Every city has its hidden gems - the sweet little off-the-beaten-track spots which you’ll only discover if you’re ‘in the know’, and London has its fair share of them. It might surprise you to hear that there are even hidden gems in central London, concealed by the hustle and bustle of all the major city attractions which distract passers-by from giving these spots the attention they clearly deserve. These lesser-known spots in London city centre make for a great self-guided walking tour (perhaps with one or two tube journeys to rest your feet) as they are each located between Mayfair and Tower Bridge. You’ll come across secret historical sights, a hidden oasis, epic street art and more seriously on this tour around the city centre’s hidden gems.
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1. The Royal Arcade
Old Bond Street
Unless you’re in London for some high-end designer shopping, it’s unlikely you’ll have heard or thought to visit this absolutely beautiful spot in Mayfair. The Royal Arcade is London’s oldest purpose-built shopping arcade, dating back to 1879 and retaining all its stunning upper-class Victorian features. It’s hardly been touched since it was originally built. Today as it always has done, it houses a number of luxury retail stores which are probably out of most of our price ranges, however that can’t stop anyone from enjoying some window shopping while they take in the grand architecture and design.
2. Pickering Place
St James’ Street
Around the corner from St James’ Palace is a spot you’ll really only come across if you’re ‘in the know’. Pickering Place is the smallest square in Britain, but that doesn’t mean it’s not packed full of history. In the 18th century, this tiny courtyard was the home of gambling dens, bear baiting and even duels - in fact it’s the spot in which the very last duel in London took place - and this was all thanks to it being so secluded. If you visit now, you’ll see all the remnants of the Georgian times from the gaslights to the stunning architecture. Before it became a notorious spot for criminal activity, Pickering Place was the location of the Texan Republic’s embassy before the country became part of the US in 1845. You’ll be able to see a plaque detailing its presence from the time, making it well over 150 years old.
3. Smallest police station in Britain
If you’ve ever been to Trafalgar Square, you’ve probably passed this by before without even realising. The record holder for Britain’s smallest police station is a real hidden gem right in the centre of London. It was built in 1926 inside an ornamental light fitting as locals wanted it to be more under the radar. It managed to fit one or two police officers at a time to keep an eye on the square for more rowdy demonstrators. There was even a direct phone line to Scotland Yard installed in case back-up was needed. Now the tiny police station is just a place for the city Council cleaners to store their supplies!
4. Covent Garden telephone boxes
The iconic red telephone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott following a Post Office competition back in 1924. Tucked away down a narrow road behind Covent Garden are five of the classic red telephone boxes all lined up in a row, standing in perfect position for a quintessentially British photograph. From its covered spot this Insta-worthy snap is certainly worthy of being one of the best hidden gems in the city.
5. Postman's Park
King Edward Street
Just a couple of minutes walk from St Paul’s Cathedral is this charming little garden in the heart of London. Take a seat on one of the benches and breathe in the peace and quiet that Postman’s Park has to offer, so named due to it being such a popular lunchtime spot for workers at the old General Post Office nearby back in the 1800s. One of the main features of this garden is the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, built by GF Watts in 1990 as a way of commemorating the lives of ordinary people who gave their life to try and save someone else’s.
There are 54 plaques telling different heart-wrenching stories of people who died in the 18 and 1900s, as well as one more recent plaque from 2009 after a 78 year hiatus. This little gem on King Edward Street is well worth a visit to hear and appreciate the ‘heroic self sacrifice’ of these 54 extraordinary people from around the UK.
6. London Mithraeum
On the site of Bloomberg’s European HQ lies the most famous discovery of Roman remains in London during the 20th century. The remains were found on Walbrook in 1954 while a bomb site from the Second World War was being excavated. It turned out that what they had discovered were the remains of a temple to the god Mithras from the Roman era. Now, you can descend below Bloomberg’s Europe HQ to explore the ancient temple for yourself and get a glimpse into the life of those who were around for when Londonium was founded nearly 2,000 years ago. Admission is free, just be sure to check the website for information on visiting in 2021.
7. Barbican Conservatory
You’ve probably heard of Kew Gardens and their impressive indoor conservatories, but did you know there’s one right in the heart of London? This hidden gem is certainly the most exotic on this list, being home to tropical flora, fauna and fish inside the huge glass conservatory mimicking climates from around the world. Barbican Conservatory opened its doors in 1984 and is now the second largest indoor rainforest in London, and it’s completely free. You don’t pay to enter but you do need to book your date and time slot before you visit, so head to their website for more information.
8. Saint Dunstan-in-the-East
St Dunstan’s Hill
This hidden gem is truly one of a kind. Saint Dunstan-in-the-East is an oasis of calm right in the heart of one of the busiest parts of London, however it’s not always been sunshine and roses for this gorgeous city garden. The old Grade I listed church from the 1100s got through the Great Fire of London in 1666 with severe damages, and was again partly destroyed by the Blitz in 1941. All that survived after the bombing was its tower and steeple, so the City of London decided to leave it in peace and turn its remains into a beautiful public garden which opened in 1970. It’s easy to forget that London Bridge and the Tower of London are just minutes away when you’re soaking up the tranquility in this glorious green spot.
9. The Royal Exchange
Being such a huge monumental building makes this quite an unusual entry on this list, but the Royal Exchange is actually very overlooked by the majority of London’s visitors. Located right by Bank tube station, this historic building was founded in the 16th century and has had to be rebuilt three times, twice due to devastating fires. Today, you can visit the Royal Exchange for luxury shopping and maybe a glass of bubbles at Fortnum & Mason inside, and the photography opportunities will really catch your eye.
10. Leadenhall Market
With a history dating way back to the 14th century, this gem is another with endless stories from London through the eras. Leadenhall Market sits on what was once the centre of Roman ‘Londinium’, when it was a meat and poultry market. Now, the beautiful Grade II Listed building (rebuilt in 1881) houses boutique shops, cafes, wine bars, restaurants and a very popular pub. Another great reason to visit this stunning indoor market is because it’s actually one of London’s , used as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
11. St Katharine Docks Marina
St Katharine’s Way
Tucked away in its own little part of London next door to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, if the city’s only marina wasn’t overshadowed by two iconic attractions then it certainly wouldn’t be a hidden gem of any sort. St Katharine Docks with all its moored up old sailing boats and more modern, impressive yachts, is a really beautiful part of the city and an exciting place to explore. Since it became less of a commercial dock in 1968, more and more bars and restaurants have opened up around the area so you can enjoy dinner with a view that makes you feel a thousand miles away from the English capital.
12. The Graffiti Tunnel
Also known as ‘Leake Street Arches’ and ‘The Vaults’, this tunnel of street art is the longest legal graffiti wall in London while also being a buzzing destination that celebrates urban art and entertainment. You’ll find these walls of unbelievable artwork right underneath Waterloo Station, and you may even get a glimpse of local artists working on new pieces while you’re there. It’s essentially a free art gallery and anyone is welcome to bring some spray cans and get to work, as long as you stick to the rules. With the artwork changing everyday as new artists discover the underground scene, you’ll hardly ever see the same graffiti on consecutive days. Thousands of people a day walk over this hidden art gallery, but now you’re in the know, next time you pass through Waterloo make sure you stop by.
Want to know more about London’s secrets? Check out these about the city