Chelsea & Kensington Museums
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is one of the smallest in the UK but it is also the most densely populated. Not only that but it contains many of London’s finest museums in a short stretch plus a myriad of other attractions to visit.
Kensington and Chelsea are home to some of the “poshest” and richest individuals in England. But the Borough is a lesson in contrasts. From the mega rich shopping of the Kensington and Chelsea set with Harrods and other up market shops to Kensington Palace (Diana’s home and memorial) the Chelsea Flower show to the Nottinghill Carnival. It all takes place here in Kensington and Chelsea.
Things to do in South Kensington
“There is no other city in the world where you will find such first class museums all within walking distance of each other. “The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 created the foundations for these grand institutions dedicated to the arts and sciences. It was this investment in the area that set in motion a building spurt with large terraced houses which gives the district its current appearance as a high-class residential area; streets like the Boltons are among west London’s smartest addresses. Catering for this type of resident are the designer shops around Brompton Cross. There’s also a distinct European flavour to modern day South Ken with a French emphasis making it all the more chic.” quoted from London Town.
We had a plan for ensuring that we got the most out of the area and so we headed towards the V & A Museum a place we had wanted to see for years. There were several exhibitions running including:
Winnie the Pooh Exploring a Classic and Opera, Power, Passion and Politics. Now the V & A is free but the special exhibitions do have a cost associated with them from around £8-20. We stood outside the Museum just marveling at the size of the building and the fact that we were finally here. Throngs of kids with teachers were going up the steps their bright glow vests in yellow giving the teachers a way to keep an eye on them. Screaming and laughing the crowds of kids were from around 5 years old right up to teenagers carrying portfolios.
We wandered up the stairs and entered the Museum – it was just incredible, vaulted high ceilings with a gorgeous Chihuly chandelier, marble everywhere just mind-boggling. We decided to forgo the special exhibits as they unfortunately just were not in our budget and began with the fashion exhibit rooms.
From Chanel to Alexander McQueen and everything that came before and after these exhibits are absolutely a must see for the fashionphile. Room 40 contains the Fashion exhibits and they run chronologically around the room starting at 1750. From bustles to punk, the exhibit was outstanding and it was such a joy to stare at pannier dresses from the 1700’s and wonder how they maneuvered doorways to Malcolm McLaren’s punk look from the 70’s.
You can wander the museum for hours and take in exhibits from Islamic Middle East, sculpture from 1300 to 1600. In the centre of the Museum buildings is a Garden with a cafe, where you can sit and admire the architecture and enjoy a good cup of coffee before you head back into the galleries. We pretty much just stumbled around in complete awe admiring jewelry from every century to Tapestries, Theatrical exhibits, paintings and artwork from every era. It definitely takes more than a day to see everything you should. Don’t forget, if you get a chance to check out The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square as well.
South Kensington is home to some of the finest museums in the world and the majority are FREE, imagine it free access to some of the worlds greatest treasure.
If you want to some other cool ideas for things to do in London check out Sanne’s article Things to do in London from Spend Life Traveling.
South Kensington Museums
Things to do in South Kensington
During the day, the Dana Centre is a cafe/bar hidden behind the main routes to South Kensington’s museums. In the evening, it turns into an adults-only venue for discussion about science, technology and culture. Most events involve eminent researchers interacting with the audience in unusual and inventive ways.
On the tube the day before we went to South Kensington, we saw around 50 young kids with their teachers. One of the mum’s told us they were on their way to the Museum to visit with a real astronaut. We noticed loads of groups of school kids at all the Museums and we were really impressed with the kids, the teachers and the experience the kids had in those museums. It’s often assumed that the Science Museum is just for kids. It’s certainly very family-oriented, but there are many galleries aimed at a more adult audience. The Making the Modern World gallery contains a staggering collection of artifacts, including the Apollo 10 capsule. On the last Wednesday of every month, there is an adults-only late opening with music, talks, wine … and no children.
This is the Museum kids love the most, famous for its dinosaur displays (plaster casts of the originals); the NHM holds much wider treasures, including a full-scale model of a blue whale. The building itself is a masterpiece with intricate animal carvings peering out from every corner. If the lineups are long, try the side entrance on Exhibition Road much smaller lines if any.
Charles Saatchi, one of the world’s foremost art collectors, opened his own gallery in 1985. It specializes in cutting-edge contemporary art that most of us just don’t get. Even if the art is not for you, the gorgeous, sparse interiors are worth a look. Although entrance is free, you might want to buy a guide, as the labels on the work really don’t tell you very much.
Best street market in Kensington
You’d be forgiven for thinking of Portobello Market first, but our readers reckon you can’t beat Golborne Road market for local character and variety and, some folks say this is a market that has traces of “what Portobello Road used to be before tourists and chain-shops ruined it”.
Come to Kensington Roof Gardens and enjoy the view! Located on top of the former Derry and Toms department store and covering 1.5 acres, this is the largest roof garden in Europe. You can lose yourself in the Spanish, Tudor and English woodland style gardens and make the most of the panoramic views over West London. You can even dine in the excusive Babylon Restaurant. You should check that there are no private parties taking place before you go to avoid disappointment!
Best oddity in Kensington
Kensington Gardens Elfin Oak is over 900 years old, and originally grew in Richmond Park. It is covered with tiny magical figures carved between 1928-30 by Ivor Innes. This most unusual tree owes its preservation to Spike Milligan.
Classical music, rock, pop and jazz, sporting events, galas, banquets and balls and the world-famous Proms series all take place within the Royal Albert Hall’s iconic oval walls. The brainchild of Prince Albert, inspired by the success of the Great Exhibition, the hall first opened in 1871, ten years after the Prince’s death. Heavily influenced by ancient amphitheatres and the theme of the ‘Empire and the arts, the oval structure’s terracotta walls are decorated on the outside with a frieze dedicated to “The Triumph of Arts and Sciences”. Gas lighting, poor acoustics and old pipe organs have been replaced over the years and the awe-inspiring venue now exists as a testimony to both the architectural and aesthetic achievements of the past – it now features the largest pipe organ in the British Isles.
Kensington Gardens and more..
Kensington Gardens used to be a private park which is now public. Home to Kensington Palace and the Diana Princess of Wales Playground and memorial and many other attractions.
The beautiful grounds includes a formal Italian Garden, the peter Pan Statue and covers over 260 acres. Kensington Gardens is one of 8 royal parks and it used to belong to Hyde Park and you can walk from Kensington to Hyde Park.
Things to do in Chelsea
Chelsea Physic Garden
This garden is the oldest botanical garden in London, founded in 1673 for the purpose of training specialists for plant identification. Nowadays, it is one of the most important centres of botany in the world. Come to this enchanted garden to read a bit about the history of plant exchange in the British Empire and be sure to stop by the Tangerine Café for a delicious lunch overlooking this beautiful collection of greenery. The price may seem costly, however the experience is totally worth it.
For better or worse the The Phene has become an institution for modern Chelsea over the past 10 years. Built in 1850 as a local pub for workers it was then transformed into a gastro pub in the early 2000s. Nevertheless the strong opposition from campaigners and locals in 2012 prevented it from being transformed into an oligarchical private residence and it continues to be frequented by the Hugh Grants and Made in Chelsea cast members for a pint of ale (or a punnet of quail eggs). Though many pub fans may scoff at this in general, in this case that adds to this venue’s charm and makes it authentically in touch with contemporary west London. Though the dining room and lounge are comfortable, the true joy of this pub is dining on its terrace facing Margaretta Terrace; one of the most idyllic streets in west London.
Chelsea Farmers Market
The misnomer is confusing, being more a collection of shops and restaurants than an actual farmers market; yet it proves to be one of the more peaceful locations along the otherwise bustling Kings Road. A sunny day is really the only time to go, with the restaurants being exclusively outdoors. While the prices of the gardening, organic and second hand bookshops hardly represent a bargain they nevertheless undeniably add to the market’s aesthetic charm.
Home to the historic Peter Jones department store and the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square is situated at the top of Chelsea’s famous King’s Road. Check out the Grade II listed war memorial and the Venus Fountain, the basin of which depicts King Charles II by the River Thames with Nell Gwynn, the prominent restoration actress and one of his most notable mistresses.
Shopping On The King’s Road
If you’re looking for a stroll around shops in an outdoor area with a great variety of merchandise, the King’s Road is the place to go. Though many shops are pricey, this retail destination is still worth exploring for unique finds like the outlet shop of Zadig & Voltaireand Tabio (a luxury Japanese sock shop). A long road running parallel to Victorian houses with an air of ease and quiet, strolling along the Kings Road starting from Sloan Square is a lovely way to spend your afternoon.
Notting Hill and Portobello Road
Best for: a unique ‘boho’ atmosphere where you will find something different from the usual High Street.
The Portobello Road street market operates mainly on Saturdays. The antiques section (stalls, arcades and shops) at the southern end of the market is the UK’s biggest antiques market. See browsing for antiques for details. The new goods, fruit and vegetable section in the centre of the market, which operates Monday to Saturday (except Thursday afternoons), has lots of hot food stalls on Saturdays. The vintage clothing section (shops and stalls) at the northern end of the market is world-renowned as a fashion source, or you can follow the vintage fashion trail. It’s worth heading on to Golborne Road which has its own market all week and a concentration of Caribbean, Algerian, Moroccan and Portuguese restaurants and shops, and some of the best custard tarts in London.
Specialist shops: the shops in Portobello Road really are special because there are so many different independent businesses. But in recent years we have lost some really important shops so do try to make a point of buying something, not just taking photos, or they may not survive.
The side streets leading from Portobello Road teem with designer boutiques, luxury brand stores and cafes serving the Notting Hill area. Westbourne Grove is probably the heart of the Notting Hill shopping experience and home to Turquoise Island, the most architecturally distinguished public lavatories in London.
People spotting: you are very unlikely to find Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts, but many actors, models and politicians live in Notting Hill and seeing one of them is a distinct possibility.
Trivia: The blue door featured in the film Notting Hill was auctioned for charity some time ago, but the doorway remains at 280 Westbourne Park Road. Portobello Road gets its name from Portobello Farm that was on the site of the Spanish School at the northern end of the road. The road is said to meander because it follows the route the cows took home. The farm, in turn, was named after Admiral Vernon’s capture of the city of Puerto Bello in the Caribbean. The market started as a herb and horse trading centre, and the antiques section developed as a result of the temporary closure of Caledonian Market.
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