London’s most iconic landmarks are known far and wide. From Big Ben (currently under construction until 2021) to Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square and more, any pilgrimage to The Big Smoke will certainly include a photo-op at these places, allowing visitors to drink in and admire what is known to be “quintessentially London”.
But truth be told, there’s more to London than meets the eye. For the seasoned traveller, it’s time to take yourself on a detour from these “been-there-done-that’ hotspots, to explore a whole new world that lies beyond. No matter where you are, you’ll find the most beautiful things in the most unexpected of places. Come with us and go off the beaten path, without even leaving the city.
1. Kyoto Garden takes you to Japan in the heart of London
It’s right smack in the middle of Holland Park where you’ll find a little slice of Japan. Opened in 1991 as a gift from Kyoto to commemorate the friendship between Japan and Britain, this garden is a stunning sight, surrounded by cherry blossom and maple trees, each lending their own signature hue to the greenery depending on the changing seasons. Stone lanterns, tiered waterfalls, colourful koi and native Japanese plants make up the full experience. If you visit at the right time, the garden provides a peaceful, restorative respite.
2. Dine under an explosion of cherry blossoms at Roka
If you’ve been dreaming of enjoying a sumptuous Japanese meal seated underneath beautiful cherry blossoms, but can’t be bothered to scour the city in search of a flower-laden tree, you’re in luck. This month, Shochu Lounge (located in the basement of Roka, Charlotte Street) bursts into life yet again with its seasonal sakura décor, complete with its signature Sakura Sunday Brunch for two. Free-flowing cocktails and wine under a sky of cherry blossoms? Say no more.
3. Explore the quaint canals of Little Venice
Tucked away near at the intersection of the Grand Union and Regent canals, is London’s very own Little Venice. Named by poet Robert Browning, Little Venice is a beautiful little neighbourhood, with Regency townhouses lining the waterways. Enjoy breakfast on a cruise whilst admiring the view, spend the night in a cosy houseboat, or even explore the intriguing details along the canal... while away the hours and see an idyllic side to the metropolitan city of London that you never knew existed.
4. Crystal Palace’s Dinosaurs gives Jurassic Park a run for its money
There’s definitely no shortage of picturesque parks in London, but what sets Crystal Palace Park apart is its Dinosaur Court, a bizarre collection of prehistoric sculptures that have attracted the attention of dinophiles all over the world. Though not biologically-accurate, these odd-looking creatures were commissioned in 1852 and subsequently revealed to the public in 1854, making them the first-ever dinosaur sculptures in the world. The reigning crowd favourite is the Iguanodon, which famously created headlines even back in 1853 when it ‘hosted’ a dinner party inside its belly.
5. Blow your mind and dazzle your sight at God’s Own Junkyard
Step into a crazy kaleidoscope of colours at God’s Own Junkyard. This psychedelic neon sign store also houses a café (cleverly christened The Rolling Scones), and was even featured in a Vogue fashion spread. According to the late owner, Chris Bracey, “You can never have enough neon. More is never enough in here.” From making signs for Soho’s strip clubs and brothels, to fashioning props for Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, this store has certainly come a long way. Prepare to be mind-boggled by the sheer array of neon signs and have a ball trying to decipher each one.
6. Painshill Park’s Crystal Grotto is as otherworldly as it gets
Located 25 minutes away from London is Painshill Park, an 18th-century landscape garden. Therein lies the park’s most famous attraction, the Crystal Grotto. With all surfaces including rocks and stalactites covered in sparkling crystals, this grotto is equal parts eerie and enthralling. Following a £747,400 restoration, the grotto was reopened in late 2013, showing off its shimmering magnificence in all its spooky glory to this day.
7. Appreciate Islamic architecture and design at Arab Hall
Filled with natural light and incredible art pieces, the Leighton House Museum was once Victorian artist Lord Frederic Leighton’s house, but the most intriguing room of all is the Arab Hall, built as a symbol of his achievement and status when he became the president of the Royal Academy. With walls encased in tiles from Leighton’s extensive collection, the lattice screens on the windows and elaborate gilded dome on the ceiling will leave you in awe as you wonder how this was all possible in 1877.
8. Be awed by the breathtaking beauty of Neasden Temple
The majestic BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (also fondly known as Neasden Temple) in Northwest London is truly a sight to behold. Imagine milky-white marble, stretching as far as the eye can see. Boasting external and internal features with intricately carved Hindu motifs of auspiciousness, peace and piety, the Mandir is both a labour of love and work of art. Over 5,000 tonnes of stone were shipped across the world from India to London, covering 6,300 miles, where 26,3000 individual pieces were assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle in 2.5 years.
9. Surround yourself with lush tropical greenery at Barbican Conservatory
The Barbican Conservatory is a far cry from the grey, dreary weather that London is known for. Opened in 1984, the 23,000 square-foot conservatory houses over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees, the second-largest conservatory in London is a hidden tropical oasis in the heart of the city. Allocate time on a Sunday to enjoy afternoon tea within this lush setting, where each handmade treat was inspired by a fruit, flower or herb grown in the conservatory.
What other places non-Londonesque places in London do you know of? Let us know in the comments below.
Cover Image: Max Colson via Barbican Centre
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, raccoons and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.