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Unusual and original things to do in London

Take a walk on the weird side in London at these out-there exhibitions, attractions and events

Sarah Cohen
Written by
Time Out editors
&
Sarah Cohen
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London is so stuffed full of world-class theatres, museums, attractions, music venues and parks that you’d have to live here for aeons before you’d be able to tick them all off your bucket list. A noble pursuit, for sure, but do you ever hanker to experience the quirkier side of the capital? Our guide to unusual and original things to do in London sends you off the beaten track to those one-of-a-kind, unexpected places and experiences that give the city its edge. Read on for animal adventures, historical havens, culinary curiosities and loads of other strange stuff.

RECOMMENDED: 101 things to do in London.

The best unusual things to do in London

Explore a little-known arty island

The stretch of the Thames between Putney and Hampton Court contains several strange surprises, one of which is a number of small islands dotted along the watercourse. One of the best-known (and biggest) of these is Eel Pie Island. First finding fame as the site of blues gigs in the ’60s, and then for its recording studio, it’s now got its own nature reserve and a collection of artists’ studios. Keep your eyes peeled for Eel Pie’s open days when you’ll get the chance to visit this privately owned Thames delight.

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Get your ’80s groove on at Little Nan’s
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Deptford
  • price 2 of 4

Welcome to full-throttle ’80s front-room fetishism, with cocktail menus hidden inside Charles and Diana memorabilia books, mocktails served in leopard-print mugs, soap stars in photo frames and cat-covered cushions galore. Little Nan’s Bar – which has now branched out to open venues in Fitzrovia and Stockwell, as well as ludicrous party pads to hire like Flat Butcher – was set up in honour of owner Tristan’s late grandmother, who made it to 104. Expect leopard print, china and Pat references aplenty.

Discover a kitsch treasure trove
  • Museums
  • East Dulwich

Down a perfectly normal-looking street in East Dulwich you'll find a perfectly not-normal-looking abode. Taking the concept of one man's trash being another man’s treasure, artist Stephen Wright is in the process of covering every available surface of this home in his kitschy mosaics. Everything here comes together in a magical hideaway that’s only open to the public a few days a year.

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Ann Summers is all right for some, but if you’re on the lookout for something a little more bespoke in the bedroom, look no further than this ceramic dildo decorating class. Lovingly adorn your erotic pottery however you please, pop it in the kiln and look forward to it arriving at your house two weeks later. Rather than be embarrassed about people discovering what’s in the bedroom drawer, you’ll be pleased to show this one off.

Splash down white-water rapids
  • Sport and fitness
  • Stadiums
  • Waltham Cross

This London 2012 Olympic Games venue is open to the public for adrenaline-fuelled white-water rafting, canoeing and kayaking sessions – riding the rapids that challenged the world’s best makes for an action-packed experience. On the centre’s raft adventure, you’ll be high-siding, spinning and nose-dunking on the Olympic Standard Competition course before you know it.

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Take selfies at an OTT neon gallery
  • Art
  • Galleries
  • Walthamstow

God’s Own Junkyard showcases neon artist Chris Bracey’s personal collection of work in a salvage yard in Walthamstow. It contains everything from his signage for Soho sex clubs in the ’60s to his work for the movie industry, including pieces that were used in ‘Captain America’, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, ‘Byzantium’ and more. Once you’re done being dazzled, you can grab drinks and snacks at the yard’s Rolling Scones Cafe (lolz).

Walk along a pretty creek
  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours

Take a guided walk at low tide around Deptford Creek, one of the last natural creeks to survive in the UK. The pretty area is a haven for freshwater and saltwater plants and animals including birds, butterflies and a huge range of wild flowers. Walks last two hours, cost £15, and booking is essential. 

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  • Museums
  • Childhood
  • Fitzrovia

This quirky museum of old playthings is housed in a pair of wonderfully creaky, unrestored Georgian townhouses. A £9 ticket allows you to shimmy your way through six tiny rooms packed with board games, marbles, money boxes, puppets, wax dolls, toy theatres, doll’s houses and wonderful, intricately detailed model shops, as well as the world’s oldest surviving teddy and a 4,000-year-old mouse made from Nile clay. By turns beguiling and creepy, it’s fascinating for adults who want a hit of nostalgia.

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  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Spitalfields

The ten rooms of this ornate Huguenot house have been decked out to recreate snapshots of life in Spitalfields between 1724 and 1914. A tour through the ‘still-life drama’, as American creator Dennis Severs put it, takes you through the cellar, kitchen, dining room, smoking room and upstairs to the bedrooms. Tours take place on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons, so it could be a quirky alternative to a post-work drink. 

  • Museums
  • History
  • Holborn

When he wasn’t designing notable buildings (among them the original Bank of England), Sir John Soane (1753-1837) obsessively collected art, furniture and architectural ornamentation. In the nineteenth century, he turned his house into a museum to which, he said, ‘amateurs and students’ should have access. That’ll be us then. The result is this amazing place in central London, open Wednesday through Sunday, which is completely free to visit. Just remember to book ahead – you can't rock up unannounced. 

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Paddle along the Thames in a canoe
  • Attractions
  • Limehouse

Kayak down the Thames in a bovine boat as part of this watery sightseeing tour. A two- or three-person vessel decorated with a black-and-white cow print will be your mode of transport. There are several waterway routes you can pick from, including Hackney Wick or around Limehouse Basin, and some come with meal stops for hungry canoers. 

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Hackney

This Mare Street curiosity shop is both on the art circuit and determinedly off any beaten track. Peek through the windows and you’ll see a world in which velvet-cloaked Victorians, or perhaps The Mighty Boosh, might reside. Entering the shop, which is also the spiritual home of the esoterically minded Last Tuesday Society, reveals a plethora of shells, skulls, taxidermy specimens and assorted oddities. 

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Dine in the dark
  • Restaurants
  • Clerkenwell

A unique dining experience that aims to encourage participants to re-evaluate their approach to eating. At Dans le Noir? you eat in complete darkness, so it’s the taste, smell and texture of the food on which you focus. Before being led into the pitch-black basement by the restaurant’s blind waiters, you select one of four colour-coded mystery menus. The best part? If you spill anything down your top, no one’s going to notice. 

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Tour the most macabre medical specimens

If you're the kind of person who is fascinated by medical mysteries and don’t mind a bit of gore, swing by Barts Pathology Museum. The Grade II-listed building is home to 5,000 specimens including human organs and tissues such as a gout-inflated hand, floating in glass jars. The macabre collection also holds the skull of John Bellingham, who assassinated British prime minister Spencer Perceval in 1812.

Although the museum is usually reserved for visits by medical students, it does open up to the public with special events from time to time.

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Have cocktails in a public toilet
  • Bars and pubs
  • Wine bars
  • Clapham

The proposition of a drink in a public loo has never been a very appealing one. That was until WC opened up inside an old toilet in Clapham. But don’t be put off your Martini: not only is it surprisingly beautiful, it’s – dare we say it – romantic. Spend a penny on a well-curated wine list and a selection of cheese and charcuterie. WC, geddit?

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Bank

There’s a wonderful world to discover below ground level, and we’re not talking about the tube. The Roman Temple of Mithras lay hidden for around 2,000 years before it was rediscovered in central London. Now, it’s preserved in a state-of-the-art museum, where visitors can ogle some of the exquisite artefacts that were left or lost by the very first Londoners. Look out for the ancient Oyster cards carved in marble… kidding.   

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Know the Burger King at Euston like the back of your hand? Maybe it’s time to explore what lies beneath. There is a labyrinth of dark passageways that have been concealed for more than 50 years – many of them with perfectly preserved mid-century design. Some parts could be lost forever due to redevelopment works for HS2 – like the beautifully tiled Leslie Green station. Book on to a tour and see it while you can. 

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  • Bars and pubs
  • CafĂ© bars
  • Caledonian Road
  • price 1 of 4

It looks more like a psytrance rave, but a Neon Naked life drawing session is actually an experiment in light, texture and movement. Expect models adorned in glorious neon accessories and body paint, throwing different poses for you to capture. Keen drawers – and there’s no experience necessary btw – are encouraged to experiment with different techniques, like line-drawing and pointillism using neon paint. Trippy. 

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  • Restaurants
  • Brick Lane

There’s one thing better than bagels: rainbow bagels. Head to Brick Lane to find the psychedelic treats in all their technicolour glory. There’s plenty of bagel shops here that sell them: we love the ones from the yellow Beigel Shop (155 Brick Lane) especially. Fill yer boots and tuck into the most fabulous of all the baked goods. 

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  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • South Kensington

Imagine passing a kidney stone the size of a mango. Not only did it really happen, but the folks at the Science Museum got their hands on it to show in their Medicine gallery. The speckled display wall looks rather beautiful from afar. Then you get up close and realise it's made up of hundreds of urinary and gall stones which have been removed from the human body. Nice. 

Visit the Horniman Walrus
  • Things to do
  • Forest Hill

There are more than 350,000 fascinating objects on display at this museum, but the Horniman Walrus is without a doubt our favourite. The stuffed animal has its own Twitter account, for starters. Ol’ tusky first arrived in London in 1886, and found a permanent place in Londoners’ hearts for its slightly rotund appearance. Only a handful of people had seen a real walrus at the time it would have been made, perhaps that’s why it was overstuffed. Or maybe, like us, HW over-indulged on rainbow bagels.  

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  • Restaurants
  • Seafood
  • Mayfair

Ah, oysters. The height of sophistication, right? Well, they were considered peasant food in London in ye olde days, served up on street corners as snacks. Today, they’re enjoying a renaissance thanks to a foodie boom and their fab sustainability credentials. With that in mind, there’s no need to be intimidated. Bentley’s Oyster Masterclass is one of the best in the biz: eat a load of oysters and master shucking for £75, which includes a glass of champers. That’s worth shelling out for. 

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