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.
You 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 the southern perimeter of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
On past visits I had visited South Kensington only to spend a few hours in the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of my favorites, never focusing on anything beyond. This time, however, I intended to spread my wings a bit and see many of the museums of South Kensington.
My plan was to spend only an hour or two in the V&A and then traipse about the neighborhood and unearth a few more local treasures. It turned out to be a very rewarding day.
The Victoria and Albert, the Premier Museum of South Kensington
The next morning I returned to the spectacular Victoria and Albert, just a few blocks from my hotel up Cromwell. The V&A houses one of the most spectacular collections in the world, a stunning assemblage of art and design, especially the pieces relating to the history of design and decoration in Britain.
It also contains myriad galleries devoted to art treasures from all over the world, from fashion to architecture to furniture design. One of the most popular exhibits in the British Galleries is The Great Bed of Ware, referred to by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night.
It’s a huge place that can take days to wander about so it’s best to choose a few areas of interest to visit or you’ll find yourself overwhelmed. And because of its size it’s also good to plan to have lunch there.
This museum in South Kensington has a small open-air coffee shop in the plaza in the rear of the museum (coffee, cakes and muffins, juices and water, sandwiches, etc.) and another coffee shop upstairs.
But the small dining facility further back is much more comfortable with a few statues borrowed from the museum spiffing things up, with two distinct dining areas and a greater variety of food including sandwiches, salads and hot meals, plus beer and wine.
Natural History Museum
After a couple of hours in my old haunts I exited on the Exhibition Road side of the building and crossed over to another museum treasure in South Kensington, the Natural History Museum, just across the road. Walking along the sidewalk I was surprised that I could still see bits of bomb damage sustained by the building in WWII.
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, and even though it’s often filled with school groups during the week, it’s a fascinating place nonetheless.
The Natural History Museum also has a good restaurant, though somewhat oddly located right next to the very popular Creepy Crawler exhibit. Its food is good and the cost reasonable, at least by London standards, and unlike the V&A where you order deli-style, here you order from the cashier and it’s brought to your table by a waiter. Although crowded on weekends and holidays, at midweek there is often no wait at all.
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, which I visited late in the afternoon. In it I discovered many interesting exhibits relating to flight, medicine, energy and numerous other areas, as well as more than a thousand interactive displays.
Although not often frequented by tourists, its size belies the breadth of its collection, which contains everything from steam engines to spacecraft to a steel wedding dress. Although admission is free you need to buy a ticket for the IMAX Theatre and its flight simulators.
If you decide to include lunch as part of your visit, you’ll find two main cafés and a few smaller ones. Interestingly, you can also bring your own food to be consumed in the designated “picnic” areas.
Cottage Lane and Brompton Oratory
At the start if the day, I spent an hour before the V&A opened walking along Brompton Road, poking about the neighborhood to see what I might stumble upon. That’s how I came across Cottage Lane, an aptly named little grass-lined thoroughfare which looked as if it was plucked from the countryside.
Adjacent to it is Brompton Oratory, a monument to the revival of Catholicism in England in the late 19th century. Inside I was stunned to find another of South Kensington’s little surprises, a church of Italianate splendor, totally incongruent with its dreary exterior on Cromwell Road.
Also In the Neighborhood
Nearby are the Royal College of Music (with its Museum of Musical Instruments, some played by masters such as Haydn and Handel), the Royal College of Art (which holds regular exhibitions) and Royal Albert Hall (everything from rock to classical concerts). The Albert Memorial is a few blocks away on the edge of Kensington Gardens and Kensington Palace.
There are also plenty of other restaurants 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:
Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London
Open daily 10:00 am – 5:45 pm; Friday 10.00 am – 10:00 pm
Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road, London
Open daily 10:00am – 5:50pm; open late on the last Friday of each month
Exhibition Road, London
Open daily 10:00am – 7:00pm