This guide is aimed at newcomers to London, or those who've never ventured north of the river to explore the area's 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.
London's Museum Mile
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 even so 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, buses, 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 worlds 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 Gallery at Somerset House (closed for refurb until 2021), the UCL Museums (including the most excellent Grant Museum of Zoology) and the Brunei Gallery at SOAS, with collections from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. One of the best 'small' museums in London, The Foundling Museum, is also based here, telling the story of Britain's first home for babies and children at risk of abandonment . 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.
Cultural days out near Regent's Park
Continue west from Wellcome Collection and you'll brush the south side of Regent's Park. During the summer months, the Open Air Theatre is a magical way to spend an evening. Surrounded by tree tops and fairy lights, the programme tends towards the classics with the season usually hosting at least one Shakespeare play. A museum dedicated to Sherlock Holmes sits southwest of the park at 221B Baker Street — a big hit with tourists but often forgotten by Londoners. A snoop around the house is worth it if you're a fan, but try to avoid peak tourist season.
Music and history combine at the Royal Academy of Music Museum if you head back east on Marylebone Road, mixing permanent exhibits with temporary displays. Visit the first Wednesday of the month for a drop-in tour that shines a light on the collection.
Cultural days out in King's Cross
Thanks to a huge cash injection and a lot of hard work, the once ropey King's Cross has majorly cleaned up its act in the last few years. Excellent transport links mean that a host of creative businesses have set up shop in the newly-developed industrial spaces to the north of the station.
The Kings Place development is home 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. Piano Nobile Kings Place is the concept space for the main gallery in Holland Park, offering exhibitions primarily focused on modern art.
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 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, the school includes an exhibition space: during May, you can see the students’ foundation and degree shows. Outside, a public space the size of Trafalgar Square hosts a packed programme of events, including music and dance festivals and children’s activities. The illuminated fountains are a highlight, particularly after dark.
A tiered, turfed seating area leads down from Granary Square to the canal — a marvellous spot to sit, eat, people-watch and read, with occasional free cinema and Wimbledon screenings in the summer months. Forgot your book? Word on the Water is nearby and as charming as you'd expect from a floating bookshop on a barge.
Cultural days out in Islington
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 champions young talent and runs an annual ‘Sampled’ weekend to help people discover dance.
The nearby Almeida Theatre produces bold and challenging new work, punching well above its weight among the West End giants barely three miles away. 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. Pleasance Theatre, meanwhile, is big on comedy. It's the London contingent of a bigger Pleasance theatre complex in Edinburgh, meaning you're often treated to a host of Edinburgh Festival show previews before the summer.
Many will be familiar with the vast creative exhibition space at Upper Street’s Business Design Centre, home to the annual 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. Right next door, the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art is a non-profit gallery specialising in cutting-edge work from international artists. 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.
Cultural days out in Camden and north-west London
While the concentration gets a little lower, the quality remains high at our pick of arts venues in London's north-west 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 off Finchley Road hosts contemporary art shows. Alongside exhibitions, it runs an education programme including artists’ residencies.
Camden's Roundhouse is a melting pot of spoken word, installation art, music performance and cutting edge theatre. Plus, it's set in a Grade II listed, former railway shed and the space is just spectacular. Arts programmes are specially designed for 11-25 year olds to hone their skills cover music, performing arts, radio production and more.
The Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage and 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. 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 regularly open on Mondays but otherwise changes according to what's on show, so do check beforehand.
Cultural days out in Highgate
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, Jacksons Lane is a multi-disciplinary arts venue specialising in experimental theatre, contemporary dance and circus.
Finally, if it's a day of cultural escapism you're after, head to Kenwood House on the north-east corner of Hampstead Heath. The gardens are a peaceful haven all year-round (at their best in spring), but inside the stunning Georgian villa is a fine collection of art, including works by Rembrandt, Turner and Vermeer. One for art and architecture lovers, plus it's free.
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.
- A Beginner's Guide to South London's Cultural Gems
- A Beginner's Guide to East London's Cultural Gems
- A Beginner's Guide to West London's Cultural Gems
By Rob Kidd