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British Heritage, Cities and Towns, Things to See & Do

Top 10 off-beat things to see and do in London

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London is a bigger city than you first think so it’s easy to get off the beaten track, leave the crowds, and find somewhere your friends have never been. I’ll never dismiss seeing Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament as they are so very ‘London’, but these places will give you a new view of the city:

1. Dennis Severs’ House

Just by Spitalfields Market is a wonderfully atmospheric London street with the bizarre but fascinating Dennis Severs’ House. American Dennis Severs bought the house 30 years ago and lived here, without electricity and other home comforts, while creating something unique for visitors. It’s still a private home, not a museum, but opens regularly. You’re advised to walk around in silence to let your senses fully experience the setting. Severs created an imaginary family to live in this Huguenot silk weaver’s home so you’ll see signs of life of Mr Isaac Jervis, his family, and their descendants such as fresh fruit on the table, half drunk cups of tea, and you’ll soon believe they’ve just popped out which is what you’re supposed to think. It’s really hard to describe this place but it’s well worth a visit.

2. Sir John Soane’s Museum & Hunterian Museum

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is the largest public square in London and is said to be the inspiration for Central Park in New York. On either side of the square you’ll find Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Hunterian Museum. Sir John Soane was an architect and avid collector of antiquities. He left his home and contents to the nation and there’s an incredible amount to see here. Everyone has to leave their bags at the entrance, and there’s often a queue to get inside, as there’s limited room in these connected townhouses where you’ll find bizarreness such as the sarcophagus of Seti I in the crypt and Hogarth paintings in the picture gallery. Across the square is the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons with lots of glass cabinets and preserved human remains so may not be suitable for all the family. If you’re a Dickens fan, the Old Curiosity Shop is nearby too.

3. The Museum of Brands, Packaging, and Advertising

This quirky museum in Notting Hill does exactly what it says on the tin! Robert Opie has collected daily life consumer objects since he was 16 and this museum displays over 12,000 original items from shampoo bottles and washing powder boxes to toys and food packaging.

The Museum of Brands is a real trip down memory lane and a great way to enjoy living history. All the items are behind floor to ceiling glass cabinets making it a good place to bring the whole family to reminisce together. The Al Waha restaurant is a great place to eat nearby.


4. Speaker’s Corner

Every Sunday afternoon you can hear preaching and ranting in a corner of Hyde Park, near Marble Arch tube station. Free speech is welcome and encouraged at Speaker’s Corner and there’s plenty of religion and politics but also some off the wall ideas such as free hugs and alien invader news. Karl Marx and Lenin have spoken here so there may be someone worth listening to or you might want to hone your heckling skills.

5. Highgate Cemetery

Speaking of Karl Marx, his final resting place is in north London at Highgate Cemetery. It’s a large cemetery, split into East and West on either side of a quaint village lane. The East Cemetery is where you can see Karl Marx’s Memorial every day as well as Malcolm McLaren and Jeremy Beadle’s tombstones. Over on the West you have to take a guided tour as it’s incredibly overgrown and the ground can be pretty uneven and they don’t want to lose you in there. All entrance and tour fees go towards the upkeep and repairs on site.

6. London Roman Baths

No-one’s sure if these are really Roman but they are an oddity in central London and a bit of a challenge to find so I’ve put together detailed directions. A 10 minute walk from Trafalgar Square, down a side road, through a tunnel, press a button for a light to come on, look through a window and you too can see what I’m talking about. Charles Dickens refers to the baths in David Copperfield and the lead character was said to regularly use this plunge bath.

7. Fulham Palace
Here’s a London Palace you can visit for free. Fulham Palace was the Bishops of London’s country home from the 11th century so it’s never been a royal palace but we did treat Bishops regally. There’s a museum documenting the site’s history, with a contemporary gallery of palace-inspired art, the Drawing Room Cafe which is loved by the locals, and the splendid gardens which are worth exploring on a sunny day.

8. Horniman Museum

Out of central London, but just a short train ride from London Bridge, you’ll find the Horniman Museum, founded by a tea trader, Frederick Horniman, who collected most of the artefacts on his travels. It’s a brilliant free natural and cultural history museum which even has an aquarium, farmyard animals outside (yes, still alive!) and regular concerts on the bandstand. All of this and the strangest walrus you will ever see make this a great day out. (See photos.)

9. Sit with Churchill and Roosevelt

This bench in central London is called ‘Allies’ and commemorated 50 years of peace. The bronze statues of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill appear to be sitting and having a chat but there’s a handy space between them for you to sit down. It makes for a fun photo opportunity. Note how shiny Churchill’s right and Roosevelt’s left knees are from visitors giving them a rub!

After having a free laugh here you might want to visit the Cabinet War Rooms or the Britain At War Experience or even sit in Winston Churchill’s chair at the Cigar Museum.

10. Guildhall Art Gallery

There used to be a small admission fee but that’s been scrapped from April 2011 and it’s now free to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery and the Roman Amphitheatre in the City of London which displays paintings and sculpture belonging to the Corporation of London. And yes, you did just read ‘Roman Amphitheatre’ too. In 1998 this was discovered under the Guildhall Art Gallery and is now a protected monument. If you don’t have time to go in you can see the curved line of the amphitheatre across the Guildhall courtyard.

Laura Porter writes the About.com London Travel site which is an online travel guide for visitors to London. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook too.

Laura’s other posts include:

Image credits: Dennis Severs’ House: missusdoubleyou | Sir John Soane’s Museum: carmen_seaby | Museum of Brands: danielweiresq | Allies: troistoques | Guildhall Art Gallery: James.Stringer | Speaker’s Corner, Highgate Cemetery, London Roman Baths, Fulham Palace, Horniman Museum: Laura Porter

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