According to Samuel Johnson: “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 attractions London has to offer. But if you’ve already visited Buckingham Palace, toured the Tower of London and climbed to 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 see and do in London.
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 and 270 stations. But over the years some stations have been closed down after they weren’t used enough or because routes changed, and these ‘ghost stations’ still lie buried beneath London’s streets. Some have been converted or demolished, but others have been preserved, like the stations at Aldywch and Down Street. They’ve 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 Euston, Charing Cross, Aldwych and Down Street as part of their Hidden London event, and Brit Movie Tours runs tours of Aldwych and Charing Cross.
Been 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, dome of St Paul’s cathedral, 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 is a catch though, you have to be a UK resident and request a visit via your local Member of Parliament. It’s a popular tour so put in your request as far in advance as possible. If you’re not eligible you can still take a tour of Parliament itself, and there are other unusual London viewpoints you can 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.
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 if you’re not squeamish there’s the Hunterian Museum with its jars of body parts, and gruesome tales of surgery at the Old Operating Theatre. 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 where you can spend the night with the dinosaurs.
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 Clippers to speedboat rides and dinner cruises. But for something a bit more relaxed, head to leafy North London where the Regent’s Canal winds its way the 8.6 miles from Paddington to Limehouse. The London Waterbus Company run 50-minute trips along the canal on board an original narrowboat that runs between Little Venice and Camden Town. Along the way you pass flower-decked houseboats and grand waterside mansions, as well as the giraffe enclosures and aviary of London Zoo and Camden Lock. Or if you want to get out on the water yourself, you can take a guided 90-minute kayak tour along the canal.
Watched a West End show? Catch a quirky cinema screening
The West End is the home of theatre in London and you might think that Leicester Square is the place to go for cinema. It might host film premieres, but in real life the cinemas there are big, soulless and pricey. So instead try one of London’s quirky cinemas. If you fancy a bit of audience participation 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. Luna Cinema hold screenings in London parks and grand locations like the Sky Garden and overlooking St Paul’s from One New Change. Or the Rooftop Film Club take over rooftops in East London and the Kensington Roof Gardens. The same people head below ground in winter to the vaults below Waterloo Station for the Underground Film Club.
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 bustle and relax with a picnic or 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 to celebrate ordinary local people who’d given their lives to save others. So along the wall of the park there are hand-painted ceramic tiles which 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 to tell.
What are your favourite hidden gems and unusual attractions in London?