There are certain cities you can visit over and over, and London is definitely one of them. We have many friends and family who call it home, so we’ve been fortunate to make several return visits over time. While there are some classic London sights we’ll never tire of, our local guides have introduced us to unique, off-the-beaten-path sights and activities that tourists may not get to. If you’re looking for something new to do on a second, third or fourth visit, then check out some of London’s best hidden gems.
God’s Own Junkyard
Neon has made a comeback in recent years, but neon love has been going strong at God’s Own Junkyard for decades. The neon museum, gallery and store was the workshop of owner Chris Bracey, who passed away in 2014. His father made signs for circuses and fairgrounds back in the 1950s, but the work was seasonal at best. So when Bracey started in the family business, he saw an opportunity in London’s SoHo sex shops. He approached them about neon signage, and the rest, as they say, is history. Bracey was eventually approached to create signs for movie sets, working on such high-profile films as Bladerunner, Iron Man and Eyes Wide Shut. Prior to his passing, his neon artwork sold for tens of thousands of dollars to collectors that included celebrities like Elton John.
The Neon Man, as Bracey was affectionately called, also salvaged old signs and refurbished them. Now, the space houses vintage neon signs collected over the years, as well as new creations available for purchase. You’ll likely be tempted to procure one (or more!) of the colorful pieces. But if you can’t spare the arm and the leg it’ll cost you, don’t fret. You can savor the unique space while enjoying light refreshments at its in-house cafe and bar, The Rolling Scones. The punny eatery offers a diverse menu of locally sourced food and beverages.
How to get to this hidden gem
God’s Own Junkyard is located in Walthamstow, which is the last stop on the Victoria line. From Victoria Station in Central London, the trip takes approximately 20 minutes by tube. From the tube station, it’s another pleasant 10-15 minute walk through Walthamstow’s residential area.
Pro Tip: God’s Own Junkyard is located at the Ravenswood Industrial Estate. The uber-trendy area is also home to the cool Wildcard Brewery, Pillars Brewery, Real Al Company’s Cider Taproom and Mother’s Ruin Gin Palace. Make a day of it by checking out quirky art and sampling delicious hand-crafted drinks.
Some might consider visiting a cemetery a little macabre, but Highgate Cemetery is a really neat piece of London history. In the early 1800s, London experienced a population boom that also led, unfortunately, to a spike in morbidity rates. The city quite simply ran out of burial space, with gruesome tales of bodies stacked on top of each other in existing graves and water supply contamination by decaying corpses. Due to the dire situation, in 1832 the British Parliament passed a statute to open seven new private cemeteries in the countryside around London. These cemeteries are known as the Magnificent Seven, and Highgate Cemetery is one of them.
Although less-than-desirable circumstances led to Highgate Cemetery’s inception, once it was fully operational Victorian London had adopted a more romantic view of death, and it quickly became one of the most fashionable places to be buried. Elaborate vaults and tombs are still remnants of that time.
Okay, so maybe you’re not so big on grisly London history. Highgate Cemetery is also home to a few people you might have heard of, like Karl Marx and George Michael. Note: Karl Marx’s grave is open to the public in the East Cemetery, but George Michael’s is not. Other famous residents include Malcolm McLaren (manager of the New York Dolls and Sex Pistols, often credited with creating punk rock fashion) and Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). But don’t just look for the celebrities, many of the gravestones are interesting, creative and poignant. The cemetery is also a popular filming location, making cameos in movies like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Highgate Cemetery is on the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) as a Grade 1 Park.
How to get to this hidden gem
Take the High Barnet branch of the Northern line tube to Archway station. Use the Highgate Hill exit, then either take a bus (210,143,271) two stops to Waterlow Park or walk up Highgate Hill. It’s a five minute stroll through Waterlow Park to the gates. Note that if you’re coming from the south, the incline on Swain’s Lane is pretty steep. (Cyclists actually use the slope to train!)
Pro Tip: You can roam freely in the East Cemetery, but there is an entrance fee of £4. Entrance to the West Cemetery is by guided tour only, but entrance to the East Cemetery is included in the £12 fee. Visiting both sides of the cemetery offers the best value. If you’re pressed for time, use your West Cemetery ticket at the East Cemetery any time within 30 days. Reservations for the guided tour are available Monday through Friday, but weekend tours are first-come-first-serve. The tours run approximately every half hour, though, so the wait shouldn’t be long.
When you think of canals, you think of Amsterdam or Venice. But did you know London has them too? Admittedly, London’s canals are modest in comparison, but they offer the opportunity for a truly unique London stroll. You can walk the 9-mile length of Regent’s Canal and explore a number of interesting tunnels, bridges, locks, aqueducts and even a Canal Museum. But if you’re looking for something with a more manageable time and distance investment, the stretch from Granary Square to Little Venice is a great way to experience the canal.
Start by exploring London’s buzzy Granary Square and Coal Drops Yard at London’s Kings Cross. The area is now home to prestigious art school Central Saint Martin as well as a number of trendy restaurants and stores, but the Granary Building used to store wheat for London’s bakers, while the Coal Drops buildings used to store Victorian London’s coal supply. Delight in a selection of vermouth at Vermuteria or browse minimalist furniture at Tom Dixon. Then make your way down to the Regent’s Canal towpath. (If you’re unfamiliar with canal speak, a towpath is the path along the canal formerly used by horses towing barges.)
Glance across the canal and you’ll catch sight of Camley Street Natural Park, a two-acre nature reserve in the heart of the city. Then stroll by Gasholder Park, which honors the colossal structures that once stored natural gas around the country. The distinctive cast iron frame around the park was dismantled from an actual gasholder that stood in King’s Cross, refurbished, then rebuilt around the park with painstaking care to preserve its original aesthetics. Continue your pleasant stroll east, where you’ll likely encounter some locals running, cycling or fishing. In a short mile, you’ll find yourself at Camden Lock.
At Camden Lock you can explore Camden Market, which offers even more cool places to eat and shop. Sample liquid nitro ice cream at Chin Chin Labs or explore a selection of handmade jewelry. Weather permitting, you can hop on a river boat. London Waterbus Company offers a 15-minute ride from Camden Lock to the London Zoo that includes zoo admission. Or take a longer 45-minute ride to Little Venice, a charming area filled with waterside cafes and pubs.
If you choose to continue along the towpath on foot, you’ll pass by a floating Chinese restaurant called Feng Shang Princess. Rumor has it you could approach the restaurant by boat and have your food handed to you! (We don’t own a boat, so we can’t speak to its validity. But if you manage to do this, please, please report back.) You’ll also pass by the London Zoo’s aviary, and a number of cool bridges and structures. Note that there are points where the towpath disappears and you have to make a slight detour.
Pro Tip: If you are exploring on foot, you can also exit the towpath shortly after Camden Lock at Gloucester Avenue and head up to Primrose Hill. It’s located on the northern side of Regent’s Park and offers sweeping views of London.
Dalston Eastern Curve Garden
At one time of another, every major city in the world has grappled with balancing commercial and public interests. With long derelict commercial infrastructure holding premium locales hostage, there has been a push in recent years to acquire and repurpose such areas for the benefit of its inhabitants. In many such cases, the goal is to provide locals with green spaces. New York City’s beloved Highline Park is one such example. Another is the Eastern Curve Garden in Dalton, a ward of London’s third-most densely populated borough, Hackney.
There are many reasons to pay Dalston Eastern Curve Garden a visit during your stay in London. The garden itself is free and open to the public. Throughout the garden, you’ll find trees such as hazel, hawthorn and birch. You’ll also find shrubs like butterfly bushes and bracken. Many of these plants were growing on the site before the project began. Over the years, six large raised beds were installed for growing food as well. Among these lush settings, you’ll find tables with checkered tablecloths ideal for picnics. And, of course, you’ll find various art and crafts spread in amongst the outgrowth. Some highlights include the recognizable stick figures by street artist Stik, who is a Hackney native.
Dalston Eastern Curve Garden is open rain-or-shine year round, with shelter provided by a lovely wooden pavilion and workshop space in its conservatory, the “Pineapple House”. A robust schedule of events, activities and programs, many of them focused on the arts, run throughout the year. The garden is primarily funded through a cafe kiosk, but donations are also gladly accepted. The kiosk offers an array of hot drinks, cakes, daily home-made soup and bread, and wines and beers. Fridays through Sundays, Spring through Fall, Latto’s Pizzas offers tasty sourdough pizzas from the garden’s wood-burning oven as well. Picnics are permitted, but only alcohol purchased from the licensed kiosk can be consumed on site. This London gem is the perfect place for a short respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
How to get to this hidden gem
Dalston Eastern Curve Garden is a two-minute walk from Dalston Junction Overground and a five-minute walk from Dalston Kingsland Overground stations. Don’t miss the giant Hackney Peace Carnival Mural right at its entrance.
Pro Tip: The borough of Hackney is quickly becoming one of London’s coolest neighborhoods to explore. Wander east from Curve Garden and you can stop at Allpress Espresso Roastery and Cafe, an impressive space with a beautiful outdoor seating area that fills up quickly on sunny days. Spurstowe Arms is a trendy pub hiding within a vintage space. And don’t miss out on Hackney Wick, where you’ll find riverfront warehouse spaces filled with trendy cafes, art exhibits and explosive street art.
You won’t find a sign or an awning erected above the door welcoming you to Lounge Bohemia. Visit the Lounge Bohemia website and all you’ll find is a static page with *gasp* NO LINKS. It’s all part of the mystique. It is, after all, a hidden cocktail lounge, with entrance granted by appointment only. It’s located in Shoreditch, below an unassuming kabob shop. Take a tumble down the rabbit hole by walking through a brief corridor plastered with weathered Czech newspapers (a reference to the proprietor’s heritage) and down a narrow, vertiginously steep staircase. Once you get your feet under you, you’ll immediately notice Lounge Bohemia’s aesthetic–retro, eastern European chic–which might inspire comparisons to a 1960’s basement level family room more than a lounge.
What you’ll find here, sitting in one of their comfortable armchairs or packed into a cozy nook, is an abundance of Czech beers, an array of uniquely crafted cocktails and an assortment of small bites. The dress code is informal: no suits! The lighting is dim. Menus come tucked into tattered books and zines. And the drinks–everything from classics to trendy molecular cocktails–are memorable. Think along the lines of quirky ingredients, dramatic effects and imaginative presentations. Cocktails come bubbling, smoking, or may be rendered as solids, served in oddities such as toothpaste, cigar tubes, and light bulbs. If you’re looking for a hidden gem that’ll firmly establish your London insider status, Lounge Bohemia is it.
Pro Tip: Shoreditch is always fun to explore, thanks to the abundance of great street art and food. It’s a great place to find salt beef bagels, a London experience you shouldn’t miss. Eater calls it the “Katz’s Pastrami of London”, which is a comparison we can certainly identify with! Whether you’re looking for some thought-provoking street art or some change-your-life hot chocolate, you’ll find it all in Shoreditch.
London’s best hidden gems are as diverse as the city itself. Even when something’s new, it’s old. Where’s there’s something trendy, there’s also a nod to tradition. Something foreign feels decidedly local. So mix some of these unexpected ideas in with some of your classic stops, and get to know the real London.
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