Hidden Trafalgar Square: The Atlas Obscura Guide - Atlas Obscura

The Atlas Obscura Guide to
Hidden Trafalgar Square

Wedged between Charing Cross and Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square is known for the throngs of people flocking to its famous attractions. Weave around the tourists on the National Gallery stairs and dodge the crowds clogging the street corners. Instead, duck down dreamy alleys and pop into unique, overlooked museums and shops. There, a secret side of this busy area waits to reveal itself.

A replica of Charles I's plush throne stands beneath the paintings. Suzanne Plunkett
View fit for a king

1. The Rubens Ceiling at the Banqueting House

Your day begins beneath one of the last things Charles I of England saw before his execution in 1649—a masterpiece by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. Grab a free audio guide and sink into one of the plush beanbag chairs scattered throughout this first-floor room at the Banqueting House, where you’ll lounge below a set of canvases set snugly into the ceiling.

Charles commissioned the sumptuous ceiling in what was then part of Whitehall Palace, the main royal residence, to honor his father, James I. The three main canvasses glorify the monarchy and the divine right of kings, depicting the unification of England and Scotland, the reign of James I, and the king rising to Heaven on the back of an eagle. Architect Inigo Jones designed the hall’s ceiling to be a perfect frame for the artwork, creating a beamed design with blank shapes the paintings could fit tightly inside. But when Rubens’s and Jones’s assistants unrolled the artwork, they realized there’d been a slight snafu. The scrolls’ dimensions didn’t match those of the ceiling, thanks to a measurement mix-up caused by England and Belgium using a different standard length for a foot. To get the canvasses to fit, the assistants had to give them a careful trim.

Charles I’s throne on the far end of the room offered him a prime vantage point for contemplating the images and their meanings. The ceiling was also one of his final sights. After losing the Civil War to the Parliamentarians, Charles exited out a nearby window (which no longer exists), and stepped onto the scaffold, where he was beheaded.

Whitehall, London, England, United Kingdom

Calvary from the Horse Guards Parade are said to have tweaked the nose as they rode through the arch. Suzanne Plunkett
Architectural oddity

2. A Nose for Details

Walk beneath the northernmost opening of Admiralty Arch, and you may notice a small nub hiding in plain sight about seven feet above the ground. It’s a nose, and its presence has puzzled pedestrians for years.

The mysterious, out-of-place nose is steeped in local lore. One popular myth claims it was placed there as a nod to the Duke of Wellington, who was known for a particularly prominent one. Another urban legend says the nose was a spare part for Trafalgar Square’s centerpiece feature, Nelson’s Column. According to this tale, people were concerned the statue would be damaged when it was lifted to its perch, so a spare schnoz was stashed on the arch, where it remained hidden for decades.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the true origin of the enigmatic nose was sniffed out. It was one of several noses created by artist Rick Buckley in 1997 as part of a project criticizing CCTV and the spread of a “Big Brother” society across Britain. Buckley made 35 plaster casts of his own honker and placed them “under the nose” of officials in well-trafficked areas and on prominent buildings. Today, it’s said that seven noses remain stuck to structures around London’s Soho neighborhood.

The Mall, St. James's, London, England, United Kingdom

In the TV program, the foot stomps on credits, not pigeons. Suzanne Plunkett
Secret sights

3. Surprises in the Square

Now, turn your attention to Trafalgar Square itself. Take a good look at the lions guarding the fountains, and you’ll notice the ferocious felines’ paws actually look like they belong to house cats (the sculptor wasn’t familiar with lions). Traipse over to the southeast corner of the square, and you’ll see something that looks like a lamp post with a door in it. This strange structure was once London’s smallest police station. A single officer could cram inside it and keep an eye on crowds at this popular protesting spot. If you peek inside today, though, you’ll only spot brooms, as it’s now used for storage.

Next, head to the National Gallery. Turn your gaze to the ground as you walk up the stairs, and you’ll notice a series of plaques containing the official imperial standard units of measurements, the system used throughout the British Empire. Thousands of tourists trod over these tablets each day, often unaware they’re stepping on bits of history.

Once you’re inside the National Gallery, make your way to Room 8. There, hiding in a Mannerist masterpiece, is a pop culture surprise. Agnolo Bronzino painted "An Allegory with Venus and Cupid" for King Francis I of France in the 16th century. Hundreds of years later, American-born animator Terry Gilliam wandered past the painting while seeking inspiration for the comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Cupid’s foot caught his eye, and became the basis for the iconic Monty Python foot that stomps from the sky and squashes scenes beneath its cartoon toes.

Trafalgar Square, London, England, United Kingdom

Boris Anrep's "Mosaic of the Nativity," made in 1954, stands in front of the murals. Suzanne Plunkett
Divine art

4. Jean Cocteau Murals at the Church of Notre Dame de France

Venture toward Leicester Square and into the unusually shaped Church of Notre Dame de France, whose round interior once displayed panoramas. The hushed, hallowed space offers a refuge from the packs of people shuffling around outside. Look to the left-hand side of the church, where you’ll spot three colorful murals covering the walls of a glass-protected enclave.

The church was consecrated in 1861 as a spiritual haven for the area’s French community. After much of the original building was destroyed during World War II, French cultural attaché René Varin reached out to various French artists to help create a space that would celebrate their homeland. Poet, artist, writer, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau answered the call. He traveled to London and set to work, spending a week holed up behind a privacy barrier. The final result is a set of striking murals showing the Annunciation, Jesus's crucifixion, and Mary's assumption into Heaven. Take a good look at the crucifixion scene, and you’ll notice Cocteau has given himself a cameo.

5 Leicester Place, London, England, United Kingdom

This bibliophile's wonderland hides just off a bustling thoroughfare. Suzanne Plunkett
Antique treasures

5. Booksellers' Row

There’s a good reason this dreamy little 17th-century lane was dubbed “Booksellers’ Row.” Stroll down Cecil Court, and you’ll pass dozens of secondhand bookstores and antiquarian shops. You can pop into the stores lining the street to peruse rare maps, first-edition books, esoteric goods, and unique art and jewelry. Some of the businesses display portions of their stock outside their Victorian facades, making it easy to rifle through bins of prints or flip through various books. The pedestrian street is as historical as it is charming—Mozart lived here when he was eight years old, and over a century later, the lane featured heavily in early British cinema.

Once you’ve wandered through Cecil Court, nip across St. Martin’s Lane and peek down Goodwin’s Court, a picturesque alley that looks plucked from the pages of a Dickens novel.

Cecil Court, London, England, United Kingdom

Wedged against a back wall, the statue is easy to miss. Suzanne Plunkett
Curious crypt

6. The Gravestone of the First Pearly King

Churches have stood on this site since medieval times. The most recent is St. Martin-in-the-Fields, built in 1726, which sits along the eastern edge of Trafalgar Square. Descend into its labyrinthine crypt, past the cafeteria-style cafe, and turn right down the narrow hallway. You’ll pass an old whipping post on your way to the second, quieter seating area. Swing left, and you’ll find yourself staring down another slim passage lined with old gravestones. Against the far wall, you’ll spot a life-sized statue of Henry Croft, known as the “First Pearly King.” A street sweeper by profession, Croft would don a pearl-covered suit while raising money for charity, using the glitzy garb to attract attention to himself. Though he died in 1930, the tradition outlived him. Today, you can still spot “Pearlies” out and about in London, wearing shiny attire and raising funds for a cause.

Trafalgar Square, London, England, United Kingdom

The whimsical work of art invites you to stop and chat with the dead playwright. Suzanne Plunkett
Eccentric art

7. An Ode to Oscar Wilde

Head east down Duncannon Street and take a brief detour down Adelaide Street. There, you’ll spot the first public monument to Oscar Wilde located outside Ireland. "A Conversation with Oscar Wilde," created by Maggi Hambling and installed in 1998, is indeed a conversation starter. Wilde’s head, which looks like a squiggly glob of spilled spaghetti, emerges from a coffin-shaped base. His equally abstract hand clutches at nothing, as the cigarette he originally held was repeatedly stolen. The sculpture also serves as a bench, so feel free to take a seat.

3 Adelaide St, London, England, United Kingdom

The staff will often delight curious customers with a trick or two. Suzanne Plunkett
Magicians’ mecca

8. The World’s Oldest Family-Run Magic Shop

Once on Strand, keep an eye out for a staircase between a Starbucks and Paperchase. Go down and enter an underground arcade. Walk along the sticky floor speckled with globs of old gum, then swing right, and you’ll arrive at the world’s oldest family-run magic emporium.

Davenports Magic Shop opened in 1898, and has something for everyone, from newbies buying their first deck of cards to veterans with more than a few schemes up their sleeves. Browsing its stock is like dipping your hand into a magician’s hat—you never know what wonders you’ll uncover. The shelves lining the small, red-carpeted store are stuffed with all sorts of books, out-of-print editions, DVDs, cards, and other tools of the trade.

7 Charing Cross Underground Arcade, The Strand, London, England, United Kingdom

The Great Storm of 1987 changed the city's skyline, toppling hundreds of thousands of trees. Suzanne Plunkett
Living memorial

9. Charing Cross Storm Tree

On October 16, 1987, the “Great Storm” tore through London, where winds topped 98 miles per hour and knocked down 250,000 of the city’s trees. Twenty-two human fatalities were reported in England, France, and the Channel Islands, and England lost a total of 15 million trees that night. In the aftermath, the Evening Standard newspaper raised £60,000 to plant new trees in each of London’s 32 boroughs and the City of London. This English oak was planted a year after the terrible storm. Now, commuters rushing to and from Charing Cross station likely pass through the living monument’s dappled shadow without a second glance. A plaque attached to a nearby pillar tells the tree’s history, and a second plaque installed in 2017 honors Angus McGill, the newspaper columnist who spearheaded the fundraising effort.

Villiers St, London, England, United Kingdom

After the Victoria Embankment was built, this former marshland became solid ground. Suzanne Plunkett
Portal to the past

10. The York Water Gate

Head down Villiers Street toward the Victoria Embankment Gardens. There, you’ll spot an ornate, Italianate water gate sitting atop a bed of dirt and greenery. Before the Victoria Embankment was constructed in 1862, changing the river’s course as it modernized the city's sewer system and reduced traffic along the Strand, this gate sat on the northern edge of the River Thames for more than 200 years. It served as a waterfront entrance to the esteemed York House mansion, one of the fancier homes that dotted this stretch of prime riverside real estate. Boats would pull right up to its stairs, depositing passengers in the property’s back gardens. Departing guests could huddle beneath the gate’s two arches while waiting for their watercraft to arrive. Today, the gate is surrounded by solid ground, more than 300 feet from the shore. It’s a relic of the river’s old path and a reminder of the now-demolished mansion it once served.

Watergate Walk, London, England, United Kingdom

Hundreds of glass peepers peer at you as you explore the space. Suzanne Plunkett
Eye-popping collection

11. Century-Old Optical Museum

Tucked in the basement of the College of Optometrists is the British Optical Association Museum, home to a curious collection of ocular objects. The now-defunct British Optical Association opened the museum—the world's oldest of its kind—in 1901 to record the development of corrective eyewear, and its collection has continued to grow. Though thousands of visitors come to Trafalgar Square every day, only about 1,000 guests dip inside this appointment-only museum each year.

A guided tour of the museum’s two rooms reveals a unique feast for the eyes, as well as a crash course in all things optical. With the collection’s curator as your guide, your introduction comes from the man who knows it best. Glasses and glass eyeballs gaze at you from beneath their cases, and you’ll find shelves stuffed with eye-related art and artifacts, including an eye of Horus. Tacked to the wall, there's a plaster cast of a 15th-century nun wearing spectacles, a replica of a real corbel from an English church. Look for the plush chicken donning “pecktacles,” frames industrial farmers once used to keep the birds from pecking at each others’ eyes.

42 Craven St, London, England, United Kingdom

A lifelike look at the quarters of 221B Baker Street. Suzanne Plunkett
Snacks for sleuths

12. The Upstairs Apartment at the Sherlock Holmes Pub

This watering hole serves as both a restaurant and an ode to London’s most famous detective. The pub is crammed with props related to the books and movies starring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s superstar—think pipes and vials—and there’s even a taxidermy “hound of Baskerville” hanging on the wall near the bathrooms. Go upstairs, and you’ll find a life-sized replica of the apartment Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson shared, with immaculate details ripped straight from the novels. A bear rug sprawls across a floor crowded with clutter, making it look as though two messy sleuths still live in the space.

The collection was originally curated by the Westminster Library and displayed as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The pub’s owners acquired it a few years later, and it became the crux of the eatery’s identity. Now, behind glass windows, the storybook apartment is a stark contrast to the chatter and clinks of cutlery on the other side of the panes, where diners tuck into fish and chips, burgers, baked potatoes, and other classic pub grub.

10 Northumberland St, London, England, United Kingdom

The bar gives travelers a unique view of the square's iconic column. Suzanne Plunkett
Dazzling perspective

13. Rooftop Tipples at the Trafalgar St. James

You’ll end your adventure at the Trafalgar St. James. Take the lift to the seventh floor and step onto the patio of its rooftop bar for a birds-eye view of the square. The covered portions will keep you dry even on a soggy day, and outdoor heaters keep the space cozy during the drearier months. From this height, you’ll also have an unusual view of Nelson’s Column. Rather than standing in its shadow and craning your neck to see the sandstone statue that crowns the pillar, the rooftop bar gives you a prime view of Admiral Nelson’s profile. Grab an after-dinner digestif and drink it all in—and watch the tourists bustling by the hidden wonders you’ve already explored.

7th Floor, 2 Spring Gardens, London, England, United Kingdom

Special thanks to James Manning, Feargus O'Sullivan, and Luke J. Spencer

Keep Exploring
Telescopes open up a window to the stars.

11 Close Encounters With Aliens and Explosions in New Mexico

In the arid and remote expanses of New Mexico's landscape, booms and zooms abound. From the volatile effects of the Manhattan Project to the otherworldly possibilities of Roswell's UFO, the Land of Enchantment has never shied away from the controversial or far-reaching. Here are several places to encounter those legacies across this southwestern state. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

Jim Dickerman's sculptures are magical and a little brain-scrambling.

10 Places to Trip Way Out in Kansas

The Sunflower State has a reputation for being flat—in fact, scientists have shown that it is objectively way flatter than a pancake. Far from being featureless, though, Kansas can be mind-bending in its own weird way. Maybe it all started with The Wizard of Oz. From a missile silo that once dominated the world's LSD supply to rock formations shaped like mushrooms, roadside art that will make you think you've been whisked away by a tornado, and a giant pile of sock monkeys, Kansas is full of treasures that are sure to make you do a double take. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

The Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue has a past full of stories and struggles.

The Resilience of New York in 10 Remarkable Sites

New York been described as a playground for the rich and powerful, but the state's history is full of ordinary people who have overcome extraordinary struggles. What if Seneca Falls, the village that launched the fight for women's suffrage, were as famous as Niagara Falls? What if Weeksville, the historic free Black community in Brooklyn, were as well-known as Williamsburg? From immigrant sanctuaries to the Survivor Tree, here are sites where New York has shown its resilience. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

Flat ground, big skies, huge cows.

7 Very Tall Things in Very Flat North Dakota

North Dakota is not quite the flattest state in the U.S., but it's pretty close. (In one analysis, it placed third, after Illinois and Florida.) During the last Ice Age, glaciers moving across the terrain had a planing effect on the land, dropping sediment that filled in any valleys, creating sprawling prairies and open, big skies. These large expanses are home to more than a few sky-high structures, both natural and human-made. From rocky peaks and multi-ton animal statues to one of the tallest buildings in the world, these are some of the most impressive structures that North Dakota has to offer. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

An architectural pilgrimage.

8 Blissfully Shady Spots to Escape the Arizona Sun

For about half of any given year, much of Arizona is too hot to handle. But even in peak summer, the state is home to a stunning spread of geographic diversity and a mysterious magic that emanates from the landscape—and we don’t just mean the mirages. Locals and visitors alike flock to higher altitudes, recreation-friendly bodies of water, and indoor spaces that are so heavily air-conditioned they practically require a jacket. Here are eight sheltered spots to retreat from the heat, from natural formations to an immersive art exhibit that invites lingering. We've even added a couple cool places (220 feet underground or a mile above sea level) to dream about spending the night. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.


On the Run: Los Angeles

Originally named “Venice of America,” Venice, California, owes its existence to a wealthy developer’s dream of a canal-laden resort town west of Los Angeles. The dream didn’t last long: After opening in 1905, the city went broke before joining Los Angeles in 1926. The decades of neglect that followed earned Venice the nickname “the slum by the sea,” but its affordability also attracted artists, beginning with the Beats in the late ’50s. Venice’s identity as a rough-around-the-edges artist haven endures more than 60 years later, though its affordability less so. If you’re looking to plot a trek across Los Angeles pavement and beaches, zero in on Venice with a run that oscillates between fast-and-furious and slow-and-curious. Take on this 5.2-mile run in one go, break it up into multiple runs, or do it in reverse. With the right running shoes, you’ll be ready to navigate Venice’s storied past and its eternally eccentric personality.


On the Run: NYC

A run through New York City demands a delicate balance: Zoning out versus keeping your eyes peeled. On the one hand, there’s the clear-headed, in-the-zone mental state that any good sneaker-to-pavement exercise requires. At the same time, well, it is New York City. You can hardly walk two blocks without uncovering a hidden gem or noticing some new detail that’s actually been lurking in plain sight for decades. This 5.3-mile run takes you along a scenic route to discover some of these hidden gems. You can run the entire route, break it up into multiple runs, or do it in reverse. With the right running shoes, you’re bound to pick up on one of the million tiny, fascinating details along the way.

The Blythe Intaglios are as mysterious as they are massive.

9 Surprisingly Ancient Marvels in Modern California

Long before California was home to tech campuses, freeways, and palm trees, Native inhabitants etched huge designs into the landscape. Even before that, at roughly the same time that the Pyramids of Giza were under construction, a tree that still survives today began taking root. And even farther into the past, glaciers and mammoths created enduring monuments to antiquity. Across the state, the distant past is still within easy reach. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

One of Houston's four giant concrete Beatles.

10 Art Installations That Prove Everything's Bigger in Texas

There’s a time-tested saying about things being large in Texas—and it certainly holds true for the state’s artworks, many of which are so huge or sprawling they could only reasonably live outdoors. Across the vast expanse of the Lone Star State are artistic testaments to some of the area’s oddest characters and stories. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

Honestly, the tallest building in the state is still a little dinky, compared to skyscrapers elsewhere.

6 Huge Things in Tiny Rhode Island

The smallest state in America is often the butt of jokes. Rhode Island is neither a road nor an island, and it was once famously parodied in the now-defunct website “How Many Rhode Islands”—a simple tool that allowed you to see just how many Rhode Islands could squeeze inside a given country. The United States could contain 3,066 Rhode Islands, and Russia could hold 5,445. But the tiny state has a rather grand history. Rhode Island was founded on the principle of religious freedom, was the first of the Thirteen Colonies to renounce its allegiance to the British Crown, and was one of only two states not to ratify the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Many of the state’s attractions still loom large, including a 58-foot-long blue fiberglass termite and an improbably large blue bear slumped under a lampshade. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

Forbidden Caverns, ready for its closeup.

7 Underground Thrills Only Found in Tennessee

Famous for country music and hot chicken, Tennessee is also filled with natural wonders. Across the state, caverns beckon. Venturing into some of Tennessee's strangest subterranean haunts is a great way to experience the depths of the state's spell-binding charm. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

Watch out for any chimp-gator hybrids lurking in the tea-colored water of Honey Island Swamp.

Sink Into 7 of Louisiana's Swampiest Secrets

Louisiana has long had a complex relationship with the wet world. Chitimacha, Choctaw, and Atakapa peoples built communities among the knobby knees of bald cypress trees; French fur traders and pirates eventually made their own marks. Later still, modern engineers attempted to corral waters with levees and dams, or to reclaim land where there had been none. Across the 50,000-odd square miles that make up the state, troves of special places are becoming concealed by rising water. Here are seven places water has revealed or covered up. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

Diego Rivera's mural sprawls across a light-flooded room in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

7 Mechanical Marvels in Michigan

Michigan is famous for its steep, sweeping sand dunes, freckling of lakes, and unique fossils—but across the state, you'll find slews of automated wonders, past and present. From old animatronic toys to the ruins of early assembly lines, here are seven places to be dazzled by industry. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

Who doesn't love an old tree?

11 Wholesome Spots in Nevada

Here at Atlas Obscura, we have a fondness for the forbidden, a hunger for the hidden, a gusto for the grim. (You get the point.) But it wouldn’t be so intrepid to simply highlight Nevada’s underbelly, would it? There’s more to the state than extraterrestrial-themed brothels and nuclear bomb test sites. Kids and grandparents might enjoy enormous Ferris wheels, unusual geysers, or pristine parklands. Even Nevada—home to Sin City—has a family-friendly side. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

All aboard for a plate of pancakes.

7 Places to Glimpse Maine's Rich Railroad History

Maine is widely known for its mottled red crustaceans and stony-faced lighthouses, as well as bucolic towns and the top-notch hiking outside of them. But before all that, Maine was all about one thing: trains. As America industrialized in the 19th century, there was an insatiable demand to build and a hunger for lumber. Maine had plenty of it, and the state’s rivers became swollen with the fallen bodies of pine and spruce, much of which was hauled by rail. Trains did the heavy lifting to coastal hubs including Bangor and Ellsworth, and by 1924, there was enough railroad mileage in Maine to get from London’s King's Cross station to Mosul, Iraq. Over the years, some of the old cars were fashioned into eateries, but many were simply abandoned in the woods. Now, relics of Maine’s railroad history are scattered in museums, restaurants, and more. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

At Glacier Gardens, the tree canopies are flowers in bloom.

11 Places Where Alaska Bursts Into Color

Picture Alaska. You might see in your mind's eye the granite and stark white snowcaps of Denali National Park, or the dark seas that surround 6,000-plus miles of coastline, or the muted olive of its tundra in the summer. But as anyone who's been there knows, the country's largest, most sparsely populated state can absolutely burst with color, from the luminous green of the Northern Lights, to the deep aqua of its glaciers, to the flourish of wildflowers fed by its long summer days. Here are some places to see the full spectrum of The Last Frontier. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

Workers assess the exterior of the Washington Monument after an earthquake in 2011.

9 Places in D.C. That You're Probably Never Allowed to Go

The District of Columbia is home to a number of places that you need to flash the right ID to access. From restricted rooftops to government storage facilities and underground tunnels, the city is filled with places that are off-limits to the average visitor. What’s more, many of them are hidden within popular tourist destinations and densely populated neighborhoods—so you might catch a glimpse of them, but never get any closer. These are a few of our favorite restricted spots in D.C., and the stories behind them. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.


2 Perfect Days in Pensacola

If you thought Pensacola, Florida—with its powder-white sand beaches, near-perfect weather, and fresh seafood—was just a place to soak up the sun, think again. In fact, the city and beach of the same name is the site of the first European settlement in the continental United States. Established by Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna in 1559, it was christened Panzacola, a name of Native American origin and the precursor to the city’s modern name. The destination is also the birthplace of U.S. naval aviation and is still home to a naval air station and the thousands of service members stationed there, as well as the Blue Angels, the flight squadron famous for their death-defying fighter plane stunts. This delightful coastal city is an ideal, if somewhat quirky, blend of historical sites (on land and underwater) and activities to get your adrenaline flowing.


Taste of Tucson

The people of Tucson have been eating off the land for 4,100 years. From grains to livestock to produce introduced by missionaries in the 1600s, this UNESCO City of Gastronomy is home to some of the oldest farmland in North America. What once was old is new again in The Old Pueblo where ancient flavors are found in nearly every dish — trendy to traditional.


North Iceland’s Untamed Coast

Any travel enthusiast would be hard-pressed to open any social media channel and not see photos of Iceland, with its jaw-dropping peaks, natural hot springs, pure glaciers, northern lights and snow-covered landscapes. But the island nation’s appeal goes well beyond the well-worn paths of Reykjavik, the Golden Circle and the southern region's countryside. Travel to the untamed north along the Arctic Coast Way to discover otherworldly beauty—sans crowds—around every bend.

Look closely and wander widely: Parliament Square is full of charm.

Hidden Edinburgh

Crowds clog Edinburgh's Royal Mile, the main artery between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. The road is dotted with stores selling Nessie trinkets and lined with bagpipers and street performers pulling off dazzling tricks. But look beyond the tartan tourist traps, and you’ll discover tucked-away gardens, remnants of the city’s medieval past, and much more.


Hidden Haight-Ashbury

In 1967, 100,000 artists, activists, and hippies gathered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for the Summer of Love. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix played free concerts for fields of college dropouts, and San Francisco established itself as a countercultural capital. More than 50 years later, in a city increasingly known for Twitter and tech rather than art and activism, travelers who come on a pilgrimage are often disappointed to find expensive, skin-deep psychedelia. But if you know where to look, you’ll find a walk down Haight Street to be wonderfully weird, full of historic links to hippiedom and modern takes on the vibe.


The Many Flavors of NYC’s Five Boroughs

More than eight million diverse individuals call New York City home, and many of them share their heritage through food. Whether it’s a billiards hall that serves stellar Bhutanese fare or a mosque where Malian vendors sell snacks for just a few hours each Friday, the city offers a vast culinary landscape for those willing to explore it. Venture beyond the flashy hotspots with months-long waiting lists and you’ll find New York’s true flavor lies within the small restaurants and stands rooted in its thriving immigrant communities.

Musical instruments in the courtyard of SecondLine Arts and Antiques in New Orleans' French Quarter.

Hidden French Quarter

It may be famous for Mardi Gras, but New Orleans has subtle, surprising wonders on tap all year long—even in the touristy French Quarter. Around every cobblestoned corner, you’ll find historic ephemera, bits of Creole culture, environmentalism, and no shortage of spooky stories, whenever you happen to visit.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hard to miss: The institution’s two-million-square-foot main building, at 1000 Fifth Avenue, spans four New York City blocks and stretches into Central Park. Inside the galleries, you’ll find thousands of objects spanning 5,000 years of world history. With so many treasures under one roof, it's inevitable that some fascinating pieces are tucked into the museum's lonelier nooks and crannies, hiding in plain sight. The next time you spend a day at the museum, keep an eye out for these overlooked wonders.

The RV/MH Hall of Fame.

Motown to Music City Road Trip

Detroit and Nashville are synonymous with two all-American music genres. It’s no surprise that visitors flock to these cities each year to get a feel for the places where artists such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton began their careers. A (relatively) straight, north to south route connects the two cities, as does musical heritage. Load up the RV, make sure your speaker system is in tip-top shape, and create a playlist filled with old-school Motown and Country hits. If you're not driving on the trip down south, you should be dancing.

The East Texas Bayou.

Gulf Coast Road Trip

The terrain along the Gulf of Mexico is sometimes called the “Third Coast,” but for an offbeat road trip, it’s second to none. Starting in Houston and ending in Pensacola Bay, this journey takes you through some of America’s most diverse landscapes. You’ll cross Cajun swamps, drive along sparkling white sand beaches, and even spend some time in the Big Easy. Take an RV and camp along the way to truly immerse yourself in this wondrous region. The world’s largest gulf, it turns out, holds some of America’s best-kept secrets.

Coachella Valley Preserve.

Hidden Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley and its environs boom in the spring, when tens of thousands of music lovers flock to catch their favorite artists perform in front of a dramatic, mountainous backdrop. But this region stays wonderfully weird all year long. If the festival drew you to the area and you only have a day to explore, choose a direction: Either head north, toward Joshua Tree and Landers, or southeast to the Salton Sea and nearby oases for a blissful respite. If you can spare a couple of days, lucky you—go forth and see it all.

A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

Highland Park

Los Angeles’ Highland Park is a diverse, eclectic neighborhood that Native Americans and Latinx communities have inhabited for centuries. Celebrated for its history, art scene, ethnic diversity, and cuisine, Highland Park is filled with surprising delights that more and more people are discovering every day. Exploring the neighborhood's nooks and crannies is one of the most rewarding ways to spend a day in L.A.

The heart of Venice.


Once referred to as “The Coney Island of the Pacific,” L.A.’s beachfront neighborhood of Venice has long been a popular tourist destination. Its colorful characters, quirky architecture, and carnivalesque atmosphere are well-known the world over. But take a moment to look past the kitsch, and you’ll discover a place where artistic ingenuity thrives more than a century after Abbot Kinney endeavored to bring a grandiose version of Venice to America. The bohemian beehive has always attracted artists and performers, and everyone is welcome to enjoy the show.

Artist Colette Miller's tribute to the City of Angels.

L.A.’s Downtown Arts District

The 1970s brought a wave of artists into this former industrial area in Downtown Los Angeles. They sparked a fuse of creative imagination that burned for years. Up-and-coming creators took advantage of the then-low rents and built a foundation for the creative mecca that exists here today. In its infancy, L.A.’s Downtown Arts District came to life behind-the-scenes, with artists mostly working in closed studios. Today, the art has spilled onto the streets in the form of colorful murals, attractive gallery spaces, and stylish storefronts. But the curious explorer can still find literal and figurative traces of the ‘70s. In addition to the more historic spots that remain, a creative, entrepreneurial spirit abounds.

An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

Secrets of NYC’s Five Boroughs

Few cities on Earth are as well-trodden as New York–but as any intrepid traveler knows, the more you explore a place, the more wonders you find. You may not be able to discover all of these spots in a single trip, but that could be a good thing. No matter how many times you return, the city that never sleeps never ceases to surprise. Visit NYCGo to uncover more of the city’s secret spots.

Plenty of sweet treats are on offer at Pastelería Ideal

Mexico City's Centro Histórico

Anchored by the Zócalo plaza and the architectural splendor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City's historic center rightfully draws scores of visitors from around the world. If you look, smell, and taste carefully, you’ll also find a universe of culinary offerings that tells stories of immigration, adaptation, and imagination. With the help of Culinary Backstreets, we assembled a primer on eating and drinking your way through the district.

View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

Hidden Hollywood

Hollywood Boulevard is world-famous—for the Oscars and the Walk of Fame, for schlocky souvenir shops and crowded tour buses. But beyond the terrazzo stars and the occasional celebrity sighting, there’s plenty left to discover. Here’s how to make Hollywood’s acquaintance, whether you’re a visitor or a local who keeps a practiced distance from these busy, saturated blocks. Look closer and you'll find a neighborhood full of nature, history, and wonder.

A subway entrance in Times Square.

Hidden Times Square

There's the Times Square you know, full of blazing billboards, selfie sticks, and costumed characters. Then there's the less familiar one, beyond the lights—the nooks and crannies that most visitors to Midtown Manhattan overlook. They're not obvious, but surprises can still be found along this world-famous stretch of real estate.

Upper Hoh Road, Olympic National Park, Oregon.

Summer Radio Road-Trip

Follow along on our 2,200-mile adventure with NPR's 'All Things Considered.'



Forge your own path in this tourist magnet, toward places that are less crowded but no less wondrous.


Buenos Aires

Find faded grandeur and vibrant street life in Argentina's largest city.



Just when you thought you knew the Windy City, it finds new ways to surprise you.



Find secret vistas, labyrinthine bookstores, and eclectic public art.

The dome of Estrela Basilica in Lisbon.


In the homeland of explorers, your best bet is to keep looking.



Go beyond the beaches in the continental United States’ only truly tropical city.



New York City's most diverse borough is also its most rewarding.


San Diego

Southern California's second city holds plenty of sparkling secrets.



Find surprises around every corner in a U.S. city that embraces history like no other.