Welcome to our pick of the best London exhibitions to see right now. We've split the list into London regions to make it easier to navigate. Due to social distancing requirements, advance booking is required for many of the exhibitions.
Exhibitions in South London
OUT OF THIS WORLD: Blazing nebulae, beautiful star trails — and the moon pierced by The Shard. Astronomy Photographer of the Year is back to blow our minds with such images as a man ascending a ladder, as if climbing into the firmament; and Saturn peeking out from behind the moon. Every year, I leave this exhibition feeling insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe.
Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year at National Maritime Museum. Until 8 August, £10. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
DOUBLE EXPOSURE: What's it like to live at sea, or an Antarctic research station? Photographs reveal the unforgiving nature of such extremes: from a man barely visible inside a wave of ocean spray, to a woman greeting the sun after months of darkness. These fantastic photographs are a window into a life most of us don't know about (and are unlikely to experience). Just the thought of intermittent internet puts me right off...
Exposure: Lives at Sea at National Maritime Museum. Until late 2021, free. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
SCREAMING HEADS: Art is beautiful and inspiring right? Not if you're Bruce Nauman. He likes to focus on the mundane, the inane and the disturbing. Heads spin and scream; I spy myself on a monitor but the recording disappears before I can get a good look. The more I see of Nauman's work, the more it resonates with me as art that captures an important part of our lives; after all, without these moments, we wouldn't be able to enjoy the good times.
Bruce Nauman at Tate Modern. Until 21 February, £13. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
POWERFUL PHOTOS: From beauty queens on a beach, to the scars of horrific hate crimes, Zanele Muholi's photography looks at the experiences of black queer and trans persons in South Africa. It's a powerful political exhibition that celebrates this community, while exposing the horrific violence and stigma faced within the country. I felt all the emotions walking through this important exhibition, which reminds us that human civilisation has a long way to go before it can live up to its name.
Zanele Muholi at Tate Modern. Until 7 March, £13. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
A SLICED UP SHARK: There are plenty of dead things in this exhibition — it's Damien Hirst, what were you expecting? A sliced up shark, and butterflies embedded into paintings are present in what feels like a best of compilation. Hirst's magnum opus is a set of vitrines where flies are born, feed on a severed cow's head and get zapped by an insect-o-cutor in a macabre artwork that's the circle of life in a microcosm. This is the artist at his best and most shocking.
Damien Hirst: End of a Century at Newport Street Gallery. Until 7 March, free. ★★★★☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
Exhibitions in West London
STRING ART THEORY: Anyone who experiences a Chiharu Shiota exhibition is unlikely to forget it, and that statement stands for this breathtakingly beautiful exhibition, in which boats appear to float within a web of string. Surrounded by smaller string-wrapped items, such as an ornate mirror, this is like stepping into someone else's dreams. The only downside is that at some point you have to leave; the real world feels rather drab by comparison.
Chiharu Shiota: Navigating the Unknown at König London. Until 19 December, free. ★★★★☆ (Wednesday-Saturday)
DELIGHTFUL DESIGNS: This exhibition remembers a (just) pre-Covid world, looking back at some inspired designs, including a wheelie trolley made from old trainers, steak that can be cultured from our own cells (yum), and the iconic Union Jack stab vest worn by Stormzy for his Glastonbury 2019 set. It's a reminder of some of humanity's brilliant achievements — and a dose of optimism that's needed now more than ever.
Beazley Designs of the Year at Design Museum. Until 28 March 2021, £12. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
THINK PINK: To celebrate 300 years since its creation, the Octagon room — now part of Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham — is throwing a contemporary banquet. And a fluorescent pink one at that. Artist collective Alice in Hackneyland have created an elaborate 'feast' on a table with knowing nods to the venue's history. The artist collective's ethos is to make art for children, and there's an optical illusion room where you can stand at opposite ends of a room where one of you will appear small, and the other large. It's art that's accessible, creative and perfectly adapted to the venue; a feast for eyes and mind.
Alice in Hackneyland: Octagon 300 at Orleans House Gallery. Until 21 March 2021, free. ★★★★★ (Tuesday-Sunday)
TRAIN SPOTTING: It's time to chug into the world of model trains; these models on display at Science Museum all have stories attached to them. In a lovely touch, one engine has Arabic script on one side and English on the other in reference to the fact it was used to sell the full scale versions to Egypt. Lockdown may have made many of us take up crafty hobbies, but we can only hope to make creations as magnificent as these — especially as some are a century old and still in remarkably good nick.
Brass, Steel and Fire at Science Museum. Until 3 May 2021, free. ★★★★☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
REALLY WILD SHOW: An eagle and a snake have a face-off; a mud-caked hippo emerges from its bath; and it takes us a second to spot a lion hidden in the grass. One of our favourite annual exhibitions is back, and it's full of stirring moments. Sadly, many involve humanity's impact on wildlife — like the elephant made to pose for tourist selfies, and a whale whose tail has been cleaved off by a propeller. Still, another vintage year for this ever-popular exhibition.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year at Natural History Museum. Until 6 June, £14.95. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
BLACK, BOLD & BRILLIANT: If you want to see a contemporary artist who really knows how to paint a portrait, visit Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's exhibition at Tate Britain. All her sitters are fictional, which makes these confident portrayals all the more impressive. There are no labels and no descriptions, but each painting (every one of them featuring people of colour) is a strong enough statement by itself.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night at Tate Britain. Until 9 May, £13. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
Exhibitions in East London
ROLLING ORANGES: From a solitary man lost in thought, to a huge assembly of human forms, Andrew Salgado's paintings of figures return in an exhibition that's bursting with colour. The addition of a bright red carpet and oranges rolling around the floor (you can gently kick them about) makes for a gallery of painterly delights that will brighten up the dreariest winter day.
Andrew Salgado: Strange Weather at Beers London. Until 19 December, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
Exhibitions in Central London
CHILDREN & COVID: See how children have drawn over letters sent to their household by the government at the start of the pandemic. There's plenty of playful abstract work, and lots of love for the NHS. Older children are far more politically aware than I ever was at their age (and staunchly anti-Tory), but given the exhibition was organised by fashion designer Jonny Banger and curated by artist Jeremy Deller, two men with strong left wing views, it was only ever going to go lean one way. Which rather takes the shine off a lovely concept.
The Covid Letters: A Vital Update at The Foundling Museum. Until 11 April, £9.50 ★★★☆☆ (Friday-Sunday)
SWEET SINNERS: 'Repent and sin no more' declares an Andy Warhol painting, on entering this free exhibition at the National Gallery, charting how sin has been depicted throughout art history. Works range from a scandalous Bronzino, where Cupid fondles and kisses his mother (complete with tongues), to Tracey Emin's ambiguous 'It was just a kiss' in neon. (Who did she kiss? Was it meaningless? Is this an apology?) A delicious taste of sin, which tempts us to seek out more of the same in the permanent collection
Sin at The National Gallery. Until 3 January, free. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
CHILDLIKE WONDERMENT: The National Gallery hosts an annual exhibition where they focus on one picture to see how primary school children are inspired by it. This year it's a George Bellows painting of men working on a dock with the New York skyline in the background. It's great to see how diversely children have taken on the theme, from dioramas to collages — and from recreating the skyline to imagining the thoughts of the dock workers. No masterpieces here perhaps, but this is what we should be doing — inspiring future generations of artists.
Take One Picture 2020 at The National Gallery. Until 31 January, free. ★★★☆☆ (Open daily)
PAST MEETS FUTURE: From an architectural model of Apple's new Silicon Valley headquarters to the flight paths of airlines etched across a globe, artist duo Langlands & Bell take on major world issues about how technology is changing the world. Their work is scattered throughout the treasure trove that is John Soane's Museum — though the contrast of contemporary ideas and the superb museum collection don't have an obvious link.
Langlands & Bell: Degrees of Truth at John Soane's Museum. Until 3 January, free. ★★★☆☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
MASTERPIECES GALORE: One of the finest collections of Old Master paintings normally resides in Buckingham Palace. The problem is that with all those blinging interiors distracting us, it's hard to really appreciate them. Not so any more, as many of the highlights are now hanging in the Queen's Gallery. Masterpieces include portraits by Rembrandt, a beautifully lit interior by Vermeer and views of Venice by Canaletto. If classical painting is your vibe, you'll be in art heaven.
Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace at The Queen's Gallery. Until 31 January 2022, £16. ★★★★☆ (Thursday-Monday)
AUGMENTED ART: These abstract paintings truly come to life once you're handed an iPad by the gallery staff and you can watch them twist, mutate and grow. It's a fabulous use of augmented reality, and a great way to inaugurate this huge new gallery space on Cork Street — even if the paintings themselves didn't give me that much more than their technological wizardry.
Pascal Sender at Saatchi Yates. Until 20 December, free. ★★★☆☆ (Open daily)
WARTIME LONDON: Nestled in the Churchill War Rooms is a new display of artworks showing London during World War II, including Henry Moore's intimate depiction of two women and a child huddling in a shelter; Eric Ravilious' ethereally lit interiors of the Ministry of Home Security; and Leila Faithfull's expressive VE Day celebrations. It's a small show, but the perfect setting. And with tourists not yet returning to London in numbers, it's a chance to see this museum without the crowds — perfect if it's been on your list to visit.
Wartime London: Art of the Blitz at Churchill War Rooms. Until 30 April 2021, £22. (includes general admission) ★★★☆☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
Exhibitions in North London
SUPER SENSUAL: A giant golden phallic corn on the cob, fountains in the shape of breasts and a sensual opera at the heart of it. Trulee Hall’s installation at Zabludowicz Collection is completely over the top and it's best to give in, and get lost in the artist's bonkers world. Granted, I may not have fully been able to grasp all the concepts in play but I did enjoy the mad ride.
Trulee Hall at Zabludowicz Collection. Until 14 March, free. ★★★☆☆ (Thursday-Sunday)