Local's Guide London

The city of London is a haven for art, culture and history lovers. Here, Naomi Speakman of the British Museum reveals her top spots for soaking it all in.

The city of London is a haven for art, culture and history lovers. Here, Naomi Speakman of the British Museum reveals her top spots for soaking it all in.

Meet your Guide

Naomi Speakman is the curator for late medieval European collections at the British Museum and has lived in London for five years. Prior to joining the British Museum, she worked at Bonhams and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her current research interests include gothic ivory carving and late medieval metalwork.

There is something really exciting about London - it’s an incredibly diverse place to live and full of creativity. One of the best things about the city is the layers of history right beneath your feet. The area around the Tower Of London still has some Roman walls, for example, and there are tiny streets named after the medieval craftsmen that worked there. The city also bears the scars of its destruction by the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the bombing raids of World War II (a great way to see it all is by hiring a ‘Boris bike’). Everywhere you go has an interesting story to tell.

The city’s history, combined with its inventive arts scene, makes London truly unique. From First Thursdays at east London galleries (where free events, exhibitions and workshops are held on the first Thursday of every month), to immersive theatre shows where you become part of the scene, there is always something going on in the arts world. A Secret Cinema production of Star Wars this year saw the inside of the Death Star recreated and Stormtroopers locking patrons up in prison. Many theatres do affordable ticket deals too, such as £15 seats at the National Theatre. Some are available the week before the performance, others by registering, but details can be found on the website. 

Many of the art institutions host blockbuster shows, such as Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts this month. It is quite interesting to see how the same space in one gallery can change its look completely depending on the show. The Hayward Gallery on the South Bank is particularly good at that.

Medieval fans mustn’t miss Westminster Abbey. The beautiful Gothic abbey is where British monarchs have been crowned for almost 1000 years and where past kings, queens and other famous historical figures are buried. While you’re here, visit Westminster Hall next door, the only surviving vestige of the medieval Palace of Westminster (now the Houses of Parliament).

The Barbican Centre is a fascinating Brutalist complex that seems to spring up out of the city. This style of architecture polarises people, but inside the building is everything you could want - it’s a theatre, art gallery, concert venue and cinema - also contained within the complex structure is an oasis of ponds and fountains, all located opposite the restored medieval Church of St Giles’ Cripplegate. If you’re looking for some time out, it’s a relaxing place to have a coffee and read a good book.

London, as the home of nobility, tells the history of medieval England. You can visit the Tower of London, where traitors, kings, queens, saints and sinners have been held against their will, and then move on and admire the faces of the Tudor monarchs at the National Portrait Gallery, to bring them all to life.

Most of the medieval city of London was destroyed in the Great Fire, but some important buildings from this period have survived, including the Guildhall - which remains the ceremonial and administrative centre of London - and Churches such as that of Saint Bartholomew the Great. You can also find excellent medieval art and cultural artefacts at galleries and museums across the city. At the British Museum, two galleries are dedicated to early and medieval European history. Then there are the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, altar paintings thought to be from Westminster Abbey at the Museum of London, the National Gallery’s medieval painting collection and the British Library’s medieval manuscripts.

Once you’ve tired of exploring the medieval sites around the city, there’s myriad bars and pubs where you can stop for refreshments. Check out Evans & Peel in Earls Court - this bar has a detective agency theme, and to gain entry you are quizzed by a ‘private detective’ about the crime you want help solving. Bourne & Hollingsworth has the décor of an old-fashioned living room, while the Commercial Tavern in east London puts a twist on the traditional pub with quirky interiors and craft beer.

Discover London’s evolving food scene by starting your day with brunch. Head to Balham in south London, which has recently been transformed by an influx of restaurants and cafes. Try the baked eggs with butternut squash, fetta and crispy sage at Milk, or the brioche French-toast at nearby Brickwood. For dinner, Home Slice Pizza is worth a visit. The pizzas are gigantic with inventive toppings, and the wine comes in big carafes which, at the end of your meal, the staff measure up to see how much you have drunk.

There are three Sagar restaurants in London. They serve delicious South Indian vegetarian food and specialise in dosas (rice and lentil pancakes). The starters here are a highlight, especially the crunchy sev puri with tangy tamarind. For more unusual vegetarian, Vanilla Black is imaginative and the food is beautifully presented.

London is known for its poky hotel rooms, but good lodgings are available if you know where to look. History buffs should book a room at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel; the ornate Gothic-revival architecture is incredible and it retains the old-fashioned glamour of the great railway station hotels that sprung up in the 19th century. The Montague on the Gardens is near Russell Square,  in an elegant Georgian townhouse. The Rosewood by Holborn Station occupies a beautifully restored Edwardian mansion and is close to the British Museum.

Of course, the top destination for any visitor to London is the British Museum. Covering more than two million years of human history, it’s the most popular museum in the UK and its collection includes historical artefacts, the likes of which you can’t find anywhere else. They include the Rosetta Stone (considered the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics) and the Mold Gold Cape (a ceremonial cape, and one of the finest examples of prehistoric sheet-gold working).

With almost 6.7 million visitors a year, it’s busy, but more than worth waiting in the lines. Find some peace at the museum by seeking out galleries that not every visitor goes to - for example the clocks and watches gallery (rooms 38–39) and the Chinese ceramics gallery (room 95). Otherwise, get there early - the quietest time is around opening at 10am.

 

Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 8 million
Area 1,572 km²
Time Zone GMT 0
Languages English (official)
Currency Pound (£GBP)
Electricity 230V with 50Hz frequency. 240V may also be found although 230V is the official voltage
Share this article 
facebook Twitter Pinterest Google
Related Articles 
Over Ground
Forget the London Tube - step into the light and see a new side to England’s capital by taking the overground Ginger Line.
Painting the town: Bristol
The slogan is sprayed across the brick façade of an old shop on Stokes Croft in Bristol’s centre, a message for all who pass underneath to see.
Broadway Market, London
This area of east London wasn’t always the bustling food and shopping attraction it is today. We discover the market’s best produce.