When it comes to going out in London, it’s easy to stick to our favourite hangouts. Whether it’s a cosy pint at your local, brunch at a neighbourhood bistro, or partying hard into the small hours, we’ve all got our usual stomping grounds. Below is the Top Sights guide to the best of hidden London
Exactly! Who needs a gondola ride when they can they can sail through London’s most picturesque narrowboat haunt? This tranquil spot, just north of Paddington, packs in just as much romantic charm as its Italian counterpart. Why not treat yourself to a cruise up the river in one of the quaint narrowboat tours, or enjoy a spot of water-borne theatre on the Puppet Theatre Barge. Rialto Bridge, eat your heart out.
Traversing the wilds of the Scottish Highlands with the red deer.
Deer, you say?
Yes, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into the land of bagpipes and haggis at Richmond Park’s National Nature Reserve and Deer Park. At almost 2,500 acres it’s almost three times the size of New York’s Central Park and its rugged foliage houses no less than 630 red and fallow deer, which have roamed the grounds freely since 1637. During autumn, you may catch glimpse the heated effects of the deer ‘rut’ (or breeding season) when stags roar and clash their antlers to win a mate. It’s better than an evening in with an Attenborough doc.
Marveling at Dutch architecture in a flower-filled field in Holland.
We may still be in Zone 2, but that won’t stop you missing out on ogling at a bit of Dutch-style engineering. Ashby’s Mill or ‘Brixton Mill’ was standing tall in Lambeth even before Queen Victoria was a nipper. It supplied wholemeal flour to West End hotels and restaurants until 1934 before it fell into disrepair. It’s since been treated to a £60,000 restoration and you can now snoop around all its nooks and crannies in one of the mill’s regular tours. You can even buy freshly ground flour there when you visit – Brixton flour anyone?
The Japanese Landscape at Kew Gardens
Finding your inner Zen in a Japanese garden.
So you haven’t quite made it to east Asia. In fact, you’re in the perfectly sculpted Japanese Landscape at Kew Gardens. The neat bonsais and shrubs make for a scene straight out of a willow pattern plate. Take in the ornamental Japanese Gateway, a replica of the Karamon gateway at Kyoto’s Nishi Hongan-ji temple, the stone baths, rustling bamboo, rocky out crops and spring-time blossoms. Who needs Kawachi Fuji Gardens, eh?
Following in the footsteps of Brian Blessed by scaling Mt Everest’s icy climes.
But I got here on the Piccadilly line!
Yep, you can have your very own extreme mountaineering experience right in the heart of Covent Garden. With ice axes, crampons (or studded boots to you and me) and help of a trained instructor you can spend an hour climbing Vertical Chill’s many ice walls. From around £35, you’ll get all the exhilaration of reaching the peak of the world’s tallest mountain but without the diet of freeze dried meals and perilous drops. Have your very own extreme mountaineering experience right in the heart of Covent Garden. With ice axes, crampons and help of a trained instructor you can spend an hour climbing Verticle Chill’s ice walls.
Okay, the capital’s rays may not be as strong the ones beating down on southern Portugal, but you can still find Mediterranean-style beaches and quiet, sandy coves without leaving Zone 5. Set on the edge of Ruislip Woods, this 60-acre lake is surrounded by golden sand and even a miniature railway. On a sunny day it makes for a pretty panorama with sunbathers and sandcastles. It’s like a scene out of ‘Summer Holiday’ minus Cliff Richard, which is probably a blessing for all concerned.
Crystal Palace Park Dinosaur Sculptures
Stranded on Indonesia’s Sunda Islands under the beady eye of a Komodo dragon.
Hang on! I don’t like the sound of that.
Don’t worry, you’re safe in south east London, but with 30 full-scale statues of the Komodo dragon’s dinosaur cousins to amble among it‘ll feel more ‘Jurassic Park’ than Crystal Palace Park. The not-particularly-accurate but nonetheless enchanting collection of concrete lizards dotted around park’s lakes are the remains of a Victorian theme park planned by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in 1854. The statues were restored in 2003 and are now Grade I-listed.
Banya No 1
Channeling your inner Tolstoy with a good ol’ parenie. It’s an old-school Russian massage, which involves being swathed in hot wet leaves and pummeled by venik – a leafy bundle of herbs. It’s meant to reduce muscle tension and, er, stress and it’s the speciality treatment at Banya No 1 – the only traditional Russian baths in London. Unlike conventional saunas, the banya surrounds you with high levels of steam as water is splashed onto cast iron heated to 700C inside a brick furnace. Amid the pummelings you can also expect plenty of vodka shots and tasty Russian delicacies as part of the Slavonic experience.
Chislehurst CavesHaving a nosey at Paleolithic drawings in the caves beneath the Dordogne.
I can’t see any drawings?
There may not be any Stone Age relics here, but 30m below Bromley borough are Chislehurst’s man-made caves, which were carved out of chalk by Druids, Saxons and Romans. Over the years, they’ve been used for everything from providing bricks for London’s buildings, a WWII bomb shelter and an underground music venue hosting the likes of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. Go on a lamp-lit tour through the labyrinthine space and see the Druid Altar, the Caves’ Church and the Haunted Pool. Spooky.
All steamed-up in the thermal waters of one of Budapest’s bathhouses.
It is, and even more so because you didn’t spend hundreds of pounds on flights to get there. You’re actually soaking in the warm water jets of Porchester Spa, housed in a spectacular 1920s building on Queensway. Filled with opulent art deco architecture, stylish tiles and brown leather benches, the stylish interior has all the shabby-chic grandeur of Hungary’s thermal spas. What’s more – it’s one of the most affordable spas in the capital.
Lee Valley White Water Centre
OK, so a little imagination might be necessary for this one: Lee Valley White Water Centre, with its concrete banks and overhead pylons, has all the ingredients of the Zambezi River. There’s water, just like the Zambezi, you can raft down its drops and rapids, just as you can in the Zambezi. We will concede a few major differences, such as the lack of greenery, cold weather and no giant snapping fish to eat you if you fall in, but all for the better, eh?
Russian Orthodox ChurchThe Cathedral of the Nativity Of the Most Holy Mother of God and the Royal Martyrs.
Catchy. Anything easier to remember it by?
Yes, you’re looking at a Russian Orthodox Church, for short. The bright blue dome and gleaming gold cross that rise over the rooftops of Chiswick are a little slice of St Petersburg in west London. The inside is just as impressive as the exterior: ornate wood carvings are interspersed with religious iconography. Services are mostly held in Slavonic (the language of the Russian Orthodox mass) but, if your Slavonic’s a bit rusty, the Sunday liturgy is in Russian with a simultaneous translation into English.