When you’re planning a trip to London, there are plenty of iconic sites that will be on your to-do list. Places like Tower Bridge, the London Eye and Big Ben are popular tourist attractions for a reason, but if you really want to get a feel for the Big Smoke, there are plenty of alternative treasures that you should also be sure to add to your itinerary.
Of course, the British capital has plenty of well-kept secrets too, so which ones do you choose? Here are our seven favourite:
1. Britain’s smallest police station
Most visitors to London pay a visit to Trafalgar Square to see Nelson’s Column, the giant bronze lions and the picturesque fountains. But of the millions of people who pass through the square each year, very few know that they’re missing the chance to see Britain’s tiniest police station.
Situated at the south-east corner of the square, the petite police box was built in 1926. It is supposedly big enough to accommodate up to two prisoners, although it was mainly built to provide a shelter for a single police officer at the popular protest site.
Most passers-by don’t notice the police box due to its minuscule size and because it blends in so well with its surroundings. It simply looks like an ornamental light fixture near the entrance to Charing Cross Underground station – and that’s because it was originally just a lamp post. It was renovated to serve its purpose as a police box, instead of building another structure.
You’d also be forgiven for mistaking the little building for a broom cupboard – especially since that’s exactly what Westminster Council uses it for these days.
2. Sir John Soane’s Museum
Best known as the architect of the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sir John was also an avid collector of art and antiquities. He lived from 1753 to 1873 and bought his home – number 12 Lincoln Inn’s Fields – in 1782. He re-built the facade in white Norfolk brick and added a two-storey architectural office at the back. In 1807, he bought number 13 in order to acquire its stable block, which was converted into a new office and museum space.
By 1812, his unusual collection had grown to such a vast extent that he needed more space, so he purchased the rest of the house too. The building became a mixture of home, gallery and educational space and Sir John continued to expand his collection and organise the items.
When he died, his home became a museum and it has been left basically as it was nearly 180 years ago.
Visitors to Sir John Soane’s Museum today can enjoy can enjoy an intimate look at how he lived. See his exquisite furnishings, as well as an amazing collection of famous artworks, sculptures and artefacts including an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, bronzes from Pompeii, Roman glass, Greek vases, Peruvian pottery and Chinese ceramics.
3. Mediatheque at BFI Southbank
Maybe you’re tired after a busy day of sightseeing and want to sit down and relax. Perhaps you’re looking for a bit of shelter from the rain, or you could even a movie buff and want a chance to enjoy a bit of cinematic history. Whatever your reason, Mediatheque is a unique way to spend a couple of hours and enjoy your choice of film treasures dating back as far as 1895.
Located at BFI Southbank, Mediatheque features sound-proofed booths where visitors can explore the BFI National Archive. Depending on availability, booths may need to be booked in advance and sessions are limited to a maximum of two hours – but it’s completely free to use and a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a while.
4. Wilton’s Music Hall
Located in London’s historic East End, Wilton’s is the oldest grand music hall in London. The building began as four individual houses built in the 1690s and over the years it transformed from homes to an ale house to a concert room in 1839.
John Wilton bought the business around 1850 and built the first musical hall in the place of the old concert room. In 1859, this space was renovated and replaced with the Magnificent New Music Hall, which was furnished with mirrors, chandeliers and decorative paintings. The venue also had the finest heating, lighting and ventilation systems of the day – and entertainment shown included madrigals, glees and excerpts from opera, as well as West End style shows, circus acts and ballet performances.
By the 1860s, the larger theatres in the West End were being built. John Wilton decided to sell up in 1868 and transferred his entertainment business kills to a restaurant in the West End. A fire in 1877 gutted the old building, but it was refurbished the following year with barely any changes to the original.
Today, visitors can tour the site to learn about its fascinating history – and you can also enjoy a show at the venue. Throughout the year, it presents a variety of artistic works, including plays, opera, puppetry, classical music, cabaret, dance and magic shows.
5. The tomb of Sir Richard Burton
London’s cemeteries are favourite destinations for visitors – and Highgate Cemetery is especially popular due to its many unique gravestones and famous occupants like Karl Marx and Douglas Adams. But if you’re looking for unusual monuments to the dead that are off the beaten track, then consider heading to St Mary Magdalen’s in Mortlake.
This Catholic church in south-west London has its own share of interesting tombs – but the most striking of them all is the mausoleum that’s shaped like an Arab tent, and it’s where Sir Richard Burton and his wife Isabel Arundell were laid to rest.
Sir Richard lived from 1821 to 1890. He was an explorer and was particularly curious about the Arab world – so, he persuaded the Royal Geographical Society to fund his travels east. He visited places like Medina, Mecca and Harar and shared his experiences and knowledge back in the UK.
When he died in 1890, his wife built the mausoleum in his honour and also paid for a stained glass memorial window in the church.
6. Cemetery Station
During the Victorian period, London was a crowded place – and the problem extended to the city’s cemeteries, which were filling up far too quickly. So, vast burial grounds were established at Brookwood. In order to transport the deceased to their eternal resting grounds, a railway line was established. The London Necropolis Railway Station was opened in 1854 and operated full-time until 1900 when services were reduced and the station moved.
In April 1941, the second station was damaged by bombs during an air raid and much of the building was destroyed. Some funeral trains continued to run from Waterloo, but the station was never re-opened. The surviving part of the station – located at 121 Westminster Bridge Road – is now office space and visitors can view the old station entrance.
7. Davenports Magic Shop
Situated in the Underground Arcade at Charing Cross Station, Davenports was founded in 1898 and it holds the Guinness World Record for oldest continuously owned magic shop.
The shop is widely considered the hub of magic in London and it offers something for all levels – from budding tricksters to seasoned professionals. Staff members offer demonstrations and advice and the shop also runs regular workshops for both adults and children.