From Royal engagements (love them or hate them!) to Olympic preparations, London is firmly in the global spotlight as one of the places to see and be seen right now. If you’re visiting, don’t fall into the usual tourist traps – get to know a different side to the capital – with our top 10 hidden London places to visit…
The Phoenix Artist Club
Secreted under a theatre of the same name (the one showing Blood Brothers for two decades), The Phoenix is exactly the kind of bar there needs to be more of in London. Central, but not overrun with people. Spacious, but not impersonal (in fact, it’s décor and lighting is more towards the intimate end of the spectrum). Interesting, but not pretentious. The catch? Well technically it is a member’s bar, but if you arrive before 8pm non-members are allowed in for a drink or a bite to eat. I can’t understand why I don’t go there more often!
Now, I will confess – I’m not much of a coffee aficionado. Quite the opposite, but I am on a mission to find the best mocha in London. Scooterworks doesn’t even come close in that regard (I think Café Vergnano might have it) but it’s an absolute gem of a place, more so because it’s in such an unlikely location, and is adorned with wonderful vintage signs and décor. Next time you have to wait for a train near Waterloo, forget the corporate banality of Starbucks and give this place a try.
Afternoon Tea at the Howard Swissotel
This was a tough one to narrow down. My dad loves afternoon tea, and we go at least 4 or 5 times a year in London, steadily working our way through a massive list including posh hotels, department stores and individual shrines to tea (RIP Shipp’s Tea Rooms at Borough Market). We’ve had better teas, but if you want to go somewhere nice and haven’t booked long enough in advance for Claridge’s or The Dorchester, then give the Swissotel a try. The setting is totally different – in fact the lack of atmosphere is the only let down – but it offers something nowhere else does: the Sight-seeing Tea. As well as your normal desserts you’ll also get biscuits in the shape of black cabs, Underground signs, Tower Bridge, St Paul’s etc, all crafted almost as beautifully as they taste!
The Lexi Cinema
I love this place – I just wish it were closer to where I live. Good sound and picture quality? Check. Small café attached? Check. An interesting range of films? Check. Enormous color-changing light bulb chandelier? Check. So how could this gem possibly be improved? How about if all the profits were given to charity? Oh, they already do that as well…
Syon Park’s Winter Light Display
Chances are, if you have kids and live in West London, you’ll probably already know about this one. But to everyone else, when the nights draw in closer to Christmas, I’d urge you to make the journey to check this out. I very nearly didn’t go – last year, as I left the house, it started raining and I really couldn’t face the effort to go there and get wet. I’m glad I eventually convinced myself to go through – it really is very beautiful, especially if you want to get a bit creative with your photos – so take your camera and get snapping!
To anyone who is a fan of the Art Deco movement, this place is unmissable. Unless you happen to be from Napier (in New Zealand) or Miami then any opportunity to see beautifully preserved Art Deco buildings is hard to pass up. London has several other good examples but this is the best I have found – they also hold an annual fair selling Art Deco products for die-hard fans. It works both as a spectacle – the wonderful light-filled main room – and in smaller detailing on furniture, windows, walls etc. Well worth a visit.
Positively 4th Street
Another bar, and inexplicably empty on our recent visit. The only reason I could guess why this might be so, is its slightly out-of-the-way location on Hampstead Road – a few minutes from Warren Street tube station – hardly the beating heart of London night life. But it’s a great little place – the kind you might find in New York or LA. Comfortable red leather banquettes, good value cocktails (around the £6-7 mark), atmospheric lighting and decent bar staff. Go and have a look if you’re in the area – and make a journey if you’re not.
Leighton House Museum
I recently discovered this place during the annual Open House Weekend that takes place every September. It’s nice to know that even after 5 years of living in London it’s still possible to go into a historic building and go “wow”, which is exactly what happened to me as I entered this impressive display of Arabic architecture, slap bang inside an unassuming Kensington townhouse. Frederic Leighton was a major artist of his day, and during his Middle Eastern travels, he collected enough ceramics and tiles to decorate an entire hall and room of his house. The ground floor is the most startling in the house, but it’s all worth a look, though his bedroom is incredible more for its astonishingly basic level of comfort.
Chinese Cricket Club
Ok, I have a confession to make – I work as a Concierge in the hotel where this restaurant is located, but I’m still going to include it as I honestly believe it to be one of the best Chinese meals in London at the moment – and as of October 2010, Top Table diners agree too! The food is fantastic, drawing on classic influences but adding a modern twist, and great for a group dining where you can order several dishes and share. The only downside is it can sometimes lack atmosphere – many restaurants struggle to shake off the fact they are in a hotel. But if you want to avoid the pretension of London’s high-price Asian eateries, or are actively looking for somewhere a bit quieter, then I highly recommend it.
Sam Smith’s pubs
I was trying to narrow down which of London’s plethora of amazing pubs to include in this list, but failed miserably. There are too many to mention, so I decided to include the Sam Smith’s group (about 35 of them), as I believe they are such a valuable asset to the city and would hate for them to disappear. Some are better than others – my personal choices would be The Princess Louise, Cittie of York, The John Snow, and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (probably the best known). What most of them share is the feel of a “proper” pub, incredibly low prices, generally friendly bar staff and sometimes a bit of history. Exactly what an English pub should have!