London. The name itself conjures up images of red buses, black cabs and three-piece suits. As a major global hub, it attracts a large number of tourists all year round. But, like many major cities, those who visit it rarely get the opportunity to experience what the city has to offer away from its ‘main’ attractions. So, for those who want to delve a little deeper, as a born and bred Londoner, I will offer you my 10 places to visit and things to do, for the ‘alternative traveller’, including places to recharge your spiritual batteries- away from the endless stream of shoppers and selfie-takers…
1. Sample the (halal) cuisine
Halal food can be found relatively easily in London; from Michelin star restaurants in chic Notting Hill, to cheap and cheerful curries in urban Whitechapel. My go-to source for where to eat is Halal Girl About Town; though not an exhaustive list of halal restaurants (see Zabihah if you want that), Halal Girl is constantly updating her blog on new places to eat and her recommendations for the capital are worth checking out.
2. Visit Leighton House Museum
I’m a massive fan of museums, and living in London is one of the best places to be if you’re a history head like me. Both the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum have permanent Islamic exhibitions. The British Museum announced in 2015 they would be following in the footsteps of the V&A, the Metropolitan in New York, and the Louvre of Paris by opening a new Islamic art exhibition, scheduled for October 2018.
But away from the museums that everyone already knows, is the lesser known, but equally captivating, Leighton House Museum in Holland Park. Frederic Leighton was a Victorian artist, and like many of his contemporaries, he had a fascination for the “orient”, which lead him to build the centrepiece of his home, the Arab Hall. Using original tiles imported from Turkey and Syria, Leighton built a magnificent room that acted as his own personal retreat. A visit to the museum is worth it for that reason alone, but it also hosts a number of different exhibitions throughout the year, most of the them concentrated on either the Muslim world or Victorian art. Leighton House is also part of the Nour Festival– a celebration of Middle Eastern and North African culture, hosted annually by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (a home away from home for many visitors from the Gulf) in October and November.
Unfortunately unlike most other London museums, there is an entry charge for Leighton House.
3. Rumi’s Cave
Is Rumi’s Cave a mosque, community centre, or a zawiya? Much like the young, cosmopolitan and growing Muslim community in London, Rumi’s Cave in Willesden Green defies definition. The Cave has a number of different events going on, on a regular basis- from Friday prayers with Shaykh Babikr to calligraphy classes, tea socials and book readings. Have a look at their Facebook page to keep up to date. Whenever you go you’ll always find a friendly and open crowd. “Come, come whoever you are…”
4. Visit Borough Market
Although I’ve already mentioned trying out the abundant halal cuisine available in London, Borough Market also deserves a mention. It may not be on every “halaloodies” list due to the lack of halal food available there, but there are plenty of pescatarian and vegetarian options available. There’s been a Borough Market in one form or other for over 1000 years; the current one dates to the Victorian era, and given the weird and wonderful foods on display, you would be forgiven for thinking you had gone back in time 150 years. Some of the stalls and shops I’d recommend are Kappacasein for a grilled cheese sandwich, Gujarati Rasoi for their vegetarian thaali, 3BIS Gelatario for their gelato, and Rabot Estate for their superb hot chocolate.
5. Sample the coffee scene
While you’re at Borough Market, it may be a good opportunity to have a taste of what London’s coffee scene has to offer. Monmouth Coffee is regarded by many as London’s best, though the long queue that sometimes stretches around the corner can be a bit of a put-off. But you don’t necessarily have to queue for long to taste their wares; if you have a coffee machine, or anything that makes non-instant coffee, get in the other queue for buying beans- it is usually shorter than the one for the cafe. Ask to taste a sample of what they have to offer- you’re likely to take home at least one small bag!
If Melbourne and San Francisco hipster style “artisanal” coffee is more your thing, then Prufrock in Clerkenwell is probably where you want to go. They also offer barista classes if you’re interested…
6. Visit the bookshops
Admittedly, the weather in London isn’t always that great, so there’s no better way to spend your time indoors than in one of London’s many bookshops. If you happen to be visiting the British Museum, the London Review of Books is a stone’s throw away from main entrance. For books that focus on the Islamic world and the Middle East, Arthur Probsthain has been providing the city with books on the ‘orient’ for well over 100 years. If you’re looking for an antique publication, be sure to ask them; they’re also located less than a minute from the British Museum.
If you want traditional Islamic books in English, Dar al-Taqwa has long been one of London’s go-to shops, counting Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf among their patrons. They can be found on Melcombe Street, not far from the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park.
See where time begins (literally). Greenwich is home of all things chronological, maritime and astronomical. There’s the Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark, all of which fall under the Royal Museums of Greenwich. But if you’ve had enough of museums and the weather’s good, you can always just chill out in the magnificent park and admire the view.
If you enjoyed Greenwich Park then you might also like to visit Richmond Park, another of London’s royal parks and the city’s biggest enclosed space. This used to be the monarch’s deer hunting ground (and yes they are still roaming about, lots of them!), and is also a national nature reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, so you would be forgiven if you thought you had left the urban jungle and gotten lost in a forest-which is actually a possibility here!
9. Get out of the city
It’s a running national joke that Londoners hate leaving London, and it’s true- we’d rather go to another country than go to any other part of the UK! But in truth, there are some great places to visit outside the capital, and many are just an hour away by train.
Canterbury is home to the famous cathedral, a stunning building that is worth the visit. To see the inside of the building without having to pay the entrance fee, you can either enrol at the University of Kent and graduate there like I did, or you can attend one of the masses such as Evensong.
Cambridge and Oxford, known as the two famous university towns of England, are both a short train journey away from London. They’re very similar in that the numerous colleges that make up the university are dotted around their respective cities, with lots of pretty and green locations in and around them. You can also try your hand at kayaking, canoeing and punting through the canals in both cities.
Bath is a picturesque, ancient Roman city in Somerset, and unsurprisingly, is famous for its Roman baths.
Paris. OK, this one might seem a bit strange to add to this list, but it’s an option. Paris is only two and half hours away on the Eurostar train service from St Pancras station (if the French aren’t on strike, that is), and is certainly a doable daytrip. Take the train in the morning, have a stroll down the Seine, ice cream at Berthillon, and make it back home in time for supper. Oh, and London has a branch of Laduree, so don’t go to Paris just for that!
10. Relax on Bankside
If, after a busy trip, all you want to do is relax, head back to Borough Market, pick up a coffee or a gelato, grab a book you bought in one of the aforementioned bookshops, sit on the grass outside the Tate Modern, where you can take in the view of the Thames and the City skyline, and just chill!
Bankside is a nice, quiet spot in Central London, as it is pedestrianised and therefore away from all the traffic. You’ll find a few sites here, like the Tate Modern and Borough Market, as well as Shakespeare’s Globe– a reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed (there are numerous renditions of his works all year round). To tie in with the Elizabethan theme, there is also The Golden Hinde, a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship. If you keep heading west to Waterloo you’ll come to the BFI IMAX, the biggest cinema screen in the country, which is a great place to catch a movie.
Eid in the Square- Since London is home to so many different cultures and lifestyles, there are numerous festivals and celebrations throughout the year. One such occasion is Eid in the Square. If you happen to be in London around Eid time you can head to Trafalgar Square to join in the celebrations. There are usually activities for kids and music performances, amongst other things.
Turkish Mosques- If you were to wander around certain parts of Dalston, Haringey and Hackney in North London, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a suburb of Istanbul. There are two mosques in this part of town which standout from others in the city: the Aziziye Mosque and the Suleymaniye.
Sir Richard Burton’s tomb- Sir Richard Francis Burton was an explorer and translator in the Victorian era; best known for translating 1001 Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra into English, his wonderful mausoleum is built in the form of a Bedouin tent and is located in St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church in Mortlake– it is worth seeing!
Did we miss anything? Leave a comment below!