If you’ve already got dozens of selfies in front of Big Ben or want to venture away from the tourist trail, we’ve put together a guide of unusual things to do in London. Give even the savviest of locals a run for their money with this offbeat London itinerary that covers everything from secret gardens, surprising niche tours and some of the most unexpected dining experiences.
Places like the London Eye, the Shard and Sky Garden offer spectacular views across the city, but why not consider a visit to the top of the Monument? Built in the 1670s as a memorial to the Great Fire of London, the Monument can be found near the northern end of London Bridge.
Across the river in Stratford, ArcelorMittal Orbit is an 114m-tall sculpture designed by the famous British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor for the 2012 Olympics. It has a viewing platform with a unique way down: a 178m-long tunnel slide! Great for the young, and the young at heart.
While Westminster Abbey is undeniably a must on any tourist’s list, there’s a number of offbeat religious sites that make up some of the most unusual London attractions. St Bartholomew’s Church, a structure dating back to Norman times, is absolutely stunning but also one of the least visited spots in the capital. And if you have a little more time to visit Neasden, you’ll be able to see the largest Hindu temple outside of India: BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Beyond being a crucially important for the local Hinduism scene, it’s also a beautiful and striking piece of architecture.
London isn’t just high rises, there’s pockets of natural wonder if you’re prepared to look for them. Take a day out to visit Chislehurst on the outskirts of the city, a network of ancient chalk caves dating back thousands of years. Join a lamp-lit tour to hear stories about the men that mined it by hand and how they later became air raid shelter at the height of World War Two.
London is known for its eclectic mix of museums, which include the Fan Museum in Greenwich, which houses a collection of 3,500 fans and Pollock’s Toy Museum near Covent Garden where you can discover paper theatres from the 1800s, as well as puppets and toys from around the world. The Cartoon Museum consists of a highly entertaining collection of cartoons and caricatures from the 1800s to present day, while the Old Operating Theatre Museum houses Britain’s oldest surviving purpose-built operating theatre. Complete with restored but original furniture and equipment, it allows you to contemplate the reality of surgery before the invention of anaesthetics.
If you’re not happy with simply looking at the views, why not head to the Greenwich O2 (also known as the Millennium Dome)? Kitted out in a harness and special suit you can start your climb – on the outside of the building. For a really special photo opportunity, book your adventure at sunset.
If you’d rather stay above ground, try a day of white water rafting at Lee Valley (north London), bounce around the trampoline park in Acton. Even if you’re not the sportiest person around, joining the hipsters underground Shoreditch at Junkyard Golf is always a fun time with its themed mini golf courses. Test your swing and see if you can master its cinema-themed holes and birdy past Jurassic Park’s T-Rex and through a Shawshank prison cell.
In the East End of London, the Ragged School Museum allows visitors to experience what school was like for children in Victorian times, complete with slates to write on and dunce’s caps. Open house sessions take place on Sundays in one of Dr Barnado’s original classrooms and are led by an actor in full Victorian costume. Dr Barnado was an Irish philanthropist who founded schools and homes for destitute children, an organisation that continues to this day.
Afternoon tea is of course a British institution, but how about combining it with a tour on a red double-decker bus? Soak up the culture and history of London, along with a good cup of tea and delicious scones. For something more refined, The Ned is one of the most striking hotels around – set in a renovated former bank with checkerboard marble floors, towering jade columns and an afternoon tea offering you’ll drool over. (Tip: they also do a Sunday roast buffet, if just one Yorkshire pudding isn’t enough for you.)
Consider a visit to one of London’s Loo Bars – it sounds grim, but they’re great fun. Proof of the value of London real estate, if ever that was needed, these are bars and cafés set up in former public conveniences. Look out for names such as ‘Attendant’ or ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ for an altogether different experience. One of our favourites is Bermondsey Art and Social Club, a surprisingly classy joint and total date night material.
For a whole new take on the phrase ‘swimming with the fishes’, the swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath are the place to go. Regularly tested for water quality, the ponds are nevertheless completely natural – and unheated. A couple of the most popular include the Kenwood’s Ladies Pond and Highgate Men’s Bathing Pond, both staffed by volunteers and just a couple of hundred yards away from each other. Another unusual outdoor pool is the Kings Cross Pond Club – part art installation and part leisure pool.
There are no end of tours to choose from and they can get really specific. For sociable and reasonably fit groups of friends, why not choose the Pedibus (a pedal-powered ‘bus’ with a seating arrangement like a dinner table)? Music history tours can be found for most genres, including Rock ‘n’ Roll Camden Walking Tour. Or for a different take on the city, you can’t go wrong with the the award-winning Unseen London tours, a social enterprise that works with homeless, ex-homeless or vulnerably housed Londoners.
More mainstream museums such as the Science Museum and British Museum also host sleepovers for children and (separately) for adults. You can also sleep with the lions at London Zoo, if you prefer, or Kip in a Ship at the Imperial War Museum. If you aren’t super keen on staying the night though, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the Museum Lates at the Tate Modern, SEA Aquarium and National History Museum where the exhibits stay open after dark for adults.
If you pass underneath Admiralty Arch next to Trafalgar Square, look out for a life-size nose on the wall of the large central arch (on the right as you look down towards Buckingham Palace). Part of the Seven Noses of Soho, it’s part of an artistic protest against the introduction of CCTV cameras, although some astounding urban myths have sprung up to explain its existence.
Many visitors to the city want to visit its famous, big-name attractions. However, it’s definitely worth allowing some time in your itinerary to fit in some of the surprising and unusual things to do in London.