Last Updated on May 6, 2022 by Jim Ferri
The incredible museums of London’s South Kensington…
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
By Jim Ferri
On a flight into London’s Heathrow, our final approach took us up the Thames, providing a spectacular view of the British capital on a clear morning.
Everyone aboard, or, at least those of us with window seats, could clearly see Parliament, Buckingham, the Eye, and many of the city’s other famous landmarks. But the area that drew my attention was South Kensington, that tony neighborhood clinging to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens’ southern perimeter.
On past visits, I had visited South Kensington several times during my walks about the city. But I only spent a few hours in the Victoria and Albert Museum, never focusing on anything beyond. The V&A, as locals affectionately refer to it, is clearly one of my favorites.
However, this time, I intended to spread my wings a bit and see more of South Kensington’s museums. My plan was to limit myself to only an hour or two in the V&A. Then, I would stroll about the neighborhood and unearth a few more local treasures.
Since the V&A was just a few blocks from my hotel up Cromwell Road, I was on its steps at the next morning’s opening. It turned out to be the start of a gratifying day.
The Victoria and Albert, the Premier Museum of South Kensington
The V&A houses one of the most spectacular collections globally, a stunning assemblage of art and design, especially the pieces relating to Britain’s history of design and decoration. Like the other museums listed below, a visit here is one of the best things to do in London any time of year.
It contains numerous galleries devoted to art treasures worldwide, from fashion to architecture to furniture design. One of the most popular exhibits is the British Galleries. One of its displays is The Great Bed of Ware, referred to by Shakespeare in the Twelfth Night.
Since the V&A is a vast place that can take days to visit, so it’s best to choose a few areas of interest, or you’ll find yourself overwhelmed. And because of its size, it’s also good to plan to have lunch there.
But the cafe further back is much more comfortable and upscale. In fact, it’s an incredible and beautiful place to dine, with two distinct dining areas. It contains a few statues and other art, likely pinched from the museum’s collection to spiff things up. There’s also a greater variety of food, including sandwiches, salads, and hot meals, plus beer and wine.
After a couple of hours in my old haunts, I exited on the building’s Exhibition Road side. I was intent on visiting the Natural History Museum, just across the road. Walking along the sidewalk, I was surprised to see bits of bomb damage sustained by the V&A in WWII. It was left as “a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict.”
If You Go:
Victoria and Albert Museum
London SW7 2RL
Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 2000
Admission: free, although the museum is temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Normally open daily 10:00 am – 5:45 pm; Friday 10.00 am – 10:00 pm.
Nearest Underground stations are South Kensington (5-minute walk) and Gloucester Road (10-minute walk).
Natural History Museum
The castle-like Natural History Museum is true to its name, providing a good understanding of earth and our life on it. I visited the dinosaur animatronic area, the beautiful Visions of Earth gallery, and the earthquake room, among many other exhibits.
Like the V&A, there’s so much here you’ll be mesmerized for hours. The museum’s collection contains 80 million specimens spanning 4.5 billion years. And even though it’s often filled with school groups during the week, it’s a fascinating place, nonetheless.
The museum was initially intended as a repository of things brought back to London by famous explorers, botanists, etc. These included Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks (Captain Cook’s botanist), and others. It’s a fascinating place with the type of exhibits you’d expect in a natural history museum, but also hands-on exhibits.
The Natural History Museum also has a good restaurant. Oddly enough, though, it’s located right next to the very popular Creepy Crawler exhibit. Its food is good and the cost reasonable, at least by London standards. Unlike the V&A, where you order deli-style, here you order from the cashier, and it’s brought to your table. Although crowded on weekends and holidays, at midweek, there is often no wait at all.
If You Go:
Natural History Museum
South Kensington, London SW7 5BD
Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5000
Admission: free, although the museum is temporarily closed due to the pandemic. It’s usually open daily 10:00am – 5:50pm and open late on the last Friday of each month.
Nearest Underground stations are South Kensington (a 5-minute walk) and Gloucester Road (10-minute walk).
The Science Museum in South Kensington
Behind the Natural History Museum – nestled between it and the Royal College of Music – is the much smaller Science Museum. I visited it late in the afternoon after the Natural History Museum. Pay it a visit; you’ll likely love it.
The museum’s focus is on technological and scientific developments through the centuries through its many exhibits. In fact, it’s packed to the rafters with more than a thousand interactive displays. In it, I discovered many exciting exhibits relating to flight, medicine, energy, and numerous other scientific areas. You’ll find everything here from steam engines to spacecraft, ancient looms to the Apollo 10 Command Module. There’s even a steel wedding dress.
If you decide to include lunch as part of your visit, you’ll find two cafés and a few smaller ones. Interestingly, you can also bring your own food to be consumed in designated “picnic” areas.
If You Go:
The Science Museum
South Kensington, London SW7 2DD
Tel: +44 (0)800 047 8124
Admission: free, although the museum is temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Normally open daily 10:00am – 7:00pm.
The nearest Underground station is South Kensington, only a five-minute walk to the museum.
Another Gem in South Kensignton: Brompton Oratory
A two-minute walk from the V&A, you’ll find the Brompton Oratory at the intersection of Brompton and Cromwell Roads. Although it’s not a museum, per se, it’s a monument to the revival of Catholicism in England in the late 19th century.
Step inside, and you’ll discover a church of stunning Italianate splendor, totally incongruent with its gray exterior on Cromwell Road. Masses and music recitals are still held here. Walk over and take a peek inside.
I actually found the oratory before I visited the V&A. I went to the museum an hour early because I wanted to poke around the neighborhood to see what I might stumble upon. That’s also how I came upon Cottage Place, an aptly named little grass-lined thoroughfare which looked as if it was plucked from the countryside. Continue past the Oratory along Brompton Road, and you’ll find it in a minute or two.
If it’s near lunch or dinnertime, you’ll find plenty of restaurants and pubs scattered all about South Kensington. Or, if you rather walk the mile or so up to Harrods, you can lunch in one of its 25 high-end restaurants, cafes, and teashops.
If You Go:
Brompton Road, London, SW7 2RP
Tel: +44 020 78080900
Admission: free. The church is open from 6:30am.
The nearest Underground stations are South Kensington and Knightsbridge.