The shorter days and frosty mornings that accompany us through a London winter are no reason to avoid exploring your city — but it’s useful to know where you can defrost.
Here are five quieter places that are open later during the week…
Is your favourite on the list? If not, let me know and I will pay a visit!
1. Visit the Treasures Gallery at the British Library
The quietest time to visit the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery — possibly the most impressive collection of books and manuscripts on show in the UK — is undoubtedly during a weekday evening.
Highlights for me include one of Henry VIII’s letters to Anne Boleyn, Jane Austen’s notebook, and Isaac Newton’s letter to Samuel Pepys.
I’ll leave it to a visitor on Tripadvisor to sum up why this place is so incredible: “Where else can you see the original Magna Carta and the original handwritten lyrics to Ticket to Ride across the room from each other?”
Get a move on when you finish work and get to John Sandoe Books for a while before it closes at 6.30pm.
The shelves of this traditional bookshop (housed in an 18th-century building) are filled with every book imaginable and the staff are very knowledgeable and friendly — it’s a local bookshop in central London.
I dare you not to leave with at least one book…
Late opening times: Monday to Saturday until 6.30pm
Follow the Grand Union Canal up towards Alperton and Sudbury and the Grand Union Canal gets really residential.
In autumn, it comes into its own and you can follow the canal up to Horsenden Hill, where you can get away from civilisation completely, accompanied by brilliant views over Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
If Hampstead Heath seems a bit busy on a weekend, then head to Waterlow Park in Highgate instead.
The park’s great views over London are complemented by Lauderdale House — the 16th-century former home of the notorious Duke of Lauderdale. It’s thought that King Charles II stayed here with Nell Gwynn, his long-standing mistress.
Discover a little-known underground museum in Tower Hill
Where? All Hallows by the Tower crypt museum
You wouldn’t expect there to be anything little-known anywhere near the Tower of London, especially something that is so integrated with the Tower’s history, but All Hallows by the Tower is just that.
Head down to the crypt of this small church — which is also the oldest church in the City of London — and you’ll find a free museum with a collection of Roman and Saxon artefacts (including a Roman floor). The crypt itself also dates from the Saxon period.
Opening times: Monday to Friday, 8am-5pm (until 6pm April-October); Saturday to Sunday, 10am-5pm
There’s nothing quite like relaxing in a quiet coffee shop with a book, the papers or your trusty laptop, is there?
To me this is one of life’s great pleasures, but it can be hard to find a decent (let alone quiet) coffee shop or cafè in London in which do this.
So I’ve selflessly been spending the last few weeks drinking copious amounts of tea to unearth some of the best hidden gems in or around central London. Purely for research purposes, you understand…
Is your favourite hidden gem on the list? I’d love to know what you think. Let me know in the comments or drop me a message…
The Foundling Museum Cafè, Bloomsbury
This inspiring cafè on the side of the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury is pretty under-the-radar.
But you can’t help but be creative in this peaceful space, surrounded by a specially-commissioned mural by poet Lemn Sissay MBE, which ties the cafè with its museum’s theme of orphans and childhood nicely.
For decent food, beautiful gardens and a park next door, plus a mug of tea for £1, head to Park Life Cafè next to Chumleigh Gardens in Burgess Park, Southwark.
It’s clear that the locals love this place and you can see why. It’s easy to feel at home here and the staff are really friendly.
Before or after your cuppa, head through the gate to the right of the cafè to see the beautiful Chumleigh Gardens (including the multicultural garden — a secret garden within the secret garden…) or head left for a stroll through Burgess Park.
Opening times: Monday to Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday 10am-5pm
Nearest Tube: Elephant and Castle
Address: Burgess Park, 3 Chumleigh St, London SE5 0RJ
Can you believe that you can sit under this and have coffee?
Not only is Host Cafè set in the stunning St Mary Aldermary church, it also opens at 7.15am and has free wifi. Their teas and coffees are from independent producers, their pastries are brought in on a bicycle.
For lunch, there are organic soups or homemade pates on offer, or you can bring a packed lunch with you. Can this place get any more charming? I don’t think so.
Opening times: Monday to Friday: 7.15am-4.45 pm (until 4.30pm on Monday and Friday)
The coffee house of the Charterhouse in Clerkenwell is one of the lightest, brightest and spacious that I’ve been into. The food is delicious and there’s free wifi on offer, as well as lots of natural daylight.
Tate Britain’s cafè is as cool and slick as you’d expect for London’s most famous art gallery.
They roast their own coffee beans on site and they focus on regional produce for their drinks: the soda is from Hackney, the cola is from Northumberland and the apple juice is pressed on a Gloucestershire farm.
Take a few moments to look around you at the second church café on our list — an 18th-century brick-vaulted ceiling awaits above your head and tombstones line the floor beneath your feet.
Back on the tables, you’ll have a choice of home-made hot meals as well as teas, coffees and cakes at great value for café that’s smack-bang in tourist central. Go early in the day to beat the lunch and dinner rush, and bear in mind they have live music on Wednesday nights.
I found this place by accident on a walking tour of Vauxhall, and instantly fell in love.
Not only is it on the side of the independent Beaconsfield art gallery, it also serves great coffee and ethically sourced and seasonal vegetarian comfort food in a retro and spacious location (with free wifi).
If you fancy a wander around the building, there is progressive art available to view for free and magazines/newspapers if you forget your book.
A little bit farther out than most of the other cafès on this list, the tea room at William Morris’ childhood home is bathed in daylight and has lovely gardens attached to it if you fancy eating in the fresh air.
They serve lovely afternoon teas, fresh food from local producers and some of the biggest scones I’ve ever seen.
Once you’ve finished eating your way through that, make sure you check out the gallery itself, which is free and gives a fantastic insight into his life and work.
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-4.30pm
Nearest Tube: Walthamstow Central
Address: Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London, E17 4PP
When I pushed open the heavy door of the oldest Catholic church in England, I really didn’t know what to expect.
The door to the 13th-century church is hemmed in by office buildings either side, on a gated road behind Hatton Garden in Holborn. This already means it’s pretty quiet, but inside the church I literally could have heard a pin drop, plus I was the only one in there.
If you’re ever in the Holborn area, visit this hidden gem for break from everything.
Opening times: Monday to Saturday, 8am-5pm; Sunday: 8am-12.30pm
Forget the British Museum — the best place to see the product of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology is the Petrie Museum at University College London.
This small museum is hidden away in the museum buildings and you can see 8,000 objects completely free — not that many other people know about it. Alongside the Grant Museum of Zoology, it’s one of Bloomsbury’s most peaceful hidden gems.
A few Saturdays ago, I joined forces with Saira from Living London (if you haven’t read her blog yet, you really should) and a few other London bloggers to explore the quieter side of some of south London’s busiest areas: Waterloo, Lambeth and Vauxhall.
Along the way, we discovered a poet’s paradise underneath abandoned railway arches, a city farm full of strange birds and Banksy’s “secret” tunnel. Here are my highlights — check Saira’s wanderings page for upcoming tours of her other London secrets…
The Graffiti Tunnel, Leake Street
Created by Banksy during the Cans Festival in 2008, The Graffiti Tunnel is a spectacle for anyone with even the remotest interest in street art. It’s completely legal and anyone can paint here — it’s so popular that you can come here a few days apart and see very different artwork in the same spot.
It’s definitely not crowded and worth a visit if you want something off the beaten track in this tourist-heavy area — but if you’re hoping for a serene paradise, maybe skip this one…
This tiny garden, art gallery and event space sits just behind St Thomas’ Hospital and the banks of the River Thames. You’d have to know it was here to find it, which made it a great pit-stop for our walk.
Old Paradise Yard was once a school for the children of Lower Marsh traders before it became a Tibetan Buddhist centre. The old school rooms have been turned into studios and they also host a cafe and evening events, but it was so peaceful here during the day on the Saturday we visited.
“Mosaic is a metaphor for London: all the peoples, tribes, creeds, colours, clans, cultures, faiths and freedoms coming together to make a brilliant whole.”
Another tunnel (or, more accurately, another four tunnels), this time demonstrating Londoners’ ability to make something beautiful out of the dingiest of places. The 70 stunning mosaics within the railway arches of Lambeth were created by 300 volunteers over a period of seven years and you could spend a whole afternoon reflecting on them.
The connection with William Blake is a local one — the poet lived round the corner for 10 years from 1790 to 1800. In 1809, he wrote that he wanted his art enlarged and displayed in a public space — two centuries later, Southbank Mosaics have made his wish a reality.
Our last stop on our wandering was a bit of a surprise for everyone — we definitely saved the best ’til last. Owing to the popularity of our planned final pit-stop, the Tea House Theatre, we were forced to look elsewhere for a well-deserved rest. But, as is often the way, in our search for somewhere else we found a wonderful hidden gem to add to our repertoires.
The Ragged Canteen is set in the old Lambeth Ragged School building, serving delicious vegetarian food (with vegan/gluten-free options), Monmouth coffee and fairtrade tea. They have free wifi so it’s perfect for getting work done, but it was also the ideal spot for five bloggers who just wanted to swap stories.
You don’t have to battle the crowds in South Kensington for the best and most beautiful free museums in London; the capital is replete with quieter, unique places to explore that won’t cost a penny to visit. Here are 25 of my favourites.
Note: While these London museums are officially ‘free’, some do ask for a small donation on the way out to help them continue their work. So if you enjoyed it, pop them whatever you can afford to say thanks.
The Wallace Collection, Marylebone
The Wallace Collection was one of the first quiet places I visited when I moved to London, so it’s kind of special for me. Set in Hertford House, a beautiful central London town house, The Wallace Collection is made up of 18th and 19th-century works of art.
Opening times: 10am-5pm daily, including bank holidays
As the name suggests, this historic house in Walthamstow charts the life and work of the famous interiors artist William Morris. The building was Morris’s family home during his school years and is now dedicated to his contribution to the arts and crafts movement of the 19th century.
Highlights include the stunning gardens, the rooms dedicated to his relationships and socialism, and of course the tea room (where you can buy possibly the biggest scones in north London).
Opening times: 10am-5pm, Wednesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays
Burgh House holds 300 years of history, having been built during the reign of Queen Anne. It’s also the location for Hampstead Museum, which charts the area’s development from a settlement for forest hunters in 7000 BC to a luxury haven in the present day.
Opening times: 12pm-5pm, Wednesday to Friday and Sunday
Commissioned by Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge was built in 1543. Typically of Henry, it was built to be grander than anything that had come before: it was known as the ‘Great Standing’, owing to the fact that it was the only three-floor standing in England. There’s no evidence that Great Harry ever visited, but there’s an intriguing legend linking the building with his daughter (and its namesake)…
Valentines Mansion, a stunning 17th century house in Valentines Park, Ilford, was built for Elizabeth Tillotson, the widow of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1696. Added-to and renovated in Georgian times, it stood empty for 15 years before being transformed again into the house you can visit (for free!) today.
Opening times: Tuesday and Sunday (closed every winter until February)
If you love peering into pretty living rooms on Pinterest, then take a trip to Hoxton and The Geffrye Museum of the Home where you can indulge your passion for interiors (and see another, more down-to-earth side of Hoxton).
Opening times: 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm Bank Holiday Mondays
The 13th-century Bethlem Royal Hospital was the first UK institution to specialise in the care of the mentally ill continues to provide care today. This unique free museum within the hospital buildings charts the lives and accomplishments of those with mental health problems.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Wednesday to Friday (except public holidays) and the first and last Saturday of the month
When Michael Faraday took over this lab in the basement of the Royal Institution in the 1820s, he probably didn’t realise that it would be turned into a museum dedicated to his legacy almost 200 years later. But so it was, and the collection now includes many exhibits that were used by Faraday himself, including the electromagnet above, which was used in an experiment to show that light and glass are affected by magnetism.
Opening times: 9am-6pm Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays)
This small but perfectly formed (and free) museum in UCL’s buildings houses everything from a penguin skeleton to half a cat and a corner of insects; all from London Zoo, The Hunterian Museum and Imperial College London.
Not strictly a museum, but one of the finest (and oldest) historical buildings in London. The Guildhall was the setting for Lady Jane Grey’s trial as well as many other medieval defendants, and sits on top of a Roman amphitheatre.
Nowadays it’s used for state and civic banquets, as well as being the home of the City of London Corporation, and its great hall, art gallery and the amphitheatre can all be visited for free.
Opening times: 10am-4.30pm daily (not open on Sundays during the winter)
St Bartholomew’s Hospital has been treating the sick for almost 900 years and is now one of the world’s most prestigious museums. The museum of the same name is hidden beneath Henry VIII’s statue in the Hospital’s North Wing and includes hundreds of medical artefacts, surgical equipment, 12th-century documents, art and uniforms charting nine centuries of medical history.
As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to the history of dentistry. Among its 30,000-piece collection are Waterloo teeth (teeth taken from bodies from the Battle of Waterloo and sold as dentures) and some vintage public health information films and posters.
East London’s version of the Natural History Museum is a bit out of the way, but you don’t have to go into central London to visit it. Get your fill of natural history in a quieter setting at this Forest Hill gem.
Its big sister may be packed come weekends, but the V&A Museum of Childhood should be far enough away from central London to put off rowdy tourists. As its name suggests, this collection in Bethnal Green charts the evolution of everything from intricate Victorian dolls houses and paintings to Lego and He-Man – and even the trusty space hopper.
The third natural history museum on the list and probably the lesser-known. This small but full-to-the-brim museum contains thousands of jarred specimens and skeletons: everything from the 7ft 7ins ‘Irish Giant’, human brains and a plaster cast of Isaac Newton’s death mask.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday (CLOSED 20th May 2017 until summer 2020)
The Royal London Hospital Museum was founded in 1740 and, like St Bart’s, it has a museum dedicated to its history. Highlights (for want of a better word) include a carbon arc lamp used to give ultraviolet light treatment to King George V in 1928 and a replica of a hat and veil worn by Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’) who stayed at the hospital.
Opening times: 10am-4.30pm Tuesday to Friday (closed over Christmas, New Year, Easter and public holidays)
The Petrie Museum’s website promises that it’s the ‘one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world’ and the 80,000 ancient artefacts in University College London would certainly take some beating. It’s hard to believe this packed series of rooms is free to visit but free it is.
Maybe it’s the fact that its huge collection has been left untouched, exactly as Sir John Soane left it, for over 180 years. Maybe it’s Londoners’ love of eccentric obsession. Either way, this time capsule charting one man’s love of art continues to gain in popularity.
If you can get in, you’ll be treated to an extraordinary collection of artwork from world-famous artists such as Hogarth, Turner and Canaletto.
Freemasonry might not be at the top of every London bucket list, but dig a bit deeper into this central London gem (it’s just round the corner from Holborn and a short walk from Covent Garden) to see items belonging to popular figures such as Winston Churchill and Edward VII.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Monday to Friday except public holidays
Its Painted Hall — designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor — has been described as ‘the Sistine Chapel of the UK,’ so there’s at least one reason to visit this south-east London landmark if you haven’t already. On show in the visitor centre are Tudor objects excavated from the old Greenwich Palace, the secret of Greenwich’s own nuclear reactor, and the history of the site as a refuge for old and injured sailors.
Winter opening times: 10am-5pm daily
Nearest station: Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich