One of the world’s leading tourist destinations, London offers an endless array of attractions, from theatre to museums, art galleries to festivals galore. Here are a few options, some not on the most popular things-to-do list and some that are free.
Let’s start way back in time with a glimpse into London’s ancient past. Discovered more than 50 years ago in Walbrook, in the city’s financial district, the Temple of Mithras, is a sacred underground Roman site. Careful restoration with added special effects of mist, light, the sound of footsteps, chanting and secret whispers, transports visitors back in time to AD 240 to an intriguing place where homage was paid to the mysterious deity, Mithras. Situated on the site of Bloomberg’s European headquarters, entrance is free.
Charles Dickens is one of England’s most famous novelists and you can learn about the writer’s private life by visiting his home in Doughty Street in the Holborn area. A typical Georgian terraced house, Dickens lived here in his mid-20s for three years until late 1839 where he wrote ‘The Pickwick Papers,’ ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby.’ One of many interesting artefacts is the writing desk where Dickens spent several hours each day penning his latest stories. There is also a well-furnished drawing room, the hub of his household, where dining, dancing and even private readings took place. Special events are held throughout the year and there’s a quiet, terraced café to enjoy after browsing through the gift shop. This museum is one of more than 80 free entries offered by the London Pass, a card that also includes ‘Hop-on, Hop-off’ bus tours throughout London.
Many tourists will inevitably end up standing outside Buckingham Palace, waiting for the Queen, who rarely appears. However, the Royal Mews – another attraction on the London Pass – probably provides a more entertaining destination. One of the world’s leading working stables, the Mews is responsible for all British Royal road travel. Highlight of a walking tour here is a collection of ornate coaches including the Gold State Coach, used for coronations for nearly 200 years. Others include the stunning Irish State Coach, and the newest addition, the Diamond Jubilee State Coach. Car enthusiasts will marvel at the Queen’s two enormous Bentley state limousines, and a rare Rolls Royce Phantom IV, while animal-lovers may want to adopt some of the horses, Cleveland Bays and Windsor Greys.
Now in its 54th year, the ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ exhibition at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington showcases extraordinary animal behaviour and the breath-taking diversity of life on Earth. Indicating the high quality of the photographs, expert judges had to narrow 45,000 entries to the 100 now on display. From lions to elephants, goldfish to flamingos, there’s something for everyone. While admission to the museum is free, there is an extra payment to see this special exhibition.
Connecting the worlds of science, medicine, life and art, the Wellcome Collection , part of the Wellcome Trust, is now hosting a mesmerising exhibition entitled ‘Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic.’ Here you will immerse yourself in spirit photography, props and psychology experiments to learn more about how magic and illusion works. Artefacts include the head of a gorilla costume worn by illusionist Derren Brown, Harry Houdini’s ‘Bell Box,’ British comedian Tommy Cooper’s fez and magician Paul Daniels’s ‘sawing-in-half’ box. There are also frequent performances explaining the skill of deception behind magic performances.
Underbelly Festival Southbank , which continues throughout the summer, offers a treasure-chest of funky circus, comedy and cabaret, most shows lasting one hour. We saw ‘A Simple Space,’ a show by seven performers – four men, three women – who achieve remarkable things with remarkable bodies, including tossing each other across a short, square stage, ‘strip-skipping’ and headstands while an audience hurls plastic balls at them to knock them over. No wonder the group is called ‘Gravity & Other Myths.’ Over the coming months at the festival, you can see such events as break-dancer extraordinaire Magical Bones, ‘Little Death Club,’ featuring a punk jazz band and some fire-breathing and a so-called ‘Silent Disco Show.’
‘Austentatious’ at Fortune Theater is an entirely improvised comedy play in the style of author Jane Austen. Performed in full Regency costume, with live musical accompaniment, the actors create a new ‘lost Austen masterpiece’ based on nothing more than a title suggested by the audience, thus no two shows are the same. Previous shows included ‘Bath To The Future,’ ‘We Will Frock You’ and ‘Northanger Abba.’ Performances of ‘Austentatious’ are also part of the Underbelly Festival.
Located in Islington, Sadler’s Wells Theatre has gained a reputation as one of the world’s leading dance venues, a view enhanced by its recent hosting of ‘Vessel,’ in which semi-naked performers created apocalyptic sculptures and mysterious shapes on a stage filled with liquid, a show created by Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet and visual artist Kohei Nawa. Upcoming shows include ballet, flamenco and the well-known Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
One of several venues at the National Theatre along the banks of the Thames, Lyttelton Theatre, with its adjustable proscenium, is currently showing a revival of Caryl Churchill’s famed 1982 play ‘Top Girls’ about the future of feminism. Next up is ‘Rutherford and Son,’ described as “a piercing look at power and family” set in a northern English industrial town written by Githa Sowerby who grew up in such an environment.
Fancy something Off West End? Try Union Theatre, in Southwark. Having recently completed a run of ‘Market Boy,’ a lively tribute by David Eldridge to the 1980s focusing on one of London’s historic street markets, the leaders of this innovative fringe venue are set to host such shows as comedy sketch ‘Beg Borrow & Bitch,’ a madcap domestic farce entitled ‘Daphne, Tommy, The Colonel and Phil’ and ‘Wrath of Achilles,’ a drama about the Trojan Wars.