London is consistently ranked among the top tourist destinations in the world, and with good reason. It’s an historic city with about as many noteworthy sights and attractions as any other urban destination on the planet, including New York and Paris. People flock from all over the world to see Big Ben, tour Westminster Abbey, and walk the Tower Bridge over the Thames. Even beyond these big name attractions, there are simpler activities like hopping between British pubs or taking in a soccer match at one of the famous stadiums.
As is true of any great city, London is also home to a lot of unexpected attractions. The city is big, old, and vibrant enough that there’s something to do or see pretty much anywhere you turn. So rather than looking at the landmark spots mentioned above, here are a few selections for things you probably didn’t realize you could enjoy in the English capital.
1. Unseen Tours of London
Rather than pointing to a specific attraction, let’s first single out a unique way to explore a whole chunk of the city.
Boasting the “world’s most street wise guides,” Unseen Tours is a project that has allowed some of the city’s homeless individuals to become tour guides. A lot of the time these people actually have a better grasp on the side streets and hidden neighborhoods of the city than a professional guide, which makes these tours fascinating for tourists who like to get off the beaten path.
These days there are four specific tours offered, each exploring different parts of the city through the eyes and perspective of a guide who’s literally lived on the streets. Tours through Camden, London Bridge, Shoreditch and Bricklane all show a different side of London, far beyond the ideas we already have of the city. Walking tours are always interesting, but with Unseen Tours you can also feel good about contributing to a project that’s helping these folks improve their lives.
2. Explore Camden Passage
There are plenty of streets and districts within London, from Regent Street to Notting Hill, that have gained international renown over the years. Especially through excellent rom-coms and Hugh Grant… But London is a large enough city that there are also some tucked away neighborhoods that are perfect for cultural exploration.
One neighborhood in particular is Camden Passage, known for an array of independent shops and a lot of charming little cafés. It’s a nice way to experience a more authentic and less touristy side of the city, which, if we’re being honest, is half the fun of travel!
3. A Night at the Empire Casino
This is actually a pretty major venue, so it’s not like it’s hiding out down some back alley. Even so, it still tends to go without mention in most tourism articles about London. It’s also somewhat unexpected given the modern climate for casino games.
In the past few decades the thrills of casino gaming have been transferred from the real world to the web, and a lot of Brits are leading the way. The fact that players can pretty much find all the gaming options they like online frequently makes casinos obsolete.
The Empire Casino is one of the exceptions to this new rule. The Empire offers a full-fledged gaming and entertainment environment in the heart of the city. Slots, poker, bright lights, or even a spot at the bar watching (and betting on) sports matches, can actually make for a pretty fun night.
4. The Hindu Temple -Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
If you’re just looking for some unusual tourism that doesn’t include Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, or Trafalgar Square (all of which are well worth your time), you might be surprised to know that there’s a huge, gorgeous Hindu temple on the outskirts of London. It’s actually called BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, but for tongue twisting sake, stick with “the Hindu temple in London” when you’re talking about it.
A list of eight must-see temples in the London area claims that this impressive structure was the first Hindu Mandir in all of Europe, and was put together out of 26,300 pre-made pieces. The temple also showcases London’s celebrated diversity of religion and culture.
5. Take in Wilton’s Music Hall
Wilton’s can sometimes go unnoticed with all the impressive theaters and music halls sprinkled around London, but it’s actually one of the more impressive ones of the bunch. Despite a fairly recent restoration it still maintains a Victorian air, and Wilton’s has been described as the oldest and last surviving grand music hall in the world. A performance is great, but a tour of the venue is also worthwhile.
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