Off all the cities I’ve been to so far, London is my favorite. You can be walking along a busy street filled with modern shops and then duck into a tavern built in the 16th century. The mix of old and new is invigorating and makes exploring the city an adventure through time. The main tourist attractions are what come to mind when you think of London: Big Ben, Tower of London, and Buckingham Palace. But what to do after you’ve crossed those off your list? Wander around aimlessly sipping tea and dodging cabbies? Bollocks! Here are a few lesser known attractions that are a must-see on your next London adventure:
For anyone with an interest in World War II, this will be hands down the coolest “museum” you’ll ever visit. Hidden beneath the streets of Westminster, the Cabinet War Rooms were used by Churchill and his government as a bunker during the Blitz. Used from 1939-1945, the secret underground rooms allowed the government to operate while German bombs rained down on the city above. It’s quite eerie roaming the dark halls and imagining people living and working there while war raged outside, with only slabs of concrete for protection. The Map Room is especially interesting because it has been left in the exact condition as it was when the lights were turned off after Japan’s surrender in 1945. A huge map on the wall is dotted with thousands of pinpricks that showed the location of Allied and Axis navy ships. Papers litter the desks, untouched for over 60 years. The whole experience is sort of spooky and makes you realize just how close Germany came to taking London, which would have altered the course of history.
Visit the Churchill War Rooms: Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London
Closet Tube Station: Westminster
Spitalfields is the place to see and be seen in London. The streets are lined with trendy shops and street vendors selling everything from vintage cameras and handmade jewelry to pina coladas served in fresh pineapples. The crowd, specifically on Brick Lane, is young and very well dressed, the stereotypical London hipsters. Everyone seems to be taking pictures of each other on their DSLRs to post on Instagram later. The Old Spitalfields covered market has been there for over 350 years and now houses food vendors from exotic locales like Morocco, Mexico, and Japan. Pungent sauces simmer in large woks and hungry young professionals line up to grab bows of take away. Outside, groups of people sit on the curb to wolf down their lunch before scurrying back to work. The people watching, food, and vintage shopping make Spitalfields an afternoon well spent.
Visit Spitalfields Market: 16 Horner Square, Spitalfields, London
Closest Tube Station: Liverpool Street
- Dennis Severs House
This house tour is one of the weiredest things I’ve ever experienced. An antiques collector named Dennis Severs lived in the historic house and used the rooms to display his antiques as a living still life painting. The home is furnished as it would have been in the 1800’s around the time that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. There is no electricity in the home , only natural light and candles which makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. The house is a total sensory experience, and as you silently move from room to room you’re exposed to different smells (firewood, oranges, potpourri) that accompany the visual displays of the room. Each room is opulently furnished and is decorated to intentionally portray a certain scene and to make it seem like you “just missed” the people who actually lived there. For example, in one room there are chairs knocked over and empty wine bottles and gaming cards littering the table. The lingering stench of liquor in the air makes it seem like you just missed a fabulous party. At 10 GBP a person it’s quite expensive for a house tour but a unique experience that I have not encountered elsewhere.
Visit Dennis Severs House: 18 Folgate Street, London
Closest Tube Station: Liverpool Street
- Hampton Court Palace
For fans of The Tudors, this royal palace is a definite must-visit. Built in 1514 by King Henry VIII (yes that King Henry, with the six wives) for his friend Cardinal Wolsey, the palace is a pristine example of Tudor and Baroque architecture. After Wolsey fell from Henry’s favor, the king repossessed the palace and it is one of only two remaining royal residences of Henry VIII. In the 1600’s, King William III expanded the buildings in the hope of rivaling Versailles Palace in Paris.
Now a tourist attraction, the palace offers a glimpse into royal life of 17th century England. While tourists can only stare through the gates at Buckingham Palace, here you’re encouraged to wander the corridors and explore the grounds. Costumed actors portray various characters from the building’s history, and involve the audience to help bring their stories to life.
Highlights of the palace include the Royal Tennis Court that Henry, an avid tennis player, built in the mid 1500’s, and the exquisite hedge maze first planted in 1690. Easily accessible from the other attractions along the Thames River, Hampton Court is a wonderful place to explore.
Visit Hampton Court Palace: East Molesey, Surrey
Closest Tube Station: Waterloo