Unusual Places to Go in London

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.

Bird BreakfastPhoto: Birds in Phoenix Gardens

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.

Into the Woods
Photo: Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park

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.

Churchill Arms Pub
Photo: Churchill Arms

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.

168739_130426417020072_4677132_nPhoto: Me and Agne at Proud Camden by Ewelina Kisiel

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.

248455_851402860123_340329913_nPhoto: Radio Days

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.

archipelagoPhoto: Archipelago menu

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.

Ben Wilson's Chewing Gum ArtPhoto: Ben Wilson chewing gum art

Let me know some of yours in the comments.

Listen to a Londoner: Alex Shebar


Alex Shebar is an award winning reporter, writer, filmmaker, blogger, community manager and rock star, but without the money, fame or musical talent. He was the first ever Community Manager for Yelp in Cincinnati, Ohio, growing the market from nothing into one that overshadowed some of it’s larger neighbouring cities. Currently, he’s the Senior London CM for Yelp in London and works with businesses to show everything useful, grand and cool in the city. This job often includes eating and drinking around London, which is tough, but someone has got to do it and he’s the man for the job.

LLO: Where are you from originally, how long have you been in London and what brought you here?
AS: I’m originally from Boston, Massachusetts and I’ve been in London since July of last year (right before the Olympics!) I came here to be the new Community Manager for Yelp, having worked for the company for two years previously.

LLO: As an American expat in London, where do you go for a taste of home?
See, I’m having too much fun discovering new things. But when I really want an old fashioned American experience, I love The Duck and Waffle for gourmet American food (with the duck replacing the oh-so-classic Chicken and Waffle) and the new BRGR Co for an American burger (even though they’re originally from Beirut). And The Alibi in Dalston is an amazing dive bar that feels like the ones back in the states.

LLO: What does your job as London Community Manager at Yelp entail? Perhaps a tweet-sized day in the life description?
 As Yelp CM, I’m trying to introduce Londoners to London spots they don’t know. The hidden gems of London. I do a lot of free events with free food and drinks and they’re open to all. Check them out on our Events Page.

LLO: Yelp is running a photo contest in the neighbourhood of Soho. Tell us a bit about the idea behind the project as a whole.
The photo contest is all about the pics you take everyday on your phone. Everyone has seen some amazing Instagram or Facebooked shots that really capture an amazing moment. I want to show those pics off – not just to your friends and family but to all of London. Anyone can snap a pic of anything in Soho: their meals, people working, playing, drinking, and more and enter them into the contest to be displayed to the city.

LLO: How about the nitty-gritty? How can we get involved? When’s the deadline?  What happens with the submitted photos? And where do we go to find out more?
Anyone can get involved and I mean anyone. As long as you have a camera (or even just a phone with a camera), you can enter.

Start by going to the website and click “I’m In,” then start uploading photos, either through our free Yelp app or on the site itself. The contest runs until April 20th. We’ll then take the best shots and professionally hand them in The Society Club, a local Soho gallery and one of CNN’s most interesting spots in London. We’re doing a big kickoff party on May 10th and the exhibition will run for a month. If any of the photos are sold, money will go to the gallery, so they can keep doing community events like this, and to support The Soho School, a local school made up entirely of kids from Soho. It’s a local contest with a local charity angle, and you might just find yourself, literally, on the wall of fame.

For more and to enter, click here: www.bit.ly/YelpSoho

LLO: Why the focus on Soho specifically and what’s your favourite Soho discovery?
Soho’s such a culture blend of London. People work there, eat there, drink there, even (sometimes) live there. It seems to be a hub where a lot of people spend their time and I wanted to show it off. Not just the chic stores of the gourmet restaurants but families in Soho Square or people on dates playing ping pong on one of Ping!’s public tables or capturing amazing street art. It just seemed like the perfect spot to run this contest.

And there are so many amazing Soho discoveries I make weekly. My latest favourite has to be Clockjack Oven, a fantastic new rotisserie free range chicken spot. Chicken is weirdly a growing trend in London right now and this is some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

LLO: In your email signature, the second half of your title is “Crime Fighting Hero”. Tell us about the most recent crime you’ve encountered and fought. What was the outcome? 
AS: Oh, you know, foil a bank robbery, stop a train that’s careening out of control, foil a villain’s plot to destroy the world. Really all just in a day’s work.

LLO: You’re a professional journalist, writer and blogger in your spare time. Where can we see some of your work?
I am, but I don’t really do that much any more as Yelp and all the events keep me really busy. Mostly I now spend a lot of time crafting a mean tweet at @AlexShebar and @YelpLondon. However, if you want to read my favourite thing I’ve ever written, though, do a search for “Meanwhile at the Hall of Justice” and “Cincinnati”. I traced the roots of a legendary old building in Ohio to the headquarter of the Super Friends cartoon so that was pretty fantastic. Oh, and I also once chatted with Peter Frampton about his Obama yard signs being stolen during the 2004 election. You can find that one too.

LLO: You must come across some pretty cool places and events in this massive city while working with Yelp! What are your top three not-to-miss recommendations that Londoners who know this city well will appreciate?
Absolutely, so here are a few food and drinks spots you might not know about:

For drinking: Lounge Bohemia in Shoreditch is my favourite hidden bar in a city filled with “speakeasy” bars. You have to make a reservation and there’s no sign outside, but go past the hall of newspapers and an amazing atmospheric space with some of the most unique cocktails in the city (one comes with Frankincense and is served in a hollowed out bible.) Additionally, The Marylebone in Marylebone does it’s own infusions, so you can get homemade white chocolate vodka, Nutella chili cognac or even, yes, Marmite vodka. Insane.

For eating: In Parma in Fitzrovia does only food from Parma, so you can have authentic Parma ham or Lambrusco wine you drink out of a bowl because it’s traditionally done that way. And this one is a little better known but worth mentioning again, the cheese sandwich at Kappacasein in Borough Market? It’s just so… words are not going to do it justice. That’s how good it is.

LLO: You’re speaking at the Digital Shoreditch Festival. What is this and why should we attend?
I am. On the first day actually, May 20th. DSF is an 11-day look at creativity in East London. People from all walks of life: tech, non-profit, finance, entertainment, education, and more, will be speaking about what London is like now and what it could be like in the future. Every day has a different theme for the talks but there’s interactive portions, workshops, networking. It should be a lot of fun and I’m honoured they’re letting me talk.

Thanks Alex!

Don’t forget to enter that Soho photo contest!

28 on the 28th! – My 28 London List

Happy birthday to me! It’s the special one – the one where your age and the date match. Glorious. I’ll be out celebrating with a few of my closest friends at my favourite Moroccan restaurant tonight.

In the meantime, I have put together a list of 28 things I want to do in London whilst I’m 28. Any suggestions I shouldn’t miss out on, leave them in the comments and if I haven’t already been there, done that, I’ll add it to my list. Also, if you’ve done any of these things, tell me if they are worth it!

1.) Find a shop or market stall that sells interesting jewellery making supplies for my Etsy creations. Any suggestions?

2.) Interview at least one different Londoner each week for LLO. Any volunteers?

3.) Visit the Thames barrier.

4.) Take a tour of Dennis Severs House on one of the Monday night candlelight tours.

5.) Learn how to take those awesome streaky, long-exposure night photographs.

5.) Enrol in a Spanish course.

6.) Cocktails or wine, a brownie and a film and Electric Cinema on Portobello Road.

7.) Meet Graham and walk around Camden with our cameras. He doesn’t know that yet but he might now.

8.) Go on a street art walking tour around the East End.

9.) Visit as many cemeteries as I can find to take photos. Know any good ones I may not have been to?

10.) Take a photograph of this muddy canal bit with the reflection of a very colourful building that I can see out of the Southeastern train window coming into London Bridge just before Deptford.

11.) Go on an organised photo walk in an area of London I’ve never explored.

12.) Have a market stall at least one weekend to sell the jewellery I make.

13.) Find some quirky new local-ish pubs to try like The Cat’s Back in Wandsworth.

14.) Take a class at The Make Lounge.

15.) Get a bike. Use it.

16.) Play ping pong at The Book Club in Shoreditch.

17.) Check out the cushion-y beer garden at The Eagle in Shepherd’s Bush in the summer.

18.) Discover a new favourite bookshop, restaurant and coffee shop.

19.) Track down the best Sunday Roast with the best atmosphere.

20.) Secret Cinema.

21.) Draw on the walls at The Doodle Bar in Battersea.

22.) Try some teas from around the world at Postcard Teas on Bond Street.

23.) See a film at Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise. Funny enough, I lived in Kensal Green two years, walked down Chamberlayne Road a million and one times and never went here.

24.) Check out the Pergola and Hill Garden in Hampstead in the Spring.

25.) Take pictures of the Traffic Light Tree near Canary Wharf.

26.) Eat in the dark at Dans le Noir in Clerkenwell.

27.) Check out St George’s Gardens near Euston.

28.) Walk into London very early one morning to see the sun rise on nearly empty streets.

So, help me celebrate my 28th. One of the best birthday presents would be to recommend a favourite place in London that I need to know about! Thank you!

Listen to a Londoner: Donna Hardie

Listen to a Londoner. This is a weekly post where people who live (or have lived for a while) in London answer a few questions about the Big Smoke. If you fit the bill and want to be interviewed, give me a shout at littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk. Always looking for new volunteers!

Donna Hardie

Remember that recent post on Completely London magazine? I managed to get in touch with Donna – the editor of this new property publication that is cooler than your average property publication. She agreed to answer a few of my nosy questions. It’s a bit of a twist on the usual Listen to a Londoner posts, but she’s definitely a Londoner in the know! Here she talks about London’s secret river, tells us why Brockley is a cool place to live and lets us in on what to expect in the next issue of Completely London, out mid-February.

LLO: Completely London’s first issue is full of little London secrets. Which is your favourite? 
 For me it has to be the River Fleet that flows under the streets of London, including right underneath the Zetter hotel in Clerkenwell where I’ve often had breakfast, completely unaware of what was flowing right beneath my feet. It’s a piece of London that can be traced right back to Anglo-Saxon times – a tangible link to the city’s past. 

LLO: If you could move to any area of London, where would you choose and why?
Mmm, a tough one. If money were no object and I didn’t have to worry about how easy it is to get to work in east London, then I’d say somewhere pretty and village-like. Maybe Hampstead – a place that’s so chocolate-box perfect, you could actually be in a country village. But to be honest, I’m a confirmed south east Londoner, so I’m not sure how at home I’d feel north of the Thames (see our next issue where we challenge two readers to a north/south swap for 24 hours). I also think it would be fantastic to live in Shoreditch where I work so I wouldn’t have the morning commute. Maybe in an open-plan converted loft apartment with vaulted ceilings and a private roof terrace where my dog Bob could go out and play around. Shoreditch is buzzy, exciting and vibrant without the crowded chaos of the West End. I love the shady old Victorian streets in Spitalfields where Jack the Ripper lurked – there’s a very real sense of history all around you.

LLO: There are plenty of areas in London that are artsy and eclectic, but compromise safety. Others feel secure, but the vibe isn’t as fresh or exciting. Where can you find the best of both worlds? 
I’m obviously biased but where I live now in Brockley pretty much hits the mark. It hasn’t quite got there on the social scene yet – when I bought my house 10 years ago there, estate agents were already calling it ‘up and coming’. A decade down the line and it still hasn’t quite made it but there’s been a spattering of trendy coffee shops, delis and bars opening over the last few years which might mean Brockley’s turning a corner. It has enough going on locally though to make it feel lively – you can dip into the foodie scene of East Dulwich which is next door, or soak up the arty atmosphere of Deptford and New Cross just around the corner. Brockley itself is one place in London where houses are still reasonably priced, so it attracts a lot of young families to the area –  and for that reason there’s a safe sense of community. The East London line opens at Brockley station in June, and I’m sure when that happens, the area will be transformed, hopefully for the better, but it would be a shame if we had to compromise our sense of safety and community for the sake of a booming social scene. 

LLO: Any advice for incoming expats looking to let their first flat in London?
 Research your area thoroughly before you commit to renting. Websites such as upmystreet.com give you information on the schools are in the area, the kind of people who live there, the crime figures, the choice of entertainment on offer and more. And as word of mouth is invaluable, you should ask like-minded people who have already gone through the renting process for their advice. Search online for expat forums where you can get first-hand advice.

LLO: What can we look forward to in the Spring issue of Completely London?
 The theme of our next issue is ‘Change’. And we’ve got lots to pique your interest – ways to breathe new life into your social life, interviews with people who have undergone life-changing situations, a peek into homes that had a previous life, a look at London gems that steadfastly resist change and much more that will redefine your views on our great Capital.

Thanks Donna!

[Stop in any London branch of Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward to pick up a free copy of Completely London….]

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.