From some of the world’s greatest galleries and museums, to the treasure-filled bookshops of Charing Cross Road, London is a city packed with choice for a city break says Suzanne Harrington.
WHEN Samuel Johnson suggested that when you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life, he probably wasn’t talking about mini-breaks.
With a bit of planning and a lot of caffeine, it’s amazing how much culture you can inhale in one great big concentrated hit over the course of a day or two. London this summer is, as ever, a kaleidoscope of events, shows, happenings, openings, and all manner of interesting stuff.
Sadly, you’ll have missed the National Pet Show (alpacas, skateboarding dogs, etc) but here are some of the edited highlights of other things going on between now and the end of the holidays, that do not involve shopping on Oxford Street, queuing to visit the Tower of London, or standing aimlessly outside Buckingham Palace waiting for something to happen. Wear comfy shoes.
Probably best to get the exhibitions and galleries out of the way earlier on in the day, when you still have the strength. You can double up at Tate Modern and Tate Britain (there’s a river boat that will transfer you between the two), and the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are both in Trafalgar Square, with the Royal Academy just down the road on Piccadilly.
There are two major blockbuster art shows this summer - David Hockney, at the Royal Academy from July 2 to October 2 (www.royalacademy.org.uk), and Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern from July 6 to October 30 (www.tate.org.uk). Be prepared for crowds. Both will be worth it, particularly O’Keeffe, a giant of 20th century modernism whose work is rarely on display outside the US. (“Men put me down as one of the best woman painters....I think I’m one of the best painters.”)
Until August 29, Tate Britain is showing Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979, featuring pyramids of oranges and other work set to irritate traditionalists. If you are a traditionalist, check out Dutch Flowers at the National Gallery until August 29 (www.nationalgallery.org.uk), and the BP Portrait Award from June 26 to 4 September at the National Portrait Gallery (www.npg.org). Both promise to be gorgeous.
If the idea of blockbuster shows is too much, most of the private galleries on Cork Street in Mayfair are open to the public, as is the White Cube (www.whitecube.com) in Bermondsey, the gallery of the Young British Artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin (although now technically Middle Aged British Artists).
The Whitechapel Gallery (www.whitechapelgallery.org) is just off Brick Lane, the former Jewish, then Bengali and now gentrified artists’ quarter past the City (www.visitbricklane.org). Once edgy, Brick Lane is now a semi-Disneyfied version of its former self, but still worth a wander. Go for bagels at the 24 hour Beigel Bake at the Shoreditch end, an authentic East End institution.
Across town in swankier South Kensington, The V&A is showing Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear until March 2017, which is worth a look if you are interested in corset torture, plus there’s a gorgeous courtyard out the back to relax with a cold drink (www.vam.ac.uk).
Or if you’d rather something more cerebral, head to the Wellcome Collection (www.wellcomecollection.org) for States of Mind: Tracing The Edges of Consciousness. Until October 16, this exhibition looks at phenomena like somnambulism, synaesthesia, memory disorders and the nature of consciousness.
London is also currently hosting a few music-related exhibitions. This year seems the 40th anniversary of punk, which is celebrated all over the capital via Punk London: 40 Years of Subversion, until November 26. Punk 1976-1978 will be at the British Library until October 2, and there will be talk from The Slit’s guitarist Viv Albertine, author of the brilliant memoir Clothes Music Boys, and Jon Savage, author of England’s Dreaming (arguably the most comprehensive book on punk ever written), on July 14. You can get tickets for £15 from firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rolling Stones, never slow to cash in, have taken over two floors at the Saatchi Gallery until September 4 (www.saatchigallery.com), With nine “thematic galleries” of memorabilia in their Exhibitionism exhibition, for a stiff £23 you can wander around.
You may need some respite from all the culture vulturing, or at least some time outdoors if you’ve spent the morning strolling through museums and galleries. You’re spoiled for parks in London — St James Park, Hyde Park and Regent’s Park are all central.
If that sounds too sedate, stroll along the South Bank, site of the National Theatre, Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall, outdoor book market, skatepark and all kinds of buskers.
The riverside walkway makes a great place to sit and people watch as you recharge for the next stage of your day (www.southbanklondon.com). Alternatively, take a Flipside walking tour (www.flipsidelondontours.com), where instead of traipsing around St Paul’s Cathedral or joining the queue for the London Eye, you can choose between walking tours themed on Soho Punk, Gangland Soho, Westway Walk (around Notting Hill, taking in its fascinating pre-gentrification history), or Music Movies Murder & Mayhem (around Islington — check out where Jimi Hendrix burned his first guitar, the Medellin cartel did their banking, and other obscure but fascinating stops that you wouldn’t get on your average tourist bus).
If it’s raining, spend the afternoon mooching about in the legendary Foyle’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road, once the shambolic queendom of eccentric owner Christina Foyle.
Buying a book used to require queuing at three different tills, and books were categorised by publisher rather than author or topic. It has since been tidied up and organised, and is bibliophile heaven. (www.foyles.co.uk). As is the whole of the Charing Cross Road, with a dozen fascinating old bookshops selling all kinds of rarities.
You’ll be ready for a nice sit down by now, so have your theatre tickets booked in advance — it is possible to buy on the day for last minute offers, although this can be a bit random.
The biggest West End shows continue to be musicals — Glenn Close is playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard at the moment. Check out the adaption of the movie Groundhog Day at the Old Vic (www.oldvictheatre.com) from 11 July to 17 September — the music is by the wonderful Tim Minchin, who also did Matilda The Musical.
Or if you miss it, there’s always the award-winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime, at the Gielgud Theatre (www.geilgudtheatre.co.uk), which is astonishingly immersive in its portrayal of autism, while also managing to be funny.
For something purely magical, there’s always Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, from now until next May, at the Palace Theatre (www.palacetheatrelondon.org). This is Harry’s first stage outing, where he will play the part of a grown up wizard. Tickets are already like gold.
If you fancy something higher brow, visit the Almeida in Islington, voted London Theatre of the Year 2016 for its consistently high quality work in a smallish, modern environment (www.almeida.co.uk). Richard III, starring Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave, runs from 7 June to 6 August. Their productions are always sharp and brilliant.
Or if you want funny, feminist stand up Bridgid Christie examines our mortality in her new show Mortal, from June 20 to July 6 at the Soho Theatre (www.sohotheatre.com). What better way to end your exhausting tour of London than by laughing at death?
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