Hidden treasures at Brompton Cemetery (©Joel Meadows)
London in the summer is hot, and we're not talking about the temperatures. The city's travel season comes to life in late spring and stays busy through the fall, bringing almost 4.9 million travelers just for the peak period between July and September, according the nation's Office for National Statistics.
They come for the museums (many are free!), to stroll the historic sites, to watch plays like "Book of Mormon" in Theatreland. But if you're a regular visitor who has "been there, done that," and are ready to get off the well-worn tourist path, follow along to visit some of our favorite hidden gems of the capital, tucked away spots that are just around the corner from the iconic stops you already know.
Dennis Severs House
This elegant Grade II-listed townhouse in East London is the former home of the late Dennis Severs, an artist who died in 2000 and lived in this ‘re-creation’ of life on canvas. Each of 10 rooms is decked out as the home of a family of 18th-century Huguenot silk weavers, with visitors encouraged to take a silent tour of the rooms lit only by fire and candlelight. The rooms also have well-chosen Old Master paintings to further create the ambience. It’s a unique experience and one where sights, sounds and even smells bring the experience alive.
Victoria and Albert Museum’s upper floors
The V&A is famed around the world, home to a mammoth collection of arts and design from over the centuries. But while most will begin at its Level 1 exhibitions, entering under Dale Chihuly’s hand-blown glass Rotunda Chandelier, why not start at the top? Escape the crowds and take the elevator up to Level 6, exploring rarely seen displays of ceramics and contemporary furnishings and glassware. You might even be able to peer over balconies to see immense sculptures undergoing restoration. Don’t miss the Theatre & Performance Collection (level 3) with caricatures and posters of great actors.
Queen Elizabeth Roof Garden
It sits high on the top of the Southbank Centre, and will be a valuable escape during the warm summer months. This new rooftop space above London’s hub of culture and arts is one of the capital’s sunniest secrets and a world away from the busy riverside life below. The suntrap is designed by the Eden Project’s landscaped architect, Jane Knight, and boasts sunbathing, a café-bar and gardens of wild flowers – plus drop-dead gorgeous views of the Houses Of Parliament and the London Eye.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Ex home of the great architect Sir John Soane reveals he was also something of a hoarder. In this 19th-century townhouse on the edge of the lush Lincoln’s Inn Fields, you can explore the labyrinthine corridors with an artwork, a sculpture or artefact at every turn – many of which he collected from his travels around the world. Don’t miss his immense collection of Hogarth drawings, stored and displayed with a genius use of (small) space. The first Tuesday of every month hosts a candlelit guided tour, giving an even more magical twist to the experience.
This 16-hectare cemetery was established in 1836, recognised as one of the finest Victorian burial sites in the country. Take a walk along its central avenue leading to a chapel, based on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Along the way are shady walks with over 35,000 monuments, ranging from simple headstones to ornate, substantial mausoleums, marking the resting places for over 200,000. Although it doesn’t brag the plethora of famous names that crowd Highgate Cemetery, it does have the graces of leading actors, writers and poets, plus suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.
The London Silver Vaults
Originally set up as a safe deposit in 1876, where Londoners could safeguard their household silver, it was bombed during World War II and rebuilt as retail units. This is now the place to see, and buy, fine antique silver from England and around the world from some 30 specialist shops. Be tempted by 1920s elegant teaware, candelabras and jewelled watches, dating from the 16th century to modern times.
Wilton’s Music Hall
It’s the world’s oldest surviving music hall yet few have heard of it—even Londoners. But once you’re inside (ignore the scaffolding for major renovation work, beginning in June) it’s a treasure of a venue. Dating back to 1743, it’s home to music and drama productions and quirky one-off events. Even if you don’t have a ticket, head to the stone-walled Mahogany Bar – the oldest part of the theater, built in 1725 as a public house. The fixtures and fitting may have gone, but its atmosphere lingers.
Some of the best museums in London are of course the most crowded—everyone wants to see their priceless treasures—but one place to escape the crowds is this little-known gem of a museum. Set in beautiful grounds, it houses the vast private collection of the Victorian tea trader Frederick John Horniman, with ancient religious stone sculptures, Victorian musical instruments and a tropical aquarium. Neat and compact, with young kids it’s a more manageable size than larger venues.
London parks are famous, but sometimes it’s the tucked-away pockets that are the most pleasurable. Nestled inside Holland Park, the tranquil Kyoto Garden was donated by the chamber of commerce of Kyoto in 1991, designed by an eminent Japanese garden designer. It’s carefully landscaped to reflect Japanese garden style, with stone lanterns, waterfalls and squawking, free-roaming peacocks.
Menier Chocolate Factory
This former factory—and yes, it really did produce chocolate—was built in 1870 and after paying derelict for many years, it was converted and opened as a theater in 2004. It still has the original exposed beams and cast iron columns, with a small theater that has been staging plays, musicals and comedy for a decade. Coming up, look out for "Forbidden Broadway"—a hit from New york. It also boasts a bijou restaurant for British cuisine, bar and gallery.