Not to be found on most top ten lists or in travel guidebooks, these are the most unusual London museums; the ones that you’ll only hear about from a local. How do we know about them? We asked one. Mickey Kavanagh grew up in Essex and has lived in London since 2003. He leads a tour called Unseen London by Bicycle where he brings travelers to the places they wouldn’t normally visit. His choices may be unorthodox, and some are off the beaten path, but you can feel safe knowing these institutions will give you all the street cred you need.
Secret Nuclear Bunker
The Secret Nuclear Bunker is the biggest and deepest public Cold War bunker in Southeast England, but you would never know it was there (it’s a secret after all). Hidden in the Essex countryside, the only visible giveaway is a comms mast that towers over the entrance. The bunker tour begins at an inconspicuous 1950s bungalow built by the Air Ministry. Once inside, you’ll follow a 120-meter long tunnel that leads to the main bunker and two other floors. Originally built in 1952 as an air defense radar station, it was soon converted into an emergency regional government defense site, a complex of tunnels, bunkers, and meeting rooms from which the government would be run in the event of a nuclear war.
The bunker was decommissioned in 1992 and is now open for travelers, who can appreciate the irony of the road signs pointing tourists to the “Secret Nuclear Bunker.” Located in a rural area northeast of the city, it’s a bit of trek to get to: an hour by car and an hour and a half by public transit from central London. “It’s a great attraction but is little-known outside London,” says Kavanagh. “You would have to be pretty committed to get to it. But it’s unmissable for any cold war enthusiast. It’s so bizarre to see the commitment and contingency planning that had gone into creating an underground village [for the government].”
The Postal Museum
For most of the 20th century, London’s mail was transported via an underground, driverless railway system operated by the London Post Office and known as Mail Rail. The line was built to move the mail quickly without adding to street traffic, and ran for six and a half miles, stopping at eight central London stations. In 2003, the 75-year-old system was deemed no longer efficient and too expensive and was shut down.
In July of 2017, the Postal Museum opened its doors at London’s Phoenix Place, instantly becoming one of our favorite London museums by showcasing five remarkable centuries of London’s communications through interactive galleries and modern research facilities. Its coolest exhibit is the Mail Rail, which is now open to the public. The 15-minute miniature train ride takes you through abandoned tunnels, virtually unchanged since the 1930s, and teaches you their history. “Subterranean London is fascinating, and the Mail Rail is a real bit of history on the Victorian mail system and the Victorian tunnels,” says Kavanagh. “Plus you get to ride on a tiny little train!”
The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities
If you’re looking for a typical museum experience in London, this is not it. The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, just north of Regent’s Canal in Hackney, is the antithesis of normal; it’s alternative, it’s random, and it’s shocking. “It’s a strange little place,” says Kavanagh. “It’s like a gothic Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” The sign at the front entrance reads “This is not a brothel” and the inside is dark—both literally and figuratively.
The museum’s founder Wynd is an artist who displays a collection that includes preserved stuffed lions, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, and even erotic art. We suggest you pay a visit to the museum cocktail bar before checking out some of artifacts. “It’s not for everyone,” warns Kavanagh. “But for the right person it would make a trip to London.”
Bletchley Park was the national hub for British codebreakers during World War II. According to historians, the intelligence produced at Bletchley Park single-handedly shortened the war by at least two years and saved 14 million lives. The 2014 film The Imitation Game is set at Bletchley and was partially filmed there, with Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Alan Turing.
Known as the founder of computer science, Turing did much of his most important work at Bletchley Park, including designing the bombe for deciphering secret German messages. This being a highly secretive site, in the 1940s staff was dissuaded from talking, even within the confines of the park, so the role Bletchley played in the war was not widely known for many years.
Today, it’s very much public and one of the most historically significant UK museums. Visitors can go inside The Mansion, where the Naval Intelligence office was based and some WWII vehicles are still stored, and the Codebreaking Huts where German Enigma messages were decrypted. “It’s worth a full day trip because not only is it visually stunning—it’s an old country house—it also has a fascinating story,” says Kavanagh. Bletchley is less than an hour by direct train from central London, so you’ll easily get there and back in a day.
Bonus: First Thursdays
On the first Thursday of the month, many of London’s famous art galleries open their doors for late night previews of new exhibitions. “You can find out which galleries are taking part [online] and then go look at a late-night opening and even meet the artists and drink champagne. This is where you can discover London’s emerging art scene. It’s meant for locals, so as a tourist to London you would never know about this”, says Mickey. We’re glad he decided to share his secrets with us!