardess Mary Rogers who gave up her lifebelt as her ship went down to Elizabeth Boxall who died trying to save a child from a runaway horse, each has it’s own fascinating story. The park also inspired writer Patrick Marber, who wrote a scene for the film Closer set there.

Read more: London film locations: A self-guided walking tour

Memorial plaques at Postman's Park in London

Memorial plaques at Postman’s Park

What are your favourite hidden gems and alternative things to do in London?

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Tim Neeble

Friday 21st of August 2020

Thank you for this amazing blog on the London travel. So many great places. We didn't have time to see them all during the last trip, so definitely making note of these for the next one after this pandemic situation!

Lucy Dodsworth

Thursday 27th of August 2020

Glad it was useful!

Alexandra Wrigley

Friday 29th of March 2019

I've lived in England for 23 years. I've never knew about the ghost stations! I must visit/check them out when next in London.

Lucy

Saturday 30th of March 2019

They're so interesting! I've done a couple of the tours now and both were fascinating.

Lucy

Monday 29th of May 2017

Thanks – yes you never know what you're going to get with weather in London, sunshine is always a lucky bonus!

Patrick - Londonseite

Sunday 18th of September 2016

Thanks for your tipps. I will check out some of them during my next London Tripp!

Patrick

Lucy

Sunday 18th of September 2016

Hope they come in useful!

Thuy Pham

Wednesday 17th of August 2016

Lovely written! Nice post:)

Lucy

Wednesday 17th of August 2016

Thank you!