London overflows with unusual things to do. From heavyweight history to cutting edge quirk, here's an inside collection of unique, alternative, kooky, quirky and curious things to do in London.
From someone who was born there.
I love London. There, said it. Born there, lived there, worked there. Even though my job now takes me across the world, I can always find something new to do in London beyond the standard attractions. So here is an ever-evolving list of quirky things to do in London that I add to every year. It contains places I love and places that are worth seeing once and then, let's face it, never again.
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Of all the Royal Parks, Richmond Park is the biggest and arguably the best. Here you’ll find hordes of deer running wild, catch pro cyclists in training and even stumble on the home of the Royal Ballet School.
It’s further from the centre than most: even the London Underground doesn't make it that far.
Yet amidst these rolling hills and hefty oaks, there’s one spot where you can see all the way back to St Paul’s. Legend has it that this was where King Henry VIII brought Anne Boleyn on honeymoon – and also where he waited for the signal that told him of her death. Shiver...
Hyde Park on the other hand, sits right in the centre of all the action, flanking Monopoly jackpot Park Lane and iconic Marble Arch as well as Kensington Palace, the official home of Wills & Kate.
Yet my favourite spot is Speakers’ Corner, a place where people from all around the world gather to, well, speak about whatever it is that’s bothering them. Race, religion, war and satire, nothing’s off limits at this bastion of free speech. Sunday afternoons draw the liveliest crowds, showcasing the best and the worst of London’s stand-up speakers.
In this leafy quarter of northwest London, you can hop on a canal boat and glide through the smaller waterways of the capital. Start at Little Venice and slosh past the London Zoo and the edges of Regent’s Park to reach Camden Lock. At times like this, it’s hard to remember that the Underground exists...
You’ve heard of the Tower of London and even the shiny grey Gherkin but what about the buildings in between? Travel through 2000 years of history to find Victorian markets, medieval relics and even crumbling walls from when the Romans were in town. Amble around yourself or, for maximum impact, travel with an academic guide from Context Travel* to make sure you don’t miss a thing.
This small yet info-packed museum lives within a Victorian promenade of Big Ben yet no-one’s ever heard of it. Travel back in time and retrace the steps of the woman credited with founding the modern nursing profession.
Black cabs and the London Underground are so passé. Head back to the1960s and zip around the city in an Austin Mini Cooper. Peaked caps and gold bars are available on request.
In the narrow streets of Soho, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club has hosted many a jazz superstar over the years. Today, it remains as committed to its jazz roots as ever – but if you can’t manage to get into the main area, try climbing the stairs to Ronnie’s Bar. Decked out in animal prints and attracting plenty of up-and-coming talent, it’s still an edgy, fun place to be for a night out in London.
London owns no fewer than eight Royal parks, although happily mere mortals can stride across them all. In fact, that's partly the point. The "royal" part in these instances came from royal protection. First to protect hunting grounds for the gentry, then to protect access to green spaces for the everyday man and woman.
So what is a section on parks doing on an article about unusual things to do in London?
Because the parks are unusual. Here are the unusual things you can do within London's parks...
Summertime sees Regent's Park host the Gorilla Trapeze School, allowing all those over the age of eight to fly through the air on the ropes.
Where better to explore the meaning of life than within a graveyard, surrounded by the reminder that it all comes to an end one day.
Brompton Cemetery chapel runs mindfulness classes when the weather's good. Email [email protected] to book a spot.
The bandstands of Greenwich Park and Regent's park host musicians from around the world in the summer - and the end of summer is celebrated with Proms in the Park in Hyde Park.
Gather up your finest picnic blanket, picnic and folding chair and hope it doesn't rain. Maybe pack an umbrella as well, just in case.
Some concerts are free but others require a ticket in advance. Check out the Royal Parks website for up to date details.
If I tell you that Hyde Park hides a greenhouse the size of a football pitch within its grounds, that should go some way towards convincing you of its size.
Usually closed to the public, this "super-nursery" opens a few times a year to give guided tours and sell some of its wares.
The place handles the growth of 450 000 bedding plants and even supplies the floral displays to Buckingham Palace. Profits return to the Royal Parks Charity - check their website for this once a year event.
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre brings big hitters like Evita to the grass of London, as well as new, innovative adaptations like Mockingbird and Jane Eyre.
It's another chance to pit your fortunes against the Great British Summer. Wrap up warm and bring an umbrella!
Join the London Bat Group on walking tours to see both the smallest and largest bats in the UK over the glistening water of the Serpentine in Hyde Park and other locations. Dedicated to conserving these spooky little creatures, the Bat Cave offers useful advice on echolocation and bat detectors.
So, the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery may be big hitters. And you've probably heard of the Tate Modern.
But there's no need to stop there when it comes to unusual things to do in London in the artsy visual world.
Yes, street art belongs on the streets. But sometimes, our legs get tired and we're short on time, right?! Enter Graffik Gallery on Portobello Road, displaying the best in one place, from Banksy to up and coming newbies.
It's a way from central London to Deptford but The Old Police Station has two stand out features that make the tube journey worthwhile.
One, you guessed it, it used to be a police station. Two, it's a DIY art exhibition with resident artists "occupying and exhibiting" their own work.
The lounge and bar at the Conrad St James Hotel live just a hop, skip and a jump from Westminster. The Blue Boar offers up traditional British "grub" along with pig coasters saying "this is a safe seat" and a wealth of satirical political sculptures, paintings and memorabilia.
Literary treats abound in London, from Harry Potter to Sherlock Holmes. If only they were real and some of our historical figures not, eh? Here are some unique things to do in London when it comes to literature.
Sherlock Holmes and 221B Baker Street may be pure fiction. But Baker Street itself is not. It's a thronging hub on the northwest corner of the circle line. And, of course, it's home to the Sherlock Holmes Museum.
There's also a Sherlock Holmes Pub, with a recreation of the shared Holmes and Watson rooms.
But Baker Street isn't the only famous name in town. Paddington Station, which serves the southwest and Wales, as well as pumping commuters into Central London each day, inspired author Michael Bond when naming his marmalade sandwich loving bear.
A statue celebrates the fact. And so do plenty of kiosks and small shops, selling Paddington Bears in duffel overcoats and hats.
You also have the Natural History Museum and Portobello Road to delight true fans. The bonus with these landmarks? They are interesting places to visit within their own right.
It's real (ish.) King's Cross Station is certainly real, whisking Londoners out to Cambridge and the Fens in one direction, and Paris in the other.
Find Platform 9 3/4 for a photo op right next to the Harry Potter Shop.
The British Library showcases handwritten texts from Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Da Vinci and Michelangelo, as well as paperwork relating to Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament.
In reality, London is a patchwork of neighbourhoods, all joined together to form the curious capital of the United Kingdom. Not everywhere is worth a visit, that's for sure. But here are some neighbourhoods with enough to fill a day and satisfy the need for some unusual things to do.
Bermondsey first appeared in the Domesday Book, nearly 1000 years ago. A few centuries later, it featured in Oliver Twist, and then, in Da Vinci Code style, it became embroiled with the Knights Templar.
By the 19th century, Bermondsey’s brick-lined wharves processed leather and hides but the bombing of the Blitz and the change in riverside operations led the area into decline.
But that was then.
Shoreditch is the poster boy or girl for up and coming neighbourhoods: a rough part of town come good. Not only has it not lost its character, it's invented one as the creative hub of London's East End.
It's an intriguing place to stay: there's a near overwhelming selection of curious boutique hotels to choose from in Shoreditch. It's also known for its challenging street art, vintage clothes shops, Brick Lane street food and weekend Columbia Flower Market.
London doesn't have one skyline. Like her personalities, she has many. You can look up and see Big Ben and the spires of Westminster in one spot, the Millennium Dome in another. And then fields elsewhere again. Everyone may know about the London Eye and the viewing gallery at the Shard. But here is a collection of great panoramic views and viewpoints in London, with an unusual twist.
Gaze up at the stars from the highest natural point in London: the earth on Hampstead Heath. For a close-up, head to the Hampstead Observatory on Lower Terrace. Entrance is free and educational - check opening times in advance.
This has to be one of my favourite spots in London. Access is free and it's full of fresh air, in itself an unusual find in London. Head to Chalk Farm tube and walk from there to see London spill her secrets before you.
Yes, so Afternoon Tea is an institution for visitors to London. But what about unusual afternoon tea? Make way The Ritz and The Savoy. Here is afternoon tea with a twist...
Leave unimaginative cucumber sandwiches behind and try out a "scientific" Afternoon Tea in the gorgeous, fall head-over-heels-in-love-with Ampersand Hotel near the Natural History and Science Museums in Kensington.
While the Ritz and the Savoy grab the headlines when it comes to afternoon tea, they also grab the crowds. For a more private version of this English tradition, head to the elegant Cranley Hotel in Kensington. You’ll still find cucumber sandwiches, clotted cream, and lashings of jam and scones but you’ll also find peace. And quiet, save for the chinking of china and the chiming of the clock.
Once you’ve had your fill of Covent Garden, Portobello Road and Notting Hill, travel east to Greenwich. Not only can you find the centre of both time and space at the Greenwich Observatory, you can find handicrafts and food from around the world at the busy market at the foot of the hill.
Closer to central London, Borough Market lives right by London Bridge in Southwark, with trading activity that dates back to at least the 12th century.
That's a lot of fruit 'n' veg.
The current buildings, all glass and Victorian green arches, hail from the 1850s and today's market sells specialty foods to the general public.
The gorgeous Leadenhall Market snuggles into the financial district of the City of London, perhaps explaining why its architecture drips with gold. A mere baby in the city of London, trading activities only date back to the 14th century, its arcades add a touch of Milanese glamour to a grey and overcast day.
If two-headed kittens and artwork from the occult intrigue you, then sign up to the The Last Tuesday Society at the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities and sip absinthe and go wild. To be honest, it's the kind of thing that terrifies me and so I keep making excuses not to go. But I keep hearing about it, so, since this is a collection of unusual things to do in London I thought I'd add it to my list!
Let me know how it goes - if you make it out alive ;-)
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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