Buckingham Palace? Westminster Abbey? Pah! Getting the most out of London means enjoying some of its lesser-known treasures – here we’ve handpicked 10, all within walking distance of one of our six city hostels.
Grant Museum of Zoology
Perhaps best known for its Instagram-trending jar of moles (improbably, 18 specimens are preserved in the same glass vessel), University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology stands as a veritable Noah’s Ark of creatures great and small. Its 68,000 zoological items represent one of the UK’s oldest and most eccentric natural history collections, with highlights including dodo bones and the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger. Entrance to the museum is free, but be aware that it’s only open from 1pm to 5pm, and closed on Sundays.
Where is it? 21 University Street (13 mins walk from YHA London St Pancras)
Sister Ray Records
The comeback of vinyl records has been one of the biggest music industry stories of recent years, and committed crate-diggers will be well served by Soho’s near-legendary Sister Ray Records. Self-billed as “the world’s most visited record store”, and also selling CDs, it nonetheless retains the feel of the kind of tucked-away music store you’d only stumble across by chance. It’s named after a 17-minute-long Velvet Underground song, which tells you plenty about the pleasingly off-kilter approach it takes to the titles in stock.
Where is it? 75 Berwick Street (2 mins walk from YHA London Oxford Street)
Mention the Barbican, and most of us would think of its brutalist architecture and its busy performing arts schedule. Less celebrated is its large conservatory – the second biggest in London, no less – which plays home to more than 1,500 species of plants and trees, as well as exotic fish and a general aura of having stumbled into the sub-tropics. Opening times are notoriously restrictive (mainly Sunday afternoons, with some Saturdays too) but it’s well worth factoring into a weekend itinerary. Guided tours begin again in April.
Where is it? Silk Street (19 mins walk from YHA London St Paul’s)
Stave Hill Ecological Park
A fine example of how an urban area can be sculpted for the benefit of nature, Stave Hill Ecological Park is a 5.2-acre site which is part nature reserve, part educational facility, part research area and part recreational space. Woodlands, grasslands, wetlands and scrub are all incorporated, which in turn help to attract wildlife. The park is kept in good nick by volunteers, and you’re welcome to bolster their efforts – they usually meet on the second Saturday of the month from 11am to 3.30pm.
Where is it? Timber Pond Road (5 mins walk from YHA London Thameside)
Word On The Water
London has plenty of bookshops where you’d happily fritter away an hour – from Notting Hill’s charming Lutyens & Rubinstein to the cornucopia of maps and travelogues that is Covent Garden’s Stanfords – but Word On The Water is up there with the best of them. Occupying a restored 1920s Dutch canal barge, its shelves are piled high with new and second-hand books. Expect dark wooden floorboards, burbling music and an urge to leave with a bag full of new reads.
Where is it? Regent’s Canal Towpath (12 mins walk from YHA London St Pancras)
Who needs the Alps? Taking the notion of an indoor climbing centre then plummeting the thermometer to minus five degrees, Vertical Chill offers real ice-climbing at its eight-metre indoor ice wall in central London. Aimed at beginners and experts alike, it provides tuition (generally in one-hour sessions) and all necessary equipment. It’s at the back of the Ellis Brigham store in Covent Garden. Very cool, in more senses than one.
Where is it? 10-12 Southampton Street (18 mins walk from YHA London Oxford Street)
The wider Earl’s Court area plays home to some great little attractions – examples being the Tardis-like blue police box outside the Tube and, on Cromwell Road, Alfred Hitchcock’s former home – but they’re dwarfed by the appeal of the not-so-little Design Museum. Voted European Museum of the Year in 2018, its extensive collection is devoted to contemporary design in all its forms, from graphics and architecture to fashion and everyday products. Permanent displays are free – temporary exhibitions are ticketed.
Where is it? 224-238 Kensington High Street (18 mins walk from YHA London Earl’s Court)
Pollock’s Toy Museum
A remnant of the 1960s, and still going strong in its quiet location in Fitzrovia, Pollock’s Toy Museum squeezes a widespread display of mainly Victorian toys into six small rooms and two winding staircases. The collection is very much a labour of love, and is still family-operated, with tin soldiers, dolls’ houses, teddy bears and puppets all getting a look-in. It’s child-friendly, needless to say, but is best suited to slightly older kids – who might be flabbergasted that there are no tablets or smartphones on show.
Where is it? 1 Scala Street (8 mins walk from YHA London Central)
You’ll likely be familiar with the irregularly shaped 38-floor tower at 20 Fenchurch Street, which has passed into common parlance as The Walkie Talkie, but it’s more than something to point at. It’s also something to point from, thanks to the glass dome and wrapround views at its summit. Sky Garden describes itself as London’s highest public garden, with observation decks, landscaped gardens and an open-air terrace to back up the claim. It’s free, but you’ll need to book your tickets ahead of time.
Where is it? 20 Fenchurch Street (16 mins walk from YHA London St Paul’s)
It was back in the 1820s when a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel started work on his first major project, overseen by his father: a tunnel underneath the Thames. Fast forward to today and the space has been repurposed as a museum that tells the story of one of the most famous engineering families of all time. Highlights include the Grand Entrance Hall, a subterranean chamber that was turned into the world’s first underground theatre, and an exhibition on the SS Great Eastern, the first modern ocean liner.