Free hidden gems of London
I’ve been meaning to write this article for a long time and I am so content that I finally got myself to do so, as I think everyone should know about, but most importantly, go and enjoy the places below, when in London.
Coming to London used to be a day of celebration for me. And awe! I still remember the very first day I arrived to London by train to go to the US Embassy (long story). I was planning to walk all the way from Euston station to Hyde Park (how naïve of me). Even though the tube system seemed complex to me (I had never seen so many different lines and colours before), surprisingly, I quickly managed to get a good grasp of it and by the end of the day I was able to give directions from memory to people who were confused about how to get from one place to another. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens were my first deep encounter with London – it was a beautiful sunny day and I was so mesmerised with London that I started walking aimlessly through these two royal parks, feverishly taking pictures of all the surroundings, in particular the rose gardens and their beautiful flower arrangements.
Now, after spending five years in London, I got to think of it as my hometown and have grown so fond of it that I don’t see myself living anywhere else. I just love everything about London and what I’ve found is that the greatest adventures I’ve had in London have been free.
Here are my top eight free adventures in places that I think are hidden gems of London. They aren’t featured on the top tourist destinations, although they should be, because I think all tourists would maximise their London experience if they experienced them:
1. Attend the debates in the House of Lords and House of Commons
The Houses of Parliament is not quite a hidden gem, but the fact that you can go inside it and actually watch the debates is. It was during my first month of living in London that I came across an article in the Timeout magazine encouraging people to go and watch the debates in the Houses of Parliament. At first, I was surprised that members of the public were allowed to enter this prestigious institution and that it was free of charge. Then, I said to myself, of course anyone should be allowed to go in there. It’s our building! People from all walks of life living and working (and inherently, paying taxes) in this country have all the right to go in and witness the decisions being made on their behalf, which ultimately affect their livelihood and how their money is spent.
As expected, the inside of the Houses of Parliament is a beautiful, imposing building, evoking deep history, but also a sense of evolution throughout. The paintings of all the MPs guiding one’s path towards the two chambers are reminiscent of all the influential figures that have shaped the course of history of this country.
True to its name, the House of Lords is fancier than the House of Commons, with red and gold decorated chairs as opposed to the more common green and brown furniture display. While watching the debates, don’t be put off by the BBC cameras. All debates are filmed, in case a piece of information becomes important enough that it needs to be needs broadcasted to the media.
Don’t think you need to be a UK resident to visit the Houses of Parliament. Anyone can go inside. I took my family there when they came on a visit and they were mesmerised. So, if you find yourself to be a tourist in London, please take the opportunity to go inside. You just need to pass by the security checks, which are standard airport type of checks, but the nice thing is that you get your picture taken for a temporary badge that you get given automatically once you’ve passed the security checks to carry around with you so anyone knows that you have rightfully admitted to be in there. You can keep this as souvenir, to remind you of one of your adventure inside one of London’s landmarks.
2. John Lewis rooftop
I discovered rooftop of the John Lewis Store on Oxford Street last summer and I am glad it’s become a yearly thing. I feel it’s the start of the summer season when the rooftop opens to the public at the end of April. It’s beautifully decorated with beach-style benches, deck chairs, white tents, umbrellas and faux (but very real looking) green grass. As the name Summer of Sound On The Roof series, suggests, the best thing about this venue is that it has live music and an overall summery vibe. The drinks menu is glorious, with Prosecco, sparkling rose and, my favourite one, Kombucha.
I love going up there to reflect, write a blog article, listen to the nice acoustic performances and enjoy a refreshing drink (although quite pricey, but worth it for the experience). It’s a beautiful summery workspace. And the best thing is that if you want to have a quieter time or be shieleded from the sunshine, you can book one of the three Sonos pods. To me, these are beautiful work huts, decorated in a retro style with vinyl players, white/grey wooden tables, benches and floors, art books and succulents.
The downside is that the wifi is quite slow so not ideal if you want to surf the internet, research for your blog article, but good for finding focus if you just want to read and write.
3. Sky Garden
This is another beautiful garden located at the top of a skyscraper (the prolific Walkie Talkie building, which stands out in any London landmark). I still remember the moment when I discovered it – I was on the train going to London to meet my sister with no plans of what we would be getting up to. But just as I started browsing the London Evening Standard, The Sky Garden appeared on the To Do This Weekend list. I first disconsidered it, as I thought it would be too expensive or that we would have to go there and be compelled to consume their expensive beverages, but eventually decided to check it out anyone. To my surprise, I discovered it was in fact free of charge, but, because of its popularity and limited number of slots available, it was booked up. However, I discovered there were still slots available for disabled access and decided to get those kinds of tickets to get myself and my sister access into the Sky Garden.
After some queuing, we made it to the 35th floor where the majestic exotic gardens landscape and the imposing views of London greeted us. I was so mesmerised by the lush plant décor, featuring palm trees and other large-lea-rich-green plants that I wish I could knew their exotic names. I could not believe my eyes that I was in nature heaven on top of a skyscraper in the centre of one of the busiest cities in the world. We took pictures from the balcony, lounged on the couches at our leisure, took in the views of London and had a blast. I felt so accomplished for transforming an unplanned trip to London into an unexpected adventure on the rooftop of one of the most iconic London landmarks, a building I would’ve never even thought of getting anywhere near.
Several days ago, one of my morning adventures took me again to the Sky Garden for a barre class organised by Third Space. I had never visited the Sky Garden early in the morning of a work day and I loved how quiet and peaceful it was. The barre class was actually on the 37th floor where I hadn’t been before, as I hadn’t realised it was a public terrace, outside the upper restaurant, that anyone could access. So, I was inspired to work one day from the Sky Garden. As always, it was difficult to get in, as it was fully booked on the day I intended to work there. But I found a hack: even though the free public tickets were all sold out, I decide to try and reserve a table at one of the four eating places. Most of them required a credit card to secured a booking and had a £25 no-show policy in place which discouraged me from proceeding with any of these, but I found that the Sky Pod bar allowed reservations without this hassle. Once I managed to get it, I had a blissful day of working at a tall glass table on level 37 (the one where I did the barre class a few days prior). I managed to get into deep work, uninterrupted by the few tourists who came to take pictures from up above. As not many people know about the fact that level 37 is a public terrace or don’t bother to walk up the 2 flights of stairs, level 37 is like a hidden gem inside a hidden gem. So, I encourage all tourists to go and explore it – more than a tall glass table and charge where you can sit down and recharge your batteries, read, or write down your holiday reflections, it features comfortable couches where you can lounge and meditate. As expected, the drinks are quite expensive, but, since it’s a public terrace, you can bring your own from outside, as long as they are not open when you pass through the security checks at the entrance to the Sky Garden, on the ground floor.
4. Attend a mass service in St. Paul’s (Easter service, highly recommended)
Normally, entrance to St Paul’s cathedral is £20 for adults, which is suited to the magnificence of the cathedral, but during mass service the entrance is free of charge. I had always wanted to attend mass in St Paul’s Cathedral and two years ago the idea of attending the Easter service dawned on me. I was absolutely mesmerised listening to the organ, so if you are around London at Easter or Christmas time I strongly recommend you attend the mass service. If not, then take the opportunity to visit St Paul’s on Sundays or during early morning (7:30 a.m.) during the week for free while enjoying the beautiful service.
5. The Scoop, More London Riverside
Think of glorious summer live entertainment by the river Thames in one of the most iconic London spots, by Tower Bridge. Fittingly situated by the London City Hall (which, in case you didn’t know, is the set of two semi-circular buildings), overlooking the Thames, The Scoop is brings people together in a celebration of all things entertainment.
I discovered the free theatre shows at the Scoop as I was aimlessly walking by one Sunday afternoon in my first week as a London resident and I saw many people gathered on the circular steps, which I soon discovered where surrounding an area that would soon be brought to life to become an open-air stage. I ended up watching a beautiful musical comedy, an adaptation from “Around the World in 80 days” that I was so enchanted by, I ended up humming along and laughing helplessly. I was so impressed with the atmosphere, people were amusing themselves while having picnics on the steps and some of them even cam prepared with cushions and blankets to make their time truly comfortable. For two hours I forgot about my struggles as a new intern in London. Just when I thought the entertainment was over and I was walking back up the stairs to go back to real life, I realised that some people were still sat on the steps while others kept coming in. Soon, the realisation that the comedy theatre play was to be followed by a dramatic one struck me. So, I turned back and waited for the new play to take me back to the magical world of stories and imagination.
In conjunction with the theatre, there are movie screenings ranging from both old classics and relatively new blockbusters shown on a big screen, installed at The Scoop on the same place as the temporary theatre stage. More than film, there are screenings of ballet shows recorded from performances at the Royal Opera and Ballet.
In true entertainment style, there are also various food festivals taking place at The Scoop, the most memorable one for me is the one organised by The Cooperative, which I stumbled upon in the same summer when I discovered the theatre festival at The Scoop.It was the first time I was witnessing cooking demonstrations and it felt like a theatre play on its own right.
To balance the eating, there is also a workout festival organised at The Scoop and at the nearby Hay’s Galleria by the posh gym in residence, Third Space. Taking place early morning at 7 a.m. every week throughout May and June, the workout festival features everything from yoga to pilates and barre, all the way to metaburn HIIT. The classes are quite hard core but I look forward to them each week, as it feels so blissful to exercise in such an iconic location of London, in a beautifully designed place by the river Thames overlooking the Tower of London and the surrounding skyscrapers. It gives me such a boost of energy and happiness and it makes me privileged to be able to start my midweek day with a vigorous workout while catching the first rays of sunshine smiling upon this wonderful location. After each of these work out events, I go to work with feeling rejuvenated and accomplished.
The summer festival culminates with The Thames festival which takes place in mid September. I also discovered this during my first month as a London resident and it was the longest and most beautiful firework display I had ever seen. Five years on, I still remember how in awe I was while watching this.
I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that The Scoop is more than a summer fling. The winter programme is equally enchanting with Christmas markets, terrarium workshops and chocolate tastings by the Pier.
6. Holland Park
I stumbled upon Holland Park after reading about its Kyoto garden in a magazine. I’ve always had a profound appreciation for Japanese gardens and I had only had the opportunity to admire them in botanical gardens. To learn that there was a Japanese garden open to the public free of charge in the heart of London was hard to believe. So much so, that I wasn’t even sure if it would be worth taking the tube trip to the west of London on a hot summer day. I didn’t even know that the Kyoto garden was enclosed within Holland park (another hidden gem inside a hidden gem), so when I came out of the tube at Kensington Olympia and went into the nearby first visitor information spot I could think of (The Design Museum) to ask for directions to it, I was surprised they were sending me to this Holland Park. A Japenese Harden inside a Dutch park? I was beyond confused.
As I entered Holland Park I could not believe my eyes. Its beauty is astonishing. How have I not heard about it before? Why is this not a Royal Park? Why is there a peacock roaming freely around here and nonchalantly cutting across my way? Thoughts kept flooding my mind as I was stepping into this hidden gem. I was walking and taking pictures of everything, overwhelmed by its never-ending beauty.
Soon after I entered the park, I discovered the Kyoto garden. I was enchanted and speechless.
After I finished with the Japanese garden, I continued my journey into the depths of the park, fuelled by a motivation to roam and explore. I came across a beautiful rose garden with majestic fountains in the middle, with bushy walls and benches on the side, placed strategically to enable you to take in the views of this mesmerising garden from different angles. Like every English garden, this one also has an Orangerie and I spent a beautiful couple of hours there reading and breathing the rose scented, fresh air.
I also discovered a floor chess area, which brought me so much joy. I love chess and to find this in the park, freely open to anyone made me so appreciative of gaining access to all this.
After passing though the picnic area, I discovered the open gym area where I struck up a quick workout with my sister. The endorphines that followed made me appreciate this park even more.
My sister and I spent a whole day walking up and down Holland Park and just when I thought there was nothing else to see, I was pleasantly surprised when on my next trip to Holland park, I discovered the tennis courts. Me and my partner engaged in two hours of vigorous tennis which ended a gloriously good day.
What I love about Holland Park is that it is so beautifully maintained, yet it looks so low maintenance. The landscape designer of this park has really thought of it all and brought everything together to make a wonderful day out for anyone who steps into this hidden gem of London. There are so many beautiful ways to enjoy a sunny day in London from long promenades and picture taking, to picnics, chess, tennis or simply lying on the grass surrendering yourself to the sunshine.
7. Wellcome collection
I discovered the Wellcome collection also by chance in a similar way to how I discovered Sky Garden, while browsing the pages of London Evening Standard while I was already in the train station, planning to go to London, without knowing where. I can remember the newspaper was advertising a temporary exhibition at the Wellcome collection, without mentioning the essence of this place: that it displays beautifully the history of medicine. I am always fascinated to discover how doctors tried to cure people in the past, what tools and artefacts they were using and how medicine has evolved to where it is now. I wish more people knew about this, because medicine should be such a rich part of history, yet not much of it has been documented as such. Henry Wellcome understood this very well and his collection is so interesting that I think it should be proudly displayed in the British Museum, so that more people would get to explore and enjoy it.
The library of the Wellcome Collection features the most comfortable lounging room. It’s a sumptuous long and tall space, with wide windows and an imposing staircase, with various sofas, comfy chairs and sharing tables inviting one to relaxation or deep work. I feel so inspired being in that place, so fuelled by energy and motivation when I look at the various art pieces and wall displays decorating the room, that I just want to create something myself there and then.
8. British Library
The name, “British Library” is so well known that it’s like a brand of its own. So, you may wonder why is this in my hidden gems list. Well, I would say it’s an unexplored brand. Unlike the British museum which is flocked with tourists and visitors every day, I find that the British Library is quite neglected by Londoners and tourists. People, especially those learning English as a second language, know it exists, but how many actually look for it when they get to London? Also, I don’t thunk London residents think of the British Library as their destination when they need to borrow a book or do mental work outside the office or their homes. The majority of us, myself included, tend to opt for a nice coffee shop or buy the book we want to read instead of thinking of becoming members of the library and getting it for free in either physical or digital form.
I still remember my very first trip to the British Library as a tourist, when after finishing reading Shakespeare manuscripts, staring at the original copy of the Magna Carta and Listening to the Beatles recording of their various songs, I spotted that working space on the first floor and I thought I would like to come and work there some day. However I didn’t return in four years until an Alice in Wonderland attracted me to the library. I loved how they re-enacted various scenes from the book and even various editions of the story, yet again after that visit, it didn’t cross my mind to make a habit out of visiting the library. Until one day when I started working with a friend on website design and development. After several stops at various coffee shops which turned out to be unsuccessful attempts, because they were either booked up or too noisy, the idea of going to the British Library came to me. And I am so glad it did because both my friend and I have spent some of our most productive hours in the working space on the first floor, deeply absorbed in our work, surrounded mostly by students and reading lamps. The coffee served in their coffee shops is also amazing and will power you through your work.
In my view, all these hidden gems of London should make the top list of things to see and do in London and all tourists that come from far and wide should be made aware that London is a lot more resourceful, far beyond its well known landmarks. The time I’ve spent in these spaces has been such a happy and positive one, that I think everyone should know about them and enjoy them.
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