The first and last leg of my UK 2016 trip started and ended in London. Whilst the first weekend saw me exploring the street art of the East End, the second was dedicated to several other different types of art. For this trip, I was determined to experience the best London cultural activities; catching a play on the West End, participating in the Proms and taking in the long standing weekend tradition of perusing one of the many open markets scattered around the city. For many first-time tourists, these London cultural activities are undoubtedly not high on their to-do list, however, I do recommend them for anyone who’s a repeat visitor and/or for someone who’ll be staying in London for more than a week.
London Cultural Activities for Both Locals and Tourists
Catching a Play at the West End
London has an established reputation for producing fine theater actors and actresses so it comes to no surprise that seeing a live stage production, whether it be a play or musical, comes naturally to locals. After all, such love for the theatre goes back centuries, into the first Elizabethan era.
I was fortunate enough to land a seat to see the highly anticipated play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and was pleased to say that the production was every bit as spectacular as others have suggested. It certainly raised the bar for subsequent West End productions I plan to see in the future, but just as it is with Broadway shows in New York, you’re likely to get your money’s worth every time.
Speaking of money, the ticket prices for productions aren’t cheap. They range from 35-150 pounds each, depending on where you seat. Concession prices are limited to seniors and students with supporting identification and only provide at best a 10% discount. If you want to experience this bit of cultured London but are on a budget, your best option is to seek out the TKTS booth at Leicester Square where you can get as much as a 50% discount for same day shows.
Promming Like a Local
Much like watching Wimbledon, attending the BBC Proms is very much an English summer tradition. The eight-week long event is the largest classical musical festival that brings together some of the most sought after orchestras and artists in the world.
With over 100 concerts to choose from in over 8 locations, getting tickets to the lesser popular events is easy enough. The least expensive ones start at 6 pounds (standing room only) while the reserved seating at Royal Albert Hall begins at around 17 pounds per person. For more popular concerts (i.e. first and last night of the Proms or those with distinguished orchestras, conductors or soloists), you can still snag a spot even though reserved seating shows sold out by queuing for the “promming” tickets on the day of the concert. Come early and you’ll have a very good chance of getting an arena or gallery spot to see the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic quite cheaply.
London’s Open Market
Weekends are undoubtedly the time to relax and enjoy the many activities offered by a city as big as London. One of my favourite things to do during my visits there is to check out one of the many open markets, particularly during weekends.
There are at least three major open markets easily accessible on foot and worth spending some time perusing. They include Notting Hill and Portobello Road, Borough and Camden. Each market represents bits of London cultural activities, with some shops specializing in antiques while others sell charming arts and crafts.
The most famous of these three is likely Portobello Road, thanks to one movie that starred Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. It’s the best place to go antiquing and offers a wide array of fresh fruit and produce stalls. Head out early (around 10 am) to get the best looks and opt for the alternative entrance at Ladbroke Grove (Hammersmith and City and Circle lines) instead of the more popular stop at Notting Hill Gate.
Borough Market in Southwark is considered the premiere food market and a must for anyone who wishes to sample the worldly cuisines available in London. It’s also one of the best places in the city to get a cheap but tasty lunch should you find yourself in the area around the time. Seek out Gastronomica where you can get some of the best sandwiches for less than 5 pounds or stop by Brindisa, the renowned Spanish food shop to sample their world-famous chorizo roll.
The biggest and in my opinion, the best market is Camden, located in bustling Camden Town. Known primarily as a haven for anyone looking for alternative art and clothing, Camden Market or Camden Lock is comprised of more than 1,000 retail shops that represent the best of London cultural activities. Vintage clothing shops and those introducing innovative designs are just some of what you’ll find here. It’s also one of the best places to go souvenir shopping. When hunger strikes, just head down towards the dock and choose from one of the many inexpensive stalls selling some of London’s best street food.