Had enough culture, food and specialist shopping for now? Here’s something different: today we’re focusing on pure fun, from laser shoot-outs and eye-popping arcade machines to traditional pub games (surprisingly rare in the West End, but there if you know where to look). Switch your brain off, grab some friends and turn London into your personal playground…
Laser Tag at Trocadero
Laser Tag was HUGE in the 90s, but there are fewer around than there used to be. Remind yourself how much hectic, silly fun it can be at Star Command, a large, high-tech arena at the Trocadero. There’s the obligatory scene-setting intro, followed by 20-40 minutes of combat, complete with crazy visuals and surround sound. Sophisticated it ain’t, but it’s immersive and energetic, and with capacity for 35 players you can count on some serious gameplay. Book ahead if you’re a large group, but small ones and individuals can usually turn up and play.
- Address: London Trocadero, 7-14 Coventry Street, Piccadilly Circus, W1D 7DH
- Walking time: 12 minutes
Bowling at All Star Lanes and Bloomsbury Bowling
If you prefer your ten-pin bowling with a side of retro Americana, you’re in luck – both our nearest alleys have an cool, Atomic Age vibe that pulls in young and fashionable crowds. All Star Lanes is a little closer, but Bloomsbury has a couple of karaoke rooms too – other than those differences, you can expect great diner-style food, a soundtrack of rockabilly, psych and pop, and a decent range of beers and cocktails at both, with the party continuing to 2am on weekend nights. They’re not the large bowling alleys you get in the suburbs, so book ahead if you’re a big group or want a lane on Friday or Saturday night.
- Address: All star: Victoria House, Bloomsbury Place, WC1B 4DA / Bloomsbury: Tavistock Hotel, Bedford Way, WC1H 9EU
- Walking time: All Star: 16 minutes / Bloomsbury: 24 minutes
Pool and darts
Once we’d have had a third game to mention, because the Glasshouse Stores, near to Piccadilly Circus, used to have a rare Bar Billiards table. Sadly the table vanished a few years ago, but in its place is a dartboard – now equally rare in West End pubs. Ask at the bar for darts, and expect to leave a small returnable deposit for them. For pool, try The Angel in Covent Garden, which, like Glasshouse Stores, is a Sam Smith’s pub – a testament to the brewery’s commitment to retaining traditional interiors in a rapidly modernising part of town.
- Address: Glasshouse Stores: 55 Brewer Street, W1F 9UL / The Angel: 61-62 St Giles High Street, WC2H 8LE, UK
- Walking time: Glasshouse Stores: 16 minutes / The Angel: 12 minutes
Arcade games at Namco Funscape
This large, family-friendly complex near Westminster Bridge features bowling, an adventure play area for the little ones, karaoke and even bumper cars – but the arcade is the main event. Namco are a big name in arcade machines, so expect everything from the latest hi-tech dancing platforms and shoot-em-ups to funfair classics like claw machines and whack-a-moles. It’s the very opposite of peace and quiet, but if you’re into gaming, this is the place to come.
- Address: Westminster Bridge Road, Riverside Buildings, SE1 7PB
- Walking time: 20 minutes (or take the RV1 bus to the London Eye and walk from there)
Negative? Not us. But there are a couple of local attractions that people typically approach the wrong way, and we’re here to help. All three are treasured bits of London – you just need to know how to get the best out of them…
Climbing The Monument
We like the Monument itself – from the ground, especially from a distance, it’s a unique, elegant addition to the skyline. We’re even quite fond of the climb to the top, which does wonders for the calves and earns you a certificate to prove you did all 311 steps. The problem is the view from the top. It isn’t the Monument’s fault that several equally tall and rather dull structures surround it, nor that King William Street and Gracechurch Street are busy; but the result is that visitors end up looking at traffic queues and the sides of office blocks through thick wire mesh.
Instead: Admire Monument from the ground, then walk up Gracechurch Street and go to Leadenhall Market. Though no longer a working market, it still has gorgeous wrought iron canopies and stunning red and gold shopfronts. Go during the day – it’s a favourite haunt of City traders and gets congested in the evening, particularly later in the week.
Seeing Tower Bridge rise
Again, the structure itself is a marvel. What’s less inspiring is seeing it rise close up. There’s a thrill as the pavement parts, but after that it becomes a piece of road coming very slowly towards your face – and tarmac doesn’t become more interesting the closer it is. When the raising is over, you’ve no choice but to keep staring at the tarmac until a boat has passed, the road is back in position and normal service has been resumed. And the boats generally take their time. In all, it isn’t the most exciting 10 minutes London has to offer.
Instead: It genuinely is worth watching Tower Bridge rise, but do it from the riverbank – it’s more dramatic from a distance, and you don’t have to hang around staring at a piece of pavement. It’s also worth checking out the Tower Bridge Exhibition, which begins in the northern tower – it takes you up into the bridge’s high-level walkways and down into its jaw-dropping engine rooms.
Hanging out at Piccadilly Circus
The fact that Piccadilly Circus is seen as an attraction in its own right baffles most Londoners – it’s really a traffic interchange with a neon sign above it. And while the Eros statue makes a good meeting point and photo opportunity, even the most hardened London-lover will admit that the Circus is hardly Times Square. The appeal of this spot is actually its centrality: it’s where upscale areas like Mayfair and St James’s meet the rough-and-tumble West End ones like Soho and Covent Garden. Hence the amount of money spent on the station – it was a genuine marvel when it opened, and the retail space you can see around the circular foyer was once full of chic boutiques. But even then, people were coming to Piccadilly Circus to go somewhere else, not to hang out there.
Instead: Do what Londoners do. Look around the station to get a sense of its glory days, then shop on Regent Street (or Mayfair if you’re feeling flush) eat and drink in Soho, trot down Piccadilly to see a show at the Royal Academy, or lounge around in St James’s Park. And if you must, get a photo with Eros too.
Ask most Londoners how to get from the Strand to Borough’s vibrant food market and they’ll probably point you straight down the South Bank. That’s a great walk, but if you head just a little deeper into Southwark there are some fascinating old streets, hidden parks and funky little pubs to explore – and far fewer tourists. You’ll also see signs of Southwark’s close association with Charles Dickens. It’ll take around 50 minutes walking at a normal pace, so allow 60-90 minutes if you want to stop and look around (or take a break for refreshments).
1. The Strand to the South Bank
Starting from the hotel, head across Waterloo Bridge. Take the steps down to the South Bank and head east, passing the National Theatre down a tree-lined riverside walk. This is the only bit of the South Bank we’ll do, and it brings you to Gabriel’s Wharf, a pleasant cluster of restaurants and boutique shops just off the river. You’ll see it on your right. Go in and take some time to browse around, then continue to the street on the other side. Turn right again – we’re going to double back on ourselves slightly.
2. Gabriel’s Wharf to Southwark tube
You’re now on a street called Upper Ground, and the big building next to you is London Television Centre, where several major entertainment shows – including The Graham Norton Show and Have I Got News For You – are filmed. Cross the road and head down Coin Street, walking beside the Coin Street Community Builders estate. At the end, turn right onto Stamford Street and take the first left onto Cornwall Road, passing the cool, beer-savvy White Hart pub. The next two streets on your left – Whittlesey and Roupell – are gorgeous Georgian terraces. Walk down one or the other, then take the first right, passing the King’s Arms (another great beer pub) and proceeding south until you reach The Cut. Turn left and continue to Southwark tube station.
3. Lord Nelson to Mint Street Park
Directly opposite you is The Ring, so called because it stands on the site of a former boxing arena. It’s a good – though not exceptional – pub for beer, and serves great hot dogs (though you’ll want to keep your appetite for Borough). We’re continuing east, across Blackfriars Road and down Union Street. Look out for the dog and pot sculpture on the corner – it commemorates a popular blacksmith’s sign that stood there in Dickens’s time, and is one of several references to the writer and his era we’ll come across. Carry on past The Lord Nelson (a basic range of drinks, but a fantastic, funky interior), turn right down Suffolk Street then left onto – here’s another Dickens reference – Copperfield Street. Initially unassuming, the road later narrows, and features some more period terraced houses and a pretty old church; look out, too, for the old painted sign at the end advising you to “Commit no nuisance”. At the end, turn right and enter Mint Street Park.
4. Marshalsea Road to Borough Market
After a quick wander through Mint Street Park well – a very pleasant, rolling patch of green between main roads – cross Marshalsea Road and proceed down it until you reach Disney Street on your left. Head down there and you’ll find the well-hidden Little Dorrit Park. ‘Marshalsea’ was the name of the debtor’s prison where the Dickens family was sent in 1824, inspiring scenes in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. To see what remains of it, cross the park and turn right down Little Dorrit Court, emerging onto Borough High Street. Take a right then a left onto Angel Place – the old wall that lines it marked the prison’s south boundary.
Now go back to Boundary High Street and head north. You’ll be at Borough Market in a few minutes – and having just walked two miles, you should
Londoners love a market. You might come to the city assuming the bustling, built-up centre doesn’t have room for them, but you’d be wrong – within 20 minutes’ walk of our door you’ll find markets tucked under bridges, filling quaint churchyards and hiding behind world-renowned concert halls. There’s plenty of variety there too: on our list are second-hand books, amazing fresh food, unique antiques and even fossils. Whether you make a special trip or drop by between other activities, they’re guaranteed to brighten your day.
Jubilee Market at Covent Garden
Most visitors to Covent Garden stick to the tame – and perfectly nice – shops and stalls of Apple Market, in the central Piazza building. But head to the south side of the square and you’ll find a slightly more unpredictable set of stalls. Jubilee Market is the covered area between the London Transport Museum and Southampton Street, and while the square-facing retailers can seem a little tacky – particularly at weekends – you’ll find an eclectic mix of antiques, vintage clothing and crafts if you venture further inside. It’s open daily, and stalls vary throughout the week.
- Address: 1 Tavistock St, London WC2E 8BD
- Walking time: 2 minutes
- Look out for:
- 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
South Bank Centre Book Market
This gem has been beneath Waterloo Bridge for years, but little has changed: books are still displayed spine-up on a series of no-nonsense trestle tables, with the bigger hardbacks face-up in the middle. Punters are still trusted to browse freely – so much so that when you do find something you like it can be difficult to work out who you have to pay. Stock is 100% second hand and vintage, and often very keenly priced, though you’ll pay more for some of the more desirable pieces (there’s usually a small selection of first editions). With antique prints available too and the BFI bar just feet away, it’s easy to lose a few hours here. Open daily.
- Address: Beneath Waterloo Bridge (south side)
- Walking time: 7 minutes
- Look out for:
- Exeter Street (see above)
- The Savoy, site of the old Savoy Palace, London residence of the Lancasters
- Aldwych, which derives from the Old English for ‘old trading town’ – the ancient Anglo-Saxon town Ludenwic stood here centuries ago
- Somerset House
- Waterloo Bridge
Real Food Market
Londoners over a certain age remember when the patch behind the Royal Festival Hall was a bald expanse of concrete whose only purpose was to be walked across. That’s still the case from Monday to Thursday, but come Friday it transforms into the Real Food Market, a lip-smacking mix of street food stalls and produce sellers. With everything from gourmet hot-dogs to organic salad boxes to small-batch jams and chutneys, you can grab lunch on the go, shop for a picnic or just wander around filling up on free samples. It runs until 8pm on Friday and Saturday, and until 6pm on Sunday.
- Address: Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX
- Walking time: 13 minutes
- Look out for:
- Exeter Street, The Savoy, Aldwych, Somerset House and Waterloo Bridge (see above)
Soho Flea Market
If you’re staying with us in May, you might catch this up-and-coming ‘artists and makers’ event on Dean Street. Launched in 2012, it brings together independent creatives with stuff to sell – ceramics, textiles, jewellery, you name it – with small food producers, entertainers and musicians to create a buzzing mini-festival in the heart of Soho. The concept has proved popular so far: apparently 10,000 people passed through in 2012, prompting organisers to scale things up for 2013. We await the next installment with bated breath…
- Address: Dean Street (annual, check cityshowcasemarkets.com)
- Walking time: 13 minutes
- Look out for:
- Bedford Street and Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate
- Garrick Street, named after actor David Garrick (1717 – 1779). The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 and still has premises here
- Leicester Square and Chinatown
It may be small, but this underappreciated market packs plenty of charm and offers a welcome escape from the chaos of Piccadilly Circus. Held in the front yard of a Christopher Wren-designed church, it has a weekly roster – food stalls dominate on Monday, antiques on Tuesday and general arts and crafts from Wednesday to Saturday. In the past we’ve spotted homemade kaleidescopes, handmade printing blocks, vintage nautical equipment, genuine fossils and much more – this is a friendly, well-located market that punches well above its weight.
- Address: 197 Piccadilly, London W1J 9LL
- Walking time: 17 minutes
- Look out for:
- Zimbabwe House, designed by key London Underground architect Charles Holden
- William IV Street, created in 1831 and named after the then king. His reign saw considerable change in the layout of Covent Garden
- Leicester Square, created when the Earl of Leicester bought and built on the land in the 17th Century
It feels like a golden age for young museum- and gallery-goers in London. Even the most Victorian of our cultural institutions have loosened their ties, let their hair down and learnt how to party – if the cultural elites of 19th Century London were to pop into the National Gallery on a Friday night today, they would be in for a shock.
Culture bosses have realised that late openings and themed parties are a huge draw, particularly when they tie into a special exhibition – think DJs, live bands, cocktail bars and fancy dress.
Would our Victorian ancestors would have approved? Well, these events feature talks, tours and workshops too, so they aren’t all about dressing up and socialising. The point is to offer a lively, engaging experience that brings visitors into contact with the museum’s cultural mission. When it works, it’s as satisfying an evening as you can have in this or any other city.
Here’s a selection of upcoming museum lates close to the Strand:
The National is open until 9pm every Friday, with free entry to the regular collections and live music from Royal College of Music students from 6pm-7pm. Look out for music, talks and special cocktails to tie in with the exhibition Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (until 12 January 2014).
There’s also an irregular programme of ‘Late Social’ events, which begin with a glass of wine in the cafe, followed by a gallery talk on a particular theme. On 31 January the event will focus on framing, and include a rare tour of the National’s framing studio. Tickets are £32.
- Address: Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN
- Walking time: 7 minutes
National Portrait Gallery
Running every Thursday and Friday night until 9pm, the NPG’s Late Shift is one of the most well-established lates series in town. The standard programme has talks, debates and music from resident DJ Edward Otchere on Thursdays, and drawing workshops and live bands on Fridays. We’re particularly looking forward to the 23 January lecture The First Bohemians, which promises to delve into the social life of 18th Century Covent Garden, and a screening of Antonioni’s classic thriller Blow-Up, showing on 20 February to coincide with a new exhibition of Derek Bailey’s celebrity photographs.
- Address: St Martin’s Place, WC2H 7HS
- Walking time: 6 minutes
London’s largest collection of antiquities is open until 8.30pm every Friday. Every second Friday of the month brings BM/PM, which includes a longer bookable lecture or performance. Some are resolutely highbrow, such as Guardian writer Charlotte Higgins’ discussion of Roman Britain on 17 January; some are accessible and entertaining, such as a comedy tour of gallery objects by duo The Gentlemen of Leisure, scheduled for 14 February.
- Address: Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG
- Waking time: 15 minutes
London Transport Museum
This gem of a museum doesn’t do regular lates, but when it does one, it does it properly. On Friday 14 February it will be celebrating a new exhibition of illustrations inspired by London stories – expect exhibition tours, drawing workshops and storytelling sessions aboard the museum’s vintage buses and train carriages. There’ll also be a bar and DJ. Tickets are £8.
- Address: Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB
- Walking time: 3 minutes
The Royal College of Surgeons’ museum is one of London’s most challenging, and its next late opening session is no different. Scheduled for 5 February, it’s a hybrid of drama, comedy and cabaret written and performed by actor and musician Mat Fraser, and will use museum objects to explore the history of disability.
- Address: 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE
- Walking time: 10 minutes
This trove of antiquities and art resides in a stately terraced house on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and the house itself is preserved almost exactly as it was left by its former resident, the celebrated architect Sir John Soane. On the first Tuesday of each month its ornate, cluttered interiors are lit by candlelight from 6pm-9pm. It is a strictly first-come-first-served event with a limit of 200 visitors, so arrive well ahead of time – tickets are distributed at 5.30pm.
- Address: 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP
- Walking time: 12 minutes