Many people – wherever they are in the world – can probably recite a list of ‘must visit’ places of interest in London. Some of them iconic landmarks; others gaudy tourist traps. But the UK capital is nothing if not a diverse and surprising place. As such, it also contains many rarer attractions whose reputations depend as much on word-of-mouth as anything else. Here then are the 10 off-the-beaten-track treasures you must make time for in London…
Sir John Soane’s Museum
(13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields WC2A 3BP)
He may not be a familiar name in our modern times, but in his day Sir John Soanes wasn’t just famed for being the chap who designed the Bank of England, but also for turning his Holborn home into a haven of unique, rare, eclectic and eccentric artefacts. To that end then, today his house makes for the perfect museum, comprising more than 20,000 architect’s diagrams and drawings, antiquities like an Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus and, maybe most impressive of all, artworks by the likes of Turner and Canaletto.
Here’s a genuine treasure trove in this treasure trove of a list. Why? This short pedestrian walkway tucked away to right of Islington’s Upper Street is crammed with antiques outlets, indie boutiques, vintage shops and chic little cafés and restaurants. Just the place to browse for some rare curios or first-edition books and then afterwards dine like a boho king.
Chin Chin Labs
(49-50 Camden Lock Place NW1 8AF)
Unlike the nonetheless charming Camden Passage, the marvellously monikered Chin Chin Labs is actually located in Camden, its big draw being the fact it serves up ice cream that is – wait for it – frozen via liquid nitrogen. To be honest, watching the parlour’s staff prepare your well-below-zero concoction’s as much a highlight as consuming it, ensuring the place becomes filled with chemical clouds that give off the aromas of all its weird and wonderful creations – from watermelon to red velvet-flavoured gelato and everything in between.
Chelsea Physic Garden
(66 Royal Hospital Road SW3 4HS)
The second oldest botanical garden in the UK – having been established as such almost 350 years ago – may be walled in, so it’s certainly very easy to miss, but it’s a true paradise to happen upon beside the River Thames. Boasting, as it does, up to 5,000 plants – all of them of historical significance; many medicinal and some edible – its history is wrapped up with that of medicine and apothecary (‘physic’ refers to the art of healing rather than the word ‘physical’). It can also lay claim to being the world’s northernmost place where grapefruit grows outside… so there.
(Holland Park Avenue W11 4UA)
A true taste of Oriental tranquility right in the heart of London, this Notting Hill highlight’s certainly not to be missed if you’re staying somewhere relatively nearby – like the Shaftesbury Hyde Park hotel. Full of hidden nooks and crannies, it offers a cornucopia of colourful flora, winding paths, graceful statues, an orangery, an opera house (yes, really) and even a peacock or two. It also happens to be one of British institution Joanna Lumley’s favourite spots in the capital – and if that’s not recommendation enough, surely nothing is.
(83 Marylebone High Street W1U 4QW)
Just one branch in an independent London bookshop chain, this Marylebone institution nevertheless distinguishes itself from all the others and establishes itself as an absolute must-visit for bibliophiles thanks to its beautifully ornate interior. Chiefly stocking travel books, it doesn’t really matter what it contains though, as to browse this Edwardian-era outlet feels like you’re walking around a hallowed library; the sort of you’d expect to find in Hogwarts Castle. It’s said to have been the world’s very first custom-built bookshop, which isn’t surprising – you might even spy a walk-in safe next to the travel section in which rare, expensive tomes were once stored. Definitely a unique – and entirely free – experience should you be taking advantage of one of London’s hotel rewards programs.
(Bishop’s Avenue SW6 6EA)
Sure, London’s home to many a palace and historical building, but few of them are so little known nor offer so many unexpected delights as this West London property. A Grade I-listed building built in Medieval times, it was formerly the chief residence of the Bishops of London, but now – open as it is to the general public – it’s a place to discover artworks and artefacts that trace its history and that of its Fulham site, going back all the way to prehistoric times. It also has a sizeable botanical garden. But maybe best of all, it’s entirely free to enter.
Named after the waterway-blessed Italian city, this little corner of Paddington is equally blessed with a lazy, picturesque quality, its meeting of two canals resulting in a basin sided by cafés, restaurants and pubs, as well as two of the most unique bridges you’ll ever see.
Wilton’s Music Hall
(1 Graces Alley E1 8JB)
A proper slice of Victoriana, East End-style; this establishment’s been fully restored so all and sundry can experience a performance akin to that which punters enjoyed back when Marie Lloyd was in her heyday. Alternatively, it’s worth visiting just to soak up the imbibing vibes in its atmospheric Mahogany Bar or for a fascinating auditorium and backstage tour.
(St. Martin’s Le Grand EC1A)
Finally, a tranquil spot just north of the awesomely famous St. Paul’s Cathedral is this charming, little garden where City workers in-the-know go to munch their sandwiches of a rainless lunchtime. It’s well worth visiting for anyone who finds themselves in the area, though, more than anything else because it features the utterly unique Watts memorial, a fittingly moving commemoration (via glazed tablets) to those who have died saving the lives of others. A beautiful place – in more ways than one then – with which to conclude this list.