We’ve all been there, on holiday in a new city and dutifully visiting the most famous sites along with every other tourist. Standing in line to enter the “top ten, must see, bucket list, do or die visitor attractions in…” whichever destination. London has consistently been a top destination for many years, for a very good reason, it’s stunning. Should you visit the classics: The Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Covent Garden? Of course you should! And the good news is SANDEMANs can help you with all of them. However, if you’re sick of queuing up just to throw another list in that proverbial bucket, then read on.
1. The Monument
Tucked in amongst the skyscrapers is the Monument to the Great Fire of London of 1666. We won’t get swamped in the history here but it was built in the 1670’s and is still well worth a visit today. It isn’t the tallest building in London but it is one of the oldest and certainly one of the most charming. It’ll cost you less than £5 to climb the 311 steps to the top and you’ll receive a certificate as you leave to prove you did it. What more could you want?
2. Trafalgar Square?
Trafalgar Square, a hidden gem? No, of course not! There are more tourists than you can shake a selfie stick at. BUT Situated on the southeast corner of the square is a hollowed out pillar with a lamp on the top. This is often described as London’s smallest police station, constructed in the 1920’s so that a maximum of 2 officers could take shelter inside and monitor demonstrations and potential troublemakers. Technically it was never more than an outpost for the police but it did apparently have a direct phone line to Scotland Yard if trouble began to brew. So while everyone else is wielding their selfie stick you can go hunting for this mini monument to law and order.
3. York House Watergate
Tucked away on a backstreet behind Charing Cross Station is a monument to a bygone era, York House Watergate. In the 1860’s the river Thames was completely reinvented after the Great stink of 1858 (a real thing and as nasty as it sounds). This Venetian style gate marks where the river used to reach, 150 metres from where the riverbank is now. It’s a beautiful example of baroque architecture built in 1626 by Inigo Jones and as a little bonus it is just next to Gordon’s Wine Bar, a famous underground cavern with a fantastic wine and cheese selection.
4. A different kind of theatre
Up a winding narrow wooden staircase on a side street in London Bridge you will find a rather grim looking old theatre. If you were expecting jazz hands and big musical numbers then you’re in the wrong place, expect blunt knives and rusty saws. This is the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe. The Old Operating Theatre is now a museum dealing with the early days of medical science and the grizzly act of surgery. It’s very small, so you should book in advance if this is something you have the stomach for. Gulp.
5. Time for tea
The English are famous for liking a drink or six (no, not beer), a lovely cup of tea. In the 21st century most of us just grab some teabags in the supermarket for a few quid but tea was traditionally an expensive luxury and the tea trade was hugely significant to London’s wealth and culture.
The Twinings tea shop and museum located on the Strand first opened its doors in 1706, you can buy tea, taste some samples at the tea bar and learn a bit about the history.
6. Cabmen’s Shelters
These small green buildings are dotted around some of the fancier parts of London. Between 1875 and 1914 there were 61 of them (no larger than a horse and cart), so that cab drivers were able to stop and get something to eat and drink. 13 of these shelters still survive today, and admittance is still strictly for cab drivers only but if you do fancy a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, you can order to go. Be warned, they still have a strict code of behaviour, no gambling, swearing or drinking will be tolerated, so mind your manners!
7. The Garden of St Dunstan in the East
The Garden of St Dunstan in the East is a true gem, an unknown hideaway. This secret, overgrown little green space tucked between modern buildings has a magical, filmic quality that is hard to describe. There has been a church on this site since around 1100, severely damaged in the Great fire of London and then partly destroyed by a bomb in 1941. This little public park would be a great place to hide for an hour and take a break from your fellow tourists.
8. London Wall
People talk about the history of London, the Roman beginnings, where it all started, but it isn’t that easy to find, you have to go looking for it. Next to the Museum of London on several sites are some incredible examples of the defensive wall built by the Romans almost 2000 years ago. What is strange is that they aren’t locked away or covered up but sitting, almost ignored on the side of the road. If you are struggling to find the area in question we have helpfully named the road “London Wall”. You’re welcome.
Side note: The Museum of London is well worth a visit and tells the tale of London through the ages.
Greenwich is undeniably a very popular tourist spot, hardly a hidden gem. It’s situated on the river, it can be reached by train or boat and offers the Maritime museum, the Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory to name but a few. However, Greenwich does have a different vibe to the rest of London, a little gentler, more like a seaside resort. Here are a couple of things you might not have heard about:
Next to the Observatory there is a stunning view of the city skyline and behind that a statue of General James Wolfe, if you look closely you can clearly see large bullet holes apparently made by a German fighter plane during World War II.
Down by the river near the Cutty Sark there is a glass-domed structure, this is the entranceway to the Greenwich foot tunnel, a 120-year-old passageway that takes you under the river to the other side.
10. Cell service
It would be rude to end without a pub recommendation. The Southwark Tavern is a stone’s throw from London Bridge station and Borough Market, it’s a beautiful old pub with a nice selection of beers to choose from. Take the stairs to the lower level and you will find yourself sitting in what were originally the cells of a debtor’s prison. It’s a cosy spot for a pint with friends now but 200 years ago a nasty place to have been locked away.
These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg, London is full of glorious little secrets. By all means get in line for the top London attractions, that is part of the reason you decided to make the trip in the first place, but perhaps have this list in your back pocket when you want a change of scenery and a change of pace.