London’s Best Hidden Gems For Special Occasions

By Ellie Smith

1 month ago

Discover the capital's secret spots with Vanessa Grall's new book

In a jam-packed city like London, it often feels like everywhere is overdone and too busy. But amid the chaos and the tourist traps, there is a sprinkling of those rare off-the-beaten-track hotspots, frequented by the capital’s most in-the-know. In her new book, Don’t be a Tourist in London, writer and content creator Vanessa Grall shares her favourite hidden gems: insider advice, urban anecdotes and curated itineraries. Vanessa is the founder of Messy Nessy Chic, a blog turned cult brand focused around travel secrets. Read on for an extract from the book, which highlights some hidden gems for celebrating something special in London.

Extract From Don’t Be A Tourist in London

Celebrating Something Special: Hidden Gems In London

The Midnight Apothecary

© Midnight Apothecary

Campfire Cocktails in the City

If the secret world of foot tunnels beneath the river Thames doesn’t catch your attention, how about a fairy-lit rooftop cocktail garden above one of the forgotten entrances of said tunnels? Throw in an endless supply of marshmallows and s’mores to be roasted over your personal fire-pit with botanical cocktails, and you’ve pretty much got the perfect al fresco evening in London town. The Midnight Apothecary is without doubt, the city’s best-kept secret south of the river, situated a mile downstream from Tower Bridge. The neglected space atop the little-known Brunel Museum was transformed by the very talented Lottie Muir (AKA the Cocktail Gardener) into a whimsical secret garden in 2011. Ever since, she’s been overseeing the foraging of ingredients straight from the rooftop herb garden that surrounds the campfire setting, to serve up some seriously aromatic beverages. Beneath lies a historic Victorian entryway to the subterranean Thames tunnel (the world’s first tunnel built beneath a navigable river) doubling as a secret theatre for clandestine concerts. 

BOOK: Entertain up to 30 guests with a starting budget of £1400.

Maggie Jones restaurant

© Photo by Messy Nessy Chic/ Vanessa Grall

The Royal Family’s Favourite Kensington Kitchen

Neighbour to the royal palace, Maggie Jones has been around since the 1960s, but was renamed from its original ‘Nan’s Kitchen’ in the seventies after a certain Princess began booking her tables at the Kensington eatery under the pseudonym ‘Maggie Jones’. It was none other than Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s feisty little sister who became a loyal customer at this rustic country-style kitchen in the city. Serving the best pies around, and what one might call ‘posh comfort food’, reserve yourself a large farm table with friends for Sunday lunch or a cosy candle-lit booth for two on a weeknight rendezvous. Theatrically decorated with floor-to-ceiling bric-a-brac, run by warm and welcoming staff, Maggie Jones still remains a firm favourite with the royal residents of Kensington Palace. 

BOOK: Join friends around one of their large tables that seat up to 20 people.

Absinthe and Mermaids in an East London Wunderkabinett

For a truly out of the box event, book a banquet in the basement museum of ‘one of the great latter-day collectors’, Mr. Victor Wynd. His Last Tuesday Society has actually been around since 2005 as London’s longest running literary salon, notorious for surreal and spellbinding parties. It was only natural then, that when Wynd decided to transform the society’s East London headquarters into his own idea of a museum/curiosity cabinet, there would be absinthe, eccentric dining (with stuffed long-dead lions at the table, of course) and a whole lot more. The bar, known as the Absinthe Parlour, serves its own brand of East London-distilled absinthe called the Devil’s Botany, along with other wickedly strong cocktails, and guests can pair tastings with tarot and palm readings, anthropomorphic taxidermy classes or personally-guided tours of the basement museum by Mr. Wynd himself. A fascinating character and former Parisian, described by John Waters as a ‘sick orchid’, his collection includes mermaids, stuffed squirrels playing cards, dodo bones, Napoleon’s death mask, dandy relics and old master etchings. The upstairs parlour or even the whole curio museum can be yours if you want to rent it out for a very unordinary banquet, seated around a sarcophagus, surrounded by skeletons and sea monsters. Treat your guests to an absinthe tasting, a tarot reading or a taxidermy class.

BOOK: Accommodating parties from 6 to 75 people with a private hire fee starting at £100.

Number Sixteen

© Vanessa Grall

A Secret Chelsea Garden

The mid-Victorian white stucco terrace at Number Sixteen is a boutique hotel that feels less like a hotel and more like the London pied-à-terre of your wealthy, bohemian fairy godmother. Float through a series of deliciously Alice in Wonderland-esque salons to The Orangery, the in-house restaurant which begins in a bright conservatory and leads out onto a private, leafy garden where all of a sudden, it becomes hard to believe you’re still in the heart of London. Just about the only noise disturbance here is the oversized goldfish, belly-flopping in their shallow pond that runs down the centre of the garden, stopping before a wooden gazebo with cushioned seating. This would be very chic for an intimate ceremony and cocktail reception. 


Botanical Brunching

The dining room at the back of Bourne & Hollingsworth Buildings is a veritable greenhouse with tropically-upholstered armchairs and a British weekend brunch menu that includes bottomless bellinis. You can also privatise the greenhouse for dinner parties and head downstairs after supper to the secret cocktail club room beneath the Clerkenwell clubhouse, appropriately named Below & Hidden. Decked out in bohemian kilims, you’ll feel like you’re partying in someone’s very bohemian den of iniquity, with a DJ who’ll keep you dancing past midnight. Ready to host groups of 12 or up to 250 guests, there are many layers to this black brick clubhouse in Clerkenwell, ideal for smaller parties, creative meetings or perhaps your own product launch. 


Extract taken from Don’t Be a Tourist in London by Vanessa Grall, out now.