As a holiday destination, London takes some beating. It’s got everything you could want – awe-inspiring tourist attractions, world-class galleries and museums, and enough restaurants to keep the most ardent foodie satisfied. But while there’s plenty to see on the surface, London is a city of truly hidden depths; one that rewards deeper exploration.
You can’t walk a few steps in central London without running into the heavyweight cultural institutions, but jostling for a glimpse of a masterpiece might not be your cup of tea. For something different, try the John Soanes museum (13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, www.soane.org). This delightful townhouse museum is the former home of wealthy 18th century architect Sir John Soanes. Every crevice is crammed with his eclectic collection featuring everything from architectural models and marble statues to paintings by Canaletto and Hogarth. Visit on the first Tuesday evening of the month to do the tour by candlelight; a truly atmospheric experience.
Also flying under the radar is the Wellcome Collection (183 Euston Road;www.wellcomecollection.org). With science and medicine the focus, exhibitions range from the titillating to the macabre. Past exhibitions have covered human sexuality, the history of forensics, and the wonders of mindfulness. It’s well worth a visit if only to see Gunther von Hagen’s controversial – and rather gruesome – plastinated cross-section slice of a person.
Fresh takes on old favourites
First-time visitors to London make a beeline for the areas housing the main attractions but it’s worth going against the flow to see a different side to the city. Around London Bridge, instead of heading to the Shard, Southbank and Borough, head five minutes in the opposite direction and you’ll come across Bermondsey Street. This historic street is jam-packed with great independent shops, historic pubs and award-winning restaurants.
Once you’ve admired the rich fabrics and beautiful clothes on display at the Fashion and Textile museum (83 Bermondsey St, www.ftmlondon.org), stop off at the Woolpack pub (98 Bermondsey St, www.woolpackbar.com), a favourite for post-work drinks. With one of the best beer gardens in the area, it’s the perfect spot on a sunny day. Or go for an intimate dinner at bijou Casse-Croûte (109 Bermondsey St, www.cassecroute.co.uk) where the delicious French-influenced menu will have you saying ‘ooh la la’ before the night is out.
On Saturdays, Maltby Street market is a great alternative to the more famous Borough market. Pick up legendary vanilla doughnuts from St John Bakery (72 Druid Street; www.stjohngroup.uk.com) and try tackling the hefty Reuben sandwich, from Monty’s Deli (76 Druid St, www.montys-deli.com), filled with pastrami, Swiss cheese, mustard and gherkins. Further down from Maltby street, Druid Street market has recently launched. See what London’s hottest new food businesses have to offer – the likes of Decatur London (barbequed oysters) and Blue Top (ice cream sandwiches) are already creating quite a stir.
Get a new perspective
Escaping central London reveals a very different side to the city. There are real finds to be had outside the hustle and bustle of zone 1 if you know where to look. Try heading to southeast London, where Peckham has become the go-to destination of hipsters bored by Shoreditch and young families priced out of Brixton.
A raft of new bars and restaurants has sprung up but no visit is complete without a sipping an aperol spritz and enjoying the great rooftop views at Frank’s Café (10th floor, Peckham multi-story carpark, 133 Rye Lane; www.frankscafe.org.uk). Check out some of the art installations from local gallery Bold Tendencies too; it’s just one level below. Sophisticated restaurant and cocktail bar Peckham Refreshment Rooms (3-4, 12-16 Blenheim Grove, www.peckhamrefreshment.com), has brought a touch of gentrified chic to the area, with its pared back décor and French inspired menu. Meanwhile, Spanish restaurant Miss Tapas (46 Choumert Road, www.misstapas.com), does a cracking line in cured meats, mushroom and truffle croquetas, and cheese with honey. Those with energy to spare at the end the night can try their luck at the CLF Art Café (Block A, Bussey Building, www.clfartcafe.org) where you can dance it all off to thumping beats of the hardcore house or the smooth grooves of Soul Train, the world’s biggest soul night.
London’s hidden nightlife
If you’re looking for the epicentre of cool London nightlife, swap a night out in Shoreditch for one in Hackney. The derelict warehouses and industrial sites of Hackney Wick may be threatened by gentrification, but for now, the area retains its counter-cultural edge. Microbrewery and canalside bar CRATE (7, Queen’s Yard; www.cratebrewery.com) leads the way. Sit by the canal or in the main yard and wash down one of their delicious pizzas with a bottle of craft beer brewed on site. Next door is The Yard Theatre (2A, Queen’s Yard), independent theatre where audiences can discover new talent in the intimate space. A little further up the canal, at Number 90 Bar (90 Wallis Road; www.number90bar.co.uk) there are no excuses for not getting on the dancefloor once the dinner-and-drinks crowd have cleared.
Alternatively, stay central. After all, the best bars in London are hidden – literally. In Chinatown, behind a non-descript door is the Experimental Cocktail Club (13a Gerrard St, www.experimentalcocktailclub.london). The drinks may be expensive, but like the venue, they’re certainly seductive. Knowledgeable bar staff are happy to whip up something based on your preferences, in the unlikely event you can’t choose from the menu. Islington’s got 69 Colebrook Row, Tony Conigliaro’s award-winning back street speakeasy. Nabbing a table is an art in itself, but worth it for an afternoon of living la dolce vita. In Shoreditch, enjoy the quirky Victoriana of the Worship Street Whistling Shop (63 Worship St, www.whistlingshop.com) where once you’ve descended the stairs, you’ll emerge into a dark, cosy little den. Drinks are a bewitching mixture of weird and wonderful concoctions such as the Burnt Must, featuring raspberry and mustard liqueur topped with sparkling wine.
There's no end to London's ability to surprise and delight. Get under the city’s skin, and you’ll uncover some truly memorable treasures.