London is a vibrant city bursting with cultural events all over its streets! As a student traveling on a budget, it is surprisingly easy to find awe-inspiring events, exhibitions, places to see WITHOUT SPENDING A PENNY!
London is one of the cities that attract an incomprehensible number of tourists every year. It’s cosmopolitan, it’s iconic, it’s beautiful! It is easy to see all the landmarks and icons of the city and go back home without discovering anything more than the London we all see on the screen. Especially as an architecture or design student, it is important to capture the soul of the city rather than visit all the tourist attractions that offer not much more than what you’ve already seen and heard.
London is that it truly is where the heart of the art world is beating. There is always so much art and design related events going on in the city, and it is very much possible to experience some very high-quality events and exhibitions without emptying out your pockets.
So, I’ve compiled a list must-see places in the British capital for art and design enthusiasts. And there no entry fees to experience any of them!
South Bank is the area by the Thames River in between the Blackfriars Bridge and Hungerford and Golden Jubilee Bridges. Although, only a two-minute walk from one of the biggest tourist attractions in London, London Eye, this area is usually considerably less crowded than the rest of the walkway by the river extending towards Westminster Bridge.
South Bank Riverwalk is comprised of various levels of walkways that combine to form a trail meandering through the galleries and theatres. The seamless connection between the levels creates a very pleasant experience for the pedestrians.
This outdoor area is perfect for spending a sunny afternoon. There is a huge variety of restaurants and cafes with great views of the Thames River. The area is composed of complexes displaying different forms of art such as the National Theatre, The Queen Elizabeth Hall, The Royal Festival Hall, BFI Southbank, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, and much more.
Every weekend, there is live music at the outdoor stage by the South Bank Centre, there are street performances going on on the lower level by the river, and there is a very diverse food market (ranging from Norwegian to Ethiopian food) on the parallel street, Belvedere Road.
Other iconic parts of this artsy area are the permanent second-hand book market beneath Waterloo Bridge full of vintage books and gems like old sketches of London as well as the Southbank Skatepark with vibrant splashes of color and graffiti all over its walls.
Although a huge range of activities is happening simultaneously at Southbank, it is a very peaceful area to take a stroll and sit and enjoy the atmosphere oozing with creativity. So you can enjoy your afternoon tea here while sitting on one of the neon orange ‘Modified Social Benches’ by the Danish artist Jeppe Hein!
How to get there: the closest underground station is the Waterloo Station. Alternatively, there are a number of buses passing by the area, the closest stops to the river-walk are Royal Festival Hall and Waterloo Bridge South Bank.
Recommendation: Take the train to Embankment underground station and walk across either the Waterloo Bridge or walk across my favorite bridge in London, Hungerford Bridge. You can catch amazing views, especially during sunset.
BFI (British Film Institute) Southbank
BFI Southbank is my go-to spot in the city. This movie theatre does not provide the usual blockbuster cinema experience. Instead, they have a theme for each month re-visiting masterpieces. They also have a range of screenings of indie movies from around the globe throughout the year.
The screenings are very affordable for 16-25-year-olds at £3 per ticket when purchased 45 minutes prior to the screening. The movies are usually very much worth seeing. They are unlike anything shown at common movie theatres. The quality of production is impressive, the depth of the scenario and the characters, as well as the message the movies communicate, are unique and extraordinary. Every time I see a movie at BFI Southbank, I come out inspired, equipped with a slightly broadened perspective or a new idea to adapt to my life; a new way of seeing.
Although the screenings are not free, you can enjoy a free movie or a TV show at the Mediatique inside the movie theatre. They offer more than 2500 free movies, and the range of topics is simply astonishing. The soft red couches at the Mediatique draw you in and swaddle you into the most comfortable position for binge watching. It’s perfect for taking a breath from the constant activity going on in the city.
How to get there: BFI Southbank is at South Bank, as its name suggests. The closest underground station is the Waterloo Station. The closest bus stops are Royal Festival Hall and Waterloo Bridge South Bank.
The Photographer’s Gallery
The Photographer’s Gallery is a hidden gem. I discovered this place when I had an hour to kill while waiting to meet up with a friend in central London, near Picadilly. The gallery is in the middle of Soho, yet on a parallel street retreated from the hectic main road. It is the first gallery in Britain devoted to only displaying photography. And admission is free before noon every day!
The ongoing exhibition, ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ by Gregory Crewdson is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Crewdson photographs people in different settings in the town of Beckett, Massachusettes in the US. The cinematic techniques he uses to create artificial scenes give each image a very powerful, dramatic, almost hyper-real look. It’s as if each element in his photos is deliberately positioned to create a narrative, a moment in time full of tension and potential, open to interpretation and speculation. He manages to narrate stories full of emotion with a single captures image.
The spatial qualities of the photographs are quite impressive. Each setting is curated carefully for the figures posing in it. Not only the details in every place photographed but also the depth achieved through layering of settings is exceptional.
The Photographer’s Gallery also has a ‘camera obscura’ open to public use. A ‘camera obscura’ is a primitive camera used for image capturing. It is quite fun to play around with it to try and catch some interesting views of the city.
Overall, The Photographer’s Gallery is definitely a place to find some inspiration and get the creative juices flowing. The cafe on the ground level is also quite a peaceful place to study/work at.
How to get there: The gallery is a short walk from Oxford Circus tube station.
Another one of my absolute favorite outdoor places is Bermondsey. This neighborhood has gone through immense changes during the last decade. From a part of the city populated by small-scale factories and car repair shops to a vibrant community of mixed-use buildings full of emerging designers, family businesses, breweries, and photo studios!
Bermondsey is a bit further away from the city center, but it is definitely worth the few extra miles. Especially on Saturdays, the area flourishes with not one, but two food markets popping up on its streets.
The smaller of the two is Druid Street Market. The setting of the market is just as endearing as the mouth-watering meals on display. Local food producers and retailers sell an impressive variety of savory and sweet dishes on the beautiful street circumscribed with a distant view of The Shard and the railway bridge extending in the backdrop.
Underneath the railway bridge that passes through the neighborhood, there are warehouses shaped like semi-circular arches. All kinds of merchants occupy these spaces, the variety of uses for such a standard space is incredible. Just to list a few, there are breweries, pubs, cafes, grocery stores, carpenters, bike and car repair shops, barbecue restaurants, bakeries, and even an ice cream factory! Although Bermondsey is mostly populated by offices and apartments, the mixed-use underneath the railway creates a marvelous atmosphere for visitors and residents alike.
The latter and the larger food market at Bermondsey is the Maltby Street Market. Placed in quite a narrow alleyway between the railway bridge and the neighboring apartment, this food market provides a frenzy of flavors from all over the world. So you can have Indian-Persian fusion Tandoori bread from Devi’s for starters, some grilled beef on fries from The Beefsteaks or a simple yet ridiculously delicious grilled cheese sandwich from The Cheese Truck, then finish off with some waffle-donuts from Dhan Waffle. Of course, this is only an example of combinations you get to choose from at the food market.
So what’s inspiring about Bermondsey? Its story of gentrification and the harmony of mixed-use that has spread throughout the area. Yes, gentrification is a controversial matter, but it is hard not to acknowledge and admire its success in Bermondsey. Additionally, the food markets and the retailers in the arches (warehouses beneath the railway) are not only a great escapes from the usual hangout spots in the city, but also inspirational arrangements of public space. The fact that the exact same unit can be used for a brewery with a pub area as well as a grocery is invigorating. It is a unique development worth examining.
How to get there: The food markets are both about a 15-minute walk from Bermondsey tube station.
Recommendation: Leave Bermondsey by walking down Druid Street towards the Shard. The walkway is parallel to the railway bridge and it’s great to explore more of the beautiful streets around.
Zaha Unbuilt Exhibition
Zaha Hadid Architects have a gallery space at Old Street! On display and open to the public are 3D models, drafts, renderings, and products by the world-famous architecture firm. This exhibition is truly exceptional for architecture students because it provides insight into the design process and conceptual thinking behind the masterpieces they produce.
The exhibition is divided into sections according to thematic categorizations of projects. There is an explanation regarding each category as well as for each project in the categories. The thematic breakdown helps the viewer gain a deeper understanding on the how the firm approaches projects. It is also very interesting to see study models made out of different materials. The renderings on display is another excellent way to examine the studio’s style of architectural representation.
When viewed as a collection, Zaha Hadid’s unintelligibly curvy, parabolic designs acquire a collective character. The gallery space, also designed by the firm, contributes to this effect as the viewer gets to experience a space created by the same mentality. The contemporary curvy white stairs descending from the entrance to the gallery space are as much a part of the exhibition as they are a functional piece in the space.
How to get there: The gallery is a 10-minute walk from Old Street tube station.
The places I mentioned above are where I personally like to go to find a peace of mind and some inspiration. London offers an abundance of similar experiences as the heart of the art and design world, so I hope you explore my recommendations and discover your own inspirational locations!
The Photographer’s Gallery