A new, updated version of this article can be found here
Despite its size, London is a city where it can be difficult to stray from the tourist path and the same old haunts.
If you want to experience some of the capital’s hidden gems though, throw away the guidebook and look no further than our list of ukulele-playing, spoon-making, Serpentine-swimming activities that you never knew you could do in London, writes George Knowles
Visit a Hindu temple
[Picture: Pete Woodhead / Flickr / CC]
At the time it was constructed in 1995, the Swaminarayan Temple (105-119 Brentfield Rd, London NW10 8LD, 020 8965 2651, londonmandir.baps.org) was the largest Hindu temple outside of India. This marvellous structure built from Indian marble and Bulgarian Limestone sits, rather unbelievably, in the heart of Neasden. Visitors can enjoy resplendent domed ceilings and beautifully carved wooden interiors, and simply marvel at the unlikely location for such an architectural gem.
Experience films like never before
London based company, Future Cinema (www.futurecinema.co.uk), have completely re-imagined the movie theatre experience. Specialising in bringing classic films back to life through a mixture of improvised performances, detailed design and elaborate sets. They create an immersive setting in which movie-goers can relive classics from Ghostbusters to Grease. Recently their Casablanca themed event featured an entirely transformed theatre, complete with Moroccan cocktail bar, roulette tables, and a series of ‘altercations’ with live actors.
Go for a bracing swim in Hyde Park
Members of the Serpentine Swimming Club (serpentineswimmingclub.com) are able to take part in Saturday morning races starting at 8am throughout the year, with distance varying depending on how cold the water is. If that is not extreme enough for the more enthusiastic of swimmers, the club has also staged a race on Christmas Day every year since 1864. Apparently a far more invigorating experience than opening presents.
Row, row, row your boat
[Picture: Leonard Bentley / Flickr / CC]
If outdoor swimming is not your idea of fun, (why wouldn’t it be?) you can enjoy The Serpentine in a far more relaxing manner. Operating during the summer months, plenty of London parks including Alexandra, Hyde and Greenwich offer up their waterways to enthusiastic boaters. Re-live your very own Bridget Jones moment.
Sing with your own backing band
For those who think that karaoke is all a little too passé, think again. KaraUke (karauke.co.uk), described as “the best damn karaoke night in town”, boasts a travelling band of ukulele players, willing to provide the backing tracks to everyone’s favourite disco and pop numbers, on the third Thursday of every month. Why did no-one think of this before? Word of warning though: it won’t make you sound any better.
Dead celebrity spotting
[Picture: Duncan Harris / Flickr / CC]
Even for graveyards, Highgate Cemetery (Swain’s Ln, London N6 6PJ, 020 8340 1834, highgatecemetery.org) is particularly eerie. Wander through narrow trails between crumbling Victorian gravestones, which lie half-overtaken by wild and dense green foliage. Keep your eyes peeled for a whole raft of famous names, including Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, George Eliot and even Jeremy Beadle. Celebrity spotting at it’s most macabre.
Drink in a real-life film set
[Picture: Yegor / Flickr / CC]
Ye Old Mitre Pub (1, Ely Pl, London, EC1N 6SJ, 020 7405 4751, yeoldemitreholborn.co.uk) built in 1540, lies tucked down a narrow alleyway. Enjoy a pint in this quintessential London tavern, and see if you can recognise its interior as the location of scenes from the films Snatch and The Deep Blue Sea.
Descend to an underground cave
[Picture: captiv8photography.net / Flickr / CC]
Not the Tube, but rather the Chislehurst Caves (Caveside Close, Old Hill, Chislehurst, 020 8467 3264, www.chislehurst-caves.co.uk), a labyrinth of man-made caverns, apparently built by the Druids, Romans and Saxons. In more recent years they have served as an air raid shelter, a mushroom farm, and even for a brief period, a prolific music venue, boasting acts including David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. Now, they offer guided tours at a very reasonable price.
Experience a little bit of Japan
[Picture: Stephen Cannon / Flickr / CC]
If you prefer to be above ground, then don’t forget that London has its fair share of beautiful green spaces. One of the most unique is Kyoto Garden (100 Holland Park Ave, London W11 4UA, 020 7361 3003, website), a tranquil Japanese paradise located in Holland Park. Gifted by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in 1992, it boasts an abundance of trickling waterfalls, peaceful ponds, and plenty of koi carp.
Hear democracy in action at Hyde Park Corner
[Picture: Julie Kertesz / Flickr / CC]
Head to the north-east corner of Hyde Park, just across from Marble arch to enjoy an ‘eclectic’ mix of speakers – all willing to get something off their chest. A bastion of free speech since the 19th century it was used by such people as Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell. You may even be inspired to vent some of your own frustrations.
Make your own spoon
Sitting in the window of a fairly nondescript shop on Hackney Road you will find Barnaby Carder, the owner of Barn the Spoon (260 Hackney Rd, London E2 7SJ, website). For a small sum of money he will whittle your very own personalised wooden spoon. Barn also teaches small classes on spoon carving and organises ‘Spoonfest’, the first festival dedicated entirely to the sculpting of shallow, bowl shaped utensils. Not popular with international rugby players.
Be a real-life Sherlock
The Evans and Peel Detective Agency (www.evansandpeel.com) is a hidden underground cocktail bar, by ‘appointment’ only. Play your cards right, show the correct credentials, and a ‘detective’ will show you downstairs where you can enjoy a good selection of drinks, bar snacks and food, and perhaps you can solve a couple of mysteries along the way.
See the last ‘fart-powered’ lamp
[Picture: IanVisits / Flickr / CC]
The last remaining Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp is hidden behind the Savoy Hotel (Carting Lane), of all places. Invented in the late 19th century, these lamps spread throughout the capital, as a means of low-cost street lighting, and also to clear the noxious smells emanating from the London sewers. Now only one remains, and it’s only a replica.
Listen to a free lunchtime concert
[Picture: jojo-bean / Flickr / CC]
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church (Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 4JJ, 020 7766 1100, website) hosts free concerts at 1pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, showcasing plenty of new and emerging talent in a range of different styles and genres. It is always an excellent opportunity to listen to good quality music.
Read while you sail on London’s only bookshop barge
Bobbing along the canal bank is London’s only second-hand bookshop barge, Word on the Water (facebook.com/wordonthewater), which moors at various locations including Angel and Camden. It boasts a range of good books, a wood-burning stove, poetry slams, live music and its very own resident cat.
Become a circus act
Less extreme than running away to join the circus, the National Centre for Circus Acts (Coronet St, London, N1 6HD, 020 7613 4141, www.nationalcircus.org.uk) offers experience days, where the budding acrobatic enthusiast can learn a range of circus skills, including trapeze, tight wire and juggling.
Have lunch in a power station
[Picture: duncan c / Flickr CC]
Built in an old hydraulic power station where the disused machinery has remained a significant part of the furniture, The Wapping Project (Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, London E1W 3SG, www.thewappingproject.com) has a unique and eccentric atmosphere. Enjoy a good lunch at this laid-back restaurant, whilst sitting between pumps and turbines, and be sure to check out the art gallery housed within.
Get your skates on
Roller-skating is on the rise across the UK, and there is a whole range of opportunities in the capital to experience the four-wheeled phenomenon. At the London Rollergirls Club (www.londonrollergirls.com) women can take part in the rather brutal sport of Roller Derby, a crazed mixture of rugby and circuit racing on wheels, or anyone can join the London Friday Night Skate and Sunday Stroll.
Satisfy your curiosity
[Picture: Peter Blapps / Flickr / CC]
Self-styled as a museum for the “incurably curious”, the Wellcome Collections ( 183 Euston Rd, London NW1 2BE, 020 7611 2222, www.wellcomecollection.org) offers a unique array of extraordinary exhibitions from mummified bodies to cartoon etchings of a man drinking himself to death.
Scale a frozen cliff
Brush up on your mountaineering techniques with the Vertical Chill ice-climbing wall (10-12 Southampton St, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 7HA, 0207 395 1010, website). There are lessons for beginners, or a ‘turn up and climb’ option for those with a little more experience. Not quite Mt. Everest, but a good imitation nonetheless. Do not forget your gloves.
Luxuriate in an outdoor cinema
For those with few inhibitions, Hot Tub Cinema (hottubcinema.com) offers a more relaxing opportunity to enjoy films. In the summer months, (obviously!) a series of London roofs are taken over by the company, and attendees can enjoy a range of classic and modern films in the comfort of an inflatable hot tub.
Enjoy the world’s oldest music hall
[Picture: David Merrigan / Flickr / CC]
Wilton’s (1 Graces Alley, London E1 8JB, 020 7702 2789, wiltons.org.uk), the world’s oldest and perhaps most dilapidated music hall, has retained all its classic features and offers a beautiful and intimate setting for a diverse range of performances, including music, cinema, theatre and cabaret. With a long history it has survived the blitz, and multiple attempts to knock it down, and now lies crumbling – but this only adds to its charm.
See how our forebears operated
[Picture: Ann Lee / Flickr / CC]
Thirty-two steps up an old spiral staircase is the Old Operating Theatre Museum (9a St Thomas St, London SE1 9RY, 020 7188 2679, website). With a merciless array of amputation implements, the museum recalls the ruthless nature of 19th century surgery. On a Saturday you can ‘enjoy’ a special demonstration of Victorian speed surgery, and feel blessed that we now have the NHS.
Discover a hidden botanical paradise
[Picture: Karen Bryan / Flickr / CC]
Living in the shadow of London’s better known gardens, the Chelsea Physic Garden (66 Royal Hospital Rd, London SW3 4HS, 020 7352 5646, website) is a horticultural paradise. Green fingered enthusiasts can enjoy a whole range of edible, medicinal and endangered plants, or simply enjoy a peaceful walk through the tranquil garden oasis.
Encounter a Soviet tank
[Picture: Yuriy Akopov / Flickr / CC]
Just off Old Kent Road, on a small plot of land, lies an old Soviet tank. Rumour has it that it appeared after Southwark Council refused the landowner planning permission to build a house, instead accepting his application to erect a small tank, believing that it was a nondescript storage container. Today it is a popular attraction for graffiti artists and regularly sports a new facia. It symbolises two great wars, one between communism and capitalism, the other between a man and a local council planning department.