London. Just saying the name conjures up all sorts of iconic images — Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace, to name a few. I recently returned from spending a week in London — my first time back since living there for a year and a half from 2006-2007. What struck me upon return was that I found myself going back to see and experience some of London’s lesser known attractions. While living there, I had time to dive a little deeper and I found some nuggets of art, architecture, science and culture that remain my favorite experiences of the city. They showcase notable creativity and expression in various forms. If you’re headed towards Piccadilly Circus, I hope instead you’ll consider veering off the beaten path to these lesser known highlights of London.
The Wallace Collection
This exquisite gallery is a window into aristocratic lifestyle and art collecting by Sir Richard Wallace and the Marquesses of Hertford between 1760 and 1880. It all sounds very regal, and it is, but this is a family collection of art within their home at Hertford House. Viewing the Wallace Collection is less like a museum experience and more like taking a step back in time, where the interests and passions of the collectors are evident in the work presented.
Featuring European artists from the 14th to 19th centuries, the Wallace Collection includes work by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Watteau, among others. It was here that I first saw the work of Canaletto (still a favorite), with his meticulous scenes of life on the water in Venice.
The Wallace Collection is comprised of more than paintings. Every room is a discovery in itself, from furniture to porcelain to opulent chandeliers and interior decoration. But the largest part of the Wallace Collection is armor — an incredible display of design and decoration forged by the requirements of battle. These are some of the finest pieces in the world, up close and very personal. Come into the house and have a look. There’s something for everyone to appreciate.
Closest station: Bond Street
This historic store might be overshadowed by Harrod’s and the big names on Regent Street, but Liberty is a shopping experience unlike any other. It began in 1874 when Arthur Lasenby Liberty created his store in the likeness of an eastern bazaar, captivating London shoppers — way back then and still today.
The tudor-style exterior holds a treasure trove of unique products and the entrance on Great Marlborough Street is always flanked by colorful cut flowers in crates and buckets. The interior maypole is a glorious welcome and exploring the building’s nooks and crannies could keep you busy for a whole afternoon. From housewares to rugs to fabrics to clothing, Liberty is London shopping at its best.
Closest station: Oxford Circus
The Prime Meridian, Time Galleries and the Great Equatorial Telescope
There’s just something fun and cool about standing with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one foot in the western hemisphere. You’ll have to venture south of the Thames to tick this experience off your bucket list. Head to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, located among the leafy lanes of Greenwich Park.
Pay for admission to the Flamsteed House as it includes access to two galleries that illustrate the history of longitude and accurate global time keeping. It’s hard to imagine a world without either. Groundbreaking innovation is on display here — creative thought applied to science, technology and geography.
Don’t miss the stairs up to the Great Equatorial Telescope. Built in 1893, it’s one of the largest in the world (and impossible to photograph in one frame). It’s housed in the “onion dome” and host to observing evenings where the general public can view the night sky.
Closest station: Greenwich
The Borough Market
Lesser known may not describe this market anymore. It’s grown in size and popularity since I lived in London. But what you’ll find here are locally-made, gourmet products from small farms and producers you may not find anywhere else. From organic fruits and veg to delectable meats and cheeses, make sure you arrive with your appetite and get ready for a culinary experience. It’s a crush on the weekends, but the full market runs from Wednesday to Saturday. Where else are you going to find a grilled cheese sandwich made from melted raclette for £6? Just look under the tracks at London Bridge station.
Closest station: London Bridge
The Chapter House and the oldest door in Britain
Beyond the main architecture of Westminster Abbey, the Chapter House is a bright octagonal room filled with stained glass windows from the 19th and 20th centuries. Enter through the vestibule from the cloisters and don’t miss the small, dark door on the right. It’s the oldest door in Britain and dates to the 1050s yet there’s very little indicating its historic status.
Closest station: Westminster
The Ardabil Carpet
The Victoria and Albert Museum holds one of the oldest and finest carpets in world history. Made by hand in Iran, the Ardabil Carpet dates to the 16th century and is one of a pair. It’s made of silk and wool, in ten colors, with a knot density of 340 per square inch. This gives a carpet a supple, luxurious feeling in hand. But you can’t touch the Ardabil Carpet — it’s is entirely enclosed and only lit for ten minutes on the hour and half hour.
The carpet measures 38 feet by 18 feet and the motif is one connected design. At such a large scale, only a master carpet weaver could conceive or create such a work of art. This weaver wove his name and an inscription into the carpet, but I’ll leave that discovery to you when you visit the V&A. It’s a memorable museum not just for the Ardabil Carpet but for its focus on fashion, furniture, jewelery and textiles.
Closest station: South Kensington
The Choral Evensong
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a popular stop on London itineraries, but not many people know about the Choral Evensong, held daily under the dome. Admission is free, seats are arranged in a semicircle and sometimes attendees are invited to sit in the quire — a special opportunity to be seized when available. The 45-minute service includes prayers, psalms and canticles. Regardless of your faith — all are welcome — hearing the Cathedral Choir sing in the grandeur of the space is a stunning acoustic experience.
Closest station: St. Paul’s