British stereotypes of globe-circling explorers, tea-sipping royalty and refined shops with butler backup, all take shape in the well-to-do Kensington and surrounding areas. With multiple world-class museums, international embassies, boutiques, cafes, and Harrods and Notting Hill just down the road, Kensington is a well endowed part of London with a lot to offer visitors.
Here are a few favourite Kensington activities to help you feel like you’ve experienced a little bit more of English culture and history.
The National History Museum
The one thing you need to understand about the Natural History Museum is that even the most diligent visitor will not see all the exhibitions in one day. This place is positively crammed with all manner of sciencey wonders and the building is a delight, especially in the evening when lit in blue and purple tones.
Browsing the glass encased fossils, bones and drawings of flowers from faraway lands, it becomes apparent that the Brits really were at the forefront of natural sciences for a long time. The exhibitions are presented in an easy-to-digest format, catering primarily for child-folk, but also managing to inspire the adult joy in learning. After two half-day visits, I felt like I’d caught up on all the high school science classes I had doodled through, this time absorbing the information with a fun fascination.
In the foyer you’ll be greeted by Dippy, the Diplodocus (dinosaur) who lights up and roars for donations (an obvious favourite with the kids). Then you’ll look up to the grand ceiling and balconies and see Darwin’s statue appropriately standing guard on the sweeping staircase (near the start of the human evolution exhibition). You can take a walk through 160 million years of dinosaurs and see the T.Rex model scare passing children. The museum also takes you through human biology, shows you stuffed and cast mammals floating from strings overhead and teaches you about space and rocks and a 1300 giant sequoia tree… there is just so much.
Like many of London’s museums, admission is free. The museum is open daily between 10am and 5.50pm. Last admission is at 5.30pm and they will starting asking people to leave soon after. The museum is on Cromwell Road in South Kensington, only a couple of blocks from South Kensington tube station on the Piccadilly Line. For more info go to nhm.ac.uk
Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)
Competing with its natural history neighbour for attention and museum glory, the V&A houses another impressive display of Britain’s reach around the globe, focusing on the weird and wonderful of art, design and decoration. Said to have about four million artefacts in its grand halls, the V&A not only shows how exotic cultures have lived and expressed themselves, but also gives a fascinating insight to historical life in England.
If you’re short on time, perhaps head straight to the European and British displays to see delicately painted tea sets, elaborate jewellery, gilded mirrors as tall as a room, armour and traditional costume; basically the stuff of fairy tales. To celebrate the Jubilee, there are also some special exhibitions during 2012, including ball gowns, British design and the life of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. For a bit of extra fun, it’s also worth having a look at the V&A program of free evening entertainment and schedule of fee-based art and design classes.
As well as free museum entry, there are free introductory tours led daily from the Grand Entrance at 10.30am, 12.30pm, 13.30pm and 15.30pm. The museum is open 10am-5.45pm every day except on Friday, when it’s open 10am-10pm. Also on Cromwell Road in South Kensington, the V&A is only a short stroll from the Natural History Museum. For a full run down on the V&A go to vam.ac.uk.
For a look a live British culture, head over to Portobello Road in the nearby suburb of Notting Hill. Famous for its feature in the Hugh Grant / Julia Roberts film, Portobello Road is a bustling strip that runs through the heart of this trendy suburb, offering lots of shopping opportunities and some great people watching. The main activity there is window and market shopping for funky fashion, touristy knick-knacks, old maps and other ‘vintage’ goods sold at the Monday to Saturday Portobello Market.
Notting Hill Gate tube station on the Central Line is the closest and from there you can just follow the crowds. For market times and information, have a squiz at portobellomarket.org
The glowing mesh of lights that trace the Harrods facade is enough to bewitch the passing visitor. Of course, the flashy window displays, emerging shoppers with bags of bounty and the famous name of this luxury department store will also twig a niggling curiosity. Athough Harrods has now expanded across the world, it’s worth a quick wander through the famous Knightsbridge store after a day of museums five minutes up the road in South Kensington.
Dating back to the 1800s, Harrods has established a name almost synonymous with British elite shopping. It has held royal warrants, hosted celebrity shoppers and remains unique in offering 330 departments and 28 in-store restaurants. Inside you’ll see designer goods propped in sleek, minimalist displays. There are beautiful tiles lining the grocery section, where hand placed fruit of perfect shape and size sit patiently, waiting to be picked. Expert staff are immaculately dressed and poised. There are vaulted sections veiled from the general public, selling sparkling diamonds and designer bling. Surely this is the place where movie shopping montages were born, where princesses shop, where you could wear a fur coat and sequins and look perfectly at home.
The Knightsbridge store is on Brompton Road and is open Monday-Saturday 10am –8pm and Sunday 11.30am- 6pm (with browsing only until noon). The nearest tube station is Knightsbridge on the Piccadilly Line. For more information, have a gander at harrods.com.