5 Monument to the Great Fire of London (London Monument)
Shake off those tired legs from your trans-Atlantic flight by climbing the 311 steps of the winding, claustrophobic staircase at the London Monument. The tower, completed in 1674, is located near Pudding Lane, where the 1666 Great Fire of London ignited. The observation deck is gated in, but the views rival those of the London Eye. When you’ve reached the top and climbed down again you will be presented with a certificate commemorating your feat.
4 Paddington Bear Statue Paddington Station, Praed Street
Americans might recognize Paddington as the cuddly, albeit slightly addled bear that is adopted by a London family in Michael Bond’s beloved series of children’s books. The name comes from the busy Paddington railway station, where the bear was found in the Left Luggage department. The former now honors the latter, and there’s a bronze sculpture of Paddington Bear, sitting forlornly on his suitcase, on the concourse. You might need to go through Paddington Station at some point during your visit — for instance if you’re using the Heathrow Express to get to and from Heathrow Airport — so take a few minutes to say hi to the bear.
3 Temple of Mithras Temple Court: Queen Victoria Street, near Siese Lane
Visitors on their way to St. Paul’s Cathedral usually don’t pay much attention to the dark stone foundation in front of a nondescript building. They don’t realize they’re passing evidence of London’s Roman past: the stones are the remnants of a 3rd century C.E. temple to Mithras, Bacchus and other Roman deities. The temple has been relocated from its original site, and the artifacts associated with it are on view at the London Museum. There really isn’t much to do at the Temple of Mithras, save to look at the foundation and take some photos — it’s gated off, so you can’t walk through it — but it isn’t every day that one finds an ancient Roman temple in the middle of a busy London street, is it?
2 The Clink Prison Museum
Yes, at one time you really could throw someone in the clink. The original jail building is long gone, but the Clink Prison Museum, set up on the same site, vividly documents what life was like in the notorious prison (here’s a hint: not very nice). The museum includes recreations of prisoners’ cells and torture devices, chains and locks you can actually handle. Go ahead, take that photo of your friends in irons. Special events, such as GaolBreak, bring costumed performers into the Clink to recreate historical events and convey how terrible it was to be a prisoner in the Middle Ages.
1 Old Operating Theater Museum and Herb Garret
The oldest extant operating theater in Europe is tucked away in the attic of what used to be St. Thomas’s Hospital in Southwark. The hospital operated from the Middle Ages until the early 1860s, and Florence Nightingale worked in this building for about three years before St. Thomas moved to another location. The operating theater was once part of the women’s ward, and it pre-dates both routine anesthesia and antiseptic surgical procedures. If the wooden operating table isn’t enough to make you eternally grateful for modern medicine, head over to the other side of the garret and check out the knives, saws and other gruesome “medical tools” that were used on the unfortunate patients.