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101 things to do in London: the arts

Theatre, dance, music and art: explore London’s rich cultural scene

© ROH/Johan Persson

The capital’s theatres and galleries host a constant stream of memorable performances and great works, showcasing both established artists and promising newcomers. Take your pick from these cultural activities and prepare to be wowed.

Art, theatre and music in London

Compare Ming with modern at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s ceramics collection is the most extensive in the world. Grayson Perry might have revived an appreciation of the artform (see his handiwork here, alongside ornate pieces of the Medici age) but the collection shows how greatly valued ceramics have always been, from figurines crafted in Paris to soup tureens made in Chelsea.

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See The Ambassadors at the National Gallery

Because it’s free to visit, even if you have just ten minutes you can nip into the National Gallery and see one great masterpiece on your way to somewhere else. Try Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’. Laden with symbolism, the painting also features the ‘anamorphic perspective’ technique popular in Early Renaissance art; the seemingly smudged image in the foreground becomes a human skull when viewed sideways on.

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Trafalgar Square

See both Tates in a day

Can’t decide between the Picassos at Tate Modern and the Constables at Tate Britain? Do both! The Tate Boat (decorated with Damien Hirst dots) runs along the Thames between Tate Britain by Vauxhall Bridge and the Tate Modern on Bankside every 40 minutes during gallery opening hours, seven days a week (except Dec 24-26).

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South Bank

Read Beatles lyrics at the British Library

The Magna Carta, works of Shakespeare and Dickens, copies of The Beano – they all have a home at the British Library. However, you can also see original manuscripts handwritten by some of the world’s greatest musical talents. See early drafts by John Lennon of ‘In My Life’, ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ written on a piece of Lufthansa-headed paper.

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See puppets come to life at Little Angel Puppet Theatre

Islington’s Little Angel Theatre presents its own shows and touring productions, runs education programmes and makes its own puppets in the workshop next door. Children and adults enter the worlds of fairy tales, comedy shows and drama and are completely drawn in by the expressive magic of this timeless art. There are children’s holiday workshops and marionette courses for grown-ups, too.

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Venture beyond the West End for fringe at the Finborough

Maintaining the freedom of fringe arts in an intimate space above a pub, the award-winning Finborough Theatre company still manages to compete with theatreland’s bigger players for quality. The focus is on new writing or neglected plays from the nineteenth and twentieth century that would rarely been seen elsewhere, and productions regularly transfer to the West End.

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West Brompton

See an all-singing, all-dancing West End musical

In London’s West End there’s an insatiable appetite for Broadway transfers like ‘The Book of Mormon’, but there’s homegrown success, too: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s epic ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, Cameron Mackintosh’s ‘Les Miserables’, the RSC’s ‘Matilda the Musical’ and Richard Eyre’s acclaimed ‘The Pajama Game’ are among the recent hits. Last-minute tickets from the Leicester Square ticket booth are usually your best bet for a bargain.

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West Brompton

Have a laugh for free at Theatre Royal Stratford East

A great way to see upcoming talents, Comic Mondays is held in the bar at Theatre Royal Stratford East and is London’s longest running free comedy night. Sessions start at 8pm, with a full bill of stand-ups on a mission to make you smile. And if one of the comics doesn’t tickle your funny bone, you’ll still have cash in your pocket to buy a drink.

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See a gig in the House of St Barnabas' magical chapel

A former hostel, the House of St Barnabas continues its charitable work helping vulnerable people get into meaningful employment. Its club in Soho remains part of its social enterprise, with an art space including talks, live sessions from upcoming talent, and DJ nights supported by clubbing legends like Gilles Peterson.

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Covent Garden
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Sue Chatterton
Sue Chatterton

What a wonderful, romantic place inspired by dreams. A great menu in the stylish cafe too.