The Vaults is an underground arts space beneath Waterloo Station in London. (Photo: Almy)
London is the city I’ve called home for the last 12 years and for all its blockbuster buildings (Tower Bridge! Big Ben! Buckingham Palace!), it’s the city’s backstreets that remain a constant source of fascination. There’s no greater joy than veering down an alleyway to discover a pub that’s older than America, or dodging a tourist scrum to head underground for a subterranean art exhibition.
Don’t get me wrong, an early evening stroll across Waterloo Bridge can still bring tears to my eyes. The view from here is the stuff of postcards (and rom coms). In one shake of a head you can see London’s skyline evolve, from the Gothic splendor of the Houses of Parliament to the superlative skyscrapers in the financial district.
But it’s far more rewarding to uncover the city’s hidden treasures off the beaten track than see the star attractions in one fell swoop. If you’re a first-time visitor, by all means go forth and tick off the guidebook staples, but if you’ve been there and done that, I have a few local secrets to share with you.
What to Do
London’s museums truly are some of the best in the world and most are free to enter all day, every day. On weekends, you’ll find huge crowds cashing in on cultural credit, so consider swinging by a lesser-known alternative like the Sir John Soane’s Museum–-a Bloomsbury townhouse stuffed with antiquities and artwork, or south London’s Horniman Museum–a crowd-free alternative to the Natural History Museum.
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Instead of peering over shoulders and backpacks at the Tate Modern or National Gallery, get an alternative art fix at the Crypt Gallery, where work is displayed in a warren of underground corridors underneath St Pancras Church. Or, head to Hackney’s Viktor Wynd Fine Art, a quirky gallery-cum-curiosity-shop that exhibits surreal artwork and kooky taxidermy (and serves cocktails on the ground floor).
London Zoo may have a cute penguin enclosure but you can spot urban wildlife in St. James’s Park where pelicans roam the lake, and in Holland Park, where peacocks hang out in the Japanese garden. Vauxhall Park features a family-friendly city farm and stables where you can take horseback riding lessons.
If you’ve been to London you’ve probably strolled in one of the city’s Royal Parks (Hyde Park and Regent’s Park among them). They’re as perfectly preened as you’d expect the Queen’s backyards to be but for something a little different, try the Chelsea Physic Garden, a peaceful botanical garden that dates to the 17th century.
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Where to Eat + Drink
Beyond the traditional boozers, London has a wealthy reserve of discreet drinking dens. One of my favorites is Cahoots, a subterranean spot in Soho that’s housed in a WWII air raid shelter. A replica 1940s tube carriage fills the space and the cocktail menus are displayed in newspapers. Or check out Lounge Bohemia, a tiny Cold War-style cocktail bar hidden between a kebab shop and a news-stand in Shoreditch. There’s a ‘no suits’ dress code and reservations are essential.
Borough Market is London’s famous foodie hangout and that often means 30-minute lines at stores like Monmouth Coffee. Sidestep the hungry hordes and head to Maltby Street Market where you’ll find bakers, cheesemongers and brewers selling their wares under railway arches in Bermondsey. Or head south to Brixton Village for budget eats from over 100 independent producers in an old covered market.
What to See
In London’s glittering West End, the star-studded shows command sky-high ticket prices. Consider a trip to Waterloo instead where you’ll find cutting-edge theater at the Vaults, an underground arts space beneath Waterloo Station. Or head east to see experimental theater or traditional East End music at Wilton’s, an atmospheric Victorian music hall.
This article was published through a partnership with Jetsetter magazine.