This time, our Exploring Hidden London series takes a look at some of Londoners’ favourites. From secret gardens to places to wander, unusual things to see or little-known places to just be for mini-adventures and escapism in the city.
Places for book lovers
Expand your mind, study in peace or curl up with a great read.
Wellcome Library Reading Room
A bright, airy space nestled in the large Wellcome Trust gallery filled with bean bags and mid-century modern furniture for contemplating in comfort. The Reading Room invites visitors to “dig a little bit deeper into what it means to be human”. Nice.
Marx Memorial Library
Close to Farringdon Station, you’ll find the “heart of the British Labour Movement” where you can find out about Marxism (obvs!), as well as the history of socialism and the working class, peruse pamphlets and periodicals or take a guided tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Bishopsgate Institute Library
A place of quiet right in the middle of the corporate Liverpool Street bustle. Visitors work silently, and you can turn up for free, no membership required to work and use the free WiFi. Book ahead to read collections subjects like London history, freethought, LGBTQ+ history and humanism in the reading room.
Area: Liverpool Street
The Poetry Society Café
After a recent renovation (completed in 2017) The Poetry Society’s café describes itself as “a vibrant, welcoming space for a wide community of tea drinkers and poetry lovers”. Visit for a leisurely afternoon of reading, stick around to hear poems being recited in the evening.
Rustique Literary Café
A laid-back, colourful north London nook with comfy old furniture, a tiny library and suntrap garden / mini courtyard at the back for sunny days.
Area: Turfnell Park
Address: 142 Fortess Road, London NW5 2HP, England
Small, community-run projects in central London and beyond.
Dalston Eastern Curve Garden
A social enterprise described as “a little oasis for everyone in the heart of busy Dalston”, which is bang on for anyone who has been there. Enter through the gate by a colourful mural just opposite Dalston Junction Overground station, and you’ll find a sprawling, lantern-lit garden with a bar and pizza oven. Volunteers keep the place tidy and full of plants, herbs, and vegetables all year round.
Downing’s Road Moorings
Tower Bridge is home to London’s only floating gardens. The Garden Barges are interconnected renovated industrial barges which have living spaces/arts & craft studios below deck. Explore trees, flowering plants and a beehive, but you must arrange your visit in advance.
Area: Tower Bridge (Bermondsey)
Lettsom Gardens Association
South London’s Lettsom Gardens in Camberwell is restricted to members and their guests, and you have to have a key to enter. A true secret garden. It’s not elitist though. Membership is open to all, you just pay a small fee (£8.00 per family/individual or just £1.00 for seniors/students/unemployed) and a further £12.00 to get a key. Once unlocked, the keyholder can explore the mini forest with tree swings and a community allotment.
The Phoenix Gardens
One of the only green spaces in Covent Garden, its volunteer-run (free to visit, but worth donating a couple of quid to help keep it open) and home to plants, flowers, birds, bees and the West End’s only frogs! Winding paths filled with wildflowers and benches make it a great crowd-free lunch spot.
Area: Covent Garden
On and off the beaten tracks of London’s walkways.
The Parkland Walk
The former railway line between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace is no secret to north Londoners, but it’s a pretty special place to wander through. It’s the city’s longest local nature reserve, and as well as moss-covered old platforms, there are plenty of signs to help you spot over 200 species of wildflowers, hedgehogs, many types of birds and even the occasional muntjac (rare breed of deer).
Area: Finsbury Park
The New River Path (Islington to Manor House )
The man-made New River Path from Hertford to Islington can take you through the suburbs to the city. The full walk is 28 miles long and broken into different sections but if you want some urban escapism without leaving zone 2 then explore the heritage section.
Head to St Paul’s road, round the corner from Highbury & Islington station where a tiny gate marks the entrance. From there, wend your way along the canal where you’ll find herons, willow trees, small bridges and pretty gardens and follow the green NR path signage or download the iFootpath app. The path continues on through Canonbury and ends up at the redeveloped Woodberry Down area where you can visit the reservoir and nature reserve.
The Jubilee Greenway (Section 2)
Regent’s canal can get a little busy with cyclists, walkers and joggers all vying for narrow waterside path-space. But the two-mile stretch between Camden and Little Venice (or vice-versa, end up at the latter if you want to grab some food or drinks after) is a calm little towpath for strolling at your own pace. Bonus cheapo sightseeing along the way includes Lord’s Cricket Ground, Regent’s Park and Camden Lock.
Most cafés shut between 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm, but if you fancy a place where you can get a cocktail as well as a cuppa and a slice of cake instead of going to a pub or bar, these places are worth a visit.
Candid Arts Cafe
Up two flights of stairs in an industrial side-street, Candid Arts Cafe looks like the charming, if slightly ramshackle parlour of an eccentric literary character. The large, light-filled bohemian space is filled with well-worn furniture, a huge grand looking dining table, pillars, huge plants and some very gaudy art. They open late on weekdays only (until 10:00 pm) and with a Mediterranean menu where mains are all under £10.00 it’s a cheapo win for dinner as well as an interesting place to while away the time.
It’s a café, under a bridge. But that’s the least interesting feature in this vintage emporium. On arrival, it can be sensory overload with various neons, chintzy lamps, a speakeasy bar replete with old-fashioned till all jostling for attention. Upstairs, the decor is no less understated but with a more old-time theatre bar vibe.
Address: 15 Kingsland Rd, London, E2 8AE
Tucked down the far end of the excellent (and independent business-filled) Lower Marsh (down the bottom of the ramp at the back of Waterloo Station) has a smallish cafe area up top, with a tiny outside space and a larger basement area which is vintage and cosy serving up cuppas to cocktails and a few snacks too. Apparently, Ethan Hawke is a punter when he’s in town, but luckily film stars haven’t driven up the prices.