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8 Lesser Known Things to Do in London

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Most vacations to London include visits to Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and the British Museum. If after you’ve seen all the major landmarks you are looking for a more nuanced look at London, here are some lesser known attractions worth checking out:

London

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The National Library- Tucked away next to St. Pancras station, the National Library is sorely under-visited and underappreciated.  The highlight is the Treasures Gallery, which is free and open to the public. Here you will find priceless treasures of British literary history, including original manuscripts of Beowulf, Le Morte D’Arthur and (my personal favorite) Alice in Wonderland. There’s also an assortment of beautiful religious texts, handwritten Beatles lyrics and an entire room showcasing an original Magna Carta.

John Soanes Museum- Hidden near the Holborn Tube station is the weird and wacky Soane Museum.  The architect Sir John Soane constructed his house museum to hold his extensive collection of art, statuary and random knick-knacks. There’s even an Egyptian sarcophagi in the basement. Wandering the house is like visiting your very eccentric, very rich pack rat grandfather. Admission is free but there is often a wait to get in so give your self some time.

St Dunstan's arch

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St. Dunstan’s in the East- Hidden deep in the heart of the financial district is this charming open-air ruin. When this 19th S
century church was nearly destroyed during the Blitz, the ruins were turned into a public garden. The square is an overlooked pocket of peace in the midst of the business district.

London Aquarium- Yes, London has an aquarium. It was featured in the movie Closer with Clive Owens and Julia Roberts. Located on the Southbank near the London Eye, the aquarium is a little pricey but a stunning interactive experience.

Tate Britain- The Tate Modern and the National Gallery are the all stars of London art, but the Tate Britain is often overlooked. It’s a gem of a museum with interesting artwork spanning England’s history. Highlights include The Lady of Shallot, Ophelia my personal favorite Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge by Whistler. Visit the information desk and pick up one of the self-guided tours with themes like “Hangover” and “The Color Yellow.”

Highgate Cemetery- London has some of the most spectacular Victorian cemeteries and Highgate is said to be the jewel in the crown. Not only one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, it’s also the final resting place of copious notables including Karl Marx, Douglas Adams and George Eliot. The gently decaying cemetery even has it’s own monster, the Highgate Vampire.

Selling olives at the Borough Market in London

Creative Commons License photo credit: nakedsky


Borough Market
- Portabello Road Market and Camden Market get all the attention, with their seemingly endless stalls, but Borough Market is far more charming and delicious. Traders have been settled in the area since the 11th century, although the current incarnation of the market is modern. The covered market is a crowded maze of culinary delights.  Wander and fill up on free samples, pick up organic ingredients for dinner or plan a picnic.

Jeremy Bentham- when you’ve exhausted all other possibilities, why not check out the beheaded corpse of a great economist? jeThis is not just a macabre rumor, I spent a semester studying at University College London and I saw the old guy myself. Visit UCL on Gower Street, walk into the main building and turn right. In a side corridor you will find the preserved remains of college founder Jeremy Bentham sitting in a wood and glass cabinet. Apparently Bentham specified in his will that his body should be preserved and displayed in the halls of UCL. Don’t worry the creepy head is actually made of wax (the original was stolen by a rival school).

Your turn: What did I miss? Any other “off the beaten track” London ideas?

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11 Responses to 8 Lesser Known Things to Do in London

  1. travelcwb November 26, 2009 at 11:12 AM #

    I love the Florence Nightingale Museum. It’s tucked in what looks like a car park near St Thomas’ Hospital (central London). The museum not only tells the story of this incredible woman but it also describes the others who risked their lives to help the sick.
    .-= travelcwb´s last blog ..A Cheap Weekend Break in Jersey =-.

  2. Nancy November 27, 2009 at 11:44 PM #

    Sweet! I’ve never done any of these. One of favorite things I ever did in London was have afternoon tea at the Orangerie on the grounds of Kensington Palace. :) A splurge, but worth it.
    .-= Nancy´s last blog ..10 Powerful Ways to Jumpstart Your Creativity =-.

    • Steph December 1, 2009 at 7:05 PM #

      Oh I love the Orangerie! It’s so charming and the tea is so so good!

  3. Gray November 28, 2009 at 2:10 PM #

    Okay, the Jeremy Bentham thing is quite creepy. But definitely a unique thing to do! :-)

    One of my favorite museums in London was the Petrie Museum at the University College London, which has a very interesting collection of Egyptian antiquities and is free to visit. It was hard to find, but well worth it. After visiting more popular museums that were always so crowded that it was difficult to see anything, I had this one all to myself. What a treat to be able to take my time looking at everything without people shoving me! And it was air-conditioned, which was glorious, as England was suffering through a heat wave that summer.
    .-= Gray´s last blog ..5 (More) Things I’m Thankful For =-.

    • Steph December 1, 2009 at 7:07 PM #

      I actually studied at University College London which is why I know those creepy things about it. I used to walk by the Petrie museum but I never went in. Sounds like i should have!

  4. adventure_geek July 16, 2010 at 9:19 AM #

    Camden Town is a must see, show’s you the London “now”. London’s most popular open-air market area, colourful, alternative and interesting.

    • Steph July 16, 2010 at 10:45 AM #

      I agree, I think Camden might be my favorite of London’s markets- so funky and cool.

  5. Laurence September 3, 2010 at 4:09 PM #

    Camden is a definite must. I love the London parks too, great for getting away from the city whilst in the city. Borough Market is a good one, I’d advise trying to visit on a Thursday though as it can be really busy on the weekends!

  6. Steve @ Back-Packer June 3, 2012 at 5:14 AM #

    Cool! Nice list for the days after discovering the main sights of london ;) Thx!

  7. Dominic February 27, 2013 at 10:50 PM #

    I loved the RAF museum but it’s a 40min tube ride outside of the city centre. Well worth it and FREE

  8. Suze February 27, 2013 at 11:09 PM #

    Love this list! I’ve been looking for off the beaten path things to do on my next trip, so glad I saw this. I’ve been wanting to go to Highgate for ages too, so was a great reminder :)

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