Last Updated on February 15, 2022
English novelist Samuel Johnson said, “Those who tire of London, tire of life,” – a timeless statement as true now as ever before. For those who live in ‘the Big Smoke’, loving London goes far beyond the ‘hotel and theater London’, double-decker buses, afternoon tea, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, although these are a classic and essential part of London life. I wanted to share some hidden gems in London, places that aren’t necessarily in the guidebooks, but places that are worth visiting if you want to see London beyond its famous landmarks. Read on for a day in London off the beaten path.
Hidden Gems in London
Kayaking on Regent’s Canal
Our favorite morning in London would start very early…at 6am in fact. We begin out on Regents Canal watching the sunrise on an early morning kayaking tour run by London Kayak Company, which start by paddling past the celebrity residences of Primrose Hill, through the undisturbed canal waters which cut through the London Zoo as the animals wake up before ending up in the post-punk mecca of Camden Town. (For late-risers, they also offer lunch time and sunset tours.)
We would finish up around 7:30am, and although it would still be a bit early, there is always something happening in Camden, where the tour ends. People watching here is priceless round the clock, but at this time of the morning, club kids are making their way home and the few ‘suits’ who live in Camden are marching to their City offices. Not us! We just love to grab a coffee and stroll through the mix of punk, bohemian shops and cheap markets without the masses, and then head over to join the dog-walkers and joggers on Primrose Hill, one of the best views over London (where some celeb-spotting is possible during the day).
At this point, we figure we would be starving, and so we would head over to the Breakfast Club near Angel tube station in the Islington area. There are a few Breakfast Club cafes around London, but this one is by far the most popular, so expect to queue. While we wait, we’d check out the nearby indie and antique shops as their doors just squeak open in the morning. The energy at this time is still fresh and friendly, before it gets crowded in the afternoon.
Abney Park – A gorgeous cemetery
After our bellies are good and stuffed with British (The Full Monty, or a Cheddar & Marmite Toast) or American-style breakfasts (pancakes, french toast, eggs and hash browns), there is no question where we would walk it all off. From Angel station, we’d hop on the 73 bus which comes from central London and heads east to Stoke Newington Church Street. We’d be on our way to Abney Park. This part of East London is home to the struggling artists, future creative genius types who are as drawn to Abney Park as we are… Not actually a park, this is actually a cemetery, and a mystical, almost magical Victorian cemetery at that. The tombstones are fascinating and the spot is perfect for a long walk or total relaxation – and the best part is that tourists have yet to find this treasure, even though it was featured in Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black video.
Street Art and Markets in East London
Now that we’ve relaxed, and Dani has taken another hundred pictures of the place, we would head down to the heart of East London – Shoreditch. We love to walk up and down Brick Lane and Shoreditch High Street and peek into all the trendy shops and bars that pop up here. If we’re feeling peckish, as the English say, we could grab a quick bite in one the many restaurants on Brick Lane near the Old Truman Brewery. The OTB is no longer a brewery, but a trendy urban market where up and coming designers sell clothes, there are antiques and quirky gifts, plus various spots to eat. There are no chains here, and while money has started to flow in Shoreditch, this whole area is still (arguably) an authentic artists enclave…for now. It’s not necessarily one of the hidden gems in London anymore (word has gotten out for sure!) but while wandering the streets here, you can still stumble upon cool bars and little shops that aren’t a chain restaurant or store, and art lovers will appreciate all the street art!
Tip: If you go on a Sunday, you get to experience Brick Lane Market (flea market, vintage, and lots of street food!) and the Truman Brewery Markets (accessories, vintage, food & more).
We also never miss the chance to stroll through Spitalfields Market, one of our absolute favorites in the city. Here there are some of the most amazing collections of everything you ever wanted for sale. New belt? The coolest belts are here. So retro you only listen to cassette tapes? You’ll snap up your favorite bands on tape here and records, too.
On certain days, Spitalfields has huge collections of records, in fact, plus great clothes, even greater purses and bags, and merchandise both bargain and up-scale that you had no idea you even wanted. If we haven’t been sucked in to one of the many restaurants located in Spitalfields, the next place we’ll head to, without a doubt, is Brick Lane.
Brick Lane – food & weekend markets
Brick Lane has historically been London’s Indian and Bangladeshi enclave, and as a result is an excellent spot for some of the best Indian food outside of India. This street is right on the tourist path, actually, but we don’t care. The street is lined with dozens of great Indian restaurants, and each wants to get you inside.
We typically barter for at least one free bottle of wine and hopefully at least a free appetizer before stepping through the door of any of the restaurants. You can’t beat free booze, and no matter where you end up, the meals will always satisfy, and usually for under ₤20 for two people.
Futuristic architecture Canary Wharf
Because we are right in Shoreditch, we could jump right on to the East London Line and head to Canary Wharf. We really love the maritime feel of this side of London, how connected to the water the area is.
Even though Canary Wharf is known mainly as a finance district, it makes for an interesting area to go for a little stroll, especially if you appreciate modern architecture. At 771 feet (235 meters), One Canada Square was the tallest building in the UK until 2010, when it was surpassed by the Shard, and the Crossrail Place Roof Garden is a gorgeous space that not only plant lovers will appreciate – and there are often exhibits and performances. This is one of the London hidden gems worth traveling all the way east for!
There’s also a branch of Crosstown Doughnuts right by the Canary Wharf Tube Station – don’t miss it if you’re a donut lover! And if you’re a coffee snob, you might want to check out Black Sheep Coffee (there are two branches in Canary Wharf).