With big beasts like the National Gallery and the British Museum nearby, you could be forgiven for overlooking some of the smaller attractions in our neighbourhood. But Covent Garden and Holborn boast a great range of quirky and specialist museums, featuring everything from multimedia experiences in Georgian town-houses to cabinets full of anatomical specimens. Take a break from the mainstream tourist trail with these five gems, all a quick walk away from Strand Palace.
London Transport Museum
If you want to get an insight into London’s development in the 20th Century, this is the place to start. A beguiling collection of buses, trains, posters and signs tell the story of an increasingly connected city and an increasingly mobile population, served by one of the most design-conscious corporations of its age – the vintage advertising material is fantastic, and the shop full of dangerously desirable books, games and ornaments. With vehicles to climb on and loads of interactive displays, London Transport Museum is great for kids too.
- Address: Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB
- Walking time: 3 minutes
- Exeter Street, site of the old Exeter House (demolished 1676), Exeter Exchange (demolished 1892) and Exeter Hall (demolished 1907)
- Tavistock Street was a fashionable shopping street in the Bedford estate in the 18th Century, but fell into decline in the 19th
- Covent Garden market and St Paul’s Church
Benjamin Franklin House
To call Benjamin Franklin House an unusual London museum would be an understatement. First, it’s devoted to the life of an American – and not just any American, but one of the founding fathers. Second, it takes a unique approach, telling its story through a mix of multimedia and live theatre. Guests are welcomed by ‘Polly Hewson’ – the daughter of Franklin’s landlady – and led through the three-storey townhouse discovering the food, culture and politics of the great man’s life and times.
- Address: 36 Craven Street, WC2N 5NF
- Walking time: 7 minutes
- Zimbabwe House, designed by key London Underground architect Charles Holden
- Craven Street, which follows the route of the former Spur Lane. Part of an ancient brewery site, it was redeveloped by the Craven family in the 18th Century
This sprawling collection belonging to the Royal College of Surgeons is not for the squeamish. It is crammed with curiosities that will fascinate scientifically-minded adults – and no doubt delight kids of a certain disposition too. Human skulls, dissected beasties and vintage microscopes all feature, while ever-changing temporary exhibitions explore specific themes within medicine and biological research. It may sound a little fusty, but inside it is quite the opposite – the main room is an stylishly lit modern space lined with floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets.
- Address: 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE
- Walking time: 10 minutes
- Aldwych, which derives from the Old English for ‘old trading town’ – the ancient Anglo-Saxon town Ludenwic stood here centuries ago
- Kingsway, built in 1900 as part of a major redevelopment of the area. Its construction cleared away countless small courtyards and streets
Sir John Soanes Museum
Soanes, a famous architect active in the late 1700s and early 1800s, was a prolific collector. His trove of casts, models, paintings and books first entered public life as a resource for students at the Royal Academy, and became a fully-fledged museum after his death in 1837. The period interiors have been kept largely as they were, making the house just as interesting as its contents – expect exotic rugs, wood-panelled libraries and bright atriums packed with sculptures and carvings. Entry is free, and guided tours (£10) run Tuesday to Saturday.
- Address: 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP
- Walking time: 12 minutes
- Aldwych and Kingsway (see above)
This gem of an institution showcases the British sense of humour in all its glory, from biting political satire to kids’ comics to bawdy seaside postcards. The permanent collections are a joy, beginning with Hogarth and Cruikshank and ending with modern cartoonists like Guardian contributor Martin Rowson. It’s a wonderful insight into the national character, and fans of comics and graphic novels will fall in love with the shop, which carries a great range of books, prints and gifts.
- Address: 35 Little Russell Street, WC1A 2HH
- Walking time: 14 minutes
- Aldwych (see above)
- Drury Lane, named after Sir William Drury, whose house stood at its southern end on Wych Street (now Aldwych)