‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,’ said the great English writer Samuel Johnson in 1777 – and the city still has the power to inspire and excite. We explore the unique experiences on offer in the English capital.

Follow a trail of text messages to explore London at twilight
The sun is beginning to sink in the sky, bathing the South Bank in a golden glow. People strolling, cycling or skating along the riverbank cast long shadows across the paving stones outside the Hayward Gallery’s Concrete bar. This Brutalist architectural space is the starting point for the Bright Lights Evening Trail – a walking tour that unfolds via a series of clues sent by text message. Part urban ramble, part bar crawl, the route takes in South Bank views and a hidden basement drinking den, and is designed to showcase the beauty of the city as it fades to night. Its final stop is at a cosy central boozer, which you’ll be reluctant to leave before last orders (£16 per team).

Get up close and personal with a giraffe at London Zoo
Fourteen-foot tall Ellish strides across her paddock as elegantly as a model on a catwalk. Pausing briefly to bat thick eyelashes worthy of a Disney heroine, she sticks out her extraordinarily long tongue to retrieve the carrot from my outstretched hand. ‘Giraffes use their tongue like an extra limb,’ explains keeper Gerald Asher, who is hosting today’s Meet the Giraffes encounter at London Zoo. ‘For example, to reach a tall branch and strip it of leaves.’ The tongue’s black colour evolved to prevent sunburn in the giraffe’s natural habitats in Africa. Here, Ellish and her two companions, Molly and Margaret, are fed mostly a mix of clover hay, pellet food and linseed-oil cake, but can usually be lured to the elevated viewing platform with a treat. ‘Like a lot of animals, giraffes are quite food-orientated,’ says Gerald, ‘but they’re sociable creatures, too’ (tickets from £25; daily; book in advance).

Enter a cinematic fantasy world
Rarely does a good night out begin with a court summons, but then Secret Cinema is no ordinary night out. Soon after turning up at a location given in a cryptic email, tonight’s ticket-holders are incarcerated. In a convincing mock-up of a 1940s jail – actually a former Hackney school – a stern prison officer issues grey uniforms, and inmates begin to explore the building’s dimly lit corridors. Each room offers something different, from work programmes – candle-making, cross-stitch – to an appointment with a bespectacled psychoanalyst. Beers in brown paper-bags and fat, mustard-slathered hotdogs can be bought illicitly from corruptible guards or infirmary nurses. As a feeling of comfortable institutionalisation begins to set in, someone attempts escape and prisoners are corralled into the gym. Here The Shawshank Redemption flickers on to the screen – a film most of the audience will have seen before, but never felt so much a part of (tickets £43.50; programme changes regularly).

Stay at Hampton Court Palace
‘The palace has a very warm atmosphere,’ says housekeeper Wendy Guest as she unlocks the door to the capital’s most historic accommodation. ‘Its past seems to ooze out from the brickwork.’ The favourite home of Henry VIII, Hampton Court Palace now houses two Landmark Trust rental properties. Fish Court, an apartment tucked beside Tudor kitchens, once accommodated the royal pie-makers. The other, The Georgian House, is grander, with a private walled garden. Guests at either get a privileged glimpse of the palace at its most peaceful, with after-hours access to the magnificent gardens and most of the courtyards. Strolling in the rose garden at dawn, where one Landmark guest proposed to his now-wife, the mind inevitably wanders to the king’s own ill-fated romances (from £714 for a four-night stay at Fish Court, which sleeps up to six).

Sleep in a boat perched on top of the Southbank Centre
It’s as if the small vessel were left in its seemingly precarious position, teetering on the rooftop of Queen Elizabeth Hall, by a freak tsunami sweeping down the River Thames. But in fact it’s there by design – a one-bedroom installation, complete with kitchenette and library, available to rent for the night. This beautifully crafted timber vessel, A Room for London, has panoramic views stretching from Big Ben to St Paul’s Cathedral from its upper and lower decks, and all the amenities one might expect from a good hotel room. Inside are more surprises – a cabinet of old maps, and a logbook in which guests are invited to share their experiences of this eccentric refuge high above the hubbub. A night here really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – despite the cost, demand for tickets is so high that they’re sold only by ballot (£300 for an overnight stay).

Board the Tube in search of a secret supperclub
As instructed by a 6pm text message, tonight’s journey into the culinary unknown begins with a ride to an obscure train station in London’s suburbs. A handful of conspicuously excitable passengers, clad in dress-code monochrome, are here for an evening at Gingerline – a supperclub named after the Tube map’s orange-coloured London Overground, around the eastern reaches of which its ever-changing venues cluster. Tonight a nondescript residential building is the front for an alternate universe – previous themes have drawn inspiration from Vegas casinos and a mad puppeteer’s workshop. At a Gingerline event, circulating waitresses are as likely to offer you an arm-wrestling match as a drink, and the theatricality extends to the food. Dishes are served around communal tables, and past highlights include a ‘roulette wheel’ of seasonal appetisers, and a flaming stand of brandied figs (tickets £50).

Learn how to mix a martini good enough for Bond
A couple of cosy rooms hung with oil portraits and line-drawn heraldic crests, Dukes Bar in St James’s has the feel of a gentleman’s club, and was James Bond author Ian Fleming’s favourite place for a martini. ‘When Fleming started writing the Bond books in the ’50s, observing good etiquette was a way of showing your class,’ says Alessandro Palazzi, the bar’s Italian-born manager. ‘A martini is not supposed to be shaken in a cocktail mixer – doing so would make it a murky drink, full of broken ice. So Bond asking for his ‘shaken not stirred’ was a subtle way of saying, this man can do anything. Every drink has a story to tell, and Alessandro recounts each one with wit and eloquence as he teaches the art of classic cocktail-making at the wood-and-mirror-panelled bar. A Dukes martini uses only four simple elements – a frozen glass, a whopping five measures of ice-cold gin or vodka, some vermouth and a spritz of oil from the skin of an Amalfi Coast lemon. ‘I lived through the piña colada era,’ says Alessandro with a wry smile. ‘But thankfully there’s been a return to classic drinks’ (£95 per person for a two-hour class).

Cross the River Thames in a cable car
Ninety metres up, the UK’s first urban cable car cuts across a clear London sky. The Emirates Air Line from Royal Docks to the Greenwich Peninsula soars over an easterly stretch of the Thames, its gunmetal surface zig-zagged with the foamy trails of motorboats. Through the glass windscreen of the slow-moving capsule, the curved dome of the O2 and the towering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the City can be seen. Visible along the riverbanks is evidence of docklands industrial life – cranes, container units and even a tiny lighthouse – long-since disappeared from the city centre. The journey lasts just ten minutes, uniting not only London’s North and South, but also its past and its present (from £3.20).

Listen to a classical concert in Handel’s former home
Brook Street in Mayfair, now lined with upmarket shops, was once home to the German-born composer George Frideric Handel. From 1723 until his death in 1759 he lived at number 25, a building now restored to its period glory and open as the Handel House Museum. Visitors can stand in the quarters where he composed his masterpiece oratorio The Messiah, and the musical life of the house is kept alive with weekly concerts in Handel’s former recital room. ‘I love performing here because of the intimacy of the venue,’ says harpsichordist Nathaniel Mander. ‘And it’s a magical thing to play where Handel took his inspiration. Like no other composer, he had the most natural ability for melody.’ As he returns to his practice for that evening’s event, the small room fills with the instrument’s ancient song (tickets £9).

Sketch a model in macabre costume
A bare-breasted model in a black top hat, electric-blue French knickers and sequined bolero jacket strikes a pose with her magic wand, as the class reaches for sticks of charcoal and soft pencils. Three minutes later, an owl’s twit-twoo signifies a final 30 seconds to finish work on the sketches. The impressive standard at Art Macabre Drawing Salons, life-drawing sessions for which models dress partly in ghoulish costumes, betrays the high numbers of art students in attendance – but the atmosphere is far from school-like. There’s a magic-inspired soundtrack featuring songs by everyone from Florence and the Machine to Frank Sinatra, and host Nikki Shaill sets each pose with tongue-in-cheek theatricality. ‘I’m not going to go round peering over people’s shoulders and making comments,’ says Nikki. ‘It’s about having a go and having fun’ (tickets £10).

Cook the catch of the day at Billingsgate Market
The floor is slick with melt-water, the air redolent of the fruits of the sea. Fishmongers in white coats drink tea from Styrofoam cups and shout good-natured banter as customers of every nationality examine fish piled high on chipped ice. ‘The freshest fish is firm, with bright eyes and red gills,’ says CJ Jackson, principal of the Billingsgate Seafood School, as she navigates the stalls with a small class in tow. For sale are oysters bigger than guinea pigs, a rainbow of exotic fish and great trays full of squirming eels. In a teaching kitchen upstairs, after a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, students learn the basics – gutting, skinning, scaling, filleting and pin-boning the market’s best mackerel, sea bass and plaice. The work is gory but satisfying – all the more so when the class breaks for a bowl of fish stew and a glass of wine at lunch (weekday Catch of the Day course £193; 6.15am-2.15pm).

Attend a Mad Hatter’s tea party
A tumble down a rabbit hole isn’t the only way to secure a place at a Mad Hatter’s tea party as described in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a visit to the Sanderson Hotel will get you there too. In a courtyard garden filled with flowering trees and trickling fountains, a menu hidden inside a vintage book promises fine dining and theatricality in abundance. Plates decorated with carousel animals and ticking clocks arrive piled high with culinary whimsy – a carrot meringue served on a bed of pea shoots, cucumber sandwiches rolled up like fairy carpets. There’s a jelly course, an edible chocolate teacup and a fruity ‘Drink Me’ potion. ‘Lots of children, and all Alices, read the book and wish they could be a part of that world,’ says theatre and costume designer Alice Walkling, here for a birthday treat. ‘This is like having the grown-up version of that fantasy realised’ (tickets £35).

Go backstage at the Royal Opera House
Behind the velvet and gold-leafed glamour of the Royal Opera House’s horseshoe-shaped auditorium is a warren of much less remarkable-looking spaces, each one integral to making the magic happen on stage. Though every Backstage Tour is different, today’s takes in a room filled with four tonnes of lighting equipment, and a hangar-like area containing props – a cluster of clouds, giant multicoloured horses, an oversized bottle of red wine – strangely divorced of context. Upstairs by the Ashton Studio, tour-goers find the Royal Ballet mid-class. Dancers wave and blow kisses through the glass to entertain principal Mara Galeazzi’s infant daughter, visiting with her nanny, while Carlos Acosta spins and pirouettes about the room (tickets £12).

Take a walk over the O2
London venue the O2 is best known for the exciting things – concerts by the likes of Prince and the Rolling Stones, or international tennis tournaments – that happen inside it. But visitors to the city landmark formerly known as the Millenium Dome can now walk over the top of it. Climbers are connected to a taut cable for their ascent to a central viewing platform, and the blue walkway over the giant tent is springy underfoot. More than 50 metres up, there’s an opportunity to unhook and roam about the roof. Wind whips visitors’ hair into startling shapes as the skyline’s familiar sights – the Shard, the ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower and the buildings of the Olympic Park – slowly reveal themselves (tickets from £22).

Tour a tiny gin distillery
Hidden down a leafy residential street in Hammersmith is the first London distillery licensed in nearly 200 years. ‘Sipsmith wanted to return London dry gin to its spiritual home,’ says sales manager James Grundy, as he guides a tour of the garage-sized micro-distillery. ‘In the 18th century, gin was a poor man’s drink,’ says James. ‘But we make a quality product, using traditional methods.’ He explains how Prudence, Sipsmith’s copper still, is used to create premium gins and vodkas, before producing several bottles for a tasting session. A sip of the London dry slips down without a hint of burn, leaving the faint taste of the botanicals – juniper, coriander, lemon and orange – just glimpsed through Prudence’s port-hole window (£12; every Wednesday evening).

Eat a Michelin-starred meal in a greenhouse
A garden centre might not seem a likely place for a proper lunch, but you know you’re in for a good meal when Heston Blumenthal sits down at the next table. A Michelin-starred restaurant housed in an earth-floored Richmond plant nursery, Petersham Nurseries Café is a far cry from Heston’s famed molecular gastronomy – the food focuses on super-fresh ingredients, simply but beautifully prepared. Diners arrive clutching baskets brimming with dahlias, bags of bulbs and gardening forks, and dishes – like baby vegetables with tzatziki or wild sea bass with pancetta, black cabbage and roasted garlic aioli – take inspiration from their surroundings. This is a place where good things grow (mains from £20).

Find a world of food along a single street
Tucked behind the refurbished King’s Cross station is some of London’s best street food. In a row of vans and stalls serving up flavours from around the world, vendors are dwarfed by the great green and red cranes dancing over the adjacent construction site, and the cathedral-like spires of nearby St Pancras. In front of each snakes a line of people seeking lunch – perhaps a Korean-inspired cheeseburger from Kimchi Cult, or cinnamon-sprinkled French toast with bacon from Original Fry-Up Material. Mexican street food sellers Luardos have the biggest queue, and one slow-cooked pork burrito later, it’s clear why. Tender meat encased with black beans, Monterey Jack cheese, spicy salsa, sour cream and lettuce inside a hot flour tortilla – this isn’t kebab-van fare, it’s proper, flavoursome food for only a fiver (KERB food market is open Monday–Friday, 11am–2.30pm).

Play Bingo with a difference
Like an answering call to the strains of Eddie Cochran’s C’mon Everybody filling the room, an excitable shriek sounds from a back table. The first of the night’s winners rushes forward to claim her prize: moustache-shaped cookie cutters, though it hardly matters. ‘This night is about good, clean fun,’ says Jess Indeedy, the glamorous American in sequins and towering heels who hosts the event with her husband, DJ Helix. Under the fragmented light of a disco ball, players with eyes down and ears up drink Bingotini cocktails, ready to play a series of rounds where instead of numbers they cross off songs, themed by genre – like film music – or decade. ‘It’s all about the music, but we keep it accessible,’ says Jess. ‘I don’t want anyone to feel like they aren’t knowledgeable or cool enough to take part.’ Musical Bingo with Jess Indeedy (£7) takes place at various London venues, including Drink, Shop & Do.

Roll up, roll up for a circus on the South Bank
This spring, for the second year running, Jubilee Gardens will be transformed into a Coney Island-style carnival. The centrepiece of the Priceless London Wonderground festival is the spectacular Spiegeltent – a big top-style venue lined with mirrors, where circus and cabaret acts take to the stage nightly. The atmosphere is decadent and vaguely hedonistic – audience members crowd around shady booth tables clutching bottles of wine, as the performers emerge and disappear from the spotlight. This year’s programme has yet to be announced, but in 2012 avant-garde Australian circus performers Cantina were the headline act. Surrounding the tent is all the fun of the fair – from bars and food stalls to rides and freakish sideshows (6 May–29 September; tickets from £10).

Sail through central London on a Thames barge
Hydrogen’s red ochre sail flutters as she bobs along the River Thames. When she reaches Tower Bridge its bascules lift, allowing the ship to pass. Perfectly adapted to the estuary’s shallow waters, in the 19th century these flat-bottomed sail barges were commonplace cargo vessels on the river – now, only a few survive. Topsail Charters has lovingly converted its fleet of five into comfortable pleasure cruisers for daytrips. After setting sail from London Bridge’s City Pier, passengers on their River Thames Cruise are kept well-refreshed – with coffee, a hot lunch and afternoon tea. Making its way past St Katharine Docks, Canary Wharf and the Thames Barrier, Hydrogen returns to dock just as twilight begins to descend on the river’s ever-evolving banks (tickets £60).

Spend a silent night in a Georgian time-warp
The door to 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, is a portal to Georgian London. Stepping inside, it’s the smell of the place that begins your journey back in time – an intoxicating mix of cinnamon and citrus, wood smoke and candle wax. Each authentically period, candlelit room is a piece in a mysterious historical puzzle – in the kitchen there are hot coals in the grate and a seeded loaf abandoned mid-slice, upstairs a bedroom’s four-poster bed has been left in disarray. These vignettes – the creation of artist Dennis Severs, who died in 1999 – give the impression that a family have just left the building. In this way, every visitor is a new chapter in the story (evening visit £14).

The article 'Twenty-one days out in London' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.