101 things to do in London: the arts
Theatre, dance, music and art: explore London’s rich cultural scene
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.
See the best art, theatre and music in London
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.
- Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL
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.
- Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN
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).
- Bankside, SE1 9TG
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.
- 96 Euston Rd, NW1 2DB
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.
- 14, Dagmar Passage, Cross Street, Islington, N1 2DN
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.
- 118, Finborough Road, SW10 9ED
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.
- Various West End venues
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.
- Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford, E15 1BN
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.
- 1 Greek St, W1D
Hear the London Symphony Orchestra at LSO St Luke’s and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, enjoy blockbuster concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and chamber music in Wigmore Hall. From the Barbican to the Southbank Centre there are festivals and concerts starring international musicians and conductors all year round, plus free lunchtime recitals every week at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
From modern movement to traditional dance to classical ballet, Sadler’s Wells presents a dazzling array of dance productions each year. Along with the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House and the English National Ballet at the Coliseum, it leaves us spoilt for choice. But don’t forget other venues like the Roundhouse, too, for stunning international shows that often blend dance with forms like circus and theatre.
The capital has many excellent art spaces dedicated to photography. Atlas in Marylebone specialises in classic and modern twentieth century work, photojournalism and fashion, Hamiltons in Mayfair shows and sells works by greats such as Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts, and the Photographers’ Gallery on Ramillies Street boasts space for special exhibitions, a bookshop and a print sales room.
Every one of the world’s great touring art exhibitions passes through the Tate galleries, the Royal Academy or the National Gallery at some point, while the Hayward’s reputation for hosting innovative art ensures world famous names attract queues around the block. Booking ahead is always advisable, and don't forget Time Out First Thursdays – free evening openings at east London galleries.
- Various London venues
Almost every one of London’s top museums is free to visit, leaving you no excuse to plead ignorance in matters of natural history, science, fashion or world culture. It also leaves you with spare cash for the excellent special exhibitions at the V&A, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, and for dynamic live shows and 3D films at the Science Museum.
London’s outdoor cinema season usually runs from late spring to September, with more screens popping up every summer. Among your choices are the Rooftop Film Club in four urban locations across town, Luna Cinema, which tends to present evening screenings in pretty parks and squares, and Dalston Roof Park where you pay £5 membership and can see films for free.
When saxophonist Ronnie Scott opened a basement jazz club in Soho in 1959, he created a space where musicians could play in an intimate setting rather than big concert halls. From Miles Davis and Count Basie to Nina Simone, all the legends played at Ronnie’s. It moved to its present home on Frith Street decades ago and remains a must on any great jazz musician’s tour itinerary.
- 47 Frith St, W1D 4HT
From mid-July to mid-September The Proms’ annual festival of classical music takes over the Royal Albert Hall and Hyde Park. For each concert there are about 1400 £5 standing tickets, but if you want to wave your flags at the famously rousing last night, apply by ballot online from mid-spring. Alternatively, for last-minute tickets on the day, join the queues on the Queen’s Steps.
Discover something new at an institution with centuries of Covent Garden heritage. The Royal Opera House backstage tour takes you around the auditorium and behind the scenes, often with a chance to see the Royal Ballet in class. The Velvet, Gilt and Glamour Tour offers a look at the building’s architecture as you hear stories of the opera greats who have performed there.
- Bow St, WC2E 9DD
For the past 35 years, theatre company Movingstage has been delighting Londoners big and small with its charming puppet shows, which (aside from August and September when they move to Richmond) are performed on a canal boat moored up in Little Venice. Shows range from classic Punch & Judy fare to more contemporary productions, employing the use of everything from traditional marionettes to shadow puppetry. The theatre seats just 55 people, so book ahead to avoid missing out.
- Little Venice, Blomfield Rd, W9 2PF
Whether it was to bring the audience closer to the action or just because they hadn’t invented chairs yet, back in Shakespeare’s day theatregoers would spend performances on their feet. At the Globe theatre on the South Bank the tradition continues, with 700 standing tickets released for each performance. Not only do these tickets cost a very affordable £5, they also offer the best view of the show – assuming you’re not incredibly short, that is.
- 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT
Facts? Figures? Historical accuracy? All totally overrated, if you believe the comedy duo behind this fun, fallacy-filled walking tour of the city. Starting every Thursday at 7pm outside St Paul’s Cathedral (look for the ‘flamboyant jackets’), the tours cost £10, last around two hours, and comprise of a healthy mixture of improvised skits and out-and-out porkie-telling. Highlights of the route include the South Bank, the Thames Mermaid and Trafalgar Square. One of which we suspect may be made up.
- 23 Arlington Way, EC1R 1UY
About as far from a bog-standard walking tour as it’s possible to get, London Loo Tours take a look at the city’s history through the murky prism of public sanitation. Running on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the tours drop in on conveniences notable for their heritage, size or location, and often end up at Cellar Door – a cocktail-slash-cabaret bar that enjoyed a former life as an underground gents’ WC. Seriously – we’re not taking the piss.
- Meet at Waterloo Station, SE1 8SW
Every summer, Hyde Park’s Serpentine Gallery invites a different so-hot-right-now architect to design a temporary outdoor space for visitors to lounge around in. Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Ai Weiwei are among the more famous names to contribute work, which often makes the increasingly amorphous architecture of the city’s financial centre look like reserved office blocks by comparison. Perhaps in tribute to the surrounding parkland, Chilean architect Smiljan Radić’s contribution (pictured) for 2014 looks like a massive pebble.
- Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, W2 3XA
Sir John Soane’s Museum in Holborn takes its name from the architect whose sprawling art collection it houses (he built the Bank of England, so wasn’t short of a few bob). Among the museum’s biggest crowd-pullers is a series by fellow Londoner William Hogarth entitled ‘A Rake’s Progress’, which, in eight scenes, charts the downfall of a young man who inherits and squanders a fortune.
- 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP
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