Looking for something different to do in London?
After living in London for a year, a Swedish friend of mine told me that the word she most associates with the city is “paradox”. She’s right. London is a city of contradictions. It’s a huge, sprawling place teeming with diverse neighbourhoods. But at the same, its sheer size can be overwhelming when it comes to planning a trip. It’s a place that is at once bank-creakingly expensive, but also full of free things to do. You just have to know where to look.
As a tourist, deciding what to do with your limited time in the city can be an intimidating prospect. Leaving London having only seen Big Ben and Oxford Street would be such a waste. The following guide is by no means exhaustive. But it aims to give you a bit of an insight into how to really make the most of your time in this brilliant and baffling place.
Different and unusual food
London is home to some of the most diverse and exciting food in the world, so factoring some serious eating time into your trip is a must. If you like a side of adventure with your meal, then why not book a table at London institution Dans Le Noir, where diners are made to eat blindfolded in the pitch dark? The restaurant aims to challenge the primacy of sight in Western culture, limiting diners’ vision so that other senses, like taste and smell, are intensified. Everything about Dans Le Noir is designed to push you out of your comfort zone. Diners are made to sit at communal tables, thrust into conversations with perfect strangers who, in the light of day, would most likely have remained exactly that. What’s more, the blind dining idea is more than just a gimmick. The restaurant is committed to hiring visually impaired waiters to serve in their “dark room”; over 50% of the total staff have a disability.
If that doesn’t leave a good taste in your mouth, then why not experience art on and off the plate by dining at Supper in a Pear Tree at the London Fine Art Studio in Battersea. Combining a life drawing class with a gourmet meal, this unique monthly supper is run by two sisters: artist Charlotte Partridge and chef Annabel Partridge. Make your own masterpiece before sitting down to eat one of Annabel’s. Supper in a Pear Tree offers up an exciting new way for diners to nurture their inner artists.
For vegans and vegetarians, making a pilgrimage to the Temple of Seitan, London’s first vegan fried chicken shop, is a must. The “chicken” in question is made from wheat gluten mixed with herb spices and tofu, and is scarily faithful to its meaty counterparts. Omnivores and herbivores alike are devotees to the shop and its mission to give vegans junk food that’s every bit as naughty as the real thing.
And for all the snackers out there, why not head down to HipChips? This newly opened bar serves only crisps and dips in a bid to ‘treat the humble potato crisp with the same care and attention usually reserved for fine dining.’ The crisps are cooked in front of diners and each flavour is paired with a special dip, with flavours including Moroccan yoghurt and khatsu curry. And if you have a sweet tooth, don’t fear, the HipChips powers that be have even created dessert crisps that are dusted with sugar and come with pudding dips like rhubarb and custard and chocolate salted caramel.
London’s nightlife is world famous, so it would be a crime to not slip into something a little less comfortable and see what the city has to offer. Its unsurprising that a roof-top bar like Frank’s in Peckham affords some seriously Intsagrammable views. What is surprising however is the fact that the bar is on top of a multi-story carpark. Slurp down the usual Campari-heavy cocktails amongst the South London cool kids and even order some snacks too - the smoked aubergine pitta is a dream.
Heading east, Ridley Road Market is a firm favourite amongst locals. Situated in the middle of the market of the same name, the self described “part tropical bar, part apres ski lodge” serves pizza by the slice and kick-ass cocktails. In fact, their ginger mojito came second in Time Out’s Top Ten signature drinks. With quirky DIY décor, and fun tunes, Ridley Road Market’s charm lies in its refusal to take itself too seriously. The more the merrier until 2am.
One of the most fun bars in London has to be Bounce, Europe’s largest purpose built ‘Social Ping Pong club’. With 17 table tennis tables and an extensive cocktail menu, Bounce is a feel-good social hub perfect for mingling and showing off that killer back-hand.
And if those balls weren’t enough, snap up tickets to BallieBallerson, London’s adults-only ball pit bar and let your inner child run wild. Recently revamped, the 250000 multi-coloured balls that used to fill the pit, have now been replaced with clear balls that are lit up by 10 000 LED lights underneath, which flash in time to the music. The cocktail menu is equally wacky, with all the drinks centred around the planets. The Saturn cocktail, for example, is garnished with a floating balloon.
Get out into nature
Believe it or not, but one of the best nature spots in London is hidden within the walls of the Barbican Centre. Well known for the diverse range of music, theatre, dance and film events it puts on, the Barbican is one of the city’s beloved cultural hub. What’s less known about it, however, is the sprawling green Eden housed within this paragon of Brutalist architecture; the Barbican Conservatory.
Open to the public on Sundays and bank holidays, the Conservatory is the second biggest in London, home to exotic fish and over 2, 000 species of plants and trees. A lush tropical oasis nestled away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Smoke, this is the perfect place to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon. The Conservatory is free to enter, and there is a small café inside if you fancy a coffee. Don’t forget to bring a book, or a pencil and paper to do some drawing – you might just get inspired!
In terms of outdoor spaces, Hampstead Heath is the best the city has to offer. Untamed and undulating, the wild sprawl of the Heath is a marked and welcome change from the manicured lawns found elsewhere in the city. The Heath is a site of incredible natural beauty -we’re talking about the place that inspired legendary Romantic poet John Keats to pen some of his most memorable verses. In fact, the house where he lived, which was restored in 2009, is right round the corner and well worth a visit.
The Heath is a wonder all year round, but it’s at its most beautiful in the summer. On a hot day, make like a true North Londoner and head down to the public ponds for a lazy day of swimming and picnics. There are three ponds; one mixed, one for men and one for women. The mixed pond is lovely but the gendered ones are even more picturesque. The women’s pond is nestled deep inside the Heath, making for a magical haven away from the stressful city; while the men’s pond has a diving board perfect for practising your best Tom Daley.
Unique and unusual cultural activities
Arguably the most important exhibition in London right now is the Museum of Transology at the London College of Fashion. Making the case for the acknowledgement of the history and experiences of transgender people, the exhibition is vital and moving, and will most definitely find the permanent home it is currently searching for. Despite being housed within a single, small room, thanks to the powerful and personal curation, it’s easy to spend a few hours immersing yourself in the lives and experiences of these awesome people.
For some immersive night time fun, get lost in a maze of weird and wonderful underground tunnels at The Vaults Gallery. Hidden in the deep, dark tunnels under Waterloo Station, the Vaults is an arts platform for the bold, fresh and fearless. On a mission to feed curiosity and open minds, the Vaults programme showcases an exciting range of young international talent. The venue is unique and there are always different and exciting things happening, from theatre shows, to music events, to art exhibitions.
Granted, there are plenty of fantastic cinemas in London – ICA, the Prince Charles, and Deptford Cinema to name a few. But as summer approaches, watching your favourite movies gets even more special. Outdoor cinemas have become all the rage in the capital since nothing beats watching a film under the stars on a warm London evening. The Rooftop Film Club in Peckham Rye offers spectacular 360 degree panoramic views of the city and shows equally spectacular films like Moonlight, Mullholland Drive and Rear Window. While, the beauty of the Luna Cinema lies in its ever-changing venues that see cinema-goers curled up in a range of jaw-dropping locations; from Kew Gardens to Westminster Abbey.
For a more titillating kind of entertainment, why not go and watch the Seven Sins Cabaret Show at the deliciously decadent Café De Paris. Taking place in an opulent 1920s ballroom every Friday, the show offers a sexy and spectacular whirlwind through each of the seven deadly sins. Combining cabaret, musical theatre and circus performances to jaw-dropping effect, prepare to be electrified by some of Europe’s most talented performers.
Some good old fun for the sake of it
When thinking about London, extreme sports probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But at Lee Valley White Water Centre you can do exactly that. Channel your inner Olympian at the venue for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Adrenaline junkies can try their hand at riding the white-water rapids that put the world’s best to the test, while there’s also the opportunity to take to the Olympic Standard Competition raft course for an action-packed water adventure. For those who would rather sit back and watch the action unfold, there is a café bar with a well-placed terrace that overlooks the course.
If you’re still feeling competitive, embrace your inner action hero and head to Laser Lates in Whitechapel for a hilarious, action-packed game of laser tag. Set in a lost city of derelict buildings and creepy graveyards, Laser Tag: Lost City forgoes the UV lights and retro aesthetic typically associated with the game, to offer up a fresh take on an old-school concept.
And, for those who prefer to work out the mind, not the body, why not put your mental agility to the test inside one of London’s many Escape Rooms? With just an hour to puzzle your way out of a locked room, recruit your most trusted pals in a race against the lock that will have you tapping into your inner Holmes and Watson. Some of the games are more physical like Escape Rooms, which sees teams challenged with escaping from a room full of lasers; while others like Secret Studio, are more mentally tricky, with twists that will throw off even the most seasoned veterans.
London is so much more than the landmarks that tourists gravitate to en masse every year. Sure, go and see them, but if you want to get a true taste of life in this city then don’t be afraid to do something a little different!