From the literary bohème of the 18th and 19th centuries to the punk scene of the seventies and today’s indie subculture, London has always been a metropolis that offers a niche for every culture and subculture that decided to settle there. Surprisingly, there are many guides and articles that promise to have ‘insider’ tips – but to be honest, in the age of the internet and especially with London being the most heavily touristed city in the world, there are very few notable places in London that have not yet been discovered by tourist crowds. Still, there are spots that are worth checking out that are not in the guidebooks – though whether you enjoy them or not might depend on your interests and your ability to get out of your comfort zone.
I know, how touristy! London has brilliant museums, and while none of the big public museums should be missed, there are hundreds of hidden gems scattered throughout the city. For a little side trip to suburban South London, the Horniman Museum is a great choice. It is easily reachable by bus and comprises a massive collection of music instruments, Asian art, a quirky (and creepy, with a lot of taxidermist showpieces) natural-history selection and much more. Hard to believe, but all of this used to be one man’s (right, Mr Horniman’s!) private collection. The museum, which is free, also includes an aquarium in the basement, a small farm and a fabulous garden with great views of the city on a clear day.
A brilliant critical exhibition space in central London, overlooked for probably no other reason than its location right opposite the British Library and St Pancras International Station, the Wellcome Collection houses a number of changing exhibitions dealing with a broad range of topics, from health, to human rights, to contemporary art. It’s free, too!
Alternative shops and markets
It’s easy to find big shops, shopping markets and stores that sell all kinds of traditional British kitsch. Don’t believe that Camden Lock Market is ‘alternative’ – it is among the top-three tourist attractions in London. Nevertheless, the area still has some of the best music venues if you like rock, punk, metal and the like (well-known are World’s End and The Electric Ballroom, both only a few steps from the tube station). While a little on the expensive side, Camden Town is a good place to hang out for a drink or two (and great vegetarian and vegan food) after the crowds have gone home.
For some real radical stuff, head down to the not-for-profit Housman’s Radical Booksellers near King’s Cross station. There are weekly readings and discussion panels that are free to attend, a big selection of zines, pamphlets and magazines and (of course) lots of political, environmentalist, feminist or just mildly hippy-ish literature at low prices (don’t miss the basement).
Infamous as one of the roughest areas of London after violent riots took place here in the eighties and again recently, Brixton is home to a lively multicultural market with lots of small cafés, restaurants, a good independent cinema and music venues. There are much ‘worse’ areas in London, and unless you hang out there at 4am, you will mostly find Brixton to be a safe, tame place to spend some time. It’s a great place to visit to experience the real diversity of London.
A lovely market selling antiques, affordable art and much more that should not be confused with Camden Market is located at Camden Passage, near Angel Tube station, that opens Wednesdays and Saturdays. The area around is also famous as one of the most up-and-coming areas of London and home of the famed ‘Islington hipsters’ (as Indie kids are called in the British capital).
Alternative entertainment, clubs and bars
Whether you are after a cheesy musical, a modern opera, a traditional British pub, a classy bar or a fetish club, London has it all, with some options being more well-known than others. These are my three best-kept secrets.
If you are out around Soho or Leicester Square any time of the day, there is a good chance someone will try to sell you tickets to a comedy club. While occasionally these clubs host good comedians, usually you’ll end up blowing £20 on a night of unfriendly staff, expensive drinks and insulting comedians. Instead, on a Monday night, head north-west to The Good Ship in Kilburn (less than 12 minutes by tube from Baker Street), originally London’s Irish quarter. For £6, you are definitely in for a good time at this small venue – and if you don’t like it, you still can pop into one of the many nearby pubs for live music instead. Like Brixton, Kilburn is also one of the ‘real’ working-class neighbourhoods of London that might not be pretty, but teems with history – the road north of the station isn’t called ‘Shoot Up Hill’ for nothing!
Drinks in London are expensive, with a pint typically costing £3.50 upwards, but luckily, there is a man to help you with your budget and still get the real British drinking experience – Sam Smith’s Breweries have pubs all over London where they offer only their own brands (don’t worry, they have it all, the cider, the stout, the ale, the bitter…). They don’t really advertise their ‘cheap drinks’ message or have a big sign with their brand name outside though, so you need to do some research. The most central one is located on aptly-named Brewer Street which starts right behind Piccadilly Circus (take the street that the Barclay’s bank is located on, and immediately turn right). Pints start at around £2.50 here.
Tired of the garish, sex-shop riddled streets of Soho with gay bars that look and feel like a bad movie? Bar Wotever takes place every Tuesday night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Vauxhall, near Waterloo, and is an alternative space for the GLBT community – but not exclusively. The focus here is not on chatting somebody up but on brilliant performances – from live bands to comedians, Indian belly dancing to Rocky Horror Picture Show sing-alongs, burlesque performers to plain old lesbians with guitars, there’s something new every week and the crowd is incredibly welcoming and friendly. Like all of the best things in London, it’s entirely free!
If you are looking for more, unknown, quirky or otherwise special things in London, a great blog with daily suggestions is Tired of London – Tired of Life.