When you think of London, you probably picture Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and the grand Gothic architecture of Westminster Abbey. While those sites are indeed iconic and fascinating, there is much more to this buzzing city than what we see in films and photos. Here are eight of the best super-secret (or perhaps not-so-super-secret) destinations in the wonderland that is the English capital. Happy exploring!
King Charles II commissioned the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1675 to master the art of navigation by charting the stars. It is the birthplace of Greenwich Mean Time and the site of the Prime Meridian—the longitudinal line that separates the eastern and western hemispheres. A UNESCO site since 1997, the observatory invites visitors to explore its many offerings. Wonder at the mysteries of the universe in the planetarium, marvel at its collection of historic clocks, or drop in on a space science workshop.
Twinings Tea Shop
In 1706, a young man named Tom Twining opened a shop on the bustling thoroughfare that was London’s Strand. Called Tom’s Coffee House, this small shop quickly garnered attention for its fine selection of tea (and coffee) blends from around the world. Tea had already been introduced in England in the 1660s by a Portuguese queen. However, it was with the help of East Indian trade and merchants like Twining that tea soared to popularity. Today, the original store on the Strand is still in business. Its shopfront logo, established in 1787, is the oldest corporate logo still in use today.
Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea
Journey into the whimsical world of Alice in Wonderland with Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea at the Sanderson Hotel. Here, the menus hide inside vintage books and exotic fruit drinks come in small glass vials marked “Drink Me.” Nibble on a Mad March Hare Vanilla Pocket Watch Macaron or indulge in a Down the Rabbit Hole cocktail.
Little Venice is the perfect tranquil hideaway from the energy of downtown London. Situated between Hyde and Regent’s Parks in Westminster, this quiet canal area is about as quaint as it gets. Among its treasures are tree-lined waterside promenades, pubs, cafes, and restaurants. Visitors can hop aboard the Puppet Theatre Barge or set out on a boat trip to Camden Lock Market.
God’s Own Junkyard
This warehouse in East London is the personal neon sign collection of the late graphic designer Chris Bracey. Many of the signs come from Bracey’s time in Hollywood, where he worked with such filmmakers as Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton, and Christopher Nolan. This shrine to neon is free of charge and open on Fridays and weekends. You can even enjoy coffee and a slice of cake in the shop’s Rolling Scones Café.
We have eccentric millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld to thank for saving this medieval palace from disrepair in the 1930s. Looking to breathe new life into the once-mighty Tudor royal residence, the Courtauld’s wasted no time with their updates. The interior of the mansion is now an Art Deco fairytale with state-of-the-art technology. There’s even a heated room for the owners’ pet lemur. Visitors can try on period dresses and accessories or stroll beneath the hammerbeam roof of the Great Hall. Don’t forget to spend some time wandering the historic 19-acre gardens.
Still settling into its new digs in Fitzrovia near the British Museum, the Cartoon Museum showcases an extensive collection of British cartoonery dating back to the 1800s. It features over 8,000 books and 6,000 original artworks. Visitors of all ages can attend regular cartoon-drawing workshops taught by professional artists.
Pollock’s Toy Museum
Another hidden wonder that calls Fitzrovia home is Pollock’s Toy Museum—a family-run establishment begun in the 1950s. This former toy theater printing shop is now a quirky six-room museum/toy shop displaying old board games, marbles, puppets, toy theaters, wax dolls, doll houses, and more. The building is also home to Eric—the world’s oldest surviving teddy bear—and a 4,000-year-old mouse made from clay from the Nile River.