Stay away from the royal groupies with these offbeat London experiences.
Murder Mystery: Jack the Ripper hogs all the press when it comes to East London’s five prostitute murders of 1888. Discover more about the victims by visiting the Ten Bells pub on Whitechapel’s Commercial Street—a couple of the unfortunates used to drink and drum up trade here. Then pay your respects a few miles east at the City of London Cemetery, the final resting place of two of the women.
Thames Treasure Hunt: When the tide is out on the river, “mudlarkers” rummage along the exposed bed of the Thames in search of bits of pottery, buttons, and other artifacts from bygone days. Give it a go—try the river’s north bank near St. Paul’s or around the Southwark and Blackfriars Bridges, though anywhere with waterfront access has a chance for some finds. Word to the wise: The tips on the Port of London Authority’s website about slippery stone stairs and fast-moving tides are important reading. You’ll thank us later.
Out to Lunch: Everyone knows of the specialty food stalls at Southwark’s jam-packed Borough Market, but shoppers looking for a local vibe should walk three-quarters of a mile east to Bermondsey’s Maltby Street. Some of the more famous market’s original vendors relocated here to regain a sense of community. It’s not as large as Borough Market, but you can nosh on Scotch eggs and sip traditional mead away from tourists.
Toast the Telly: Opened in 1949, Bar Italia on Soho’s Frith Street is popular for its friendliness, high-quality coffees, and celebrity patrons (look around for David Bowie and Francis Ford Coppola). What’s not commonly known about this institution is that just upstairs from where you’re dipping biscotti into your cappuccino, a new invention called television was shown for the very first time in 1926 by Scotsman John Logie Baird.
Hard Night’s Sleep: Starting in 1962, when they first moved to the English capital, the Beatles stayed on and off for more than a year at the President Hotel in Bloomsbury’s Russell Square. (This is before they were “bigger than Jesus”—the tuneful teens were sometimes escorted by their parents.) The hotel is still in business, so die-hard fans can sleep in the same spot where the Fab Four laid their famous mop-topped heads.
Cruise to the Zoo: The London Zoo receives more than 1.3 million visitors a year, but only a few know they can skip the lines and come in via the back door. London Waterbus is one of several companies that run cruises along tranquil Regent’s Canal—connecting leafy Little Venice with bustling Camden Town—but it’s the only one that can let you off (right by the monkeys, sloths, and lemurs) at a private canal-side zoo gate.
Sold on Sotheby’s: Socialize with London’s elite at one of Sotheby’s regular public sales in Mayfair, by registering online or at the auction house. If you purchase an item (say, by playing with the paddle too enthusiastically), make arrangements to take it home—atop Sotheby’s front door is an Egyptian statue from 1320 B.C. that was sold in the 1800s but never picked up by the buyer.
This piece, written by Larry Porges, first appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. For more, check out National Geographic’s London Book of Lists, cowritten by Porges.