How does the city of London attract people from all over the world, then convince them to stay even longer than they planned? Most of the tourist would say it’s the red tour buses that keep the streets occupied, the Big Ben; Buckingham Palace of course, the London Eye, oh and how about those cute old-school phone booths that make you want to take pictures in them, and all the great museums. Nothing wrong with those of course, but you will spend much of your time queuing with fellow tourists.
Our London Spotters will tell you it’s how the city celebrates the variety of people that live and come visit; it’s the endless surprises of new ideas, businesses, people and atmospheres; the great food you can find here (especially the variety of bars and restaurants); the sensory explosion you get when exploring the city. Here are our picks for some of the most unique, locals gems in London, spotted by locals who love their city.
Tropical holiday in rainy London
Let’s be real, London isn’t known for having the best weather. Rainy days are all too common in this city, and on some days you just want to feel warm. The Barbican Conservatory can help satisfy that craving with an exotic tropical experience.
If you manage to find your way through the Barbican estate you can find the conservatory on the 3rd floor. It’s London’s second largest conservatory, and houses around 2,000 species of tropical plants. Walking through it is a peaceful experience that takes you away from gloomy urban life for a few hours, which we all need sometimes.
Union Chapel isn’t just a place for prayers and weddings. This church is now a fully-fledged music venue! The organizers began by showing acoustic performances and one-man shows, and later started hosting concerts and events. It has developed into a venue open to a large variety of genres. You can find anything from jazz, folk, rock and soul here.
The venue itself is beautiful and gazing around at the Victorian Gothic architecture is nice, but the real gem of course is the shows. The music sounds amazing, due to the dramatic acoustics of the church. It’s truly a unique experience to listen to a performance given in such a venue.
London’s guiding light
Although getting to Trinity Buoy Warf is a bit difficult unless you’re traveling by car, it is definitely worth taking a little detour for. It’s London’s only lighthouse! The lighthouse is surrounded by Container City, a studio and office complex built from old sea shipping containers.
Once you’re inside the lighthouse it’s best to go straight to the top: here you have a romantic view of the Thames (great date spot!). Another interesting feature of this lovely lighthouse is the fact that it is home to The Longplayer. This is a one thousand year long musical composition, which due to technology and some very clever musicians will not repeat itself for a whole millennium.
A spot of tea
The British love for tea is a popular cultural stereotype, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that London has a museum dedicated to the stuff. The Twinings Tea Shop and Museum boasts a large selection of tea with many flavors not found in regular supermarkets. If you’re not sure which flavor to start with, the staff is happy to advise newbies and introduce people to new blends.
However it is the back of the shop that is the real draw – a small room dedicated to the history of Twinings tea and the tea trade in general. For people who didn’t grow up in the UK (or in a tea-drinking environment), the exhibits provide a broad overview on how integral tea is to the British way of life.
Chewing gum art
It’s hard to display how cool this trend is from one photo. There are people who have lived in London for years without noticing these hidden gems (they are only a few centimeters wide; the photo above is very close-up). Walking along Millennium Bridge, one of the busiest bridges in central London, you might notice little splotches of color on the ground and assume (correctly) that they are wads of gum. But if you bend closer to look at them, you will see that each one is a tiny work of art!
The artist finds wads of gum stuck on surfaces around London and draws little cartoons and doodles on them. Millennium Bridge may be the spot with the most of these little pictures, but if you want to see some examples in a less touristy area while getting to know a new district of London, try heading up to Muswell Hill in North London.
A little piece of Japan
Although Holland Park is a lot smaller than it’s more famous siblings Hyde Park and Richmond Park, it features many different types of activities and spots. You can find a field for football or cricket, an ecology center, woods and even a hostel.
The best part of the park is the tranquil Kyoto Garden, a tiny little taste of Japan in the city of London. The garden opened back in 1991 as a gift from Kyoto to celebrate the friendship between Japan and Great Britain. Its design reflects the most important aspects of Japanese gardens, such as stone lanterns, tiered waterfalls and fish. The crashing of water is occasionally mixed with the squawks of peacocks that wander around the park.
If you’re among the hordes of London shoppers – residents and visitors alike – who’ve recoiled in horror at the souvenir shops on Oxford Street and the like, bear with us for a second: this is no ordinary souvenir emporium. No postcards of Kate and Will here (though a line of socks known as Kate Middle-Toe is said to do well). The souvenirs and London-related articles on sale at We Built This City are many and varied, but they’re all original, tasteful, often hilarious and a thoroughly welcome antidote to what’s on offer elsewhere.
Beers on a boat
Originally a 1930’s Dutch barge, nowadays The Tamesis Dock is a floating pub that’s permanently docked at Albert Embankment. The boat has several floors, which makes it feel a lot bigger than it is. It’s decorated with multi-colored fairy lights and cute little plants. On the top deck, you can sit on some picnic benches or metal stools. And the bottom floor has a swinging egg-shaped chair!
The vibe is super relaxed and it’s often free unless there’s live music that night. The best part is probably the great view over the river. You’d best come with your sea legs on because although the river current is only mild, things feel a lot more wobbly after a few of their exquisite beers.
Nothing really prepares you for your first visit to God’s Own Junkyard, a shop that sells neon and glowing signs. The visual impact this place makes on your first visit is jaw-dropping. The combination of such an uninspiring surrounding (an industrial estate!?) and the overwhelming floor-to-ceiling neon is incongruous, but all the more glorious for it. Almost all of the items displayed are for sale. Ever wanted a massive neon arrow filled with ‘thrills’? This is the place.
Victorian treasure museum
London’s museums would be less valuable places without the contributions of Victorian collectors who assembled items on their worldwide travels. One such Victorian gentleman, Frederick John Horniman, opened his private collection of eclectic items to the people of London. These souvenirs from Asia, Africa and the Americas form the heart of the Horniman Museum.
Perhaps the most famous resident of the museum is the overstuffed walrus. The story goes that when the walrus first arrived at the Horniman over a century ago, the taxidermists didn’t realize that walruses have wrinkly skin, so they stuffed it to the brim. Although it may looks a tad silly now, the overstuffed walrus shows just how valuable museums like the Horniman were in introducing the world to the people of Victorian London.
Cutting edge arts venue
The multi-million pound refurbishment of an old art deco cinema in 2018 lead to the opening of EartH, one of London’s most remarkable new music and arts venues. This is now one of the most impressive panoramas for live entertainment in the city. Our London Spotter Mark highly recommends this spot for music lovers – and since he works in the music industry, you can trust that he knows what he’s talking about.
Alongside theater, comedy, cabaret and mixed arts events, in the upstairs theater there is musical programming that leans toward forward-thinking jazz, electronica, world and adult contemporary. The venue downstairs meanwhile offers a more straightforward concert hall vibe veering more towards alternative and club events, all in the best possible taste.
Hippy garden paradise
Despite being slap-bang in the center of London’s trendy Shoreditch, the Nomadic Community Gardens are one of the district’s best-kept secrets. A green space that’s free to enter, the gardens resemble some kind of urban open gallery. Browse the space and admire the vibrant murals adorning the walls, the handmade sculptures fashioned from scrap metal, and the alluring hand-painted sheds.
Then, meet the interesting local folk who voluntarily tend the gardens. Consider stopping by the teeny Roving cafe for a cup of tea or a bargain meal. Despite the central location, the spot is peaceful and quiet. If you have the time, sit on one of the benches to absorb the unusual surroundings and enjoy the tranquillity of the place.