As a painter and art historian, I never pass on an opportunity to explore a new museum or gallery, and London has an incredible wealth of art open to the public. Both the National Gallery and Tate Modern are free and open almost every day of the year, so whether you have a spare hour or need to fill an entire day, spend some time in these amazing institutions! In this guide, I will walk you through some of the amazing works in the collections of these museums as well as some of the wonderful shopping, sights, cafes, and markets in the surrounding area to help you fill out a day of exploring London. I started off my Friday morning at Bermodsey Market before heading off to Tate Modern and then Borough Market for lunch. I spent the bulk of the afternoon walking from shop to shop in the city, and toured the National Gallery in the evening (they are open late on Fridays) before a late dinner at Brasserie Zedel. If you are looking for an in-depth list of restaurants and cafes in the city, check out my restaurant reviews.
I learned about Tate Modern many years ago, while researching the work of Ei WeiWei. His Sunflower seed installation was in Tate Modern’s Turbine Room in 2010. Every year, the museum hosts an artist and allows them to transform the huge space, formerly a turbine room in a giant factory, into an installation space.
The most moving exhibition in the Turbine Gallery thus far was Doris Salcedo’s Schibboleth in 2007. Salcedo is an immigrant from Colombia and her work is deeply infused with the idea of immigration and racism. The word Schibboleth means ear of corn in Hebrew. It is an incredibly difficult word to pronounce properly, and was used in the past to test if someone was truly Hebrew. As an immigrant coming to America, I always identify with this piece. Salcedo pierced the floor of the Turbine Hall and forced the viewers to interact with this giant chasm. This represented the differences between yourself and the new culture you encounter upon coming to a new country. As you develop and blend, these changes become less visible, but they never go away. For me, the most beautiful moment in this installation was at the end of the year, when the floor had to finally be resealed. The crack was filled, but it left a scar, because you may seem like you fit in as an immigrant, but you never truly will. You will always have that scar! Beautiful!
Louise Bourgeois actually had the first installation in the Turbine Hall in the year 2000, perhaps to honor this, there is a Louise Bourgeois room in the museum’s permanent collection. The only permanent room dedicated to the exhibition of a single artist that I found in my perusal of the space. It was lovely seeing some of her hanging work as well as one of the large spiders. As you leave out of her wing, if you look up, you will be greeted by another spider crawling up the wall! What a treat! I saw her last winter at the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen, she had a retrospective there of her Cells series. I am amazed by how prolific this woman was! She is amazing!
After reading about all of these amazing shows at the Turbine hall, I was excited to see what I would get to encounter myself. Unfortunately, nothing. Philip Parreno was supposed to have a sound and interactive exhibition, titled Anywhen, with floating helium fish all through the hall. However, when I got there the turbine hall was empty. Apparently, the helium chemistry was miscalculated and all of the balloons floated right to the rafters of the 10 story factory building. They have been slowly falling down and draping over the rafters.
Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG
Free, Daily 10am–6pm, Friday and Saturday 10am-8pm (Closed December 24-26 and January 1)
Bermondsey Antique Market
If you are heading to the Tate Modern on a Friday, and are in the mood for waking up early, consider a trip to the Bermondsey Antique Market. Bermondsey Market is a wonderful antiques market where you can chat and barter with locals for some really great finds. There is a variety of markets in the city, but this is one of the ones where you can find some amazing treasures for a reasonable price tag! It is only open on Fridays from 6am until 2pm, but all the good deals are generally gone fairly early in the morning. I got there at 7:30am and found some amazing treasures. Make sure you bring cash and don’t forget to barter. I found that grouping pieces and asking for discounts works really well. If you are interested in two options offer a lower price for the two.
Eating Around Tate Modern
There are some wonderful restaurants around the Tate Modern. Padella is a really popular Italian joint. We were really excited to go, but my friend was pregnant so the lunch time line was a bit too long for us. Try to go there outside of the “standard meal times,” my best friend recommended to me, and he is never wrong! If you can’t handle the line, spend some time watching them hand-churn pasta in the window, it is really cathartic. Make sure you ask before taking a photograph, they’re real people, even if they are behind glass! If you can’t wait on Padella, try Table, where I had a wonderful brunch here before the Tate and ate a dish called The Stack, basically a full English breakfast with hollandaise! Delicious!
Borough Market is probably the most popular market in London. It is a feast for all of your senses, but be careful about pick-pockets and come outside of meal times if you are uncomfortable around masses of people. We made our way into the market at 2pm and fished through seas of shoppers to explore the wide array of foods available. There were kabob stands, Indian joints, pies and mash, and pastry and chocolate shops galore! Apparently the best fish and chips are also at this market. After testing the waters, Emily and I settled on the Minced Meat pies stand Pies & More. I had a venison pie with mashed potatoes and gravy. The filling was delicious! You can eat anywhere on the street, so we joined hoards of people sitting on stoops and sidewalk ledges for our meal.
If it happens to be Friday, you have some time before you need to get to the National Gallery. It is open until 9pm on Friday nights! Perhaps you could spend some time walking around some amazing art and design shops in Marylebone. Marylebone High Street hosts a wide array of clothing, book, accessory, and design shops, and each one is worth at least a quick peek! This is away from your tourist shops where you can actually find something you might want to be part of your life for longer than 3 weeks after returning home. You know what I mean, right? Some great shops to visit include: Daunt Books is a lovely book shop with an amazing skylight and stained glass window which dedicates an entire floor to travel books of all countries! Some of my favorite design shops that I stopped in included the Designer’s Guild where I coveted some amazing Astier de Villatte plates and beautiful linen tablecloths and Skadium where I saw some gorgeous furniture and lighting!
The National Gallery
Like the British Museum, the National Gallery is huge and full of a wide breadth of artworks, you can spend an entire day there! Walking through the halls and under the Neoclassical domes, you will find paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, William Hogarth, Rembrandt, Titian, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vermeer, and many others! I may be wrong, but I believe London’s National Gallery has one of the largest collections of renowned paintings in the world.
One of the most amazing sections of the museum is hidden away in the basement level. You will find a series of rooms dedicated to Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt, two amazing and famous painters working during the Baroque era. Rubens worked in a Catholic region while Rembrandt worked in a Protestant one. You can see by the subject matter that they depicted the interests of these Christian groups. Rubens received dozens and dozens of commissions from the church and royalty, while Rembrandt dedicated a huge part of his life to portraiture. Rembrandt painted over 70 self portraits in his life, and only two are in the clothing of a contemporary gentleman of Antwerp. He spent the bulk of his money on costume!
William Hogarth’s Marriage A La Mode is one of my favorite series of paintings to teach! The story is just too intense not to mention! William Hogarth was a British painter known for satirizing British aristocracy towards the end of the Rococo period. The British Aristocracy took a cue from the French and were known for their lives of gambling, loose sex, and debauchery. In this six piece series, Hogarth introduces us to two families and how their lives fell apart due to poor decision making. In the first image, The Marriage Settlement, a gentleman on the right, with his illustrious family tree barters to marry his son to the wealthy merchant’s daughter. The merchant would elevate his status, while the aristocrat would refill his coffers after spending all of his family’s estate. The girl is crying in the background (to her lover who is also her father’s advisor), while the young man doesn’t seem to be bothered. In the second image, the newly wed husband returns home in the morning with a stranger’s bonnet (note the black spot on his neck that is a clear sign of syphilis) in his pocket while the wife signals to her lover off screen. The accountant rushes off in frustration. In “The Inspection,” the husband brings his extremely young lover to a doctor for her “illness.” By the fifth image, “The Bagnio,” the wife was found with her lover, who is climbing out of the window after stabbing the husband to death. In the final image, we are affronted with the wife, who is near death. Her young child is being brought to her to say goodbye, and on the neck of the child, we again see the clear mark of syphilis. Intense, right? Make sure you find these in the museum!
This piece is so weird, that it deserves a visit on its own! No matter how many times you talk about the odd stretched out skull at the bottom of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, you will never replace the experience of walking to the side of the piece to finally see the skull in its non-distorted form. Looking at a computer screen at an angle is just not the same!
There are thousands of amazing paintings to encounter at the National Gallery in London, below I will add a few more of my favorites to wet your appetite! Don’t forget, the gallery is open late on Fridays! You might also spend some time in their gift shop, they have quite an extensive library and a variety of art-inspired souvenirs!
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN
Free, Daily 10am–6pm, Friday 10am-9pm (Closed December 24-26 and January 1)
My favorite of these delicious looking options was Brasserie Zedel, self-proclaimed as the only true brasserie in London. I also appreciated that their prix-fixe manu lasted late into the evening allowing me to take advantage of the late openings of museums on a Friday night. I am very fond of French food, and know there is a large French community in London, so I wanted to take the opportunity to try their take on some of France’s classics.
My three course menu included a Celery Remoulade which was served with a basket of delicious bread and butter. The main course was a crisply fried Trout with Almonds on a bed of root vegetables and summer squash. It was a lovely dish in the perfect sized portion. For dessert, I tried their isle flottante, floating island. I have never had this dessert and it was a very interesting flavor and texture experience. I will have to try to make it some day! The best thing? Their two and three course menus are just 9.75£ and 12.50£ and their set three course menu with a glass of wine is 19.75£.
Brasserie Zedel is in a lovely space with gilded corinthian capitals and high ceilings. If you draw as you eat like me, you will not get bored! In addition, I found out that in the evenings, there is a live band playing lovely classics and jazz. I spent the bulk of my evening eating, drawing, and chatting with some of my neighbors. Felt a bit like France, I must say!
Find Brasserie Zedel:
20 Sherwood Street, London, W1F 7ED +44 20 7734 4888
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 11:30am-12am, Sun 11:30am-11pm