The cliches of constant rain and gloom are quickly banished when you visit London in the summer. While all the tourist favorites – Big Ben, Tower of London, British Museum – are open and busy, there are other exciting exhibits, West End shows and areas of the city ripe for exploration. If you have three days to spend in the capital this summer, here are some suggestions to keep in mind.
The Photographers’ Gallery is tucked away in a tall, narrow building on Ramilies Street, just a block from the Oxford Circus Underground station (or the Tube as it’s commonly known). Now through Sept. 19, The Family and The Land: Sally Mann, a retrospective of the celebrated American photographer is on exhibition. It’s not for the faint of heart. The show includes the controversial images of her three children in suggestive situations and oversized images of decomposing bodies from the Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center. Between these two jaw-droppers are the haunting images of Civil War battlefields in the American South that retain scars from the fighting. For many of the photos, Mann used the wet-plate collodion photographic process, which involves coating a large glass negative with chemicals and exposing it while still wet, often in the back of her truck after a shoot.
Pro tip: Make sure to check out the gallery shop, which has one of the most impressive selections of photography books in the world, and stop for a sandwich or cup of tea in the airy cafe, which also hosts free talks and events at lunchtime weekly. Admission is free, but consider putting a donation in the box located in the gallery lobby.
For something completely different, take the Tube to Temple station and walk just a block to The Courtauld Gallery on the Strand. Located inside the circa-1875 Somerset House, the gallery has one of the most stunning collections of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world. In its elegant, high-ceilinged rooms, there is an iconic piece of art just waiting to be discovered: Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear; Manet’s melancholy A Bar at the Folies-Bergere; Gauguin’s Nevermore; and work by masters Rousseau, Degas, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and more. The upscale cafe offers an excellent lunch menu and a large outdoor dining area in the Somerset House courtyard. Admission to the gallery is £5 (about $8 at current exchange rates).
London is full of parks, squares and streets with interesting shops that many tourists miss. Here are a few worth wandering off the beaten path to see.1.) Soho Square is ringed by some of the most-pricey real estate in the world housing some of the most noted companies, including 20th Century Fox and Bloomsbury Publishing. The shaded square itself, with its fanciful timbered garden hut at the center, is always full of picnickers and those just lounging in the dappled sunlight. Concerts are often held in the square and music lovers can stop by the bench dedicated to late singer Kirsty MacColl, who immortalized the park in her song “Soho Square” from her Titanic Days album.
2.) Victoria Embankment Gardens between Blackfriars and Waterloo Bridge on the Thames is another lush place to people watch, have a picnic or view the various sculptures along its manicured walkways lined with meticulously maintained flower beds. There’s a cafe in the garden serving ice cream and cold drinks and the Embankment Underground station has an exit right into the heart of the gardens.
3.) Charing Cross Road and Cecil Street are book-lovers’ heaven. Helene Hanff immortalized the former in her book, 84 Charing Cross Road, about an American literature lover who had a 20-plus year relationship with the staff of the Marks & Co. Bookshop. That store is long-gone (a plaque marks the spot), but Charing Cross and Cecil Street are lined with dozens of bookstores, selling new, used, antique and specialty books. Start off at Foyles, the London institution that sells the latest titles and often has free concerts happening upstairs in the cafe.
What’s For Tea?
London is an expensive city, but there are plenty of inexpensive – and delicious – options for dining, including one that offers a bit of history.
The Crypt Cafe at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Trafalgar Square lets you have breakfast, lunch or dinner with the dead. The 18th century crypt is beautifully preserved and you literally dine on top of the ancient burial vaults of old Londoners. All dishes – try a quiche or a hearty bowl of soup with a fresh roll – are prepared onsite using local ingredients. The Crypt Cafe offers an excellent traditional English tea (£8.50) with sandwiches and scones and if you happen to be there on Friday, try the fish and chips (£7.95). Try dinner on a Wednesday night and enjoy jazz performances by local and international artists. The arched, brick ceiling provides amazing acoustics. The dead – I sat over a vault dated 1825 – have, surely, never been so entertained.
How about having your lunch or dinner with a view? The Tate Modern Restaurant located on the top floor of the Tate Modern museum, has arguably the best view in London, looking across the Thames to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Even if you don’t want to see the exhibits (but you will, and the Gauguin retrospective opens Sept. 30 with one of the biggest exhibitions of his work ever assembled), the Tate’s home in the massive, disused power station has become a familiar landmark on the South Bank. The menu is not huge, but what counts is the use of fresh ingredients and local foods. Prices range from £12 to £16 for entrees, but there are plenty of smaller dishes, pastries and extensive wine list to choose from. If the char-grilled Cumbrian lamb steak is on the menu, I highly recommend it, and fresh fish is brought in daily. You’ll want to book ahead to make sure you get a table by the windows.
A Night at the Theatre
Two wildly different shows are on in London’s West End this summer, and both have star-power to burn. Joanna Lumley (Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous), David Hyde Pierce (Niles from Frasier) and English theatre maverick Mark Rylance are the leads in La Bête at Comedy Theatre, which continues until Sept. 4 before transferring to Broadway. A flop when it first premiered in New York in the early 1990s, David Hirson’s comedy written in iambic pentameter pits the head of royal theatre troupe (Pierce) against a self-aggrandizing street performer (Rylance) being foisted on the company by its princess patron (Lumley). Rylance chews the scenery in a hilarious monologue outlining his comic gifts, and while the last half sagged a bit, this trio of funny folks is worth the price of admission, which ranges from £25 to £55.
Over at Apollo Theatre, British acting legends David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker have been wowing the critics in the revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. It’s Wanamaker who walks off the show as the mother of a post-World War II family unraveling after its revealed her husband (Suchet) cut corners by allowing defective parts to be used in Air Force planes that ultimately crashed. The flashes of anger and devastation lurking just under her forced gaiety as a suburban wife build to a gut-wrenching crescendo as the secret is revealed. Miller’s dialogue and situations are a bit melodramatic, but director Howard Davies strips away the pretense and finds fresh undercurrents of emotion to mine. Tickets are £31 to £60.50 and shows are booking to October.
Collin Kelley just returned from Europe, where he traveled and guest lectured on social media at Worcester College at Oxford University. He is the author of the novel Conquering Venus and three collections of poetry. Read his blog on Red Room. The photos above are all courtesy Collin Kelley.