I recently took a trip to London. Having lived there for over 10 years and just outside it for nearly seven, I wasn’t expecting much to surprise me on my visit…but boy was I wrong, and it all started when I spotted a lighthouse on a roof in Kings Cross
There I was heading back to my hotel, stuck at a pedestrian crossing waiting for the traffic lights to change, when I looked up to see a rainbow – but, then, to the left of it, on top of the building, I spotted a lighthouse!!!
What the hell? Google. Google. I need you immediately!
Okay, so Google wasn’t hugely helpful as what it told me is that no-one exactly knows why there’s a lighthouse stuck on a roof at the corner of Greys Inn Road and Pentonville Road, but the most likely theory is that it was originally something to do with an oyster bar located on a ground floor of that building at some point in the 1800s.
As I looked all of this up, the kernel of a blog post was born…what else was hidden in plain view in the UK’s capital city? It seems that actually there’s quite a lot…I found more than 20 other hidden London sights – chances are you’ve walked past more than one of them without realising it was even there.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which mean I earn a small commission if you use them to book. This does not cost you any extra
Hidden London Sights
1. The Singing Lift in the Festival Hall
This has to be one of London’s hidden gems. I could literally have gone up and down in this all day. It’s fantastic. Created by composer Martin Creed, the singing voices get higher as the lift ascends and go down the octaves as it descends. I kept telling friends about this while I was there and no-one had even heard of it, let alone gone up and down in it three or four times (yes, that was me!). Check out the video to see just how cool it is.
As you’d suspect about something I’m describing as a part of hidden London, the singing lift isn’t marked with a sign saying ‘Absolutely Fantastic Fun to be Had Here’ or anything, it just looks like a normal glass lift, so, to save you going up and down all day waiting for music in the non-fun lifts, here’s how to find it.
Enter the Festival Hall at the far right door (if the river is behind you) and head right to the back by the ladies toilets.
I’d suggest getting on the Singing Lift on the first floor and going up to the sixth to get the full experience. It’ll also help if you can get the lift to yourself as stopping at different floors will spoil the fun – for this reason, avoid visiting at busy times like lunchtime and when events are starting. I went about 2pm on a Monday and played for far longer than should be sensible for someone over the age of seven!
2. The Tube Labyrinths
Stuck on the wall of every one of the 270 tube stations (well, once they finish the project anyway) in London is a picture of a labyrinth.
Created by artist Mark Wallinger every one of them is slightly different.
Once you know they are there you’ll spot them everything you go in but I had literally walked past the one at Leicester Square a hundred times!
The Labyrinth’s aren’t the only secret of the London Underground, if you want to find out more you might want to take the Secrets of the Underground tour where you’ll discover which stations are haunted and all about how to iconic transport system was built. Click here for more details and bookings.
3. The Korean House
The sight of a ramshackle wooden house over busy road close to Liverpool Street station has a confused a few people I know – but the fact is, it’s not someone taking London’s housing crisis into their own hands, but a work of art.
Created by Korean artist Do Ho Suh it’s called Bridging Home and is designed to represent London’s migrant history.
It’s part of the Sculpture in the City exhibition and first appeared in 218 – it’s not intended to be permanent, but, as I write this, it’s stil there.
Youll find it on Wormwood Street.
4. The Old Street Chewing Gum Art
I had literally walked past this London secret three times on my trip until it was pointed out to me as part of the Alternative London Street Art tour that I took one morning. It’s part of a series of works by an artist called Ben Wilson, who paints on pieces of chewing gum all over London.
His most famous project is attempting to paint all of the pieces of gum on the Millennium Bridge – something I loved so much I immediately jumped on the bus after the tour to go check it out – and it was amazing. (here’s my post on that little bit of hidden London.) This piece, however, is on Old Street Roundabout right by 99 City Road.
5. The Church Where Nature is In Charge
St Dunstan’s in the East is right in the middle of the City of London – but when you wander inside you’d think you were in fairyland. It’s one of the best hidden parks in London. There’s shrubs, palm trees, vines, ivy and foliage spilling everywhere, it’s like the Tomb Raider temple in Cambodia – but with pews!
Well, kind of – as the church was seriously damaged in the Blitz only its shell remains. Instead of knocking it down though, the City of London Corporation decided to turn it into a public garden in the late 1960s and it’s kind of grown its own way ever since. It’s gorgeous to look at and really peaceful to sit in – you’d never guess that it’s just a couple of minutes walk from the City.
Apparently, St Dunstans also has a bit of a dark history – something I discovered when I read this amazing post on Dark London by the guys over at Cultura Obscura. It was built on a plague pit
6. The Banksy Paintings
I thought that every Banky left in London would be covered with plastic (like the one on Rivington Street you see on the street art tours) – or covered over completely. But they aren’t. And in fact, on my last trip to London, I walked straight past two of them without even noticing – which is why they earn a spot as London secrets even though they are in plain view.
You’ll find Banksy’s outside of Mount Pleasant Post Office (combine that with a trip to the Mail Train below). There’s one on a building in Bruton Street, W1, one just around the corner from Borough Market in a tunnel on Tooley Street.
7. The Hidden Temple
You’d think you’d notice an entire temple stuck under the City of London wouldn’t you – but, the entrance just looks like one of the hundreds of other office buildings in the area – and in fact, the media company of Bloomberg have their office above it.
When it comes to hidden things to see in London I’m therefore calling this as big one!
It’s known as the London Mithraeum and it was discovered in 1954 and is a temple dedicated to the Roman god Mithras.
You can learn all about the cult and what the temple was used for in the show before you get to see the temple.
You’ll find opening hours and other information on their website.
8. The Tiny Mice of Philpot Lane EC3
While managing to miss a giant lighthouse might seem like an oversight, I can be forgiven for not spotting this hidden London treasure before – it’s London’s smallest public sculpture.
Youll find it high on the wall above the juice bar at 23 Eastcheap (although the sculpture is on the side on Philpot Lane) and it’s of two mice fighting over a piece of cheese.
Rumour has it that sculpture reflects the story of two men working on the building of the nearby Monument tower who got into a fight over a cheese sandwich – while a few storeys up. The fight got out of hand and they fell to their deaths.
9. The Unofficial Blue Plaques on the Southbank
Blue plaques are normally stuck on buildings in London to indicate that people of note have lived there, but one street artist has, in the words of all TV talent show judges, made them his own. His name is Will Coles, and he’s renowned for his love of sticking things places they don’t belong.
I first encountered Will Coles in Sydney as there’s quite a lot of his art around where I live and I knew he’d moved his talents to Europe, but I didn’t know he’s done anything in London. But then, I walked around the corner after having lunch in Borough Market and spotted this.
If you want to find it too, take a careful look at the life buoy closest to London Bridge, just as you come round the corner past the Anchor Pub. There’s also another one in the tunnel as you walk under Blackfriars Bridge – and apparently, a heap more dotted around town if you look hard enough.
10. The Secret River in Sloane Square Tube
Because the Circle Line is the most hopeless tube line in the world, I’ve literally spent hours of my life sitting at Sloane Square tube station staring at the big green bridge that runs along the ceiling. Only recently did I discover it actually has a diverted river running through it!
Image by Ogmios: Used under Creative Commons License.
Specifically, it’s the home to the River Westbourne which starts on Hampstead Heath and runs west across London to come up in the Thames just past Chelsea. I always thought it was just a staff footbridge inside the station! If that doesn’t count as hidden London, I don’t know what does!
There’s another hidden river in the middle of the Grays Antiques in Davies Street in W1. It looks a bit like a water feature, but it’s actually the river Tyburn.
11. The Seven Noses of Soho
Did you know that there are noses stuck on walls all over Soho? Again, why is the stuff of legends – some are by a street artist protesting the use of CCTV cameras, at least one of the others no-one is quite sure about – but there are apparently 10 of an original 35 noses left in place and seven of them appear in a just few small blocks in Soho.
I’ve given you one clue re finding a nose with the picture (which is taken on Greek Street in Soho), but you’ll also find another nose very near this a few doors away, then they’re to be found in Dean Street, Bateman Street, Meard Street, Great Windmill Street and D’Arblay Street. Two others are on Admiralty Arch and Endell Street in Covent Garden – and No10 is rumoured to be on on the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in Kings Cross but I haven’t even seen a pic of that one.
The best guide to them I found is on this map. Although even with this, you’ll still have to hunt carefully to actually spot them…I still haven’t found the one in D’Arblay Street. If time is tight, you might want to check out this post by London Walking Tours who gives some helpful clues on how to find things.
Oh, and while we’re talking about random plaster casts of body parts there are also two ears stuck on walls along Floral Street in Covent Garden (2020 update: Last time I went to check on these, they seemed to have vanished – there was a lot of building work going on so not sure if they just got covered up or if they have been removed).
12. London’s Smallest Road(s)
It’s often said that Brydges Place in Covent Garden is London’s thinnest road – but it’s not. Those who have taken tape measures to the street say it’s 33 inches at its narrowest point, but Emerald Court in WC1 is smaller at 26.5cm.
You get a picture of Brydges Court though because I like the fact that there are so many different colours of brick on one tiny road!
13.The Farm Just Off Brick Lane
Normally when I’m in the vicinity of Brick Lane in East London, I’m looking for curry or street art, not a donkey called Derek – but that was before I spotted the words Spitalfields City Farm on the map.
I admit when I first read it, I was expecting a glorified allotment, somewhere growing organic tomatoes to sell at some fancy Farmer’s Market in Shoreditch – but no. This has goats, it’s got donkeys, it’s got grumpy looking pigs and sheep that hang out in a phone box.
I spent a good hour there just wandering around all the nooks and crannies and the attention to detail and obvious love in the place is amazing – and even better, it’s free (though donations would be very welcome).
A full post on it is here, but if you want to find out more in the meantime you’ll find them on their website, a place where they also tease you about fantastic sounding events like Goat Racing and Moosic for Cows. What’s not to love?
You’ll find Spitalfields City Farm on Buxton Street, E1. They open every day but Monday from 10am to 4pm.
14. The Lamp Powered by Poop
I wonder how many people looking out of the window of the Posh Savoy hotel realise that the olde-world street lamp lighting the side street they overlook is powered by poo.
In fact, it’s the last lamp running on methane gas produced from the sewers left in London – a handy fact I discovered when I went on the London Loo Tour.
The lamp is in Carting Lane if you want to find it yourself, but I do recommend the tour to learn more of the background of some really underground bits of hidden London.
15. The Celebrity Memorial Benches
There’s a few benches around London dedicated to celebrities that are no longer with us.
I’ve talked about the one that’s in tribute to singer Kirsty McColl in my post on Fun Thing do to in Soho, as it’s located in Soho Square – but you’ll also find one dedicated to the actor, John Thaw, at the Actors Church right by the Piazza in Covent Garden. There’s also one dedicated to Rik Mayall at Hammersmith Broadway – it’s the one that he and Ade Edmondson sat on in the opening credits of Bottom.
16. The Trafalgar Square Lions
Okay, so they don’t exactly count as a hidden London sight – thousands of people have photos taken next to them every day – but here’s a London secret. Next time you’re there, have a look at their paws. They aren’t quite right.
The story goes that Sir Edwin Landseer, the artist who sculpted the lions borrowed a dead lion from London Zoo in order to ensure his majestic sculptures were as accurate as possible. The only problem was that by the time he got to the feet the body had decomposed and so he actually ended up using cats paws as the models for the feet!
17. The Marshall St Plug
I also mention this in my Soho post and now I’ve seen it, I can’t believe that I never knew it was there until my last trip to London. I literally walked past this bit of Hidden London about 50 times and had never seen it!
You’ll find it on the corner of Marshall Street near Carnaby Street.
18. The Mail Rail
Okay, so you might not have walked past this per se, but chances are you have walked over it. If I ever write a post on fun things you can do underground in London this will be number one.
The Mail Rail is located at the Postal Museum in EC1 and it used to be the way that mail got around London’s congested streets.
The system consisted of just over six miles of railways located 70 metres under the streets of London. It ran a few different routes including between Paddington sorting office and Mount Pleasant in the city and Liverpool Street.
It’s tiny, very cute and you can ride it to see how the system would have worked way back when.
Click here to see more and book tickets in advance (you need to book your slot).
19. The Girl in the Window
The Newman Arms pub in Rathbone Street, Fitzrovia is best-known as being one of the best pie pubs in London and hidden in the top floor window is a painting of a girl in a nightgown and bed cap.
Rumour has it that she’s there to remind people that this part of London wasn’t always so swishy – and, that once upon a time the building was used as a brothel
Make sure you give her a wave before you head in for a pint and a pie.
20. Cute Photogenic Phoneboxes!
When I go to London now it’s as a tourist not a resident and I make a conscious effort to wander around places I didn’t really bother exploring when I lived there – and Smithfield was one of these.
Smithfield is London’s main meat market but it trades overnight and the fact that to see it in action means getting there at about 7am means I’ve never bothered going – and because I haven’t been to the market I’ve not even really wandered around the area. Which was stupid of me because it’s full of cute winding old streets, it’s home to the new art-stuffed Culture Mile and, on Grand Avenue, between the two sites of the market itself, you’ll find this fantastically photogenic set of phone boxes!
I still haven’t actually made it to the market though.
There’s another set of photogenic phoneboxes in Covent Garden along the alley called Broad Court. These ones are a bit more famous though so you might need to queue for pics!
21. The Ruined Palace Surrounded by Restaurants
I’d walked past this piece of land many times, but only ever going from west to east and when you walk that way it just looks like a piece of waste ground.
It’s only when you walk the other way, from Borough Market to Waterloo, and see the huge wall and ornate window ahead of you that you realise that it’s actually part of an entire ruined building – and not just any old building, it’s the Palace of Winchester – erm, sorry, your Royalness but I was always in a hurry when I actually lived here!
The part you can see here is what’s left of the Great Hall. Find it on the Southbank between Borough Market and Shakespeare’s Globe.
22. The Giant Gold Grasshopper
Looking up is always fun in the City of London, the top of the buildings are often surprisingly ornate, but in Lombard Street, you also find some brilliant old hanging signs – including this giant gold grasshopper.
Actually, there are a lot of grasshoppers around the city as they were the emblem of a financier called Sir Thomas Gresham who, in 16th century London, was kind of a big deal.
Why he used the grasshopper comes from (yet another) legend. Apparently, an ancestor of his had been abandoned as a baby in some marshland – and, was only found when someone went to find the grasshopper making cute chirping sounds nearby. This one appeared outside a goldsmith the family owned, hence it’s rather fabulous shininess.
You’ll find the Gresham Grasshopper at 68 Lombard Street. There’s also one on top of the Royal Exchange shopping centre.
23. The Tribute Park that Makes Amazing Reading
Postman’s Park is less of a secret after it was used as a location in the Jude Law/Natalie Portman film Closer, but I’d still never seen it until this trip – and even when I read about it, I hadn’t appreciated how cool it actually is.
You see, inside the park is GF Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice – ie people who lost their lives doing selfless acts – but what intrigued me was the level of detail in the descriptions. For example
William Goodrum, signalman aged 60. Lost his life at Kingsland Road Bridge in saving a workman from death under the approaching train from Kew. Who thought it was necessary to add where the train was coming from? The plaques inside are full of such amazing detail and I was fascinated.
Oh, and for my final hidden London top tip – if you do go to Postman’s Park, take some monkey nuts. The squirrels are very used to people and will take them out of your hand!
Hidden London Tours
I’ve mentioned a couple of specific tours alongside some of the secret London sights above, but there are also some tours that specialise in hidden London that you might want to check out.
This Secret London Tour is led by one of the black cab drivers that double as tour guides with Capital Taxi Tours. They’ll tell you about – and drive you to – a heap of other secret London sights including some that I haven’t talked about in this post. Click here to check out rates and availability.
If you’d prefer to travel by bike, you’ll discover a heap of London secrets in this afternoon bike tour that takes you around some of London’s odder sights revealing the stories behind them all.
If you like tiny details of a city, some of the best tours for discovering the hidden sights of London are conducted by Look Up London. She covers lots of different areas including Soho and the East End. Click here to check timings, itineraries and bookings.
Where I Stay in London
London hotels are notoriously expensive but on this trip I found a couple of gems on this trip…one another bit of a hidden London secret, the other, probably a bit more well known.
I started off staying in The House of Toby which is a new boutiquey hotel near Kings Cross for which I paid £120 a night, The rooms are small, but perfect for one person – I spent a happy five days there, or a short stay for two. I then moved to the Motel One Tower Hill, which is far bigger but costs a little under £100 a night. Both come highly recommended.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which mean I earn a small commission if you use them to book. This does not cost you any extra.
Share the London Love
If you’ve read this far, I’m hoping I’ve surprised you at least once with some of my hidden sights in London. But is there anything else I need to add? Let me know in the comments – and, if you liked the post, please share it on social media so other people can check out the cool sights of hidden London too.