There’s no better feeling than stumbling across a hidden gem of an experience or attraction while you’re traveling. It’s those tucked-away little museums and the special areas of cities only the locals know that make traveling so much fun.
I live in England, so I like to think I know the country pretty well, but every now and then I find a corner I never knew was there, and I feel like an explorer in my own home! Here are five of my favorite hidden gems in England, from the North to the Midlands and down to London.
1. Harborough Museum, Market Harborough, Leicestershire
Market Harborough is a charming little market town in Leicestershire that has many original Georgian buildings. The old grammar school is a perfect example. It was built on stilts to allow a butter market to operate below, and the ground floor still serves as a covered market today.
Next to the school is the church, built in 1300, that stands alone in the street with no churchyard. If you walk to the street behind the church and grammar school and by the shops and tea rooms, you’ll find the library and council offices. To the back of this building, through the parking lot, you’ll find the Harborough Museum. The entrance is unassuming, and it’s not somewhere you’d ever stumble upon.
However, the museum has free admission and some impressive displays focusing on the town’s Roman history. The exhibitions of Roman coins, mosaic tiles, and armor are fascinating, but the replica Roman helmets are the most fun. You can try these on and experience the weight the Roman soldiers had to carry on a daily basis.
The museum also has some interesting displays on other parts of the town’s history. The museum building was once home to The Symington Factory, which made corsets, and there’s a special exhibition dedicated to this much-loved family business. At the entrance, a small shop sells memorabilia and trinkets.
Visit the museum and then spend some time wandering the streets of this quirky market town, browsing the shops, and taking afternoon tea in one of the many cafes.
2. Charing Cross Road, London
Charing Cross Road in London is known for its bookshops, although some have now closed. The street might not have quite as many as it once did, but it is still the perfect place to spend time if you’re a book lover.
The busy London street contains the large bookstore chain Foyles, which has a fantastic selection of new and old titles. In this store, you can expect to find bestsellers, classics, and more obscure titles, as well as souvenirs, textbooks, and stationery.
But for a hidden-gem experience, you’ll want to visit the unassuming secondhand bookshops that line the street. These very old little shops not only carry a vast array of volumes, but they are also fantastic examples of historic London structures. Spend some time browsing room after room of unusual paperbacks, unique hardbacks, and even comics and magazines. Feast your eyes on first editions and rare, leatherbound beauties. Then venture down into the basements of these quirky shops and find even more. These basements, which were originally cellars, are often cramped, and you’ll need to navigate rickety old staircases to get down.
When you’ve finished browsing the bookstores, turn onto Greek Street and visit Maison Bertaux, the oldest patisserie in London. This is a fascinating tea shop that sells loose-leaf teas and tempting handmade cakes.
3. Chinatown, Liverpool
Chinatown in Liverpool is the oldest Chinese community in Europe and the first established Chinatown. The entrance is marked by an impressive archway that stands 49 feet tall -- it’s the tallest traditional Chinese arch outside of China. This beautiful structure was imported in pieces from Shanghai and constructed in Liverpool by Chinese craftsmen.
A walk through this archway and down Nelson Street will reveal many restaurants, shops, and supermarkets. The area is quiet in the daytime, with most restaurants not opening for business until the evening. Take a minute at the end of the street to have a closer look at the two Chinese guardian lions that stand at either side of the path. These beautiful statues are believed to have powers of protection and are traditionally created in pairs of male and female.
At the end of Nelson Street, cross the road onto Hardy Street for the huge Chung Wah Supermarket, which supplies restaurants in the area. The store has a friendly atmosphere, welcoming staff members, and quality, inexpensive soy sauce in massive bottles.
4. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London
The Globe gets all the attention, but the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London is one of the most magical places to see a play in all of England. From the moment you enter the park, with its boating lake and bandstand, you’ll know your time there is going to be special.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is the oldest permanent open-air theater in Britain. It began producing plays in 1932, starting with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and has been staging Shakespeare plays ever since. The theater seats 1,240 people, but with its semicircular design, it still manages to feel intimate. The theater has a backdrop of tall trees, which provide the seclusion and privacy necessary to enjoy the performance in peace. Evening performances are especially magical, with fairy lights in the overhanging branches.
You can take a picnic and enjoy a drink from the bar or eat at The Regent’s Bar & Kitchen. The theater is easy to access from central London, and there are many hotels nearby.
5. Leicester Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester
Formerly known as the New Walk Museum, the Leicester Museum & Art Gallery is a real hidden gem.
New Walk, where the museum is located, is a quiet, leafy area on the outskirts of Leicester. Start walking the pedestrian-only street, and the stunning architecture and peaceful surroundings will lull you into a lazy, Sunday-morning feeling. A handful of warm and welcoming bars sit at the bottom of the street, and about halfway along is the museum. It’s free to enter and houses some of Leicester’s more unusual collections.
The museum began its life in 1849 with a small local collection and has been growing and developing ever since. The art gallery features classical and modern works, including works by Francis Bacon and William Hogarth. But the jewel of the museum is the Attenborough Collection of Picasso ceramics. This was the private collection of Lord and Lady Attenborough and was gifted to the museum in 2007 in memory of their daughter and granddaughter, who were lost in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
After browsing the impressive collections, take some time to visit the cafe and gift shop on the ground floor.
What To Know Before You Go
All of these hidden gems are located in city centers, so they’re easy to get to on foot once you’re in the city -- but they’re not always easy to find! Plan out your route before you visit, since there aren’t signs pointing to these hidden gems. If you can’t find them, ask a local or visit the local tourist information center. These hidden gems won’t be in your guidebooks, and you won’t find leaflets for them, but the locals will help you find them if you’re stuck.