5 days in lesser-known London
Over 100,000 Kiwis visit London each year. They wander down the Thames, enjoy the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, marvel at the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus, and think they’ve seen all the city has to offer.
But like any other global city, beneath the touristic exterior lies an exciting tapestry of lesser-known attractions just waiting to be discovered. From pristine parks to rooftop bars, finding your next adventure is only a matter of research and curiosity. But remember, going off the well-worn path means proceeding with care.
We’ve done the digging for you with this five-day tour of London’s alternative attractions, with tips to help you enjoy them to the fullest.
A morning in Little Venice
Little Venice, as the name suggests, is a slice of Italy set amongst the narrow London streets. Undoubtedly the best way to experience the picturesque canals is on the back of a narrowboat, which cruise up and down the length of Regents Canal.
Little Venice is just a 10-minute stroll from Paddington Station, which is one of the city’s largest and busiest thoroughfares. When you’ve had your fix of the water, there’s no shortage of nearby cafes, clubs and restaurants to keep you occupied, including the historic Canal Cafe Theatre.
Insider tip: Countless companies offer tours of the canal through Little Venice, including a few kayaking options. Some operators like London Water Bus don’t take bookings, so ensure you arrive early to avoid any queues. And as always, book with a licensed tour operator in case the unexpected happens and you need to claim for a soaked smartphone.
A tour of Dennis Severs’ House
From Paddington Station, take the Circle or Hammersmith & City line to Liverpool Street, then it’s just a short walk back in time to Dennis Severs’ House - one of London’s truly unique alternative attractions. Visitors to the house enjoy an interactive tour, experiencing life as a Huguenot silk weaver in the 18th Century.
According to the website, “It was Dennis Severs’ intention that as you enter his house it is as if you have passed through the surface of a painting, exploring with your senses and imagination a meticulously crafted 18th Century world.”
Insider tip: All rooms in Dennis Severs’ House are candlelit, which can pose a problem when navigating the many winding staircases. The tour guides are also notorious for enforcing strict rules, like no talking or flash photography.
Shopping at Camden Market
Camden Town is where London’s cool come out to play. As the Visit London website says, “Whether you’re a rocker, cool kid, metalhead, hippie, vintage queen or muso, you’ll find something to delight you in this fun part of North London."
The famous Camden Market is the perfect place to pick up a unique gift for the friends at home, with over 200 stalls selling homemade jewellery, vintage clothes and designer knickknacks. The markets are open from Monday to Sunday, morning until evening. There are also frequent special events, shows and parties to enjoy, which you can find on the Camden Market website.
Insider tip: As any seasoned traveller knows, markets are a favourite hunting ground for pickpockets, and Camden is no different. The area is notorious for its cunning pickpockets, so keep your guard up and your valuables close.
A picnic at Hampstead Heath
Arguably the best picnic spot in London, Hampstead Heath is everything you’d expect from the scenic English countryside, set in the heart of the city.
A short taxi ride from Camden, Hampstead Heath is the perfect place to let the kids run free on rolling grass hills, enjoy some swimming at the historic Parliament Hill Lido or tour the impeccably manicured gardens of Kenwood House.
Insider tip: Hampstead Heath is diligently maintained by The City of London, who also enforce several bylaws within the public park. For example, the following activities are strictly prohibited on Hampstead Heath:
- Using drones
- Removing plants or picking flowers
- Climbing trees
A day trip to Brighton
With the impressive Brighton Palace Pier, the historic Madeira Terrace and countless shopping, dining, drinking and dancing options, it’s no wonder that Brighton is one of the UK’s most popular seaside attractions.
Like Camden, Brighton is brimming with unique shopping opportunities, like the famous Brighton and Lewes Flea Markets and the Saturday stalls at Upper Gardner Street. And like any good coastal city, there are plenty of places to wet your whistle. Some of Brighton’s famous pubs include:
- The Prince Albert, famously decorated with a mural of deceased rock icons
- The Great Eastern, for the whiskey lovers and great live music
- The Tempest Inn, a unique Shakespearian bar with eerie underground passageways
- The Basketmakers Arms, for a cosy atmosphere and tasty fare
- The Lion & Lobster, for fine wine in an expansive garden terrace
Insider tip: While Brighton’s renowned pub culture is good news for beer lovers, it does pose a few risks to travellers. Avoid travelling alone at night as drunken violence has been known to occur in the area. And remember, your insurance won’t cover you for loss or damage that occurs to valuables if you’re under the influence of alcohol.
Art attack at Kensington’s theatres
Theatre in London isn’t all about the West End. The posh Kensington and Chelsea district has several noteworthy theatres, many of which host smaller, independent productions from emerging and undiscovered artists. Some of Kensington’s best theatres are:
- Gate Theatre with a small, intimate capacity of just 75 seats
- Holland Park Theatre with open-air opera in summer
- Finborough Theatre with an eclectic range of productions
Insider tip: Not all the productions hosted by Kensington’s theatres will be family friendly. Always be sure to read the show description and take heed of the age rating to avoid any emergency shielding of the eyes.
Dinner and a starlight movie in The Roof Gardens
Cinematic experiences don’t come much more scenic than a starlight viewing at The Roof Gardens. Also located in Kensington, The Roof Gardens tower 100 feet above London, on the 6th floor of the old Derry & Toms building.
The glamorous Babylon restaurant on the 7th floor serves high-end British cuisine, including contemporary takes on the Sunday roast and rich seafood dishes. And there’s no better way to digest the meal than with a starlight movie run by the Rooftop Film Club, who frequently host events at The Roof Gardens.
Insider tip: Although it falls into the fine dining category, The Babylon restaurant is proudly child-friendly, serving kiddie packs on arrival. If you’re travelling with the kids, book on Sunday and they’ll enjoy magic shows from the house magician.
A stroll through Greenwich Park
A stunning rose garden, an orchard, the Royal Observatory and even a deer enclosure - Greenwich Park has enough to keep everyone entertained. It’s also one of the best places to see a panoramic view of London and the Thames, and home of the Prime Meridian (the reference line for Greenwich Mean Time).
The Royal Observatory has attractions for all the family, including a planetarium, guided tours by astronomers, and young astronomers workshops.
Insider tip: Getting to Greenwich is easy by the Docklands Light Railway or train. But remember, the London Underground sees thousands of pickpocketing thefts each year, so keep your bags zipped, wallets close and valuables hidden.
Traditional afternoon tea at The Ritz
Although not quite a lesser known attraction, it doesn’t get much more British than a traditional afternoon tea at the elegant Ritz in Piccadilly. This isn’t your standard tea and biscuits affair; afternoon tea has been served ceremoniously at The Ritz since 1906.
Smoked salmon sandwiches, freshly baked scones, delicate pastries and a range of teacakes are the traditional favourites you can expect, along with 18 types of fine loose-leaf teas and a glass of champagne to wash it all down.
Insider tip: The British take their afternoon tea extremely seriously, and The Ritz certainly isn’t the place to break tradition. As such, their dress code is stringent (men with a jacket and tie, ladies with smart casual dress).
To a local Londoner, every place on this five-day itinerary might be regarded as well-known as The Big Ben or Buckingham Palace. But to the travellers who can often become blinded by the tourist hotspots, they often go unnoticed. So always do your research and don’t be afraid to explore beyond the beaten path.
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