This guide is aimed at newcomers to London, or those who've never ventured north of the river to explore the areas best museums, galleries and other cultural spaces.
We all know about the museums of South Kensington, art galleries of Mayfair and theatres in the West End, but that’s not all there is north of the river. There are plenty of lesser-known — but equally rewarding — cultural highlights off the tourist track. Read on for our guide to North London’s top cultural institutions.
You don’t have to travel far north of the Thames to find cultural institutions. The highest concentration is ‘Museum Mile’, a dense cluster of world-class museums between the river and Euston Road. The likes of the British Museum and British Library need little introduction, but are often overlooked by Londoners — when it’s on your doorstep, it’s so easy to take for granted.
More niche institutions in the group cover a range of subjects, and there’s one to suit every taste. You can learn about the history of the tube, busses, trams and taxis at London Transport Museum, or the ways of the Freemasons at their Library and Museum. Both are in Covent Garden. Step into the world of famous Londoners like Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin and Sir John Soane (the man who designed the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery) at their beautifully preserved homes.
Art lovers will find plenty to keep them entertained with the Courtauld Collection at Somerset House, the UCL Museums (with dresses from ancient Egypt and prints by Turner) and the Brunei Gallery at SOAS (with collections from Africa, Asia and the Middle East). If you prefer your art a bit less academic, the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury has a permanent collection of work from publications like Viz, The Beano and Private Eye, as well as historic cartoons. It also has an exhibition on satirical puppet show Spitting Image until 8 June. The brilliant Wellcome Collection on Euston Road is worth a special mention, showcasing cutting-edge art alongside gruesome shrunken heads and medical equipment from days gone by. It's currently undergoing a major refit, but some galleries remain open.
Thanks to a huge cash injection and a lot of hard work, the once ropey Kings Cross has cleaned up its act in the last few years. The Scala nightclub remains a local draw, but much else has changed. Thanks to excellent transport links and relatively cheap property prices, a host of creative businesses have colonised the newly-developed industrial spaces to the north of the station.
Opened in 2008, the Kings Place development is home to The Guardian newspaper, as well as an intimate performance venue staging classical, jazz and spoken word events. The building also houses two commercial art galleries. Pangolin Gallery specialises in contemporary sculpture; it recently staged a sculpture trail in and around the building with work from nearby Central St Martin’s students. The Kings Place Gallery hosts temporary and touring exhibitions from both established and up-and-coming artists. Right now, you can see The Lost World of Norman Cornish, a coal-miner-turned-artist, until 25 July.
Around the back, appropriately enough on the canalside, is the London Canal Museum. Housed in a former ice warehouse, the museum tells the story of London’s once-thriving waterways. Visitors can explore a narrowboat cabin and learn more about the lives of the people who used to work on the boats and the docks.
Across the road from Kings Place is the beautiful new Granary Square complex. Housed in a former grain warehouse, the building is now home to Central St Martins School of Art. As well as teaching facilities, Granary Square includes exhibition space: during May, you can see the students’ foundation and degree shows. Outside, a public space the size of Trafalgar Square plays host to a packed programme of events, including music and dance festivals and children’s activities. The illuminated fountains are a highlight, particularly after dark.
Other arts venues in the area include Gagosian Gallery, with large-scale sculpture by Giuseppe Penone until 31 May, and contemporary gallery Large Glass. Its current group show, Edge of the Seat, features chair-themed work by artists including Anthony Gormley and Phyllida Barlow.
Islington has long been a popular cultural destination, with its mix of performing and visual arts venues and a vibrant bar and restaurant scene.
Sadler’s Wells is considered by many to be Britain’s leading dance venue, with a packed programme of contemporary, ballet, flamenco, hip hop and plenty more besides. As well as staging work from major international choreographers like Matthew Bourne and Russell Maliphant, Sadler’s Wells also champions young talent and runs ‘Sampled’ events to help people discover dance.
The nearby Almeida Theatre produces bold and challenging new work, punching well above its weight with the West End giants barely three miles away. Current show King Charles III has sold out until the end of its run on 31 May (although you might get lucky and score tickets on the day). Forthcoming show Mr Burns, promising to be just as thought-provoking — and popular — opens 5 June. For those who prefer their theatre a bit more spit-and-sawdust, the Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar at Highbury Corner has a diverse programme of experimental theatre, cabaret and live comedy.
Many will be familiar with the vast creative exhibition space at Upper Street’s Business Design Centre, home to the London Art Fair. Islington also has a few hidden treasures that are well worth seeking out. Victoria Miro’s smart Wharf Road gallery has 17,000 square feet to display a diverse line-up of work from artists like Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Grayson Perry. You can see striking new pieces from Hernan Bas and Christian Holstad until the end of May. Right next door, the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art is a non-profit gallery specialising in cutting-edge work from international artists. Shezad Dawood’s large-scale paintings, sculptures and films are on display until 25 May. Finally, the Estorick Collection in Canonbury Square specialises in modern Italian art. Alongside the permanent collection of largely Futurist paintings and sculptures, a series of exhibitions runs throughout the year.
Camden and the northwest
While the concentration gets a little lower, the quality remains high at our pick of arts venues in the NW postcode area. Housed in a beautiful former Methodist chapel, the Zabludowicz Collection in Chalk Farm shows a changing programme of temporary exhibitions focusing on modern art. The Camden Arts Centre on Finchley Road hosts contemporary art shows; right now you can see Moyra Davey's photography and film work and ultra-modern sculptural installation from Philip Lai. Alongside exhibitions, it runs an education programme including artists’ residencies. You can see the results from current artists-in-residence Caroline Achaintre and Jesse Wine until the end of May and July respectively.
The Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage and the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn both commission and produce original, innovative new work, and both have seen plays transfer to the West End. Halfway between the two is the Ben Uri Gallery, now styled as the Art Museum for Everyone. Championing work by artists who explore themes of identity and migration, Ben Uri is a welcoming and inclusive gallery with an ambitious programme of exhibitions. It's closed Saturdays and Jewish holidays. You can see Roman Halter’s stunning stained glass here until 8 June.
Finally, Highgate Village’s cultural cup runneth over. The Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution (‘Hi’ for short — cute!) houses a library, members’ reading room and art gallery. It runs lectures, events, short courses and a film society. Just round the corner is Highgate Contemporary Art, a small gallery showcasing contemporary European painting and ceramics.
For theatrical types, Highgate has two thriving theatres. Upstairs at the Gatehouse is a playhouse above a pub. The in-house production company, Ovation, produces several shows a year, alongside work from other writers. Many of the plays and musicals first shown here go on to be seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Last but not least, Jackson’s Lane is a multi-disciplinary arts venue specialising in experimental theatre, contemporary dance and circus. It has no fewer than five different shows taking place throughout May.
What have we missed?
Of course there are more museums, galleries, theatres and other sites of cultural interest than we’ve got room to mention here — this is our list of favourites, with hopefully a few you might not have heard of. There were plenty of brilliant places that didn’t quite make the North London list — places as varied as the Arsenal Football Club Museum, artsdepot and the many local museums. Let us know your favourites.
Future articles will cover east and west London.
By Rob Kidd