London: A Local's Guide to the Unusual

Take your seat at Moro, one of London's best Spanish restaurants.
Take your seat at Moro, one of London's best Spanish restaurants.

A Local's Guide to London: The unusual and the unique are why Londoners love their city

By Helen Whitehead

Watch the world go by at Exmouth Market, London. photos by Helen Whitehead.
Watch the world go by at Exmouth Market, London. photos by Helen Whitehead.

Big Ben. The Tower of London. Westminster Abbey. London is full of world famous sights that visitors (quite rightly) flock to see. But away from the throngs of tourists, it is the mixture of old and new, the unusual and unique, that can be found all over London, that makes Londoners’ love their city.

With the big name locations likely to be busier than ever as the Olympics come to town this summer, it is the perfect time for visitors to explore and discover the real heart of the City. To get you started, here are some spots popular with Londoners in the know.

Watch the world go by at Exmouth Market

Taking a seat outside one of the many bars and restaurants that spill out onto the pavement, Exmouth Market is the perfect place to appreciate London’s variety. Up-market restaurants, trendy bars, and interesting shops sit comfortably amongst cheap take-outs and traditional ‘cafs’.

Have a cocktail in Cafe Kick, a tiny bar filled with vintage foosball tables, or grab some tapas at Moro, one of the best Spanish restaurants in London (book well in advance for dinner but wander in mid-afternoon for a drink and nibbles).

Get a true taste of London at the pie and eel shop or have a pint at a typical London boozer. With several independent clothes, jewelry and art shops, as well as a great selection of cafes, bars, and eateries, it is easy to while away a few hours. The afternoon will turn into the evening before you know it and it’s time to try the dark, atmospheric martini lounge at Dollar.

Abi Titmuss at a photocall for the comedy play 'Stage Fright' at the Canal Cafe Theater
Abi Titmuss at a photocall for the comedy play 'Stage Fright' at the Canal Cafe Theater

Peace, puppets and comedy in Little Venice

A couple of minutes’ walk out of the back of Paddington Station brings you to Browning’s Pool, where the Regent’s and Grand Union Canals meet. The area around the pool, known as “Little Venice”, is an oasis of calm in Central London. Waterbirds paddle up and down, people stroll and cycle along the towpaths, narrow boats drift under the bridges.

Have a drink, or even watcha puppet show, in one of the converted boats or jump on board one of Jason’s narrow boats to travel down the Regent’s Canal to London Zoo or on to Camden Lock. Slower, but significantly more scenic, than the Tube.

If you can hang around for the evening, the nearby Prince Alfred is a rare example of a classic Victorian London pub, retaining the original ‘compartments’ that separated the upper classes from the workers.

For a livelier night, nowhere does bad taste British comedy better than “the world’s longest-running comedy sketch show”, The News Revue, in the tiny Canal Cafe theatre above the Bridge House pub.

Culture for free on the Southbank

Hordes of tourists flood the Southbank for views of the river and to visit sights such as the London Eye and Tower Bridge, but the Southbank also offers a wealth of culture and entertainment and, best of all, much of it is free.

The National Theatre, as well as offering world-class drama, regularly hosts photography exhibitions and live music recitals. No tickets necessary, just wander in and soak up whatever happens to be going on.

The Southbank Centre

also allows free entry into all of its buildings, including the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Hayward Gallery, which hold regular free events, exhibitions and live music. Detouring around the back of the Royal Festival Hall, the Real Food Market offers top quality British produce every Friday to Sunday.

Brixton Village is full of great places to eat....in London.
Brixton Village is full of great places to eat....in London.

Further East, at the horribly named “More London” development, next to City Hall, you can enjoy free theatre, film, and music throughout the summer at the Scoop, an ‘outdoor sunken amphitheater’ on the edge of the river.

Pack a picnic, bring a scarf (this is England after all), and settle in for the evening. The area around the Scoop also often boasts outdoor art displays and cultural exhibitions.

Eat your way around the world in Brixton

For a place that, not long ago, was high up on the list of areas of London to avoid, Brixton has changed immeasurably in the last few years. Still a little rough around the edges, it is now full of tasty restaurants and trendy bars and clubs.

‘Brixton Village’ is the place not to miss. Entering through an archway from a tatty looking street, it initially appears to be little more than a typical market – fruit and veg, butchers and bric-a-brac. But keep walking and a wealth of tiny restaurants and cafes emerge.

Brownings Pool, Little Venice, London.
Brownings Pool, Little Venice, London.

Recently described as “the most exciting and vibrant venture on the London restaurant scene” by a prestigious British food critic, the options available are astonishing: inventive modern British cuisine at Brixton Cornucopia; classic Portuguese meat and fish dishes at Brixton Village Grill; top quality burgers at Honest Burgers; Pakistani street food at Elephant; Caribbean seafood at Etta’s and many, many more.

To finish off, try Italian Gelato from ‘Lab G’ (the salted caramel is incredible), a gooey brownie from Breads Etc. or a cup of tea and home baked cake on vintage china in Relay Tea Rooms.

Escape the Oxford Street crowds

Turning down a narrow alley off Oxford Street, escaping the crowds of shoppers making a beeline for Selfridges, you emerge onto St Christopher’s Place, a pretty, cobbled, pedestrian lane.Browse designer boutiques, admire jewelry and art or treat yourself to your favorite childhood sweets at Mrs. Kibble's Olde Sweet Shoppe.

Once you’ve spent up, dine al fresco on the square, complete with fairy lights and fountain. Not a place for traditional British fayre, but there is a good range of international options.

Get more than just a curry on Brick Lane

Famed for its numerous curry houses (around 50 in the immediate area at last count), there is a lot more to do on Brick Lane than enjoy a chicken jalfrezi. Steeped in history, having been home to Huguenot refugees, Irish immigrants, Ashkenazi Jews, as well as a large Bangladeshi community, recent years have seen it adopted by London’s art and design fraternity.

Poking around the restaurants and shops in Brixton is always fun.
Brownings Pool, Little Venice, London.

On Brick Lane itself, as well as the side streets adjoining it, you can find fascinating clothes and food markets, pop up art galleries and vintage clothes shops.

Visit on a Sunday to catch the ‘Sunday UpMarket’ in the Old Truman’s Brewery building, as well as the more traditional market held outside on Brick Lane itself, spiced up by a variety of street performers. Sunday is also the best day to visit the nearby Spitalfields Market.

As well as the numerous curry houses, there are several other options for food, including a wide variety of international cuisine at the market stalls. For something a bit different, try a vegetarian dish at ‘Rootmaster’, a restaurant located in a converted London bus, tucked away in Ely’s Yard.

If you do want to round your day off with a curry, veering off Brick Lane itself to Tayaabs, hidden behind the Whitechapel Mosque, is a hectic but excellent choice.

Continue the exploration

These are just a few examples. Countless other areas of London have galleries and museums, restaurants and bars, shops and markets that are well worth a tourist’s attention, but that is easy to wander past without realizing their potential.
The major sights can be stunning but keep your eyes open and London can deliver a lot more than expected.

Getting There

Exmouth Market – A ten-minute walk from either Angel (Northern Line) or Farringdon (Hammersmith and City and Circle Lines) Tube Stations. Alternatively get the 19 or 38 bus from Tottenham Court Road station and get off by the Post Office building on Roseberry Avenue.

Little Venice – Walk along the canal from the back of Paddington Station or a couple of minutes’ walk from Warwick Avenue Tube Station (Bakerloo Line).

The Southbank – For the National Theatre and the Southbank Centre, walk east along the river from Waterloo Station. For the Scoop, walk east along the river from London Bridge station (or just carry on walking from Waterloo).

Brixton Village – Left and first left out of Brixton Tube Station (Victoria Line) onto Atlantic Road. The market is through a blue archway on the right.

St Christopher’s Place – Down an alleyway just off the north side of Oxford Street, two minutes’ walk from Bond Street Tube Station (Central and Jubilee Lines).

Brick Lane – A five-minute walk from Aldgate East Tube Station (District and Hammersmith and City Lines) or ten-minute walk from Liverpool Street Station.

Helen Whitehead.

Helen Whitehead has recently set up www.greatbritishescapes.com, which arranges tailor-made holidays in Britain and provides information and travel advice."

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