Fodor's London (2015)
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Arts and Entertainment Reviews
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Updated by Jo Caird
“All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare, immortal words heard for the first time right here in London. And whether you prefer your theater, music, and art classical or modern, or as contemporary twists on time-honored classics, you’ll find that London’s vibrant cultural scene more than holds its own on the world stage.
Divas sing original-language librettos at the Royal Opera House, Shakespeare’s plays are brought to life at the reconstructed Globe Theatre, and challenging new writing is produced at the Royal Court. Whether you feel like basking in the lighthearted extravagance of a West End musical or taking in the next shark-in-formaldehyde at the White Cube gallery, the choice is yours.
There are international theater festivals, innovative music festivals, and critically acclaimed seasons of postmodern dance. Short trip or long, you’ll find the cultural scene in London is ever-changing, ever-expanding, and ever-exciting.
No matter where you head, London’s art and performing arts scenes have been setting global trends for decades—and when you include Shakespearean theater and Handel oratorios, for centuries. Fringe theater, classical ballet, participatory chorales, you name it, London probably did it first and often does it best.
TOP THEATER TIPS
Behind the pillars. Many theaters and concert halls sell discounted seats with restricted views.
Matinees. Afternoon performances are almost always better value than evening ones.
Previews. Tickets to shows are usually less expensive in the first few weeks of their run, before the critics have had their say.
Monday. Most cinemas and some theaters, including the Royal Court, have a reduced-price ticketing policy on Monday.
Standing. Globe Theatre and the Proms are the two most prominent places where remaining upright saves you money.
The Arts for Free
Classical Music and Jazz
The Barbican, the Royal National Theatre, and the Royal Opera House often have free music in their foyers or in dedicated spaces, usually of high standard. On the South Bank, free festivals and special performances often take place alongside the river.
Many of London’s world-class music colleges give free concerts several times a week. The Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music often have free recitals. St. Martin-in-the-Fields has free lunchtime concerts, as does Christchurch Spitalfields. Other churches, including Westminster Abbey, St. James’s Piccadilly, and St. Paul’s in Covent Garden, also have frequent free music. For the Proms, which run from July to September at the Royal Albert Hall, good seats are expensive, but hundreds of standing tickets are available at £5: not quite free, but good value.
Brixton’s Dogstar pub has a great selection of DJs, often playing for free on weekday evenings. Ain’t Nothing But Blues Bar in Soho has live music most nights, often without a cover charge, and pubs such as the Monarch and the Hawley Arms near Camden Market offer the chance to see tomorrow’s indie stars today. East London establishment Café Oto hosts London’s best experimental music performances, while Cecil Sharp House in Camden is the home of traditional and contemporary folk.
Drama and Performance Arts
Look out for occasional festivals where innovative performances take place on the South Bank. Check the newspapers and Time Out for upcoming performances.
Museums and Galleries
Few if any other cities in the world offer the number of free art venues available in London. Most of the city’s museums and galleries do not charge entrance fees. The monthly Galleries magazine, available from galleries themselves or online at www.galleries.co.uk, has listings for all private galleries in the capital.
London’s parks come to life in summer with a wide-ranging program of music, dance, and visual arts (www.royalparks.org.uk for details, or | 020/7298-2000). There are several summer festivals in London parks, some with lots of big-name pop stars, like the British Summer Time festival in Hyde Park and the somewhat more indie Lovebox in Victoria Park. Notable contemporary art fairs are October’s Frieze in Regent’s Park (www.friezelondon.com) and the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park and Hampstead Heath in spring (www.affordableartfair.com).
Radio and Television
With so much broadcast material made in London, much of it recorded in front of live audiences, there are often opportunities to watch a free quiz show, current-affairs debate, comedy, or even drama. Check the BBC website for forthcoming recordings (www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/tickets).
FIND OUT WHAT’S PLAYING WHERE
To find out what’s showing now, the weekly magazine Time Out (now free, issued every Tuesday outside major stations and around the city; also online at www.timeout.com) is invaluable.
The free Evening Standard carries listings, many of which are also available online at www.standard.co.uk. Metro, London’s other widely available free newspaper, is also worth checking out, as are many Sunday papers, and the Saturday Independent, Guardian, and Times.
The website|www.whatsonstage.com is an invaluable resource for theater listings.
There are hundreds of small private galleries all over London with interesting work by famous and not-yet-famous artists. The bimonthly free pamphlet “new exhibitions of contemporary art” (www.newexhibitions.com), available at most galleries, lists and maps nearly 200 art spaces in London.
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St. James’s and Westminster | Mayfair and Marylebone | Soho and Covent Garden | Bloomsbury and Holborn | Islington | The City | East London | South of the Thames | Kensington and Chelsea | Notting Hill | Regent’s Park and Hampstead
ST. JAMES’S AND WESTMINSTER
Wander the streets of this chic central London neighborhood—home to British aristocracy in the 17th century—and you’ll discover a host of small commercial galleries, fine art auction houses, and antiques dealers in among the high-end tailors and gentlemen’s clubs.
Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Housed in an elegant John Nash-designed Regency terrace, the ICA’s two galleries have changing exhibitions of contemporary visual art. The ICA also programs performances, underground and vintage movies, talks, and photography, and there’s an arts bookstore, cafeteria, and bar. | Nash House, The Mall, St. James’s | 020/7930-3647 | www.ica.org.uk | Free | Tues.-Sun. 11-11; galleries Tues., Wed., Fri.-Sun. 11-6; Thurs. 11-9 | Station: Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus.
The English role in the exploding contemporary art scene has been major, thanks in good portion to Jay Joplin’s influential gallery, which has regularly moved around London over the past 15 years. The striking modern concrete structure was the first freestanding building to be built in the area for 30 years when it opened in 2006. It is home-base for an array of British artists who have won the Turner Prize—Hirst, Emin, Hume, et al. A larger space, in an ex-warehouse south of the river in Bermondsey, opened in 2011. | 25-26 Mason’s Yard, St. James’s | 020/7930-5373 | whitecube.com | Free | Tues.-Sat. 10-6 | Station: Green Park, Piccadilly Circus.
St. James’s Church.
The organ was brought here in 1691 after fire destroyed its former home, the Palace of Whitehall. St. James’s holds regular classical-music concerts and free lunchtime recitals Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 1:10 pm (free but donation of £3.50 suggested). | 197 Piccadilly, St. James’s | 020/7381-0441 concert program and tickets | www.sjp.org.uk | Station: Piccadilly Circus, Green Park.
St. John’s Smith Square.
This baroque church behind Westminster Abbey offers chamber music and organ recitals as well as orchestral concerts September through July. There are two or three Thursday lunchtime recitals a month for £10. | Smith Sq., Westminster | 020/7222-1061 | www.sjss.org.uk | Station: Westminster.
Popular lunchtime concerts (free but £3.50 donation suggested) are held in this lovely 1726 church, as are regular evening concerts. TIP Stop for a snack at the Café in the Crypt. | Trafalgar Sq., Westminster | 020/7766-1100 | www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org | Station: Charing Cross.
MAYFAIR AND MARYLEBONE
The historic center of the London art world, Mayfair has a thriving gallery scene that has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. With East End gallerists relocating to central London and a number of top international galleries opening new premises here, there’s a real buzz about the place. Directly north of Mayfair, Marylebone has more of a village atmosphere, with a few choice galleries and arts institutions dotted around.
Royal Academy of Arts.
Housed in an aristocratic mansion and home to Britain’s first art school (founded in 1768), the academy is best known for its blockbuster special exhibitions—like a controversial Sensation show drawn from the Saatchi collection and a record-breaking Monet show—though it also has a permanent collection that includes Michelangelo’s marble Taddei Tondo. The annual Summer Exhibition has been a popular London tradition since 1769. | Burlington House, Piccadilly, Mayfair | 020/7300-8000 | www.royalacademy.org.uk | From £3, prices vary with exhibition | Sat.-Thurs. 10-6, Fri. 10-10 | Station: Piccadilly Circus.
Owner Nicholas Logsdail represents about 40 blue-chip artists, including minimalist Sol LeWitt and Dan Graham, at one of the most respected galleries in London. The gallery is most associated with New Object sculptors like Anish Kapoor and Richard Deacon, many of whom have won the Turner Prize. A branch down the road at 27 Bell Street features work by younger, up-and-coming artists, and the gallery has another branch in Milan. | 52-54 Bell St., Marylebone | 020/7724-2739 | www.lissongallery.com | Free | Weekdays 10-6, Sat. 11-5 | Station: Edgware Rd., Marylebone.
Fodor’s Choice | Wigmore Hall.
Hear chamber music and song recitals in this charming hall with near-perfect acoustics. Don’t miss the Sunday morning concerts (11:30 am). | 36 Wigmore St., Marylebone | 020/7935-2141 | www.wigmore-hall.org.uk | Station: Bond St.
Top Five for the Arts
Stand with the “plebs” in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. There are seats, but to really experience theater Shakespearean-style you should stand in the yard, with the stage at eye level (plus, it’s a bargain at £5).
Visit the latest grand art installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The enormity of the Tate’s central space either intimidates or inspires artists challenged to fill it.
Catch a world-class performance at the Proms. There’s a surprisingly down-to-earth atmosphere among the elated company at these great concerts.
Enjoy a night at the BFI Southbank. Mingle with the real aficionados at screenings of foreign, classic, and experimental films.
Watch a Hollywood star in a West End production. Film stars often come to London to boost their artistic credibility in small-scale theaters.
SOHO AND COVENT GARDEN
London’s hip center has it all, from multiplexes playing the biggest blockbuster movies to niche contemporary art galleries tucked away in backstreets, and from world-famous opera houses to sultry cabaret joints. Whatever flavor of culture you’re craving, you’ll find it here.
Reopened in 2012 following a major refurbishment and extension, Britain’s first and foremost photography gallery continues to program cutting-edge and provocative photography exhibitions. The prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is exhibited and awarded here annually. The gallery also has a print sales room, a bookstore, and a café. | 16-18 Ramillies St., off Oxford St., Soho | 0845/262-1618 | www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk | Free | Mon.-Wed., Fri., and Sat. 10-6; Thurs. 10-8; Sun. 11:30-6 | Station: Oxford Circus.
In the oldest public building in the West End, and taking its name from a former Georgian rifle maker’s workshop here, this hip gallery exhibits ambitious works by emerging artists. It hosted debuts by Francesca Lowe, Chosil Kil, Jaime Gili, and Jamie Shovlin. | 79 Beak St., Soho | 020/7439-0000 | www.riflemaker.org | Free | Weekdays 10 am-6 pm, Sat. noon-6 pm | Station:Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus.
Theater: London Today
In London the play really is the thing, ranging from a long-running popular musical like Mamma Mia!, a groundbreaking reworking of Pinter, imaginative physical theater from an experimental company like Complicite, a lavish Disney spectacle, or a small fringe production above a pub. West End glitz and glamour continue to pull in the audiences, and so do the more innovative productions.
In London the words “radical” and “quality,” or “classical” and “experimental” are not mutually exclusive. The Royal Shakespeare Company (www.rsc.org.uk) and the National Theatre (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) often stage contemporary versions of the classics. The Almeida, Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), Donmar Warehouse, Royal Court Theatre, Soho Theatre, and Old Vic attract famous actors and have excellent reputations for new writing and innovative theatrical approaches. These are the venues where you’ll see an original production before it becomes a hit in the West End or on Broadway (and for a fraction of the cost).
The London theater scene remains vibrant throughout the summer months. Open-air productions of Shakespeare are particularly well served, whether in the faithful reconstruction of the Elizabethan Globe Theatre or under the stars in Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre. Theater festivals such as LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre|www.liftfestival.com) and BITE (Barbican International Theater Events | www.barbican.org.uk) provide the chance to see international and cutting-edge companies throughout the year.
Theatergoing isn’t cheap. Tickets less than £12 are a rarity, although designated productions at the National Theatre have seats at this price. At the commercial theaters you should expect to pay from £20 for a seat in the upper balcony to at least £40 for a good one in the stalls (orchestra) or dress circle (mezzanine). However, last-minute returns available on the night may provide some good deals. Tickets may be booked through ticket agents, at individual theater box offices, or over the phone by credit card. Be sure to inquire about any extra fees—prices can vary enormously, but agents are legally obliged to reveal the face value of the ticket if you ask. All the larger hotels offer theater bookings, but they tack on a hefty service charge.
Ticketmaster (0844/277-4321 | www.ticketmaster.co.uk) sells tickets to a number of different theaters, although they charge a booking fee. For discount tickets, Society of London Theatre (020/7557-6700 | www.tkts.co.uk) operates “tkts,” a half-price ticket booth on the southwest corner of Leicester Square, and sells the best available seats to performances at about 30 theaters. It’s open Monday-Saturday 9-7, Sunday 11-4:30; there’s a £3 service charge (included in the price). Major credit cards are accepted.
TIP Be very wary of ticket touts (scalpers) and unscrupulous ticket agents outside theaters and working the line at “tkts.”
Sadie Coles HQ.
This light-filled art space overlooking busy Regent Street marked a major expansion for respected British gallerist Sadie Coles when it opened in fall 2013. You’ll find the work of important British and international artists such as Sarah Lucas and Wilhelm Sasnal here and at Coles’s other gallery, in Mayfair. | 62 Kingly St., Soho | 020/7493-8611 | www.sadiecoles.com | Tues.-Sat. 11-6.
This popular, comfortable movie theater runs a vibrant and artsy program of mixed repertoire and mainstream films, with a good calendar of director talks and other events, too. The bar is great for a quiet drink, even when Soho is crawling with people. There are branches in Mayfair, Bloomsbury, Chelsea, and Richmond. | 99 Shaftesbury Ave., Soho | 0330/500-1331 | www.curzoncinemas.com | Station: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Sq.
FAMILY | Prince Charles Cinema.
This repertory cinema right off Leicester Square offers a chance to catch up with independent features, documentaries, and even blockbusters you may have missed, and tickets start at £8, or £4 if you purchase a £10 annual membership. A second screen upstairs shows newer movies at more usual West End prices. This is where the “sing-along” screening took off—come in character and warble along to The Sound of Music, Grease, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. | 7 Leicester Pl., Soho | 020/7494-3654 | www.princecharlescinema.com | Station: Leicester Sq., Piccadilly Circus.
This sleek theater in the heart of Soho is devoted to fostering new work and is a prolific presenter of plays by emerging writers, comedy performances, cabaret shows, and other entertainment. The bar is always buzzing. | 21 Dean St., Soho | 020/7478-0100 | www.sohotheatre.com | Station: Tottenham Court Rd.
Contemporary Art: London Today
In the 21st century, the focus of the city’s art scene has shifted from the past to the future. Helped by the prominence of Tate Modern, London’s contemporary art scene has never been so high profile. In publicly funded exhibition spaces like the Barbican Gallery, the Hayward Gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the Serpentine Galleries, London now has a modern-art environment on par with Bilbao and New York. Young British Artists (YBAs, though no longer as young as they once were) Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and others are firmly planted in the public imagination. The celebrity status of British artists is in part thanks to the annual Turner Prize, which always stirs up controversy in the media during a monthlong display of the work, usually at Tate Britain.
Depending on whom you talk to, the Saatchi Gallery is considered to be either the savior of contemporary art or the wardrobe of the emperor’s new clothes. After a couple of moves it is now ensconced in the former Duke of York’s barracks off Chelsea’s King’s Road.
The South Bank’s Tate Modern may house the giants of modern art, but East London is where the innovative action is. There are dozens of galleries in the fashionable spaces around Old Street, and the truly hip have already moved even farther east, to areas such as Bethnal Green. The Whitechapel Art Gallery and Jay Jopling’s influential White Cube, with branches in Bermondsey as well as in Soho, remain at the epicenter of the new art establishment and continue to show exciting work by emerging British artists.
On the first Thursday of every month, more than 130 museums and galleries of East London stay open until late (more information at www.firstthursdays.co.uk).
The London Coliseum.
Ballet troupes are often booked into the spectacular Coliseum during the summer and the Christmas season, and generally any time when the resident English National Opera is not holding down the fort here. The restored Edwardian baroque theater (1904) is known for its magnificent auditorium and a rooftop glass dome. The top dance company to perform here is the English National Ballet (www.ballet.org.uk). Guided tours (which take place on every other Saturday at 11:30 am, when productions are scheduled) cost £10. | St. Martin’s La., Covent Garden | 020/7845-9300 | www.eno.org | Station: Leicester Sq.
Fodor’s Choice | Royal Opera House.
As well as the Royal Opera, the renowned Royal Ballet performs classical and contemporary repertoire in this spectacular theater, where the interior may be Victorian but the stagecraft behind the red velvet curtain is state-of-the-art. Backstage tours are £12. They don’t take place when rehearsals or performances are taking place, so check the schedule in advance of your visit. | Bow St.,Covent Garden | 020/7304-4000 | www.roh.org.uk | Backstage tours (75 mins) weekdays 10:30, 12:30, and 2:30; Sat. 10:30, 11:30, and 12:30 | Station: Covent Garden.
The London Coliseum.
A veritable architectural extravaganza of Edwardian exoticism, the restored baroque-style theater (1904) has a magnificent auditorium and a rooftop glass dome with a bar and great views. As one of the city’s largest and most venerable theaters, the Coliseum functions mainly as the home of the English National Opera. Seemingly in better financial shape than it has been for some time, ENO continues to produce innovative opera, sung in English, for lower prices than the Royal Opera House. During opera’s off-season, the house hosts a number of dance troupes, including the English National Ballet (www.ballet.org.uk). Guided tours (every other Saturday at 11:30 am, when productions are scheduled) cost £10. | St. Martin’s La., Covent Garden | 020/7845-9300 box office, 020/7836-0111 inquiries | www.eno.org | Station: Leicester Sq.
Fodor’s Choice | Royal Opera House.
Along with Milan’s La Scala, New York’s Metropolitan, and the Palais Garnier in Paris, this is one of the world’s greatest opera houses. The resident troupe has mounted famously spectacular productions in the past, though recent productions have tended toward starker, more contemporary operas. Whatever the style of the performance, the extravagant theater itself—also home to the famed Royal Ballet—delivers a full dose of opulence. Tickets range in price from £8 to £230. The box office opens at 10 am, but lines for popular productions can start as early as 7 am; unsold tickets are offered at half price four hours before a performance. If you wish to see the hall but are not able to procure a ticket, you can join a backstage tour (£12) or one of the infrequent tours of the auditorium (£9.50). There are free lunchtime recitals most Mondays in the Crush Room (arrive early to get a ticket—between 11 am and noon; some tickets are available online from nine days before the event). ROH2, the Opera House’s contemporary arm, stages more experimental dance and voice performances in locations including the Linbury Studio Theatre, a 400-seater space below the Opera House. | Bow St., Covent Garden | 020/7304-4000 | www.roh.org.uk | Public areas generally daily 10-3:30. Backstage tours weekdays 10:30, 12:30, and 2:30; Sat. 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, and 1:30 (please check in advance as tours do not take place when rehearsals or performances are in progress) | Station: Covent Garden.
Fodor’s Choice | Donmar Warehouse.
Hollywood stars often perform in this not-for-profit theater in diverse and daring new works, bold interpretations of the classics, and small-scale musicals. Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ewan McGregor have all been featured. | 41 Earlham St., Seven Dials, Covent Garden | 0844/871-7624 | www.donmarwarehouse.com | Station: Covent Garden.
BLOOMSBURY AND HOLBORN
Once the heart of fashionable literary London, there’s still an air of refinement about this neighborhood. A handful of small theaters with links to the colleges with campuses in the area create a vibrant small-scale performance scene, including theater, dance, and stand-up comedy.
This airy concert venue opened in 2008: the cultural jewel in the huge new developments near the Eurostar terminal in King’s Cross. It is the permanent home of the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It offers weeklong programs by musicians in a range of genres, and there are free-to-watch weekly chamber music master classes on Sunday. There’s also a hugely varied cultural calendar of jazz, comedy, folk, and political and literary lectures, and two gallery spaces. | 90 York Way, King’s Cross | 020/7520-1490 box office, 020/7520-1440 inquiries | www.kingsplace.co.uk | Station: King’s Cross.
Sadler’s Wells’s West End annex, this Modernist theater near the London School of Economics (which uses it as a lecture hall during the day) focuses on younger companies and shows in popular dance genres like flamenco, tango, and hip-hop. | Portugal St., Holborn | 0844/412-4322 box office | www.sadlerswells.com | Station: Holborn.
The Robin Howard Dance Theatre at The Place is London’s only theater dedicated to contemporary dance, and with tickets often under £15 (including many free performances by student dancers) it’s good value, too. “Resolution!” is the United Kingdom’s biggest platform event for new choreographers. | 17 Duke’s Rd., Bloomsbury | 020/7121-1100 | www.theplace.org.uk | Station: Euston.
Close to central London, yet with its own unique atmosphere, this neighborhood is home to a handful of renowned theaters and music venues that make the short journey northeast well worth the effort.
Victoria Miro Gallery.
This large, important commercial gallery, in a former furniture factory, has exhibited some of the biggest names on the British contemporary art scene—Grayson Perry, the Chapman brothers, and Peter Doig, to name a few. Some exhibitions spill out into the gallery’s own garden. It also brings in exciting talent from abroad. | 16 Wharf Rd., Islington | 020/7336-8109 | www.victoria-miro.com | Free | Tues.-Sat. 10-6 | Station: Old St., Angel.
Fodor’s Choice | Sadler’s Wells.
This gleaming building opened in 1998, the seventh on the site in its 300-year history, and is devoted to presenting leading classical and contemporary dance companies. The Random Dance Company is in residence, and the little Lilian Baylis Theatre hosts avant-garde work. | Rosebery Ave., Islington | 0844/412-4300 tickets, 020/7863-8198 general inquiries | www.sadlerswells.com | Station: Angel.
This Off-West End venue, helmed by director Rupert Goold, premiers excellent new plays and exciting twists on the classics, often featuring high-profile actors. There’s a good café and a licensed bar that serves “sharing dishes” as well as tasty main courses. | Almeida St., Islington | 020/7359-4404 | www.almeida.co.uk | Station: Angel, Highbury & Islington.
FAMILY | Little Angel Theatre.
Innovative puppetry performances for children and adults have been taking place in this adorable converted temperance hall since 1961. The theater runs a number of festivals a year, including the biennial Suspense festival of puppetry for adults. | 14 Dagmar Passage, Islington | 020/7226-1787 box office | www.littleangeltheatre.com | Station: Angel, Highbury & Islington.
It may seem at first glance like the denizens of London’s financial center are far too busy to take time out for culture, but if you look a little closer you’ll see that arts events are taking place all over, courtesy of a number of acclaimed annual festivals. Art exhibits in empty offices and chamber performances in historic churches are regular occurrences.
FAMILY | Barbican Centre.
Opened in 1982, the Brutalist-style Barbican is the largest performing arts center in Europe. The main concrete theater is most famous as the home of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). As well as the LSO (www.lso.co.uk), the Barbican is also a frequent host of the English Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and has an excellent concert season of big-name virtuosos. Performances by British and international theater companies make up part of the year-round BITE (Barbican International Theatre Events), which also features groundbreaking performance, dance, drama, and musical theater. Innovative exhibitions of 20th-century and current art and design are shown in the Barbican Gallery and the Curve (usually free). In addition to Hollywood films, obscure classics and film festivals with Screen Talks are programmed in the three movie theaters here. Saturday Framed Film Club has adventure and animation to please all ages. You could listen to Elgar or watch some Russian theater, see some 1960s photography or an exhibition on art and science, and catch some German animation with live musical accompaniment—possibly all in one evening. | Silk St., The City | 020/7638-8891 box office | www.barbican.org.uk | Mon.-Sat. 9 am-11 pm, Sun. noon-11 pm | Station: Barbican.
Artists and other creative types, no longer able to afford central London rents, have been making their way eastward for years. It began in Shoreditch, but as rents increased there, too, neighborhoods farther and farther out have been colonized by these creative pioneers. Go gallery hopping in Vyner Street in Bethnal Green or catch a hip band in action at one of Shoreditch’s myriad music venues.
Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Founded in 1901 and recently expanded, this large, independent East End gallery is one of London’s most innovative and consistently interesting. Jeff Wall, Bill Viola, Gary Hume, and Mark Rothko have exhibited here and there is an interesting program of events as well as an excellent restaurant. | 80-82 Whitechapel High St., Shoreditch | 020/7522-7888 | www.whitechapel.org | Free | Tues., Wed., and Fri.-Sun. 11-6; Thurs. 11-9 | Station: Aldgate East.
FAMILY | Hackney Empire.
The history of this treasure of a theater is drama in its own right. Charlie Chaplin is said to have appeared here during its days as a thriving variety theater and music hall in the early 1900s. It now hosts traditional family entertainment and variety shows, opera, music, musical theater, dance, and drama, often with a multicultural slant. Its annual Christmas pantomime is legendary. | 291 Mare St., Hackney | 020/8985-2424 | www.hackneyempire.co.uk | Station: National Rail: Hackney Central.
Film: London Today
There are many wonderful movie theaters in London and several that are committed to non-mainstream and repertory cinema, in particular the excellent Curzon cinemas and the National Film Theatre. Now nearly 60 years old, the BFI London Film Festival (www.bfi.org.uk/lff) brings hundreds of films made by masters of world cinema to London each October, accompanied by often-sold-out talks and other events. The smaller, avant-garde Raindance Film Festival (www.raindance.co.uk) highlights independent filmmaking, September into October.
West End movie theaters continue to do good business. Most of the major houses, such as the Odeon Leicester Square and the Empire, are in the Leicester Square-Piccadilly Circus area, where tickets average £15. Monday and matinees are often cheaper, at around £6-£10, and there are also smaller crowds.
Check out Time Out, one of the London papers, or www.viewlondon.co.uk for listings.
SOUTH OF THE THAMES
The South Bank and its easterly near neighbor Bankside together make up one of the richest areas in London when it comes to arts and entertainment. Whether you want to watch a play, hear a concert, or see an art exhibit, you won’t have to wander far to find something top class. Venture a little farther into south London, and you’ll be rewarded with a sprinkling of fringe theaters that act as incubators for the capital’s mainstream theater scene.
Fodor’s Choice | Tate Modern.
This converted power station is one of the largest modern-art galleries in the world, so give yourself ample time to take it all in. The permanent collection includes work by all the major 20th-century artists, though only a fraction is shown at any one time. There are also blockbuster touring shows and solo exhibitions of international artists. The huge onetime oil tanks of the old power station were opened up in 2012 for a season of performance art. These new spaces are the first stage in a new extension of the gallery that is scheduled for completion in 2016. TIP The bar on the top floor has gorgeous views overlooking the Thames and St. Paul’s Cathedral. | Bankside, South Bank | 020/7887-8888 | www.tate.org.uk | Free-£15 | Sun.-Thurs. 10-6, Fri. and Sat. 10-10 | Station: Southwark, St. Paul’s, London Bridge.
BFI London IMAX Cinema.
The British Film Institute’s glazed drum-shaped IMAX theater (now, confusingly, operated by Odeon) has the largest screen in the United Kingdom (approximately 75 feet wide and the height of five double-decker buses), showing state-of-the-art 2-D and 3-D films. | 1 Charlie Chaplin Walk, South Bank | 0330/333-7878 | www.bfi.org.uk/imax | Station: Waterloo.
FAMILY | BFI Southbank.
With the best repertory programming in London, the three movie theaters and studio at what was previously known as the National Film Theatre are effectively a national film center run by the British Film Institute. They show more than 1,000 titles each year, favoring art-house, foreign, silent, overlooked, classic, noir, and short films over Hollywood blockbusters. The center also has a gallery, bookshop, and “mediatheque,” where visitors can watch film and television from the National Archive for free (closed Mon). This is one of the venues for the BFI London Film Festival; throughout the year there are minifestivals, seminars, and guest speakers. TIP Members (£45) get priority bookings (useful for special events) and £1.50 off each screening. | Belvedere Rd., South Bank | 020/7928-3535 information, 020/7928-3232 box office | www.bfi.org.uk | Station: Waterloo.
The Royal Festival Hall is one of London’s best spaces for large-scale choral and orchestral works and is home to the Philharmonia and London Philharmonic orchestras. Other venues in the Southbank Centre host smaller-scale music performances: The Queen Elizabeth Hall is a popular venue for chamber orchestras and top-tier soloists, and the intimate Purcell Room is known for chamber music and solo recitals. Southbank also hosts everything from the London International Mime festival to large-scale dance performances. Also part of the complex is the Hayward Gallery (Mon. noon-6; Tues., Wed., Sat., and Sun. 10-6; Thurs. and Fri. 10-8), a landmark Brutalist-style 1960s building and one of London’s major venues for contemporary art exhibitions. | Belvedere Rd., South Bank | 020/7960-4200, 0844/875-0073 box office | www.southbankcentre.co.uk | Station: Waterloo, Embankment.
Battersea Arts Centre has a reputation for producing innovative new work. Check out Scratch events, low-tech theater by emerging artists where the audience provides feedback on works-in-progress. Entry for Scratch events is on a pay-what-you-can basis (minimum £1). There’s also a fun bar that serves good food. | 176 Lavender Hill, Battersea | 020/7223-2223 | www.bac.org.uk | Station: National Rail: Clapham Junction.
Classical Music: London Today
Whether it’s a concert by pianist Lang Lang or a Mozart requiem by candlelight, it’s possible to hear first-rate musicians in world-class venues almost every day of the year. The London Symphony Orchestra is in residence at the Barbican Centre, although other top orchestras—including the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic—also perform here. The Barbican also hosts chamber-music concerts, with celebrated orchestras such as the City of London Sinfonia. Kings Place, the new kid on London’s concert block, has a great, and greatly varied calendar of musical events. The Southbank Centre has an impressive international music season, held in the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the small Purcell Room as well as in the Royal Festival Hall, now completely refurbished. Full houses are rare, so even at the biggest concert halls you should be able to get a ticket for £12. If you can’t book in advance, arrive at the hall an hour before the performance for a chance at returns.
TIP Lunchtime concerts take place all over the city in smaller concert halls, the big arts-center foyers, and churches; they usually cost less than £5 or are free, and feature string quartets, singers, jazz ensembles, or gospel choirs. St. John’s Smith Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields are popular locations. Performances usually begin about 1 pm and last one hour.
Classical-music festivals range from the stimulating avant-garde Meltdown (meltdown.southbankcentre.co.uk), curated each year by a prominent musician—James Lavelle in 2014—at the Southbank Centre in June, to church hall recitals including the Spitalfields Festival (www.spitalfieldsfestival.org.uk), a program of recitals held in beautiful, historic East End churches in June, December, and January, and the month-long City of London Festival (www.colf.org) in the Square Mile in summer. A great British tradition since 1895, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (more commonly known as the “Proms” | www.bbc.co.uk/proms) run eight weeks, from July to September, at the Royal Albert Hall. Despite an extraordinary quantity of high-quality concerts, it’s renowned for its (atypical) last night: a madly jingoistic display of singing “Land of Hope and Glory,” Union Jack-waving, and general madness. For regular Proms, tickets run £5-£95, with hundreds of standing tickets for £5 available at the hall on the night of the concert. TIP The last night is broadcast in Hyde Park on a jumbo screen, but even here a seat on the grass requires a paid ticket that can set you back around £35.
When this theater, designed by Sir Denys Lasdun, opened in 1976 Londoners weren’t all so keen on the low-slung, multilayered Brutalist block. Prince Charles described the building as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.” But whatever its merits or demerits as a feature on the landscape, the National Theatre’s interior spaces are definitely worth a tour. Interspersed with the three theaters—the 1,150-seat Olivier, the 890-seat Lyttelton, and the revamped 400-seat Dorfman (formerly the Cottesloe)—is a multilayered foyer with exhibitions, bars, restaurants, and free entertainment. Musicals, classics, and new plays are all performed by top-flight professionals. Some shows offer £12 ticket deals. | Belvedere Rd., South Bank | 020/7452-3000 box office, 020/7452-3400 information | www.nationaltheatre.org.uk | Tour £8.50 | Foyer Mon.-Sat. 9:30 am-11 pm, selected Sun. noon-6 pm; 75-min tour backstage, times vary | Station: Waterloo.
The Old Vic.
This grand old theater, former haunting grounds of such stage legends as John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, and Judi Dench, is now masterminded by American actor Kevin Spacey. The theater had suffered decades of financial duress before being brought under the ownership of a dedicated trust headed by Spacey. His production record has had a few hiccups but his tenure is these days regarded by most as a success. As well as being artistic director, Spacey often appears on stage. | The Cut, Southwark | 0844/871-7628 box office | www.oldvictheatre.com | Station: Waterloo, Southwark.
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
This faithful reconstruction of the open-air playhouse where Shakespeare worked and wrote many of his greatest plays marvelously re-creates the 16th-century theatergoing experience. Standing room in the yard or “pit” right in front of the stage costs £5. The season runs April through October, but an exhibition and theater tours run all year round. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a replica Jacobean (early-17th-century) indoor theater named after the Globe’s founder, opened in early 2014. | 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, South Bank | 020/7401-9919 box office, 020/7902-1400 inquiries | www.shakespearesglobe.com | Exhibition and Globe Theatre Tour £13.50 | Exhibition daily 10-5:30; Globe Theatre Tour daily 10:30-5 | Station: London Bridge, Mansion House (then cross Southwark Bridge), Blackfriars (then cross Blackfriars Bridge), St. Paul’s (then cross Millennium Bridge).
In a home near Waterloo, big names perform alongside young talent, often in daring, innovative productions of classic plays that appeal to a more diverse audience than is traditionally found in London theaters. Good food is served at the bustling bar. | 66 The Cut, Waterloo, South Bank | 020/7922-2922 box office | www.youngvic.org | Station: Southwark, Waterloo.
KENSINGTON AND CHELSEA
These refined neighborhoods just west of central London offer a wide variety of art and entertainment options, several of which are located within the area’s large public green spaces.
Built in 1934 as a tea pavilion in Kensington Gardens, the Serpentine has an international reputation for exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. Henry Moore, Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley, Damien Hirst, and Rachel Whiteread are a few of the artists who have exhibited here. An extension, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, opened in the fall of 2013. It’s a seven-minute walk across the park from the main gallery. The annual summer Pavilion, a striking temporary structure designed by a different leading architect every year, is always worth catching. | Kensington Gardens,Kensington | 020/7402-6075 | www.serpentinegalleries.org | Free | Tues.-Sun. 10-6 | Station: Lancaster Gate, Knightsbridge, South Kensington.
Opera: London Today
The two key players in London’s opera scene are the Royal Opera House (which ranks with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York) and the more innovative English National Opera (ENO), which presents English-language productions at the London Coliseum. Only the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, has a longer theatrical history than the Royal Opera House—the third theater to be built on the site since 1858.
Despite occasional performances by the likes of Björk, the Royal Opera House struggles to shrug off its reputation for elitism and ticket prices that can rise to £800. It is, however, more accessible than it used to be—the cheapest tickets are less than £10. Conditions of purchase vary; call for information. Prices for the ENO are generally lower, ranging from around £20 to £95.
In summer, the increasingly adventurous Opera Holland Park presents the usual chestnuts alongside some obscure works under a canopy in leafy Holland Park.
International touring companies often perform at Sadler’s Wells, the Barbican, the Southbank Centre, and Wigmore Hall, so check the weekly listings for details.
Formerly a church, Cadogan Hall has been turned into a spacious concert venue. It’s home to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the English Chamber Orchestra performs here regularly. | 5 Sloane Terr., Kensington | 020/7730-4500 | www.cadoganhall.com | Station: Sloane Sq.
Royal Albert Hall.
Opened in 1871, this splendid iron-and-glass-dome auditorium hosts music programs in a wide range of genres. Its terra-cotta exterior surmounted by a mosaic frieze depicting figures engaged in artistic, scientific, and cultural pursuits, this domed, circular 5,272-seat auditorium was made possible by the Victorian public, who donated the money to build it. After funds were diverted toward the Albert Memorial (opposite), more money was raised by selling 999-year leases for 1,276 “Members’” seats at £100 apiece—today a box with 5 Members’ Seats goes for half a million pounds. The notoriously poor acoustics were fixed after a 2004 renovation and the sight lines are excellent. The RAH hosts everything from pop and classical headliners to Cirque du Soleil, ballet on ice, awards ceremonies, and sumo wrestling championships, but is best known as the venue for the annual July-September BBC Promenade Concerts—the “Proms”—with bargain-price standing (or promenading, or sitting-on-the-floor) tickets sold on the night of the concert. The hall is also open daily for daytime guided tours (£11.50) and occasional afternoon tea (£30-£38). | Kensington Gore, Kensington | 0845/401-5034 box office | www.royalalberthall.com | Station: South Kensington.
Riverside Studios Cinema.
The selection at this converted movie studio showing repertory cinema changes almost daily. Admission fees are reasonable; £9.50 gets you entrance to a double bill. | Crisp Rd., Hammersmith | 020/8237-1111 | www.riversidestudios.co.uk | Station: Hammersmith.
Opera Holland Park.
In summer, well-loved operas and imaginative productions of relatively unknown works are presented under a spectacular new canopy against the remains of Holland House, one of the first great houses built in Kensington. Ticket prices range from £12 to £67.50, with 1,100 tickets offered free to young people ages 9-18 every season. Tickets go on sale in April. | Holland Park, Kensington High St., Kensington | 0300/999-1000 box office (opens late Apr.), 020/7361-3570 inquiries | www.operahollandpark.com | Station: High Street Kensington, Holland Park.
Charles Saatchi lit the fuse to the contemporary art explosion in Britain and though he and his art investments may not be quite as ubiquitous as they once were, he remains a key figure. After migrating to several museums and being shown around the world, Saatchi’s collection now resides in this modern gallery that sprawls through 70,000 square feet of the Duke of York’s HQ building in Chelsea, complete with a bookshop and café-bar. | Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Rd., Chelsea | 020/7811-3070 | www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk | Free | Daily 10-6 | Station: Sloane Sq.
Royal Court Theatre.
Britain’s undisputed epicenter of new theatrical works, the Court is now over 50 years old and continues to produce gritty British and international drama. TIP Don’t miss the best deal in town—four 10-pence standing tickets go on sale one hour before each performance, and £10 tickets are available on Monday. | Sloane Sq., Chelsea | 020/7565-5000 | www.royalcourttheatre.com | Station: Sloane Sq.
This cosmopolitan west London neighborhood, shown to advantage in the 1999 film that bears its name, is best known for the Notting Hill Carnival, a lively music-focused street festival that takes over the wider area on the final weekend of August each year. There’s a year-round culture scene, too, catering mainly to the neighborhood’s trendy young professionals.
FAMILY | The Electric Cinema.
This refurbished Portobello Road art house screens mainstream and international movies. The emphasis is on comfort, with leather sofas for two, armchairs, footstools, and mini-coffee tables for your tapas-style food and wine. Saturday matinees for kids are popular. Edible Cinema combines experimental food and cocktails with the cinema experience. The Electric also has another sumptuous movie theater in east London—the Aubin, on Redchurch Street, with sofas and wine coolers. | 191 Portobello Rd., Notting Hill | 020/7908-9696 | www.electriccinema.co.uk | £15.50-£22.50 | Station: Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill Gate.
REGENT’S PARK AND HAMPSTEAD
Leafy north London has long been a stomping ground for the capital’s cultural elite—stroll through Primrose Hill and you’re practically guaranteed to spot a film star or musician—but there’s diversity here, too. Camden Town is justifiably famous for its indie music scene, while respected fringe theaters in Swiss Cottage and Kilburn don’t shy away from major topics.
Dance: London Today
Dance fans in London can enjoy the classicism of the world-renowned Royal Ballet, as well as innovative works by several contemporary dance companies—including Rambert Dance Company and Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures—and scores of independent choreographers. The English National Ballet and visiting international companies perform at the Coliseum and at Sadler’s Wells, which also hosts various other ballet companies and dance troupes. Encompassing the refurbished Royal Festival Hall, the Southbank Centre has a seriously good contemporary dance program that hosts top international companies and important U.K. choreographers, as well as multicultural offerings ranging from Japanese Butoh and Indian Kathak to hip-hop. The Place and the Lilian Baylis Theatre at Sadler’s Wells are where you’ll find the most daring, cutting-edge performances.
Check londondance.com for current performances and fringe venues.
The biggest annual event is Dance Umbrella, 10 days in October that host international and British-based artists at various venues across the city. | 020/7407-1200 | www.danceumbrella.co.uk.
Fodor’s Choice | Open Air Theatre.
On a warm summer evening, open-air classical theater in the pastoral and royal Regent’s Park is hard to beat for a magical adventure. Enjoy a supper before the performance, a bite during the intermission on the picnic lawn, or drinks in the spacious bar. The only downside is that warm summer nights in London are not always entirely reliable—a waterproof jacket is advisable. | Inner Circle, Regent’s Park | 0844/826-4242 | openairtheatre.com | Station: Baker St., Regent’s Park.
FAMILY | Everyman Cinema.
Kick off your shoes, curl up on the large comfy sofas, and have tapas and Champagne brought to you in front of classic, foreign, cutting-edge, and Hollywood titles. This venue also screens the Metropolitan Opera live from New York, and is a popular place for Hampstead denizens to bring their kids. Other branches around London also tend to offer a movie experience a cut above the average. | 5 Holly Bush Vale, Hampstead | 0871/906-9060 | www.everymancinema.com | Station: Hampstead.
FAMILY | Tricycle Theatre.
Committed to representing the cultural diversity of its community, the Tricycle shows the best in black, Irish, Jewish, Asian, and South African drama, and also promotes new work. There is a movie theater, too: Expect the best of new European and international cinema, including films from the United States, occasionally screened at film festivals the theater organizes. A year-round program of film-related activities is geared to children, and discounted movie tickets are available on Monday. | 269 Kilburn High Rd., Kilburn | 020/7328-1000 box office | www.tricycle.co.uk | Station:Kilburn.
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