20 alternative attractions in London
A short stroll north of Selfridges and Oxford Street will take you up to Manchester Square, and to this grand old townhouse full of treasures from the days when the super-rich really did know how to shop. Gorgeous and opulent ceramics, furniture, armoury and artworks (including Frans Hals’ ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ and Fragonard’s hilariously saucy ‘The Swing’) can be seen across its 25 galleries, all for the cost of absolutely nothing. The airy restaurant is wonderful, too.
Good for: An arty family day out, or when you want a classy escape from slogging through the West End.
If you’re after a unique view across the city but fancying joining all those crowds massed in line for the London Eye or The Shard, then step aboard Emirates Air Line. This bad boy offers a seriously good sky-high view of London from a different perspective – 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. Cyclists should note that bikes can be taken on board – why not take your two-wheeled steed across the river 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 and awestruck by all the landmarks.
This esteemed institution has its flashy, modern bits, but Lord’s cricket ground is also home to one of the oldest sports museums in the world (opened by the Duke of Edinburgh back in 1953). Okay, 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. Which, in cricketing circles, pretty much amounts to the Turin Shroud.
Good for: People who can recite Wisden and anyone who fancies a timeless and quintessentially English day out listening to the sound of willow against leather.
If you don't want to fight with thousands of other fans to grab tickets to the next Wimbledon Championships, take a much more chilled trip to the grounds – 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 gleaming 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 various interactive and digital displays.
Good for: Families and sporty geeks.
Those with an eye for style over (dare we say it, royal) substance should venture 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 refurbishment 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. The beautiful foyer is a definite highlight – fans of the ‘Poirot’ TV series might recognise it from an episode in which the great Belgian detective walks down its stairs.
Good for: Fashionistas who crave a history fix, and conversely, history buffs who want a spot of high fashion.
There are few places in London where you can go really fast. A good thing too, in general, given the levels of traffic everywhere. 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. Basically, this is the whitest your knuckles will ever get while travelling down old Father Thames.
Good for: Sightseeing with a slightly breakneck, James Bond vibe.
If you head from east to west on the Thames, things start getting quite interesting. Along the Putney to Hampton Court stretch and beyond, little islands start popping up along the way. And one of the larger ones, Eel Pie Island, 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. You can grab a rare chance to see it for yourself on one of the few open days they hold there each year. A curious, little-known river haven.
Good for: River explorers and Thameside walkers.
Photo © Rob Greig
Constructed between 1992 and 1995, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is perhaps better known as Neasden Temple. You’ll find it on the side of the North Circular dual carriageway – so not exactly your ideal place for a spot of sightseeing. However, ignore the traffic and venture inside this traditional Hindu Mandir (entry is free) to feel a sense of peace and calm. Plus, you’re bound to get lost in the intricate, elaborate tile and stonework.
Good for: Architecture enthusiasts.
Everyone knows that London has a long and rich history – but not everyone knows that there are still traces of Roman-era Londinium to be found. And guess what? You can actually visit some of them. If you want a sample of what the capital was like in the days when it was ruled by Roman governors, head to the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery. Down there, you'll find one of the many surprises that London holds: an amphitheatre. Light displays give you the 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. But, best of all... it’s free!
Good for: A super-cheap family day out, especially when combined with the nearby Museum of London.
Photo © PastLondon
This bona-fide East End gem ia tucked away on an otherwise unremarkable Wapping backstreet. Originally created as a theatre, music hall and bar in Victorian times by the knocking together of 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 carefully styled shabby chic (no soulless refurbishment here, which would surely kill that lovely sense of faded grandeur). Go along for dance nights, family shows and plays through the year, or meet mates for drinks here from Monday to Saturday.
Good for: A night out where you can legitimately sing ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ if you find yourself in the mood.
London 2012 left us with a great legacy in the form of several cutting-edge stadia and sports facilities. Seriously, we’re spoilt for choice. 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.
Believe it or not, you can get a slice of countryside charm even within the limits of Zone 2, thanks to the black-painted windmill that stands in Blenheim Gardens, SW9. The Brixton Windmill is pretty as a picture, and harks back to the days when the area was still a stretch of arable land outside the urban hub of London (far more recently than you might imagine). There are regular tours that take places throughout spring and summer: head to their website for specific dates and times. Plus, there are fun additional events like storytelling sessions and the occasional foodie festival in the parkland that surrounds it.
Good for: Those who want a bit of rural respite from city madness, without ever straying that far from it, and ‘Jonathan Creek’ fans.
At 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields is an utter oddity of a museum. In fact, to call it a museum is to miss the point: this labour of love by the late American expat Dennis Sever is more of kind of walk-through historical experience, and a celebration of East End’s role as a haven for migrant communities throughout the centuries. Two hundred years of history are explored via a preserved tableau of a fictionalised family of Hugenot silkweavers. In silence, you’re led from room to room, glimpsing scenes as if the inhabitants had just left, down to the (real) food lying on the tables. The settings reflect life at ten different periods from 1724 to 1914 and the result is eerily magical.
Good for: A history of London that doesn't involve text panels and vitrines.
Philanthropist Thomas Coram set up The Foundling Museum is 1739 as a place to care for babies at risk of abandonment. It ran right up until 1954, when its last child was placed in foster care, and in the intermittent years, it raised and educated over 25,000 children. You can trace what are undeniably the very 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
When Sigmund Freud and his family escaped Austria and fled from the Nazis in 1938, they made Hampstead their home. Here, the exiled Freud studied and worked, and now his home is a museum telling the story of his ground-breaking psychoanalysis and the influence of his work on wider culture. It also offers a chance to see the desk where he wrote (late in the night) and that famous couch on which his analysands would lie. There are events and exhibitions from high-profile contemporary artists throughout the year, too.
Good for: Curious minds and Freudian philosophisers.
Venue says London’s most intriguing museum was the final home of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Visit and see Freud's iconic couch.
Brigit and her team run a truly splendid experience that manages to tick a few boxes in one fell swoop. You get to board a classic Routemaster bus, take in lots of iconic London landmarks as you tour the city centre – and tuck into a delicious afternoon to along the way. There’s a champagne option available, as well as the classic char, as well as a spread of sandwiches, savouries, scones and French cakes and tarts. Gluten-free and veggie options are available too.
Good for: A treat for your mum or nan, perhaps. Or a giggle with your pals.
Victorian designer, artist and activist William Morris was a pioneer of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and this Walthamstow institution is based at his family home. After extensive refurb work, it reopened in 2012, and is looking better than ever. The gallery is a fantastic space to explore design, textiles and Morris’ work (trust us, there’s way more to the guy than pretty wallpaper) as well as a genteel spot in E17’s leafier reaches, on the edge of Lloyd Park. If you’re a fan of the V&A, this place is the perfect addition to your tour of London’s design heritage hotspots. The temporary exhibitions and events held here cover topics that span art to politics.
Good for: Artists, socialists and, yes, people who get excited about flowery wallpaper and beautiful furniture.
Rooftop gardens and skyscraper viewing platforms be damned: for a really, really good aerial view of London, we suggest taking to the skies in a helicopter ride. At this level, you can spot the landmarks, watching the traffic and hustle and bustle along the streets, and marvel at the sheer scope of the urban sprawl with real clarity. Plus – c’mon, you’re in a chopper! Iconic sights such as the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the O2 Arena, the London Eye and The Shard will never look better than from the passenger seat of this particular mode of transport.
Good for: Those who are genuinely keen for a birds-eye view of London – possibly with ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ playing in their head, who knows?
Known widely as the Walkie Talkie, it’s here at 20 Fenchurch Street that you’ll find the expansive Sky Garden. As its name hints, it’s right at the top of the skyscraper and entry is free (although you have to book in advance). Once you’ve scaled the 35 floors – by lift, of course – you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the city set amongst lush green flora. Plants up there are typically native to South Africa and the Mediterranean, but thrive in this atmosphere meticulously maintained for them. If you’re feeling a little light-headed, there are two restaurants and a bar up here to sustain you, however be warned, the prices are as high as the viewing platform.
Good for: Getting a great skyline pic for free.
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.