London is a rich and bustling cultural hub. For tourists, it’s a playground with more to see and do than could ever be seen and done in one lifetime.Trust me, after eight years as a local Londoner, I still sometimes feel as if I’ve barely even scratched the surface, and I’m always discovering some new and quirky hidden gem. If you’re into art, music, film, photography, or whatever else you might enjoy, London has buckets of it, just waiting to be explored. For me, I love art and history, so galleries and museums are my first port of call in any city. Of course, London has plenty of them, like The National Gallery, Tate Modern, Tate Britain or the Victoria and Albert Museum, and they’re all spectacular, world class spots which you absolutely shouldn’t miss. But, if you’re visiting London, or you’re a local looking for something to do this weekend, here are my recommendations for a few of my favorite places that can be found a little further off the beaten track.
The Barbican Centre is world-famous, obviously, but isn’t as popular with tourists as it should be. It’s one of my favorite places in London, and something everybody should visit at some point. I can’t think of any other place like it. Basically, the Barbican is a large housing estate complex, built in the aftermath of World War II. It’s one of the UK’s architectural treasures and a stunning example of brutalist design. While it’s worth it to visit just for the architecture alone, the estate is now home to the Barbican Centre, a cultural space with a cinema, gallery, library, several restaurants and bars, an excellent design-focused gift shop and London’s second biggest conservatory. It’s also a performing arts venue with a resident orchestra and regular theater, dance, contemporary and classical music performances. It’s the perfect venue to spend a culture-filled day and there are plenty of places to sit and read, sketch or relax, if you’re just looking to get away from the hustle and bustle. The Barbican Centre is proof that brutalist architecture can be oddly calming. After some time spent here, I know you’ll be looking to visit again. The conservatory is well worth a visit, but make sure to check online first, because it’s only open on selected days and you currently have to book in advance.
Photo by Anthony O’Neil, used under geograph.org.uk_1600012.jpg">Creative Commons license
The Wallace Collection is a free museum quietly tucked away a few streets behind London’s busy Oxford Street. It’s home to the private collection of Sir Richard Wallace, a wealthy art collector, who built the collection along with the Marquesses of Hertford during the 18th and 19th centuries. The museum now occupies what was once their London townhouse and it is as every bit as grandiose as it sounds. If you appreciate the finer things in life, I definitely suggest you don’t skip this one. The collection is extensive and highlights include paintings by Rembrandt, Boucher, Rubens and Van Dyck, exquisite pieces of 18th century French furniture, and an impressive assortment of arms and armor that will definitely keep the Dads happy. If you have a little extra cash to splash, enjoy a meal afterwards at the stunning French brasserie courtyard restaurant. It’s the perfect place for an Instagram picture too!
Photo by Tony Hisgett, used under Creative Commons license
Sir John Soane’s Museum is located in the former home of eccentric neo-classical architect and collector John Soane. The museum is filled to the brim with paintings, sculptures, antiquities and any curiosities that caught Soane’s eye, including the 3,000 year old sarcophagus of Seti I. The historic, 19th century building is a labyrinthine mansion with new discoveries to be made at every corner. It’s atmospheric, a little spooky even, and it should definitely be at the top of the list for all the art lovers and history buffs out there. For a perfect day, head to the British Museum afterwards and then take a stroll through leafy Bloomsbury for a coffee and cake at Store Street Espresso.
The South London based Newport Street Gallery displays works from the personal collection of one of Britain’s most famous artists, Damien Hirst. The collection, named “Murderme,” includes works by Francis Bacon, Banksy, Picasso and Jeff Koons, as well as taxidermy and anatomical models. The space is a huge complex, originally built as a theater carpentry and scenery-painting studio in 1913. Now, it’s home to the permanent collection, rotating exhibitions, a gallery shop and a cafe. It’s a must for anyone who loves contemporary art and admission is free.
Photo by David Samuel, used under Creative Commons license.
The Wellcome Collection is a museum and library located close to Euston Station. It’s part of one of the world’s largest medical charities, the Wellcome Trust, which was founded with a legacy donation from American British pharmaceutical entrepreneur, Sir Henry Wellcome. The Wellcome Collection focuses on art and exhibits that string together ideas surrounding art, life and medicine and the museum includes an extensive and morbid permanent collection of medical artifacts. The collection includes preserved tattooed human skin, shrunken heads, a trephinated skull and an array of instruments used for surgical amputations throughout the years. If you’re interested in all things weird and wonderful, this is the place to visit, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s well worth it to spend a few hours getting lost in the museum and the library’s collections here, especially if you’ve got some curious children in tow.
Photo by Epha3 Lab, used under Creative Commons license.
White Cube is a leading contemporary art gallery with two galleries in London, one in Hong Kong and appointment only locations in Paris and New York. The gallery has championed the likes of Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst and Park Seo-Bo, and the exhibitions are always fresh, exciting and unexpected in comparison to other, larger London galleries. While the Mason’s Yard location in London is lovely, I would definitely recommend making time for the White Cube’s largest gallery space in Bermondsey. The space is huge and architecturally impressive, but Bermondsey is also a very charming and underrated London neighborhood that is well worth a visit. Stop for a coffee after your gallery visit at local Fuckoffee, have lunch at Pizarro, or if you’re feeling extra touristy, head over to nearby Borough Market for the ultimate London foodie experience.
If you’ve made your way through these and you’re looking for more, here are a few extra honorable mentions: Horniman Museum & Gardens, Leighton House Museum, 180 The Strand, Lisson Gallery, Victoria Miro, Freud Museum and Zabludowicz Collection. Happy exploring!
Bryony Parker is a writer and artist currently living in São Paulo, Brazil and working on her Masters in International Affairs. You can find her at @par666ker on all social media.