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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The best unusual and alternative things to see and do in London – when you've seen the Tower of London, Shard and London Eye, here's what to do next. #London #England #alternative #quirky #quirkyLondonQuirky London – alternative and unusual attractions in the British capital for second- or third-time visitors – get off the beaten track in London #London #England #alternative #quirky #quirkyLondon

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  • Reply
    April 22, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    Excellent advices! The muséums seem great

    • Reply
      April 24, 2016 at 7:53 pm

      There are some fantastic museums in London – I’ve got a wishlist of new ones to visit still!

  • Reply
    April 22, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Great post! I’m traveling to London next month and even though I’ll visit it for the fourth time I have a feeling there is a lot I haven’t seen yet 🙂

    • Reply
      April 24, 2016 at 7:55 pm

      I don’t think you could ever run out of new things to see! Have a great trip

  • Reply
    April 23, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    I loved this post! Makes me realise that though I only live less than an hour away from London, how much I’ve still got left of it to see! I may have to check out the outdoor cinemas 🙂

    • Reply
      April 24, 2016 at 7:51 pm

      The outdoor cinemas are great – such an interesting way to use some of the city’s amazing locations!

  • Reply
    April 24, 2016 at 10:55 am

    This is a great guide – I hadn’t heard of most of these things! Am dying to explore the unused tube stops – have you done the tour yourself?

    • Reply
      April 24, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      I haven’t yet but signed up for one of the Hidden London tours (it’s not til next year though, they’re crazy popular!).

  • Reply
    April 25, 2016 at 9:20 am

    I’ve been on a boat down the Thames and it is amazing – a side of London you wouldn’t believe existed! Very interesting about the other attractions – never knew about them – thanks for that Lucy.

    • Reply
      April 29, 2016 at 9:53 pm

      So much to see in London! I’d like to get down to the Thames Barrier sometime too.

  • Reply
    Maureen Young
    April 28, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Try visiting the Dennis Severs house or the Foundlings museum. Southwark Catherdral and Borough market taking in the Klink prison and the Golden Hind . Magical London

    • Reply
      April 29, 2016 at 9:54 pm

      I love Borough Market but it does get crazy busy, as does a lot of Southbank! The Foundling Museum is another good one, I used to work nearby and go to the café there a lot but haven’t been back for years.

  • Reply
    April 30, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    So…I had to look this up; Groundhog day is only celebrated in the states. I think it’s cool that they’re playing it in London, though. Lucy, thanks so much for posting this. The boats on Regent’s Canal look like so much fun.

    • Reply
      May 1, 2016 at 9:23 pm

      Groundhog Day is such a classic film! The rooftop cinemas are great, and I love the Regent’s Canal. Hope the post comes in useful.

  • Reply
    May 2, 2016 at 7:02 am

    ‘Love these ideas Lucy especially the underground tunnels!

    I lived in London for about 5 years and knew about the postmans’ park, the quirky cinemas and the thames crews. However, I try to go to unusual museums and I hadn’t heard of the ones that you mentioned but I have been to the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch!

    Also, did you know that in the old “City of London” you can actually follow the trail of where the original City Wall, built by the Romans, used to be! It’s a bit of a walk (about 2 hours) but if you start from the Tower of London to the Museum of London, you’ll find it! There are panel slabs on the floor and on the wall and you just follow them. I’m into local history so for me, this was particularly interesting, and doesn’t cost a penny!

    • Reply
      May 3, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      I’ve not been to the Geffrye Museum yet but that’s one for next time! The Roman Wall sounds good too – I don’t think I’ll ever run out of things to do in London.

  • Reply
    May 3, 2016 at 12:51 am

    Finally got a chance to read this post. Lots of great stuff for my wife and I to do when we get there for our first visit next week! Thanks for all your info!

    • Reply
      May 3, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      That’s great to hear – hope you have a great trip!

  • Reply
    May 11, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    There are great views from the Sky Garden and it’s free!

    • Reply
      May 13, 2016 at 11:03 pm

      The Sky Garden looks great – it’s pretty popular though so you do need to book well in advance!

  • Reply
    May 15, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    How interesting _ I had never heard of Postman’s Park!

    • Reply
      May 18, 2016 at 10:35 am

      It’s a lovely escape from the city – and such a nice idea to commemorate those unknown brave people!

  • Reply
    May 15, 2016 at 11:56 pm

    Great list! I would love to explore the “ghost stations,” definitely something out of a Bond movie!

    • Reply
      May 18, 2016 at 10:34 am

      Apparently they’ve been used for film sets for all sorts of things! Sure it must feel quite spooky down there with the distant rumbling of trains.

  • Reply
    Packing my Suitcase
    June 6, 2016 at 11:07 am

    This post is amazing Lucy, thank you for that, it will be very handy for when I return to London in November once again for the WTM.
    Shame that I can’t go up the Big Ben though :/ I would love to do that!
    Oh, and I didn’t know that they were having an open air cinema at One Change roof top, I went there in November and loved the place, but must amazing to watch a movie there! 😀

    • Reply
      June 20, 2016 at 9:42 am

      Hope to catch up at WTM again – and that the post comes in useful!

  • Reply
    Bill K
    June 9, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Postman’s Park is incredibly moving.

    I’d like to recommend St Dunstan’s in the East

    One of Wren’s post-Great Fire churches, bombed out in WWII, and turned into a beautiful garden/park. Just west of the Tower

    • Reply
      June 20, 2016 at 9:41 am

      I visited St Dunstan’s in the East not long ago too, a really atmospheric place, though it’s a shame all the overgrown greenery has been cut down, I suppose it was damaging the building but it did look really pretty with it.

  • Reply
    J.L. Sigler
    August 13, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    A 45 minute train ride from London gets you to Bletchley Park–a hidden gem. Well worth the effort to get there. Before you go you might want to brush up on your history and watch the Imitation Game or Bletchley Circle, both good primers for Bletchley Park.

    • Reply
      August 14, 2016 at 9:30 pm

      Bletchley Park is such a fascinating place! I’ve been meaning to write up my visit for a while so this is a good reminder to make a return trip and post about it soon.

  • Reply
    Thuy Pham
    August 17, 2016 at 12:12 am

    Lovely written! Nice post:)

    • Reply
      August 17, 2016 at 6:28 pm

      Thank you!

  • Reply
    Patrick - Londonseite
    September 18, 2016 at 12:40 pm

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


    • Reply
      September 18, 2016 at 8:59 pm

      Hope they come in useful!

  • Reply
    Hostelgeeks (@Hostelgeeks)
    May 25, 2017 at 10:48 am

    Hey Lucy,

    wow, these photos are amazing! I wasn’t so lucky with the weather, it was quite rainy…
    I wrote up my own piece of fun things to do in London, maybe you love it as well?

    I already pinned your article now on my Pinterest! =)

    • Reply
      May 29, 2017 at 1:50 pm

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

  • Reply
    Alexandra Wrigley
    March 29, 2019 at 8:56 am

    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.

    • Reply
      March 30, 2019 at 7:20 pm

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

  • Reply
    Tim Neeble
    August 21, 2020 at 4:05 pm

    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!

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