London has plenty in the way of must-see sights and instantly recognisable landmarks, but hidden down the side streets and tucked away in urban backwaters is a scattered collection of equally fascinating, lesser-known highlights. Delve beyond the London of the postcards and discover an excitingly unfamiliar side to this great city.
St Etheldreda’s Church
Hidden in plain sight down a gated road of neat terraced houses, St Etheldreda’s Church is as beautiful as it is incongruous. It dates back to the mid-13th Century and was the seat of the Bishops of Ely for its first 200 years. Nowadays it’s open every day and free to visit, and it’s usually a place of tranquillity, due to most tourists being oblivious to its presence. The stained glass east window is sublime.
Ye Olde Mitre
For a post-church pint, seek out Ye Olde Mitre, a minute's walk from St Etheldreda's. Located at the confluence of two alleyways so narrow you almost need to walk down them sideways, this is one of London’s oldest pubs, dating to 1546 (though remodelled in the 18th century). Even if you have been before, it still feels like a new discovery every time you visit. It’s especially great in colder months, with its open fire, beamed ceilings and maze of cosy little rooms. A proper London pub.
Chelsea Physic Garden
London’s oldest botanical garden (established in 1673) is a secret delight, with its four acres enclosed by high brick walls. Originally named Apothecaries Garden and now known as Chelsea Physic Garden, it’s a captivating spot, full of rare trees and pharmaceutical plants used in contemporary Western medicine.
Many have heard about the Barbican Estate, the enormous confusing complex of homes and public spaces in the City of London, built in the Brutalist style. But few are aware of its biggest secret: a gargantuan tropical oasis in the form of a steamy conservatory, where over 2000 species of plants thrive. It’s a truly spectacular environment, also home to terrapins, fish and birds.
18 Stafford Terrace
There’s practically nothing from the outside to suggest this terraced house on a quiet residential street is any different from its neighbours. But step inside and you’ll find 18 Stafford Terrace is actually stuck in a time warp – an untouched Victorian family home, complete with Turkish rugs and William Morris wallpaper. It was the residence of illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne, and after his death in 1910 passed through the hands of various family members, who didn’t change anything and ultimately opened it to the public.
Dennis Severs’ House
Dennis Severs’ House is an incredible attraction, part museum, part theatre. It’s the brainchild of its namesake, an American artist who lived here (1979-99) and aimed to produce ‘still-life drama’ throughout the house’s ten rooms. Imagining the occupants to be a family of Huguenot silk weavers, he fashioned each room to provide glimpses of domestic life in Spitalfields from the early 18th to early 20th century. Candle-lit evening openings are particularly atmospheric.
Possibly the unlikeliest pocket of wilderness anywhere in the world, Phoenix Garden sits smack bang in the heart of London’s glittering West End, and somehow manages to be secret and secluded at the same time. Its grassy patches, shrubbery, ponds and benches provide a sanctuary for wildlife and people alike. Look out for the frogs – you won’t find them anywhere else in this part of London. Amazing.
Another urban garden, this time mixed with architectural remains, St Dunstan-in-the-East is a beautiful, tranquil, and little-known green space in the heart of the City. It’s framed by the ruins of St Dunstan Church, which was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, and then again during the Blitz, and surrounded by the steel and glass architecture of modernity.
The arched gatehouse on the approach to St Bartholomew-the-Great is an extremely rare survivor of Tudor architecture in London, almost all of which was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. Once you’ve walked through the arch and entered the church itself, you're in a beautiful space that's an equally rare example of Norman architecture, one of very few such buildings still standing in the city. Keep an eye out for the tomb (and also, allegedly, the ghost) of the church's 12th-century founder, Rahere.
A glorious, and gloriously unexpected, sight, the superbly restored Brixton Windmill is an eye-catching, 200-year-old reminder that London grew from a mosaic of once pastoral villages. You can visit on selected days between April and October on free tours, and the location is also used for various events, including a beer festival in May.
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