Galleries & Museums
The V&A Museum has an excellent collection that houses permanent exhibits on fashion and another on theatre, two of London’s cultural strengths. These are both highly recommended. It’s also quite a beautiful space. It’s located in close proximity to other museums and is within easy walking distance of Hyde Park and Kensington Palace. PWYC with paid admission to special exhibits.
Tate Modern is one of my favourite museums. It’s a reasonable size, has an excellent collection, PWYC with interesting rotating exhibits for a set admission fee and it’s open fairly late. Sadly, the gift store used to have a wide selection of small press and zines, but I learned the staff member in charge of that has left and so what remains is not nearly as interesting… but you don’t visit a museum to shop. It’s also well located close to Borough Market (my favourite London market, focused on food and produce) and other places of interest like the Globe Theatre (protip: do NOT buy the cheap standing room tickets if you think you can just sit on the ground because they have staff monitoring the area and they WILL make you stand up).
Whitechapel Gallery is located in east London, just steps away from the Whitechapel tube station. Although Whitechapel is a smaller gallery, there is PWYC admission to a fantastic number of exhibits and the programming is on point, offering a healthy mix of established artists and up-and-coming talent. They also have a bus tour on the first Thursday of each month to some of the smaller commercial galleries in the east end. I did the tour and the work was hit and miss but also good way to get my bearings in the neighbourhood. I would absolutely visit this gallery again, it was probably my favourite of the lot. It’s also very close to the gentrified Brick Lane market. If you are looking for vintage clothing, especially old kimonos, Victorian era apparel or a Burberry or Aquascutum trench coat, do hit up some of the stores on the north end of the street; there’s also a lot of street art and an excellent bookstore, just off the main road called Liberia.
Barbican Centre is a fantastic cultural hub that hosts art exhibits, live performances, films, workshops, events and a library. A series of close knit buildings also offer additional performance venues. I attended Sound Unbound, which was like a contemporary classical/experimental music festival featuring a lot of new talent. While I was there, the centre was also hosting an architecture exhibit and free performances.
The British Library houses an incredible collection of old manuscripts, letters, books and musical scores. My favourite letter was one penned by Hume in which he describes how Rousseau has lost his marbles and is accusing Hume of conspiring against him. Other points of interest include rotating exhibits (some require an admission fee), a book tower, and an archival wall full of really old stamps. It’s also a lovely building. Free admission, obviously.
Bookstores & Comics
London has a number of excellent bookstores – too many to list – so I’ll just direct you to Cecil Court in Covent Garden. It’s a quaint street filled with specialist booksellers: children’s books, antiquarian books, spiritual books, etc. I’d recommend visiting Tenderbooks, an art book store and gallery which is quite small but extremely well curated.
In terms of comics, I visited two stores, Gosh! Comics in fashionable Soho and Orbital Comics in neighbouring Covent Garden. They are both great retail shops that I would probably frequent as a local but I was hoping to discover more local talent, small press and self published comics and there wasn’t much in stock in either store that I couldn’t easily pick up at The Beguiling.
I had better luck visiting an anarchist zine library at 56a Infoshop. The collection was filled with mostly radical political zines with some material available for purchase. I actually picked up a great comic here, The Very Hungry Pipeline by Paul Walker, which is an autobio comic about the author’s experiences participating in a pipeline blockade in Ireland. I also bought an introduction written by Guy Debord for an Italian edition of Society of the Spectacle, written a few years before he committed suicide. 56a also runs a bike shop and a little cafe. Had an interesting chat with the people hanging out there, trading gentrification horror stories. Within close walking distance is the Artworks Elephant which is a creative community made out of three levels of repurposed shipping containers and an excellent place to grab a quick, affordable bite.
One final thought on London’s museums. I am very much an Anglophile but I cannot recommend the National British Museum. I visited it to check out the John Dee paraphernalia and naively didn’t realize what a flagrant display of colonial theft it would be. I imagine most museums have problematic items in their collections, but the British Museum is exceptionally egregious. It’s wonderful that London’s great museums offer free entry but when they are filled with prized – and pilfered – artifacts, some of which other nations would like returned, charging admission would be like a final slap in the face. It takes a special kind of entitlement to openly display all the shit you’ve stolen and to be both so oblivious and bloody proud of your nation while doing it.
While I cannot promote this institution, I do think it is perfectly fitting that this museum, with its massive, impressive and glorified display about the Enlightenment (a paradigm shift that championed the liberation of the rational individual and equality among men), is also an unintentional material record to the cultural arrogance, colonial destructiveness, racism and environmental damage that marked this period in history. In the national museum, we see how the violence of colonialism and capitalism are completely intertwined with the development of Western civ and the philosophical outlook of the Enlightenment rather than a contradiction.
More to Love about London
Lingerie: Londoners make some of the best knickers in the world. Agent Provocateur may have fallen on hard times as of late and it’s admittedly drifted away from its roots, but it is still worth a visit. Of all the department stores, Selfridges offers the best selection of brands with a range of price points. What Katie Did is perfect for vintage styles and you can pick up a pair of stockings with a reinforced heel and backseam for ten quid. Finally, while other stores carry the Coco de Mer brand, paying the flagship store a visit is highly recommended. Where AP is cheeky, Coco is devilishly naughty and it’s just fun to pay a visit.
Perfume: When Londoners wear perfume, they wear the good stuff. You can test so many houses that Canada does not have access to and there are often releases exclusive to London. I’m having a stroll in the posh Mayfair neighbourhood and these incredible scents waft out from Burlington Arcade. Inside, you will find tiny boutiques of the world’s leading fragrance luxury houses: Frederic Malle, Roja Dove, Penhaligon’s, By Kilian, and so on. I just about died. Perfume lovers are also advised to check out the fragrances offered at the iconic department store, Harrods. The selection is dizzying, with an impressive collection of niche houses. I might have cried when I saw the entire Nasomatto line. Don’t be shy because the sales agents are trained to be friendly and unobtrusive here.
But save your pounds because hands down, the best place to buy perfume in the city is Les Senteurs. They stock a wide selection of houses including niche UK brands like Papillon, Ex Idolo, etc. Staff are highly knowledgeable, friendly and passionate about fragrance. They are like The Beguiling of perfume. This should be your first stop if you are a visiting fragrance lover.
Heritage & indie fashion: Doc Martins. Barbour and Belstaff. Aquascutum. These old, UK brands are not flashy but rather, emphasize quality. The great thing about London is that you can pick up used items for a reasonable price at thrift stores and markets. Camden and Brick Lane are like a Burberry bonanza. As for fun, irreverent fashion, London has this in spades. Above are pics of Irregular Choice’s store outside Camden and a wild clothing store on Portobello Road (forgot the name, I’m afraid). Also scored a gorgeous pure silk Matthew Williamson shirt in this neighbourhood for ten quid or US$13. This shirt brand new would retail at roughly US$450-500.
Clubbing: London nightlife is the stuff of legend. I made a pilgrimage to Vauxhall, which is basically my version of the Hajj. Yes, yes, I know locals think it’s getting too mainstream but… what an incredible, unforgettable night. Bethnal Green east of the city would be my other recommendation. It’s a working class area with a cluster of clubs including the Oval Space. Main tube lines (subway) run 24 hours. Trains can get as full at three in the morning as they are at three in the afternoon.
Final tip!!! The security to London clubs and museums is a bit more rigorous than anywhere else I’ve been. I even had to go through security to get into the British Library. Instead of the half hearted purse openings I’m accustomed to in Toronto (and if security is particularly robust, a quick patdown), when in London, I had to go through metal detectors, patdowns and thorough purse investigations. I’m talking taking out my sunglasses case and shaking it, unzipping all pockets, etc. There will be queues!!!