Let's start with the museums. There's zero fun to be had elbowing through the overheated summer hordes at the V&A or Tate Modern. But London is studded with excellent, lesser-crammed alternatives from the Freud Museum (freud.org.uk) to the Geffrye Museum (geffrye-museum.org.uk).
There's also the London Canal Museum (canalmuseum.org.uk) – and its side dish of summer-only narrow boat runs along some surprisingly tranquil urban waterways.
But for a leisurely day out with the locals, hop a southbound Overground train from Highbury & Islington station. You'll have a dozen free-entry museums and galleries to choose from en route, including the tiny Brunel Museum (brunel-museum.org.uk) and the delightful Horniman Museum (horniman.ac.uk).
Add a picnic stop at bucolic Crystal Palace Park, where a menagerie of Victorian dinosaur sculptures peeks from the trees. It's one of several London green spaces recommended over summer-packed hotpots such as Hyde Park and Regent's Park – consider Clapham Common, Hampstead Heath and Victoria Park.
If your outdoor interests veer to the botanical, it's not just about Kew Gardens. Try the Chelsea Physic Garden (chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk) and the landscaped grounds of Chiswick House (chgt.org.uk) and Eltham Palace (elthampalace.org.uk) – complete with an art deco mansion.
Centred on stately homes, these latter two indicate there's much more to the capital's historic side than the tour-group-packed Tower of London. Turn your back on overcrowding at intriguing heritage sites such as Fenton House, Richmond's Ham House and the achingly beautiful Red House, a William Morris-designed charmer. All are National Trust properties – details at nationaltrust.org.uk.
If finding these hidden gems seems exhausting, try guided tours instead. But rather than those ever-crowded Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper wanders, consider some paths less-travelled. Tours via London Walks (walks.com) typically cost just $16.50 each, so it's worth gambling on lesser-known Little Venice or Old Mayfair walks where you'll likely learn something new.
Alternatively, nose down some hidden alleyways on a Street Art Detour (londondetours.com); faceplant into some samples on an East End Food Tour (eatinglondontours.co.uk); or saddle up for a Mind the Gap bike tour to Windsor Castle or Hampton Court (mindthegaptours.com).
And when it's time for a drink, don't bother trying to get served in central London. Instead, sup with the locals at hidden gem microbrewery bars such as Crate Brewery (cratebrewery.com) or Camden Town Brewery (camdentownbrewery.com) – then take in a show.
Eschewing the West End's ever-busy playhouses, check out a secret only the locals seem to know about. London's pub theatres – studio-sized venues attached to traditional bars – include the acclaimed Finborough Theatre (finboroughtheatre.co.uk) and the welcoming Old Red Lion Theatre (oldredliontheatre.co.uk).
Sometimes, of course, fleeing the city is the only way to go – and that's where southeast England's dense train network comes in handy. BritRail's easy-use London Plus Pass (from $165; britrail.net) is good if you're planning several escapes, but day trips can be plotted from any station ticket office – see via nationalrail.co.uk for options.
Consider St. Albans (around 30 minutes from St. Pancras International station) with its museums, twice-weekly street market and thirst-slaking clutch of centuries-old pubs (full disclosure: it's my British hometown).
Alternatively, it takes around an hour to reach these day-trip destinations: Brighton (from Victoria or London Bridge) is a vibrant seaside city lined with indie shops; Cambridge (from Kings Cross) is a cobbled charmer less crowded than its Oxford tourism rival; and Winchester (from Waterloo) is an historic former capital with a celebrated cathedral.
But if you're craving fresh air after weeks of blowing grit from your nose on the Tube, head for the nearby South Downs (southdowns.gov.uk), Britain's newest national park. You'll find hiking and biking trails, a string of enticing towns and villages and gently rolling patchwork countryside that feels far from the madding crowds of the summertime capital.
OUR READERS WRITE
- Do as the aristocracy did in Medieval Times and head to Richmond-end of the District Line of West London. Great history, park, shops, restaurants and especially the great National Trust Ham House along the Thames. Jane Rayner
- Go see the Changing the Guard practice 40 minutes earlier across the street from Buckingham Palace. Also go to Richmond Park and Petersham Nurseries. @Jody_Robbins
- Any of the public garden squares in Bloomsbury provide a respite from the crowds at the British Museum and the Oxford Street shops. I particularly like the quiet of Brunswick Square with its spectacular plane trees. It is a great place to relax and regain one’s tourist legs. Heather Schellinck
- Take the Northern Line on the tube to Archway, walk a short distance up Highgate Hill to Lauderdale House (Charles II and Nell Gwyn’s old love nest), have a coffee in the the super Italian café which overlooks Waterlow Park. Then set off to enjoy a walk in in the park en route to Highgate Cemetery. After visiting Karl Marx’s and many other interesting graves, go up to Highgate village for lunch. From there you can get a bus or walk to Hampstead Heath. You’ll feel like you’ve had a day in the country. Angela Mairead Coid
- Go in November? @margymaclibrary
- How about tucking into a cozy corner at Daunt Books for the afternoon - or heading to Richmond or Kew Gardens? @sylvia_tan
- Some of the best foodie markets are on the fringes of central London, in charming neighbourhoods that few tourists hear about - try Maltby Street Market or Broadway Market. They're bustling, with clothes, organic treats and street musicians. And instead of doing a Thames boat cruise, consider sailing the Regent's Canal on a boat tour operated by Jason's Trip, from Little Venice to Camden @ellenhimelfarb
- Highgate Cemetery. Cycle the City. Richmond Park. Cricket. Thames Barrier walk. Eel Pie Island. Dulwich. Kew @cameronfalconer
- It's good to know about the gardens at the Horniman Museum. Not central but it feels calm there. Also try Docklands in the evening and on weekends - good for peace @AboutLondon
- Take to the water on a Thames Clipper then have a go on the Emirates Air Line gondola. If you've time, try Up at the O2. We also go swimming on Hampstead Heath @sophontrack
- Alternate between London and day trips out by train to escape the crowds. Check out the National Portrait Gallery's (crowded) Virginia Woolf exhibition - then head to her house in the South Downs @chibeba
- Wander deep into Kew Gardens or walk the canal tow paths in North London. Also, the Royal Festival Hall foyers are open and free all day starting quite early - go up a floor or two for some quiet: the Saison Poetry Library is on level five and it's a lovely oasis @erinehm
- I think it's impossible… but Richmond Park, Clissold Park and Abney Park are great, kinda out-of-the-way spots @lowerlameland
- I had a great cycle experience with Mind the Gap Tours. Cycling the countryside, touring by Eton College and having the trails almost to yourself! Wish it was a longer tour @jasonknibbs
- This is a doozy. I remember most attractions that tourists normally visit have advance tickets to purchase to avoid the massive queues @Chiqee
- Go to Paris? @JimByersTravel
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