When I moved here 25 years ago, an Englishwoman told me that London was like her grandmother’s handbag: all hidden pouches and zippered pockets stuffed with sweets and lipstick. It would take ages to find a lemon drop or a bus ticket, but when she did, it was well worth it.
Nowadays, when I read guidebooks or articles about my adopted city I think, "Why are they telling people to go there when they should be sending them here?"
As my love affair with London has deepened and widened, my knowledge of these hidden places has increased as well. When I take friends and family into my version of London, they invariably exclaim, "Why have I never heard of this place?"
So here we go unzipping the pockets, popping the snaps and feeling around in the metaphorical granny’s purse that is London.
Skip Portobello and get thee to Greenwich
A trip to Portobello Market is pleasant, of course. You can stop to look at the famous blue door at 280 Westbourne Park Road immortalized in the film "Notting Hill." (It’s where Hugh Grant's character spills his orange juice onto Julia Roberts' character, thus igniting an immortal screen romance.) But it is, after all, only a blue door, which has since been painted black. The owners got tired of tourists taking selfies on their doorstep.
These days Portobello gets crowded, and the bargains are not what they used to be. If you want to do proper antiquing with locals, head to Greenwich Market, London’s only market set within a UNESCO World Heritage site. You'll find about 120 stalls selling antiques, collectibles and art.
You can also get happily lost in the maze of small independent shops in the surrounding alleys. Street food from around the world will keep your stomach happy.
When you are tired of shopping you can get cosmic at the Royal Observatory, which is the home of Greenwich Mean Time — invented by the self-taught 18th century carpenter and astronomer John Harrison. Standing on the actual Meridian Line is guaranteed to freak you out.
I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t mention the dazzling duo of East London markets that can fill up a Sunday with browsing: Brick Lane for its bric-a-brac, vinyl, indie boutiques, live music and Bangladeshi cuisine, and the Columbia Road Flower Market for its posies, designer home furnishings, clothing, art and great local restaurants.
Broadway Market, also in East London, offers up a treasure-trove on Saturdays. It started as a food market but has expanded to include vintage clothing, books and collectibles, and there's the newer Netil Market just up the road.
If you want a movie reference for your market experience to make up for the lack of a blue door, you can tell your friends that the much cooler David Cronenberg filmed "Eastern Promises" in Broadway Market in 2006. I was working in a video shop here at the time, and the director popped in to sign the DVD boxes of his films.
National Gallery is great but ...
It would be just plain wrong to visit London without seeing topnotch art. The National Gallery is chock full of gems by Vermeer, Cézanne, Monet, Rembrandt, Seurat and Van Gogh. The list goes on, but so can the queues.
A visit here is a must, but if you want to see Old Masters in a more intimate and less crowded setting, there are other options.
Apsley House (also known as No. 1 London) was bought by the Duke of Wellington two years after his 1815 victory at the Battle of Waterloo. His collection of art housed in this glittering Georgian residence includes work by Titian and Rubens, an early Velázquez, a moody Correggio, a portrait of Wellington by Goya as well as important pieces of silver and Meissen and Sèvres porcelain.
Not far from Apsley House is the stunning Wallace Collection. You already know many of the paintings housed here such as Frans Hals’ "The Laughing Cavalier" and Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s "The Swing." The collection was assembled by the fourth marquess of Hertford, who left it to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace upon his death in 1870. It was opened to the public in 1900.
The 25 rooms in this elegant townhouse display work by many of the greatest artists from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Its collection of French paintings is considered one of the best in the world, and its armor is a history lesson in itself.
A condition of the bequest is that no object should leave the premises so you won’t be able to see it anywhere else but here.
Slightly farther afield but equally grand is the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is the oldest public art gallery in England. Here you can marvel at the Rembrandts and Ruisdaels along with the quintessentially English Gainsboroughs and Reynoldses in relative peace and quiet. The traveling exhibits can get busy, but the main galleries less so.
On a sunny day, the gardens make an ideal picnic spot or you can sit in the café and admire the cupolaed building designed by British architect Sir John Soane (more on him later).
A deeper dive into design
The Victoria & Albert Museum in Knightsbridge is as famous for its Persian carpets and Chinese jade as its platform shoes and William Morris textiles. It is a wondrous place.
But if you want to experience design from Britain and around the world in more immersive ways, here are some lesser-known but atmospheric collections.
The residential area of Walthamstow is home to the William Morris Gallery. It is the only museum devoted to this important designer and his artistic collaborators in the Arts and Crafts movement. Set in beautifully landscaped gardens, the house and its tearoom are an oasis of calm beauty of which Morris would have approved.
Soane, architect of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, was a bricklayer's son who rose to become a professor of architecture at the British Academy. The house he designed for himself in central London, now known as Sir John Soane’s Museum, is crammed with objects and artworks collected in his lifetime and untouched in the 180 years since his death as per his will.
The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture describes his house as "one of the most complex, intricate and ingenious series of interiors ever conceived." The museum is indeed a labyrinthine cabinet of curiosities. Only 70 visitors are allowed in at a time, so it’s best to go early.
You will come home raving about the place and searching, as I always do, for ways to describe it.
In a similar vein is Dennis Severs’ House. Severs, originally from California, bought his house in the Spitalfields area in 1979. This area on the edge of the City of London (the banking district) was settled by persecuted Huguenot weavers from France in the 18th century but has since become super-hip.
Severs made it his life’s work to refurbish each of the 10 rooms at No.18 Folgate St. in a different style spanning 1724 to 1914 and following the trajectory of one family as their fortunes rise and fall.
His philosophy was to make it appear as if the residents had just wandered from each room: Half-peeled oranges sit on tables, and the scent of lavender and whispered conversations linger. He called this approach “still life drama” and indeed coming here is like stepping into a painting. Severs died in 1999, but the museum is still going strong. The Silent Night tours are wonderfully evocative, particularly in the winter.
The Geffrye Museum in East London is set in 18th century almshouses in Hoxton, traditionally the furniture-making area of London. Now it's home to an eclectic assortment of trendy galleries, boutiques, cafés and restaurants.
The Geffrye explores domestic life and home design during the last 400 years by leading visitors through a series of period rooms from the 17th century to the modern day. The period herb garden provides respite from the chaos of the big city, and there are free activities for children and families to explore the collection further.
In 1872, the Prince of Wales opened a branch of the Victoria & Albert Museum in East London. Over time, this satellite V&A museum in Bethnal Green became the repository for gifts given to the royal family.
In the 1920s the head curator noticed that the museum was often filled with bored and noisy children. He made it his mission to create a child-friendly space. He began sourcing child-related objects (he managed to acquire Queen Mary’s toys), and the V&A Museum of Childhood, as we know it, was born.
In among the royal dollhouses and prams are blocks designed by the Bauhaus, the first Lego (the word is derived from the Danish leg godt, meaning "play well") and Cabbage Patch Kids. You can show your kids what life was about before iPads.
Fish and chips? Try eel pie and mash instead
Everyone thinks of fish and chips piled with salt and vinegar and wrapped in newspaper as the Everyman meal. But for an authentic taste of London make your way to one of the few remaining eel pie and mash shops.
The interiors are real slices of Victorian London, and the food is cheap and hearty (a child’s disgusted squeal of “ew, eels” is a bonus). Eels, a cockney staple, were the original pie filling, but nowadays you can get minced beef and onion (sigh of relief).
The more adventurous, however, can still order a side of jellied eels, which are a bit like large, chewy oysters. One nonnegotiable element is the green "liquor" (nonalcoholic), which is a concoction of eel gravy and parsley, although you can usually get it made sans eels.
F. Cooke, a café on Broadway Market, was once full of men in cloth caps. Now the clientele is all vintage dresses and hipster goatees.
Goddards at Greenwich, dating from 1890, is another pie shop popular with market browsers and locals. Walthamstow’s L. Manze, has been dishing up eel pies since 1929. Its preserved interior, with traditional wooden benches, mirrors and white tiles (easy to clean), has been awarded Grade II listed status by the Historic England organization, which means it will be with us for some time.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO LONDON
From LAX, Air New Zealand, British, Virgin Atlantic, American, United and Norwegian offer nonstop service to London, and American, Virgin, KLM, United and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $701, including taxes and fees.
Greenwich Market, www.greenwichmarketlondon.com. Open Tuesdays-Sundays. Nearest tube stations: Cutty Sark. Greenwich,
Brick Lane Market, www.visitbricklane.org. Open Sundays. Nearest tube stations: Aldgate East, Liverpool Street; Shoreditch High Street Overground station.
Columbia Road Market, www.columbiaroad.info. Open Sundays. Nearest Overground stations: Hoxton, Shoreditch High Street.
Broadway Market, www.broadwaymarket.co.uk. Open Saturdays. Nearest Overground stations and bus stops: Cambridge Heath Station, London Fields, Hoxton or Haggerston. Or the 55 bus on Hackney Road from Old Street or 26 or 48 bus from Liverpool Street.
Netil Market, 13-23 Westgate St., www.facebook.com/NetilMarket.
Apsley House, 149 Piccadilly; www.english-heritage.org.uk. Nearest tube station: Hyde Park Corner.
Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square; www.wallacecollection.org. Nearest tube stations: Bond Street, Baker Street, Oxford Circus.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, Southwark; www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk. Nearest train stations and bus stops: P4 Bus from Brixton tube, National Rail train from Brixton to West Dulwich, London Victoria Station to West Dulwich or London Bridge Station to North Dulwich.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields; www.soane.org. Nearest tube station: Holborn.
William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road; www.wmgallery.org.uk. Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central.
Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate St.; www.dennissevershouse.co.uk. Nearest tube station: Liverpool Street Station; Shoreditch High Street Overground station.
Geffrye Museum, 136 Kingsland Road, www.geffrye-museum.org.uk. Nearest Overground station: Hoxton.
Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road; www.vam.ac.uk/moc. Nearest tube station: Bethnal Green.
F. Cooke, 9 Broadway Market. Nearest Overground stations and bus stops: Cambridge Heath Station, London Fields, Hoxton, Haggerston. The 55 bus on Hackney Road from Old Street or 26 and 48 bus from Liverpool Street
Goddards at Greenwich, 22 King William Walk, www.goddardsatgreenwich.co.uk. Nearest tube station: Cutty Sark
L. Manze, 76 Walthamstow High St. Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central