Top 10 Tips for Enjoying London Culture
London’s so big and there’s so much going on that it can be difficult to keep up to speed with what’s what, especially if it’s your first visit.
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So we’ve made a handy little guide to help you get the most out of London’s thriving cultural offerings without spending more than you need to.
It’s always worth making sure you’re giving yourself the best chance to see everything you want to over your stay, and a little planning can make a big difference to how much free time you have (as well as saving you a bit of money!).
1. Free museums
London’s museums are almost universally free, which is absolutely excellent! (Donations are welcome but not obligatory.) There are some exceptions though, and it’s always worth checking to see if where you’re going is free or not.
The biggest, such as the Natural History, Science, Victoria and Albert (V&A), Tate galleries, British Museum and National galleries are all gratis, but exhibitions within them (particularly visiting exhibitions) are ticketed.
If you do want to see an exhibition, it’s worth trying to buy your tickets in advance, especially if it’s a popular one. We’ve made the mistake of assuming an exhibition won’t get busy and wasted half a day standing in a queue. Don’t let it happen to you!
Smaller museums are far likelier to have an entrance fee, but it’s usually nominal and helps stay open (as smaller museums are less likely to receive subsidy). If you can, Gift Aid your entrance fee to these museums, as it makes your money tax free for them!
Sadly, things like ice-skating outside the Natural History Museum are not free.
2. What’s walking distance
A big money (and time) saver in London is avoiding public transport. It’s great if you’ve got a big distance to travel or can’t be bothered to walk, but lots of people – Londoners included – make the mistake of getting public transport to go very short distances.
For example, the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, V&A, Royal Albert Halls and Hyde Park are all within striking distance of each other, and Cadogan Halls, the Royal Court Theatre and Kings Road are a short walk from here. That’s a big day out right there, without needing to get on a tube at all!
There are areas that are particularly good for seeing many cultural sights in one day. Others include Holborn, the Southbank, Shoreditch and Greenwich. Knowing before you step out how far things are from each other is really useful, and you get to see some lovely architecture and get some exercise at the same time!
3. Smaller venues
A lot of London’s most famous cultural attractions are huge because they’re so popular. But London has been a busy, bustling city for thousands of years and the very streets are historic.
So it’s not surprising that there are hundreds and hundreds of small venues – galleries, theatres, music venues and so on – that don’t get the advertising space they deserve.
There are too many to list here, but we want to draw special attention to things such as the Museum of London (which is reasonably big), Samuel Johnson’s House, Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Geffrye Museum and the Victorian Operating Theatre Museum.
Smaller theatres include the Arcola, the Finborough, the White Bear, the Oval House, Arts Depot, the Rose Bankside, the Space and many more.
4. Standing tickets/cheap tickets
Why pay full price when you absolutely don’t have to?! A lot of venues do discount tickets, and a lot have generous concessions.
If you’re a student, over 60 or disabled then there are usually some sort of concession. But if you’re not, there’s absolutely no need to worry. The National Theatre offer tickets for £10 (and £5 standing), Shakespeare’s Globe offer standing tickets for £5 and smaller venues will rarely charge over £15 for a ticket.
Keep your eye out in magazines and on the underground, as discount codes to certain attractions are offered now and again.
Do some research and see if there’s a discount for buying tickets in advance online. There usually isn’t, but it’s always good to check as you might be pleasantly surprised.
If you’re in the lucky position of being a union member, then ask if there are union discounts (the NT has excellent rates for members of Equity, the MU and BECTU). There are also occasionally discounts for members of the armed forces.
5. Good theatres
You may love musical theatre. It might be your favourite thing in the world, and a musical about Abba set on a Greek island is all you could possibly want in the world.
But we’re guessing that this isn’t the case. Big musicals make big money and you don’t have to spend £70 a ticket to have a great theatre experience. There are many small theatres that offer fantastic new writing and daring takes on existing plays that will provoke you in a way that Spamalot certainly won’t.
The top of these are those mentioned above, and we’d add to that the Young Vic (and Old Vic), the Waterloo East Theatre, the Trafalgar Studios, the Hampstead Theatre, the Gatehouse, The Bush Theatre, the Gate Theatre and many more.
Going to a big theatre needn’t cost the earth either. The National Theatre is very cheap and offers some of the best theatre in the country. So does the Barbican Centre, the Roundhouse and the Globe.
6. Free concerts/gigs
There are some places where you don’t even need to pay to see world-class entertainment. BBC Radio 3 offer tickets to their daily concerts at the Cadogan Halls online, however these are applications and you’re not guaranteed a ticket.
All of the students coming out of prestigious musical colleges need to get their performances as tight as possible, and places such as Guildhall, the Royal Academy and many others offer free concerts. This is doubly good as you’re guaranteed to be watching the musical stars of tomorrow cutting their teeth in the industry.
It can be challenging to find out which venue’s live music is the best without sampling it all for yourself. If you’re going to be in London for a while, we absolutely advocate this approach, as factors such as whether you like the décor or whether or not they serve your favourite beer will be crucial.
But if you’ve not got long, there can be thorny issues with finding good, free live music. Most pubs won’t promote it online and it’s something you need to know about in advance.
If you don’t mind parting with a small amount of cash (£5), then Ronnie Scott’s do a spectacular jam night on Sunday’s and Wednesdays.
We recommend checking out our listings to find the best live music near you.
7. History on foot
As we’ve stated above, London’s a pretty historic city. It’s been home to people for thousands of years continually and has played host to our monarchs and most notable persons since the capital moved here from Winchester.
It’s grown bit by bit over the centuries, which means there are some fantastically old buildings situated next to some spangling new ones. The old buildings are, to us, the more impressive but it’s certainly whatever suits your tastes that matters.
So walk around! This is a free way of getting to know London intimately and taking in some really beautiful sights along the way. Discover London’s canal networks, historic pubs and wonderful parkland – and save money at the same time!
8. Cultural centres (e.g. York Place)
London has a few cultural hubs that are designed simply for you to gorge yourself on the arts until you burst.
York Place in Kings Cross is one such venue. Home to the offices of the Guardian newspaper, the venue offers some of the best in avant-garde theatre, music (classical, jazz and world). The Barbican Centre is another absolutely amazing venue, with gallery spaces, music, theatre, talks and demonstrations going on more or less round the clock.
The Southbank is basically a centre in and of itself (we’re not talking about the Southbank Centre, though that’s great too). There’s the National Theatre, the Haywood Gallery, the Festival Halls, the BFI, Southbank Centre and much more all on one beautiful stretch of river.
A lot of these have lots of free stuff going on alongside their normal programme.
While festivals tend to bring up images of being knee-deep in mud and unable to speak or do anything except dance, there are other variants on this theme.
London hosts a huge range of festivals every year, and if you’re around for them then it’s a great way to get to pack a lot of culture into a small space of time.
There are food festivals, music festivals of all variety, religious festivals, secular festivals, theatre festivals and even a chocolate festival. There are wine and beer festivals, architecture festivals and art festivals; there’s probably a festival for everything going on somewhere in London.
Check out our listings to make sure you’ve got the best information you can about which festivals are on, or just search for what’s to your taste followed by “festival London” and you’re bound to find something!
10. Where to stay for culture
We reckon that near London Bridge or Borough is the very best place to be for culture. This is because you’re right next to the Southbank, with its reams and reams of cultural venues (National Theatre, Southbank Centre, Tate Modern, Globe) as well as the historic Borough, with its world-famous market and a host of smaller museums (and great pubs).
Moreover, it’s very easy to get from London Bridge to just about anywhere else in London (as well as anywhere in the south of England!) due to the huge train and tube stations and bus hub.
TravelStay have a host of fantastic hotels, B&Bs and hostels in this area, so get booking for the best budget cultural holiday of your life!
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