London galleries and museums are more often than not an overwhelming experience – an endless parade of disoriented visitors blocking your view and usually accompanied by a busy soundtrack of camera clicks. But there’s a different and far more interesting art and design game being played in a handful of addresses, mostly a stone’s throw from the main thoroughfare. With a little effort, you can catch artists with an edge, mingle with art-minded locals in cafes with a view, or hunt for quirky souvenirs to wow friends back home. Here you can get a slice of true London inspiration, and a slice of unbeatable crumble cake all at the same time.
Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)
A house of subversive creation since the 1940s, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) has secured its own rebellious corner on The Mall, the illustrious road that leads from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace over the elegant spreads of St James Park. Walk through the rows of pillars that give The Mall that classy je-ne-sais-quoi of a Parisian Boulevard and enter a world populated by the likes of Damien Hirst and Yoko Ono, William Burroughs and The Smiths. Here you will see a smart selection of emerging artists that will challenge your ideas and views, with exhibitions and talks, film screenings and live music. The cafe itself, overlooking the park, fuses graceful flowers with tasty mix platters and smooth modern beats, giving vital space to after- show meetings and debates. You will also find a perfectly complemented collection of dvds and books on art theory, philosophy, politics and sound.
Tel: 020 7930 3647
Underground: Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus
British Film Institute (BFI)
Just a few minutes walk over the scenic Waterloo bridge to the south side of the Thames, the British Film Institute awaits to immerse you in the fanciful world of film: From classics like Guys and Dolls and ET to the much-awaited London Film Festival premieres and the Q & A with famous screen stars. The BFI is the meeting place for film aficionados (it holds an astonishing collection of British film and television) and fans of the beautiful Thames alike. Look for wild Pedro Almodovar collectables at the shop, before you make your way towards the Riverfront Cafe, Bar & Restaurant for delicious nibbles and drinks under the atmospheric Waterloo bridge. Weather permitting, grab a chaise lounge outside for people watching (the Southbank Centre book market has rows of second hand and antique books sprawling ahead), or get mesmerized by the playful flirtations of shadow and light when the sun sets.
Tel: 020 7928 3232
Part of the massive Southbank Centre, the Hayward Gallery houses prestigious venues like the Royal Festival Hall. And, Hayward Gallery is only a few steps up from the BFI and is never short of exciting events. Through the years, visitors at the gallery have… jumped on a boat and rowed on a small pool on its roof, laid on giant plastic bubbles above South Bank’s roof tops or participated in thrilling games of light, in a series of exhibitions that persistently defy perceptions, balancing between virtual and physical reality. The Concrete Day Cafe & Night Bar lands us back down to earth with seasonal salads, old soul classics and a changing exhibition of artworks (the concrete- mixer outlined by fluorescent pink strip lighting outside the cafe is a trademark). Though the more dedicated foodies would do better by heading towards the Real Food Market (most weekends between the gallery and the Royal Festival Hall).
Tel: 0844 8479 910
Underground: Waterloo, Embankment
Speaking of surprises, the Serpentine Galleries are two free contemporary art galleries that take their name after the Serpentine Lake, laying serenely in the Kensington Gardens in Hyde Park. From Andy Warhol pop classics to the bold ventures of acclaimed Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, to Bertrand Lavier’s playful fountain of garden hoses, Serpentine is on a mission to stun visitors, even when all they are after is a good cup of coffee. Each year a famous architect, from Zaha Hadid to Frank Gehry, is commissioned to design a temporary summer pavilion, so you can at last experience eating a luscious muffin inside a giant eggshell.
Tel: 020 7706 4907
Underground: Lancaster Gate, Knightsbridge, South Kensington
Galleries aside, there are two London museums that are worth a visit for their unique take on the British quotidian – and they are jolly good fun for both children and adults.
The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising featuring the collection of consumer historian Robert Opie is nestled in the back streets of Notting Hill. It will guide you through a maze of 12,000 oddities and fun facts from the 1800s to the present day – Rimmel cosmetics from the 1890s, KitKats from the 1930s, kids toys and uber-detergents that will make history more gripping than ever before. Needless to say that the museum shop is an experience in itself. On a sunny day,for example, you can enjoy a retro style ice cream while watching memorable TV ads from 1955-85.
Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising
Tel: 020 7908 0880
Underground: Notting Hill Gate
Last but not least, the Geffrye Museum is a calm oasis amidst Hoxton’s hip cafes. A trip in a time capsule through period rooms and gardens reflecting the way London homes have changed the last 400 years – along with the taste, the social behaviour and the world as a whole. From a 1695 parlour to a 1998 loft apartment, this free museum is a lesson in style that will both relax and inspire you – the icing on the cake being the bright and elegant modern café overlooking the period gardens, where you can discuss a full house make-over over afternoon tea or wine.
136 Kingsland Road
Tel: 020 7739 9893
Overground: Hoxton, Underground: Old Street, Liverpool Street
Written by and photos by Guest Contributor Danai Molocha for EuropeUpClose.com
Danai Molocha is a music and travel writer based in London. She may spontaneously fly to a mountainous Portuguese village just to visit a good festival, or take hours to compile the perfect soundtrack to a road trip in the ragged landscape of southern Greece.