The first time I traveled to London was over 30 years ago. It was winter and close to Christmas. The stores were amazing and I had a great time, but it probably took me until my fourth or fifth visit to actually get around doing all the touristy things to do. And we recommend that you do those, but if you want to do some non-touristy things, London is the place to go.
Although existing in various ways and incarnations for almost two millennia, London is a giant, old, and exciting city. It’s been both the seat of generations of royalty and the seat of the government. It’s seen civil war, plagues, riots, fires, and bombings, but it still stands as one of the great cities in the world. Even before the Roman conquest, it’s likely people have been living in the area for generations already along the iconic Thames River. England and London changed hands several times starting from the Romans, to the Celts, to the Anglo-Saxons, then the Normans who made London into a thriving economic and politically important center.
Today London stands as one of the biggest cities in the world and is made up of people from all over the world. The city is also one of the biggest for tourism bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly. People know of certain London locations throughout the world because the city is so iconic but if you’re traveling through London and you want to see out things from a different perspective while still seeing the best of the city, here are some off-the-beaten-path things to do in London.
Get a View of the City Without Waiting in Line
Sure the London Eye might be the most popular way of getting a bird’s eye view of London but it’ll cost you way too much money and there’s always a lineup. If you’re looking to get some great snapshots of the city from high-up check out One New Change or The Garden at 120. One New Change is a pretty popular shopping destination being a new and modern building that also houses plenty of shopping opportunities and some office buildings. While this doesn’t necessarily sound like the most exciting thing in the world, what a lot of people don’t know is the elevator to the top decks. The rooftop deck is often overlooked by tourists, and best of all it’s free, and there is no line. Once at the top you’ll get some stellar views of the London Eye and the St. Paul’s dome up close (the cathedral being just across the way). If you’re looking for more of a panoramic view, check out The Garden at 120. There you’ll be 15 stories high and have incredible views of some of London’s more famous landmarks like the London Bridge and the Gherkin.
Get Lost on the TfL
A lot of big cities with large tourist populations have the ubiquitous “hop-on-hop-off” buses. Designed to facilitate tourists getting around the city to its most important landmarks, the red buses are modeled on London’s iconic red double-decker buses. So instead of doing the tourist thing of getting on a hop-on-hop-off bus, why not just rid the TfL instead. The TfL (Transport for London) is the public transport organization that operates the tube, the buses, and other aspects of public transport in the city of London. The TfL is large and expansive and is one of the largest systems in the world that takes other large city’s public transportation to shame. The network is extensive with even London’s outer boroughs being connected to the network by either bus, train, or tube. So if you’re new to the city and looking for something interesting to do why not experience the city by just hopping on a bus or the tube and getting lost? For £1.50, you can ride the bus and just discover a part of the city you wouldn’t have otherwise if you were following a tourist guide. Of course, if you’re looking for a certain scenic route try hoping on the 453 that goes past certain landmarks like Westminster, Whitehall, and 10 Downing. Hop on at Deptford Bridge or check out the number 9 bus that goes through such posh neighborhoods and past landmarks such as Kensington, Mayfair, and Trafalgar, through the south side of Hyde Park, and past the Royal Albert Hall.
Check out Alternative Food Markets
There are quite a few food markets and public markets which shouldn’t be too surprising for a huge city like London that is home to millions of people. So while markets and places like Camden market are fun, they do bring in a lot of tourists. If you’re looking for where the locals go or to hit up somewhere a little more off-the-beaten-path there are a few alternatives to check out.
Whitecross Market: Whitecross Market is one of the city’s oldest places. Located in Islington in inner London, the street has been around since at least 1600. The street market itself has been going strong for over 150 years and despite its age, it’s still relatively something known to just locals. The market is open Monday to Friday and has everything from food to breweries so stop by for a quick and affordable lunch.
Leather Lane Market: Leather Lane Market has come a long way in the history of London’s markets. Located just by the more popular Camden, Leather Lane is the oldest market in the neighborhood. Opening in 1666, Leather Lane has had its ups and downs and in 1851 it closed until protests brought it back after two weeks. In the Victorian-era office workers and manual laborers, both flocked to the market for lunch eating fried fish, meat pies, and baked potatoes. Today, you’re more likely to find pho and falafel.
Maltby Street Market: While only being around since 2009, the Maltby Street Market came to fruition after the vendors were upset by the rising rent prices in their previous location by London Bridge. There are around 30 vendors here, mostly focused on selling gourmet food and snacks.
Have a Picnic
There are myriad of public parks in the city and even more options for takeout dining. The food scene in London is large and diverse and because London is home to the second-most population of immigrants, whatever type of cuisine you’re craving you can probably find it. Alternatively, head to the nearest grocery store, pick up a couple of things and doing a little people watching at the park while you have a snack. One of the best spots is Primrose Hill. Located in Regent’s Park, it’s a fairly popular spot with locals and families. Grab a spot at the top of one of the many hills in the park and take in views of the city. Afterward, take a stroll through nearby Camden. London Fields is also a pretty popular spot that is big with locals and especially during the summer months you’ll find plenty of other people enjoying a picnic and a couple of Pimm’s. The park is not only a historic site but there is also plenty of recreational things to do like bike paths, a public pool, and cricket fields.
Go to a secret Pub
While there are tons of pubs in the city a lot of them cater to tourists looking for a “London Pub” experience but they are anything but authentic. Finding a place to grab a pint or two where the locals go might be a little difficult and you might have to leave the city center to find it, they are still essentially everywhere. But if you’re looking for an experience and a drink that’s a little more on the exciting side, try finding a “secret pub”.
“Mayor of Scardeycat Town” is a fun one in Shoreditch. Head to The Breakfast Club on Artillery Lane and announce “I’m here to see the mayor” upon which a secret door behind a SMEG refrigerator will open one and you’ll enter the secret speakeasy.
“King of Ladies Man” in Clapham Junction has a laundry room in the back that also has a secret 1970s-theme bar complete with disco balls and themed cocktails.
“Cahoots” is a 1940s-themed cocktail bar set up in an abandoned train station that serves up tasty finger foods and lives music. Dress up and enjoy a 40s-themed night out without worrying about the blitz.
Go on a Street Art Tour
London is home to tons of amazing street art made by both nobodies and world-renowned artists like Banksy. While London is also full of amazing modern art galleries (that are worth visiting) taking a self-guided tour of the city’s most famous street art is a fun way to get around the city and experience some art for free so if you’re traveling on a budget, this is also a good alternative to expensive museums.
Arguably Shoreditch, one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city is home to some of the best and more prolific pieces. SparyExihibtion20 is an organization that preserves street art in the city with over 120 works they host. If you’re looking for something more popular head to Rivington Street and to the courtyard of “Cargo” a local nightclub that is a well-known hub for artists that have works from international graffiti artists like Thierry Noir, Broken Fingaz Crew, and Banksy’s Guard Dog and His Master’s Voice.
Leake Street near Waterloo Station is another popular spot to get a glimpse of some of the city’s street art. The tunnel on Leake Street is absolutely covered in street art that is constantly changing and evolving so much so that it is practically a rotation gallery. The tunnel gained notoriety in 2008 when Banksy hosted the “Cans Festival” organizing over 30 artists to come and turn the tunnel into a work of art.
Grab some Goodies at Leadenhall Market
Fans of Harry Potter might recognize this spot as the filming location for Diagon Alley, and while you won’t find potions or wands or any of that, you will find some pretty cool shops in an even cooler setting. The market is also one of the oldest in the city and dating back to the 14th century and has been updating throughout the Victorian-era with cobbled floors, and a painted ceiling. Check out the local cheese shops, florists, and butchers, or grab a quick bite at one of the many little restaurants around.
Having a Traditional Sunday Roast
There’s almost nothing more “traditionally” English as heading to the pub for a Sunday Roast. A tradition that carries out through generations and whether you’re a second or first-generation immigrant, or you can trace you’re lineage back to the Normans everyone loves a Sunday Roast. Typically a Sunday Roast will feature slow-roasted meat usually pork or beef but also sometimes chicken. Served alongside potatoes, root vegetables, a Yorkshire pudding, and smothered in gravy. The trick to getting a good Sunday roast is to head outside of the city and check out neighborhood pubs in more residential and suburban areas.
A Final Word
I have been traveling to London for over 30 years and always find something new to do. Definitely go see the touristy things. Do not miss them. But also try to do some non-touristy things. There is so much to see and do. London is a huge city with tons of amazing things so there’s no reason to waste your time trying to get into some of the more “touristy” things in the city, having to deal with other tourists and overpaying for things. Head off the beaten path and explore the lesser-known spots that the city has to offer.
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