21 beautiful places in London (without the crowds)
I find beautiful places in London addictive. The excitement of exploring a new place; a journey full of anticipation (will it be as stunning as it looked in the pictures?); and finally the payoff of having my breath taken away. Glittering walls; lush green as far as the eye can see; colours to compete with the Med or Marrakech.
London might be known for frenetic streets, bright lights, and bowler hats. But it’s in the living, breathing gardens, parks and history that it’s at its most beautiful.
1. The Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College
‘The Sistine Chapel of the UK’, this impressive section of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor as a dining hall for naval pensioners. Incredibly, it’s completely free to visit.
More information: ORNC website
2. The Great Conservatory at Syon House
Back in the early 19th century, greenhouses were small, brick affairs. That was, of course, until Charles Fowler created Syon Park’s Great Conservatory and broke the mould. He did away with the brown stone and instead used floor-to-ceiling glass that rests delicately on a metal frame. It’s now open to the public; visit on a sunny day for the full effect.
3. Eltham Palace’s entrance hall
The childhood home of Henry VIII is now an art-deco paradise, the main attraction being the entrance hall above. In its heyday, it was used for the glitziest and most glamorous of parties and it provides a stark contrast to the surviving medieval great hall attached to it.
Admission is normally £13.60 but English Heritage members get in free: you can join English Heritage here [a].
4. Orleans House Gallery, Richmond
There’s more to Richmond than the park, and the area’s hidden gem is this 18th-century baroque gallery. On a clear day, the light pours in through the high windows, filling the space with sunshine.
More information: Richmond Borough website
5. Hampstead Heath Hill Garden and Pergola
This “secret” garden in Hampstead has London at its heart (literally): the hills in the pergola were built with earth removed during the extension of the Northern Line to Hampstead in the early 1900s. It was the creation of Lord Leverhulme — the then-owner of the manor that sits ‘next door’ — for extravagant summer parties but was neglected after the breakout of World War II, giving it an eerie, other-worldly feel.
6. Watts Memorial, Postman’s Park
Beautiful in a different sense to most of the other places on this list, The Watts Memorial is dedicated to ordinary men, women, and children of the past who gave their lives trying to save others. The tragic but poignant monument, decorated in typical Victorian style, is a window into the forgotten daily lives of those long gone, and a reminder that life is too short to waste.
More information: City of London website
7. Kyoto Garden, Holland Park
What is it about a waterfall that is so relaxing? Whatever it is, you can count on this colourful little corner of Holland Park to help you forget about the grey, boring world of tax returns and concrete.
More information: RBKC website
8. Painshill Park
Journey to the very edge of south-west London (I’m talking just before the M25) and get lost in this landscape garden. It has enough hidden treasures to keep you busy for a whole afternoon: crystal grottos, a beautiful lake and hidden ruins, as well as 158 acres of greenery.
More information: Painshill website
9. Chumleigh Gardens
Chumleigh Gardens is five types of garden in one: Mediterranean, Islamic, Oriental, African and English gardens sit side by side to reflect the area’s diversity.
More information: Friends of Burgess Park website
10. St Bartholomew the Great
This 12-century building is London’s oldest surviving church. It’s hard to believe that this cavernous dome of a place fits behind its modest exterior, but venture through the Tudor gatehouse that shields it from the rest of Smithfield and you’ll enter another world.
11. Fairlop Waters
The water here is still, and there isn’t a high-rise in sight. A scattering of boats line the water and the rolling hills on the horizon will almost convince you that you’re nowhere near the Central line.
12. Ham House gardens and orangery
Even the extravagant Charles I loved Ham House: he saw fit to give the lease to one of his closest friends. Nowadays it’s owned by the National Trust and it comes complete with stunning gardens and an orangery. Tip: get the train to Richmond, not Twickenham, and take the £1 ferry across the river for a gorgeous view of Richmond Park. You’ll pass Orleans House (see no.18) on the way, too.
More information: National Trust website
13. Wat Buddhapadipa
The first Buddhist temple in the UK (and the only Thai temple to be built in Europe) was originally located in Richmond and has been in its current location in Wimbledon since the 70s. It’s a formal temple, too: the grounds include an ornamental lake, an orchard, a house for the monks and a cottage.
More information: Buddhapadipa website
14. The view from Severndroog Castle
This little castle in south-east London is known for its imposing exterior, but less known for its incredible view stretching over London: it beats The Shard hands-down.
More information: Severndroog Castle website
15. The Hogarth Staircase at St Bart’s Hospital Museum
If the ceiling of the Painted Hall at ONRC leaves you wanting more, then you only need to head to the back of St Bart’s Hospital Museum, where you’ll find the beautiful Hogarth Staircase. To make it even more special, some of the people in the paintings were based on real patients of the hospital.
16. Leighton House Museum
The amount of detail in the flamboyant, intricate, and colourful home of 19th-century artist Frederic Leighton is hard to take in on a first glance, and that’s before you look at the art attached to the wall (as opposed to art that is the wall). Therefore, leave enough time to wander around each room to soak it all in properly.
More information: RBKC website
17. St John’s Lodge Gardens, Regent’s Park
This small garden to the north of the inner circle in Regent’s Park was designed for meditation for the 3rd Marquess of Bute, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s both serene and beautiful. St John’s Lodge is a private residence, but you can still access the garden through the small gate along the inner circle.
Thanks to @ypldn for the suggestion!
More information: Royal Parks website
18. St Dunstan-in-the-East
This battered 12th-century church was turned to ruins by The Blitz, and since turned into a magical mix of outside and in; branches wind themselves round doors to the original church, and you can still walk from the graveyard, “inside” to the nave and then back “outside” to the garden. Go during the weekend, when it’s quieter.
19. Isabella Plantation, Richmond Park
Created from boggy ground in the 1830s, this garden within Richmond Park is at its peak in late April and early May, but its evergreen azaleas and other rare plants surrounding the streams and ponds mean it’s beautiful all year round.
More information: Royal Parks website
20. Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
It’s hard to believe that this magnificent temple is in London, and even harder to believe that all 5,000 tonnes of it were hand-carved (yes, carved by hand) in India before being assembled in London. Over 3,000 volunteers helped to make it a reality and it’s funded entirely by donations. Which is even more beautiful than the place itself.
More information: Shri Swaminarayan Mandir website
21. The Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park
The last place on a list of beautiful, quiet places in London just has to be all about peace. This little spot in Battersea Park was offered to the people of London by the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order in 1984, in the midst of the Cold War. It mirrors others in Europe, Asia and the USA, and acts as a spiritual focus to unify the movement for peace. Can you get anywhere more peaceful than this?
Thanks to @WeirdSid for the suggestion!
More information: Battersea Park website
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