London’s alternative museums: 22 quirky & unusual museums you absolutely must see when you visit London

Last updated on November 21st, 2022

Let’s go and discover some alternative museums in London: 22 must-see unusual, off-beat, historical and secret museums everyone should visit at least once in London

You’ve done the Tower of London, the British Museum, Madame Tussauds and Westminster Abbey. But there’s so much more to London than our superstar tourist landmarks. I am often asked to put together a list of my secret, hidden and unusual London favourites, so here it is: an alternative guide to London’s museums and galleries by yours truly.

Sir John Soane Museum

Recommended for: Hogarth fans and those who like something a little bonkers.

Soane Museum, alternative museums in London

Let’s start with what I consider the best museum in London. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited the Soane, drooled over the Hogarths in the Picture Room and gawped at the sarcophagus of Seti I, purchased by John Soane. The architect and collector inaugurated his new Egyptian purchase over a 3-day candlelit party for the who’s who of Georgian London. Museums will never look the same after you’ve been to the Soane. Just trust me with this one.

Soane Museum: 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn, London WC2A 3BP. Website. Free entry.

Wallace Collection

Recommended for: admirers of Marie Antoinette and the rococo

The Wallace is a close tie for first place. It has one of the world’s largest collections of Marie Antoinette memorabilia and furniture, a Picture Gallery which will blow you away and one of the prettiest pink cafes in London. Make sure you go say hello to The Laughing Cavalier. You can read more about the Wallace here.

Wallace Collection: Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN. Website. Free entry.

Dennis Severs

Recommended for: London time travel

If you’re looking for an alternative museum in London then look no further than the Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields. I don’t know whether to describe it as a house, an exhibition or a piece of historical theatre.  In this unique immersive experience, visitors step into the lives of a family of Huguenot silk weavers from 1725 to 1919. David Hockney refers to it as “one of the world’s greatest works of opera.” Try to book one of the evening tours, or even better, visit at Christmas.

Dennis Severs House: 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6BX. Website is currently being updated and will launch sometime in May.

Sambourne House

Recommended for: Victorian enthusiasts and time travelling

Once home to Punch cartoonist and serial photographer Edward Linley Sambourne, Sambourne House at 18 Stafford Terrace is now a rare example of the Victorian “aesthetic” interior – from top to bottom.  You can read more about 18 Stafford Terrace here.

Sambourne House, London W8 7BH. Website.

Two Temple Place

Recommended for: architecture and neo-Gothic fans

Two Temple Place, alternative museums in London

Image: Bulldog Trust

This architectural gem is one of London’s best-kept secrets, but of course I am happy to share it with you, dear readers. Two Temple Place is the cats pyjamas when it comes to opulence – it just oozes more is more. Once home to William Waldorf Astor (he of deep, deep pockets), the house once boasted the country’s first home telephone.  The oak staircase is a neo-Gothic marvel –  check out the posts topped with figures from Astor’s favourite book, The Three Musketeers.  You may recognise Two Temple Place from Bridget Jones, The Crown and Mr Selfridge. It’s also used as a double for the House of Commons.

Two Temple Place: 2 Temple Pl, Temple, London WC2R 3BD.  The venue is only open during certain times of the year. Check the website. Free entry but booking essential.

Museum of the Home

Recommended for: interior design fans

historical museums London

1870 Parlour, Image courtesy of Museum of the Home, credit Em Fitzgerald

Once called the Geffrye Museum, the Museum of the Home explores the home from 1600 to the present day with a unique collection of period room displays. At Christmas, the rooms get decked out with Christmas through the ages, and it’s one of my favourite places to visit during the yuletide season. Don’t forget to visit the pretty gardens and stop off for cake and a cuppa in Molly’s Café, housed in a former Victorian pub.

Museum of the Home: Geffrye Almshouses, 136 Kingsland Rd, London E2 8EA. Website. Free entry.

Horniman Museum and Gardens

Perfect for: curious minds and budding archaeologists

One of the most unique museums in London, the Horniman in Forest Hill is famous for its anthropology, natural history and musical instruments displays. It’s also a great family alternative to the Natural History Museum. It holds a large collection of taxidermy animals (say hello to Mr Walrus who is a London celebrity in his own right). There’s also an aquarium, a lovely café and some of the prettiest picnic gardens in London. The Horniman may be bit of a schlep to get to from central London but it’s worth it. You can read more about the unusual Horniman Museum and Gardens here.

Horniman Museum and Gardens: 100 London Rd, London SE23 3PQ. Website. Free entry.

Note: You could combine a visit to the Horniman and to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in one day.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Perfect for: Baroque buffs

Secret museums in London, Queen Victoria, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Princess Victoria, aged Four, Stephen Poyntz Denning, 1823

Designed by Regency architect John Soane (see the first museum in this post), the Dulwich Picture Gallery is the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery. The iconic red telephone box was modelled on the gallery’s domed roof, so make sure you look up when you visit. It houses a fascinating collection of Old Masters including Gainsborough, Canaletto, Reynolds, Rembrandt and Poussin. My favourite though, is the tiny portrait of Princess Victoria, aged four, by Stephen Poyntz Denning. I’m also rather partial to a wander in the gardens and tea and cake in the café.

Dulwich Picture Gallery: Gallery Rd, London SE21 7AD. Website.

The Postal Museum

Recommended for: stamp collectors and British history lovers

Alternative museums in London, Postal Museum

This quirky London museum has the closest thing you’ll get to a Disney ride in town: the fun Mail Rail. As you trundle along original Post Office Underground Railway tunnels and past forgotten platforms, you’ll be immersed in the story of the post office and how it all started. Head to the exhibition rooms and see the historical post office vehicles, stamps, postcard displays and much more.

The Postal Museum: 5-20 Phoenix Pl, London WC1X 0DA. Website.

The Fan Museum

The Fan Museum is one of London’s most unusual museums, dedicated to the preservation of hand fans and with a collection that dates as far back as the eleventh century. There is also a delightful orangerie where you can have one of the best-priced afternoon teas in London.

The Fan Museum: 12 Crooms Hill, London SE10 8ER. Website.

Please note: the Fan Museum is closed until June 2022.

Emery Walker House

Recommended for: William Morris and Arts and Crafts fans

Unusual museums in London

Image: Emery Walker House, Matt Clayton

This historic terraced house in Hammersmith was once owned by Emery Walker, a bosom buddy to Wiliam Morris and one of the leading figures in the Arts and Crafts movement. The house hasn’t really changed since Walker died: it’s an Arts and Crafts love letter and a must-visit for anyone who is interested in Morrisanelia. Look out for the linoleum in the entrance hall (the only surviving example of a Morris linoleum in a home), the Morris rug and the patterned wall-hangings. Make sure you pop in to the William Morris Society after a visit (next door to Kelmscott House where Morris lived and died).

Emery Walker House: 7 Hammersmith Terrace, London W6 9TS. Website.

Keats House

Must-see: for poetry lovers.

Visit the house in Hampstead where Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale and where he lived before his ill-fated journey to Rome. It’s here where he met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, the gal next door.

Keats House: 10 Keats Grove, London NW3 2RR. Website.

Strawberry Hill House and Garden

Recommended for: fans of gothic literature.

Once the most famous pad in England, this house museum is a mini-Gothic castle, complete with ghosts, a church-style library, damask-lined walls and a large dose of “gloomth.”. This one tops the chart for the most quirky and unusual pad in London so whatever you do, don’t leave town without a visit. You can read more about Strawberry Hill here.

Strawberry Hill House and Garden: 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham TW1 4ST. Website.

The Queen’s House

Recommended for: ghost hunters and Tudor history buffs.

Tulip Stairs, Queen's House

This Inigo Jones masterpiece was built for Anne of Denmark, the queen of King James I. But Queen’s House in Greenwich is more famous for the queen who resides on its walls: Elizabeth I. You’ll be dazzled by the Virgin Queen’s bling in the Armada Portrait – not to mention how fierce she looks. Make sure you find the Tulip Stairs, the first self-supporting spiral staircase in Britain. Watch out though as it is thought to be haunted.

The Queen’ House: Romney Road, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF. Website. Free entry.

Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College

Recommended for: those who can’t get to the Sistine Chapel.

unique museums London

Staying in Greenwich, a jaunt over to the Painted Hall won’t disappoint. This epic masterpiece took the artist James Thornhill 19 years to complete, and it’s considered one of the finest baroque interiors in Europe.

Old Royal Naval College: Greenwich, London SE10 9NN. Website.

Leighton House

Recommended for: maximalists.

More is more in this jaw-dropping home which houses some the most spectacular rooms in London. It belonged to the Victorian artist Lord Frederic Leighton who was also President of the Royal Academy of Arts. Leighton designed his Arab Hal on a twelfth-century palazzo and brought in tile designer William de Morgan to help pimp up his Narcissus Hall, modelled after a house in Pompeii. One of my favourite designs is his drawing room fireplace with a window over. Never seen one of those before or since!

Leighton House: 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 8LZ. Website.

Dickens Museum

Perfect for: anyone who loves Dickens and Christmas.

Visit the house where Charles Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and where he lived with his wife Catherine. My favourite time to visit is at Christmas when the house is decked à la Dickens. There’s also a delightful garden café.

Read more about the Charles Dickens Museum here and my interview with the great author here.

Charles Dickens Museum: 48-49 Doughty St, Holborn, London WC1N 2LX. Website.

Handel and Hendrix

Perfect for: music lovers.

I’m more of a Handel than a Hendrix fan, but I love the idea of these two living next door to each other. You can now visit Handel’s Mayfair home where he lived for 40 years, where he wrote The Messiah and where he died in 1759. Hendrix, whose flat you can visit, only lived here for two years, but apparently he was quite the fan of the Georgian composer.

Handel and Hendrix: 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, London W1K 4HB. Website.

Old Operating Theatre

Perfect for: history of medicine.

quirky museums in London

This Southwark museum is dedicated to surgical history and is one of the oldest surviving operating theatres. Climb up up up to the quirky garret museum, crammed with apothecary and medical curiosities. The operating theatre was once used as eighteenth century amputation central for women (pre-dating anaesthetic!) You can practically smell the anguish as you wander around.

Old Operating Theatre: 9a St Thomas St, London SE1 9RY. Website.

Museum of the Order of St John

Recommended for: knights in shining armour

This unique museum is located in a 16th-century gatehouse which once was the entrance to the Priory of the Medieval Order of St John. The museum’s gallery is dedicated to the story of St John’s Ambulance which was founded by the Order of St John in the nineteenth century. The collections include paintings and illuminated manuscripts, rare armour, a bronze cannon given by Henry VIII, ancient coins, decorative furniture, ceramics, silverware and textiles. Make sure you visit the twelfth century Crypt and the Church Cloister Garden (both open to visitors by appointment (click here for details). The range of herbs in the garden gives an idea of the medicinal gardens that would have been cultivated by the Knights Hospitaller during Medieval times.

Museum of the Order of St John: St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell, London, EC1M 4DA. The museum is currently closed but will re-open later this year. Website.

Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity.  It was founded in 1739 by retired sailor and philanthropist Thomas Coram, and its patrons included Handel and Hogarth. The museum holds a series of exhibitions throughout the year and also holds a permanent collection of paintings, sculpture and furniture. Be sure to check out paintings by Hogarth, Reynolds and Gainsborough. If you’re a fan of Handel, head upstairs to the Gerald Coke Handel Collection where you can learn about the composer’s connection to the Foundling Hospital and where four armchairs with built-in speakers play nine hours of Handelian music.

The Foundling Museum: 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ Website.

God’s Own Junkyard

Perfect for: neon art admirers

Alternative museums in London

This fluorescent wonderland was the brainchild of the late British artist Chris Bracey who also fashioned neon props for Hollywood. The collection includes all sorts of quirky and unusual props, lights, disco balls and figures, some of which you might find a little shocking. Make sure you stop off for a cuppa in the Rolling Scones Café. If you can’t be bothered to travel all the way to Walthamstow, God’s Own Junkyard also has a concession in Selfridges.

God’s Own Junkyward: Unit 12, Ravenswood Industrial Estate, Shernhall St, Walthamstow, London E17 9HQ. Website. Free entry.

Neasden Temple

Perfect for: Taj Mahal fans

I’m finishing off with a temple, rather than a museum, and one of the seven wonders of London: the Neasden Temple, or BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. This showstopper was the first traditional Hindu temple in Europe, built entirely in India before being transported to London. Make sure you stop off for a bite in the restaurant next door. Read more about the Neasden Temple here.

Neasden Temple: Pramukh Swami Rd, Neasden, London NW10 8HW Website. Free entry but check the website for access details.

Feature Image: Dennis Severs House

A London arts and culture blog featuring articles about art, theatre, opera, dance, music and design.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.