London is a culture vulture’s dream, with art galleries, ancient cathedrals and museums of all shapes and sizes spread across every corner of the city.
From tiny art galleries to sprawling national institutions, every angle of the city’s history is covered in dozens of venues, meaning you’ll inevitably want to come back and learn more on your next visit.
And that is before we take into consideration their ace-in-the-hole: the big national museums and galleries are all free. I have to admit that as a Brit, I have completely taken for granted the free access we get to amazing cultural institutions around the country. It was only after working in the marketing team of one of London’s museums that I really began to take advantage of this amazing privilege. Make sure you enjoy them much sooner than I did on your trip!
Just remember that many of the galleries and museums will have a special temporary exhibition each year, which normally carries a cost.
Enjoy breathtaking art at The Tate Britain and Tate Modern
If art is your thing, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the Tate museums. The Tate Britain highlights the very best British art from the 15th century up to the present day. This wonderful institution is located by Millbank, and can be easily reached on the Victoria Line of the Underground. Try and go early in the day or closer to closing time, as it will be less busy at these times.
Tate Britain is great because it has a never-ending run of temporary displays and exhibitions. Repeat visitors will definitely be rewarded with a great selection of art and photography featuring British artists, or works by foreign artists related to Britain.
If you like photography, the new Don McCullin retrospective is a must visit exhibition. Don McCullin is probably one of Britain’s best known war photographers, with his brutally frank photos of the Vietnam War making him a household name.
A really nice touch is that Don himself has developed and printed all of the photos on display in his own darkroom. His Nikon camera, which saved his life in Vietnam when it was hit by a bullet, is also on display, highlighting the risks Don went through to get these harrowing images.
Tickets are £17, but 16-25s can get in for as little as £5 if they join the Tate Collective. The exhibition closes May 6th.
Van Gogh in Britain will open on March 27, and this is bound to be a fascinating show. The exhibition brings together 45 works from the famed Dutch artist, including some rarely lent pieces like Sunflowers. This is a must for art buffs!
With all that amazing stuff going on at the Tate Britain, it’s easy to forget its modernist sibling, the iconic Tate Modern.
Encased in the shell of the old Bankside Power Station is one of the world’s largest collections of international modern art. The Tate Modern offers a wonderfully diverse programme of exhibitions, music, events and performances, and should be high on any list of first time visitor. My top tip seeing the best of the Tate Modern would be to see a Tate Late. These cheap events (less than £10 and free if you’re younger than 25) bring together some of London’s most interesting minds and musicians, and adds a bar. What’s not to like!
Explore London’s diverse history at the Museum of London and Museum of London Docklands
Two hidden gems of London’s museum world are nestled away in two of the city’s financial districts. The Museum of London highlights the broader social history of London itself, with the Museum of London Docklands paying special attention to the historic East End.
Between them, the museums have over 6 million items, dating from neolithic times all the way up to the modern day. The galleries are bursting with little interesting stories of life in London through the ages, and the conditions that people lived in at different times. Each museum has a special area that recreates life in the Victorian era, which is sure to be a enjoyed by children. Look out for Victorian Walk in the Museum of London, and the atmospheric Sailortown gallery at the Museum of London Docklands.
Both are free to enter and open 363 days a year, meaning you can visit at any time of year. They are a little bit out of the way, but don’t let this discourage you. St. Paul’s Cathedral is right next to the Museum of London if you want to make a day of it, and Canary Wharf has all sorts of interesting things away from the skyscrapers. Each museum also has plenty of fun workshops and activities for kids, and Docklands even has a special children’s gallery.
Each has an interesting temporary exhibition opening soon which are definitely worth a visit during the summer.
If you like archaeology and art, then drop in and see Secret Rivers at the Museum of London Docklands. Secret Rivers highlights the role that rivers have played in London’s story, and reveals why many of them has disappeared beneath our feet over the years. One item not to miss is a 12th-century triple toilet seat that will be going on display in the exhibition – yes, I’m serious! There will be a replica that kids can sit on as well.
Secret Rivers exhibition runs from May 24th to October 27th, and is completely free.
Beasts of London is a totally different type of experience at the Museum of London. The project uses projection mapping to reveal the stories of London’s animals through their eyes. The show is split into a series of episodes from London’s history, and the role that certain animals had at these times.
This unique experience will be a great way to bring to life some of London’s colourful moments in a new and fun way. Who would have known that deer roamed through the centre of London during medieval times because humans hid inside, fearing the Black Death? There will be plenty more interesting stories like this in the experience.
The icing on the cake is that a number of big name celebrities will be voicing the animals. In my opinion listening to the booming tones of Brian Blessed as he plays a bacterium(!) are worth the £8 ticket cost alone! If you’re visiting with a family, there is a special £20 ticket which should save you a little bit as well.
Beasts of London opens on April 5th and runs all the way up to January 5th 2020.
Be amazed by the V&A Museum’s stylish collection
With over 2 million objects on display, the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington is a genuine showstopper. It holds the world’s largest collection of decorative arts, making it a true mecca for fashionistas. A mix of 5,000 year-old textiles, photography, jewellery plus other exquisite objects make the V&A endlessly interesting, and that’s just the free permanent collections.
The collection really is the star of the show at the V&A. You can easily spend half a day looking in detail at just one or two of them. I would recommend going for a look at the Post-War Design collection, which really shows off the sense of joy and relief in Britain after a traumatic period of wartime hardship. Colourful textiles and items from the 1951 Festival of Britain help to bring this unique time to life.
The new Photography Centre is also well worth a visit. The V&A holds some of the earliest examples of photography in the world, including beautiful cyanotypes and daguerreotypes from the 19th century. It’s not the biggest, so could be ideal for combining with an exhibition or collection visit.
If you are planning a visit to London, do a quick Google search when you arrive to see what the V&A has on, as they tend to host a show-stopper at least once a year. Coming off the back of the acclaimed Frida Kahlo exhibition in the summer, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams has just opened to the public. The exhibition takes you into the mind behind one the most influential fashion houses on the planet, and the special connection he had with Britain.
This is bound to be one of the biggest shows in London before summer, so don’t delay in picking up your ticket. Prices start at £20.
Variety is the spice of life and you’ll get plenty of it from London’s cultural destinations. Whatever your hobbies or interests, get a London perspective when you come to the capital to find your own special connection to the city to take home with you.
Thanks for reading my blog. Keep checking on this series page here, as I’ll be adding more tips for fun and games in London in the near future.