While largely confined to staying at home, you might find yourself (re)watching Sherlock, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and The Crown on Netflix, longing to head to the Big Smoke for your own London adventures. What better way to fill these lockdown days than by making a London bucket list for when you can safely travel again? These 15 hidden gems in London are some of the less obvious things to add to your programme, and a great way to get a local’s experience of the city.
Hidden gems in London for culture lovers
1. The Theatre Above a Pub – Finborough Theatre
If the Brits know one thing, it’s how to combine any activity with pints. In this case, they’ve coupled two of Britain’s favourite pastimes and placed a theatre on top of a pub, creating one of the most exquisite hidden gems in London. It’s a multi-award-winning venue that hosts plays and musical theatre, focused mainly on thought-provoking new writing.
The theatre space is so small that the audience never sits more than four rows away from the stage, guaranteeing a good view of the action. The pub itself is a cosy boozer serving hearty pub food, with dozens of beers and ciders on tap. Occasionally you’ll find a live music act livening up the pub vibes too.
If Finborough is a little out of your way, fear not. There are lots of hidden theatres above pubs in London – check out The King’s Head Theatre Pub and the Old Red Lion Theatre. They are the perfect place to discover new work and up-and-coming actors.
Finborough Theatre was actually one of the first venues where actress Rachel Weisz tried out her acting skills in front of an audience.
2. The Vaults
Speaking of theatre, another of the hidden gems in London you should check out if you’re a fan of live performances is The Vaults. This space is hidden in unused railway arches underneath the famous Waterloo Station. It hosts a theatre, a yearly festival and – of course – a pub. For a truly British experience you should head over to the pub on a Monday night for the infamous “Very Vaultsy Pub Quiz”.
Even if you don’t feel like hitting the pub or seeing a show, the Vaults are worth a visit. Sneak down the Leake Street graffiti tunnel. Banksy himself initiated filling the walls of these tunnels with Graffiti, and encouraged others to do the same. Anyone can view the ever-changing work for free.
3. Wilton’s Music Hall
Just a short walk from the Tower of London sits the oldest Grand Music Hall in the world. The building of the Wilton Music Hall dates back to the 1690s. It’s name giver, John Wilton, bought it in 1850 with the aim of creating a music hall and bringing some of the glamour and comfort of the richer West End to the largely working class population of the East End.
The building retains many of its original features. During a recent renovation they decided to keep the crumbling plasterwork and exposed brickwork both on the inside and the outside of the building. This makes for one of the most atmospheric London venues to enjoy a performance.
There is no need to rush out after the curtain call. On the contrary, make sure to head to the downstairs bar for an after-show drink or two. This cosy spot is one of the cutest hidden gems in London, its brick walls and cosy nooks make it the perfect place to hang out with your theatre mates for some post-show discussions.
If you’re interested in the rich history of the building, you can also take a guided tour. You head back all the way to the 17th century and learn all about the people involved in making Wilton’s Music Hall what it is today.
4. Sir John Soane’s Museum
Sure, the British Museum, the Tates, and the National Gallery have collections large enough to keep you busy exploring for days. But it would be a shame not to leave some time for a visit to this slightly bonkers museum.
Sir John Soane’s Museum is the former house of Sir John Soane. This famous English architect moved into the building in 1792 and filled it with thousands of antiques, sculptures, architectural models and paintings.
The museum can seem a little overwhelming and chaotic at first, but each piece in the collection was actually carefully and purposefully placed, just as Soane did in his time. A great example of how Soane managed to make use of limited space is the Picture Room. This 4x4m room is packed with 118 paintings. How is that possible, you ask? Sloane had ‘picture planes’ installed so that, in a James Bond-like manner, the walls can open up to show more pictures hidden on the other side.
Other eye-catchers at the museum include the Sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I, and a whole room filled with cork and plaster models of ancient monuments. Is this what happens when a rich, powerful professor shows slight hoarding tendencies? Maybe, but boy does it make for a great museum.
This is one of those hidden gems in London that should make anyone’s bucket list!
Hidden gems in London for history enthusiasts
5. Brunel Museum
The site of the world’s first underground concert party in 1827, the Brunel Museum’s Grand Entrance Hall is an impressive space that hosts regular music and theatre events. The museum itself is dedicated to telling the story of the Thames Tunnel project. The tunnel, built by father and son Brunel (both famous engineers) was the first underwater tunnel in the world, and not only did it connect the north and south banks of the river Thames, but it was also a popular visitor attraction, housing fairs and banquets.
The story of the tunnel’s construction in the 19th century is a turbulent one. The Brunels and their employees battled against flood, death, and disaster, before finally opening the tunnel in a different capacity than initially imagined. Want to learn more about a lesser-known part of London’s history? Be sure to check out this small local museum.
The area around the museum is a great place for a quiet stroll along the Thames. While you can enjoy some excellent views of Tower Bridge from here, you won’t find hordes of tourists snapping selfies on your path – just the occasional jogger, and lots of South-Londoners walking their dogs.
6. London Mithraeum
Right in the heart of the financial district of the City of London lies a hidden treasure from the time when the Old Smoke was still a Roman settlement called Londinium. A secretive cult of rich men worshipped a god named Mithras, who was born from a rock in a cave and was famous for his impressive strength. The cult would meet in darkened, windowless temples dedicated to Mithras and perform animal sacrifices while drinking copious amounts of wine. Not much has changed in the world, really.
As the years passed and the Romans left England, the cult and temple were forgotten, and new structures were built on top. It wasn’t until 1954 that the temple was rediscovered.
Now you can visit the Mithraeum yourself. Light projections and chanting sounds evoke the times when this was an active temple filled with wealthy and powerful Roman men. To put it all into context, you’ll find two levels of exhibitions about Londinium and the Mithras cult in the floors atop the temple.
7. The Museum of the Home
This hidden London gem is located in the hip area of Shoreditch, but takes you back as far as 500 years through room displays exploring the development of home interiors from the 1600s to the present day.
The small and cute Museum of the Home is located in former almshouses from the 18th century. It was from 1913 onwards that the site became a museum exploring the craft of furniture making and the history of domestic life.
You walk chronologically through detailed displays based on real London homes, and marvel at how much and how fast our way of life has changed. In the Gardens Through Time exhibit, you learn how city gardens have developed over the centuries, from the symmetrical designs of the Elizabethan period to the colourful floral displays of the Victorian era. Can you imagine a more British experience than immersing yourself in the changing fashions of gardening?
As this is a small museum, you’re likely to spend less than an hour exploring the collection itself. However, the lush green gardens surrounding the museum are the perfect place to spend a quiet afternoon, away from the noise and crowds of the city.
Hidden gems in London for foodies and fans of a Pint
8. Maltby Street Market
Hidden away underneath the railway arches carrying the trains to London Bridge, you’ll find one of the best hidden gems in London for foodies. Maltby Street Market spans only a small street, but is packed with delicious food options.
Concealed in the arches you’ll find a bakery, a tapas bar and several establishments serving wonderful cocktails. On the opposite side of the narrow street you’ll find food stalls serving tasty treats from all over the globe. You’re likely to find yourself wandering up and down the street several times before you’ve chosen something from the extensive range of options.
While only a stone’s throw away from London’s most famous foodie paradise, Borough Market, Maltby Street is a cosier, more local alternative. You’ll find fewer tourists hanging out here and more locals having their Saturday brunch. The market is fun to visit in all seasons. Around Christmas, in typical English fashion, the market lights up and you’ll find Christmas-inspired menus and carollers imbibing the place with Christmas vibes. In the summer you’ll have to fight the other market visitors for a spot in the sun.
9. Bermondsey Beer Mile
After you’ve filled your belly with all the goodies at Maltby Street Market, it’s only a short stroll to the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Located on the other side of the train viaduct, this one-and-a-half-mile stretch of street contains over fifteen breweries and two gin distilleries.
The best day for a visit to the Mile is Saturday, when most of the breweries are open. If you manage to get a sunny day on your London visit, that would be splendid timing for your Bermondsey beer crawl. The breweries on the Mile are popular and you’ll often see groups of people spilling out of the warehouses and breweries onto the pavement with a beer in hand.
For a surprising twist to your beer, make sure to sample one at Hiver Brewery. The beers here are brewed with honey and only British ingredients. If you want to try your hand at brewing yourself, head to the aptly-named UBREW for a brewing workshop.
10. The King’s Arms, Tooley Street
London has more cosy pubs than any sensible person would try to list. That can mean it’s hard to see the wood through the trees and judge which one will serve you the best Sunday roast. However, if you’re looking for great quality food in combination with a cosy, relaxed atmosphere and lovely staff, head to the King’s Arms on Tooley Street. (Make sure to type in Tooley Street when searching on the map, there are dozens of pubs called the King’s Arms in London).
The charming pub interior changes frequently, with new quirky lampshades, funny clocks, wacky paintings and monkey statuettes filling the walls. This is one of those hidden gems in London that you will want to return to for all your Sunday roasts. If meat’s not your thing, try the vegetarian pie. It’s unforgettably good!
Drinks in a former public toilet? Why not. The CellarDoor is one of those well-hidden gems in the centre of London. Right in the middle of the theatre district, next to Waterloo Bridge and just up the street from the Savoy, a steep flight of stairs leads underground into an intimate bar serving-up stylish cocktails and live acts.
From 9pm till midnight, CellarDoor turns into a live music venue often featuring comedy, cabaret, and burlesque. The small space only has a handful of tables, meaning you’ll often share one with strangers, and you’re likely to leave having made some new friends. Make sure to arrive early though, as the bar’s small size inevitably means it fills up quickly.
Hidden Gems in London for a quick escape to nature
12. Hackney City Farm
On your way around the city you might come across a city farm or two, a little oasis of nature in the middle of the big, busy city. These farms aim to help city dwellers learn about food, nature and the environment. That means that besides being home to lots of cute and furry animals, they often have a shop for local produce as well as workshops to engage the community with nature.
The Hackney City Farm is located centrally, just a stone’s throw from the popular Shoreditch area, and just up the road from the famous Columbia Flower Market. The star attractions of this community farm are Larry and Clover, the farm’s Donkeys, but the other inhabitants are equally adorable and range from pigs to rabbits, and from geese to goats. They also offer a range of arts & crafts workshops, such as their famous pottery classes. The farm’s cafe, Frizzante, serves seasonal Mediterranean cooking and English breakfasts.
13. Barbican Conservatory
The barbican itself is hardly one of the hidden gems in London. It is famous for its love-it-or-hate-it Brutalist architecture (it was once voted London’s ugliest building), and for big theatre productions, music, and art exhibitions. However, what’s much less well-known is that the Barbican is also home to the second biggest conservatory in London (the largest being Kew Gardens).
Originally, the conservatory was established to hide the fly tower of the theatre (the space that houses the rigging system used to move theatre components), but it quickly turned into an attraction itself.
The Conservatory now houses more than 1,500 species of plants and trees, and three ponds that are home to exotic fish and terrapins. Lovers of desert flora should pay a visit to the Arid House which hosts an impressive collection of cacti.
14. Horniman Museums and Gardens
The Horniman is one of London’s lesser-known museums, but it should really be near the top of any Londoner’s things-to-do-on-the-weekend list. Open since Victorian times, when Frederick John Horniman opened up his collection of objects from around the world to visitors, the institute grew into a popular, family-friendly attraction in the leafy Forest Hill area.
The museum now encompasses an impressive natural history gallery packed with taxidermy and fossils; a music gallery, with over 1,300 musical instruments from different countries; and a world gallery, displaying hundreds of objects from around the globe exploring different cultures.
Outside, there are 16 acres of gardens to explore, including a bee garden; a ‘grasslands garden’, featuring plants from North America and South Africa; and even an ‘animal walk’ that’s home to alpacas, goats and other furry animals. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a butterfly house and an aquarium.
On Sundays there’s a weekly market selling fruit, vegetables, cheese and bread from independent local producers.
15. London Canals
Contrary to what you might think, Amsterdam isn’t the only city that does pretty canals (although let’s face it, they are unmatched in beauty). London can also lay claim to some pretty good water-side hangouts.
Probably the most famous London canal cruising spot is Little Venice. The canals here are lined with boats painted in vivid colours. You’ll also find plenty of cute cafes and pubs here, such as the popular Waterside Cafe located on a barge.
For a more industrial vibe, head to Hackney Wick, where you’ll find lots of hip restaurants and arts spaces, such as the small-but-popular Yard Theatre, located in a converted warehouse.
From Hackney Wick you can also hop across the water to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It was built for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, and is home to the Olympic Stadium, where small London football club West Ham United play their home matches.
For some vertigo-inducing fun, make sure to try out the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the world’s tallest & longest tunnel slide!