London's attractions are some of the best in the world, but they come with the price tag — and crowds — to match. These alternatives give you a dose of the capital's best sights and activities, without having to set foot inside London.
The London Eye
The i360 tower in Brighton was designed by Marks Barfield Architects, the same husband and wife team behind the London Eye. It's also sponsored by British Airways, as our own oversized ferris wheel was in its early days.
Instead of river views, though, you'll get seaside ones, from 450ft up what is effectively a giant pole. We haven't tried this one yet — after it broke down several times following its August 2016 opening, we thought it wise to let a few other people test it out first before having a go ourselves.
See also: is Brighton really London-on-sea?
Looking for an animal based day out? Whipsnade Zoo in Dunstable, is run by ZSL, the same conservation charity behind London Zoo. Being set in the Dunstable Downs, Whipsnade covers a far larger area than London Zoo ever could, and as a result is home to larger animals (bears, rhino, elephants) that are no longer kept at London Zoo. There's even the option to bring your car and drive round part of the park.
It also has a mini train, complete with its own railway station, doing a lap of the zoo, and plenty of outdoor and indoor play areas for kids to let off steam. Oh, and these stunning views over Bedfordshire:
See also: where to see animals in London.
London Transport Museum
We love transport, so much so that, as well as the main London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, we've been known to schlep up to the northern heights of Enfield to Whitewebbs (don't mention the well). There's also the London Bus Museum, which is just about outside London, tickling into Surrey — but is within the M25. If that's still too close to London for you, get ye to Shropshire where you'll find this replica of Covent Garden station:
You'll find it at the Jackfield Tile Museum, part of the Ironbridge World Heritage Site. Tiles for several London tube stations were made in this very building, which contains a replica of a tube station to show off its handiwork.
Kew Gardens has a sister site at Wakehurst in Sussex, complete with woodlands, wildlife and nature reserves, and ornamental gardens. It's like being in the countryside... in the actual countryside. We see Kew Palace and raise you Wakehurst Mansion. This rural outpost may not have Kew's pagoda, but it's home to the Millennium Seed Bank, a scientific mission to conserve 25% of the world's plant species by 2020.
St Paul's Cathedral
For an alternative dose of Wren's architecture, head to Cambridge to view the Wren Library at Nevile's Court of Trinity College, Cambridge University. It may not have the religious connotations (or the dome) of St Paul's, but the public can get inside for free at certain times (check website), which saves you a decent whack over a trip to St Paul's.
Natural History Museum
Natural History Museum has a sister site in the bucolic town of Tring. We'll be honest, we actually prefer the Tring site; much smaller than its London counterpart, it's more manageable, meaning you can get most of the way round it before Museum Fatigue sets in.
Expect to see fewer skeletons than in London, but plenty of taxidermy animals of all shapes and sizes. It's got that proper old-school museum feel to it too, all wooden cases and dim lighting. Lovely.
We'll be honest — Big Ben's not much use to anyone for the time being, now it's been silenced and scaffolded. In the meantime, pay its plastic counterpart a visit; Legoland Windsor has a replica of the tower, and it bongs like the real one should. There's actually a whole mini London, complete with St Paul's, Gherkin, London Eye, One Canada Square and more.
If you want a dose of The Bard here in London, head to Shakespeare's Globe and spend an evening watching his plays the way audiences would have done at the time.
If you want an even bigger dose of The Bard, head to Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare's hometown, where you can watch his plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, visit Shakespeare's birthplace, Shakespeare's wife's cottage, and Shakespeare's mother's childhood home. Safe to say they like Shakespeare around these parts.
The Royal Observatory
View the night sky without the London smog at The Observatory Science Centre in Herstmonceux. It's a descendant of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich — when the London venue decided to remove its scientific activity from the centre of London in 1947, it chose Herstmonceux as the new location.
Ride the tube
Alright, the tube's not an attraction, more of a daily punishment for living in London. There are plenty of other subterranean transport systems you could choose to ride; the Paris Metro; the Beijing Subway; the Munich U-Bahn; the New York Subway; the Moscow Metro. But for us, the best place to get a dose of home-away-from-home is the good old Isle of Wight, where you can ride a tube train out to sea.
Tube carriages, which date from 1938 and were in use in London until 1988, have been put out to pasture here, shuttling passengers around on the Island Line. All you need is a ticket to Ryde.
The history may be there, but the London spirit's been beaten out of these vehicles — we had a complete stranger engage us in conversation on our trip.
Other alternatives that aren't in London:
- Madame Tussauds has branches dotted across four continents, meaning that you're never more than a few countries away from your nearest waxy Donald Trump/Brad Pitt/Darth Vader.
- Similarly, The Dungeons has other branches across the UK, and in other European cities. It's also got as far as San Francisco.
Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood have restaurants all over the world. It's a wonder anyone ever leaves their own city at all, to be honest.
Where have we missed? Let us know in the comments below.