From east to west, London’s best. But best doesn’t always mean biggest. Step off the main drag and discover a few of our favourite quirky things to see and do off the beaten track in London’s West End
Cop a load of a tiny police station
Never mind policemen looking younger: this tiny cop shop in Trafalgar Square suggests they’ve got bigger, too. When it was built in 1926, the pillar-like structure was Britain’s smallest police station (the Met kept an eye on troublesome demonstrators through its narrow windows). Officers could call for reinforcements via a direct phone line to Scotland Yard, which also activated a flashing light atop the box, alerting nearby officers to public disorder. Nowadays the most seditious behaviour it deals with is litter dropping: Westminster Council cleaners use it as a broom cupboard. Trafalgar Square, south-east corner
Be bolder with your brass
In 1978 the craze for making brass rubbings reached such a height that citizens had to be banned from molesting Westminster Abbey’s engraved metal plates with paper and wax, as their enthusiasm was damaging the plaques. You can still indulge in a spot of public abrasion at the London Brass Rubbing Centre in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, which has brass replicas of medieval knights, St George and the dragon and Shakespeare. Prices start at £4.50: ay, there’s the rub.
Bonus fact: London has its own night bus vounteer force. Every Friday and Saturday night there’s a man who sits by a bus stop on Trafalgar Square and gives drunk people impeccably good instructions on how to get the night buses home. He doesn’t ask for any money and he’s not employed by anyone. He just does it for kicks.
Glimpse a ghost tube station…
Check out the old façade of Aldwych station, halfway along the Strand. It opened in 1907 as a Piccadilly Line station but closed in 1994. Today it is maintained by TfL but mainly as a film set – you’ll often be able to catch an exhibition in its ticket hall. There are dozens of similarly abandoned stations and platforms in London. Advance to Mayfair to glimpse Down Street, where Winston Churchill and his cabinet sometimes sheltered from bomb raids during WWII. Most are closed to the public below ground, but London Transport Museum organises rare guided tours of the disused station at Aldwych.
Or gawk like an Egyptian
In a typically Victorian act of cultural insensitivity, when London was presented with a genuine Egyptian obelisk, we named it after Cleopatra even though it predated her by 1,000 years, almost dropped it into the Bay of Biscay during transportation and installed it with a couple of sphinxes facing in the wrong direction. When Cleopatra’s Needle finally arrived in 1878, we paid homage by burying a British ‘time capsule; beneath it. Mementoes include 12 photos of attractive women, some hairpins, a baby’s bottle and a few bits of cabling. Excellent work, London! Victoria Embankment
Sup wine in a historical basement
In other world cities, a dimly lit, lowceilinged basement that shakes every time a tube train passes by would not be a charming place for a glass of vin. But in London, it’s nigh-on impossible to get a seat in this buzzy, candlelit wine bar. To add to it’s uniqueness, it is so ingrained with literary history that the building in which it is housed was home to both Samuel Pepys and Rudyard Kipling.
See where the magic happens
No surprise that the world’s oldest family-run magic business is itself a house of illusion. Davenport’sMagic Shop (established 1898) appears vast from the outside, but inside it is a tiny room with just a few cabinets on display – the rest of the building is a mysterious workshop where magicmakers build the products. Here you can pick up intricate close-up tricks, big-scale stage apparatus or simply a pack of cards. The staff are always willing to demonstrate their prestidigitation skills too – just ask.
Hang out with leaders of the free world
For a photo opportunity, why not squeeze between Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt on a bench on Bond Street? Alternatively, the more literary among you may fancy Instagramming yourselves wittily with the Oscar Wilde statue on Adelaide Street, which represents the great Irish playwright and poet rising from a sarcophagus, smoking a cigarette. Don’t be put off by the macabre appearance of his melted face –he’s a great listener. ‘Allies’ is at the junction of New Bond St and Grafton St, W1S 3ST. ‘A Conversation with Oscar Wilde’ is on Adelaide St, WC2N 4HZ
Escape from the tourist boozers
Surrounded by Crossrail building work, the Royal George is a real haven from all the tourist-clogged nonsense around it. Its façade is decidedly plain, but once inside you’ll find comfy seating, friendly staff, great beer and soft-yolked scotch eggs. There’s fine indie rock on the sound system and there are quirky weekly events held in the basement, including Wednesday’s free-for-all ukulele jam.
Fake it in Soho with Keith Moon
Blue plaques commemorating Soho’s roll-call of famous one-time residents range from Karl Marx to Casanova. But there’s one notorious resident who was disqualified from this exclusive London club. Keith Moon’s tribute on the site of the former Marquee Club is not a true blue plaque at all. English Heritage rejected Moon’s nomination for a memorial in 2008, on the basis that – according to committee member Christopher Frayling – ‘bad behaviour and overdosing on various substances wasn’t a sufficient qualification to get a blue plaque’. The Heritage Foundation begged to disagree and a year later put up its own. Keith never was one to play by the rules… 90 Wardour St, W1F 0TH. For more historical tales of Soho, download the free National Trust Soho Stories iPhone app.
Bonus fact: Handel and Hendrix rocked Soho. George Frederic Handel lived at 25 Brook Street in Mayfair for 36 years and Jimi Hendrix lived and died at number 23. So if Handel had been born 250 years later, these two great musicians would have been nighbours. Imagine the parties…
Come up smelling of roses
Nowadays, all it takes to earn a licensed fragrance in your name is to have been an inmate in the Big Brother house. But if you’ve got classier tastes, then St James’s perfumery Floris has been stimulating Londoners’ olfactory senses for more than 280 years. Still a family business, the store was founded on Jermyn Street in 1730 – and has stood there ever since. As well purchasing the house’s own fragrances, you can, if you wish, create a bespoke scent –£195 gets you a 90-minute consultation with a perfumer, who will then blend a scent unique to your specification.
Snuggle up with Stephen Fry
The only independently run theatre in the West End, the Criterion, has played host to ‘The 39 Steps’ for the last five years and seems to have no intention of stopping. However, it’s often worth checking in for quirky events happening in the day and late at night. At the moment there’s an Olympics-themed season called ‘Playing the Games’, which involves two new daytime plays (‘Taking Part’ and ‘After the Party’) and a series of late-night events, including a rare chance to see a trio of national treasures: Stephen Fry, Eddie Izzard and Brian Blessed, who will be joining forces to read some favourite bedtime stories on Friday August 10 at 10pm.
Have your cake and eat it at the Sun Luen Bakery
As the capital’s go-to pitstop for duck and dim sum, Chinatown isn’t the first place you might think of to satisfy a craving for sweet stuff. But this lowkey bakery, tucked on a corner away from Leicester Square, rolls out a few curious combinations (soya bean jelly, perhaps) which all taste divine. The selection of pastries and buns – ‘cocktail’, barbecue pork, sweet red bean – is far from the standard fare found in London patisseries, but who needs an eclair when you can go for a youtiao? 14 Newport St, WC2H 7JJ