It’s one of the greatest cities in the world, and its many highlights are well-known – Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Tower of London, Hyde Park, the V&A, the Tate, the Natural History Museum – but as a visitor to London, where should you go to get off the beaten track and discover those lesser-known spots that aren’t in the main guidebooks?
From charming restaurants and cafes to oasis-like parks and curious museums, we present a guide to the best secret spots in this great city:
Hampstead Pergola & Hill Gardens, Hampstead
One of London’s hidden treasures, mysteriously located in a far corner of Hampstead Heath, the pergola is essentially a raised walkway, offering glorious views across the Heath and Hampstead Hill Gardens. Adorned with overgrown vines and flowers, this magical spot is a magnificent example of faded grandeur that feels like you’ve stumbled upon an abandoned garden which has been hidden away for decades. It was commissioned by Lord Leverhulme, wealthy soap seller, in 1904, after he decided that his nearby mansion needed an extravagant terrace to host garden parties. After suffering during WWII, the site was taken over by the City of London in 1989 and has been gradually restored whilst retaining its charming appeal. Free to visit.
The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, St Paul’s
In a tranquil garden, moments from St Paul’s Cathedral, this deeply touching memorial pays tribute to the lives of ordinary men, women and children who have passed away in London in acts of heroic self-sacrifice. Their stories are told on a series of ceramic tiles, a poignant reminder of everyday heroes from bygone years. Such tributes include those to 17-year old Elizabeth Boxall, aged 17, of Bethnal Green, “who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from a running horse”, and Alice Ayres, “daughter of a bricklayer and labourer, who by intrepid conduct saved three children from a Borough at the cost of her own life”. This poignant memorial offers chance for pause and reflection in its peaceful setting just moments away from the hustle of the City of London. Free to visit.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, Holborn
This house museum is located in the former home and studio of neo-classical architect, Sir John Soane. Located in the heart of London, you may have walked past it and not even known it was there, such is its inconspicuous exterior. Housing an intriguing collection of drawings, architectural models, paintings, antiques and curios completed or collected by the museum’s namesake, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of fascinating objects, such as Greek and Roman bronzes from Pompeii and the Sarcophagus of Seti I, covered in Egyptian hieroglyphs, an acquisition that was so momentous for Soane in 1824 that he held a three-day party to celebrate. Free to visit.
Maltby Street, Bermondsey
Hidden in a tangle of streets in the formerly industrial area of Bermondsey, close to London Bridge, Maltby Street and its surrounding streets are home to a collection of fantastic food suppliers and breweries located under the railway arches, many of which supply nearby Borough Market and restaurants throughout London, such as Neal’s Yard Dairy, Natoora, The London Honey Company and The Little Bread Pedlar. On Saturdays and Sundays, Maltby Street springs to life for the food market, with scrumptious offerings such as Spice Mountain’s spicy volcano burgers, famous cream donuts from St John’s, rainbow arepas from La Pepia Venezuelan street kitchen and gin cocktails from the Little Bird Gin Distillery.
Aux Pains de Papy French Bakery, King’s Cross
This unassuming family-run French bakery on Gray’s Inn in King’s Cross is home to the best French bakes this side of the channel – close your eyes and you’ll imagine you’re at the other end of the Eurostar. The classics include spectacular croissants (including a chocolate and almond-filled variety), croque monsieurs, crusty baguettes and Paris-Brest – crisp, golden choux pastry rings filled with nutty praline cream.
Brunswick House Restaurant, Vauxhall
A stone’s throw from Vauxhall Bus Station, in an area you might not equate with chi-chi restaurants, Brunswick House is a former Georgian mansion, built for the Duke of Brunswick in 1758. Now this grand property is home to an impeccable restaurant featuring a cocktail bar, candlelit dining room, intimate private rooms, outdoor terrace and historic vaulted cellars with an incredible list of rare wines and a dive bar. It’s furnished with a cool collection of antiques – you can buy the chair you’re sitting on or the pendant light hanging above your head – sourced by the salvage antiques company, LASSCO, next door. Run by Head Chef Jackson Boxer, the Modern British menu features such dishes as burrata with wild garlic and spring peas, wood-fired black bream with samphire and grilled lemon, and treacle tart ice cream with popcorn.