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By Angela Carlton, the American literature buff who swapped life across the pond for London’s charm.
Any London guidebook will tell you to visit Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guards or to grab a drink around Soho, but they often don’t take you to the more secret London - the side of the city that only the locals really know about. There are so many things to do here and while the main attractions are always great to take in, there are just as many amazing hidden gems in London that will take your breath away. Generally, our locals tend to be tight lipped when it comes to divulging information about where to go and what to do but I'm sure they are okay with me sharing some of my personal favourite unusual things to do London.
London is an old city with lots of treasures just waiting to be rediscovered, and we're nothing if not proud of our long-standing history. So it seems strange that more tourists wondering where to go in London don’t take more advantage of the dozens of antique shops lining our streets. Okay, some of them might be more bric-a-brac than genuine buried treasures, but who are we to judge? You can find anything from old leather bags and trunks to beautiful jewellery, stately handcrafted furniture to Victorian curiosities in these lovely hidden gems of London. Peruse the shops that line Upper Street in Islington, Church Street in Stoke Newington or the world-famous Portobello Market in Notting Hill and you might just find something priceless, even if it isn't a lost Vermeer.
Vaudeville-style music halls were all the rage in 1800's London. Today, few authentic Music Halls are still around but if you want to spice up your trip by including a few unusual things to do while in London then I would strongly recommend you see a Vaudeville-style music hall. They offer a unique and dazzling experience of historical London, innovative theatre and irresistible atmosphere. Check out Wilton’s Music Hall in Tower Hamlets, which is one of the last remaining original Music Halls and one of our best kept secrets in London. Here you can have dinner with the show if you book ahead or just stop in for drinks and an experience you won’t soon forget.
Most people visiting the city don’t associate the city with rock climbing however if you are exploring London, step off the beaten path and you will discover a niche of hard-core rock climbing enthusiasts who have come up with some really creative places to climb. One such example is The Castle near Manor House tube station, an historic building and hidden gem in London that dates back to the mid-1800s and is complete with dungeons and turrets and dragons (I might have exaggerated slightly about the dragon part) all decked with climbing walls and fastenings. The Castle even has a café inside where you can relax with an espresso between climbs. Get a day or week pass, or a month’s membership.
If you are looking for more unusual things to do in London then Hampstead Heath is one to add to your itinerary. This hidden gem is London’s biggest parks (or at least one of them) and my personal favourite. It’s complete with three outdoor swimming ponds that are ideal for those splendid albeit rare warm summer days, but even on the other 361 days of the year why would you not want to fling yourself into some freezing water and splash around? There is a men’s and women’s pond, in addition to a mixed pond with its own diving board. The ponds are surrounded by lush, classically English landscape that includes drooping willow trees, wild flowers and lily pads galore. And the heritage-protected view of the city from the Heath isn’t so bad either.
Most tourists wouldn’t think to sample an American diner in London but for some, there really isn’t another experience quite like it. The more you explore the city, the more you will discover all the unusual things to do London and our American eateries are definitely part of the secret London. These kitsch bars called All Star Lanes are a fascinating chain of throwback 1950s décor, artisan cocktails, British takes on American diner grub and swanky architecture. The bowling is good, the atmosphere rad and the food is delicious, and with bars that stay open late it starts to feel more like a club as the night goes on.
Live pigeon shooting was made illegal in the UK in 1921 but clay pigeon shooting remains a much-loved national sporting habit for some, as well as visitors exploring London off the beaten path. There are dozens of shooting facilities all over the city where you can practice shooting moving clay targets with a shotgun and feel like a proper Brit. The activity makes a very fun day out for families and friends alike so next time you are wondering where to go in London for a bit of family-friendly fun, why not visit one of these shooting facilities? Afterwards, celebrate your achievements by heading to a nearby pub afterwards!
Despite being such a sprawling metropolis, London benefits from several excellent local farms including Hackney Farm. The farms have livestock that children and adults can engage with and they are the perfect place for families to explore in London. You can learn about the different animals such as cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, amongst others and there is also ample opportunity to learn about gardening, plant-life, and how to care for animals. These farms are great places where you can go in London to learn about country life in England without even having to escape the city.
If the live animals all get a little bit much for you, why don’t you go a bit further afield than most tourists visiting London and explore Crystal Palace Park. Easily accessible off the overground in South London, Crystal Palace is a lovely village-y community with its own claim to fame in the city's history. It was once home to the great glass and crystal world-fair exhibition that tragically burned down in the early 1900s. That area is today a vast park that is considered to be a top hidden gem in London. You can explore the magnificent ruins, alongside renowned Dinosaur statues that exist throughout the park. There is also a maze (and yes, I might have once got a little stuck in here but don't tell anyone), and rowing boats for hire.
As you explore London you will soon discover that we have arguably the best theatre in the world. What many visitors may not realise is that one of the best and least seen acts is found at the Puppet theatre in Angel. The 100-seat theater is nestled off a cobbled lane with gorgeous vine overhang. The building is connected to the puppetry workshop where all of the puppets are lovingly and artfully constructed. The theatre has received wide acclaim for its top of the line, original performances, which are a delight to audiences’ young and old. This is where you go in London if you want to experience our arts and culture like a local!
Among all the unusual things to do in London is its highly successful rotating poetry slam scene that includes noteworthy companies such as Bang Said the Gun. It’s quirky, loud, often hilarious and moving—in the company's own words “it’s poetry for people who don’t like poetry”. The company usually holds their sessions in cosy pubs so there are always plentiful tankards of beer, spirits and wine to enjoy and, more often than not, food as well. If you are visiting London and want to experience something a little different but well niched within the local community then this is the best option. Prepare for a night of well-versed fun.
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