As the world’s focus turns to London for the Olympics this summer, locals know how to escape the crowds inside the city’s cozy pubs, flower markets and serene galleries.

Forget Tony Robinson – if a hoard of Roman coins crops up in the back garden, it’s Philip Attwood you want to call. He is the fabulously titled Keeper of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, and the man on whose desk most glittering new archaeological finds end up. He’s been working at the British Museum for 32 years, and walking through the jaw-dropping atrium, latticed with metal and glass, it’s not difficult to understand why he says he never wants to leave.

“Sometimes you have to take a step back and remember where you are. I can be on my way to a meeting and suddenly realize I’m next to an exhibit that I spent a year studying at university – like this, the Standard of Ur,” he enthuses, gesturing to a 4,500-yearold mosaic depicting scenes of war in ancient Sumer (modern Iraq). “The power of this object is extraordinary. Think of who else has looked at it in different times, and I’m just walking past it for a meeting!”

With more than seven million objects in the collection, it’s hard to know where to start, but Philip is as good a guide as you’ll get. His knowledge of small circular things made out of metal stretches all the way from the Fishpool Hoard of 1,237 gold coins dating from the War of the Roses (the largest found in the UK and with a face value of £400, equal to £300,000 in today’s money), to an intricate gold coin cast for Queen Mary I in 1555, which would set you back around £270,000 if it ever came up for sale. Being able to spot a forgery is a crucial part of the job – although most fakes that do crop up are contemporary to the originals, rather than modern-day cheats.

Philip’s latest project has been to select the design for the London Olympic and Paralympic medals. “The pattern of the Paralympic medal is taken from the drapery worn by the statue of Nike, which stood at Olympia in ancient Greece. We own a cast of the statue, although it’s currently in our store room, which is, weirdly enough, in the London version of Olympia.”

Curators develop a possessive, almost familial, relationship with their collections. “Most of us don’t think about the monetary value of an object, even when it’s worth millions,” says Philip. “It’s the emotional response that’s important, the connection with other individuals over time and space. An object’s meaning can change, but there’s often continuity, too – a basic idea which sustains. It’s a real privilege to have that experience every day.”

More unmissable London museums

Pub secrets
George Orwell wrote that the ideal pub should have “uncompromisingly Victoria”’ fittings, be always “quiet enough to talk” and be staffed by barmaids who “take a personal interest in everyone”. He may not have added that the landlady should have bright pink hair, but there can be no doubt that The Seven Stars (53-54 Carey St, WC2A) would meet with his approval.

A snug, squat trio of wood paneled rooms tucked away behind the Royal Courts of Justice near The Strand, The Seven Stars lays claim to being one of London’s oldest pubs, dating back to 1602. Tables are neatly covered in checkered cloths and walls in old movie posters, pictures of Bertolt Brecht and books on literary hoaxes. And in Roxy Beaujolais, a former TV chef turned landlady supreme, it’s blessed with a whirlwind of energy and laughter at its very core.

“The secret to a real London pub,” she says, “is clean lavs, good beer, no music, no fruit machines and no bores. It’s a place where people tell secrets and lies. It’s egalitarian, anyone can come in. Until I say they can’t.”

Roxy is a veteran of the 1980s Soho scene, having worked at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in an era when the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud would stumble from pub to drinking den. The Seven Stars is a much quieter proposition: “A mellow place to sit – an elegant home from home,” as Roxy puts it. Its location in a somewhat overlooked area of central London means that it is a pub you have to seek out – and therein lies its appeal. Walk in the door and you feel like you’ve found something special.

“This is a lovely part of London,” says Roxy. “On one side you have the thieves and stewpots of Covent Garden, on the other, the ice-cold Corporation of London and the City. This is the land in-between, up to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Bloomsbury, and it’s a terrific area. It’s hidden, and that makes it magical.” Regulars include legal clerks from the court, ministers and musicians from St Paul’s, and the more discerning students from King’s College. “Get them in the first year and you’ve got them for life. I get former students bringing their babies in to show me years later.”

Places like The Seven Stars justify the mythology surrounding London pubs – it’s welcoming, eccentric and, despite Roxy coming from Australia, very English. “London would be miserable without its pubs. We provide a home for the bewildered and a place where people can meet. You could meet the man of your dreams in a pub.”

More classic London pubs

  • Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese: A glorious rabbit warren of a pub, rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire. The wooden beams and low doorways almost transport you back in time (145 Fleet St, EC4A; 020 7353 6170).
  • The Wenlock Arms: A real “knees-up-round-the-joanna” pub with a veteran band playing music on Friday nights, a roaring fire and a great selection of real ales.

Blooming markets
Walking through Columbia Road Flower Market early on a Sunday morning, you can’t help but appreciate the ritual verbal ding-dong of a great London market. “Three bunches for a fiver – cheap enough to give to someone you don’t like,” says one stallholder, chucking a box of flowers towards a punter waiting with hands outstretched. “So cheap you could stick them on your mother-in-law’s grave,” cries another.

Halfway down this East London street, crammed with colours, scents and stems, is the stall run by 83-year-old George Gladwell, who has been working at the market since 1949. “The secret to the banter,” he explains, “is making people smile. If you can make people laugh, you’ll do alright.”

No matter what the weather, it’s always spring on Sundays at Columbia Road. There’s been a market here since the days when cattle traders would march their herds down this road from London Fields to Smithfields. The arrival of the Jewish community in the 19th century saw the trading day shift to Sundays, which meant that vendors could pick up the leftover flowers from the Saturday market at Covent Garden, stack them high and sell them cheap.

Behind the stalls, the independent shops and cafés are an integral part of the market’s magic. There are little art galleries, jewellers and shops selling antiques. Turn off at Ezra Street and there’s a maze of cobbled streets bursting with the wares of the area’s creative community – woven baskets, handmade trinkets and vintage clothes, alongside freshly shucked oysters and a three-man folk band busking sea shanties. Far from the tourist squeeze of the markets in Borough and Portobello, this little quarter of London comes into bloom every weekend – and the flowers are just the start of it.

More unique London markets

  • Brixton Village indoor market: This covered market is one of London’s best foodie secrets – an array of independent cafés and restaurants mingling with fruit and veg stalls.
  • Bermondsey Square Antiques market: Visitors browse for antiques on a Friday, some arriving at dawn to unearth the best treasures.

The hidden heath
“You don’t just stumble across this place,” says David Humphries, tree officer of Hampstead Heath and a man whose excitement at clambering up the nearest trunk puts even the keenest five-year-old to shame. “It’s a place for locals only, really. You’ll be lucky to see two dog walkers a day here, unlike the rest of the park.” Here on Sandy Heath – a serene wooded glen in the western section – there is a preternatural serenity. It’s difficult to believe that this peace can be found just a couple of miles from the frantic tumult of the City, nor in a park that attracts seven million visitors a year. “In spring, when it’s in full leaf,” says David, “you can’t hear anything except the rustle of leaves.”

David has worked at the heath for 26 years, first joining as a 16-year-old apprentice. Despite being London born-and-bred, he says that he was never a city type, and was always drawn to the rural lifestyle. The remarkable character of Hampstead Heath has allowed David to fulfil his dream.

Unlike London’s more sedate Royal parks, the true mark of the wild remains in the heath. Trees are allowed to grow in crooked angles or to fall to the floor, and dead stumps slowly rot (they are a vital habitat for insects and bats) while leaves are left to pile up and decompose. “Some other parks are more sanitised, like a Victorian pleasure park,” says David. “Every leaf is cleaned away so people don’t get their shoes dirty. On the heath, we’re more about leaving nature to its own devices.”

A short walk from Sandy Heath are the ruins of Pitt’s Garden, which once belonged to the 18thcentury prime minster, William Pitt the Elder. A red-brick arch is all that remains, incongruous amid the woodland. A huge beech has sprung up beside it, the roots pushing the wall of the arch over to such a crazy angle that David had to insert a support frame to stop it keeling over – a quick intervention to satisfy both the historians and the naturalists.

Across the road is Hill Garden, perhaps the greatest of all the heath’s hidden treasures. The huge stately home here has been turned into luxury flats, but the long, serpentine pergola walkway that winds its way above the grounds for a third of a mile is open to the public. Its stone path is lined with pillars that in spring are wound with wisteria and roses.

“Spring is a time of natural noise. You can actually hear the sap rising,” says David. “Summer is a time of buzz, the insects and crickets. And winter is a time of dormancy and silence. That’s my favourite time of the year, when the heath feels at complete peace.”

 More ways to see wild London

  • Highgate Wood: Buried in north London lies this of enclave of ancient wilderness. Great for bird watching.
  • Nunhead Cemetery: A magnificent Victorian cemetary with looming monuments and crumbling gravestones.

Tales of the Tate
Imagine that in your hands lies an artwork worth millions of pounds. One accidental kick and you could go down in art history. “It does cross my mind from time to time” laughs Kyla McDonald, assistant curator at Tate Modern. “It can be a bit scary, but we have a huge team making sure that each painting or sculpture is transported and stored in exactly the right way.”

Since its opening in 2000, Tate Modern’s spectacular Turbine Hall exhibits and blockbuster shows have attracted 45 million visitors. Yet even in a place as popular as this, there remain overlooked spaces. Kyla curates one such space – the Level 2 Gallery. Sitting right next to the Thames-side entrance, this area is often missed by visitors marching straight through to the Turbine Hall. It’s dedicated to emerging international artists, giving the public a first chance to see the work that may one day hang in the hallowed confines of its permanent collection.

“This is a space for young artists to enter into a dialogue with the established names upstairs,” says Kyla, walking around the current exhibition – showcasing art from Morocco, Lebanon and Romania – and carefully watching how the visitors are reacting to the art. Even a small show like this takes six months to prepare.

Upstairs, on the fifth floor, is Kyla’s other favourite space – the Architecture and Power room. Its position, at the back of a room filled with Picassos and other big names, means it is doesn’t get the focus from visitors that the art here deserves. Highlights include a model of the Peruvian military headquarters in Lima, topped with a printer spurting out till receipts with live Google search results for the word ‘brutalist’. This search captures the past dictatorships of South America and references to architecture itself. “This room and Level 2 represent a shift away from the normal canon of Western art,” says Kyla. “It’s about trying to integrate a more global sense into Tate Modern and allow new voices to be heard.”

More cutting edge galleries

  • Auto Italia south east: The best thing to hit Old Kent Road since Monopoly, Auto Italia hosts exhibitions, film screenings, gigs and talks. One of the best places to see new art.
  • Raven Row: Specialises in digging out forgotten histories of art movements that never got the attention they deserved. Set in a former Huguenot silk merchant building.

Olympian café
The scrum for Olympic tickets left thousands empty handed, and others desperately trying to pretend that they’ve always loved dressage and clay pigeon shooting. Yet for those wanting to tap into the Olympic spirit even without a ticket, a visit to a small industrial island in Hackney Wick should be a priority.

“When the Games start, it’s going to be insane,” says Jess Seaton, co-proprietor of The Counter, a brick and steel diner filled with retro furniture and gleaming iMacs. “Already we can hear the intercom, and the floodlights shine straight in the windows. God knows what it’s going to be like when the crowds get here.”

The Counter overlooks the Lee Valley River, a ribbon of water snaking through the industrial heartlands of East London. Raise your eyes above the bank and you’re greeted with the sight of possibly the biggest construction site in the world – the Olympic Park. It’s so close that customers are in danger of being hit by a stray javelin.

“We didn’t plan this,” says Jess. “We’re not Olympic sellouts! Before we opened there was nothing here.” She’s not kidding. From the outside, Fish Island is little more than a ring of warehouses, shipping containers and lorries. “There’s only one road in here,” says Jess. “It’s a secret community. But all of those dull warehouses are packed with creative people. Hackney Wick has the highest concentration of art studios in the world.” The Counter’s superlative breakfasts and views have drawn people in from across the city. And now its prime Olympic location has put the area under a global spotlight.

Despite worries that the Games’ proximity would push rents up and artists out, Jess has been happily surprised that this hasn’t happened. “This will never be a post-Olympics ghost town. We’ll still be here when the attention moves on,” she says. “It’s a very special area and everyone wants to keep it that way.”

More alternative Olympic views

  • The View Tube: See the final touches going on the Olympic site at The View Tube viewing platform.
  • Canal bike ride: A bike ride along the canal from Limehouse to Clapton passes right by the stadium site.

The article 'An insider's look at London' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.