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Keep calm and visit a museum

It probably can’t boast about having the best weather or food, but London is one of the world’s great centres of art production and exhibition. Its museums are a must-visit for expert and amateur museum-goers, as well as tourists who relish wandering through the kilometres of galleries to admire an Assyrian relief dating back 2,600 years, or paintings by Caravaggio or Turner, Charles Dickens’ original manuscripts or Pop Art silk screen prints by Andy Warhol.

The fact is London has museums for all tastes. From small and medium-sized private collections to the homes of illustrious figures, and large museums where you can spend days on end, if you feel so inclined. What’s more, most of them are admission-free. We toured the city, and here are our findings regarding the ten museums you simply shouldn’t miss.

1. British Museum – A Walk Through Archaeology

Going to London and not visiting the British Museum is like going to Madrid and not having a calamari sandwich. Among the oldest museums in Europe, it houses one of the most prestigious archaeological collections in the world. Here you will find such celebrated artefacts as the Rosetta Stone, the friezes from the Parthenon of Athens and a display of Egyptian art matched only by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The British Museum is in the district of Bloomsbury, a short distance from Tottenham Court Road and Russell Square, housed in one of the most striking Neoclassical buildings in England.

2. National Gallery – the Temple of Painting

If visiting London without going into the British Museum is like visiting Madrid and not eating a calamari sandwich, then touring the city without setting foot in the National Gallery is like going to Rome and not trying a dish of pasta. Presiding over the immensity of Trafalgar Square, London’s National Gallery is home to some of the most famous canvases in art history, notably Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, Rokeby Venus by Velázquez or Bathers by Paul Cézanne.

3. Tate Modern – for the Creative

Opened in the year 2000, a former power station on the bank of the Thames houses Britain's national gallery of international modern art, known as the Tate Modern. It is one of the city’s major attractions and boasts one of the most comprehensive modern art collections in the world. Here you can see works by Picasso, Dalí, Mark Rothko or Andy Warhol, while their excellent schedule of temporary exhibitions enables enthusiasts to keep up-to-date with the leading artists of the moment.

4. Wallace Collection – An Oasis in the City Centre

If there was a single word to define The Wallace Collection, it might well beoasis. This erstwhile family residence is located in the heart of London, a stone’s throw away from Oxford Street and Selfridges department store. Much of the original decor remains intact and the mansion houses a collection of art, weapons and objects which the Wallace family bequeathed to the British state in 1897. Works by Rembrandt, Velázquez, Titian, Canaletto and Fragonard rub shoulders with sumptuous chandeliers, vases and chimneys in this must-see landmark. The museum is quiet, admission-free and not too large, ideal for those seeking to avoid crowds and not get museum legs from too much walking. Be sure to have afternoon tea in the museum’s elegant covered court before leaving.

5. Tate Britain – British Style

Opened in 1897, this museum boasts a large collection of historical and contemporary British art. The major draw in the exhibition is the section dedicated to William Turner, one of Britain’s most famous painters, whose life was dramatised in the award-winning 2014 film, Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall in the title role. There is a boat service connecting the Tate Britain to the Tate Modern, so there is no excuse not to visit both museums and have a stroll along the bank of the Thames.

6. Victoria and Albert Museum – Art in the Service of Empire

Covering an area of 45,000 square metres, the Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the most spectacular museums in London. Located in the exclusive area of South Kensington, it features a truly amazing collection of decorative art. Items on display range from ivories to oriental textiles, goldsmithery, ceramics, glass and building fragments. The architecture of the building is eminently majestic, too, featuring large galleries and courts containing life-size replicas of Trajan’s Column and the Pórtico da Gloria from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – incredible!

7. Charles Dickens Museum – A Literary House

Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are two of the most famous novels of all time, while their author, Charles Dickens, is one of the great geniuses of English literature. Born in Portsmouth, Dickens spent most of his life in London. Although he lived in various houses, the one at 48 Doughty Street in the central district of Holborn is the site of the museum dedicated to this literary figure. Here, the writer lived with his family from 1837 to 1839, a comparatively brief yet fertile period in which some of his most celebrated works were written. Venturing into this Georgian house is like travelling back in time – a highly enjoyable experience, as the rooms have been kept the way they were in Dickens’ time. Rounding off the visit is an exhibition of the writer’s personal belongings and his manuscripts.

8. Handel & Hendrix – A House of the Baroque… and Rock, Too

What do the guitarist Jimi Hendrix and the composer Georg Friedrich Händel have in common? Well, they both lived in the same house, although with a 200-year separation in time. To be more exact, Handel resided at 25 Brook Street, while Hendrix lived at number 23. Two adjoining houses which can be visited together. Handel lived here from 1723 until his death in 1759. Four of the rooms have been re-constructed, including the bedroom and dining-room, and some of the composer’s music and personal items are on display. If you’re lucky, you might also be in for one of the concerts organised there from time to time. The home of Jimi Hendrix, where he lived in 1968 and 1969, features an exhibition highlighting the musician’s important role and influence in 1960s London.

9. The Queen’s Gallery – In Queen Elizabeth’s Home

The British love of monarchy is well known, so before leaving London, it is worth getting a feel for the esteem in which Elizabeth II is held by the people. And, the best way to get to know someone is by visiting her home. The Queen’s Gallery is located at one end of Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s official residence in London, where temporary exhibitions of items from the Royal Collection are held. If you’re due to be in London in summer, check out the events calendar beforehand. The Gallery opens for a few weeks and is a veritable experience.

10. Saatchi Gallery – In Line With the Latest Trends

Avant-garde and ground-breaking, the Saatchi Gallery is one of the great cutting-edge exhibition centres in Europe. Opened in the early eighties to display the art collection of the publicist and art collector, Charles Saatchi, it was bequeathed to the British government in 2010. It is one of the most frequently visited museums in the world and the ideal spot to become familiar with artists and art movements. Even those not moved by art will be impressed by this museum. It is located in the heart of the Chelsea district, an area frequented by London’s elite, so you will feel like a celebrity when you visit.

Text by Aleix Palau for Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS


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