Hidden City Gems

05 - 06 - 2014

We reveal some of our favourite unsung attractions in 10 popular cities

We recommend Wilton’s Music Hall near Tower Hill, for its live shows, quirky events and the very fine Mahogany Bar; Dennis Severs' House in Spitalfields, the closest you will ever get to living in grubby 18th-century London; and the gruesome Old Operating Theatre in Southwark, where you can see the oldest surviving operating table in Europe, among other wince-inducing surgical tools.

The French capital's hiddem gems, include Eglise St-Etienne-du-Mont, home to the shrine of Saint Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, who saved the city from invasion by Attila the Hun in 451; Fondation Le Corbusier, a collection of modernist houses and studios; and the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil, featuring a magnificent tropical greenhouse, filled with steamy palms, an aviary and pools of Japanese carp, and others devoted to orchids, azaleas, succulents and ferns.

We suggest eschewing the haul down to Pompeii in favour of the half-hour hop to Ostia Antica, an impressively preserved ancient city, whose Roman theatre is still used for plays and concerts during the summer months. We also recommend the architectural marvel of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane; a trip to the "hopelessly romantic" protestant cemetery; and the church of San Clemente, one of Rome’s most worthwhile but least publicised sightseeing treats.

New York
The best small museum in New York, is the Frick Collection - it's filled with European masters and perfect if you don’t fancy dealing with the crowds at MoMa or The Met. We also advises visiting the Highline, an elevated public park with fabulous views of the Hudson River, and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx - "where Italians who moved to the suburbs come on weekends to buy their beloved products and to have a taste of the Old Country".

Our favourite unsung sights include the Pianola Museum for its sheer eccentricity and eerie concerts, where the audience sits around politely listening to a playerless piano; Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder, a restored 17th-century canal house; the Verzetsmuseum (Museum of the Resistance), which offers a glimpse of life in the Netherlands under the Nazi occupation, and of the underground resistance movement; and Hanneke's Boom, a nice place next to the water behind the NEMO museum. It's a 5 minute walk from central station and you can just relax and escape the tourist whelming the city.

Our Edinburgh tips include Dunbars Close, a "drowsily peaceful hidden garden" just off The Royal Mile, and the often overlooked St Mary’s Cathedral by George Gilbert Scott, with modern stained glass by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, one of the founders of British Pop Art.

In Barcelona we advise you to visite the Museu Frederic Marès - In a town with no shortage of quirky museums, this might be the most idiosyncratic. "You'll find a room full of keys, another of walking sticks and 'gentlemen's accessories', and walls groaning with clocks, weapons and religious artefacts. Most charming, however, is the Sala de les Diversions, its glass cabinets chock-full of tin soldiers, music boxes, paper theatres and board games." We also recommends the Recinte Modernista, a hospital complex set in peaceful gardens.

Venice hidden gems include Palazzo Grimani, one of the city's great Renaissance private palazzos, which reopened in 2008 after a 27-year restoration.
And don't forget that a gondola ride need not mean getting ripped off. You can get a gondola ride for just €2 a head by taking one of the large traghetto (ferry) gondolas with two oarsmen that cross the Grand Canal at strategic points.  "It’s de rigueur to do the crossing standing up, like the locals."

Rio de Janeiro
Among our favourite lesser-known attractions are Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a "magical" lagoon that is busy with walkers, joggers and cyclists at the weekends; Pedra do Sal or Little Africa, where "a live samba party takes place from around 7pm every Monday night, filling the air with the sweet strains of classic songs that have their roots right here"; and Praia Vermelha, "the most dramatic and downright jurassic of all Rio’s beaches".

Don't miss the Mercato Centrale. Next to the church of San Lorenzo, this covered market is an Aladdin's Cave of gastronomic treats, and many of its stalls are actually full-on delis that will ship all over the world. Head to Baroni for cheeses and cured meats and Conti for olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and other Mediterranean marvels. And if you want to know what real Florentines eat when they're feeling peckish, stop off at Nerbone, a busy snack stall that serves up lampredotto – boiled tripe, wrapped up in a panino.