Whimsical London: Under-the-Radar Museums, Markets, and Green Spaces

January 21, 2020 Updated: January 21, 2020
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The cool and damp days, and even colder evenings, don’t deter me from going to London. It seems like this time of year, I always travel through this magnificent historic city. Usually in transit to another port of destination, I end up in London sometime in fall or winter. 

The first time I arrived in London a few years ago I was giddy with joy! It was always a dream to visit this fine city. Its culture has had an incredible impact on my life. First as a child with shows like “A Christmas Carol” and “Oliver Twist,” and then through my early adult years. British influence was in movies, music, and history—some cheery and some a little rebellious. Either way, many of us in the United States were moved by “London Calling.” 

St_ermins_lobby
The lobby of St. Ermin’s Hotel. (Courtesy of St Ermin)

Now as an adult, I can appreciate the more refined side of London and all the manners, goodness, and hospitality it offers.

On this trip, I decided to do some things differently and now offer a few suggestions to experience other aspects of London, which can sometimes go undetected if you are a tourist. 

Stermins_exteriorHR
Throughout World War II, St Ermin Hotel was used as an annex by the British Secret Intelligence Service. A rumor says a tunnel runs from underneath the grand staircase to the House of Westminster. (Courtesy of St Ermin)

Of course, if this is your first time in London, do see all the historic sites like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and the fun things like the London Eye (go at night for the best light show and views of the city skyline). Hop-on hop-off bus tours are a great way to catch the city’s main attractions if you’re on a time crunch.

Tower Bridge
London’s iconic Tower Bridge. (Copyright visitlondon.com/Antoine Buchet)

If you do have more time, here are some extra suggestions.

2- Window bakery
Every window offers temptations during the holidays—such as fine cakes and bubbly like the one here. (Lisa Sim)

Markets

London’s markets are delightful places to meet locals and farmers and try wonderful food. You can shop for everything from local handmade clothes to finely crafted cheeses, chocolates, seafood, antiques—and there are rows upon rows of food stalls from diverse cultures. These destinations will have you winding down the side streets and exploring interesting shops you may have not seen otherwise.

3-Market Curry
A chef cooks a big pot of curry at a market. (Lisa Sim)

Here are some great markets to try:

Borough Market is one of the oldest market halls dating back to the 12th century. It is an upscale, diverse market with a wide variety of street food, artisan cheeses, wines, fresh seafood, and stalls to sample all kinds of foods from various cultures. It is a one-stop shop for all provisions and a great place to people watch. They also have many vegan, gluten-free options and a great fish and chips place called “Fish Kitchen.” The lines can be long so get there early. Borough Market is open daily, but times vary so check their website.

4-Mushrooms
During the cooler months you will find a wide array of mushrooms at the local markets. (Lisa Sim)

Greenwich Market is another longstanding market selling not just good street food and produce, but also handmade clothes and kitschy antiques. There is a store with delicious, unusual homemade fudge and a great South Asian street vendor waiting to whet your appetite. With more than 100 stalls, it makes for an interesting stroll. The market is just a few blocks away from the Cutty Sark ship museum, which is a must-see! Take the ferry boat ride to enjoy the Thames River. While in Greenwich, check out the fine shops, the National Maritime Museum, and historic landmarks.

8- Market Veggies
It’s hard to cook while traveling, but if you have a kitchenette at your lodgings then certainly indulge in fresh organic produce from the markets. (Lisa Sim)

Tottenham Green Market also has many street food choices, upscale artisan cheeses, breads, and desserts. Although its location is outside London’s city center, it makes for a nice day trip. It’s open Sundays 11 a.m.–4 p.m.

6-Fresh Fish
A proud fishmonger displays his bounty of seafood. Lovely cooked mussels served up with a big chunk of freshly baked bread makes this stop a must. (Lisa Sim)

Green Spaces

Greenhouses, parks, and gardens are the lungs of any city, and London is famous for them. Even in the cool months, the gardens and parks are alive—even with some flowering plants— though spring and summer are the ultimate times to visit of course.

Hyde Park is a huge area of green space full of interesting smaller areas tucked away like the Italian Gardens and children’s playgrounds. Several memorials are also within the park, including The Albert Memorial and the famous Diana Memorial Fountain.

A nice place to rest to watch birds is Queen Caroline’s Temple, which was designed in 1734–1735. There are also many fine hotels surrounding the park area if you want to have nature right at your doorstep.

This is a large park so prepare to walk a lot and bring good walking shoes. Look at it like a smaller version of New York’s Central Park. 

Kensington Gardens
Kensington Gardens, located on the outer fringes of Hyde Park. (Copyright visitlondon.com/Jon Reid)

Kensington Gardens is located west on the outer fringes of Hyde Park and was the royal gardens of Kensington Palace. In the late 1600s, some of the gardens were opened on Sundays to the public when members of the royalty were traveling elsewhere. Today you can visit the royal gardens, and some of the palace is open to the public. It is still the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. 

Chelsea Physic Garden
The Chelsea Physic Garden is London’s oldest botanical garden. (Shutterstock)

Chelsea Physic Garden is located by the Thames River and has a unique purpose. Founded in 1673, it is London’s oldest botanical garden and was created specifically to grow medicinal plants. To this day, the garden has been helping people understand the nature and use of plants in medicine and cooking. The garden’s research has reached all corners of the world since the 1700s, and the seed exchange program is still going today. I personally love greenhouses, and these are so interesting—they have survived two world wars. This is a wonderful place to unwind, learn, and get close to the river in a natural setting. 

The Sky Garden
The views from the Sky Garden are incredible. (Copyright visitlondon.com/Antoine Buchet)

Sky Garden is a venue that often gets overlooked, but if you can go, you will not be disappointed. It sits atop a skyscraper and the views are incredible. There is a large three-story dome that houses mainly African and Mediterranean plants, which flower and change color all year-round. 

If it is cold outside, this is a nice respite to warm up, have a snack, and enjoy a 360-degree view of London. Don’t forget your camera. Nighttime is a magical time to go as well.

Sky Garden has several bars, along with two eateries, and private dining is also available. Getting tickets ahead of time is suggested, and consult their website for free events.

Museums 

Museums, but not the usual ones! Since the British colonized so many places around the world, their museums are some of the most famous. Here are a few off-the-radar places that you may enjoy.

Dennis Severs House
The window in the Victorian Room of Dennis Severs’ House. (Roelof Bakker)
Dennis Severs House
The Drawing Room at Dennis Severs’ House. (Roelof Bakker)

Dennis Severs’ House is referred to as a “living museum.” Imagine time traveling back to the 1700s and landing in a home where the residents, a family of Huguenot silk weavers, took off just before you arrived (a half-finished meal might be a clue) or are in rooms that you have not visited yet (heard but out of sight)—welcome to the Dennis Severs’ House! 

My cabbie was ecstatic when I said I wanted to venture there, as he felt it is one of the best museums in London. I don’t want to spoil the fun so you have to go to see the place for yourself. 

Tour hours vary. They take place in the mornings and evenings, depending on the day of the week. Also tours are conducted in silence so the museum isn’t recommended for small children. 

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. (Copyright visitlondon.com/Jon Reid)

Leighton House Museum is yet another house that is a piece of artwork in and of itself. Frederic Leighton collected artwork from all over the world, and he had his architect friend build a lavish home to house all of his treasures. During a recent million-dollar renovation, they discovered a hidden staircase and other decorative features. The house will take your breath away with its tilework and gilded pillars done in Arabic style. You will see magnificent paintings, porcelain plates, bronze sculpture works, and beautiful antique furniture. It is open Monday and Wednesday from 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.

Now you see it, now you don’t! Bring an open mind and enjoy the thrill of magic at the Magic Circle Museum, a truly unique venue. If you are lucky, you can see an actual magic event here at the theater. This space is the training grounds of future magicians and is actually an exclusive magicians club with 1,500 members from around the world. The actual museum part showcases posters, paraphernalia, and tools used in magic shows—including Harry Houdini’s famed handcuffs. Magic intrigues everyone, and this place will not disappoint you as you will learn some tricks here and how they work. You’ll need to make an appointment ahead of time through their website. 

Haroods, Westminster
Harrods department store in Westminster. (Copyright visitlondon.com/Antoine Buchet)

Where to Stay 

As in any large city, there are so many options for accommodations that it can be mind-boggling. Yet not every city has such rich and historic lodgings. Here are a few places where we have stayed that made our London visit extra special.

St. Ermin’s Hotel is a boutique hotel with exquisite details and impeccable service. The minute you walk into the lobby you feel like royalty, with its grand double staircases and saluting doorman. The rooms are spacious by London standards and have all the amenities you will ever need. Have a question? The concierges are most helpful—and all three are members of Les Clefs d’Or, an elite association of concierges. They graciously helped us navigate through the Tube (subway) lines with ease. It’s located near fine restaurants and classic pubs, and also not too far from the Thames River, London Eye, and Westminster Abbey.

1-Fullers Pub
Tucked on the ground floor of the Sanctuary Hotel, Fullers Pub offers lots of good cheer and great classic pub food. (Lisa Sim)

The Sanctuary House is another nice smaller boutique hotel with a long, interesting history. It offers standard smaller-sized rooms, typical of London, and the interior will feel homey, like you’re staying at someone’s house. We had some larger luggage and they all fit nicely in the room without us feeling squished. Usually the room price will include breakfast from the famous pub downstairs, Fullers Ale & Pie. We found the breakfast was really satisfying with vegan and vegetarian options, and a wonderful “Full English” kept us going well into the late afternoon. The location is perfectly situated very close to the Thames River, Big Ben (which is being renovated), Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Tube stations. If you want a truly British experience, I highly recommend staying here.

Knightbridge
Harrods department store in Knightbridge. (Copyright visitlondon.com/Jon Reid)

St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London, to me, can only be described as a classic and whimsical. Opened in 1873, once upon a time it was a postmaster station and has undergone many transformations since then. It is now a grand hotel owned and operated by Marriott. 

Be taken back by the classic wallpaper, majestic grand staircases, tasteful themed rooms and amazing spa area, complete with a refreshing pool. Several restaurants and bars are located right inside the hotel and the lavish breakfast will leave you fulfilled to take on London all day long. Not only is this hotel special, but its location by King’s Cross is perfect you need to catch the train. This was convenient for us, as we only had to walk a few minutes to catch our train to the airport. 

5-St Pancras Hotel
Strategically located near King’s Cross Station, St. Pancras Hotel has direct access to the trains, making it a wonderful stay when traveling onward. (Lisa Sim)

On a final note, don’t forget to shop a bit London style. That means heading to my favorite place to browse and eat amazing food—Harrods department store! This fine establishment really knows how to go over the top with the very best in designer goods, and scrumptious, irresistible bakery and food items. There are seven floors to explore so plan a few hours to get immersed in the finer things in life. Then head to Oxford Street and see some of the best window displays around. With more than 300 shops, make sure to wear those comfy shoes and look for some neat items you will find nowhere else in the world.

King’s Road has trendy boutiques that are fun to explore, but very expensive. Some have vintage items that add pop to your wardrobe. Soho was a bit of a disappointment as it has totally caved in to commercialism, but a classic area to visit nonetheless.

So there you have it—some extra special things to see and do anytime your traveling in London! I hope your journey through this magnificent city will have you visit again and again as I have throughout the years.

Don’t wait, “London is calling!”

London Tips

  1. Bring a small umbrella or raincoat if you are coming in the fall or spring. Some hotels will rent them out, but a small umbrella is easier to carry. Make sure you have waterproof shoes.
  2. A visitor pass for the Tube that is good for a week can save you a lot of money and time. It is good for the ferry and the bus as well.
  3. Bring a couple of comfy shoes as walking is the best way to take in all the sites of London. Get off the beaten path and make new discoveries. 
  4. When picking dinner spots, look for specials or prix-fixe menus, often offered at many local restaurants and pubs. This is a chance to get into the London spirit and have a wonderful meal at the same time. 
  5. BYOB: Bring your own bag! I travel with little eco bags that fold up small and are easy to carry. This way I avoid using plastic and have a bag that won’t break. It gets filled up fast with all the London goodies.