So, think you’re London’s king of culture because you spent a whole day at the Natural History Museum and went home with a pop-up book about fossils? You ain’t seen NOTHIN’. For as well as the much-visited big hitters, London is also home to a whole load of lesser-known, equally awesome museums catering to all manner of niche interests. Read on and see what takes your fancy.
London's best hidden museums and libraries
A 25-foot Alaskan totem pole outside the main entrance gives a clue as to what’s in here: a wealth of quirky anthropological and natural history treasures. You can while away hours perusing the place, but the Grade II-listed natural history gallery – refreshingly devoid of computer touchscreens – possibly contains the most memorable: a comically overstuffed walrus (the work of an over-zealous 1880s taxidermist).
Wandering among this collection of thousands of medical specimens and cases of surgical instruments is fascinating. It’s not gruesome, though. The space is super-stylish, with the clearly labelled glass specimen jars displayed neatly along clean glass shelves. The best exhibits are pickled organs from soldiers who fought in the Battle of Waterloo, Winston Churchill’s dentures and the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the 'Irish giant'.
The world’s only museum dedicated to fans. It’s a tiny space consisting of two rooms with an overall collection of 3,500 antique fans, some of which date as far back as the eleventh century. If you’re not a fan fan, head for the Orangery where teas are served at 3pm on Tuesdays and Sundays.
The gallery’s quite extraordinary, lined with botanical paintings made in the field all over the world during the nineteenth century by the remarkably intrepid Marianne North. The gallery walls are lined with more than 800 paintings of flowers, landscapes, animals and birds made in America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile.
Uniquely London, this eccentric museum is more like theatre. Visitors take an eerie tour around a Spitalfields merchant's house, preserved as if an eighteenth-century family has just vacated it. Devised and created by Severs in the 1970s, the joy of this ingenious adventure comes from imagining what isn't seen. Tucked on a cobbled street near Liverpool Street station, the house is open sporadically, so it's not just a question of knowing where it is, but when you might get to see it...
Tucked away in Somerset House, the Courtauld may not have a major visible presence, but it contains many of London's major artworks and, unlike the National or the Tates, there's no need for a ticketed time slot to control overcrowded galleries. In fact, on most visits one has the luxury of the place almost to oneself; surprising as the Courtauld has several paintings that would be the centrepiece of any blockbuster. Cranach, Rubens, Botticelli, Goya, Monet, Renoir... Need we go on?
This quirky museum of old playthings is housed in a pair of unrestored period town houses. The collection includes board games, marbles, money-boxes, puppets, wax dolls, toy theatres, dollshouses and wonderful, intricately-detailed model shops, the world's oldest surviving teddy and a 4,000-year-old mouse made from Nile clay. The old-fashioned toy shop is a wonderland that’s refreshingly free of computerised toys.
If you’re not fazed by the skeletons of a walrus, a baboon and a giant iguanadon that face the entrance, you’ll find many a fascinating animal specimen here (quite a lot of them preserved in glass jars, and plenty of skeletons). Part of University College London, it might at first appear chaotically cluttered, but specimens are carefully categorised into evolutionary groups. Watch out for the dodo whose bones are stored in a box and laid out in specially cutout padding.
With just a small plaque to mark it out from its neighbours, it's easy to miss the only surviving London house where Dickens lived, from 1837-1839. There are four floors of Dickens material in this townhouse, decorated as it would have been during his tenancy, from posters advertising his public speaking to rare editions of his work.
Those in search of an escape hatch from the garish West End should head for the London Library, a haven for the intelligentsia since 1841. The book depository of choice for the likes of Tennyson, TS Eliot, AS Byatt and Tom Stoppard, it's a literary pleasure dome where classification is eccentric (see their 'Science and Miscellaneous' section) and aimless browsing is the order of the day.
Tongue and Brisket
A really excellent salt beef sarnie is a rare breed, and one that gets you change from a tenner is rarer still. This might explain why, come 1pm, the queue snakes out of Tongue & Brisket’s Soho branch. The menu is short but sweet; salt beef brisket, chicken schnitzel, roast beef or tongue on rye or in a box. ‘Have whatever you want. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lazy or lying,’ quipped the jolly old-timer behind the glass counter-cabinet. I’d edit that sentence after our visit – have whatever you like, as long as it’s the salt beef on rye. Chunks of freshly carved deep pink brisket and ribbons of refreshing pickled cucumber came wedged between soft sliced rye. The meat, not overly lean or fatty, had the perfect salt balance. My request for extra mustard was more than met, sharp enough that it brought tears to my eyes. For a blindingly affordable £5.60 you get sharpness, sweetness, tang and crunch all wrapped in a wax paper parcel. The rule of thumb (or perhaps tongue) here is if you can’t see it, don’t order it (with the exception of the mammoth house pickle – a snip at £1). The food at the deli counter is homemade and delicious; by contrast, the cooked-to-order chicken schnitzel had the air of cardboard about it and sauerkraut from a jar lacked flavour. If it’s sunny, eschew the somewhat hostel-like dining space and take your lunch to St. Anne’s Church Gardens off Wardour Street. Pure salt beef bliss.
Venue says: “Traditional, homemade and high-quality food is the pillar stone of our business. We pride ourselves on making homemade, traditional dishes.”