The Best of London: An Insider’s Guide

Iconic and lesser-known attractions in England's capital.
 

If you’re London-bound, no doubt your itinerary is packed with stops at all the iconic museums, palaces, cathedrals and other attractions the city has to offer. But surrounding these world-famous spots are tons of lesser-known sights that shouldn’t be missed. From secret shortcuts and tiny statues to quirky bars and hangouts, these detours are worth adding to your London must-sees.

Beyond Buckingham Palace 

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Big Ben

The City of Westminster (an inner-London borough) is home to some of London’s most historically important buildings including Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben), the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Cathedral and the majestic Buckingham Palace. At more than 800,000 square feet, the Queen’s official London residence has 775 rooms (including 78 bathrooms), 760 windows, a swimming pool and even its own post office. Pop by to see the famous Changing the Guard, daily at 11:30 a.m., and to check if the Queen is home (you’ll know by which flag is flying above—the Royal Standard if she is and the Union Flag if she’s not). Then take a 20-minute stroll down The Mall to Trafalgar Square, where you can start to wind your way into the West End.

Cut through the narrowest alley in the city, Brydges Place—breathe in, it’s just 15 inches wide—and into Covent Garden, a district on the eastern edge of the West End. With boutique shopping and trendy bars, the area is most famous for its 17th-century market where you can browse the stalls for everything from antiques and jewelry to handmade soaps and “Keep Calm and Carry On” socks.

If the skies turn grey, shop your way out of Covent Garden and head north to New Oxford Street where James Smith & Sons umbrella shop has been keeping locals dry since 1830. Harking back to a time when niche was the norm, this iconic store—with rows of handmade “brollies”—has stood by as the surrounding streets evolved from cobblestones and carriages to tarmac and Mini Coopers.

With brolly in hand, or overhead, head southwest through theatre land to Piccadilly Circus (spoiler: there’s no circus). A five-minute meander down a street named Piccadilly will bring you to the world’s first shopping arcade. Burlington Arcade is where to go for a shoeshine, a vintage Rolex or designer clothing. Just don’t whistle or sing while you’re there—both acts are outlawed at this ornate arcade. The ban stems from the 1800s, when “industrious women” living above the arcade would whistle to alert the pickpockets below that police were approaching. Today, the ban is enforced by top hat-wearing Beadles, the arcade’s own private police force. (Fun fact: Apparently, Sir Paul McCartney is exempt from the whistling rule following an incident in the 1980s between Beatle and Beadle.)

Minutes away in Soho, chef Bonny Porter offers a simple menu at her gourmet eatery, Balls & Company. Choose from five types of meatballs—Wagyu beef, pork, chicken, quinoa and salmon—and four sauces. 

Beyond the Museum Quarter

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Kensington Gardens

One of London’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, South Kensington (South Ken for short) boasts three of the city’s biggest free-entry museums. Delve into the world of Darwin and dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, explore space at the Science Museum and discover 5,000 years of art and design at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum.

From South Ken, head north along Queen’s Gate to Kensington Gardens—a 265-acre park beside Hyde Park comprising a palace, a lake, playgrounds, statues and cafés. Walk in the footsteps of past monarchs down shallow-stepped staircases and through the galleries and state apartments at Kensington Palace, where notable royals such as Queen Victoria and, more recently, Diana, Princess of Wales, once lived. (Today, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—William and Kate—and Prince Harry reside in huge private apartments on the sprawling property.)

Outside, take a stroll along the Kensington Gardens’ section of The Serpentine lake and look to the west for a glimpse of the 1912 Peter Pan statue—the park was the inspiration for J.M. Barrie’s first book about the boastful boy who never grew up.

Back on dry land, your kids are your ticket into the Diana Memorial Playground—it’s free and for families only. Here, kids can climb a pirate ship surrounded by sand and play hide and seek around the teepees while you relax nearby. Just outside the playground, the Elfin Oak tree sculpture, covered with carved, painted fairies and forest folk, has been stirring children’s imaginations since 1930.

Cross the road to Leinster Gardens and, as you look at the buildings that line the street, see if you notice anything odd about numbers 23 and 24. Absent of doorknobs or letterboxes and sporting grey, painted windows, these two Victorian townhouses hide a fascinating secret: they aren’t houses at all. A London Underground expansion in 1868 required the demolition of the two properties and a five-storey façade was erected to complement the townhouses on either side. Around the block on Porchester Terrace stand back to see the gaping hole where the houses once stood; this void became a place for the Underground’s original steam-powered locomotives to vent.

From nearby Bayswater Underground station, take the tube three stops to Earl’s Court, the first station on the London Underground network to install escalators, in 1911. On the inaugural run, a one-legged man named “Bumper” Harris rode up and down the escalators to demonstrate its safety to dubious passengers.

Just a five-minute walk from the station, past late-Victorian mansions, the unassuming entrance to the Evans & Peel Detective Agency bar is located on Earls Court Square. Confirm your reservation on the intercom and head downstairs to the bookcase-filled office. Pitch your case to the phony American private-eye behind the desk and a hidden door opens up to a shabby-chic speakeasy with vintage decor. Order the Buffalo wings and The Yuzual Suspects cocktail—Moskovskaya vodka, lychee and hibiscus cordial, almond syrup, egg white and yuzu—and pretend it’s Prohibition time in the 1920s.

Beyond the Tower

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Dennis Severs House, photo by Roelof Bakker

For fans of the macabre and royal regalia, a visit to London would not be complete without a stop in at the centuries-old Tower of London for a tour with a Beefeater who’ll share stories of the castle’s various incarnations, from a torture chamber and prison to a 13th-century zoo housing lions and bears. Once you’ve cruised the castle and clocked the crown jewels, there’s more to see nearby.

Minutes from the Tower is Pudding Lane, where a plaque marks the former site of a small bakery. It was here, in 1666, that a fire broke out and burned for four and a half days, levelling 436 acres of the city. If you’re feeling energetic, the nearby 200-foot-tall Monument to the Great Fire of London offers a glorious view of the city atop its 311-step spiral staircase. Legend has it two men working on the monument fell to their deaths during a high-rise brawl when one accused the other of eating his cheese sandwich. Mice were later found to have been the culprits and, around the corner on Philpot Lane, if you look up at the cornice of the Nero coffee shop, you’ll see two tiny mice carved into the moulding fighting over a piece of cheese; this is the smallest statue in London.

Just east of the Tower, tucked away down an alley in the Whitechapel neighbourhood, is Wilton’s Music Hall. This prized relic began as five separate houses in the 1690s before John Wilton combined the properties in the latter part of the 19th century and added a decorative, arched-ceiling theatre with a balcony. After falling derelict in the 1960s, the music hall was almost lost forever, but a recent almost-£4-million renovation has brought the venue back to life while retaining much of its rustic charm, like exposed brickwork, distressed paint and unpolished wooden floorboards. Stop in for a drink, theatre performance, swing dance class, history tour, or a good ol’ East End “knees up” (translation: party) at the cockney sing-a-long.

Defrag from a day on the town with an intimate tour of Dennis Severs’ House. In the late ’70s, artist Dennis Severs moved into the house and set about creating a living time capsule. As you step inside, you’re invited to silently—no talking allowed—explore the dim and gritty lived-in home of the fictional Jervis clan, an ordinary family of 18th-century Huguenot silk-weavers. Spread over five creaking floors, there are 10 rooms to explore and each gives a realistic sense of everyday, bygone London. The sound of departing footsteps as you enter each room suggests you have just missed one of the occupants, and the flickering candlelight, freshly stoked fireplaces and half-eaten meals add to the eerie vibe.

Later, take the lightning-fast elevator to the 40th floor of the Heron Tower for dinner at the Duck & Waffle—the highest restaurant in the city. Open all hours, the spot offers spectacular city views and a menu to match. Try the playful spicy ox-cheek doughnuts, seared octopus or the signature and eponymous dish, crispy duck confit, golden waffle and fried duck egg topped with mustard-maple syrup.

Beyond St Paul’s Cathedral

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Borough Market

Architecture buffs will be blown away by St. Paul’s Cathedral. Standing at the highest point in London and designed by legendary architect Sir Christopher Wren, whose work is synonymous with the city’s skyline, this iconic structure is considered Wren’s masterpiece. Don’t leave without testing the acoustics of the famous Whispering Gallery.

Afterward, cross the Millennium Bridge and look back over the River Thames for a picture-perfect view of St. Paul’s. When this steel suspension footbridge opened in mid-2000, the natural sway motion of people walking across caused a slight sideways swing, earning it the nickname the Wobbly Bridge. It was closed for adjustments and the sway was fixed, but the nickname has stuck.

Heading east from the bridge, it’s a 10-minute walk to Borough Market, where the screech of trains pulling in to London Bridge Station overhead and the aroma of fried bacon muddled with spicy Catalan stew will guide you in. Order the house burger—tender longhorn beef topped with smoked bacon, smoked Applewood cheddar and relish—from the dapper chap at Whiskey Ginger and continue on into the market to find a treasure trove of picnic-perfect delicacies like Yorkshire preserves, giant cookies and wooden barrels filled with stuffed olives.

Seconds from the market and in the shadow of The Shard (the city’s tallest skyscraper) is St. Thomas’s Church. Climb up its tight spiral staircase into the rafters to explore the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. The church once doubled as a makeshift hospital, but, when the hospital outgrew the space and moved to a new location in 1862, the church’s attic/operating theatre was sealed up and forgotten—until 1956, when a researcher named Raymond Russell climbed up into the garret and knew immediately what he had found. Wander the restored operating theatre and then, as light from the small attic windows bounces off the scattered tinted apothecary jars, peruse the surgical instruments, herbs, extracts and tinctures once used in rudimentary medicine.

Next, hop on the tube to Waterloo or take a 20-minute stroll west along the River Thames to Gabriel’s Wharf. With its pastel-coloured storefronts and village vibe, this is a favourite local hangout for beer-sipping, boutique-shopping and alfresco dining. Pick up a penny-farthing coin purse at Vendula, take home a handmade print from Skylark Galleries, fuel up on crepes, savoury pies and gourmet pizza, or just grab a riverside “bevvy” and watch the world go by.

 

[This story appears in the May 2016 issue of WestJet Magazine and has since been updated.]

 

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