London is a city that pays dividends – if you take the time to invest in it that is. There are so many hidden gems in London that if I’m frank, if you’re not taking the time to explore the city, you are not doing it justice.
As a tourist, it can be too easy to go through a checklist of the main attractions and think you’ve “seen” London. Hell, even if you’re a local, you know that it is all too easy to get stuck in a rut doing the same old things.
I’m not throwing shade. Believe me, I am not (well, I kind of am but in the friendliest, loveliest way).
As a born and bred Londoner, I’ve gone through my fair share of “OMFG I love London” and “ugh, I’m so bored – all I wanna do is sit at home and drink tea” phases with this weird and wonderful city I call home.
Make no bones about it though, if you’re not discovering secret places in London, you’re only hearing half the story.
Who wouldn’t want to discover an ancient Roman temple buried in the heart of The City? Or visit one of the highest points in South London where you can soak up some of the best views in the city – get this – in absolute peace and quiet?
How about a jaunt to the secret garden of an old manor house in… Streatham?
It’s all very well and good me extolling the virtues of exploring the unexplored places in London but who has the time to do all that research? To weed through the copious amounts of chaff to find the stuff that’s really worth doing?
Ummm, me, that’s who.
Luckily for you, in the past year I’ve taken it to next levels of dorkiness exploring London off the beaten track and now I’m writing this guide with all of my favourite spots. Many of the entries even link to longer guides so you can find out even more about each spot.
I told you, next level dorkiness right here.
Ready to explore for yourself? What are you waiting for? Let’s sit back with a cuppa tea and go get ‘em.
Hidden Gems in London
Mayfair might feel like an unlikely place to discover London’s secrets. After all, anyone who has ever heard of The Ritz and Green Park knows that Mayfair’s all about the old-school spenny glamour.
Well, that’s not wrong but I’ll bet very few of you have ever heard of Pickering Place. Accessed through a small archway, unmarked save for some small lettering you’d certainly if you weren’t looking for it, Pickering Place holds the title of England’s smallest square and is one of the best places I discovered when writing my Unusual London book.
Juicy as that tidbit is, that’s not really what makes it interesting though – that would be the beautiful Georgian architecture that looks like it’s been plucked from straight out of the 18th century and the square’s surprisingly salacious history.
Like all good and upright parts of town, the residents of Mayfair needed somewhere they could blow off a bit of steam and do things that may or may not have been a little bit illegal. Pickering Place, hidden from prying eyes, was the perfect candidate.
As such, it found itself as the centre of many a naughty activity including bear baiting, gambling and even duelling. Oh those crazy olden days people.
It’s also pretty AF #justsaying.
While Leadenhall Market has slowly crept onto an increasing number of people’s radars, it’s still unknown enough to warrant a spot on any list of secret places to visit in London.
Let’s get the big stuff out of the way first – yes yes – Leadenhall was used as a filming location for Harry Potter. If you make believe hard enough, you can almost transport yourself to the world of Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone.
Exciting as that is (and as a through and through Potter fan, I will brook no argument that it is indeed exciting), there’s so much more to Leadenhall Market.
Like the fact that there’s been a market here since the 14th century. At first it was just for butchers and fishmongers (both long gone) before it became one of London’s most important markets.
The gorgeous gold and red arched architecture bounced onto the scene in the 19th century and now it’s all about high-end shops, ye olde pubs and a few tasty restaurants. Just go.
St Dunstan in the East
I’m NOT sorry about it. Not one jot. If I have to keep carping on about St Dunstan in the East until my last breath before you guys listen to me and go, well, that’s a burden I am willing to carry.
Whooo, that was one heck of a hype job no?
Now that I’ve extolled the virtues of St Dunstan in the East as some of the best hidden architecture in London, I guess I’d better tell you what it is.
Okay, okay. It’s a medieval church named after Saint Dunstan (don’t know your saints? He’s the one who defeated the devil by holding him in the face with a pair of tongs…as you do).
The original church had the misfortune to burn down in the Great Fire of London. It was rebuilt badly, had to be torn down and rebuilt again only to be bombed to a shell during The Blitz.
At this point, the authorities gave up and turned St Dunstan’s into the city’s most unusual park. Aaaand that’s why today you can have lunch in the open-air ruins of a medieval church in the heart of the City of London.
A lot of chat goes into Mayfair’s gorgeous shopping arcades, much of it focused on the prestigious Burlington Arcade.
However, if you stop halfway along Old Bond Street and turn your head at just the right moment, you’ll find the entrance to the Royal Arcade – IMHO the fairest of them all.
Whether you think this is a hidden secret in London will, I suspect, depend on your penchant for luxury shopping.
If you’re the kind of person who spends your whole life on Bond Street looking for this season’s must-have designer find, I guess you’ll be rolling your eyes like “goodness Julianna, I go to the Royal Arcade thrice-monthly at least”. Lah-di-dah.
For the rest of you, I’d very much recommend taking the time to stroll through, slack-jawed at the striking Victorian architecture. You’ll thank me when you do.
Hampstead Hill Garden and Pergola
Tucked amidst the Golders Green section off Hampstead Heath proper, the Hampstead Hill Garden and Pergola is without a doubt one of the prettiest London secrets of them all.
I won’t go into the history (I did that here in this guide: TLDR version, it was built by a philanthropist as as the garden to his swish manor where he’d entertain the hoi polloi of London society before becoming a public park later in the 20th century).
Who really cares when the end result looks like the Garden of Eden but with more OTT architectural flourishes?
Bonus points if you visit during wisteria season when the very sight of it has been known to reduce grown women to the kind of ecstatic hysteria normally reserved for children and a pile of presents at Christmas.
Tired of trying to get yourself organised enough to book tickets for the much talked-up Highgate Cemetery?
Well, it might interest you to know that Highgate is just one of the “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries that encircle what was then the outer peripheries of London…
Meaning there are six other cemeteries where you can go and get your Victorian gothic, hauntingly beautiful graveside fix (which all sounds a bit wrong really).
Of them all, Nunhead Cemetery is one of the least visited but I’d say the most enchanting. Left to go wild during the second half of the 20th century, it’s been transformed into a wildlife reserve.
Exploring is a matter of meandering on narrow paths ducking under trees and above graves – all in perfect peace and quiet.
Far from the stuffy suit-fest some people assume it to be, the financial district of The City of London is filled with hidden treasures including many a Roman ruin.
Still, the Temple of Mithras is without a doubt the best – thanks to the fact that when you visit you experience a full-on recreation of temple worship complete with dimmed lights, chanting and atmospheric smoke. Tres bizarre.
It’s all a bit strange. The temple was dedicated to the god Mithras, only worshipped by a devout (some say a bit cray cray) cult of male followers who’d sacrifice live bulls in his honour.
So when the lights go down and the chanting starts, don’t be surprised if you get just the tiniest shiver down your spine. It is weiiiiiiiiiird but in a good way.
Entrance to the Mithraeum is free but you do have to book timed tickets to ensure the experience isn’t overbooked.
There’s also an interesting exhibition on the history of London from its Roman times as Londinium onwards to mooch about in so allow plenty of time to go and discover.
I always get a sly smile on my face when I talk about Streatham Rookery. You know, the kind of smile that slides onto your face when you’re trying not to humblebrag that you know something the listener doesn’t but you kind of are humblebragging all the same.
Consider this one of those moments.
What’s to brag about?
Well, to be honest, most people haven’t ever heard of the Streatham Rookery and those that have mainly live in Streatham but it’s one of the darned prettiest little gardens in South London all the same.
If that doesn’t count as one of the hidden things to do in London, I don’t know what does.
The gardens, while small, really burst into bloom in the summer months – the White Garden here is said to have inspired that at Sissinghurst and there are enough pergolas and flower-filled beds to keep even the most demanding ‘Grammer busy for hours.
There’s something straight up magical about Cecil Court.
Maybe it’s the fact that, despite being sandwiched between Covent Garden and Charing Cross Road, entering feels like stepping into the Narnia wardrobe.
The pushing crowds and ugly buildings disappear, replaced with a quaint series of booksellers, Victorian facades and still-functioning gas lamps. It couldn’t feel more different to heaving Trafalgar Square around the corner.
Rumour even has it that Cecil Court provided the inspiration for Diagon Alley in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter books (though others will argue until they’re blue in the face that the title should go to nearby Goodwin’s Court instead).
The plot really does thicken when you find out that many of the bookshops on the court are dedicated to magic and the occult. Maybe bring your wand just in case.
One Tree Hill
I have to be honest, One Tree Hill does so well at being one of the secret things to do in London that I hadn’t even heard of it until earlier this year, let alone visited.
I was reading an old history book (because I really know how to have a good time in my downtime) and saw mention of it.
So I decided, like any good inquisitorial / nosey person to read up a bit more and lo. Only goes and turns out that it’s one of the coolest viewing points in London.
Nestled at the top of a (rather steep) woodland-covered hill, once you puff your way up to the top of One Tree Hill, you are treated to some rather striking views of the city skyline framed by the treeline. It’s too perfect and I love it.
That’s not where the story ends though. The name supposedly comes from a tree that Elizabeth I rested under as she took refuge here on a journey through the Great North Wood that used to cover most of South London.
You can even see the very spot as it’s marked by a plaque.
Leake Street Tunnel
Underneath the behemoth that is Waterloo Station, in the bowels of the maze of arches that crisscross below the ground, you’ll find another of London’s cool spots – Leake Street Tunnel.
Now, it’s no secret that I love street art. I *may* have been known to wake up at the crack of dawn and trek across the city because I’ve heard rumour of a new piece going up and I want to get up there and see it while it’s fresh and shiny. Obsessed.
So it was pretty much a given that I’d love London’s largest legal street art wall – Leake Street Tunnel.
The tunnel was started as part of a street art festival masterminded by Banksy in the noughties and it’s been going strong ever since.
At any given time, you’re all but guaranteed to see at least a few new pieces in the making and there are opportunities aplenty to gawp at the sheer talent displayed by many of these artists.
The Seven Noses of Soho
You can always rely on Londoners to do a weird thing or two… like sticking up plaster moulded noses on buildings all over central London and not owning up to the fact that it was you and why you did it for almost two decades.
You’d think that was a pretty far-fetched story but that’s exactly what happened with the Seven Noses of Soho.
Artist Rick Buckley created the noses as a protest about the growing use of CCTV across London and stuck them all over buildings in Soho and the West End.
Most of the noses were removed but seven (now six) remained in Soho. All kinds of theories sprung up about the noses and why they were created until Buckley finally fessed up and explained in (wait for it) 2011 – a mere 14 years after the fact.
Want to find them? Read my handy guide (hint: there’s a map to help you along with the task).
I’ll level with you – Mercato Mayfair is one of the best hidden gems in London… for now.
The sister of Elephant & Castle’s Mercato Metropolitano opened in the beautiful setting of a converted church at the tail end of last year so it was only a matter of months before 2020 and all its ensuing *fun* ensued.
That means that word about Mercato Mayfair hasn’t really got out yet. A.K.A you can go and enjoy the delicious street food and *cough cough* boozy drinks in the golden main hall in a relatively crowd-free setting.
Carpe diem my friends, seize that day, ‘cos I’m betting it won’t last long.
Upstairs at Rules
It might seem weird for me to say that the city’s oldest restaurant is one of the secret spots in London, but bear with me… because I’m not talking about the restaurant itself, I’m talking about its absolutely jaw-dropping upstairs bar.
You see, while many people have heard of Rules, not that many have heard that the upstairs bar is not only one of the best places for cocktails in London but is also hiding a winter garden that is worth losing your sh*t over.
How would you like to have drinks amidst a jungle of palm fronds, flowers and rather delicious baroque decor in a light-filled conservatory? Thought so.
I always grapple with the selfish part of me that doesn’t want to share London secrets like Upstairs at Rules because I thoroughly enjoy having it as my go-to Covent Garden drinking spot… but here I am, selfless as ever, sharing away.
Just remember that if it ever comes down to us being contenders for the last table.
St James’s Palace
Did you know that just around the corner from the Georgian monstrosity that is Buckingham Palace (IMHO, too blocky, no elegance), there’s another palace that not that many people have even heard of?
St James’s Palace is a royal palace dating all the way back to the Tudor times. In fact, large parts of the original palace built by Henry VIII still survives today.
That sounds pretty epic. Even by London standards where our attitude to old stuff is decidedly lax because there’s just so much of it.
So why isn’t more fuss made over St James’s Palace? The answer is pretty simple… because you can’t actually go inside.
Unlike Buckers and other Royal Palaces, St James’s Palace is rarely (read: never) open to the public… but you can see large parts of the palace buildings without going inside.
Simply walk down The Mall from Buckingham Palace and turn left into St James’s and take a wander to look at the palace from all angles.
The Coach & Horses Pub
I’ll make you a bet.
Clear your mind’s eye and think of an old London pub – we’re talking really old. What does it look like? Which part of town is it in? Got it?
Now open them. How close did it look to this?
Pretty close right?
If we’re talking looks alone, The Coach & Horses is, without a doubt, one of the cutest pubs in London.
The Tudorbethan building may look distinctly at odds with its surroundings but it’s thought that this is actually the oldest building on Bruton Street.
While it is something of a secret spot, I’ll warn you that the locals are well and truly in the know. The pub only seats 50, so you’ll need to get there early if you actually want to grab a pew inside.
Can I level with you? It took me a long time to get on board with the mews brigade.
I’m still not 100% convinced by the fact that what ultimately used to be stables for horses have somehow become some of the most expensive residences in an already expensive city… but that’s London for you (crying into my cold tea).
Still, there’s no denying that some of London’s mews are rather attractive – but as they pop up on the ‘gram with increasing frequency, some of them are starting to feel like a rather boring slow-mo circus of awkwardly posed models.
That’s exactly why Halkin Mews is such a gem. Not only is it in cutesy Belgravia and one of the best looking mews in London, but it’s not that well-known so you can have a look around in peace.
London has no shortage of hidden palaces (see St James’s above) but I will guarantee that you’ve never seen one quite like Eltham Palace before.
This former royal palace used to be a favourite until Henry VIII decided he liked his one at Greenwich better and it was sold off during the Commonwealth period before falling into disrepair for centuries.
It all sounds very sad, but that’s not where the story ends.
Eltham Palace was bought in 1931 by the wealthy Stephen Courtauld who started a period of transformation and extension that led to some of the best-preserved Art Deco interiors you can find today.
Add to that a series of moated gardens and you maybe start to see why this is one of the hidden gems of London you should make time to visit.
Whether you love or loathe The Barbican, London’s biggest cultural centre, really boils down to how you feel about Brutalist architecture.
Even if you hate it (and many people do), you should go and seek out the Barbican’s stunning conservatory to see if it will change your mind.
I personally can’t see how you can resist just the smallest amount of wonder as you poke around through thousands of exotic plants, vines trailing from the upper levels and greenery winding between the concrete structures. I just can’t… but you do you boo.
The Conservatory used to only be open on Sundays but it’s currently open every day (booking only). Whether that’s a long term change is unclear but you should grab the chance to go.
City of London Distillery
London’s love of gin is one of the worst kept secrets of all time.
In fact, the city had such a problem with the clear stuff in the 18th Century that there’s a bonafide period in London’s history known as the Gin Craze (go look it up if you don’t believe me).
Though it fell out of favour for a while, gin is well and truly back on London’s menu. New distilleries have popped up all over town, but few are as brilliant as the City of London Distillery.
First of all, you’ll find The City of London Distillery down the quaint St Bride’s Lane just off Fleet Street. Walk down into its underground enclave and it gets better – there’s a cool bar from which you can watch their treasured still, Betty, do her work.
Crossness Pumping Station
On the face of it Crossness Pumping Station sounds kind of… boring. Or gross. You can take your pick.
If you said to me that I’d get excited about a pumping station that formed part of London’s sewage system, I’d have raised an eyebrow to say the least.
Proving that you can never underestimate the Victorian ability to make even the most functional structure a work of beauty, a visit to Crossness Pumping Station truly is one of the unique things to do in London.
The interior features the kind of wrought-iron workmanship that’s all but died off today, and the Beam Engine House is a piece of Romanesque wonder.
The Tulip Stair
Greenwich is home to so many London landmarks – The Cutty Sark and The Observatory among them – that it can be easy to leave it at that.
You’d be missing out though.
Take the Queen’s House: the first wholly classical building in England that now contains one of the city’s most important art collections – yet not that many people have heard of it, let alone been.
The house is also where you’ll find the gorgeous Tulip Stair, so called because of the intricate tulip motifs on the iron railings. The first cantilevered spiral staircase in the UK, the Tulip Stair is an architectural feat… but it doesn’t hurt that its graceful beauty is one of the prettiest spots in town either.
The Horniman Museum
London’s never short on a museum or gallery, which perhaps explains why it’s generally only locals who make it to The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill.
This is so much more than a local museum. Created by wealthy tea merchant Frederick Horniman in 1891, the diverse and interesting collections are a bit like the Natural History Museum in a smaller and more digestible format.
There are aquatic displays, musical instruments, ethnography, natural history – all thoughtfully curated and engagingly presented. It really is one of the most underrated things to do in London.
Once you’re finished in the museums proper, take some time to mooch around the 16 acres of gardens.
At their apex you’ll discover sweeping views into central London, while the terraced levels contain a series of treasures including a Sound Garden and an Animal Walk filled with living natural history specimens.
Garden at 120
The City’s Sky Garden gets no shortage of attention from locals and visitors alike, but just down the road, the Garden at 120 is one of London’s hidden gems.
Perhaps it’s because it’s newer (it only opened at the beginning of 2019), perhaps it’s because people just don’t know about it.
Whatever the reason, you should totally take advantage of this tranquil spot.
Situated on the 15th floor of 10 Fenchurch Avenue, the Garden is a quiet oasis of peace in the otherwise busy city.
Of course, given the fact that it’s smack bang in the centre of The City, it’s no surprise that it also happens to boast some rather special views of central London either.
Go and enjoy a unique vantage point of landmarks including The Gherkin and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Holly Village, Highgate
It’s not difficult to see what inspired so many poets, writers and intellectuals to live in Highgate.
Best described as a village that got sucked up into London, the area has retained its rural feel. Not least because it borders onto Hampstead Heath, the finest stretch of countryside in London if there is such a thing.
If Highgate itself can be described as one of the less known places in London, wait until you see the opulent Victorian Gothic architecture of Holly Village.
Dating to the 1860s, it was designed for Angela Burden-Coutts, then the second richest woman in Britain (number one was Queen Victoria in case you wondered).
Even though the grounds of this “village within a village” are private, you can still take a look at the neo-Gothic architecture from the ornate entranceway.
Ye Olde Mitre
Ye Olde Mitre bills itself as one of the most difficult to find pubs in London and, you know, they might just be right.
Though the likelihood of you accidentally stumbling across this pub are about 0.00001% it’s the fact that it’s so well hidden that makes it one of London’s best kept secrets.
At night, the small courtyard is shrouded in fairy lights, beckoning for you to ensconce yourself in a cosy nook, pint in hand.
Bonus points if you see the tree stump around which Queen Elizabeth I is said to have danced when it formed a part of the garden of one of her favourite subjects, Christopher Hatton.
There’s nothing us Londoners love more than telling people about a great little place we know. Maybe that’s why the speakeasy scene has practically exploded here in the past decade (that and the fact that we ruddy love a good cocktail).
Still, while some places like the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town and Nightjar have made their way onto most people’s radars, others like Oriole have stayed relatively low-key.
It’s ensconced underneath Smithfield Meat Market behind a rather unprepossessing door. Don’t worry, if you think you’ve found the right place, you probably have.
Cross Bones Burial Ground
With the exception of Nunhead Cemetery, so far I’ve steered away from the city’s more macabre spots, but Cross Bones Burial Ground is one of the secret places in London that truly fascinates me.
If you’re easily creeped out, this probably isn’t for you – if not though, read on.
You see, the whole of the South Bank area used to be a breeding ground of rather scandalous occupations – whoring, gambling, fighting – it all used to happen on the South Bank. There were brothels aplenty, as well as some of the city’s poorest slums.
Many of those poor and all of the prostitutes were buried on a small plot of unconsecrated land near to The Shard – Cross Bones Burial Ground.
In fact, over 15,000 bodies were buried here over time, until inner city burials were banned in the Victorian times.
These days, there’s a small garden on the site, wreathed in flowers and trinkets. The Cross Bones Society also holds a monthly remembrance ceremony / seance on the site to commemorate the outcasts of society.
There we are: thirty hidden places in London for you to explore.
I hope you have even a smidgen as much fun exploring these as I did!
I know I’m biased but there’s so much to see in this city that you can’t help but get a little too excited when you find a new spot you’ve never heard of.
On that note, do pipe up with your own favourite hidden spots in London in the comments, I’d love to hear them.
If you love this guide, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll love my Unusual London book, which features over 115 places in the city waiting to be discovered. Check it out.
Secret Places in London: Map
Here’s a map of the places featured in this guide – enjoy your adventures!
Looking to See More of London Off the Beaten Track?
Check these out…
The Unusual London Book
Quirky and Unusual Things to do in London
Time to Discover: The Barbican Conservatory
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