In my last post, I wrote extensively about the many free things to see and do in London. With so many free attractions at your disposal, I outlined how it is entirely possible to fill over a week in London town without spending anything above and beyond your lodging, food and transport, and to do so quite happily and without any major FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) taking hold.
As I also mentioned, however, London has plenty of rather pricey attractions—so many that it can be rather difficult to decide where your travel fund is best spent. During our time in London, we were lucky enough to have two wonderful experiences—each off the beaten path in its own way—that we consider to be highlights of our time in this amazing city. Due to the generosity of friends, we were able to enjoy both of these activities for free, but we both agreed that they were each so fantastic that we would have happily dug into our travel fund in order to experience each one because they were well worth their respective admission fees. You don’t need our help to find your way to things like the Tower of London, the London Eye or Buckingham Palace, but I figured both of the following activities are sufficiently unconventional that you might overlook them in favor of some of the city’s more famous attractions and that would be a real shame.
Hint Hunt (aka “That Time We Were Locked in a Room… FOR FUN”)
If you’re a visitor to London, then presumably you want to see as much of the city as possible rather than paying someone to lock you in a room and then spending the next hour attempting to escape said room.
I get it. It sounds fairly nightmarish and we were dubious as well. Had we not been gifted three spots from one of 20YH’s amazing readers (thanks again, Lauri!), there is very little likelihood we would have given Hint Hunt a shot. Even if it is the #3 attraction on Trip Advisor for London…
But we did go—dragging our friend Maddy along for good measure (safety in numbers and all that jazz!)—and discovered the reason Hint Hunt has taken London by storm: it’s damn good fun!
We showed up at a fairly non-descript building near Euston station not knowing much about what lay in store for us, apart from the fact that we would be locked in a room and have to solve puzzles and clues in order to make our way out in under an hour. I really think that going in without any clue (ha!) about what lay ahead is the very best way to experience Hint Hunt, so I won’t say much more except that it was one of the fastest hours of our lives and it was SO. MUCH. FUN. By which I mean that when our hour was up, we stumbled over to a nearby bar, Euston Tap, where we proceeded to carefully examine everything in the environment for a while as we were still in “clue hunting mode” and rehashed the game for the next few hours, giggling over our most ridiculous moments, reveling in our tiny triumphs, and drowning our sorrows over failing to escape by a matter of seconds (apparently the room we did, JM’s Office, only has a 50% escape rate). Our brains were absolutely shot for the remainder of the day, and I fully admit that we wandered around resembling nothing so much as zombies.
But even in our failure we had so much fun that we hopped online to see if we could book ourselves into the building’s other puzzle room, the Zen Room. (Alas, being one of London’s most popular attractions, all of Hint Hunt’s slots were fully booked for the next few weeks!) We then also badgered all of our friends and acquaintances for the next few days, insisting that they all go at some point. And now I’m doing the same to you!
For obvious reasons, we don’t really have any pictures of our time at Hint Hunt (and see above for our subsequent brain dead state as to why we also failed to take photos during our exploits at Euston Tap…), but I cannot sing the praises of this activity loudly enough. Not only were we 100% willing to pay for a second round out of our own pockets on the spot immediately after being let out of JM’s Office had there been vacancies, but we then looked into visiting Hint Hunt during our week in Paris (unfortunately, the Zen Room is only available in London, and we didn’t want to do JM’s Office again as we would know how to solve all the puzzles.). And now we’re kind of obsessed with room escape games and want to do them everywhere we can. So, I guess you should be warned that this might trigger some kind of deep seated addiction for sleuthing and being locked into rooms. You have been warned!
Hint Hunt is best played in groups of 3-5 players and prices start at £21 (~$35US) per person (the price per person drops the more players you have, up to a maximum of 5). It’s great fun for all ages, and even if you wouldn’t immediately think of this as a “quintessential” London experience, I’m pretty sure you’ll consider it one of the best things you did in the city. It is quite popular so I would plan to book your slot a few weeks before your trip to avoid disappointment.
Touring Parliament (aka “HOP, Yeah You Know Me… Or Do You?”)
It’s entirely possible that everyone already knows that you can go on guided tours of Parliament while in London which might not make this off the beaten path, but I feel as though no one ever talks about doing it when really everyone should. Maybe you assume that British politics are dull and that you will spend most of the tour learning boring facts and tedious information about the UK’s parliamentary process? You would be wrong!
OK, I suppose the bog standard tours of Parliament may be dull and stuffy (I’m sure some would argue that is the English way!), but the tour we went on was both fascinating and fun. That may be because rather than going on an official tour, our London hosts, Kat & Alex, hooked us up with their friend Glyn, who works for an MP and therefore was able to give us a private tour.
With Glyn by our side, we got to visit the rather magnificent buildings that make up the UK’s parliament, from Westminster Hall (the oldest surviving building of the original Palace of Westminster—most of which was destroyed in a fire in 1834) to the lavishly ornate House of Lords and its rather more sensibly furnished House of Commons to the mural-festooned walls of St Stephen’s Hall and the Prince’s Chamber, where portraits of notable figures from the Tudor period gaze imperiously down upon you. By far our favorite room that we visited was the Chapel of St Mary’s Undercroft, in part because it is not included on the standard tour of Parliament so we felt like real VIPs when Glyn pulled strings to get us in, and also because the words “blinged out” don’t even begin to describe the place. Everything is shimmering and gilded and both Tony and I let out involuntary murmurs of awe and appreciation when we first entered because it is so ridiculously impressive. Apparently there is a joke that most politicians seek office because along with your position you are then granted the right to marry or have your children christened in this chapel. Having seen the place, I totally get it!
Unfortunately, much like Hint Hunt, we weren’t able to take photos anywhere other than Westminster Hall, so as much as I wish I could regale you with pictures of our visit to Parliament, so here are some that I (legally) yanked off of UK Parliament’s Flickr stream to whet your appetite:
These photos are nice, no doubt, but I urge you to visit Parliament the next time you are in London and see these rooms for yourself. So much history has happened in this place, it’s crazy to think that most people just walk by it and never bother to visit. We saw where Obama and the Queen have stood and given speeches, where the only UK Prime Minister to be assassinated was shot and took his final breath, and saw the dents on the door of the House of Commons where Black Rod beats upon the door to summon the Commons to attend the Queen’s speech over in the House of Lords during her annual opening of Parliament. (Why she can’t come and invite them herself is just one of the things you’ll learn on your tour!) If your guide is anything like Glyn, he will have you absolutely captivated as you wander the halls where some of the most powerful people in English history have walked. He’ll also have you in stitches as he shares some of the behind the scenes tales—some truth, some possibly myth—that such a venerable institution is bound to have. To give you a taste:
- We learned that the origin of the phrase “toe the line” comes from the white lines painted on the ground in the House of Commons which party members were not allowed to cross while giving speeches, although they could quite literally “toe” the line.
- A related urban legend has it that the lines were painted exactly two sword lengths apart so as to keep things peaceful should tempers flare during heated debates.
- Not a myth but so horrifying you will wish it was, we also learned that back in the good old days, the Speaker’s chair used to double as a commode so that parliament wouldn’t have to break whenever he needed to void his bowels or bladder. Instead, there was a little curtain that he could drag around him for a bit of privacy and the session could continue uninterrupted!
I’m no history nerd, but I absolutely adored our time touring Parliament. While I’ve no doubt that Glyn deserves a great deal of the credit due to his quick wit and infectious enthusiasm, even in lesser hands I’m confident the buildings would leave you dumbfounded and the stories will bowl you over. But I would be remiss if I did not publicly thank Glyn once more for his kindness and generosity in taking time out of his very busy schedule to show us around, so: Thank You, Glyn!
Although you won’t have Glyn as your guide and you may not get to visit the gorgeous Chapel of St Mary’s Undercroft, there are plenty of other parts of Parliament that will be open to you (including ones we weren’t able to see). At £25 (~$40US) per adult for a guided tour, visiting Parliament definitely isn’t cheap, but we would consider a visit excellent value nonetheless. If you’d like to cut corners a tiny bit, you can also do an audio tour for the substantially cheaper rate of £17.50 per adult.
So there you have our two favorite London attractions that we believe are actually worth paying for. They’ll each set you back a pretty penny, but we wouldn’t recommend them if we didn’t wholeheartedly believe they were absolutely worth it. There are plenty of ways to blow through your money in London, but if you’re looking for a few unconventional experiences that aren’t squarely on the tourist trail, I’m confident neither of these will leave you regretting your splurge.
Tell Us: What do you think of our choices? Is being locked in a room or touring Parliament more your style? If you’ve been to London, what’s your favorite paid attraction?
Disclaimer: This post is not the result of any kind of sponsorship shenanigans. We participated in both of these activities free of charge due to the kindness of friends, and were not asked to write about or review our experiences here on the blog. We independently decided to do so because we legitimately enjoyed both of these things so much and would happily put our money where our mouths are. We hope that if any of you visit London you’ll give them a try and have as much fun as we did!