Oh London, the city of taste-making fashion, global foods and jaw-dropping art, dahlink. A trip to London, whether a weekend minibreak or a longer adventure, is always going to be a glorious dash across the capital experiencing as much as possible. Yet, trying to sample all that London has to offer is, well, expensive. Our local insiders have rounded up the list of the best free art galleries and museums that the Big Smoke has to offer. Go forth and be cultured!
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2017 heralded the first-ever museum dedicated to all things vagina, female reproduction and gynaecological health. “2017!” we hear you cry, we know. Located in the Stables, in the heart of bustling Camden, you’ll find art, sculpture and a rotating series of showcases and events dedicated to all the things you wish you had been taught in school. It’s a great place to visit with your best girlfriends before heading to a Camden watering hole to toast the success of yourself or the wonderful females in your life. Recommended by local insider Alyson Parkes
Close to Baker Street station and established in 1967, the Lisson Gallery has grown to become one of the most influential galleries in the world. Supporting more than 60 international artists, and with sister galleries in New York and Shanghai, the exhibitions here are varied and prolific. With a second gallery over the road, you get two exhibitions for your buck – and it’s free, so you’re really getting your money’s worth. Check ahead to see who is exhibiting, but expect some standout British contemporary art. Recommended by local insider Huda Awan
The London Sewing Machine Museum
This mecca for sewing enthusiasts, located in the Wimbledon Sewing Machine Warehouse, is where you’ll find a whopping 600 sewing machines dating back hundreds of years. With a much prized machine, previously owned by Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, as well as one of the first sewing machines ever invented, an afternoon here is steeped in history. Informative talks are given to visitors by a diehard sewing fan who takes you on a journey through the notable machines. The museum is only open one Saturday a month, so make sure you time your visit right. Recommended by local insider Alyson Parkes
Lofty ceilings, gentle light and oodles of classic white space – with sister galleries worldwide (Paris, New York and Beijing), the team behind Pace know what they’re doing. Found right in the heart of things near Piccadilly, a stone’s throw from Marylebone and just along from Oxford Circus, Pace is easy to fit into a day’s itinerary. Recent exhibitions include James Turrell’s Materiality of Light and Chinese artist Song Dong’s Biscuit City, in which viewers were invited to eat the city. Sounds like our kind of exhibition. Recommended by local insider Huda Awan
Newport Street Gallery
Ever wanted to glimpse inside the mind of Damien Hirst? You – kind of – get the chance to at Newport Street Gallery. With exhibitions showcasing art from his personal collection, it is well worth a visit, even just for the unique concept of the café, based around the artist’s 1992 work Pharmacy. Located in a quiet enclave in Vauxhall, the gallery is a former scenery-painting studio renovated to house some astonishing pieces of art from big names in the art world. And all for free. Recommended by local insider Josh Lee
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Amelia Edwards was a big fan of all things Egypt, and she set up this homage to Egyptian archaeology back in 1892, naming it after the prolific excavator Flinders Petrie. The museum houses an extraordinary collection of minutiae documenting everyday life as an Egyptian. Amulets, pots, tools, jewellery, fragments of pottery and household items give incredible insight. The museum also has an impressive amount of Roman mummy portraits and pyramid texts. Recommended by local insider Huda Awan
Whitechapel Gallery is known for hosting groundbreaking thematic exhibitions and retrospectives of formidable artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Sarah Lucas. Originally launched to bring art and culture to the Whitechapel community, it continues to present an engaging exhibition and education programme, including the annual Whitechapel Open, which champions new artists. Over the years this space has helped introduce Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Frida Kahlo to a London audience. Recommended by local insider Josh Lee
South London Gallery
Known for its cutting-edge exhibitions, installations and live art and film events, SLG, which dates back to the 19th century, showcases established British and international figures, as well as emerging artists. In 2016, Gabriel Orozco redesigned the gallery’s rear garden, and in September 2018, SLG expanded across the road into the Fire Station, a converted Grade II-listed Victorian building that provided additional galleries, education rooms, a community kitchen and an archive space. The stunning architecture of this building is alone worth a visit. Recommended by local insider Josh Lee
Tate Modern’s collection of international modern and contemporary art attracts millions of visitors every year eager to discover art movements and artistic practices documented by the permanent collection. This collection includes Pablo Picasso’s vividly powerful Weeping Woman, Salvador Dalí’s brilliantly surreal Lobster Telephone and Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals presented in a specially lit room. Since opening, the expansive Turbine Hall has showcased some major artist commissions, including Olafur Eliasson’s mesmerising The Weather Project and Ai Weiwei’s epic Sunflower Seeds.
The National Gallery
Overlooking the hubbub of Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery houses an impressive art collection spanning from the mid-13th century to the 20th, with more than 2,300 works range from the early Renaissance through to Old Masters and important examples of Impressionism. Highlights include Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Diego Veláquez’s The Rokeby Venus, and JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The largest decorative arts and design museum in the world, the V&A galleries give you a tour of the world through ancient sculptures, a world-famous fashion collection, antiquities from Asia and a brand new Photography Centre. The exceptional interiors of the café were designed by James Gamble, William Morris and Edward Poynter, complete with stained-glass windows, painted tiles and elaborate decorative mouldings. And the building’s Italian Renaissance facade, visible from the John Madejski Garden, is a sight to behold.
The Wallace Collection
The Wallace Collection, in Hertford House, a grand 19th-century townhouse on Manchester Square and the former residence of the Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, now plays host to the family’s extraordinary collection of art and artefacts. It features exquisite examples of Urbino maiolica and Sèvres porcelain, miniatures kept in covered cases and imperious armoury on the ground floor. But the star attraction is the collection of works by European artists such as François Boucher, Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Most notable are The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals and The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Camden Arts Centre
Housed in the old Hampstead Central Library on Finchley Road, Camden Arts Centre began life as a local initiative, providing art classes for the community. Now, it is a powerhouse of contemporary art showing ambitious exhibitions by well-known British and international artists such as Kara Walker, Rose English, Ben Rivers and Jennifer Tee. The bookshop stocks a range of artist’s editions, and the garden is the perfect spot for a sunny afternoon.
Situated in the leafy splendour of Kensington Gardens, the Serpentine presents an innovative contemporary art exhibition programme by established and emerging international artists. The first gallery opened in 1970, in a former tea house on the south side of the Serpentine lake. In 2013, the Sackler Gallery opened in a former gunpowder store with the late Zaha Hadid designing the futuristic restaurant extension. In addition to the hugely popular free exhibitions, which have included Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours and Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, are the temporary architecture pavilions staged on the Serpentine Gallery lawn every summer.
Located on the former site of the Millbank prison, Tate Britain offers one of the most comprehensive collections of historical British art from 1500 to the present day. Founded by Sir Henry Tate, of global sugar brand Tate & Lyle, the striking Neoclassical gallery boasts the world’s largest collection of works by JMW Turner as well as impressive pieces by William Hogarth, William Blake, Angelica Kauffman, John Constable, Richard Dadd, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. The gallery is located on the River Thames, and you can take a scenic ride on the Tate Boat to its sister gallery, Tate Modern.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery presents a who’s who of British history. Located just behind the National Gallery, it houses a remarkable collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs, miniatures and works on paper, and takes visitors on a unique journey through British history featuring Tudor kings and queens all the way up to contemporary artists and actors. Some of the masters of portraiture on display include Hans Holbein, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Paula Rego.
Former adman Charles Saatchi initially opened a gallery in a disused paint factory in St John’s Wood in 1985 to show off his impressive personal art collection. However, by the early ’90s, Saatchi was championing Young British Artists (YBAs) such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin and knew he needed extra room. His gallery can now be found in the enormous Neoclassical Duke of York’s HQ just off the Kings Road. Over the years, Saatchi’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist and spot the stars of the future means that the gallery’s free blockbuster art exhibitions are unmissable.
Just across the canal from Victoria Park, the Chisenhale Gallery made its name when it began exhibiting a range of innovative young artists in the 1990s, including Wolfgang Tillmans, Gillian Wearing and Rachel Whiteread. Keen to engage dynamic artistic practices and a diverse audience, the team at Chisenhale continue to commission and produce exhibitions by emerging talent alongside hosting ambitious educational and mentoring programmes.
Ben Uri Gallery
It has been more than 100 years since the Ben Uri Gallery began its quest to represent the artistic history of migrant identity in all its myriad forms. Originally founded in Whitechapel by immigrant Russian artist Lazar Berson, the collection is broadly focused on artists of European Jewish ancestry, including Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg and Mark Gertler. However, the scope of work in this unassuming space has grown to encompass artists from different migrant communities around the world.
The Zabludowicz Collection is housed in a former Methodist chapel and has a specific focus on emerging artists. Here, you’ll encounter progressive group shows, immersive video installations by artists like Rachel Maclean and duo Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin, and pioneering performative practices by artists such as Donna Huanca and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd.
Doing London on a budget? Book one of the best budget hotels in the city centre through Culture Trip and see the city without breaking the bank.
James Chesley and Holly Black contributed additional reporting to this article. This is an update of an article by Freire Barnes.
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