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20 alternative London attractions

They may not draw in giant crowds, but these under-the-radar attractions are every bit as intriguing as the big-hitters

Eltham Palace © Jonathan Bailey

Already done Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, or do you just fancy something that reveals London away from the picture-postcard scenery? Here’s our pick of the quirky, the weird, the cool and the countrified; interesting places that will get you exploring other corners of London before you know it.

20 alternative attractions in London

1

Wallace Collection

Just a couple of blocks north of Selfridges and Oxford Street, this grand old townhouse is full of treasures from the days when the super rich really did know how to shop. Ceramics, furniture, armoury and artworks (including Frans Hals’ ‘The Laughing Cavalier’) can be seen in its 25 galleries, all for free. The airy restaurant is wonderful, too.

Good for: An arty family day out or when you want a classy escape from West End bustle.

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Marylebone
2

Emirates Air Line

Yes, there’s the Eye at Waterloo and The Shard overlooking the City, but Emirates Air Line offers a sky-high view of London for a whole other perspective – from the east. Plus it’s a lot cheaper! A single or return trip is less than a tenner, linking North Greenwich (near The O2) to Royal Victoria on the north bank. Take your bike on board and make an onward foray up to Olympic Park.

Good for: A London tour on a budget for kids and when you’ve got guests who are new in town.

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Canning Town
3

Lord's

Although Lord’s cricket ground has its flashy modern parts, it is a seriously esteemed institution and its museum is actually one of the oldest sports museums in the world (opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1953). You have to book a tour of the ground to get into the museum, but it’s worth it if you’re a cricket devotee because among the artefacts is the precious, fragile, original Ashes urn.

Good for: People who can recite Wisden and anyone who fancies a timeless and quintessentially English day out.

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St Johns Wood
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4

Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum

Love tennis but can’t make it to Wimbledon fortnight? The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and Tour lets you indulge in the court drama all year round. Located at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (to give the place its full name), the Museum gives you the chance to see trophies, trace the history of the game and the Championships, see artefacts and get a feel for the pre-match pressure the players are under through interactive and digital displays.

Good for: Families and sporty geeks.

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Wimbledon
5

Eltham Palace

Design devotees and those with an eye for serious style over royal bling should take a trip to south-east London to see this truly elegant stately home. You can still see much of the beautiful old medieval palace here, but the main focus is on the stunning 1930s art deco work that was commissioned by the art-loving millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld. The interiors were done to the highest standards of the era, resulting in a time capsule of sheer deco chic.

Good for: Fashionistas who crave a history fix.

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Eltham
6

RIB Voyages

There are few places in London where you can go really fast. Good thing, too, if you want to survive crossing the road. But when it comes to seeing London from the river, you can swap a genteel cruise for a speedy romp in a RIB (rigid inflatable boat). From the London Eye Millennium Pier the tour starts as a fairly regular river tour, but once you’re past Tower Bridge things speed up, scooting all the way down to Docklands.

Good for: James Bond-style sightseeing.

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South Bank
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7

Eel Pie Island

The Thames at its prettiest is seen upstream. From Putney to Hampton Court and beyond, things get interesting, with little islands dotted along its way. One of the larger islands, Eel Pie became famous in the 1960s for blues gigs and later for its recording studio. Now this privately owned island is home to a nature reserve and artists’ studios. Grab your chance to see it for yourself on one of the few open days each year.

Good for: River explorers and Thameside walkers.

Photo © Rob Greig

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Twickenham
8

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Also known as Neasden Temple, this opulent, vast mandir, built in a traditional Hindu design, is actually less than 30 years old, but it has a timeless beauty. An important place of worship, it is also a welcoming site to visit for free – a treat for its architectural interest, to see the stunning, intricate carvings, and to explore the ‘Understanding Hinduism’ exhibition.

Good for: Families with a world view.

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Brent Park
9

London’s Roman Amphitheatre

The City of London holds many surprises. One of the best can be found in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery. Free to visit, there is a walk-in excavation of an amphitheatre that was built when this was Londinium. Light displays also offer a chance to get a feel for what this sporting arena would have been like in action. While you’re here, check out the masterpieces in the art gallery upstairs. Best of all, it’s free!

Good for: A super-cheap family day out, combined with the nearby Museum of London.

Photo © PastLondon

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Mansion House
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10

Wilton's Music Hall

This is a magical place tucked away on a Wapping backstreet. Originally created as a theatre, music hall and bar in Victorian times by knocking together five seventeenth century houses, in recent years it has been carefully restored to make it a useable performance space again. Happily, you can still sense its glorious past in its shabby chic (no shiny refurbishment here). Go along for dance nights, family shows and plays through the year, or meet mates for drinks here Monday to Saturday.

Good for: A night out with authentic East End cred.

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Wapping
11

Lee Valley VeloPark

London 2012 left us with a great legacy. You can go swimming in the Aquatics Centre, white-water rafting on the Olympic course in Lee Valley, slide down the ArcelorMittal Orbit and cycle in the VeloPark. With British success at Rio 2016 increasing the nation’s enthusiasm for cycling, you’ll have to book in advance, but there’s track and BMX options including the velodrome (if you take an accreditation course). You can even hire a bike if you don’t have your own wheels.

Good for: Passionate pedallers of all ages.

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Stratford
12

Brixton Windmill

You don’t have to go out of London to get your fix of countryside charm. You don’t even have to go as far as Wimbledon Common, because the pretty black-painted windmill in Blenheim Gardens SW9 has all the picture-postcard cuteness you need. There are tours inside through spring and summer (check their website for dates) and regular events like storytelling sessions and food festivals in the parkland around it.

Good for: Romantics and Windy Miller wannabes.

Photo © Owen Llewellyn

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Brixton
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13

Dennis Severs’ House

The East End has enjoyed a colourful history influenced by the migrant populations who’ve lived here alongside London’s poorest communities. Now, in what has become Spitalfields’ trendiest quarter, one terrace house on Folgate Street offers a chance to glimpse nearly 200 years of history. In silence you are lead from room to room, glimpsing scenes as if the inhabitants had just left. The settings reflect life at ten different periods from 1724 to 1914 and the result is magical.

Good for: An alternative history of London.

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Spitalfields
14

Foundling Museum

Recommended

The Foundling Hospital was opened by Thomas Coram in 1739 to care for babies that were at risk of abandonment. When its last pupil was placed in foster care in 1954, it had raised and educated 25,000 children. Trace the sad histories of these little lives, see the desperate mementos left by mothers forced to hand over a child they couldn’t care for, and find out how artists like Hogarth and Handel helped establish the first children’s charity and first public art gallery.

Good for: Families and history lovers.

Photo © The Foundling Museum

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Bloomsbury
15

Freud Museum

When Sigmund Freud and his family escaped Austria and fled from the Nazis in 1938, they made Hampstead their home. Here Freud studied and worked, and now his home is a museum telling the story of psychoanalysis and the influence of Freud’s work on culture. It also offers a chance to see the desk where he wrote (late in the night) and the famous couch. There are events and exhibitions through the year, too.

Good for: Curious minds and Freudian philosophisers.

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Frognal
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16

B Afternoon Tea Bus Tour

Tick those must-do-London boxes with a charming afternoon tea by taking a tour of London’s famous sights on a Routemaster bus. Brigit and her team will supply you with a well-brewed tea (champagne options available) and fill your dainty table with sandwiches, savouries, scones and French cakes and tarts. Gluten-free and veggie options are available too.

Good for: A chilled day out or a treat for mum and dad.

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Covent Garden
17

William Morris Gallery

English designer, artist and activist William Morris was a leading light of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This gallery is set in his family home and was re-opened in 2012 after extensive work. It’s now a glorious space to explore design, textiles and Morris’ work, as well as a genteel spot in Walthamstow’s leafier reaches, on the edge of Lloyd Park. If you’re a V&A regular, this place is the perfect addition to your tour of London’s design heritage hotspots. Exhibitions and events cover a spectrum from art to social politics.

Good for: Artists, socialists and people who get excited about wallpaper (like we do).

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Walthamstow
18

Helicopter tours

There are few finer sights than a bird’s eye view of London. With all those incredible landmarks in every direction, the Thames winding its way through the hustle and bustle of the streets below and the home counties on the horizon, it’s right up there with the very best skylines in the world. So if you've ever fancied drinking it all in, then taking to the skies for a helicopter ride or tour in London is a pretty good shout. Seriously, iconic sights such as the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the O2 Arena, the London Eye and The Shard will never look better.

Good for: Seeing what the birdies see.

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19

Sky Garden

Located on Fenchurch Street, right in the heart of the City, this beautiful venue caused quite a stir when it launched back in 2015. It still remains a draw. Zip up 35 floors of the Walkie Talkie's shapely layers and you'll be transported to a public garden with some truly spectacular views. Sky Garden boasts three storeys of landscaped gardens lush with South African and Mediterranean plants, observation decks, an open-air terrace, two restaurants, a bar and an uninterrupted panorama of the city's skyline. Entry is free, but visitors must book their 90-minute timeslot at least three days in advance on the website. 

Good for: Views that'll flora ya.

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Aldgate
20

London Wetland Centre

Recommended

If you know your London, you’ll appreciate that it’s not just the buildings that made the city but its remarkable outdoor spaces. It does a body good to get truly wild from time to time – so head out to the urban oasis of lakes, ponds and meadows of the Wetland Centre. Observe the ducks and otters, take in the serene scenery and let the kids get free-range in the adventure playground.

Good for: Twitchers and families.

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Barnes

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By: Laura Lee Davies

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