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House of Dreams

Ten really, really secret things to see in London

You might think there are no more secrets in this city, but we’ve dug really deep for these hidden bits of London. Just don’t go telling everyone, okay?

Written by
Time Out London editors

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as discovering a super secret London location. It's like unearthing treasure while hunting through one of the city’s many markets, but ever so slightly better.

With that smug, insider feeling in mind, forget all the usual suspects, the major attractions and the rush of Leicester Square. It’s time to switch up your London experience. Avoid the foot ache of tourist congestion and step onto pavements less travelled with our totally confidential guide to the best secret places in London.

Just remember, the best secrets stay secrets, so if someone asks where you’re off to, make like No Doubt and don’t speak.

RECOMMENDED: The best of secret London

An artist's in-house treasure trove
  • Museums
  • East Dulwich

Down a perfectly normal-looking street in East Dulwich you'll find a perfectly not-normal-looking abode known as the House of Dreams. Taking the concept of one man's trash being another man's treasure and running with it, artist Stephen Wright is in the process of covering every available surface of his home in his kitschy mosaics. Whether it's abandoned dolls or pen lids, everything here comes together in a magical hideaway that's only open to the public a few days each year. 

Did you know? One display includes lines from Wright's diary, including one devastating passage written in the hours after his partner, Donald Jones, passed away.

A house stuck in 1900
  • Museums
  • History
  • Kensington

Although from the outside 18 Stafford Terrace looks like every other house in this otherwise unremarkable west London street, stepping through the door is like passing through a wormhole into the late Victorian era. The inside of this townhouse has been left largely unchanged since cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne lived there until his death in 1910. Remarkably, generations which followed havenít modernised or disposed of the family's papers, leaving the home a freeze-frame of middle-class aestheticism in the middle of Kensington.

Did you know? You can read the diaries kept by Ed and his wife Marion too. Spoiler alert: everyone gets ill. A lot.

  • Shopping
  • Garden centres
  • Battersea

'If Instagram was a garden centre, it would be Battersea Flower Station'. Such is the intriguing claim made in the promotional video for this delightfully cute corridor of lush flora and fauna. Is it filled with adorable kittens and Cara Delevingne partying with her hot mates? Well, no. But it's as pretty as a picture. Occupying a narrow space next to some railway tracks, it's bursting on either side with all kinds of plant life and is a charming little spot for an afternoon amble - even if you have no garden to furnish, and are just after something to Instagram...

Did you know? BFS is firmly rooted in the community and has a little shop that sells locally made products, from cards and candles to bread and jam.

  • Restaurants
  • Indian
  • Fitzrovia

Fitzroy Square is home to that most elusive of prizes in London: a good hot meal for less than a fiver. Although it seems wrong to waltz into the Indian YMCA when you're not staying there, rest assured: anyone is allowed to eat in its no-frills canteen. So take a seat at one of the dining hall tables, along with the student and businessman regulars. There are usually a couple of curries to choose from, supplemented with rice, chapati and dal. That should keep you going until dinnertime, no problem.

Did you know? Gandhi spoke at the Indian YMCA during his visit to London in 1931 - though it was based in Gower Street back then, so he would have missed out on the current place's £2 veggie curry.

  • Art
  • Sculpture
  • Millbank

Galleries tend to squirrel away works that aren't on display, but at the Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room you can get up close and personal with its vast archive. That means you can flick through Turner's sketchbooks and preparatory watercolours. You have to make an appointment and know what you want to see, but that little bit of homework is well worth it for a chance to hold a piece of unseen art history.

Did you know? While there's plenty to see here, there could have been more - when the Tate was flooded in 1928, many works were damaged or lost forever.

  • Things to do
  • Event spaces
  • Elephant & Castle

Not a secret: there's a bingo hall at the top of the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre. Massive secret: it offers a bingo experience like no other, in such gloriously kitsch and retro surroundings that you half-expect John Waters to be calling the numbers. The canteen serves up mammoth portions of super-cheap curried goat. The bar does budget bottles of Dragon Stout and Red Label Aperitif. The air rings with victorious bingo cries of 'Yo!'. And it all takes place amid great swathes of psychedelic carpet, gleaming Formica tables and threadbare fold-down seating. Oh, and you can apparently win money too.

Did you know? Opposite the bingo hall are some of the cheapest claw machines around, so you can try and win a giant minion without feeling guilty about it. Besides, it's for your baby cousin anyway, right?

A hidden stash of rare rugs
  • Shopping
  • Home decor
  • Soho

Amid the well-heeled shoppers and backpack-toting tourists, there's a room that only a few make it to on the fourth floor of Liberty that's quite unlike anything else in central London. The rug room is draped in handmade Oriental and Persian rugs that you half-expect to fly off with you on a quest for an enchanted lamp. You might be just off Regent Street, but it feels like a souk in Marrakesh.

Did you know? The world's most expensive rug is the Persian Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet, which sold for $33,765,000(around £22.2m) at auction in 2013. At £200,000, Liberty's priciest floor-filler is a snip by comparison.

A true taste of the Far East in the West End
  • Things to do
  • Chinatown

At first glance, there seems little reason to venture down Dansey Place, a little back lane in Chinatown mainly filled with the rubbish bins of surrounding restaurants. But look past these and you'll find a number of shops that could be straight out of Beijing. Near the Macclesfield Street end, boxes of Chinese veg reveal a couple who sell groceries out of their front room. Halfway down is an excellent fishmonger with tanks of enormous lobsters and bundles of razor clams. And at the Wardour Street end, there's Lo's noodle factory, where you pay just £1 for a huge bag of the freshest ho fun or cheung fun, straight from the tiny factory where it's made.

Did you know? London's Chinatown wasn't always where it is today. In the eighteenth century Chinese sailors settled in Limehouse, and the city's community remained in the area until after the Second World War.

A historic woodland in the south
  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Sydenham

Even at the height of summer, when every scrap of green space in the city seems to have been claimed by a sun-worshipping Londoner, you can still find a quiet spot in historic Sydenham Hill Wood. The last remaining part of the ancient Great North Wood - which once covered all of south London from Deptford to Selhurst - this nine-hectare patch of dense woodland, crisscrossed with pathways, is one of the capital's most atmospheric outdoor areas. To add to the magic, if you walk far enough into the woods, you'll come across the curious faux-ruins of a Victorian folly. 

Did you know? A disused railway tunnel among the trees is apparently home to roosting bats. Don't let that put you off visiting, though.

  • Things to do
  • London Bridge

Maybe you don't spend a lot of time skulking around the capital's back alleys. Fret not: in general, you're not missing out on much. But Gibbon's Rent is a notable exception. Tucked away in Southwark, this once-dingy cut through between two blocks of flats has been transformed into a leafy oasis, with potted plants brought in by local residents and workers alike. It's the perfect spot to escape your desk for a sandwich or some chill time. Book lovers should also note that it's home to a tiny take-one-leave-one library in a wardrobe. 

Did you know? Unusually for primates, gibbons tend to be monogamous. How's about that?

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