In a way, London is the center of the world. Through centuries of crusades and voyaging, England developed itself as a melting pot of various cultures, cuisines, and art practices. London today is home to incredible museums holding artworks and treasures representing almost every culture and society known to man, and all of these museums are free! As an artist and art historian, I was salivating over the opportunity to visit with some of the most famous artworks in the world.
If you are looking for a survey of the art making practices and antiquities of the entire globe, the British Museum should be your first stop. This museum tells the history of the entire world through treasures acquired throughout history. Walking through the halls, I started to wonder if the Gardner Global Art History book that I teach AP Art History from was, in fact, sponsored by the British Museum (if you are wondering, Cengage is published out of Boston, so I was wrong). Regardless, after centuries of controlling the seas, it seems London is still in control of the bulk of Art History, and they have organized it for all to view, for free! So if you are a history junkie, or want to know more about non-Western cultures, you need to make the visit!
One of the most iconic items you will find at the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone, found by Napoleon’s men, which allowed us to translate Egyptian Hieroglyphs. This single stone, with a decree for King Ptolemy V of Egypt, is written in three different languages: Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Demonic, and Ancient Greek. Napoleon’s men, understanding Ancient Greek, were able to decipher the other two languages and open up a wealth of knowledge about ancient Egypt through the new understanding of their script. The Rosetta Stone will be easy to find. It sits in a glass enclosure at the center of the Egyptian Central Saloon (#4 on map), fittingly flanked by the large scale Egyptian galleries and surrounded by at least 40 eager tourists attempting to take a coveted photograph for their Instagram.
In the adjacent hall, the Nimroud Gallery (#7, Assyrian, #6-10), you will be greeted by one of the three sets of Assyrian Lamassu that the museum owns in addition to the interior carvings of Assyrian palaces. Take a look at the distinctive way in which animals were carved by the Assyrians! Seeing the Lamassu was such a pleasure, especially following the horrific videos of Assyrian palaces and artworks being destroyed by ISIS. Lamassu served to protect and warn and were set up at the entrances of every Assyrian palace. You may notice that each beast has 5 legs. If you see it from the front, from the outside, he confronts you and asks you why you have come. If you are leaving from the interior of the palace, he walks along with you. It is a really lovely use of composite form in sculpture!
The museum self-identifies its greatest treasure to be the Feast frieze from Athens Parthenon. Half is owned by England and the other half if in the Acropolis museum in Athens. Greece has been petitioning for years for the return of their national treasures, but based on this advertising, it doesn’t seem like they will be getting them back! The Acropolis is a feat of architecture, and money laundering, of the Ancient Greeks, and the main temple, the Parthenon is heralded as the ideal of Doric architecture. 80 percent of the original 524 feet frieze survives, and the frieze tells the procession of the Panathenaic Parade. An early instance of the Athenian pompousness, this frieze shows a mortal event in the interior of a temple to the god Athena. The frieze, presented room #18 is flanked by the east and west pediment sculptures of the Parthenon and adjoining rooms (#11-20) showcase various other Greco-Roman treasures.
A wealth of treasures can be found as you peruse the galleries, the following are only some of the other items that I came across as I perused the collections!
British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG
Free, open daily 10am–5:30pm Fridays: open until 8:30pm (closed on 24th, 25th and 26th of December and January 1st)
Around the British Museum – Food and Shopping
Around the British Museum you will find a variety of lovely shops and cafes on Museum Street, definitely spend some time there. The famous umbrella shop James Smith & Sons is right down the street from the museum and is worth a visit! A handmade umbrella seems like the perfect souvenir to bring home from London, wouldn’t you say? I missed my chance by waiting to go until Easter, however I found a beautiful handmade umbrella from LondonUndercover at Liberty London, an amazing multi-story luxury department shop in an huge historic building with a five story atrium. Apparently, their gift cards are gold coins, imagine that! Liberty is in SOHO, a 15 minute walk from the museum.
On your walk over, you might find yourself looking for something to eat! There is a variety of amazing restaurants in the area. I went to an amazing restaurant named NOPI opened by Yotam Ottolenghi. Check out my London restaurant reviews!
- Blanchette 9 D’Arblau Street (near the British Museum and National Gallery) +44 20 7439 8100. Blanchette is a French bistro offering a 2 course menu for 15£ and a 3 course for 19£. The Pre-Theatre menu is served Mon-Fri 5-6pm and Sat-Sun 12-6pm. Make reservations.
- Hawksmoor Seven Dials 11 Langley Street +44 20 7420 9390 (near the National Gallery). Hawksmoor is known for their amazing meats and British fare. They offer a 2 course menu for 25£ and a 3 course for 28£. The Pre-Theatre menu is served Mon-Sat before 6pm and after 10pm. Definitely make reservations.
- NOPI is run by Ottolenghi and serves a menu meant for communal dining and sharing. Their twice backed baby chicken and polenta chips are divine! 21-22 Warwick Street, London W1B 5NE Tel: 020 7494 9584 Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri Breakfast 8am-12pm. Lunch 12pm-3pm**, Dinner 5:30pm-10:30pm. **Fridays 12pm-5:30pm Saturday, Breakfast 10am-11:30am, Lunch 12pm-5:30pm, Dinner 5:30pm-10:30pm Sunday, Breakfast 10am-12pm, Lunch 12pm-4pm. Definitely make reservations.
- Dishoom is a delicious, and incredibly popular chain of Indian restaurants. The Covent Garden location is nearby. Try the Black Dal and Lamb Biryani. 12 Upper St Martin’s Ln, London WC2H 9FB Hours: 8am-11pm, daily. They do not take reservations.
- The Attendant is a quick coffee shop that happens to be set in an old bathroom stall! Worth a visit and apparently the lattes are great! They serve standard café fare. 27A Foley St, Fitzrovia, London W1W 6DY Hours: 8am-6pm, Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm Sun. No reservations needed.
- Monmouth Coffee is another great spot for a pastry, sandwich, and a cup of coffee. They roast their own beans! 27 Monmouth St, London WC2H 9EU Hours: Mon-Sat 8:30am-6:30pm, closed Sunday.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum has some overlaps with the British Museum. Both have incredible collections of Roman and Greek art as well as beautiful collections of World Treasures. The feeling is completely different though. While I walked around the British Museum thinking about the cultures that created these artworks and how Britain acquired them, exploring the Victoria and Albert museum felt like a trip to an amazing textile market mixed with a showroom of historic objects in the collection of an eccentric lover of everything handmade.
The museum is organized by explorations of materials or specific objects through time. A wing is dedicated to glasswork throughout history, while another showcases iron work throughout the ages. As a contemporary counterpart, a Dale Chihuli glass sculpture hangs in the Pantheon style main atrium. The large rotunda features historic doors and architectural elements, including an entire porch and stairway system suspended from a wall!
The museum has an amazing collection of costume and textiles, and incredible rugs from all over the world. My main reason for coming was to see the Ardabil carpet, a huge and beautiful rug, once half of a set, that was created in the 1530’s and is an example of the best Persian rugs of the time period. The rug has a knot count or 340 per inch, that’s better than most of our bedsheets!! Due to its age and the natural dyes used to tint the fabric, the huge rug, almost 35 feet long, is kept in relative dark and behind thick walls of glass.
The statue Shiva as Nataraja, or the Lord of Dance is a lovely example of Hindu devotional art. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, with, by some counts, over 300 gods! These devotional statues would be placed in temples dedicated to a specific god. The statue would then be taken care of! The spirit of the God would come and inhabit the statue, so worshippers dress him in fine silks and ribbons, adorn him with garlands of flowers and limes, bathe him, and occasionally (during festivals) take him on excursions throughout their cities or towns. The God would be fed the meal that the family or worshippers in a temple intend to eat each day. The God would eat the spirit of the meal and by proxy bless the physical food for the people to eat. I think it is a very lovely concept.
As I was leaving, I unexpectedly ran into this glorious Bernini sculpture of Neptune and Triton. Bernini was a Baroque sculptor who is famed for his altar-piece sculpture the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. During the Baroque era, artists tried to evoke our feelings and make us part of the artwork. I wonder what the original installation of this sculpture must have been like.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL
Free, open daily 10am–5:45pm Fridays: open until 8pm (closed on 24th, 25th and 26th of December and January 1st)
Around the Victoria and Albert Museum – Food, Museums and Shops
If you have time, I would dedicate some time to the Natural History Museum just next door. The museum is also free and open until 5:30pm daily. There was a plethora of lovely looking restaurants and cafes on Cromwell Road as you head back towards the city center if you are looking for a bite afterwards. Also check out Saint Paul’s Studios a block of gorgeous artist studio buildings designed by Frederick Wheeler in 1891. I would love to have a home with a giant greenhouse-like window in the center!
I knew I wanted to check out Ottolenghi, a lovely cafe by the chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi, where you can order planes of his delicious Israeli inspired veggie and meat dishes by weight along with a colorful and delicious selection of pastries and desserts. You can take food to go, or eat at one of their communal tables in the back. There are several locations, so find them online, however the location near Victoria and Albert is on 13 Motocomb street and they are open from 8am-8pm Mon-Fri, 8am-7pm Sat, and 9am-6pm Sun.