London: Unearth the unexpected

Venture off the well-trod path to experience England’s cosmopolitan capital like a local.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
Read Caption

London is a treasure trove of unique experiences and unusual discoveries. Each neighborhood has it's own charm and flavor.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James

Life in London, the culture capital of the United Kingdom, unfolds far beyond the walls of Buckingham Palace. While tourists typically flock to the many palaces and historic landmarks, those with an explorer’s mindset are enticed by the cutting-edge and unusual cultural discoveries that make London one of the world’s most exhilarating and fascinating cities.

Sharing ‘insider’ wisdom with worldly travelers is a specialty of InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts, dedicated to delivering the allure and fascination of global luxury travel. Guests at the historic InterContinental London Park Lane in elegant Mayfair or the sleek, riverside InterContinental London - The O2 on the Greenwich Peninsula, can experience London through a keen, local lens thanks to the expert, hotel staff who make it their business to immerse themselves in London’s more unusual cultural attractions.

To InterContinental® Ambassador Neil Toyer, who spends more than 100 nights each year in London, the city’s InterContinental® properties feel like home, not hotels, due to the people. “You build a relationship with the people at InterContinental,” says Toyer, adding that current and former InterContinental staff members occasionally send him collegial emails just to “catch up.” “That has been amazing. I’ve never seen that before.” As an Ambassador, Toyer receives guaranteed benefits, like room upgrades and late check-outs, with each stay to make his frequent visits even more relaxed.

Of the many InterContinental cities he’s visited around the world, Toyer ranks London as his favorite due to the walkability and wealth of uncommon experiences, such as designing his own gin recipe at The London Distillery. He explains, “There’s so much variety…the history, the culture, the clubs that cater to any interest…and you can walk to all the different places. If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.”

Among London’s myriad walkable neighborhoods worth exploring is Kensington, a quick taxi ride from the Park Lane. Stroll around Kensington’s Holland Park to discover the magical Kyoto Garden. Built in 1992 to commemorate the Japan Festival in London, the garden is an oasis of calm and offers a unique insight into Eastern horticulture. From Holland Park, it’s a short walk south to Leighton House Museum. Tucked behind the unassuming doors of a Kensington Townhouse, the museum boasts magnificent tiled walls and intricate artwork, and is a favorite of interior design aficionados.

For more adventurous travelers seeking an elevated perspective, there is the Up at The O2 experience: a twilight climb over the roof of London’s most iconic entertainment venue. Summiting The O2 at twilight offers unparalleled 360-degree views of the glimmering city’s nightscape.

Another after-dark side of London that is out of sight to many tourists is the city’s subterranean world of speakeasies—modern versions of the illicit, Prohibition-era bars in the United States. Among London’s sizeable collection of “secret” pubs are local favorites, such as The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town, Evans & Peel Detective Agency, Discount Suit Company, and The Vault, whose concealed entrance is through the bookcase at Milroy’s whiskey shop in Soho.

Arguably two of the city’s most glamorous speakeasies—Nightjar, in East London’s artsy Shoreditch neighborhood, and its sister bar, Oriole, tucked underneath historic Smithfield Market—also happen to be two of London’s best and lesser-known live music venues. Soloists and bands performing jazz, blues, swing, and a variety of other genres take to each club’s intimate stage nightly, beginning at 9 p.m. at Oriole and 9:30 p.m. at Nightjar.

View Images
The Nightjar is a discreet speakeasy, offering an extensive cocktail menu, contemporary Asian street food, and live music every night.

Explorer-themed Oriole holds triple appeal for worldly travelers due to its globe-spanning cocktail menu, which serves as a tasteful reminder of London’s thoroughly international vibe (more than 300 languages are spoken by city residents). Travel the world via Oriole’s tantalizing concoctions, such as the Malta-inspired Mare Nostrum crafted with gin, pistachio leaf infusion, and pine-scented Roots Mastiha, a liqueur flavored with mastic (resinous sap) from the evergreen Lentisk bush found on the Greek island of Chios.

Hiding in plain sight in buzzing Shoreditch and the adjacent Hoxton neighborhood is a treasure trove of contemporary art offerings far removed from the standard tourist track. Experimental visual and performance pieces by emerging artists take center stage at the Hoxton’s Hundred Years Gallery, an artist-run community space that also hosts art workshops and other interactive events. Less than a mile away in Shoreditch, edgy works by Charles Uzzell Edwards (the world-famous street artist known as Pure Evil) and other London and international urban artists are on display at Edwards’ eponymous Pure Evil Gallery.

The global street scene theme continues at Boxpark Shoreditch, a contemporary take on a traditional street market. Built from retro-fitted shipping containers, Boxpark Shoreditch (the first of three Boxpark locations in the city) is an inventive space filled with an eclectic mix of retailers and the intoxicating aromas of imaginative street food fare. The distinctive collection of shops includes London’s homegrown contemporary jewelry brand, Astrid & Miyu, whose original pieces are locally designed and crafted (by hand and using inventive 3D-printing techniques).

View Images
Graffiti Alley is a public graffiti space in the tunnels and vaults beneath Waterloo Station.

Boxpark’s creative spirit and worldly influences also inspire the myriad street food offerings. Dishes range from piping-hot and savory British pies like Moo (British beef steak and craft ale) from family-run Pieminister to the “mixto” (mixed cuisine) concept of EDu, where the contemporary Spanish menu features original fare like buttermilk fried prawn tacos, Spanglish burgers, and mushroom croquetas with truffle aioli.

EDu, the wider East London creative scene, and the breathtaking climb atop The O2 are but a sampling of unexpected London—those out of the ordinary places that many tourists miss. For travelers drawn to the InterContinental life, however, discovering the extraordinary is a way of life, in London and wherever their thirst for new adventure leads.

Learn how you can continue fueling your fascination for discovering new places by becoming an InterContinental® Ambassador.

Participating InterContinental® Ambassador members will receive a token gift for their time.

This content is brought to you by our partner. It does not necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic or its editorial staff.