Culture in London

What’s going on in London (theater, galleries, museums) that a “colonist” from the midwest should be sure to see?

I get to go for the first 5 days of the new year. Without the kids or wife, and with nothing I have to do.

I really don’t want to do the usual “touristy” things (I’m sure the Tower will get along without me). But I’d love to find interesting bookstores, cafes, parks/gardens, galleries, museums (and come to think of it, used CD stores, comic shops, even a cool newsstand).

All I really want is to find a Diagon Alley to wander down… Oh, and cheap eats, too. Anything that comes to mind.
Would love some suggestions. Are there plays/art exhibits that I really shouldn’t miss? Or someone’s favorite coffee joint or pub?

Well, this isn’t quite what you’re looking for, but I’ll mention them anyway because I was pleasantly surprised. I visited recently and went to all of the most touristy places. I could take or leave most of them, but what impressed me most were:

  1. The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. I didn’t plan on going in at all, because I was on a tight schedule and didn’t have time for museums, but I’m so glad I changed my mind. There’s some great stuff by Seurat in there, and a lot of really creepy and interesting paintings I’d never seen before, even in art history classes.

  2. The London Transportation Museum in Covent Garden. A tourist- and kid-oriented museum that has displays of all the buses, taxis, trams, and especially the Underground throughout London’s history. A niche audience, I guess, but the buses and the subway are the first things I think of when I think of London, and I got a real kick out of seeing all the Underground signage.

  3. The Lion King at the Lyceum Theater. Yes, it’s Disney, and yes, it’s one of the most popular plays showing in the city. It’s still a damn good show. I wasn’t expecting much, and I had lousy seats, and I was still impressed.

Can’t recommend cheap eats, either, since I had most of my meals of fish and chips from some quaint Scottish fast-food chain called “McDonald’s.”

The V & A is worth days and days.

Most Pubs will get you a cheap feed.

London is a very groovy place you will love it.

I’ll second the Victoria & Albert Museum, but note that it’s next door to the Natural History Museum, which is next door to the Science Museum and it would take much more than five days to do justice to those three alone.

Pubs nearby include the Blenheim, the Crown, the Drayton Arms and the Hereford Arms, but all the museums have cafés if you just want a snack.

You could spend the rest of your life in the British Museum and not see everything. The new glass roof over the central courtyard is worth seeing in itself. It’s closed on 1 January. The Museum Tavern is a popular place to drink just across the road in Museum Street. Covernt Garden and Leicester Square are just to the south

The Museum of London is often overlooked but is very good.

As far as galleries are concerned, you’ll find the National Portrait Gallery next door to the National Gallery (both closed 1 January). Tate Britain is full of old masters by British artists, while Tate Modern contains the main international C20[sup]th[/sup] collection. You could see the Globe Theatre (reconstructed Shakespearen one) nearby during the summer but it will closed during your visit.

Note that all these places are free of charge, although they welcome voluntary donations.

The Royal Academy and the Courtauld Institute are good too, but the best stuff there is not free to view.

The Time Out listings magazine is an invaluable guide to London for visitors.

For specific art exhibitions, currently the big four are probably Gothic at the V&A, Saved! at the Hayward Gallery and the Bill Viola and Sigmar Polke retrospectives at the National Gallery and Tate Modern respectively. So far I’ve only seen Gothic, which is about medieval art and craftsmanship: lots of good stuff, but nothing terribly revelatory. However, the one that’s worth singling out is Saved!. It’s marking the centenary of the National Art Collections Fund, which donates money to public galleries so that they can buy particularly significant works. For the exhibition a lot of pieces bought in this way have been brought together in one place for the first time. A good way to see a lot of varied good stuff.
As everton is right to emphasise, admission to all the permanent collections of the big public museums is free, but you will usually have to pay to see such temporary special exhibitions in the same building. Frankly, with just a few days, unless one of the exhibitions particularly appeals, there’s more than enough to see in the free bits. However, The Weather Project at Tate Modern is temporary, but free and unforgettable.

In terms of plays, the revival of Beckett’s Happy Days is good. But the hot ticket by miles these days is Jerry Springer - The Opera. Otherwise, a good bet might be to use the Half Price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square. You’ll pay about £20 quid for a good seat for that evenings performance. This might involve a little queuing and the choice can obviously be limited.

Bookstores. Charing Cross Road is the biggest concentration for both new and secondhand places. Foyles on it is particularly famous (though partly for the fact that it used to be impossible to navigate or to buy anything). But there are also lots of specialist places scattered about elsewhere, if it’s something specific you’re interested in.

Even though these great suggestions started with “Well, this isn’t quite what you’re looking for…” I’ve got to say these are ‘spot on’!

And a couple (The Lion King at the Lyceum, Transport Museum, Jerry Springer: the Opera) have been deemed mandatory by people who know me.

So you’re on the right track – I’m going to print out this thread and take it along.
Keep 'em coming!
>>Beckett’s Happy Days? Y’mean the Half-Ton-Beef-Carcass-Violated-By-Richie-And-Potzi-In-The-Nude-With-Misspelled-French-Obscenities-In-Hollandaise-Body-Paint musical?

Don’t have much to add here, except maybe the Wallace Collection, especially if you like 17th and 18th century paintings. Like the wonderful museums that everton cited, its admission is free. Sir John Soane’s house, near Lincoln’s Inn, is also quite interesting (and free).

I’d normally highly recommend St. James’s Park and Regent’s Park, but it will be far too cold while you’re there to enjoy their scenic beauty.

There are lots of good used bookstores in the Bloomsbury neighborhood (around the British Museum), as well as along Charing Cross Road, as bonzer mentioned. They’re sadly threatened by the giant bookstore chains, but they’re still the unbeatable for rare and out-of-print books (and so much more fun to browse than places like Dillons and Books Etc.)

For food, you can find some good and cheap places in Soho. Though nothing really hits the spot like pub grub–an order of fish and chips accompanied by a nice pint of bitter.

When I was in London over the summer I had the chance to catch a delightful performance of Vivaldi at the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (which was nowhere near a field, BTW, but is actually right by Trafalgar Square). The acoustics were tremendous & the place is beautiful, and it wasn’t too expensive.

Definitely check out the Tate Modern or White Cube gallery. Art you can tell your friends about (whether you’ll be gushing or guffawing…)

If you’re a fan of Indian food, head over to Brick Lane on a Friday or Saturday night (maybe after picking up somepresents at Old Spitalfield’s market- not a Union Jack keychain or ‘mind the gap’ ash tray in sight). The hustlers on the street will be paying you to eat at their restaurants. Hold out 'til you get a free glass of wine and at least 20% off your meal. You can eat like a king for less than £10.

Jerry Springer. Definitely. Check out for cheap icketsand ticket/meal deals, too, and online booking.

I like the J. D. Wetherspoon pubs. There are many, under various names. Search engines will bring up their site.

Often overlooked: - the home of the composer Handel

No, it’s more Felicity-Kendall-does-the-one-role-in-the-repertoire-of-20th-century-classics-where-the-audience-can’t-be-distracted-by-her-backside.

And another vote for the Soane museum - a classic London gem.

The Blue Plaque Guide is a good reference for finding London locations associated with famous people. Frustratingly there doesn’t seem to be a list of all the plaques on that site (there are nearly 800 of them), but if there’s anyone you are sure was born or lived in London, you can search for their plaque.

How about Jimi Hendrix? Or David Ben-Gurion? Or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Or Benjamin Franklin? Or Sigmund Freud? There are ten different ones for Charles Dickens.

Actually, English Heritage has an alphabetical list of them.