Cool things to do in the City of London
The City of London may well be a business district but as the oldest part of the capital, it has so much more to it. There's that long history plus plenty of cool things to see and do.
ST DUNSTAN IN THE EAST
On a side street between the Tower of London and London Bridge, the bombed remains of a church have left us with an amazing City garden. St Dunstan in the East is a combination of a Norman church built around 1100 (a similar time to the Tower of London) with additions in the 14th century. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, a steeple and tower were added by Sir Christopher Wren.
During the World War Two Blitz in 1941, the church took a direct hit. The north and south walls and Wren's steeple were all that was left and the decision was made not to rebuild the church. It opened as a public garden in 1970 and is a fantastic location for contemplation or photography. The shell of the church is overgrown with trees and vines and with all the high rise buildings in The City, it's a real treat to find this peaceful garden.
Another public garden that's worth knowing about is Postman's Park near to St Paul's Cathedral. There's seating here making it a great spot to bring a takeaway lunch but many come to see The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. Built by Victorian artist George Frederick Watts in 1900, there are fifty-four ceramic memorial tablets commemorating sixty-two ordinary people (men, women and children) who lost their lives while attempting to save another. From young children who drowned saving a friend to men who saved others from a burning building, this is a fascinating but poignant location.
This one is slightly different as it's not actually outside. But the Barbican Conservatory is so enormous, with a glass roof, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in an outdoor garden. It's a tropical wilderness full of exotic plants plus fish and birds and different levels to explore. It's free to visit and open most Sunday afternoons.
While there, why not try the Big Barbican Adventure? The free trail is aimed at families but it's good for anyone who wants to explore the brilliant Barbican complex.
Under the Bloomberg offices you can see the Temple of Mithras. This was some sort of secret Roman cult that archaeologists found in the 1950s. It was put here near to its original location during the building of these new offices and the London Mithraeum means we can see it for free seven days a week. (Note, it is best to book online.) There are exhibits about the Temple to discover more of the history while you wait your turn to see it – groups enter and leave together. There is also a contemporary art exhibition on the ground floor.
CEREMONY OF THE KEYS
The Ceremony of the Keys at The Tower of London is a 700-year-old tradition that takes place every night. Essentially it's locking all the doors to the Tower of London and the public is allowed to escort the warden. As the Tower houses the Crown Jewels they never miss a night and it's completely free to attend. This one takes some pre-planning as it is really popular and there are limited spaces so it is usually fully booked for 6-12 months ahead.
DENNIS SEVERS' HOUSE
Just outside of the official boundary for the City of London, Dennis Severs' House is definitely still worth including. Stuck in the past, it's set up as a memorial to a fictional family.
American Dennis Severs lived here in the 1980s, without electricity and other home comforts, while creating a Huguenot silk weaver's home for Mr Isaac Jervis, his family and their descendants. While the Jervis family are imaginary, attention to detail here is incredible – although do not be mistaken into thinking that historical accuracy was the driving force behind this project.
LIFT A GOLD BAR
Not many of us get the opportunity to touch a gold bar but you can try to lift one up at the Bank of England Museum. Security is tight (obviously) but you put your hand into a hole in a clear cabinet and you can try and move the 13kg block. There's no chance of stealing it but it may be the only time you get to touch something so densely valuable.
It's a free museum open Monday to Friday and has other exhibits about the monetary system and the history of the Bank of England.
(Technically, these markets are outside the City of London boundary but they are so close they always get included in City of London guides.)
This is a great place to shop from designer/makers for great fashion, homewares, accessories and more. Spitalfields Market is a real 'go to' place for finding unique gifts. Open seven days a week under a covered Victorian market, there can be over a hundred stalls as well as independent boutiques and big-name retailers. The restaurants, stalls and food trucks make this a great place to grab something to eat too.
BRICK LANE MARKET
On Sundays, this east London collection of markets is the place to be for secondhand wares and cool vibes. Colourful street art is the backdrop to Brick Lane Market with some of the world's best street artists leaving their mark on the walls. As it's an ever-changing landscape, it can be good to go on a street art guided tour.
COLUMBIA ROAD FLOWER MARKET
This lovely road is lined with great independent shops and cafes but really comes alive on Sunday mornings for the flower market. From 8 am until about 3 pm there are 50+ stalls selling stunning cut flowers and pot plants and it gets really busy. The serious shoppers buy loads in the first hour and for the browsing shoppers, there can be some reductions after 1 pm. Photographers love the market too as it's a riot of colour.
If you like the boy wizard you will love seeing Diagon Alley. The cobblestoned ornate Victorian Leadenhall Market was used as a film location in the Harry Potter movies. Find 42 Bull’s Head Passage and you'll be at the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. Shops are open during the week and there are lunchtime food stalls but come at the weekend and you can get some amazing photos while it's quiet.
London has plenty of escape room games but only Enigma Quests has the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Participants get to put on a wizard's cloak before trying to beat the clock by solving puzzles as a team. (I've tried this and would highly recommend the game.)
FUN SPORT AND FITNESS
Swingers is a 1920s English countryside-inspired golf club in a building in The City. The emphasis is on having fun so it's all about drinks, street food and competitive socialising. And off Bishopsgate, Junkyard Golf Club has neon courses created from pre-loved and reclaimed materials.
You can learn to swing dance on Fridays in the Bishopsgate Institute Great Hall. There are teachers on hand to give initial lessons and then offer tips throughout the session. Or for something more French and sophisticated, head to Chancery Lane to play pétanque at Baranis – a chic cocktail bar.
Morning stretching with a view is also recommended as you can do Yoga in the Walkways at Tower Bridge on the third Wednesday of each month. See the sunrise from 42 metres above the River Thames. Get there early to get a space on the glass floor. And there's Sunrise Yoga and Breakfast at the Sky Garden back from April 2020.
WHERE TO STAY
Fraser Residence Bishopsgate offers exclusive accommodation in the City of London. On a quiet street close to Liverpool Street station, there are 26 well-appointed serviced apartment residences, plus access to a secluded outdoor patio within the property compound specially created for guests.