I wrote this originally for Town Fish, but thought I’d repost a slightly edited version for you here. I’m sure you guys are well aware of all of these things already but you never know. May find one new gem to check out anyway!
London is a city of layers. The tourist trail is the shiny surface – from Big Ben to South Bank to the Tower of London. Beneath, you have strata of options which, depending on which part of the city you frequent most, will vary in familiarity. Some of the most unusual places for one person to go in London, therefore, are some of the most ordinary for others and vice versa. Keeping an open ear, open eyes and an open mind can reveal a few hidden gems.
Have you ever seen the world’s largest collection of antique silver? The Silver Vaults in Chancery Lane is an underground maze of about 30 antique silver dealers selling everything from cuff links to large urns to a full size silver armchair. If it’s an indoor adrenaline rush you’re after, try rock climbing at The Castle or watch the aggressive London Roller Girls in action. If you’re feeling a bit lazy, cosy up on the sofas at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead.
For the daring, try the relatively new venue The Attendant, which is actually very old and was built as a public toilet in 1890. After a dormant 50 years, it’s recently been transformed into a coffee shop, the line of urinals now transformed into a line of small tables.
If it’s a sunny London day and you’d rather be outdoors, pop over to the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park for a quiet picnic near the lakes amongst the dragonflies and wild flowers. Also southeast, you’ll find Mudchute Farm where sheep, goats, llamas and alpacas hang out against a backdrop of Canary Wharf skyscrapers. If you prefer a more central park, The Phoenix Garden is a lovely place to relax, a colourful square lovingly tended to be a group of dedicated gardeners. There’s even a large piece of street art by Stik at the far end. To the west, the Chelsea Physic Garden, with over 5,000 plants, many very unusual, is certainly worth a visit. The same can be said of Kensal Green Cemetery on a crisp Autumn day. 250,000 people are buried there and many of the buildings and structures are listed.
If you’d prefer to reflect on life over a pint instead, Paradise By Way Of Kensal Green is just around the corner and highly recommended. (The names comes from a poem by GK Chesterton called “The Rolling English Road”. The last line is “For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green”. It has tasty food, a roof terrace, a reading room and has welcomed the likes of Peaches Geldof, Sadie Frost, Daisy Lowe and Alice Temperley through its doors.
Not too far away, in Notting Hill, you’ll find the flower-covered Churchill Arms pub with quirky décor and Thai restaurant in the back. While you’re in the area, walk down Portobello Road to the Spanish shop R. Garcia & Sons and buy some delicious fuet. Then hit the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising, a quirky little place sure to amuse.
Like music with your drinks? We’d recommend an evening at The Troubadour in Earl’s Court – the first place Bob Dylan performed in London. The humble Troub also boasts appearances from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin among others. It has a lovely courtyard garden out back. The nearby secretive Evans and Peel Detective Agency deserves a visit for round two.
Up north in Chalk Farm, duck into Marathon – a kebab shop on the outside and a great, if crowded, place to end a boozy Friday night because the real gem is the midnight jazz venue in the back room with a brilliantly lively atmosphere. For another quirky and unusual night out in the same area, Proud Camden is a club/photography gallery/live music venue built in old horse stables, each of the stables a themed semi-private room to gather a group of friends. Some have stripper poles, some TVs, some games. Book a stable in advance. Most days and nights have live bands.
On a lazy Sunday morning, stroll down through the spray-paint fumes of graffiti-covered Leake Street, past the Old Vic Tunnels for another night of debauchery (side note, I believe this is now closed or closing…?), and plant yourself in the basement of the quirky Scootercaffe on Lower Marsh Street with a mug of thick hot chocolate. You’ll see at least one or two resident cats strolling by. On your way home, slip into Radio Days to browse the vintage clothes.
And where better to wear those vintage finds than one of London’s unusual places to party – the Blitz Parties for big bands and swing dancing or Prohibition Parties with DJs on gramophones, silent cinema and piano rooms. They sell out quick! If you like your nights out to be a bit less innocent, dress in your best leather (and as little as possible), keep an open mind and join the fetish fun with Torture Garden – certainly one of London’s most unusual experiences. Too much? How about an evening on a boat, overlooking the London Eye? The Tattershall Castle will make you feel tipsy before you’ve had your first drink.
On the direct opposite scale of unusual places to go in London, head up to Neasden to see the architectural masterpiece that is BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Europe’s first traditional Hindu temple. Look up and you could be in the middle of India when in fact you are in the middle of northwest London. Also, watch the calendar for Diwali dates and take a stroll through the streets of Southall for fireworks and candles during the Festival of Lights. Truly a surreal experience.
A different type of surreal experience, though not one for the vegetarians, is dinner at Archipelago, a restaurant where tender elk, crocodile and kangaroo are served. Or try one of London’s many supper clubs for a different take on dining out.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on the wonderful London Pop Ups blog which lists new blink and you miss them type places every week.
If you’re just looking for some photographic inspiration, take your camera to the love locks fence in Shoreditch, the abandoned and graffiti-covered canvas of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle or head up to Muswell Hill to hunt for Ben Wilson’s chewing gum art where hundreds of pieces were painted on the pavements.
Let me know some of yours in the comments.