London – Off the beaten track

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London is such a large and vibrant city; there is way too much to do in one visit and you’ll be coming back again and again, especially when you find out about some of the more hidden sites that are worth a visit.
When I was younger my mum would take me to London on the occasional weekend. We’d spend all day on the tube, visiting galleries, museums and antique shops, usually stopping for lunch in a lovely little Italian bistro off a Piccadilly side street (which is unfortunately no longer open). If I was lucky, she’d take me to the Disney store that used to be on Regent Street. Once she bought me fairy wings and a wand that have been documented for posterity in an old Christmas Polaroid.
I suppose I was easily pleased as a child. As an adult, the Disney store will no longer cut it. Despite having been to London so many times, there are still so many areas that are new to me and I discover amazing things to do all the time, especially when you walk rather than taking the tube!

A balloon sculpture in Covent Garden
A balloon sculpture in Covent Garden

This is a run-through of some of the secret and not-so-secret sites and attractions I visited on my last trip to London. There will be some old favourites included, some surprises, and some places may just remind you that you’ve always wanted to go there.

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The first sight that greeted me on my way into London…Changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, complete with brass band!

Food and Drink Highlights

Wong Kei (41-43 Wardour St, London W1D 6PY)

My favourite Chinese restaurant, the place I learnt to use chopsticks and appreciate Asian cuisine. We’ve been coming again and again since friends introduced us to this gem when I was still in primary school. It’s a ritual we had to comply with for our first meal in the capital! The service isn’t great, the staff are grumpy and you may have to sit with other people, but the food is good and plentiful and reasonably priced. The brusqueness of staff has, if anything, heightened the cult status of this restaurant and it’s never been bad enough to put me off my meal. I just smile, bemused, and continue ordering my Chinese feast. My childhood favourite were the Singapore vermicelli noodles, but I’ve branched out since. Come with an empty belly!

Yalla Yalla (12 Winsley Street, London W1W 8HQ or there’s also a Green Court location)

A friend whose husband works in the city took me to this restaurant a while back and I had to revisit it on this trip with my mum. It serves Lebanese and Middle-Eastern food, which I feel has a bad reputation for just being about kebabs, but this place is so much more. We ordered the hummus topped with chicken shawarma, the soujoc sausage (my absolute favourite) and the halloum meshoue (grilled halloumi) as starters and the kreidis meshoue (chargrilled tiger prawns) as a main, all to share. The starters came with pitta breads and pickles and the main came with rice. The drinks looked pretty amazing too – I had a watermelon lemonade to drink and would quite happily have stayed for their cocktails with a Middle-Eastern slant (the Turkish Delight Martini sounds tantilizing).

Kipferl (20 Camden Passage, London, N1 8ED or there’s also a Ladbroke Grove location)

We only had a coffee in this modern Viennese café, but the smells coming from the breakfasts around us were amazing. One look at the food menu made me wish I was hungry and quickly add this to me to-do list on my next trip to London. They even serve Kaiserschmarren a thick, shredded pancake with raisins and morello cherries. It’s my delicious dessert nemesis because it’s so filling and my eyes are always bigger than my stomach. I’ll have to come back for it!

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Borough Market, busy on Saturdays

New Forest Cider at Borough Market (Rochester Walk, 8 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1TL)

A bar in the midst of very popular and busy Borough Market. I’ve been to the Market before, but only discovered this little cider bar on my last trip. There was such a flurry of activity and so many people (it was a Saturday…) that it took a while for me to find this little gem. There’s a fridge of bottled ciders to take home (which I did), but you can also get pints of the cask cider filled into containers for you to take away, or trial a few ciders standing at the bar and watch the people go by!

The English Restaurant (50/52 Brushfield Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6AG)

This family-run restaurant and wine bar in Spitalfields is such a welcoming and comfortable place, I could have happily stayed all night. Its oak-panelled walls, laid-back atmosphere together with the wine and food selection make up a perfect mix of French and English. We turned in to get out of the rain and stayed for a couple of glasses of wine (they do serve beer too). This is another restaurant I’ll have to come back to to sample the menu! The oyster fritters, sautéed octopus salad and spiced bean pottage on their menu sounds right up my street. Their bar snacks didn’t look half bad either, with cold cuts and cheeses to nibble on with your wine or beer. They also serve breakfast and high tea.

Attractions

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Amazing snake-like cacti at Kew
Hibiscus plants in the tropical greenhouse at KEw
Hibiscus flowers in the tropical greenhouse at Kew
Chillies at Kew
Chillies at Kew

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB)

I’m almost ashamed to say that I’d never been here before, but if I’m honest walking around all day to look at plants really wouldn’t have been my thing as a child. Luckily, nowadays if you are going to visit Kew Gardens with children, they have plenty of fun workshops and things to do for kids! For me as an adult it’s a slice of heaven. I took more photos at Kew than I did for the whole trip! It’s a very inspiring place and appeals to so many of my interests – gardening, drawing, history (in the form of Kew Palace), other cultures (the Japanese Minka house), food (the cafes put out some amazing spreads). I loved exploring life in the tops of the trees on the Treetop Walkway and looking at all the vegetables in the Kew Palace kitchen garden. It’s definitely a place to come back to time after time, as the seasons change new flowers and plants will bloom and make it a completely different experience. I, for one, can’t wait to come back when the rhododendrons are in full bloom so I can see Kew in a blast of colour.

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The Tudor Palace courtyard, complete with a replica of a free wine fountain!
The gounds at Hampton Court with the BBC Good Food Show
The gounds at Hampton Court with the BBC Good Food Show

Hampton Court Palace (East Molesey, Surrey KT8 9AU)

Another attraction I’d never been to, Hampton Court Palace was a wonderful day out. When I say day, I mean a full day. The reason I’d never been is that I usually plan day trips to London and a trip to Hampton Court would be a squeeze if you’re not staying overnight. We were there from 11am – 5pm and still didn’t see everything! We did spend an hour browsing the BBC Good Food Show stalls which was going on while we were there and having lunch, and we did manage to see all the exhibitions but sadly missed out on some of the gardens and, most importantly, the maze. What I loved most of all was the free audio guide that leads you around four varied and interesting exhibitions (three about Hendry VIII and one about William and Mary). I doubt I would have learned at much without the audio guide. All of the exhibitions show a great mixture of costume, culinary, architectural, garden and British history. But I must come back for the maze!

Shops

Spicy Chocolate loose leaf tea from Kusmi Tea shop on Marylebone High Street
Spicy Chocolate loose leaf tea from Kusmi Tea shop on Marylebone High Street

Kusmi Tea Shop (15 Marylebone High St, London W1U)

I first discovered Kusmi Tea in a little tea shop in Germany and have been keeping a variety of their teas stocked in my tea cupboard ever since. I love the variety of blends they offer and the colourful vintage-style tins they come in. I found the Kusmi shop in London when I was staying in Marylebone for the British Summer Time festival and stocked up on the violet black tea blend straight away; I’d run out and hadn’t been able to find it anywhere. All their teas are great, but my favourites so far are the violet, spicy chocolate, Polish earl grey (all black tea), jasmine and imperial label (both green tea) blends. The shop stocks all the teas in small and large tins, tea bags, loose leaf and it also has a selection of tea-making implements, like teapots and timers.

Camden Passage (Camden Passage, London, N1 8ED)

Camden Passage in Islington is a great place to while away a Saturday morning in London. Browse the little antique shops and stalls to find vintage prints and jewellery, and pop into the design stores to pick up something unique for your home. There’s also a great yarn shop here, called Loop, which has a dazzling array of hand-dyed yarns (but I warn you, they’re not cheap). There’s even a Penhaligon’s perfume shop if you want to get your hands on a unique scent. When you’re done browsing, pop into one of the little cafes that line the street, or there are plenty of restaurants to choose from.

Knit with Attitude (127 Stoke Newington High St, London N16 0PH)

This shop really is off the beaten track in Stoke Newington. You’ll have to take the Overground or the Bus to get there but I think it’s worth it for eco-friendly and hand-dyed wool and the quirky design pieces they also stock. The wool is expensive, but you’d expect that for a handmade product. I would buy wool here to make extra special pieces for myself or loved-ones.

Chilling out with a beer on the boat back from Hampton Court
Chilling out with a beer on the boat back from Hampton Court

What are your favourite things to do in London? Are there any attractions or shops that in your opinion I shouldn’t miss next time? I’m always looking for new things to do, so please let me know!

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