London is my absolute favourite European city. I like to visit at least twice a year, just to see what changed. I like to go by train (Eurostar) since I only live across the English channel. Arriving in St. Pancras: it gives me goosebumps every time.
I still have a lot of exploring to do, but I’ll sum up some of my favourite off the beaten track things to do/see. No Big Ben, Madame Tussauds or London Eye in this list.
- Alternative Walks London: I cannot stress this one enough. I talk about it with everyone I meet, regardless of their interest. A colleague recommended this tour in 2014 and we did the walking tour straight away. It took us to a less known neighbourhood and gave us the chance to get to know a ‘new’ side of London. We saw really amazing street art, the guide was friendly and entertaining and we discovered new restaurants and shops. We went back to the neighbourhood (near Spitalfields Market) in 2015 and were surprised by how much the neighbourhood (and street art) had already changed. The neighbourhood is definitely being upmarketed so if you’re planning on visiting: be quick. Sooner or later the neighbourhood will be a hipster hangout and the real underground vibe will probably shift to another neighbourhood.
- The Book of Mormon: Okay… Visiting a musical in London isn’t really going off the beaten track, but this isn’t a musical like The Lion King or Mamma Mia. It’s created by the South Park team so you know you’ll be in for a great night. Great show, great actors and voices. Side note: If you do not like South Park humour, you should probably not visit.
- Greenwich: Most tourists don’t take the time to visit Greenwich, but you can easily go there by public transport. It’s a great escape from the busy London vibe. If it’s sunny you should jump on the train and go picnic on one of the lawns of Greenwich Park (near the world-famous Observatory).
- The O2 Arena: Also in Greenwich, but feel I must make this a new item. This concert hall isn’t only a concert hall but a whole artificial city. It used to house the amazing British Music Experience (which was unfortunately closed in April 2014). Even without the BME the O2 Arena is an experience in itself and chances are there’s a great show on while you’re in London. Not for the fainthearted though, the tribunes are steeeeep.
- Anthropologie: I must admit I am a sucker for this chain of clothing stores. Their shop on Regent Street has a beautiful hanging garden. You can dump your more conventional travel friends at Hamleys which is not far away. If you like a less crowded shopping experience there’s always the shop on Kings Road (and other shops I haven’t visited yet).
- The Comedy Store: If musicals aren’t your thing you can always catch a nice comedy show in London. We were recommended the Comedy Store and it truly was a great experience. In high season shows can be sold out, but there are lots of other comedy joints.
- Just walk: my best London experience was the time we just walked for hours. We didn’t enter any museums, churches or shops… we just walked. We went past all the well-known monuments and enjoyed them from a distance. No long queues, no noisy people and no rip-offs. Do wear appropriate footwear, since you ca easily walk for hours straight in this lovely city. We went past the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Parliament, Piccadilly Circus,… They’re all walking distance so no need for The Underground, just enjoy the view. You can also easily walk along the Thames!
- Highgate Cemetery: We visited the East and West Cemetery. You can only visit the West Cemetery by tour (worth it!). We had a really funny tour guide (in an appropriate way, since you’re still visiting a graveyard) and learnt a lot about the history of the cemetery and London in general. Better than Pere Lachaise (Paris) and Kerepesi Cemetery (Budapest).
- Huntarian Museum: Weird yet beautiful. A museum full of animals and human body parts, mostly preserved in jars. If you’re not a medical professional it does require some time to get used to seeing some of the abnormalities but in its core the museum just shows how beautiful nature can be.
- Kew Gardens: Not necessarily off the beaten track, but often left aside due to time restrictions. If you have time the gardens are worth the visit. If you don’t have time you should make time.
I’ll be visiting London again in July. We’ll probably (hopefully) visit the Sir John Soane’s Museum, but I’d love to hear about some other hidden gems if you know some!