Are you tired of the same old suggestions for what to do in London? Sure, Westminster Abbey and afternoon tea are lovely. But if you’re looking to escape the crowds, or need ideas for a return trip, try these non touristy things to do in London.
From historic pubs to gorgeous parks, there are endless options for exploring London off the beaten path. And best of all, most of these unique places to visit in London are totally free!
After you’ve dropped nearly £30 on a ticket to the Tower of London, your wallet will be grateful for a break.
You could easily fill a weekend with these 15 activities, or mix them into an existing itinerary. If you need a starting point, check out my detailed guide to spending 4 days in London.
Get stellar views over London without money or reservations
Why pay £30 or be limited by a reservation when you can get free panoramic views on your own time? Skip the Shard and Sky Garden, and check out One New Change or The Garden at 120.
Located just opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral, One New Change is a popular shopping and dining spot in the city. However, its free rooftop deck is often overlooked by tourists.
Simply take the elevator to the top and enjoy stellar views of the skyline, including St. Paul’s dome and the London Eye.
For a more comprehensive panorama, head to The Garden at 120. Opened in 2019, this 15th story rooftop offers incredible views of the Gherkin, Walkie Talkie, London Bridge, and other famous landmarks.
You’ll need to pass through a security screening to ride up, so leave your large bags behind.
Skip the Starbucks and pop into a cozy cafe
London has a thriving cafe scene that will delight coffee and brunch lovers from around the world. While the likes of Pret, Cafe Nero, and the ubiquitious Starbucks are speedy and servicable (though UK Starbucks is infamously poor quality), a cozy cafe break is well worth the time.
Some smaller cafes only serve drinks and pastries–both sweet and savory–but most will have at minimum a few “toasties” (toasted sandwiches) and perhaps granola or porridge. That being said, Londoners love a good brunch and the bigger cafes tend to have a full menu with anything from avocado toast to berry-laden pancakes.
Covent Garden and Soho have a large concentration of quality independent cafes, but you’ll find a gem in pretty much every London neighborhood.
Here are some of my favorite spots across the city:
Walk along the Thames in a non-touristy part of London
When most travelers think of walking along the River Thames, they picture the slice of Embankment with the iron lampposts or the bustling area near Tower Bridge. While these are nice spots to take in the scenery, the Thames is a very long river with plenty of off the beaten path sections.
If you have the time (or want to escape the crowds), you can glimpse parts of London that few tourists see. The Royal Victoria Dock Footbridge near the ExCeL building is one such spot, along with Bermondsey Beach, the Thames Tow Path in Twickenham, and the London Wetland Center in Putney.
Have a picnic on Primrose Hill
People flock to the city for expensive meals with a view. But if you want to do something different in London, grab some takeaway and head to Primrose Hill.
This 213 foot mound sits north of Regent’s Park, and it’s a popular spot with local families. From the top of the hill, you’ll have amazing views of the central London skyline. There’s not much seating up here, so bring a towel or jacket to sit on while you eat.
Afterwards, I recommend strolling through Regent’s Park or exploring nearby Camden and Kentish Town.
Search for street art in East London
The Big Smoke is famous for its art museums. But some of the most impressive works can be found on the streets of East London.
Brick Lane is brimming with everything from moody portraits to a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. A walking tour of Shoreditch will take you past colorful murals and a few Bansky works. And in nearby Hackney, you’ll find plenty of vibrant gems on Fish Island.
Dive into the world of antiquities collectors at the Sir John Soane Museum
Sir John Soane is the perfect example of how rich British people loved to travel the world collecting museum-grade antiques to display in their own homes. Apparently it was quite simple to purchase treasures like Egyptian sarcophagi and 10-foot-tall Grecian statues in the 1700s if you had the money.
Soane’s love of architecture and artifacts is our gain, however, as his home–preserved from the time of his death in 1837–is now a free entry museum that boggles the mind.
The place is absolutely stuffed with priceless finds, particularly sculpture work, and it’s all on display for close-up viewing. Wandering through the narrow corridors and peering into each room is a museum experience unlike any other I’ve had in my European travels.
Get off the beaten gallery path to appreciate artwork
London is home to world-class galleries that are free to enter, and I always recommend dropping into a few during your stay (the Tate Britain and National Gallery are my favorites). But there are loads of smaller spots to visit that don’t require craning your neck around hundreds of bodies and smartphones.
One such place is the Courtauld Gallery. Located in the gorgeous Somerset House, the pieces are displayed inside what was a school for artists and art historians. Each floor features works from different periods, with the crowning jewel being their collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings by artists including Seurat, Cézanne, and Van Gogh.
Other smaller galleries to check out include the Whitechapel Gallery and the Dulwich Picture Museum (which ties in nicely to the next spot on this list of non touristy things to do in London).
Go cottage-spotting in Dulwich Village
Most first time visitors stick to the city center. But if you’re visiting London for the second time, you should venture out to the charming southern neighborhoods.
If you want to see beautiful English cottages but don’t have time for a Cotswolds day trip, Dulwich Village is a decent substitute.
Take a train to North Dulwich station and walk south on Red Post Hill. This will lead you right into the heart of Dulwich Village.
Meander down Turney Road, Court Lane, and through Dulwich Park to spot the prettiest houses. And if you have time, stop into the beautiful Crown & Greyhound for a pint or some tea.
Grab lunch inside gorgeous Leadenhall Market
Harry Potter and architecture fans alike will fall in love with Leadenhall Market. This covered Victorian arcade was a Diagon Alley filming location. And between the cobblestone alleys and richly painted walls, you’ll wonder if you’ve somehow stepped back in time.
The market has a range of lunch options, from fast casual LEON to the refined Cheese at Leadenhall.
Having lunch in the business district is one of my favorite non touristy things to do in London. I love the bustling energy and the efficient service. It’s a completely different feel from the hectic, haphazard lunch spots near the major tourist attractions.
Enjoy a waterside stroll along Regent’s Canal
The Thames isn’t the only place in London for waterfront strolls. For an enjoyable, houseboat-lined walk, head to Regent’s Canal.
The canal stretches across the city from east to west, so there are several long stretches where you can walk along the canal. On the northeast side in Islington, you’ll find a long trail that runs all the way to Bethnal Green.
And if you’re near Camden, check out the path running from Camden Market to King’s Cross.
Visit a local pub for traditional Sunday roast
Going to an English pub is one of those London must do experiences. But if you want an authentic pub experience, head to a residential area on Sunday afternoon for a traditional roast.
For the uninitiated, Sunday roast consists of slow-roasted beef/pork/chicken (or sometimes chestnuts for a veg-friendly alternative), potatoes, root vegetables, gravy and Yorkshire pudding.
There are too many excellent neighborhood pubs to list here. Your best bet is to look on Google Maps for well-reviewed pubs in areas like Fulham, Hampstead, Dulwich, Balham, Islington, Bethnal Green… Whichever area you’re closest to on your Sunday travels.
I recently splashed out on a Michelin-starred Sunday roast at The Harwood Arms and thoroughly recommend it (just be sure to make a reservation well in advance)!
Save me for later!
Lose track of time in a beautiful London bookshop
In a city known for literary history, you’d be crazy not to visit a bookshop. Even if you aren’t a book lover, the beautiful interiors are worth a peek.
Daunt Books (the Marylebone location) is a feast for the eyes, with a gorgeous wooden staircase and dark shelves. Hatchards in Picaddily is another old world gem with charming nooks and crannies, along with a section of rare antique books.
But my personal favorite is John Sandoe Books near Sloane Square. The facade is picture-perfect, and the interior feels like you’re exploring a curated, loving home for books.
I also recommend hitting up a few of London’s secondhand bookshops to score old editions and beautifully bound novels. I’m a big fan of Any Amount of Books in Leicester Square and Hurlingham Books in Fulham.
Meander through one of London’s historic graveyard trails
Visiting a graveyard is probably not high on your list of things to do in London. But if you can get over the creepy factor, there are some hauntingly beautiful walks that will take you past centuries-old tombstones and dense foliage.
The best known is Highgate Cemetery in leafy north London, where you’ll find the graves of affluent Londoners as well as a number of famous authors including George Eliot and Douglas Adams. Rumors of ghosts and vampires persist through the ages, and it’s utterly creepy when the shadows start to thicken.
A less spooky option is Putney Vale Cemetery. It’s one of my favorite places to walk in the autumn thanks to its bright foliage and connection to Putney Heath.
Wander around the posh streets of Belgravia
Who says sightseeing is limited to famous landmarks? To me, the best non touristy things to do in London are roaming the gorgeous residential neighborhoods. And Belgravia is the epitome of posh London charm.
You can do a circular route from Victoria Station, with highlights like Grosvenor Gardens Mews (pictured above), Moyses Stevens’ flower-laden door, and the ultra-charming Wilton Row.
Belgravia is also home to some of the best places to buy gifts in London, including Les Senteurs perfumery and Rococo Chocolates.
Score tickets to a local football match
Brits are mad about football, and each team has their own devoted fan base. The special songs and chants specific to each team make matches extra fun and interactive.
But this love of football means getting tickets to Premier league games nearly impossible for visitors, as the tickets typically sell out to members before public access opens up. Luckily, there are five different football leagues in English football (and more sub-levels) with over 100 clubs in total, so there are lots of options to catch a game in person.
Unfortunately, each club has their own way of operating ticket sales, so it’s a bit confusing if you’re a tourist trying to find tickets! Your best bet is to go to the club’s official website and look for the “general sale” option for tickets. Usually you’ll pay for the tickets online and then pick them up at the stadium’s collection window.
Rock out to live music in Brixton
London’s music scene isn’t just about musicals and symphony concerts. For a dose of urban cool, head to Brixton for dinner and a concert.
If you’re in need of things for teenagers to do in London, I recommend catching a show at the Brixton O2 Academy. They tend to have a mix of up-and-coming and established bands, and you can check what’s on here.
Shop for handmade goods on Brick Lane
Tired of the touristy shops selling fridge magnets and tiny tea sets? Head to Brick Lane for one-of-a-kind, locally made items.
There are dozens of shops along the road itself, but my favorite spot is the Brick Lane Backyard Market. The vendors here sell everything from handmade jewelry to funky animal portraits. And if you get hungry, grab some street food from around the corner.
Rent a paddleboat in Battersea Park
Battersea Park is one of those locals-only secret spots in London. Tourists don’t often cross the river to South London, which means fewer crowds clogging the park’s pathways.
Aside from enjoying the beautiful gardens, you can rent a swan paddleboat for a leisurely trip around the pond. I promise the queue will be shorter than the one in Hyde Park!
Take a dip in the outdoor pools of Hampstead Heath
Of all the quirky things to do in London, going for a swim in murky brown water is high up on the list. And yet, you’ll find locals bathing here almost year-round.
Note that there are multiple ponds: one is mixed, one is ladies only, and one is for men. There’s not much in the way of facilities or lockers, so it’s best if you can have a lookout for your stuff.
Admission is quite affordable at £4.25 (as of 2023), making it one of the best cheap things to do in London in summer. Note that the pond operates a booking system in the summer which you can access online.
Take a morning walk (or horseback ride) around Richmond Park
Between the sprawling green space and roaming deer, you’d never guess that Richmond Park is a short journey from the city center. Taking a walk/run/bike/horseback ride through the winding trails is one of the best fun active things to do in London.
I recommend an early morning visit, as that’s when the deer are most active. For photographers, I can’t think of a more magical photo opportunity than a deer at golden hour surrounded by trees and fog.
Enjoy a Regency-era stroll through the water gardens and woodlands of Bushy Park
Despite being situated along the border of ultra-touristy Hampton Court Palace, Bushy Park is one of the most tranquil places in the city. It also happens to be London’s second-largest Royal Park.
Like it’s larger neighbor Richmond Park, you’ll find herds of deer roaming the open fields on the east side. But the real hidden gem is the Woodland Gardens, which feature a serene mix of duck-dotted canals, flower beds, and stone bridges.
The northwest corner of Bushy Park is home to the Water Gardens, where the large fountain and landscaping retains its Regency-era layout.
I recommend walking the entire width of the park from Kingston to Hampton Hill and rounding out the adventure with coffee or a meal at either end.
Transport yourself to Thailand at Buddhapadipa Temple
Usually I’m the one scouting out unique places to visit in London, but credit for this discovery goes to my husband. Tucked away in a residental area of Wimbledon, Buddhapadipa Temple is an impressive and welcoming place that follows the Theravada tradition of Buddhism.
The grounds and temple interior are open to the public regardless of religion, and it’s one of the few places in the UK where you can see this type of Thai architecture. Strolling along the walking paths and over the stream is wonderfully peaceful.
Discover the London hidden gem that is Wimbledon Village
As a Londoner who longs for cozy villages and open fields, I find myself returning to Wimbledon Village again and again. It’s an absolute gem of a spot, even if you don’t have the means to splash out like the posh locals.
Located just north of bustling Wimbledon proper, the village and surrounding green spaces feel a world away from the frenzy of tennis and the ever-busy District line. There are centuries-old pubs with laid-back lawn chair seating, phenomenal brunch spots (like Demitasse), and similar to Dulwich, there are plenty of pretty cottages to spot.
Cannizaro Park is a particular favorite, especially when the flowers are bursting with color in late spring and summer. And for those willing to drop some cash, the main street is lined with high end shops for fashion, beauty, and specialty foodstuffs.
Set aside half a day to properly explore Kew Gardens
Including Kew Gardens on a list of non-touristy London activities feels a bit silly, but after speaking with a number of international tourists I realized it’s only the Brits who seem to give Kew it’s full due.
Kew (a.k.a. the Royal Botanic Gardens) is absolutely a UK bucket list destination–as evidenced by the 4.7 stars and 40,000+ Google reviews–but you really need at least 4 hours to truly appreciate everything it has to offer.
At more than 300 acres, it has everything from multi-story glass greenhouses to an 18th century cottage plucked straight from a fairytale. Every season has something special on offer, from the spring bluebell fields to the brilliant autumn foliage at the Japanese garden.
With nearby Richmond town center (of Ted Lasso fame) just down the road, you can easily turn the trip into a full day of nature, good food, and shopping.
Chow down on excellent Japanese food in Leicester Square
Japanese restaurants may seem like unusual places to go in London. But some of the city’s best cheap eats can be had in Leicester Square.
For down-to-earth curry and katsu, head to the Tokyo Diner. Misato is excellent for affordable sushi and fun taiyaki ice cream. And for Japanese comfort food with a twist, check out Machiya (and be sure to order the tsukemono).
Other Tips for Exploring London Off the Beaten Path
When you’re traveling a massive metropolis, you’ll need all the support you can get. Here are some extra resources for helping you safely find and access these non touristy things to do in London.
- 31 London Sightseeing Tips From A Local
- London Itinerary: 4 Days of Highlights and Hidden Gems
- The Best Cheap Eats in London
- 21 Easy Day Trips from London by Train
My Favorite London Travel Planning Books
These books win my travel blogger Seal of Approval for vacation planning: