London, as everyone knows, is a magnet for tourists. Every year the city receives 8 million foreign visitors -- most of them, it can seem, in the week you are there. Anyone who has ever glimpsed the Changing of the Guard from across a sea of heads or joined the motley throngs outside Madame Tussaud's on an August afternoon will know whereof I speak.
Yet the problem is not so much that there are too many tourists for London as that there are too many tourists all plodding around the same dozen or so sights, doggedly advancing from one hot and crowded disappointment to another.
Elsewhere in the city -- sometimes within yards of one of these sticky agglomerations of humanity -- you can find dozens of superb and surprisingly unsung diversions: galleries where rooms of old masters may echo to your footfalls alone, parks where you can claim whole acres to yourself and vantage points seldom seen by outsiders. No city in the world is richer in diversions than London -- the city has more than 160 museums alone, many of them practically unknown even to Londoners -- or more lopsided in the way it distributes them among tourists.
For anyone seeking a merciful break from the tourist hordes, here is a concise guide to a dozen of the city's lesser known attractions:
Dulwich College Picture Gallery. Every few years, this splendid gallery springs into the news for a few days when a painting is stolen -- Rembrandt's "Portrait of Jacob Van Gheyn" alone has been taken four times since 1966 and is still missing -- and then lapses back into obscurity.
Founded in 1626, it is not only one of the oldest museums in Europe but also one of the finest, with a truly world-class collection of paintings by Rubens, Canaletto, Raphael, Van Dyck, Gainsborough and many others. Yet it attracts barely 26,000 visitors a year to its 12 rooms (compared with well over a million for the National Gallery).
Part of the reason may be that Dulwich is not in the downtown area, but that is in fact also part of its charm. Dulwich is one of the greenest and most agreeable acres of London, and one of the few parts of the city to have retained a villagelike air. It has a large and ancient park and many fine houses (one of them belonging to Margaret Thatcher) and is well worth a visit in its own right.
Chiswick House. The idea of a country estate in the heart of London may seem a little incongruous, but until relatively recent times much of what is now urban sprawl was just fields and meadows, well outside the boundaries of the city.
One such place was Chiswick House, where the third Earl of Burlington entertained Swift, Pope, Handel and other 18th-century luminaries. Although the house has had a checkered history -- it was for a time a mental asylum -- it has now been carefully restored as it was in its heyday. Built in 1725-29, it is one of the most elegant Palladian villas in Britain and is particularly famed for its intricate plaster ceilings. The large grounds contain some ancient statuary, including busts from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli, and provide one of the most pleasant and undersung walks in London.
Nearby, up the busy Great West Road, is Hogarth's House, home of the artist (who was a contemporary of Lord Burlington), which has been preserved as a museum.
National Portrait Gallery. Founded in 1856, this endlessly absorbing institution was built on the novel idea of trying to preserve under one roof portraits of all the greatest people in British history. The 8,000 or so paintings, drawings and busts are arranged chronologically, from the ninth to the 20th century.
Although the collection includes some of the greatest portraits ever made -- Holbein's painting of a pugnacious Henry VIII and Reynolds' somber study of Samuel Johnson, for instance -- the fundamental purpose of the gallery is not to show great art but to show great people, and the unevenness of some of the works (notably a portrait of the author Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra) gives the whole an agreeably informal air. It is a little like a national family album. The museum is greatly overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, the National Gallery, and it deserves far wider fame.
Courtauld Institute Galleries. Housed in an anonymous building in a part of Bloomsbury dominated by the University of London, this small museum has one of the world's most outstanding -- and little known -- collections of French Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, including some of the finest works by Monet, Manet, Ce'zanne, Renoir, Seurat, Pissarro, Degas and van Gogh (including his famous "Portrait of the Artist With His Ear Cut Off"), among many others.
It also contains works by the Bloomsbury Group of artists and revolving displays of other works of art from its considerable collection, the bulk of it given by the industrialist Samuel Courtauld. As a bonus, in neighboring Gordon Square is the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, said to be the finest assemblage of Chinese ceramics in Europe, with more than 1,400 objects from the ninth to the 19th centuries. It is a sensational museum, yet fewer than 10,000 people a year visit it.
The Inns of Court. Tucked away in the area around Fleet Street and the palatial Royal Courts of Justice building on the Strand are the four Inns of Court: Gray's Inn, Lincoln's Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple.
These four institutions began life in the Middle Ages as communities of lawyers -- places where barristers could live, work, study and dine -- and they remain so today. Even now every barrister in England is attached to one of the four inns and must, as a student, dine there three times a term in order to be "called to the bar."
Today the inns remain cloistered havens of calm in the heart of the city, where the roar of traffic is instantly muffled and all you hear is bird song and the soft slapping of fountains. The two inns south of Fleet Street, the Middle and Inner temples, are warrens of little lanes and cobbled courtyards, many of them still lit by gas lights. At dusk, they look as if they have been lifted wholesale from a Sherlock Holmes story.
The two northern inns are more open, with an atmosphere more like that of a college quadrangle. Lincoln's Inn has one of the most arresting gardens in London -- and almost certainly the most ornate Gothic toolshed. All the inns have modest, not to say obscure, entrances. But don't let that deter you. They are all well worth seeking out.
Near Lincoln's Inn, just north of the Patents Office, is another little known oasis, Staple Inn. Though not connected with the inns of court, it has all their virtues -- sudden quiet, a shady courtyard and an intriguing garden -- and was once home of the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson.
Sir John Soane's Museum. Sir John Soane was a great architect -- he designed the original Bank of England building and the aforementioned Dulwich College Picture Gallery -- and even greater collector. Like many Victorians, he bought obsessively -- books, classical paintings, Greek and Roman statuary, historical curiosities (Sir Christopher Wren's walking stick, for instance).
All of these he packed into his London town house overlooking Lincoln's Inn Fields (not to be confused with the neighboring Lincoln's Inn), and when that filled up he bought the houses on either side to accommodate his sprawling empire of antiquities. The effect is like a bizarre cross between a gentlemen's club, a warehouse and a museum. Highly recommended.
The Monument. In 1666, the Great Fire of London swept through the city, destroying 13,200 houses and 87 churches (though, miraculously, just nine lives). The Monument, a tall, slender column designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built five years later as a memorial to the conflagration.
Ever since that time sightseers have been climbing the 311 worn stone steps to the viewing platform at the summit -- 202 above the street below, which is said to be precisely the distance between the Monument and Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire started. The view over the city, particularly down river to Tower Bridge, is still one of the finest in London.
Dickens House Museum. The novelist lived in this rather anonymous, soot-blackened house for only two years, from April 1837 to December 1839. But it is the only one of his London homes still standing and he did some of his best writing there -- including all or parts of "Pickwick Papers," "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas Nickleby."
For Dickens enthusiasts, the house is crammed with memorabilia and personal effects, including many first editions of his works and the earliest surviving sample of his writing (a note to a school friend). But even for nonfans the house provides an absorbing insight into what life was like for an early Victorian yuppie: Dickens was in his mid-twenties when he lived in the house. Indeed, the restored drawing room -- surprisingly light and airy, without any of the ponderous clutter and bric-a-brac we associate with later Victorian homes -- is the only one of its type in London.
Wallace Collection. This is another amazingly overlooked gem, a museum in the heart of London, just a couple of blocks away from the crowds of Oxford Street, that few people have ever heard of and yet containing an astonishing collection of old masters, including works by Van Dyck, Velazquez, Rubens and many others. There are two Rembrandts, including the famous portrait of his son Titus.
The collection was bequeathed to the nation by a scion of the Marquesses of Hertford, who had spent two centuries accumulating an imposing assemblage of artworks, and it remains the largest single donation ever made in Britain. It was given with the single stipulation that the collection never be added to nor subtracted from, and that none of the paintings ever be sent out on loan. So if you wish to see Frans Hals' "Laughing Cavalier" or any of at least a dozen other famous works, this is where you have to go. The collection also includes a vast assortment of French porcelain, furniture, clocks and armor.
Bunhill Fields. This was originally called Bonehill Fields, which gives a hint of its original purpose. For two centuries it was one of the most important cemeteries in London, and today, with its shady plane trees and dense jumble of ancient gravestones, it remains one of the most entrancing. It is also one of the most historic.
Here, in a compact area, you will find the graves of Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, William Blake and George Fox (founder of the Quaker movement), among many hundreds of less revered people. Because the cemetery is small, it filled up relatively quickly, and the last burial was as long ago as 1854.
Today locals use it mostly as a short cut between the busy traffic of City Road on the one side and the quieter, more residential Bunhill Row on the other (where, incidentally, John Milton spent the last 12 years of his life, writing most of "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained"). On City Road, opposite the cemetery, is the home and chapel of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, which is open to the public.
St. Katharine's Dock. This was once one of the busiest docks in Europe, with tea, wool, sugar and other commodities from all over the world crowding its 23 acres of ship basins and warehouses. But in 1968 it was closed and sold to a property developer. Today it is an agreeable assemblage of offices, boutiques and restaurants gathered around a yacht marina, just across the street from (but out of sight of) the Tower of London.
A corner of the dock has been devoted to the rather ponderously named but none the less diverting Historic Ship Collection of the Maritime Trust, which contains several historic and notable craft. There is also a large (and faintly touristy) pub, The Dickens, and a riverside walk giving fetching views of the Thames and Tower Bridge.
Linley Sambourne House. This is a real treasure house -- less grand than Sir John Soane's Museum, but with a greater feeling of having been lived in. In fact, it is hard to escape the eerie impression that the Linley Sambourne of the title just popped out for a minute and never came back.
Sambourne was a cartoonist for the humor magazine Punch, and a man of some small wealth and taste. His house, which he lived in from 1874 to 1910, was left practically intact by his descendants, making it a virtual time capsule. It is the quintessential late Victorian home, full of heavy dark furniture, thick rugs, stained-glass windows, pieces of porcelain, collections of pictures and other countless odds and ends, all jostling for space. Now in the care of the Victorian Society, it is almost unknown, even to Londoners.
Bill Bryson, author of "The Palace Under the Alps," is an editor for the Independent in London. WAYS & MEANS
Dulwich College Picture Gallery, College Road, Dulwich, south London. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. To get there, take the train from Victoria Station. Chiswick House, Burlington Lane, Chiswick, west London. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Nearest Underground station: Chiswick Park. National Portrait Gallery, 2 St. Martin's Place, just off Trafalgar Square. Open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Nearest Underground: Charing Cross or Leicester Square.
Courtauld Institute Galleries, Woburn Square. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Nearest Underground: Russell Square. The Inns of Court, near Fleet Street. Nearest Underground: Temple or Chancery Lane. Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed the month of August. Nearest Underground: Chancery Lane. The Monument, Monument Street and Fish Street Hill. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nearest Underground: Monument. Dickens House Museum, 48 Doughty St. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nearest Underground: Russell Square. Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Nearest Underground: Bond Street or Marble Arch. Bunhill Fields, City Road. Nearest Underground: Old Street. St. Katharine's Dock, near Tower Bridge. Nearest Underground: Tower Hill. Linley Sambourne House, 18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington. Open Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. (By appointment only from Oct. 31 to March 1.) Nearest Underground: Kensington High Street.