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Eltham Palace's entrance Hall
Eltham Palace © Jonathan Bailey

The 18 best alternative attractions in London

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

Written by
Things To Do Editors
Alex Floyd-Douglass
Jennifer Banful

Tired of Trafalgar Square? Already seen Buckingham Palace? It’s true that London has many wonderful landmarks, sights and attractions – but let’s face it, most of the world knows about them. And most visitors to the capital will be flocking to them. So, why not forego the over-subscribed usual suspects and check out our run-down of the quirky, the weird, the offbeat and the cultish, cool and countrified? In a nutshell: these are places that are a little below-the-radar, but no less for it. They’ll have you exploring pieces and pockets of London that you didn’t even know were there. Go forth and start exploring!  

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Alternative London attractions

Shrek's Adventure! London
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Attractions
  • Theme parks
  • South Bank
  • Recommended

Usher in uniforms circa 1950 will greet you as you enter this enchanting experience. As part of a ‘Dreamworks Tour’ group, you’ll be ferried around on a classic London Routemaster that’s all set to take you on the ‘Shrek Adventure’. Only, something seems to have gone awry… Cue a spirited, panto-style Princess Fiona, who hands out the 3D glasses and leads you on to an alternative mode of transport – which turns out to be the breathtaking 4D opening scene of your adventure. The set design is faultless, and there’s something unexpected waiting around every corner. 

Good for: adventurous explorers of all ages. And fans of the films, of course...

The London Dungeon
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Attractions
  • South Bank
  • Recommended

When you get there take a trip down a cobbled, shadow-laden alleyway, where you’ll join the 90-minute immersive tour that basically guides you through just how grim it was to live in London in the days of yore. Actors in Victorian garb make you jump as they recount tales of the capital’s history: some legendary, some true, all pretty awful. You’ll hear about tyrant kings, pestilential houses, murder, torture, terror and more murder. The high jinks all takes place in superb sets that gather a stonking variety of scenery, smells, rides and atmospheric lighting to make you feel like you’ve left the twenty-first century behind. 

Good for: anyone up for a frighteningly good time...

SEA LIFE London Aquarium
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Attractions
  • Zoos and aquariums
  • South Bank
  • Recommended

It’s not every day that you see sharks and penguins in London, but on the South Bank you can. Almost literally, too, if it wasn’t for the fact that Sea Life London Aquarium is closed on Christmas day. Thousands of tourists and locals alike visit this old council building daily, which has been home to a remarkable watery wonderland since 1997. If you really want to get up close and personal with the sealife, the brave adventurers out there can book a ‘snorkelling with sharks’ experience and dive into the shark tank.

Good for: a dazzling insight into our underwater world

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Kew
  • Recommended

There’s an impressive 250 years (and counting) of history in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, but they’re also paving the way for the future with not one, but two national bases for research into botanical studies. While you’re strolling through the Victorian Palm House or seeking out the luscious flora (including the giant, stinking Titan Arum in the Princess of Wales Conservatory), scientists are working away in offices and laboratories behind the scenes. 

Good for: botanists and those into brilliant botanic beauty.

Emirates Air Line
  • Attractions
  • Towers and viewpoints
  • Royal Docks

With incredible views (without the crowded masses that gather in long queues at the London Eye or The Shard), the Emirates Airline offers a unique perspective on the city. Hop onboard and get ready for some seriously good sightseeing, all for way less than the cost of London's more famous sky-high attractions. Whether you start at either end - Greenwich (next to the O2) or Royal Victoria on the north bank, your in for a scenic treat. 

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.

  • Museums
  • History
  • Marylebone

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.

  • Museums
  • Wimbledon

Don't fancy wrestling a bucket load of other tennis fans for tickets to Wimbledon Championships? No worries – you can enjoy a much more relaxed stroll around the grounds instead, on the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and Tour. Fancy it? You can hop on the tour at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (to give the place its full name). Expect to see glistening trophies and artefacts as well as discovering landmark moments in tennis history.

Good for: Families and sporty geeks.

Eltham Palace
  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Eltham

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. 

RIB Voyages
  • Attractions
  • Ships and boats
  • South Bank

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.

  • Attractions
  • Ships and boats
  • Twickenham

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.

  • Theatre
  • Performing arts space
  • Wapping

Walking down Graces Alley towards Wilton's Music Hall is a bit like stepping into another world – or rather back in time to the mid-19th century, when John Wilton opened his concert hall behind the Mahogany Bar pub. Thanks in part to the Methodist Church and John Betjeman, this lovely old building has survived the intervening century and a half more or less intact. Stop in here for a drink at the bar, or catch one of the live events they regularly have here, from gigs to theatre to family-friendly acts.

Good for: A night out where you can legitimately sing ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ if you find yourself in the mood. 

  • Attractions
  • Brixton

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 place 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.

Freud Museum
  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Hampstead

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 the 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 philosophers.

  • Art
  • Public art
  • Walthamstow

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.

  • Attractions
  • Fenchurch Street

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.

London Wetland Centre
  • Attractions
  • Rivers, lakes and ponds
  • Barnes

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.


17. London: Jack the Ripper Walking Tour

The quickest way to the seedy underbelly of the city is probably through this Jack The Ripper Walking Tour – well, that and a rave at Printworks. Set in the East End, your tour guide will lead you down the alleyways and passages of Jack the Ripper's victims, and of course the infamous Goulston Street. Along with the walking tour, you'll see documentary evidence, still photos and letters so you can piece together the murders along the way. 

Good for lovers of true crime. 

Formally William Morris' family home, this charming, historic, gallery is where you'll find the largest collection of the designer's work alongside other contemporary exhibitions and events. The gallery also sits on Lloyd Park, making it a prime spot to enjoy a picnic afterwards. 

Good for family or friends new to London. Plus, it's free entry for all visitors. 

GYG London Widget

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