London recs: small/weird/local fave museums, tours, and entertainment
March 10, 2022 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Hi, all! I am visiting London next month for the first time in over 20 years. If I tell you some of my favorite places in other cities and experiences I'm looking for, can you recommend some things I should make time for there?

- Museum-wise: I love The Morgan Library (NYC), MASS MoCA (North Adams, MA), the Museum of Jurassic Technology (LA), the Computer History Museum (Mountain View, CA) and the Kelvingrove (Glasgow).

- I love wonky and info-dense tours. I have long been fascinated by the British government and legal systems.

- I love a genuinely discreet and non-showy cocktail bar, a neighborhood favorite restaurant, and a tiny museum, exhibit, chapel, or pocket garden.

- And in the evenings, I love modern & avant-garde chamber music, small dance clubs, and burlesque/variety shows.

I'm a New Yorker, fully vaxxed and boosted, and obeying all COVID rules. I've been saving for this trip for years.

Thanks for your ideas!
posted by minervous to Travel & Transportation around London, England (43 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
It's been over a decade since I was in London but if I was back and only had one day to spend, I would revisit Sir John Soane's.
posted by phunniemee at 10:16 AM on March 10, 2022 [10 favorites]

The Wellcome Collection is a must on the quirky museum list. I have thought about this museum probably once a week since I visited in 2019 and it is a must stop on my next visit.

The V&A is not a small museum, but since it focuses on materials and design its collections are delightful niche. They even have a whole collection of wallpaper.
posted by assenav at 10:20 AM on March 10, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Kings Place is a brilliant venue for all sorts of chamber (and other) music. It's in Kings Cross which was a seedy dump 20 years ago but is now a haven of little gardens, interesting things, shops, restaurants etc etc:

Cocktails in Kings Cross
posted by Lotto at 10:20 AM on March 10, 2022

Museum-wise: Grant Museum of Zoology, Sir John Soanes Museum, The Hunterian, The Wellcome Collection.

British Government and Legal Systems: A tour of the Inns of Court

For local places: Where might you be staying?
posted by vacapinta at 10:20 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Food-wise, if you'll be there for a Saturday, Brockley Market is a fun way to try casual neighborhood meals and snacks.
posted by assenav at 10:23 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Natural History Museum is also not a small museum; but specifically a behind the scenes tour of the spirits collection is a cool thing to do.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 10:26 AM on March 10, 2022

I think you would like the Churchill War Rooms. Set aside a good amount of time, because it's fascinating. Expensive.
posted by wryly at 10:29 AM on March 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: OH BOY. So with the caveat that it's been years since I have been back, and I don't know what COVID has done to availability/hours, here is my personal list of favorite tiny museums and pocket-gardens and tours in London:

Tiny Museums

Dennis Severs House. Is it a museum? Is it history? Is it historical fiction? It's some mix of all of the above, and there aren't placards to read (or there weren't when I was there a few years back), but it's tiny, yet dense in the sense of every detail in the room having visual and storytelling interest. If you possibly can, get in on one of the Friday-night silent candlelight sessions for the ~~~ atmosphere.

London Mithraeum. It's a tiny museum tucked into the basement of the London headquarters for Bloomberg (iirc having this publicly-accessible space was a condition of them being able to redevelop the site). At the bottom floor is a cool-as-fuck theater? video? sound and light show? that recreates the Mithraeum on the exact historical outline of where the temple was back in Roman times. It draws on the deep pool of theatrical design talent in London.

The John Soanes Museum. Word got out about this tiny, exquisite gem of a museum, so pre-COVID, it was super duper crowded many times. Try to get at off-peak if you can, but if you like "personal collection of rich dude with taste and opinions" vibe of JP Morgan's library and study, it's a whole lot of fun.

Clockmakers Museum: If you liked the Computer History Museum, you've got a solid chance of enjoying this, even if you don't particularly love watches. There are some absolutely exquisite things in there.

Pocket Gardens

One of my favorite urban pocket parts in the whole world. A tiny pocket garden par excellence with a more medical and historical angle. The sunken lake and gardens at the Barbican, which also has a conservatory that is much smaller than the ones at Kew and may not be impressive in and of itself, but has a delightful tucked-away feeling of being a secret.

Wonk-tastic Tours.

If you can get into one, Lost Rivers of London walking tours are really, really cool.

And these can be spendy and hard to book onto and can trigger claustrophobia, depending on the tour, but if you can, they're fucking incredible for once-in-a-lifetime-for-a-London-Visitor Wonky Nerd Stuff. I did the Down Street one a couple years back, and I will never forget the experience -- the walk down the wide concrete way, the emergency access stairwells, the entire underground complex, standing in the breezeway of a closed-up station and feeling an Underground subway train blast past at full speed.

If you like architecture, I hear these are excellent.
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:31 AM on March 10, 2022 [9 favorites]

DEFINITELY Soanes and Churchill War Rooms, you will love them both. I also think you'll dig the new(ish, I was there in 2017 but you know. New for London) Design Museum.

I also always rec the V&A. It has so many weird little things stuffed randomly in corners.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 10:38 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Agree would be good to know where you're staying.

Dennis Severs' House (Wikipedia) is a brilliant immersive museum in Spitalfields (East London), described as a 'still life drama'.

If you're around the London Bridge/Borough area, then there's a speakeasy cocktail bar under the Breakfast Club restaurant called Call Me Mr Lucky - I went last night and we managed to get a booth as a walk-in despite Borough being pretty packed. There's another one under the Breakfast Club near Liverpool St station called Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town - that one's pretty near Dennis Severs' if you're going!
posted by amerrydance at 10:40 AM on March 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: minervous: the Computer History Museum

Then you should most definitely take the opportunity to visit the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. It's easily reached by public transport.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:43 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

If you happen to be staying in North London or just fancy the trip, then Max's Sandwich Shop is a brilliant local gem in Finsbury Park - great for lunch or dinner. From review: 'The best way to describe Max’s sandwiches is to say that they are main courses between bread.' Might as well drop into The Faltering Fullback for a pint while you're there as well.
posted by amerrydance at 10:48 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Cafe OTO is a good place for avant-garde music
posted by Chenko at 10:50 AM on March 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

The London Transport Museum is interesting, and you can also register for Hidden London tours that include things like closed Tube stations (tickets go quickly). Open City London has great architectural tours too, and also has a bunch of pocket tours that you can pick up.

The British Library has a permanent exhibition that's always fun, and has good rotating exhibits.
posted by carrienation at 11:10 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

A tiny museum in Hackney - The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History.

A bigger museum, not far from there - The Museum of the Home

Five minutes walk from Chingford station - Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge
posted by essexjan at 11:20 AM on March 10, 2022

Response by poster: I love all these suggestions so much. For those who've asked: I'm staying quite near The National Gallery in Covent Garden.
posted by minervous at 11:24 AM on March 10, 2022

We loved The Postal Museum
posted by MelissaSimon at 11:37 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Seconding St Dunstan-in-the-East for a cool pocket park inside the ruins of a Wren church.

We also really enjoyed the Triforium tour at St. Paul's cathedral. It takes you places that you normally couldn't go and is offered at a much lower frequency, so book in advance.
posted by Don_K at 11:46 AM on March 10, 2022

The Mail Rail at the Postal Museum!

Edit: Jinx!
posted by tinwhiskers at 11:52 AM on March 10, 2022

Do you like theatre? I just saw Small Island at the National Theatre and it was unbelievably good. Great places to eat/people watch as well. Runs through the end of April.

I second lots of these suggestions. For a great neighborhood restaurant, I'd go for Farang in Highbury (apparently Nick Hornby's favorite restaurant.) St. Martin in the Field's church has really charming lunchtime music in a lovely setting.

Dishoom is not small or neighborhoody, but the food is incredible and it is a London institution. There is one really near Covent Garden. Definitely book. Breakfast there is particularly good.

The Museum of the Home is also terrific!

And Borough Market is just great, esp. if you can go on the weekdays when it's not too crowded.
posted by heavenknows at 11:55 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

If you like the blues, we had a great time at the blues jam at Ain't Nothin' But.
posted by Don_K at 11:56 AM on March 10, 2022

Best answer: Another vote for the Museum of the Home (it was called the Geffrye Museum when we visited, and we really enjoyed it). Sounds like their Rooms Through Time and Gardens Through Time exhibits would be in your wheelhouse.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:56 AM on March 10, 2022

For food tours, we enjoyed the less-traveled Shoreditch tour.
posted by Don_K at 11:58 AM on March 10, 2022

The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret in Southwark, FASCINATING. (no accessibility though, it's up a spiral staircase). And right nearby is the George Inn, London's only remaining galleried coaching house.

Postman's Park near St Paul's is a must-see. Near this is the Barbican, with its little-known conservatory.
posted by runincircles at 12:54 PM on March 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: my recommendation: read dava sobel's longitude on the flight to london. it's a short and gripping true story, brilliantly told. then visit the royal observatory greenwich and see the harrison clocks yourself. awe inspiring.

i did this once by accident and it was amazing.
posted by bruceo at 1:13 PM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Re: wonky and info-dense tours: Check out London Walks, they have tours about anything and everything!
posted by amf at 1:14 PM on March 10, 2022

For cocktails I suggest the Bermondsey Arts Club. Tiny, and in a former public toilet underground.

Wilton's Music Hall in Whitechapel is an extraordinary building with a very varied programme.

The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill has excellent anthropology and music collections, a fascinating temporary exhibition about hair, and superb views of the city from the top of the gardens.

These are off the beaten track, but quite enjoyable to get to (I think).
posted by kelper at 1:16 PM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Have a look around ianvisits website
posted by Dub at 2:00 PM on March 10, 2022

Treasures of the British Library. They really, really are treasures. Really-truly treasures.
posted by humbug at 2:15 PM on March 10, 2022

Try Gordon's Wine Bar for a drink--it's fairly close to where you're staying and it's got this really cool dark, closed-in, historic ambience. It looks like indoor seating is open again.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 3:31 PM on March 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

The Petrie Museum is a small but jam-packed archaeology museum. Unless they've changed in significantly in the last few years, it feels like being in the British Museum's attic. The last time I was there they still offered flashlights to visitors who wanted to get a better view of things in dim corners.
posted by theotherdurassister at 4:14 PM on March 10, 2022

Consider buying a National Art Fund Pass.
posted by jointhedance at 5:40 PM on March 10, 2022

My mother and I referred to Permanent Londoners during our other visits around the city to work in some other notable cemeteries & churchyards. The book is out of print, but they're historical dead people, so they're unlikely to have moved. (We focused on poets and suffragettes.)
posted by typetive at 7:01 PM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Do you like immersive theater? Punchdrunk Productions, the same company that did the immersive production of Sleep No More in New York (a retelling of Macbeth) has a new show in London opening this month called The Burnt City. It looks like it's the same deal as Sleep No More (intricately detailed set that you can wander around, roaming cast you can follow), but a retelling of the fall of Troy.
posted by airplant at 9:47 PM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you go to Greenwich Observatory, get the train to Blackheath (a nice little village inside Greater London where I've lost track of the little restaurants) and walk across the heath to Greenwich Park, then later walk down the hill to the Royal Naval College, get a sausage bun from Heap's on your way to see Greenwich Market and Cutty Sark.

If your train goes through Lewisham, there's a sublime eatery at Sparrow on the other side of the tower block from the station. You probably need to book for an evening meal. BAO London have a few places for great Korean bao. Often overlooked is Bone Daddies for ramen.

Rox Burger in Deptford Creek is a decent burger, and there's a lot of Morley's Fried Chicken in South-East London, if you go to see Brixton Market, there's one not far from the market.
posted by k3ninho at 12:11 AM on March 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Huh. Spent eight years exploring London every weekend the trains were running, and there are things in here I didn't know about. Neat.

Nobody's mentioned The Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell yet, I think - note that it has two sites (pretty much across the road from each other), one of which features a pocket garden and the other of which is in something that looks very much like a mediaeval castle gatehouse.

Close by you'll also find the Charterhouse, with a tiny museum (look in all the cupboards!) and a chapel.

There's also the Museum of Novelty Automation, in the same general area. I've not actually visited it at its current location, but I believe the exhibits used to be part of the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden, and that was great fun.

Bonus: Peer through a window on Farringdon Lane and see the actual Clerks' Well after which the area is named.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:39 AM on March 11, 2022

On my work computer so can't link, but the Vagina Museum is reopening soon at a new venue in Bethnal Green. Their instagram is brilliant.

The Museum of Brands in Notting Hill is very cool.

You will love John Soames' museum. Consider this an additional plug.

And I'm glad someone already mentioned the Horniman.
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:12 AM on March 11, 2022

Best answer: A tiny museum in Hackney - The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History.

Just to point out, this is not just a tiny museum, it's also a tiny cocktail bar! So it ticks two of your boxes in one.
posted by slimepuppy at 5:17 AM on March 11, 2022

I love this thread and am marking everything for my own reference!

I moved to London last year and by absolute chance ended up a short walk from Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. It's among my favorite spaces in the city for nature, because it's been allowed to reforest--with trees at multiple heights--since it ceased receiving burials around 1970. It's still a cemetery, but it's also a riot of flowers and greenery tucked into every nook and cranny. Trails meander through the space, and in springtime every possible bulb blooms before the leafy canopy fills out. The birds--oh my, the birds--you really have no idea how many songbirds there are inLondon until you're in a patch of woodland like this that isn't just manicured trees that are all the same age and scale. This space draws the birds from miles around. If you time it just right, you can forage wild garlic (etc.).

Walking the River Lea is also a wonderful pastime. Start at the Greenway in Bow / Fish Island and work your way north past the Old Ford Lock through Hackney Wick to Hackney Marshes. Along the Lea and canals you pass so many little bars and restaurants and vibrant indoor/outdoor bits of interest that it's an excellent way to spend an afternoon. The River Lea has two courses around here, and the eastern side is much more wild as you approach Hackney Marshes, it can feel surprisingly far away from the bustle of the city. Hackney Wick is on the Overground, and the area around the Overground station has loads of fun human activity.

I'm very fond of this bar for well-made cocktails and understated charm, in Islington. I live clear across town from it now and haven't been back during the pandemic, but I'm really hoping to be able to feel comfortable enough to go again once the transmission rates get a bit lower.

(This is an odd recommendation but the American Bar at the Savoy--while decidely showy and indiscreet--is an experience. It seems like it may be temporarily closed, but if it isn't I would encourage you to consider peeking your head in for a drink--it will be exquisitely made, and there is funnily enough something very unshowy about showiness in spaces like this in London.

Have a lovely trip, and welcome back to London!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:54 AM on March 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing Dennis Severs' house. One of the weirdest and most charming museum-type places I've been.

There's also a feminist library in South London if you're interested in that. They have events as well.
posted by lunasol at 11:09 AM on March 11, 2022

>I'm very fond of this bar for well-made cocktails and understated charm...
I know of it as 69 Colebrook and I agree it's great. The Savoy's American Bar is also highly rated, as is the Fortnum and Mason cocktail lounge at 45 Jermyn Stret, Bar Termini (Soho) and Rules Cocktail Bar above Rules Restaurant in Covent Garden.

Also adding Noble Rot restaurant among a bunch of small-village places on Lamb's Conduit Street between Russell Square abd Holborn.
posted by k3ninho at 11:47 AM on March 11, 2022

Have seen a couple of unusual exhibits at the Hayward on the South Bank, like this one.

This seems to me to fit into the general topography of what you're looking for, though you don't mention magic specifically, but The Magic Circle does brief sets of close magic for like 20 people and their cocktails at a time, followed by a slightly bigger show in a small theater.
posted by troywestfield at 9:53 AM on March 17, 2022

Response by poster: I’m on my way home filled with gratitude for this thread. I’ve marked a few best answers for things that were especially on the nose, but I got excellent ideas and excitement from every comment.

And personally, Dennis Severs’ house was a highlight of my entire museum/theatre-going life. Do the guided tour evening performance if you can.

Thank you, all.
posted by minervous at 3:38 AM on April 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

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