Soaring ceilings, a hushed interior, and light streaming through stained glass make the Natural History Museum a sanctuary in London’s bustling South Kensington area. Roman columns flank the atrium, where the 25-foot skeleton of a Diplodocus dinosaur, once one of the world’s longest animals, dwarfs any bystander.
Nearby in the Victoria and Albert Museum, an imposing sculpture of hand-blown, bluish-green glass flits light across the foyer. Several miles away on Great Russell Street at the British Museum, you can run your fingers along the cool surface of a 6,000-year-old red granite bust of King Tut.
Such are the magnificent artifacts found in exhibits throughout London. The city boasts more than 200 museums and galleries that draw 30 million visitors annually. The breadth of offerings ranges from expansive collections of historical treasures in traditional venues to contemporary pieces found in smaller galleries.
The Natural History Museum, with its fortress-like construction and spired towers, documents the evolution of science through the ages. Its displays cover millions of specimens, including fossils, meteorites, mammals, plants, minerals, and insects. Towering walls carved with images of constellations and planets lead to the Earth Galleries, where visitors can experience an earthquake simulation and witness an erupting miniature volcano.
The Victoria and Albert Museum pays homage to international art and design with more than seven miles of eclectic exhibits. Under one roof, you’ll find Etruscan urns circa 390 B.C., embroidered caskets from the 1660s, and art deco radios from the 1940s. The permanent collections include authentic British ball gowns from the 1800s, and a recent exhibit featured British hip-hop clothing from the 1990s.
Reserve a day to explore the British Museum. It offers more than 4 million exhibits featuring objects dating back 2 million years. Founded in 1753, it houses one of the largest collections of African art–a result of British colonization. Among the most notable artifacts is the last remaining slab of the Rosetta Stone, circa 196 B.C., used to decipher ancient Egyptian language.
Brixton, known as London’s Harlem, teems with Caribbean and African boutiques, restaurants, and nightclubs. It’s home to the Bettie Morton Gallery and the Brixton Art Gallery–both devoted to up-and-coming African-British artists. The Black Cultural Archives document the history of black people in Great Britain.
Visit The Saatchi Gallery and the Tate Modern for the best in contemporary modern art. And for a quirkier experience, stop by the London Dungeon, which features re-enactments of various methods of torture throughout history, or the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green, which spotlights toys and art of and by children.
Visit www.ukguide.org/london/museum.html for links to museum and art gallery Websites in London. Many venues are free, but check out www.londonpass.com for discounts and for deals on public transportation.
For lodging in the tony Mayfair district, stay at the five-star Connaught Hotel, www.theconnaughthotellondon.com, which once only accepted reservations from guests referred by the Queen of England. Or try the Piccadilly area’s five-star Athenaeum Hotel, www.athenaeumhotel.com, which fronts Green Park’s lush foliage and manicured lawns and offers a full-service spa.
Visit SoulOfAmerica.com’s “Soul of London” guide, www.soulof america.com/