15 Hidden Gems in London for First and Thousandth Time visitors
I lived in London for 2 years, and even though I was happy to leave, I still carry this beautiful city in my heart. As we still have many friends in London, we will keep visiting the city every single year – no matter where we may live or ultimately end up.
Although you can spend a good three or four days just wandering around the city, doing all the tourist attractions and visiting the famous sites, London is also filled with many lesser known marvels and interesting spots.
As a Londoner I made a point of visiting unknown gems and spots during weekends or days off. I felt I wanted to experience the city in all its glory – not just the Big Ben and The Tower of London, but also enchanting little spaces and places hardly any tourists know.
Although some of these spots and experiences might know a lot of footfall – even by tourists, I have put together a list of my personal favourite quirky things to do in London. It consists of both personal bucket list items as places and experiences I visit every time when in London.
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Talk to the wardens at the Cross Bones cemetery
I used to work behind the corner of Cross Bones Cemetery. In fact, I could see it from the window I was working at. The first time I walked past on my way to the shops. I was endeared and saddened at the same time by the many small notes and little nick knacks left in memory of lost loved ones – many of which young people.
The cross bones cemetery is a now disused medieval cemetery on which prostitutes would be buried. The local prostitutes or “single women” were known as the Winchester Geese as they were licenced by the Bishop of Winchester to work around The Clink (a local prison you will read about later on).
The whole area lay outside of the jurisdiction of the City of London which more or less runs from Temple to Tower Hill. This is why the area was known for the brothels, theatre and even bull and bear baiting. It was used until it closed in 1853 and they estimate up to 15.000 people have been buried there. When they uncovered 148 graves in 1992 when digging out the Jubilee Line Tunnel, they found that 44% of the bodies were embryos, new born babies and children under 1 year old.
Now the cemetery is a memorial shrine and a favourite lunch spot for many of the people working in the local area. It is a little piece of peace and quiet in the big city. It is an interesting space and place to walk around and absorb some of the artwork left, the graves and the little shrines left by grieving family and friends. Although it is a sad place, it is also a place of hope and compassion.
The graveyard is being kept open by volunteers. It isn’t always open but your best bet is from 11AM to 3PM – depending if there is a volunteer on duty. I loved talking to the volunteers as they all knew a lot about the local history and the history of the graveyard.
It is a 3-minute walk from Borough Market and thus you can’t miss walking in! If you feel thirsty after visiting the Cross Bones cemetery, you could go to Flat Iron Square for some nice beer and great food.
Marvel at the King’s Cross Ice Warehouse
Before man had fridges, meat and dairy had to be cooled with ice. Can you imagine keeping ice in the sweltering, sticky London summer? I can’t even keep my Gin and Tonic cool!
Since his arrival in 1847, Italian entrepreneur Gatti (yes, the same one from the Ice Cream) imported Ice from ponds and rivers in Norway. The Ice would then arrive by train or riverboat and unloaded into one of his two massive ice storage tanks near King’s Cross. The Ice Warehouse or Ice Well would then provide Londoners far and wide with ice to keep their food cool and fresh. In fact, the Ice Wells made Gatti a millionaire!
The Ice wells were kept in service until 1912 after which they found cheap ways to produce artificial ice. No need for the ice delivery man to put a block of massive ice in your ice box or cellar anymore!
Now the Ice Wells and the buildings are made into the London Canal Museum. The wells are restored and you can now visit the wells from a platform or even from in the wells itself. As they lie very close to King’s Cross you might want to bring these Ice Wells a visit after trying to access platform 9 ¾.
Drink a glass of Port in Gordon’s wine cellar
On of my favourite places in London – and the one place I tell EVERYONE to visit, is Gordon’s wine bar. Not only do I love the atmosphere in this amazing cellar – candles, old cellars, paintings, romance – the port is AH-MAH-ZING!
You probably know by know that I love sipping from a big glass of red (not in Dubai, it’s way too expensive in Dubai), but I never ever order wine at Gordon’s. Their Port is just way too delicious. It rolls over your tongue and I still can’t choose between their red port or their white port – so I always have both!
The first time I got here was when my parents-in-law were visiting London from The New Forest and invited me and my husband for a drink. I thought I was in heaven!
I have yet to try their plates of antipasta – cheese and cold meats and other heavenly food, but if their port is anything to go by, it will be amazing.
In the summer you can sit outside – it can be a bit busy when people leave from work but in the afternoon it will be quiet. In winter it will be nice and warm to sit inside. Gordon’s is also an amazing place for romantic dates. Part of their cellar is only lit by candles and to me it is the perfect setting for a romantic tete-a-tete..
Dive into history at the Temple of Mithras
In Roman times, London back then known as Londinium, was a major port that connected Gallia and thus Rome with the British colony. Unlike Rome or even Orange, you won’t see a lot of evidence from this important period in London history.
In fact, I think the London Wall might be one of the only real tangible sites from this time period. But when you have a genuine interest in (Roman) history, you might want to visit the Temple of Mithras and the Roman Baths (more about this further down in the article).
Mithras was a secret cult or a secret society that was known all over the empire. You might see them as the illuminati or even the masons of their day. As to this day the info we have about the Mithras cult / secret society has been puzzled together from books and accounts, but we do not know anything concrete. In fact: it is still one of the great mysteries of the Roman Empire and Roman culture. There were passwords and secret handshakes, male only membership and all the other things you might want to subscribe to your typical secret society.
They discovered a statue of Mithras slaying the astral bull in 1889, but the temple itself was not unearthed until 1954 at the development of an office building. It was then relocated to a car park roof ( I am not kidding ) but is now opened for the public again in the Bloomberg European Headquarters in its own “London Mithraeum”.
You can visit the temple for free every day except for Monday, but you might want to book in advance as suggested on the website.
Experience a silent night at Dennis Severs’ house
Got your camera ready? Because at the Dennis Severs’ house you will want to take loads and loads of pictures!
This house was staged as the interior of Hugenote Silk wevers by Dennis Severs who lived in the house from 1979 to 1999. Severs built a time capsule and staged dramatic interiors that have been the stage of many BBC period productions.
The Dennis Severs’ house consists of 10 impeccable rooms which you can visit at lunch or in the evening. There are two formulas. The first is a guided tour which will cost £15 per person. You will obviously need to make a booking as groups are small and they would love to preserve both the house and the interior.
My favourite formula is the silent night. During this amazing experience you will be guided through the house in absolute silence. You can appreciate the rooms in dim light and at the end of the tour you can enjoy champagne by a roaring hearth in the room of your choice. Conservational staff will answer any questions you have and come up with priceless anecdotes and information.
This experience is literally NUMBER 1 on my London bucket list. It looks like the perfect romantic date! I hope to do a silent night this summer (if we have enough time in the UK).
The Clink Museum is not too far from The Crossbones Cemetery I talked about earlier. The clink found its origins in 1144 when the Bishop of Winchester built 2 prisons within the grounds of his Thames fronted palace: one for women and one for men.
The prison soon (well, more like 200 years later) become known as The Clink and derived its name from the sound a blacksmith’s hammer makes when it closes the irons around a man’s or a woman’s ankles or hands. Up until this day the clink is a synonym for the prison in most parts of Britain.
This prison in particular housed many historically significant prisoners such as John Rogers (who committed the unspeakable act of translating the Bible from Latin to English – oh no!), Sir Thomas Wyatt The Younger who rebelled against Bloody Mary and many, many, Catholics, royalists, puritans etc.
The clink has now been transformed into an amazing and informative museum about the history of London and prison life. It contains many artefacts used in the prison throughout the ages and puppets and scenes are set up to give visitors an idea of what prison life would have been in the times The Clink was a hustling and bustling prison.
This is a museum you can easily visit even when you hate museums, or when you are travelling with kids.
My favourite park for picknicks and sunbathing? That has to be Greenwich park. There are many hidden places looking out over old, typically London houses, especially around The Herb Garden.
This park is beautiful in all seasons and I cannot recommend visiting Greenwich park more. While walking through Greenwich park you can visit Flamsteed House and the Royal Greenwich observatory. Also take a closer look at the Prime Meridian. The Meridian is marked by an iron or steel line on the floor and can be seen throughout Greenwich.
Flamsteed house was built in 1676 and is by far the most beautiful building of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. It stands on a little plateau and overlooks the Thames and the former Royal Palace.
Speaking of that former Royal Palace – which is now the Old Royal Navy College, is also worth visiting. This magnificent building has been the backdrop of some great scenes in movies and series such as The Crown, Les Miserables, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Cinderella and many, many, many more world-famous blockbusters.
Walk through the park and visit the deer at The Wilderness. This cute deer park in the middle of Greenwich park will delight young and old.
You might have read about the ruins of the roman temple at Greenwich park… However, I would not go out of my way visiting this field with commemorative plaque. It is nothing more than some bald spots on a field of grass and some plaques explaining about the temple that used to stand here.
Walk past the Roman fountain (which actually is still there) and climb the One Tree Hill (not the TV series, sorry guys) for an amazing Vista over the Canary Wharf and London skyline. In summer it is absolutely amazing to sit here, watching the sunset and see the lights of the city pop on one by one.
Are you a Doctor Who fan? Then you might want to visit this old, restored Police call box at Earl’s Court. The box stands not too far from Earl’s court station and is one of the favourite picture moments for many Whovians.
I myself used to be a massive Doctor Who fan (Tennant is my Doctor) and I remember this Police Box to be one of the first things I visited when living in London.
If you are a fan of Doctor Who you might want to take the tube out all the way to Upton Park. A short walking distance from the tube stop you will find The Who Shop. A complete shop filled with Doctor Who memorabilia, merchandise which makes this shop into Whovian Heaven.
Have you ever thought of taking a Doctor Who walking tour through London?
Marvel at the magnificent Crossness Pumping Station
I literally found out about the Crossness Pumping station on one of my Longboard tours. I used to take out my longboard and ride alongside the Thames Path. I would ride from Thamesmead to Erith and back and still to this day I curse the British culture as I was unable to find a pub on the way. (Belgians would have put in a pub or two along the road as it is a busy biking route in Summer, Belgians love biking tours and stopping for beers on the way.)
I rode past the Crossness Pumping station and the austere building instantly caught my eye. When I came home, I ran to my laptop to look up more about this mysterious building. To my surprise it housed a wonderful and magnificent Victorian pumping station.
I was amazed by the colours and the design and the fact that every few weeks they power up the station in order to keep the machinery in working order.
My husband and I visited the pumping station when we were already living in Gravesend but were in awe of this great feat of Victorian engineering. It might not be the easiest place to get to – it is only a short Uber ride from the Abbey Wood station.
You might want to book tickets (we had to book) on the day they rev up the steam powered machinery as it is absolutely awe inspiring to see this colossal giant come to life!
Eat an ice cream at Fortnum’s
Yes, we all know Harrods and we all know that it is London’s most famous department stores, but in all honesty: I never really liked it all that much.
I am a fan of Fortnum and Mason’s, not only because their delicious afternoon teas, but also because of their men’s department, their porcelain and their ice creams.
My husband and I made it a tradition to go for a Fortnum and Mason’s afternoon tea in the Diamond Jubilee tea room every three months. At £50 per person it is not the cheapest afternoon out, but it is absolutely delicious. I still remember the port jam and the Foie Gras eclairs that melt in your mouth. If you are looking for an afternoon tea place in London, I point out that Fortnum’s is literally my favourite afternoon tea place EVER and that my husband and I have not yet found anything better.
The Men’s department boasts great ties, cufflinks and shaving materials – if your man has a beard, buy your Christmas presents there! You will not be massively out of pocket, and I just love nosing around through the collection of shirts and shoes.
Fortnum also boasts an amazing creamery. You will find the finest ice cream and classic and novel flavours at the cute little ice cream shop.
If you are looking for great cocktails or high-quality spirits you might want to bring a little visit to the 3 and 6 bar in Fortnum and Mason’s. Again: this bar breathes sophistication and luxury and I am sure that my husband and I will go for a drink here next time we visit.
ARRRR you ready for a pirate adventure on The Golden Hinde? This little known attraction in the centre of London is a complete replica of the 1577 ship by the same name.
It made its maiden voyage in 1974 from Plymouth to San Francisco and has been used all over the world as filming set. You might have even seen her in the movie St Trinians 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold. Metalheads and friends might recognise this ship as the ship used in Alestorm’s clip Keelhauled.
The ship is a currently a museum but you can also have weddings and private parties on here!
Buy a book on London’s floating book shop
London knows many beautiful book shops, but for me, I always liked visiting Word on The Water. This floating book shop is – as you could have guessed, a book shop on a boat. Although you might not find anything you like, it is always nice to visit this beautiful book shop to nose around and the experience the novelty of a floating book shop.
Drink a Pint at The Old Bank of England
When visiting the City of London, you might want to stop off at Fleet Street. This marvellous street is not only known for Sweeny Todd’s gruesome and murderous legend, it also houses The Old Bank of England.
The Old Bank of England is a massive pub known for its pies and ales. It resides in the law wing of the Old Bank of England and boasts beautiful ceilings and stunning surroundings. It is a unique and stunning place to grab pint and pie.
Obviously, these are not Whetherspoon prices, but seen the décor and the marvellous history of the place, you absolutely MUST have a pint here! Even if it is Kopparberg.
Although Rubens is not my favourite low lands artist, I do have an affinity with the man as I lost my heart in the city. I lived in Antwerp for 5 years and I still miss the city every day – but that’s what happens when you want to travel the world.
Rubens painted the ceiling of the Banqueting house. It is a marvel to look at – even though you will walk out of there with a stiff neck of looking up. The ceiling is made in Flemish style and you can see it was from Ruben’s studio on the voluptuous cherubs and women.
Rubens never saw the ceiling in England. In fact, he painted it in his studio in Antwerp and then sent the canvasses to London to be hanged on the ceiling.
Although I can write a whole blog post about Richmond, I would like to include Richmond park in this little write up. Although Richmond was quite a long way from where I lived, I loved riding my longboard in the park.
This vast open green space is a deer park where deer walk around, unafraid of humans. They cross the road and go about their daily activities of eating grass and … well whatever deer do.
From Richmond Park you can walk to Richmond for some great food and a little walk next to picturesque banks of the Thames.