Twenty-eight new exhibits and 19 shows debuted in London several months ago when the city kicked off its cultural extravaganza known as London’s Autumn Season of Culture.
The offerings range from eclectic to historical and, during a recent 72-hour whirlwind visit, I knew there was no way to see it all. But, I researched my options carefully and settled on five targeted destinations for my three-day culture fix.
As it turns out, a study by Visit London (www.visitlondon.com) claims the city is the most Googled in the world for art galleries, performing arts and innovative art and design. I certainly added to that since I Googled London about six times while attempting to learn how to get from point A to point B quickly.
For this, the London Underground seems to be the answer — especially since a three-day trip doesn’t allow for much wasted time.
Museum of London
My favorite exhibition, “Crime Scene Uncovered,” was provided courtesy of the London Metropolitan Police Department’s own Museum of Crime.
For crime junkies, this one should be a bucket-list item. I got an up close look at evidence the “bobbies” have been collecting in their museum basement for years, and some of the items on display have only been seen previously by law enforcement officials working the scene of the crime.
It was intriguing to look at the objects from the Jack the Ripper case, the Acid Bath Murderer case of 1949, the Great Train Robbery of 1963 and even the famous Millennium Dome diamond heist of 2000. A few of the items on display date back to 1875 when the police department started their little basement museum.
The exhibit runs through April 10, and it is best to order tickets online, with prices starting at 10 pounds depending on time of visit. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, 150 London Wall, 020 7001 9844. www.museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall.
Despite a stuffy-sounding name that might make you think of scholarly exhibits and an environment filled with dust-covered books, the British Library made my list — and did not disappoint.
A recent exhibit, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song,” runs through Feb. 26 and highlights the counties of Ghana, Nigeria and Mali.
The high notes at the exhibit included a display of items from literature, politics and music dating to the Middle Ages and through modern times with each country’s independence.
Through rare pamphlets, film and textiles, the exhibition explains how each country grew over the years while citizens struggled for freedom and identity. The insightful look into the traditions of these countries also explores oral traditions, revealing how storytelling, music and sound were used to keep history alive.
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Admission: 10 pounds; under 18, 5 pounds. 96 Euston Road, 44 0 1937 546546, www.bl.uk.
The Victoria & Albert Museum
Every time I visit the V&A, I breathe in deep and expect to be wowed. With 3,000 years’ worth of collections, it is widely considered the world’s greatest museum of art and design. You can easily spend a day or more exploring the contents that reside behind its ornate doors.
The last time I was there was for the David Bowie exhibit, but the current exhibit, called “The Fabric of India,” takes a completely different turn. Expect to get all wrapped up in the bright colors of India with textiles used on wall hangings and ceremonial banners.
There was even a tent used by Sultan Tipu Sultan, who ruled the kingdom of Mysore. You won’t be able to touch the items, but it is enticing to look at the bright and intricate fabrics and re-imagine the history unfolding with every thread.
Time is short for this exhibit. It ends Jan. 10.
9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Admission: 14 pounds. South Kensington, Cromwell Road, 44 0 20 7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk.
If you’re into space exploration then the Science Museum’s exhibit “Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age” will appeal.
Running through March 16, this exhibit explores life aboard Mir and the International Space Station, while conveying a strong sense of the importance of both the U.S.’ and Soviet Union’s quest to change the world.
I was surprised to discover the record number of firsts by the Soviet Union in this area, but the Science Museum’s curator was quick to point out that in the world of space technology the scientists didn’t let the barrier between the countries taint their thirst for space travel.
10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (until 10 p.m. Fridays). Admission: 14 pounds. Exhibition Road, South Kensington, 0870 870 4868, www.sciencemuseum.org.uk.
I am not a cyclist, but I was told on good authority that the Design Museum’s “Cycle of Revolution” exhibit was worth the trip. The exhibit brought up childhood memories of a green machine (as I called it) with a banana seat, provided an insightful overview of the past decade as seen through cycling and explored the way lives have changed over time with the explosion of bicycles.
It celebrates the world of cycling from the viewpoints of ordinary commuting to Olympic-level competition, and the nostalgic appeal of this exhibit will reach out to you even if your two-wheeling skills are as rusty as mine. The display runs through next summer — June 30, to be precise.
10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. daily. Admission: 13 pounds; 6 pounds and 50 pence for children. Shad Thames, 44 (0)20 7403 6933, http://designmuseum.org.
If you happen to have a bit of extra time while in London, there are 45 additional museums in the city, and not all have rotating exhibits. The little quirky museums are fun stops to put on your itinerary if you can squeeze in an extra 30 minutes here or there.
I have visited the Hard Rock Cafe’s Vault in the restaurant’s basement, and yes, it was once a bank vault, so I can recommend it. This small little museum is free to visit and home to an antique chair that once belonged to Freddie Mercury, a harpsichord used by the Beatles, one of Madonna’s old credit cards and more.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum, at 221b Baker Street, offers a quick stroll through the London time machine. The house is protected by the government, so the first-floor study overlooking the street is still maintained as it was during Victorian times.
And, for wannabe magicians, the Magic Circle Museum takes you behind the scenes of famous acts like Harry Houdini. The museum is in the basement of the Magic Circle. If you’re lucky, you might learn a bit of illusion for yourself.
The Rising Tide
My London visit coincided with the annual Totally Thames Festival, which takes place each fall on the River Thames. The big deal at this year’s festival was a new permanent exhibit on the bank of the river. Called “The Rising Tide,” it was conceived by internationally acclaimed underwater eco-artist Jason deCaires Taylor.
What does underwater have to do with an artwork on the banks of the river? Well, “The Rising Tide” is only visible at low tide; the four gigantic working horses and their riders standing in the mud are completely submerged by the river the rest of the day.
“The Rising Tide” is on the foreshore at Nine Elms on the South Bank of the river, and you want to catch it as the tide is concealing or revealing the horses and riders for full effect.
Getting around London
The London Underground, better known as the Tube, really is the best way to get around quickly and cheaply, but no, that doesn’t mean it is going to be easy.
In fact, it can be a little confusing. Take a deep breath and remember there are maps everywhere intended to tell you where to exit.
First of all, get an Oyster card. After about six hours, you will be fine. The Oyster Card (no one seems to know why the card is called this), does make the ride from one museum to the other fast, and Londoners are generally pretty friendly with directions. The Underground serves 270 stations, and you can use the Oyster card like a credit card to travel around the entire Greater London area.
Simply fill the card with a specific amount of money at the ticket office and touch it on the electronic reader when you enter and leave the transport system. It validates and deducts as you go and comes out much cheaper than the up-to-6-pounds per journey price you’ll incur otherwise.
For more information, visit www.visitlondon.com.
Eating and gawking
No trip to London would be complete without hitting a few of its foodie highlights, and we’re not talking about dreary pie and mash. Whether you head to Covent Garden, the East End or a new address that’s the talk of the town, the food vibe in the city changes often and options are plentiful.
I kept my eye out for eateries that promised views as well as tasty cuisine. Here are a few hotspots that made my list:
- The Roof Gardens on Kensington High Street, located in the Babylon Restaurant, arguably offers one of the best views of London. A relaxing place for lunch, dinner or cocktails, it is one of London’s many hidden gems. On the seventh floor, the motif is nature-themed and when the weather is chilly, the winter terrace is a place where warm cocktails and baked cheeses flow.
- Dinner at the National Portrait Gallery comes with a dazzling view of the city. The rooftop restaurant is one of London’s most sought-after tables and affords diners moonlight glimpses of Big Ben, Whitehall and the London Eye.
- Aqua Nueva, at the top of the former Dickins & Jones department store, is in the West End near Oxford Circus. It features an outdoor rooftop bar and a nice blend of contemporary styles inside. It serves small Spanish-themed plates featuring vegetables, fish and meat.
- Fenchurch Seafood Bar and Grill is at Sky Garden and sits on the 37th floor of 20 Fenchurch Street, a building nicknamed the “walkie talkie.” Fare includes seafood, grilled meats and vegetables, plus incredible views.