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Unusual things to do in London: The best offbeat things to do in England’s capital

Give Buck Palace and Madame Tussauds a miss - here are ten of the more weird and wonderful things to do in England’s booming capital

London is a thriving, welcoming metropolis. It’s a city saturated with world-class museums, galleries, historical attractions, restaurants, bars and quaint pubs – over 20 million tourists visited last year, and it’s not hard to see why it’s so popular. 

But ask any Londoner to name something that makes their city so special and they’ll likely point you to something that’s a little off the beaten track – something that you won’t necessarily find in the pages of a guide book. If you truly want to appreciate London’s quirky character, we’d give the thronging attractions a miss (for at least a day), and go in search of some of the more leftfield attractions – many of which won’t cost you a penny.

Here we’ve collected a list of our favourite weird and wonderful things to do in London. And we guarantee you’ll find something there that’s guaranteed to take your fancy.

The best unusual things to do in London

1. Enter a timewarp at Dennis Severs’ House

The late American expat Dennis Severs didn’t create a museum in his Spitalfields townhouse so much as a full-blown immersive experience – one that takes you through centuries of immigrant life in London’s East End. The rooms at 18 Folgate Street weave a tale spanning several generations of the fictional Jervis family: a clan of Huguenot silk weavers who lived here from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. The idea is that you’ve wandered in while they’ve nipped out – there’s even fresh food lying on the kitchen table. If you get sick of all the sterile vitrines and displays in London’s more conventional museums, take a detour here instead.

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2. Dine in the darkness at Dans Le Noir?

London has no shortage of top-class restaurants – but if you want to go for a meal with a high-concept twist, check out of Dans Le Noir? in Clerkenwell. Those who speak French will see that all is revealed in the name: meals are served and eaten in complete darkness, the idea being that diners will pay more attention to their tastebuds with their sight rendered useless. If it sounds a little glib, bear in mind that the waiting staff here are all sight-impaired, and are happy to share their experiences. One thing we do suggest though: don’t wear white.

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3. Visit a Roman temple for free

There is no shortage of historical attractions in London – but this one sends you tumbling back in time to its very earliest days, when Britain was occupied by Romans and the fledgling city was a vibrant hub of different faiths and religions. This slickly designed exhibition in the Square Mile showcases the remains of a temple dedicated to the cult of Mithras that was built around 280AD. (This little-known sect was men-only, proving that gentlemen’s clubs in London are a very old tradition indeed.) The artefacts on display alongside the ruins (pictured) are astonishingly well-preserved, while a short history film is brought to life by the dulcet narration of Joanna Lumley. Best of all, admission is free.

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4. Climb to the summit of the O2 

No longer the contentiously expensive, era-heralding Millenium Dome, the O2 Arena is now a world-famous venue that plays host to some of the biggest music and comedy acts across the globe. But if you want to see this Greenwich venue from a very unusual perspective, why not scale its roof and climb all the way to the summit? Don’t worry, you’ll be safely harnessed to a line and led by an experienced guide. Ticket prices start at £30 – trust us when we say the 360-degree views of the Thames are worth the cost… and the goosebumps.

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READ MORE: The best things to do in Oxford

5. See a show at a genuine Victorian music hall

Tucked away in the backstreets between Whitechapel and Shadwell, Wilton’s is a bona-fide, cor-blimey, knees-up-Mother-Brown East End music hall that languished in disrepair for many years, before undergoing refurbishment that was completed in 2016. Wisely, the redevelopers approached the project with a light touch; the peeling walls and half-gilded fixtures lend the place a kind of faded charm. The programme here is rich and diverse: you can see everything from theatre to orchestral concerts to film screenings, and enjoy a drink in the cosy bar.

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6. Take a tour of East End Street Art

East London conjures images of Cockney gangsters, Blitz air raids and plates of jellied eels. However, the area has also become synonymous with street art over the past couple of decades, with some of the field’s finest artists having sprayed their cans across walls. It can be hard to seek out unless you know where you’re looking – which is why it’s a good idea to join this 2.5-hour walking tour. A guide will take you through tucked-away spots in Shoreditch, Brick Lane, Whitechapel, and Old Spitalfields Market.

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7. Visit an inner-city windmill

Brixton Windmill dates to the days when South London was still undeveloped meadows and fieldland. This Grade II-listed building was built in 1816, and ran as a functioning flour mill all the way until 1936, by which time sprawling urbanisation had completely surrounded the area. The windmill underwent a much-needed restoration in 2011, and is now open to the public in the form of Saturday and Sunday tours that guide you through the milling process and let you climb to the upper floors of the windmill.

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8. Wander around a neon temple

Is this place an art installation? A scrapyard? Whatever you want to call God’s Own Junkyard, your eyes will be stimulated in this neon-filled warehouse that gathers the work of the Braceys, a family that can lay claim to four generations in the neon sign-making trade. You’ll find everything from seedy Soho shop signs to props from Hollywood movies like Blade Runner. While neon signs have declined in widespread use since the 1980s, they’re anything but faded away here.

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9. Ride the Mail Rail

You might think you know the London Underground – but did you know there’s another train line deep beneath the streets of London? In the early 1900s, the Post Office built a 6.5-mile train line between Paddington and Whitechapel to carry 4.5 million pieces of post a day (at least, in the Royal Mail’s heyday). Defunct since 2003, the Mail Rail is now open as a public attraction for visitors to climb aboard – and is a fun way of finding out the hard work behind the scenes. 

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10. Suffer the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret

This museum is not for the squeamish. Based up in the garret at St Thomas’s Church near London Bridge, it transports you back to the gruesome days of pre-anaesthetic medicine (think hacksaws, sawdust and lots of screaming). Once you’ve climbed the staircase, you’ll find all sorts of nineteenth-century surgical instruments and pathological specimens, all surrounded by tiered rows of seats where medical students would observe the surgeons at work. (Through knotted hands, we assume.)

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